The NBA spending bonanza has begun.
In advance of the 2016-2017 cap jump, the Milwaukee Bucks have agreed to a four-year, $45 million contract extension with young power forward John Henson. While those are eye-catching numbers for a player who barely averaged 18 minutes per game last season and only started 11 games, this massive contract for a part-time player is Milwaukee's problem, not the Rockets'.
But where this 11-million-dollar-plus per season deal can affect the Rockets is that they have two young power forwards of their own in Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones, who are both up for extensions this season.
The NBA's salary cap will jump next year from $70 million to $89.5 million due to an influx of television money, an increase of almost 28 percent. The cap is expected to jump the following year to an astronomical $110 million, which represents a 57 percent increase over the course of just two seasons.
We're entering an unprecedented period of NBA spending, which makes it difficult to predict exactly what will happen. But Milwaukee's deal for Henson gives us a starting point of what we can expect for Houston's two big men, as a closer look shows relatively similar player profiles.
Why Henson is getting paid
Henson, like Jones and D-Mo, is a three-year pro playing out the team option on his rookie deal (before signing this extension). He's been an effective player in spurts, but has faced many of the same troubles most young, still-developing big men have upon entering the NBA.
He's struggled with the nuances of NBA offensive systems and doesn't have much of a post game, and despite shooting 53.1 percent from the field for his career, relies more on his athleticism than on a fully developed offensive repertoire. He's had a few breakout games (a 17-point, 25-rebound, 7-block affair in 2013 comes immediately to mind), but boasts career averages of just 8.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. His scoring and his rebounding were both down last season from his career averages, he has no three-point game to speak of and is a poor free throw shooter (53.7 percent for his career).
He's a good-not-great rebounder who has a tendency to get pushed around in the paint on occasion due to his slender, 6-11, 220-pound body. His slight frame when rubbing elbows down low with the big boys may also be contributing to an inability to stay healthy. Henson's battled injuries in all three NBA seasons.
Where Henson does shine, however, is as a shot blocker and defender. He averaged 2.0 blocks per game last season despite his limited minutes, which was good enough for sixth in the NBA (and most per-minute in the league), and averages 1.5 blocks per game for his career.
His defensive analytics last season were the best of his career. He had 2.4 defensive wins shares, a sparkling 4.6 defensive plus-minus, and an overall defensive rating of 98. Despite being a negative offensive player last season and for his career, his defensive skills were good enough to make him 1.5 to the positive in value over replacement and he also has a PER of 18.0.
Henson's limited sample size make it a bit difficult to fully extrapolate his success over the long-term, but his per 36 averages do offer a possible glimpse. 15.0 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.7 blocked shots is certainly nothing to scoff at on a per-36 basis, but can he replicate his effectiveness when the minutes rise, or will the added court time, added work and added pressure cause his efficiency to plummet?
His 2013-2014 season could give us a possible clue. Henson averaged 26.5 minutes per game that season and finished with averages of 11.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks, putting his per-36 numbers rights in line with his career averages.
Henson has improved defensively since then, which could mean his block totals rise as the Bucks use him more, but his offensive game has shown little discernible and statistical development in three seasons, which is where his efficiency could definitely suffer.
Henson's a nice, young player with potential, especially on the defensive end, but he's far from a polished product. He not only has a long way to go on the offensive side of the floor, but still needs to grow more weight and add strength before he's able to match up night in, night out with other NBA bigs. At 24-years old, he's certainly still young, but as a paint-focused big with no perimeter game, he should be beginning to fill out now to prime strength to bang underneath, not still in a lanky, green-bean phase.
Sound worth $11.25 mill a year for four years to you? Well, he is now in the new NBA salary era.
In any emerging market, which is essentially what we have here with the cap explosion, the first domino to fall sets the standard for the rest of the pieces, and Henson's contract will certainly send ripples that will likely be felt in Houston. With the Rockets already facing the difficult decision of whether to keep Jones or Motiejunas, the situation just got more complex.
So which player do the Rockets keep? And what is that going to cost the Rockets?
On Terrence Jones
Jones is the most direct comparison to Henson. Like Henson, Jones is young — he's just 23 years old — with potential.
He's occasionally explosive in the paint, he's a good, but not great rebounder and is an above-average shot blocker. Jones has career averages of 11.0 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game, which almost mirror Henson's 2013-2014 season, and Jones' career field goal percentage is identical to Henson's at 53.1 percent.
Jones has averaged six more minutes per game than Henson for his career, so despite Jones's overall career numbers looking a bit healthier, their per 36 averages are extremely similar. Jones currently carries per 36s of 15.7 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks.
Where Jones does separate himself is that he has a 6'9", 252-pound NBA-ready body, is the more efficient player (18.7 PER for his career), and despite only shooting 31.2 percent from three for his career, he does take them (Henson's shot four total threes in three years, Jones has taken 157), and he can occasionally knock them down.
If he can improve this area of his game further (at just 23, certainly not out of the question), he can develop into the ideal full-time fit at the four in Daryl Morey's system. He's already a positive offensive and defensive player for his career.
Jones is certainly not without his blemishes either.
He also struggles to stay healthy, despite his size, and played in only 35 games this past season. He's also disappeared badly in the last two Rockets postseasons, looking lost and overwhelmed at times, although that can change with added experience and maturity. And that three-point shot, despite sometimes going in, isn't exactly a sublime picture of shooting beauty.
So where does that leave the realistic market for Jones, knowing how he relates to Henson and his shiny, new $45 million contract?
The Rockets are not likely to extend Jones early like the Bucks did to Henson. With the market set, the Rockets aren't likely to get any significant savings benefit by extending Jones now. They're more likely to let the season play out and take their chances with restricted free agency.
He's generally considered a more complete overall player than Henson, and at a full year younger, may have the edge in the potential department as well. He's not borderline elite in anything (depending on your take on his offensive rebounding), but with the pending market set, the Rockets could easily be looking at $13-15 million per season to get Jones back in Houston.
Does Donuts stack up?
Motiejunas has a bit of a different scenario in that he's clearly the most skilled offensively out of the trio, even if it hasn't always translated in the raw numbers. He has a highly developed post game with enough moves and counter moves to leave most NBA defenders flummoxed. He's a nifty passer out of the post, and his three-point shooting grew by leaps and bounds last season to 36.8 percent on 133 attempts, both career highs.
He's also, however, a poor rebounder and rim protector, and although he's improved defensively, he's a negative defensive player for his career. He also has the lowest career PER of the three at just 13.1.
He too has health concerns, as he's currently coming off of delicate surgery for a herniated disc and still hasn't been cleared for basketball activity. He's also the oldest of the trio at 25, which means he's entering his physical prime and is no longer sitting safely in the "potential" phase of his career.
His per 36 numbers don't quite measure up to either Jones or Henson, with D-Mo sporting averages of 14.8 points, 7.5 rebounds and 0.7 blocks.
His game does rely less on athleticism than the other two, however, and more on skill, so his prime could potentially be longer than either Jones or Henson, depending on how fully the younger two players develop.
So where does this leave Motiejunas?
Like with Jones, the market is set, meaning the Rockets are unlikely to offer D-Mo an extension before restricted free agency hits. They likely also want to see how his recovery is progressing before making any decisions on how to proceed.
If healthy, D-Mo's skilled post attack, size, and ability to play both the four and the five are highly sought after NBA skills. But he's barely been better than replacement level for his career, showing the work that still needs done in rebounding and on the defensive end.
Like Jones and Henson, he's a useful player, but not without his deficiencies, which should leave his contract expectations in a similar zone. Expect something close to the Henson deal, but with the potential to rise to the $13-15 mill range Jones will command if he returns fully healthy and effective, and the potential to drop slightly lower than both if his return is a difficult one.
One big man won't be in Houston next year
Despite the cap increase, tying up $25-30 million in the power forward position for non-elite production is not good business, and we all know that's not how Daryl Morey operates. Don't forget, he also drafted two forwards in this year's draft in Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell for a reason, with an eye on this moment. It's entirely possible they keep neither Jones nor Motiejunas.
The list of potential free agent bigs after this season features some huge names: Al Horford (unrestricted), Pau Gasol (player option), Dirk Nowitzki (player option), Andre Drummond (restricted) Joakim Noah (unrestricted), Al Jefferson (unrestricted) and Hassan Whiteside (unrestricted) could all be on the market in addition to the Rockets' own Dwight Howard (player option).
This is also the year of Kevin Durant, and if the Rockets wish to make a run at a big name, they'll need all the flexibility and cap room they can get. The market has yet to be set for these star players.
But if they do keep only one, it's leaning toward Jones. He's a more complete overall player than D-Mo by most measurables, both in the standard box and advanced metrics, and his youth, rebounding and shot blocking will be at a premium. If his three-point shot improves, his offensive game should flourish even more.
D-Mo already has that nice three, but it's important to remember that has only been a recent development. Motiejunas is only a 31.3 percent shooter from downtown for his career, so the book is still out on whether last season's sweet stroke is a permanent addition to his game. Plus, he's now in the scary "big men with a history of back problems" category.
What final decision the Rockets make is still very much up in the air. The uncertainties created by the new cap situation make predicting how the moving parts around the league will play out almost impossible. And we have a full season of basketball yet to be played. Many things can and will happen between now and when Morey finally makes a move for one, the other, or neither.
But one thing is for sure, and that is Milwaukee's extension deal for Henson will undoubtedly impact the whole league, including the Rockets as they decide the future of their two young power forwards.