It is no great surprise that NBA players sometimes make their names and money on potential rather than production. Lottery teams often select top draft picks knowing that they may not be able to be effective contributors for a season or two, and lucrative contracts are often doled out to restricted free agents based on promise they've shown over one season. We see these things happen every offseason — they're as much a part of the NBA as gingham dress shirts and lens-less glasses.
Typically, though, there are limits on the amount of money these players get. That's especially the case when the free agent in question has established himself as something of a carnival sideshow, like Denver Nuggets center JaVale McGee. Over four seasons with the Washington Wizards, McGee was mostly known as the sort of guy who runs the wrong way when his team has the ball. Then, in a brief spell with the Nuggets after a deadline deal, he showed that he's perfectly capable of being a good starting center and even starred in a few playoff games against the Los Angeles Lakers. (Never mind that he ended up being a source of humor in those, as well.)
It was expected that McGee would get a large offer as a restricted free agent this summer. What some didn't expect is that he'd have a great deal of leverage. The Nuggets have set their terms, and JaVale isn't quite ready to sign. From Benjamin Hochman of The Denver Post:
The Nuggets continue to pursue restricted free-agent center JaVale McGee, who has a five-year, $50 million offer on the table, a source said. But McGee's representatives don't appear to be in a hurry to get a deal done and will continue to negotiate. The Nuggets can match any offer another NBA team would make to McGee, 24.
When this news broke, my first thought was that McGee and his representatives had plans to teach the Nuggets a lesson in haggling, much like Eric Idle's merchant in "The Life of Brian." It turns out that is not the case, and the Nuggets simply underbid for a player who currently has zero reported offers from other teams.
It's a bold move, but it might end up working out for the better as the market sorts itself out. This figure seems fairly high for McGee, but it's actually not so crazy when you consider what other big men have earned on the open market. The real risk isn't the dollar-figure as much as the amount of years. A lot can happen to a big man in five years, from nagging foot and joint injuries to a precipitous drop in passion — just ask the Warriors' well-paid Andris Biedrins. And while McGee's numbers with the Nuggets weren't stellar — 10.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg, and 1.6 blocks per game in 20 regular season games; 8.6 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 3.1 bpg in seven playoff games — they were good enough to convince the Nuggets they should do their best to keep him.
McGee will obviously have to improve to justify this deal. But it's worth noting that, in a league where capable centers are very difficult to find, he doesn't have that far to go. In Washington, McGee got little in the way of instruction and played for a franchise treading water in a sea of all-encompassing immaturity. In Denver, he began to figure some things out, culminating in a very impressive performance against a formidable Lakers frontline. If McGee manages to average 10 points, 10 rebounds, and two blocks per game, that would make him an All-Star center in many seasons. Those are fairly conservative goals for a guy with his natural ability. His playoff stats indicate that he could do such a thing next season.
It's as yet unclear if the Nuggets are bidding against themselves, or if another suitor will pop up to snatch JaVale. But while it might seem ridiculous that McGee has so much leverage here, it's not a joke. He has skills and abilities, and that makes him a worthwhile commodity even if he only ever fulfills a smidgen of his considerable potential.