JaVale McGee – To Pay or Not to Pay, That is the Question

In the summer of 1996 Dikembe Mutombo was a free agent.  Dikembe was the best player on the Nuggets, but the Atlanta Hawks offered him a sizeable contract.  Bernie Bickerstaff was faced with a decision.  Pay Dikembe more than he felt he was worth, or let the cornerstone of the franchise walk.

Bernie decided that it was not wise to pay Dikembe and Mutombo became a member of the Atlanta Hawks.  The rest is history.  Dikembe won three of the next five defensive player of the year awards and helped lead the Sixers to the NBA Finals in 2001 while the Nuggets crumbled into obscurity.

Clearly Bickerstaff chose poorly.  Mutombo was easily worth the money that he was offered.  Even so, Bernie may have actually been ahead of his time.  One of the keys to managing a team in the luxury tax era is recognizing when to say, “uncle” over a player’s salary.

The question then becomes how can one determine when a player’s salary reaches that tipping point?  That is much more difficult.  Clearly Bickerstaff misjudged Mutombo’s value.  If we move forward a few years it was clear that New Jersey was wise not to match Denver’s offer for restricted free agent Kenyon Martin (in the end Martin was not signed to an offer sheet, but the two teams worked out a sign and trade that paid Martin even more than he would have received from the proposed offer sheet).

When discussing the issue of allowing a player to sign with another team there is another issue that comes into play and that is maximizing your assets.  Losing something with value for nothing is rarely a good business practice.  It is clear that Masai Ujiri is a proponent of retaining assets.  When faced with the possibility of losing Nene to a team like Houston last fall, Ujiri signed him to a market level contract.  It was made clear soon after that the Nuggets management did not believe that Nene was going to be worthy of that contract as time progressed so he was traded.  Still, they took the necessary steps to get something as opposed to nothing.

Another example is Wilson Chandler.  When faced with the possibility of losing Chandler this summer as a restricted free agent, the Nuggets chose to sign Chandler to a market level contract.  The fact that Chandler is frequently at the center of trade rumors and the source of much speculation by fans is no coincidence.  I believe Ujiri signed Chandler so that he did not risk losing an asset for nothing.

That brings us to the topic of the day. The Nuggets are faced with a conundrum with JaVale McGee.  With the team salary steadily climbing the Nuggets need to be very careful to accurately gage McGee’s value.  Paying too much could result in risking incurring the luxury tax when it comes time to retain a core player such as Ty Lawson, offering too little will simply embolden McGee’s representation to seek out a larger deal elsewhere. At that point Denver could be faced with the possibility of being in the position of matching an exorbitant salary or lose a valuable asset for nothing.

Losing McGee for nothing would mean Denver traded Nene for three months of McGee, I am certain with Ujiri’s track record of retaining assets he will avoid that route at all costs.  The scary thing is, that could mean there may be no tipping point for McGee in Ujiri’s mind.  How much would be too much to retain McGee?

McGee himself is in an interesting position.  His value is more based on potential than past production. However, statistically last season he was the equivalent of Roy Hibbert.  You may have noticed that Hibbert is going to sign a four year, $58 million contact with the Pacers.  Of course there are intangibles involved.  Hibbert has been a much more stable influence in Indiana than McGee has.  Hibbert is more skilled as a scorer and passer and he has been an All-Star.  However, McGee is much more athletic and a better fit in Denver for their up and down style of play.  Plus there is the previously mentioned issue of potential.  Hibbert has already hit his ceiling.  He is never going to be much better than he is today. McGee could one day be far better than Hibbert.

Paying players based solely on potential is a fool’s game, but potential is always a factor in negotiations.

The Nuggets are currently in a good situation with McGee as the two sides are reportedly negotiating and no other team has as of yet stepped in to drive up the price.  Benjamin Hochman reported today that the average salary for McGee could be $10 million a year. While that is a lot of money, it is difficult to look at the market and decry that as a ridiculous amount of money.  It is fair to voice concerns about McGee’s lack of progress as a player over the years as well as his flighty moments on the court.

The Nuggets were faced with a similar situation in 2008 with another player who had worlds of potential, but was failing to put it all together on the court.  The team worked out a compromise that protected the Nuggets from getting stuck in a long term commitment, while still ensuring the player received some financial security.  That player was J.R. Smith and they signed him to a three year contract.

I believe the Nuggets should follow the same track with McGee.  By singing McGee to a three year deal for $27 to $30 million McGee receives his market value payoff and Denver has an early out if McGee never quite pan out.  This also provides a carrot for McGee to keep working as he can cash in on a larger deal after three seasons.

Had Denver signed J.R. Smith to a five year deal, he would still be on the books for $6-$7 million this season.  Instead he is playing in New York for half that.  If the Nuggets follow a similar path with McGee, hopefully it works out for both sides, but if not, Denver can say good bye to McGee and he can go play somewhere else for much less money just as J.R. is.

McGee is no Mutombo, but Ujiri is also no Bickerstaff.

  • Cory Wansley

    McGee can prosper in our system i hope he see that. I don’t see anyone around the league starting McGee. The Nuggets can develop this once diamond in the rough when he was in D.C.

    • Daniel

      Nobody in the league would start McGee? Have you heard of Charlotte?

      • TheWolfman

        Wait you mean to tell me that Charlotte isn’t in the D-League?!?! Could have fooled me…

      • Cory Wansley

        i meant i can’t picture him flourishing in any other system

  • Poz_303

    I am in agreement. A three year deal for around 30 Million would be ideal. If he becomes an all-star caliber center by the third year, then Denver could offer max contract to extend his stay.

    Like it was stated in the article, this gives McGee the incentive to continue to develop. The nuggets style of play suits his freakish athleticism. Its a win-win deal.

  • Dave

    Wiz fan here.

    Nene @$10 m is a lot better than Javale at the same. McGee will eventually disappoint, that’s what he does.

    Let him walk, you’ll be happy you did when he is sitting on some 20 win teams bench pouting.

    • bob

      Nene actually makes $13 m a year…McGee is seven years younger, is actually a center, and is with a good coaching staff for the first time in his career (not to mention he’s training with Hakeem this summer). In that context, Javale seems to easily be worth $10m/yr.

    • steve

      agreed…nene is making a good bit more and is alot older with health issues. There was a reason we moved him a couple months after we signed him lol.

      • Ryan

        Leave it to a Wizards fan to rejoice over having Nene for 4 years at $13M per year. Even if McGee doesn’t get a single bit better than he is right now, he’s still more athletic, a better rebounder, post defender, and shot-blocker than Nene. Nene was soft, injured half the time, and didn’t really love basketball. The only thing he’ll ever be a champion in is FIFA 2012…

    • Henry aka LWH and formerly KFH

      Dave, we can’t help but wonder if your comment has more to do with your own insecurities as a Wizards fan than it does with telling us what you actually think the Nuggets should do with McGee. The fact is that some fairly savvy basketball executives believe McGee has plenty of potential.

      In other words, thanks for nothing.

    • Andrew

      I understand Wiz fans’ frustration, and only time can tell, but McGeezie already has a WAY bigger upside than Nene. I liked Nene, but I think he is really only 6’9″ and is, essentially, a role player. The Geez has the potential to be a star. He outplayed Bynum in one, maybe two, of the playoff games last year.

  • Daniel

    The Nets are about to offer Brook Lopez – who can’t rebound or block shots – a 5 year, $78 contract. Wouldn’t a 5 year, $48 million contract be reasonable for a player like McGee?

  • al68

    para mi no vale mas de 9 mill por año. Pagar mas es un error es un jugador que hace 1 partido bueno de cada 5.

    Buscaria despues algo en el mercado hay muy buenos jugadores que pueden ser baratos si son amnistiados.

    Brand, Boozer, Scola.

    Tambien puede fichar a Xavi Rey pivot español que para mi es mejor que KK no es mcgee pero para jugar 15min sirve.

    Podeis verle en:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-tIi-VnO8lQ

  • Dave

    Ok, bob. Let me know what you think next year. Part of McGee’s problem was the lack of good leadership, sure. But, his biggest problem is (was?) that he’s a spoiled brat. I can’t imagine his attitude after signing a big contract. The authors 3-year idea is a good one, and maybe Karl teaches him something.

    I hope that he does well, as I spent years cheering the guy on.

    • SmokinNugs

      His biggest problem, like everyone on the Wizards, was that he was on a poor basketball team headed up by poor coaches with poor management.

      Watch JaVale thrive in a legit system and then say you’d prefer Nene over him. JaVale has twice the potential Nene ever had and being seven years younger still has the possibility of developing into something great. Nene will continue to be injured and under perform. He is on my short list of most likely contracts to be amnestied in 2013.

      • Josh

        As a nuggets fan living in DC, I know both sides of this as well. First, Nene can’t be amnestied, he got traded. Understandably McGee has pissed off a lot of wiz fans who hoped for more the past few years, but his short time in Denver showed enough promise to at least keep him around. I would also be very worried about him signing a big deal and just quitting on everyone, but a short term deal and some motivation to prove he’s not the player he was in dc might be worth a shot. If they let him walk it is going to be tough to find a replacement.

    • KW

      My biggest problem with Nene was his unwillingness to call for the ball in Q4. McGee was still attacking the Lakers in the late parts of the playoff series. That’s the difference.

    • Henry aka LWH and formerly KFH

      Dave, I wrote my nasty comment above before reading this one of yours, which makes me think much better of you. Sorry for jumping the gun.

      Agree with you that McGee’s attitude is at issue. Here’s hoping he can figure out that it doesn’t help him one iota to believe he knows everything and his game is unassailable. We sure think he’s well into the process.

      I have a sneaking suspicion that his mother is partly responsible for this attitude of entitlement, which is to say that the man still has more of an opportunity to get all the way out of the nest and grow the [deleted] up. That said, I love her rooting for him.

      Glad you hope for the best for the man. Because I root for the league to be competitive, I sure as hell hope for the best for Nene and the Wizards. I like your lineup WAY better already after the recent moves. Okafor/Nene/Ariza/Beal/Wall will be a blast to watch, though who can say what the starting lineup will be.

      Good luck for 2012-13.

  • Cory Wansley

    could we do a sign a trade for O.J. Mayo?

  • Cory Wansley

    or just trade for picks….?

  • http://nugznazty.wordpress.com/ owen

    Interesting to think about, in some ways social media and the internet are helping to provide Mcgee his value. We have all kind of said $10 mill even though an agent hasn’t really outright said it. His value could be arguably higher due to Asik’s contract …. His value is checked a bit because of his gamblyness, you don’t really know if his recent play with us was just an anomaly.

  • Ryan

    I said this before, but I would go up to 4 years/$48M. McGee just fits the team so well that I can’t see the Nuggets progressing to a great team without him. He’s athletic enough to run in transition, plus block/alter shots leading to more opportunities to run. With his potential to improve even more, the Nuggets need to keep him.

  • Matt

    I like the point about keeping assets. If the contract is reasonable, then we can still trade him if we don’t think he’s going to pan out after a year or two. There will always be a team interested in a “player with potential”, thinking that they can be the ones to get the player to reach it. No way would I let him walk. 10mm/year for 3-4 yrs is extremely reasonable. I don’t think it would scare anyone from trading for him.

  • Jon

    It’s not fair to say that Hibbert has hit his ceiling (or near it) and that McGee hasn’t. Hibbert is only one year older than McGee. Also, Hibbert has had better year-to-year improvement than McGee prety much every year.

  • Andrew

    Pay McGee. It has been so long since the Nuggets had a legit Center, and it is the hardest position to fill in the NBA.