A Role for Every Player, A Player for Every Role

Is it possible that the NBA has finally figured out how to pay complementary players?
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The amount of money the Nets' Kris Humphries makes this offseason may very well be a watershed moment in NBA history

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Kris Humphries has but one high-level NBA skill, shoots too frequently, can't finish around the rim, and plays utterly unremarkable defense. Yet he is reportedly the lynchpin for any number of trade scenarios involving the ubiquitous Dwight Howard, he who makes the rumor mill churn and bubble with his every whim. Interest in Howard may drive the general coverage and discourse, but it's Humphries who has improbably emerged as the Nets' great hope for getting Howard to his preferred destination in Brooklyn -- the trade machine's very own agent for deus ex machina.

Considering the current setting, Humphries is a perfect fulcrum for the deal; while all eyes have been fixed on Howard and Deron Williams, the void left by the consolidation of talent on a few super teams has been filled by players with any number of staggering limitations. This is the summer of the complementary player. While publicly ruled by trade speculation and big-market inevitability, this offseason has thus far been dominated by second and third tier types being treated, and rewarded, as essential pieces.

No two role players are created equal, but in their most basic form, they are complementary or supplementary players, for whom max deal superstardom is either an idle fantasy or a deferred possibility. Nicolas Batum will reportedly pull in between $45-$50 million over four years, regardless of whether the Timberwolves or the Blazers are his employer. The off-season's power deal to date was to bring Ray Allen to Miami to be a better version of Mike Miller, not a fourth member of the Big Three. Gerald Wallace, who built a career on off-ball hustle and reckless displays of athleticism, will soon ink a deal that pays him $40 million through his 33rd birthday. Omer Asik, Brandon Bass, and Landry Fields have all agreed to terms on three-year deals that will pay them more than $20 million apiece, a king's ransom on any points-per-game-driven value scale. So it goes, too, with Ersan Ilyasova, George Hill, Jeff Green, and Ryan Anderson -- skilled players that didn't let their obvious lack of traditional star power get in the way of pursuing lengthy, lavish deals. What hath Arron Afflalo wrought?

If the NBA is in a perpetual state of class warfare -- the single easiest way for management to disrupt any labor-related push is to point out this disparity -- this summer has seen a sudden boost for the players the are not necessarily undeserving, but merely unheralded. The free agent market has begun to "overpay" complementary talents, if only in the faulty sense that basketball has some innate pay scale to dictate its terms. More realistically, market value informs and shapes the team-building process, making this recent and stark shift a rather simple reallocation of resources. The NBA dollar has fallen into the pocket of the indistinct swingman, the impure point guard, and the intuitive spot-up shooter, commodities that have long been valuable in the right contexts, though aren't always compensated as such. The basis for the collective cash grab varies, but desperation and the desire for depth only facilitate a financial acknowledgement that what such players do is often necessary.

New wave basketball thinking has clearly shifted the payout dynamic a bit, as in the same summer that so many fill-in-the-gaps players broke the bank, ball-stopping, scoring wings like Nick Young and Jamal Crawford committed on relatively modest deals, while the isolation-deranged Joe Johnson was liquidated for paperclips and lint balls on the dollar. The league is still as star-driven as ever, but shot-happy point-getters just aren't next in line to cash in these days; the age of efficiency is finally starting to influence front office decision-making on a consistent basis, and while it may seem a bit kooky to see non-essential non-stars earn such considerable coin, their deals only represent the culmination of years of gradual correction.

A rich and complicated game was once wrongfully oversimplified, and as teams and players have attempted to navigate the landscape of modern free agency, they far too often subscribed to a sensibility that wasn't just outdated, but never at all accurate to begin with. Scorers were paid handsomely because scorers were always paid handsomely, and while some aspects of that financial culture remain, teams at large have come to understand just how arbitrary and obtuse that universal guideline really is. The earning criteria have expanded greatly over the last few years; scoring is clearly still rewarded, but only as one skill among so many others.

That's become true, in part, because general managers and scouts know more now than ever before. This is a blessing in that knowledge can theoretically curb the awarding of lofty contracts to undeserving players, but a curse as team resources are now pulled in compounding directions. Every valuable contributor can't be handsomely rewarded for their services in a salary cap system, and yet with so many specialists bordering on essential -- and creative analytics demonstrating the worth of all kinds of players -- every contractual judgment call comes loaded with complications.

Beyond that, there remains the potential for debilitating blunders on top of the more general financial strain. The league may have come a long way in the last few years, but even evolution can't save general managers from themselves; there are surely mistakes being made in these very weeks, and with a stroke of bad luck (or just the stroke of the Jeff Green signing), all of this ideological movement could be undone in the name of a reasonably comfortable precedent.

That kind of reversion would be quite a shame. The NBA as a whole is finally beginning to glimpse the bigger picture, and while this revised path is no more infallible than the last, it ultimately stems from a more inspired perspective. The game of basketball is vast and lush and full of opportunity, and simple though it may be to dole out deals to formulaic and traditionally well-paid personnel, affirming the current transition allows teams to tap into their own lurking financial creativity. It's a development that somehow moves the league closer to meritocracy while also fueling its unpredictability -- a golden combination of fairness and innovation.

Of course, this new day is still overshadowed by Dwight and by summer's end, we may have enough errors in judgment to sufficiently muddy the waters. That doesn't make this dawn any less worthy of note or celebration, nor its impact in any way deniable. The role player has arrived, and though he takes many shapes and forms, you will know him by his versatile contributions, his complementary function, and finally, his fat wallet.


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