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Is Marc Gasol Worth It? Hell Yes.

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Et tu, Mullinax?

USA TODAY Sports

In a column on Monday, GBB's own venerable Joe Mullinax argued that yes, indeed, it is possible to overpay for Marc Gasol. It's an excellent piece that you can read HERE. It's also dead wrong.

Before we get into why Joe is incorrect, let's define what we're talking about. In the NBA's collective bargaining agreement, there is a provision that prevents teams from paying players above a certain amount per year in a contract.  This ceiling - or a "max contract" - is determined by two factors: the floating salary cap (determined in part by a forecast of league-wide revenue for the upcoming season) and the number of years a player has been in the league. Because Marc has been in the league for more than seven years, he's eligible for a max contract equal to 30% of the salary cap in year one of the deal. A true max salary would rise 7.5% every year, as well. According to Chris Herrington's always-excellent analysis, a 2015-2016 season max salary for Marc Gasol would start out at around $18.8 million and bump up to $24.4 million by the 2019-2020 season. Importantly, this assumes a salary cap around $63 million (more on that in a minute).

One of the biggest arguments against "maxing out" Marc is that he's not a superstar on the level of current max players like LeBron James or Kevin Durant, or even my personal nemesis, Dwight Howard. I'll save the Marc vs. Dwight debate for another column, but I readily concede that Gasol is not on the same level as James or Durant. Nor should he be paid like them. But that's not a judgment on Marc Gasol; that's an indictment of a system which invariably ensures that transformational talents like James and Durant will be underpaid. And don't let their eye-popping salaries fool you: James and Durant are criminally underpaid. There's unlimited demand for upper echelon talent like theirs, but with limited supply and restrictions on the bidding process, the market gets distorted. As Zach Lowe stated in a column on the topic of max salaries:

The league's dozen best players are effectively subsidizing the much larger middle class. The salary ceiling keeps the majority of the players' union members happy, and it might help general managers build deeper rosters. But it also places an artificial restraint on a player's earning capacity and leads general managers to inevitably overpay mid-tier veterans.

Therefore, whether Marc Gasol is paid like LeBron James is irrelevant when you consider that LeBron James makes only a fraction of his true value.*

*Around $40 million a year in a hypothetical laissez-faire market version of the NBA according to people much smarter than me..

The question we should be asking is: Is Marc Gasol a "max player"? Let's first examine this through the lens of Lowe's colloquial "dozen best players," those whose earning potential is theoretically diminished by restrictions on individual players' salaries. If the top dozen players get screwed by the max, then it's probably fair to say that the players just behind them are receiving a fair price for their services, so where does Marc stand in the current NBA hierarchy?

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Well, ESPN ranked him the 10th best player in the NBA before the start of last year's injury-plagued campaign. This year, Sports Illustrated rated him as their 16th best player coming into the season. Let's average those out and say that he's at the very least on the bubble of the top 12 according to the experts at SI and The Mothership.

There're a lot of good arguments to be made that Marc's previous season has been drastically underrated simply by looking at the win-loss record with him on and off the floor. Grizzlies won 68% of games in which Marc played and only 43% without him. By comparison, in 2011-2012, the Chicago Bulls' winning percentage dropped from 79% to 70% after reigning MVP Derrick Rose was lost with an injury. Grizzlies fans intuitively understand the impact that Marc makes on both ends of the court; but still, he took a hit in the advanced stats last season, accounting only for a meager 5.6 win shares, the lowest of his career (extrapolated over 82 games, the number is a more respectable 7.8, though still nothing to write home about). For the purposes of debate, though, let's put an asterisk by last season and examine Marc's best year - what we'll call "Peak Wendigo" - the 2012-2013 season in which he won Defensive Player of the Year, made 2nd team All-NBA, and led the Grizzlies to the Western Conference Finals. That year, he accounted for 11.5 win shares, the 6th best mark in the league right behind Russell Westbrook. With the same number of win shares last year, he would have ranked ninth, just ahead of Joakim Noah. Any way you slice it, Peak Wendigo is pretty convincingly a top 10 NBA talent.*

*All win share data according to basketball-reference.com.

Keeping in mind that the premise is that the top 12 players in the league are actually burned by a max salary, I'd argue that Marc easily meets the criteria for a max player. Nate Silver's examination of the question of max contracts simplifies this conundrum even further:
Has your guy made an All-NBA team, or would it have been entirely reasonable for him to do so? Then offer him the max extension. If not, then don't.
In other words, if there's a case that can be made that you've got a player who can be a top-15 player, he's worth between 25% and 30% of the salary cap. Oh yea, about that... (Dear Marc Gasol and his representatives, skip over the next section and continue reading after the spreadsheet).

The salary cap is about to increase substantially. League execs still whisper about this like they're trying not to spoil the end of Breaking Bad even though everybody saw the end of Walter White's wacky meth adventures over a year ago (and how glorious it was). Well *SPOILER ALERT*, the secret is out that the NBA is going to reap an unprecedented windfall when it renegotiates its national television deal over the coming year. Conservative projections have the cap skyrocketing up to over $80 million in the 2016-2017 season, the first under a new TV deal. That's a 27% increase from the projected cap for this season. That's why if Marc signs a 5-year max contract this summer instead of the three year extension that everybody is hoping for, I think this is ultimately going to afford the Grizzlies additional cap flexibility in the long run.

Contracts are going to get extremely wonky over the next few seasons (keep a look out for the Conley re-up next season, the numbers will be surprising), but the Grizzlies have some negotiating leverage due to the fact that they can guarantee Marc a fifth year on his deal this summer. The danger in the negotiations is that Marc tries to do what LeBron's agents did and kick the can down the road by signing a one-year extension, but that's a far riskier proposition for a player like Marc. Over the next three years, a max free agent contract in lieu of an extension will amount to a cap hit of about $1.8, 2.0, and 2.3 million, respectively. But consider this: starting in 2016-2017, if Marc signs a free agent max contract, his salary would start at around $24 million, $3.8 million more than we would pay him that season under a max deal signed this summer. In fact, by virtue of the fortuitous timing of his contract's expiration, a max deal for Marc signed in the summer of 2015 will cost $30.3 million less (!!!) than a max deal signed the following summer for a player with a comparable number of years in the league. OK, now that I've made everyone's eyes roll back into their head, I'll just stop and post the spreadsheet.

Gasol_contract_spreadsheet_medium

Click the sheet to go to the source (a Google doc) where you can play with the numbers and change things around. I'd like to hear where people agree or disagree with my assumptions.

Of course, one must acknowledge that Marc's numbers, at least in comparison to his top-echelon contemporaries, can appear a tad pedestrian. Mullinax argued that 16 points, 8 boards, 3.7 assists, and 1.8 blocks do not a max contract make. But forget the numbers for a second... Pretend you're that jerk that was about to punch Brad Pitt/Billy Beane in Moneyball right before he was fired by the A's for talking about the eye test and admit it: Marc's just got that good stuff. Look, I'm sure the nerds at the Sloan analytics conference will figure out how to quantify the way that Marc quarterbacks a defensive rotation better than anybody in basketball or why beefy 7-footers who can operate on the elbow create ultra-efficient offensive sets, but who cares? Who cares if a max deal might be a little high to lock him down for the next five years even with the salary cap expansion? (Note: it's not.) We're talking about the #1 all-time greatest Grizzly here, and five years from now, this is going to look like biggest nickel and dime debate we've ever had. Remember when Chicago refused to give up Luol Deng for Kobe Bryant? That's what this is. Cut the big man the big check, Mr. Pera. He deserves all of it.