NBA free agency provides a window into player valuation throughout the league. Arguments can be made during the season using advanced statistics and game film, but many (including players themselves) use contract amount as the trump card in such discussions. Guys who make the most are worth the most.
This simple approach ignores market forces. Dollars don’t indicate everything. The best guys get their money no matter how tight the market is and the rest sometimes have to languish in the limbo of free agency before agreeing to a new deal.
In 2018, Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic fell somewhere in the middle. As a restricted free agent, it would have been surprising to see firm offers before the moratorium ended on July 6, but many around the league who expected his free agency to drag out a lot longer than it did. In this year’s market, where money was thin for the middle class, teams had an inordinate amount of leverage over their incumbent free agents. With so little cap space throughout the league and many teams unable even to spend their full mid-level exceptions, players like Nurkic who are clearly starter-level guys but won’t be anybody’s top target are getting squeezed in a huge way.
Nurkic’s four-year deal (worth up to $53 million) proved a bit of win for both sides. Nurkic got more than any other team was going to give him on the open market, but Portland also pushed his annual value down to a base of just $12 million per season, quite a bit lower than a lot of his starter-level counterparts will earn in the coming years.
More than perhaps any other position, ranking centers is difficult because of how the position has evolved over the last decade. Centers are role players rather than centerpieces of their entire team. Few centers are definitively the best player on their team. Fewer could claim to be the best player on nearly every team in the league. Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid are really the only centers out there who, under normal, non-Golden State circumstances, would fall into that category. Most mortal centers rank somewhere between being their team’s best player and a starting role player.
This is where Nurkic lies. He’s nobody’s best guy, but if he’s the third- or fourth-best player on the roster, the team is in position to contend. Nurkic lies below a handful of superstars at the position – LaMarcus Aldridge, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert, and Al Horford round out the group with Davis and Embiid – with the rest of the middle class, somewhere between high-end starter and high-end backup.
Ranking difference between the “decent starter” centers is challenging. Nobody believes that Brook Lopez is on the same level as Steven Adams, but they both fall into the non-superstar starting group. Nurkic likely falls somewhere in between these two guys. He doesn’t have the offensive value either player provides, but is Adams-like in his defensive acumen while still bringing above-average production offensively. Of the non-star centers, Nurkic is likely below players like Clint Capela, Kristaps Porzingis, DeAndre Jordan, Jonas Valanciunas, and the aforementioned Adams in the league-wide center rankings, but there’s a strong argument he could be the next guy listed.
With Nurkic earning no more than $13.25 million per season, Portland may find themselves with a valuable contract a year or two down the line. Other than Porzingis, who still plays on his rookie contract but will likely earn a big extension soon, and Capela, who is still a free agent but will likely sign for somewhere in the high teens or low 20s in the near future, Nurkic makes the least money of his associated group. Even second-tier starts like Andre Drummond, Marc Gasol, and Hassan Whiteside earn massive wages compared to Nurkic, and there are strong arguments that he’s better than all three of those guys with what he can do as a pick-and-roll partner for Damian Lillard and how he transformed their defense into a top-ten unit last year.
The key factor in Nurkic’s deal is the length – four years spans the 2020 offseason, when teams will be flush with cap space once again and able to spend wildly, as they did in 2016. However, given how poorly most of those 2016 signings have gone, one might think that teams will be more prudent in 2020. History has shown us just the opposite – give a general manager cash to spend, and it’ll burn a hole in his pocket until he does just that. While Nurkic’s contract might have been a slight overpay in the 2018 market, the overall structure of the league’s finances indicates that the contract could be attractive in a couple years.
An low-end, market-friendly deal for a starting-level center isn’t a bad thing. Although it’s easy to get caught up in all of Nurkic’s negatives (his slow feet and demand for post touches chief among them), they shouldn’t cloud anybody’s judgement of his positives. He will continue to make an impact on both ends of the floor. In contract and performance, Nurkic is right down the middle.