Kris Humphries is set to return to the New Jersey Nets on a one-year, $7+ million deal, and the nation raises a collective eyebrow. That’s a pretty hefty salary for a strong rebounder with otherwise unremarkable offensive and defensive skills, so much so that in a strict d0llar-for-production framework, one could certainly argue that Humphries, for all of his rebounding exploits, will be overpaid this season.
That word — “overpaid” — carries with it baggage upon baggage. It’s loaded and emotional, as it instantly calls to mind other players who were similarly overcompensated for their minimal services and the detrimental effects such a salary had on a particular team. “Overpaid” players have forced their teams to give up on draft picks too early based solely on financial motivations. They’ve nudged fan favorites out of town as a way of cleaning up the team’s finances. They’ve sandbagged promising cores of players from reaching their true potential, as the extra salary burden forever dooms such a team to “one-more-piece” status.
But there are two things to consider when deeming a player overpaid, and especially before lamenting over the unnecessary bloating of NBA salaries:
NBA salaries should be evaluated solely on a team-specific basis.
Player value is far from absolute, as a player like Humphries is undoubtedly worth more to the Nets than he would be to a team with a bloated power forward rotation. For this team at this particular time, he’s quite valuable. He prevents Shelden Williams from stepping in as a big-minute player for New Jersey. He’s a quality rebounder to pair with Brook Lopez, who has been pretty underwhelming in that regard. He’s another target and quality contributor to team with point guard Deron Williams, which — if nothing else — should give the Nets’ star fewer headaches.
The context isn’t that Player X received Y dollars in a deal for Z years, but that such a financial agreement was made between a player and a team with very specific needs and goals. Players could obviously still be overpaid and overvalued within that context, but pretending there’s some universal value for a given player misunderstands a market of individual actors. Other players and teams can obviously impact the terms of a contract by providing a baseline or driving up value through competition, but the final judgment of an NBA contract should always come down to what a particular player meant (or will mean, for predictive purposes) to the team that actually signed him.
Overpayment is not an end in itself.
Claiming that a player is overpaid isn’t exactly a complete thought. There’s a statement and possible justification involved, sure, but overpayment isn’t some great evil that must be eradicated from this NBA world. It’s a means to an end, and only with that specific end can we actually determine what overpaying a player really means.
As a singular act, giving Erick Dampier a seven-year, $73 million contract was not some horrible crime. It wasn’t kind to Mark Cuban’s wallet, but it was also lacking in terms of intrinsic evils.
What makes any albatross contract a truly bad one are the effects a team faces as a result. If a bloated contract prevents a team from signing another key free agent? That’s costly. If it prevents a proper rebuild after the core of a contender has withered away? That hurts. But if it’s just a deal on the books for a bit more of a financial commitment than it should be? Barring objection from ownership, I fail to see the problem.
Teams overpay players for a variety of reasons all the time — some sensible and some less so. Sometimes a team will overpay a player for the sake of positional security, as the Dallas Mavericks did with Brendan Haywood last summer. Sometimes a team will overpay a player for the sake of adding a significant piece at a key time, as the New York Knicks did with Tyson Chandler earlier this off-season. Sometimes a team will overpay to retain a player in a competitive market, as the Denver Nuggets just did with Arron Afflalo. Three cases of three overpaid players, and yet all three decisions were made from logically defensible positions. The dollar values may not quite jive with the collective assessment of each player’s worth, but in the free agent binary of either having a player or not having them, each signing makes some sense.
If a case were to be made in any of those instances that a free agent signing were actually detrimental to the team, you’d need a fair bit more than simply pointing to a contract total. Shelling out extra for a player is certainly worthy of note, but without that next-level impact — the financial logjam, the tax trade-off that forces the departure of another player, etc. — it’s just more money in the pocket of an NBA player.
Such is the case with Kris Humphries. He may not be worth $7-8 million a season, but his contract is an unimposing one-year affair. The Nets needed players to fill out their rotation now (not to mention bound over the salary floor), and they got a very competent one to fill a position of need. Tomorrow isn’t an issue; by then Brooklyn’s books will be just as clean as New Jersey’s were a few days ago, and this signing will prove to have been rather inconsequential. Player acquisitions are evaluated on the basis of roster fit, but contract fit is an essential consideration, both in this case and all others. The Nets can afford to rent Humphries for the season, and given their current situation, it would be silly for them not to. That doesn’t make Humphries any less overpaid, but it also doesn’t mean his inflated, one-year contract has any legitimately negative repercussions.