(In the vein of the highly esteemed David Shoemaker, AKA The Masked Man’s Deadspin column entitled “Dead Wrestler of the Week”, we here at MAMBINO are going to parse our way through the worst contracts the NBA has to offer. Part dedication to the great men who have swindled their way to big checks, part commemoration to GMs that should have been fired and part commentary on the ills of a capitalist society gone wrong, we’ll be here every week with a look at the L’s worst deals)
Contract: 5 years, $35 million
Signed by: New Jersey Nets
Salary this season: $7 million
2013 Slash Line: 4.7/1.8/0.4 in 25 games
The Nets are clearing cap space for a free-agent class that includes James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but James is the unmistakable target. So much so, the Nets have an internal business plan for the move into the new Brooklyn arena that includes a modest section on his eventual recruitment, estimates of his marketing worth and the salary-cap space that needs to be cleared for his signing.
This is the kind of advanced planning every team does, but there’s a credibility to the Nets’ pursuit that comes out of Jay-Z’s relationship.
—Adrian Wojnarowski, Yahoo! Sports, February 25th, 2008
That excerpt was taken from a column written more than 28 months before LeBron James could even think about becoming a free agent in the summer of 2010. The impending departure of the King was a NBA storyline for over two years in a media storm like few before it. Everyone knew that come July 1st, the course of league history would be changed depending on where the then 26 year-old would sign. Like Woj wrote, every team has advanced planning on their minds when designing the future of the franchise. Many of them had their eye on the now-three-time MVP in 2008, but only a few had the financial and logical wherewithal to actually involve themselves in the discussion.
For the Nets and their downtrodden fans wallowing within a second city standing, the thought of signing a premier free agent was a laughable dream for much of the franchise’s history. Even as the team had been to the Finals just as many times in the last 35 years as their Manhattan dwelling sister squad, the Nets’ ability to sign superstars was always dimmed by it’s decrepit arena mired in the swamps of New Jersey, with a fair weather fan base and questionable support from the community. Even as the team acquired players like All-NBA players like Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Dikembe Mutumbo to suit up for them, stars rarely came to the Jerz on their own free will. Kind of like real life.
That all changed when former owner Bruce Ratner put into motion a plan to move the Nets to Brooklyn and transitioned stewardship of the team to new owner and Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokorhov. Now with one of the richest men in the world backing their payroll and an upcoming move into a sparkling new arena in a much more populous, centrally located and “cool” location in Brooklyn, the Nets and their fans could dare to hope.
Jersey-soon-to-be-Brooklyn, like the Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, Miami Heat, Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers hatched their plans at the July 1st buzzer. A week raged on, and then two, and then three, and the New Jersey Nets were busy holding a wilting bouquet of roses with a slowly fading smile. LeBron James had signed with the Miami Heat, preceded by Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh landing there as well, while second-tier players like Rudy Gay, Carlos Boozer, Amar’e Stoudemire and David Lee had signed elsewhere. The Nets, even with their future gleaming as bright as the Manhattan skyline just across the East River, hadn’t improved their team. Plan A, Plan B and Plan C had gone from James Bond to Johnny English, as team was left scrambling to fill the massive holes in a destitute line-up.
Enter Travis Outlaw. Otherwise known as Plan F. Guess what the F stands for.
Outlaw had been another member of the 2003 NBA Draft class, one of the most accomplished and impressive groups of draftees in league history. He had been selected with the 23rd pick by the Portland Trailblazers, after the likes of the aforementioned James, Wade and Bosh, as well as former All-Stars Chris Kaman and David West, and successful role players like T.J. Ford, Kirk Hinrich, Nick Collison, Luke Ridnour and Boris Diaw. Even as a pick into the 20’s, Outlaw had carved out a nice niche for himself in the NBA, developing into a good, but not fantastic shooter. He began to work the three-point shot into his repertoire at the beginning of the 2007 season, averaging 2.2 per game on 38% accuracy–again, good, but not elite. The other components of the swingman’s game included a decent mid-range stroke and adequate defensive chops. However, Outlaw had didn’t rebound well despite his height (6’9″), nor get to the line much considering he shot over 10 times per contest. More to the point, he did his work for three Portland teams that never won more than two playoff games in any postseason. If all of this seems like a lukewarm assessment of Outlaw’s basketball prowess…it is. He was an average NBA player with a slightly above average shooting stroke from long, but faced limitations everywhere else on the court, while playing the most common position in the league. Think LeBron James, without the muscle, speed, explosion, passing, dunking, rebounding, defense, marketability and upside, and you’ve got Travis Outlaw.
If that sounded ridiculous to you, it certainly didn’t for the Nets. With more than $20 million dollars in salary cap room, New Jersey blew through $10 million on Johan Petro, $12 million on Jordan Farmar, but most of it by signing Travis Outlaw to be their new starting small forward, the same position that LeBron James would have played. All it cost was a cool $35 million dollars over three years. Certainly if LeBron would have cost six years and $110 million, surely a player like Outlaw–who had a third of James’ skill–could put forth a performance worth a third of his salary?
It turns out that the Nets paid one-third of LeBron’s salary for a player worth 1/100th the value. Outlaw was putrid on an awful New Jersey squad, shooting just .375 overall and .302 on 3.0 three-pointers a game. At a $7 million dollar price tag, the Nets had paid an incredible $92,105.26 per trey for this supposed long-distance specialist, as he made only 76 all year. The small niche that the former Blazer had carved for himself in the NBA had temporarily left him, as he couldn’t even put up decent numbers on a team that went 24-58. As if it weren’t bad enough for the three dozen Nets fans that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Amar’e Stoudemire deflected the courtings the future Brooklyn professional basketball team, the front office saddled the franchise with three players, each with a contract worse than the guy before him. While the Heat’s trio of free agents has helped them to two Finals appearances and a 2012 title, the Nets’ summer “prizes” have gotten them zero playoffs appearances, as each plays on a different team, including Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel.
By the end of the 2010-2011 season, Outlaw had an astounding $28 million left on his contract that looked awful on it’s outset, but somehow even worse in hindsight. With free agents like Dwight Howard, Deron Williams and Chris Paul on the horizon, the Nets had tied themselves up with one of the longest and most cumbersome deals in the NBA.
However, relief came in the form of a league-wide lockout and then a newly negotiated Collective Bargaining Agreement. As a part of the new CBA, every NBA team now had the on-time use of an “amnesty provision” which they could use to wipe one contract off their books. The full balance of the deal would still have to be paid and that player would be cut from the roster, but his contract would no longer count against the salary cap. It wasn’t a shock when the Nets used it on Outlaw–after all, there was no question that the swingman wouldn’t ever live up to the deal–but it was stunning that they would be desperate enough to eat over $28 million dollars when they had just signed the contract 18 months earlier. The Nets truly had little to lose by keeping him onboard and hoping he could contribute anything to a team that ultimately went 22-44 the next season. However, seeing as the Sacramento Kings claimed him to the tune of 4 years and $12 million that would cut Brooklyn’s balance to $16 million, the Nets had no problems letting Outlaw go.
In his new settings in Sactown, Outlaw hasn’t fared much better. Even in the league’s least glamorous market without the massive expectations of a giant contract, the small forward hasn’t been able to recover his three-point stroke (shooting .281 from long) or vie for minutes. Outlaw barely gets any burn, with just 62 appearances in a possible 124 games over the past two seasons. Even if we just looked at the small forward’s Sacramento deal, which is $9 million over three seasons including this one, he’s been so awful that even that contract would be one of the worst in the league. Congratulations, Mr. Outlaw. You not only made this column for one terrible contract, but for two.
Moving expectations from LeBron James to any other player is never easy. But to go from the greatest in the game to a player now on its fringes of it is a truly magnificent accomplishment. Brooklyn’s future is now tied up with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace, who may all someday disgrace this column with their presence. Each player still lurks in his prime, so perhaps the steps to becoming a major title contender are yet to come. So one day Brooklyn, when that black and white confetti streams from the rafters, never forget that Travis Outlaw was the first sign of hope.
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