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The Marvin Williams All-Stars

The post-contract-year regression is a storied tradition in the NBA, stretching back to the not-so-great Erick Dampier. This season is no different, with players like J.R., Rondo, and more falling back into old habits.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

This past fall, on a warm, crystal-clear day, I sat in the audience for a Star Wars writers roundtable at New York Comic Con. Later, I would catch a nasty cold from touching things that tens of thousands of other nerds had just touched. But in that moment, I felt fine. One of the first questions for the panel was about workflow, and how the writers approached their craft day after day. Writers ask each other this a lot. Kieron Gillen, who writes Darth Vader for Marvel Comics as well as his creator-owned series, The Wicked + The Divine, said cheerily: “I’m a big fan of procrastination and fear.” Same here.

Deadlines focus the mind to a razor-edge. They help you confront the end. Or, at least some kind of end; a point at which you either step up and deliver or don’t. Which is to say, I empathize, deeply, with the NBA’s version of the deadline: the contract year.

You are no doubt familiar with the concept of the contract year: the season which precedes a player’s free agency, during which said player just happens to perform uncommonly well. One of the finest examples of this is Erick “Damp” Dampier’s epic 2003–04 contract year. Damp, for those who may not remember him, was a 6-foot-11 center out of Mississippi State with a body like a mailbox and hands like two frayed Encyclopedia Britannicas. He played 16 mostly unremarkable but occasionally bitterly disappointing seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Warriors, Mavericks, Heat, and Hawks, averaging seven points, seven boards, and 1.4 blocks per game. As The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks pointed out, Damp is the second-best center Dirk Nowitzki ever shared the court with (behind Tyson Chandler), which is sad and also slander upon the good name of Raef LaFrentz. His career numbers are generally representative of his stats in any of his respective NBA seasons … except 2003–04.

Dampier’s contract-year per-game numbers: 12.3 points on 53.5 percent shooting, 12 rebounds (fourth in the league), five offensive boards (most in the league), and two blocks. Digging deeper, he also led the league (!!!) in rebound rate, grabbing over 20 percent of all available caroms, and put up a PER of 20. Damp was 28 years old and an eight-year veteran, and his numbers would never again approach such heights of respectability.

A small, but significant caveat — Dampier played a lot of minutes in his contract year, 2,403 minutes total and 32 per contest. Before that, the last time he had played more than 2,000 minutes was 1997–98, his first year with the Warriors. And while his stats in that season weren’t quite as champagne-popping, they were close. His contract-year per-36 numbers, while definitively elevated from his career marks, were not dramatically out of line with them. In other words, the Warriors were complicit in Damp’s contract-year stats juicing. In August 2004, Damp cashed in on his showcase season, inking a seven-year, $73 million contract as part of a sign-and-trade deal that sent him to the Mavericks. He then promptly fell off.

That fall-off season is what concerns us here. It is the crash after the sugar rush. A quarter of the 2016–17 NBA campaign is in our rearview mirror, and the data is still noisy, but inside the shawl of static, recognizable songs are taking shape.

The active player who most embodies the post-contract year is Marvin Williams. The Hornets forward was doomed from the start of his pro career after the Atlanta Hawks selected him second in the 2005 draft ahead of Chris Paul and Deron Williams. This happened despite the fact he never started for the national champion Tar Heels and averaged a whatever-inducing 11 points per game at UNC.

Williams had spent most of his NBA career failing to live up to his draft placement, showing only occasional flashes of the player league executives expected to see. Until last season, which, not coincidentally, was a contract year.

Powered by his suddenly accurate deep-shooting prowess (40 percent!), Williams unlocked the stretchiness trapped inside his 6-foot-9 frame and put up career highs in true shooting (58.5 percent), made 3s (152, 57 more than the previous season), PER (16.8), blocks (77, 31 more than his next-highest season total), and box plus-minus (2.7). The Hornets were a top-10 team in offensive and defensive ratings last season (by a hair), historically a mark of a title contender, and Williams was huge part of it. This season, he’s fallen off. And he is not alone. These are the Marvin Williams All-Stars.

Some ground rules:

  • Injuries don’t count. This list is already slightly mean, and, as I acknowledged in my meandering intro, I empathize. A player in a post-contract year needs to actually be falling off on the court to make the Marvin Williams All-Stars.
  • Old guys don’t count. A player who is falling, falling, falling off, must be physically capable of not falling off.
  • The player needs to be getting real minutes. Boban Marjanovic, everyone’s favorite lumbering, large-handed human-yeti hybrid, put up a 27.7 PER last season as Gregg Popovich’s garbage-time cigar. His per-36 numbers — 21 points (60 percent from the floor), 14 rebounds, 1.6 blocks — were stupefying. This season, after signing the Pistons’ three-year, $21 million offer sheet (which Pop urged him to accept), Boban is shooting 29 percent with a 10.8 PER, but has played only 50 total minutes.

The Marvin Williams All-Stars

Rajon Rondo, Chicago Bulls

Contract Year: 50.6 percent true shooting, 16.9 PER

Contract: Two years, $28.1 million

Marvin Williams Year: 43.7 percent true shooting, 12.2 PER

Rondo is a special case. His career is a special case. Very few players in NBA history have managed to transmute the inherent unselfishness of passing into such an unambiguously selfish undertaking. But hunting stats is hunting stats. Rondo led the league in assists with 11.7 per game during his 2015–16 contract year in Sacramento. Last season, the Kings averaged 24.5 assists per game, tied for third best in the league. Rounding out the top five of that list were the Warriors with 29 assists per game (73 wins, made the Finals), the Hawks with 25.6 (48 wins, reached the second round of the playoffs), and the Wizards (41–41) and Spurs (67 wins, most in franchise history, made the second round), who were tied with Sacramento with 24.5 assists per game. The Kings won 33 games.

Of course, Rondo has never been a reliable shooter and, by his own admission, took years off from playing defense. His ability to get to the rim is in steady decline, he makes less than one free throw per game, his 3-point shooting has reverted back into a moderately passable post-midnight pumpkin, and he’s putting up his lowest assist rate (32.6 percent) in nine years. Oh, and he was recently suspended for getting into it with an assistant coach.

J.R. Smith, Cleveland Cavaliers

Contract Year: 54.2 percent true shooting, 12.4 PER, won a title, didn’t wear a shirt for two months

Contract: Four years, $57 million

Marvin Williams Year: 46.2 percent true shooting, 7.0 PER

Recently, I wrote a piece about how LeBron James’s totemic will to win had manifested itself as a round-the-clock vigil aimed at keeping J.R. Smith indoors and out of trouble.

Perhaps I spoke too soon. Smith’s 46.2 percent true shooting, should it hold, would be the worst mark of his career. And he never gets to the line. J.R. being J.R., there are myriad reasons this could be happening, and I have, of late, cheered myself by imagining them all.

Marvin Williams, Charlotte Hornets

Contract Year: 58.5 percent true shooting, 16.8 PER (both career highs)

Contract: Four years, $54.5 million

Marvin Williams Year: 47.4 percent true shooting, 10.3 PER (both career lows)

I feel bad about this. After a decade in the league as a nondescript, fringe NBA starter haunted by his high draft position, it was, in retrospect, too much to expect that Williams’s inner light bulb had finally turned on. He had done this before, after all. In his previous contract year, 2008–09, Williams averaged 14.5 points per-36 minutes on 56.9 percent true shooting. Both were career highs at the time. But the fall-off wasn’t anything like this. Williams is posting the steepest regression in effective field goal percentage in the league this season

Kent Bazemore, Atlanta Hawks

Contract Year: 55 percent true shooting, 13.4 PER (both career highs)

Contract: Four years, $70 million

Marvin Williams Year: 44.8 percent true shooting (career low), 10 PER

Baze is still providing the defense that helped him net his contract. In the pre-television-deal years, $70 million for a guy like Baze would have seemed like evidence of heavy drug use by a team’s executive corps. But he’s a plus athlete with the length and size to be a defensive difference-maker and boasts a respectable 3-point shot. This season, he’s had the second-largest drop-off in effective field goal percentage — behind Marvin Williams — of players in their Marvin Williams Year.

Bismack Biyombo, Orlando Magic

Contract Year: 58.6 true shooting percentage, 14.9 PER

Contract: Four years, $72 million

Marvin Williams Year: 49.5 percent true shooting, 10.9 PER

A few obvious things: Biyombo is not and will never be a scorer. If he can get inside position, and he can catch the ball (he averaged 1.4 turnovers per-36 last season) and hold onto it, he can dunk. That’s the entire breadth of his offensive capability. In Orlando, he’s on a roster loaded with bigs — Serge Ibaka, Nik Vucevic, Aaron Gordon — who have overlapping and not necessarily complementary skill sets. Biyombo exists to rebound and block shots. The problem: In addition to declining shooting numbers, he’s averaging the lowest block rate of his career (4 percent), and nearly two fewer rebounds per-36. Again, most of this is lineup related. I feel bad about it. But, it is what it is: an invitation to the Marvin Williams All-Stars.

All statistics current through Tuesday morning.