Shabazz Napier had a breakout season in 2017-2018 for the Portland Trail Blazers, recording career highs in almost every significant statistical category, and securing a place for himself in the NBA after years of being on the fringe. This career year could not have come at a better time for Napier, as he is an unrestricted free agent this summer, and is likely to have his fair share of suitors. The Blazers will need to determine where Napier fits into their plans, if at all. Should they try to re-sign him? And if so, for how much?
A Look at Napier’s Season:
At age 26, in his fourth season in the NBA, and on his third team, Napier put together the best season of his career so far. He played in 74 games (most in his career), averaged 20.7 minutes in those games (also a career-high), and his statistics rose correspondingly. Napier’s averages of 8.7 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 2.0 assists (to only 1.2 turnovers) on 42% shooting from the field and 37.6% from three (in 2.9 attempts) seem to mark him as one of the better backup point guards in the NBA. Looking at advanced numbers, Napier’s 0.2 BPM, 0.8 VORP, and 0.101 Win Shares/48 all indicate his being a slightly above average NBA player overall. Considering where he was his first three seasons in the NBA (particularly his first two), that’s a massive leap, and indicative of Napier’s willingness to work on his game and adapt to NBA play.
On the other hand, there were some troubling signs over the second half of the season. After a sizzling first three months, Napier’s numbers started to dip in January, though they were still solid. But in February, March, and April, Shabazz’s stats more resembled the fringe NBA player he was in his early seasons than the dynamo backup he’d been earlier in the year. In those three months, he shot a putrid 34.5% from the field and 33.3% from deep.
Now, there are a few explanations for this, some less troubling than others. The first is that Napier simply grew tired: He played almost 25 minutes per game in December and January, far more than he’d ever played consistently in the NBA before. That activity could have worn out his legs, taking away his jumper. The second theory would be that the NBA “figured him out”, which seems less probable. Napier wasn’t really doing much different outside of hitting shots—he certainly doesn’t have a unique enough style of play that would cause him to be a puzzle to opposing defenses. The third and most grim option is that the first few months were a mirage, and that the second half of the season, which falls more in line with his career norms, is what can be expected going forward.
The strongest possibility is that Napier’s falloff was due to a combination of all three factors. It’s quite likely that to some extent Shabazz was tired in the second half of the season (as many players are). However, if he was already worn out by February (on not even 25 minutes per game), the issue of endurance and reliability also raises its head— how much is a player worth if they are only good for the first half of the season? However, it is worth noting that his first few months were so unreasonably hot that he was bound to regress sooner or later: Napier shot 49.5% from the floor and 44.8% from outside in that stretch, and there was just no way he was going to keep it up. The question, then, is whether he will settle into a region more like his end-of-season shooting line, or whether those final three months plus his first three years are evidence he just isn’t an efficient scorer at the NBA level.
Determining a Reasonable Contract:
Shelvin Mack averaged similar numbers to Napier in his 2016-2017 season with the Jazz (also at age 26), and signed a 2 year, $12 million deal with the Magic last summer to be their backup point guard. That number is a bit high for two reasons. First, it was the Magic, and they have to pay a premium for even reserve talent. Second, Mack had a longer, more established career of being better than Napier. In Shabazz’s favor, however, he’s a bigger name than Mack, and while that shouldn’t matter, it almost always does. A contract in that ballpark, adjusted a little either in terms of length or money, seems like a reasonable starting point for Napier.
Even that kind of contract, as relatively small as it is, could backfire on Portland if Napier performs more like he did in the second half of the season than he did in the first. The Blazers need as many cheap, effective role players as they can get, and there might be questions to both of those values with Napier.
There’s a decent risk/reward prospect with Napier, and the Blazers have a real decision to make. They could possibly find a younger or cheaper player who can replicate Napier’s season numbers, but not one who has the upside he showed from October-December. A possible solution could be signing Napier to a contract similar to the Biannual Exception (2 years, $6.7 million) with a team option or only a partial guarantee on the second year. Napier might ask for more than that, or for a longer contract, but anything more than the approximate value of the BAE and things start getting dicey. And if Napier wants more than what Mack got last summer, it might be wise if the Blazers just start searching for a cheaper option elsewhere.