The history of the $100 million man in basketball is a vexing one.
Yes, some players who have signed nine-figure contracts embody the transcendent status that has represented Danny Ainge’s white whale. But a review of the 25 contracts of $100 million or more that were signed prior to this summer reveals some unexpected names.
The first player to receive a deal of such magnitude was Juwan Howard. His seven-year, $105.4 million deal with Washington after the 1995-96 season was the final mark of contract shame in Washington Bullets history. (The franchise then became the Wizards and ushered in a new era of terrible decisions, highlighted by a six-year, $111 million deal for Gilbert Arenas that was so bad that even Arenas himself couldn’t dispute the notion that it is the worst of all-time.)
For every LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Shaquille O’Neal deal, there has been a disastrous pact for the likes of Arenas, Howard, Allan Houston, and Shawn Kemp. In other words, the 11 players who signed deals of $100 million or more this past summer aren’t drastically different from the ensemble that preceded them in nine-figure-dom.
But as the Celtics prepare to open the 2016-17 season with Al Horford as their first $100 million man — or, more accurately, $113 million man — it’s worth asking: How has the group of players who were so richly compensated produced? To what degree have players with $100 million deals performed?
The performance precedents can be explored using Win Shares, a conceptually useful, albeit imperfect, measure of comprehensive player impact found on Basketball-Reference.com. And those precedents aren’t necessarily pretty.
|Player||Team||$(m)||Seasons||WS year before deal||WS 1st year of deal|
In the platform year that led to the 25 $100 million deals signed prior to this offseason, players averaged a star-caliber 10.1 Win Shares. In the first completed year of those deals, there was a performance dropoff to an average of 8.1 Win Shares, roughly a 20 percent decline in production. Twenty-one of the 25 players suffered a decline in Win Shares in the first year of their new contract.
Excluding Kevin Love and Marc Gasol — who each signed five-year, $113.2 million deals before last season — players who have completed at least two seasons of their $100 million deals suffered a performance dropoff that was not only similar but sustained. As a group, those players averaged 10.2 Win Shares in the year before their deals. In the first and second season of their deals, they averaged 8.3 Win Shares.
What does that mean for Horford and the Celtics? The 29-year-old was terrific for the Hawks last year, worth 9.4 Win Shares. A 20 percent decline would place him at 7.5 Win Shares, which would have been good for second on the Celtics last year, behind Isaiah Thomas (9.7) and just ahead of Jae Crowder (7.3). If Boston can feature a team with three players worth at least 7.0 Win Shares, it would appear to be promising, given that the teams with three 7.0 Win Share players in 2015-16 were the Cavs, Warriors, and Thunder.
Of course, there’s a case to be made that an expectation of a 20 percent decline for Horford is too cynical, and that the view of the standard decline for a player in his $100 million deal fails to overlook his specific circumstances. The fact that Thomas and Crowder were the Celtics’ two leaders in Win Shares last year — delivering the sort of impact that they hadn’t been able to demonstrate at any prior time in their career — underscores the idea that a player can flourish when deployed in a system that takes the fullest advantage of his skill set.
Although the history of $100 million deals offers some cause for pause in imagining what the Celtics might be this year, there is a Brad Stevens X-factor that could help Horford defy those less-promising precedents. And if not? At least the Celtics can take solace that they’re likely to get considerably more from Horford than the Wizards did from Agent Zero.
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter @alexspeier.