Several new rules and stipulations have leaked from the NBA's forthcoming collective bargaining agreement, and many of them suggest new contract situations for many young players in the league. In addition to the oft-noted "Derrick Rose rule," there are new games-started provisions that affect qualifying offers for restricted free agents. As noted in the official leaked lockout memo (via SI.com), a first-round pick who averages 41 starts or 2,000 minutes per season will be afforded a higher qualifying offer than his draft position would suggest. It's a good deal for players who outperform their draft status.
However, it also relies on a questionable premise. As Rob Mahoney noted at NYTimes.com's Off the Dribble blog, obsessing over games started as a measure of value is a faulty way of judging a player's importance:
One would think that in the era of Lamar Odom, Jason Terry and James Harden, the basketball world would look beyond the number of starts as an important criterion for determining player worth. Yet from their first contract in the big leagues, the N.B.A. is grooming players to regard starting as an important indication of their value.
Even more unfortunate is the other implication of such a rule: if a premium is placed on players who start, then those who do not start — for whatever reason — are deemed by the system to be inferior. The N.B.A.'s owners and players have ingrained games-started as a goal for the coming generations and, in the process, marginalized the value (in the case of this specific contract element) of influential reserves. A spot in the P.A. announcer's opening roll call took top priority, while the team-first mind-set that brings Odom, Terry or Harden off the bench was thrown into the wind.
To borrow two examples from my earlier post: DeShawn Stevenson and Keith Bogans would have theoretically met the requirements for an increased qualifying offer last season, while players like Louis Williams, Tony Allen and Taj Gibson would have been deemed ineligible based on their limited number of games started. The idea of a playing time threshold is certainly understandable, but the notion that starting games is an actual element of performance worthy of compensation is not.
It's difficult to find uniform and uncontroversial criteria for salary bumps, and playing time is a good one. But, as Rob notes, games started makes very little sense as a one-size-fits-all system, primarily because a starter can play fewer minutes than a reserve and mean far less to the team. The minutes-played stipulation is a good one, but it should also be the only bar to clear. There's no reason for Keith Bogans to make more money than James Harden in any situation. One is simply far more effective and important to his team than the other.
Again, it's hard to determine an exact way of assessing value, but games started is far from the best method. As the Spurs proved for years in playing Manu Ginobili off the bench, it's usually most important to note who ends games rather than who begins them. Crunch time is what matters most, and everything teams do before it is based on optimizing matchups and lineups to win the game. In most cases, a player worth his salary will play 2,000 minutes in a season. But if he doesn't, he's not necessarily unworthy of a higher qualifying offer. In either case, there's no point in rewarding DeShawn Stevenson just because Rick Carlisle occasionally gets his minutes out of the way early.
There's no one way to build a rotation, and not every team decides to play their best five players to begin the game. As teams develop their own internal metrics and analytical systems, that's only become more the case. Acting as if everyone plays their team the same way is flat backwards, and the sooner the NBA allows for that variability the better off teams and players will be when it comes to everyone being paid accordingly.