Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus provides some context for the Portland Trail Blazers' recent decisions not to pick up their team options on Luke Babbitt, Elliot Williams and Nolan Smith. I wrote at the time that these decisions are often formalities but a look at recent history shows, particularly in Smith's case, how unusual these moves were.
For Portland's Elliot Williams, the decision fundamentally came down to health. Williams is out for the season after rupturing his Achilles during a summer workout--the third season-ending injury Williams has suffered in as many years in the league. When he's gotten on the court, Williams has shown promise, but it's unlikely that he will draw much interest in free agency without having any opportunity to prove himself over an extended period at the NBA level. The Blazers may be able to bring back Williams without having to guarantee him as much money, and they buy another eight months to monitor his rehabilitation process. Portland also turned down the option for Luke Babbitt, who has proven he has one NBA skill (shooting) but not that he can successfully defend either forward position for regular minutes.
If getting a fourth-year option declined is disappointing, being cut loose after just two seasons is an indictment. Two 2011 first-round picks suffered that fate this season--Portland's Nolan Smith, the No. 21 pick, and No. 27 pick JaJuan Johnson, who was waived by Houston and subsequently taken first overall in the D-League Draft. My research shows that over the seven drafts since the league instituted the third-year option in the 2005 Collective Bargaining Agreement, 16 players (about two per year) have failed to make it to year three.
It's worth noting that the decisions on Luke Babbitt and Elliot Williams were part of a record class.
Including Lazar Hayward, who was waived by the Houston Rockets after being included in the James Harden trade, a stunning eight members of the 2010 Draft class will become unrestricted free agents next summer after their options weren't picked up. Add in the four players who failed to make it to the third year of their rookie contracts (James Anderson, Craig Brackins, Damion James and Daniel Orton, of whom only Orton is now on a roster) and just 18 of the 30 first-round picks will last their entire rookie contracts.
While I don't have complete data, that appears to be a record number. It's certainly more than recent years. Of the 29 eligible players from the 2009 Draft (Ricky Rubio is still a year behind because he came over so late), 22 played out their rookie contracts. The number is even higher for 2008--27 out of 30.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter