While most of the summer's most lucrative new contracts were signed last month, a pair of big men have cashed in within the last week. Nikola Pekovic reached an agreement with the Timberwolves on a five-year, $60MM deal, which includes up to $8MM in potential incentives. And just yesterday, Larry Sanders and the Bucks finalized a four-year, $44MM extension, which could include another $4MM in incentives.
Comparing Pekovic's and Sanders' deals is a little tricky — the Timberwolves center wasn't coming off a rookie-scale contract, is already 27 years old, and was available on the open market (albeit as a restricted free agent). Sanders, on the other hand, remained under Bucks control for another year, is just 24, and received a rookie-scale extension.
Still, both players fall into a group of big men that has received four- or five-year contract in recent years, after playing three or four NBA seasons. Here's a look at how Pekovic and Sanders stack up against a few other players who have inked similar deals, along with their career stats at the time they signed their respective contracts (sorted by overall dollar amount):
There are a few caveats worth mentioning here: All these players were signed three years into their NBA careers except JaVale McGee, who had four years of experience when he re-upped with the Nuggets. Additionally, only Sanders, Taj Gibson, Serge Ibaka, and Al Horford signed rookie-scale extensions. Pekovic, McGee, and DeAndre Jordan were re-signed as restricted free agents.
Taking these factors into account, our first instinct may be to assume that the Bucks overpaid for Sanders, who ranks noticeably behind most of the players on this list when it comes to experience, playing time, and scoring. Some of his career numbers compare favorably to Gibson's, Jordan's, and McGee's, but Gibson is being paid nearly $3MM per year less than Sanders, and overpaying for Jordan and McGee was more defensible, since their deals came in free agency, rather than a year earlier.
Of course, the Bucks aren't paying for Sanders' career stats; they're paying for his potential, which he began to realize during the 2012/13 season. Sanders' '12/13 averages (9.8 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 2.8 BPG, 18.7 PER) are easily better across the board than the numbers Gibson and Jordan put up in the season prior to their new contracts. McGee's pre-free-agency season was perhaps a little more productive than Sanders', but it's worth mentioning again that McGee was in his fourth season, not his third.
If we assume that Sanders will take another step forward in year four of his NBA career, and also consider how difficult it is for the Bucks to attract marquee free agents, that four-year, $44MM looks like a solid value for the team. It's about in line with the market rate, and it was probably a necessary investment for a club that saw multiple impact players (Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis) choose to leave Milwaukee this offseason.
As for Pekovic, when I asked last week whether the Wolves got a good value, Hoops Rumors readers were nearly split between viewing the deal as an overpay or just about right. Horford provides the easiest point of comparison, since the two contracts are virtually identical, and their career numbers are nearly identical as well, with Pekovic perhaps being a little more efficient in less overall playing time.
Unlike the other players on this list though, Pekovic didn't sign his first NBA deal out of college, but rather spent multiple years overseas before joining the T-Wolves. As such, he's actually a few months older than Horford, despite the fact that the Hawks big man inked his extension nearly three years ago, while Pekovic is just seeing his first huge payday now. When Atlanta locked up Horford at age 24, the club was banking on continued development, whereas there's a good chance that with Pekovic, at age 27, what you see is what you get.
In the short-term, the Wolves should be just fine if Pekovic produces at the same rate he did in 2012/13, when he averaged 16.3 PPG, 8.8 RPG, and a 20.2 PER. After all, those stats look pretty similar to what Horford did this past season while playing a few extra minutes per game (17.4 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 19.8 PER), and Horford's contract is generally considered an excellent value for the Hawks.
In the longer-term, Pekovic's contract may prove to be an overpay, but he'll only be 32 when it expires, so his production shouldn't fall off a cliff. Considering Pekovic had the chance to talk to any of the NBA's other 29 teams, and the Wolves were still able to lock him up at a rate of $12MM annually, I don't mind the investment, even if it may end up being for one year too long.
Pekovic and Sanders may never become top-20 players in the NBA, but they're talented enough that they should be worth eight-digit salaries. For Minnesota and Milwaukee, which aren't exactly prime free agent destinations, landing a scoring center like Pekovic or a rim-protecting power forward like Sanders isn't easy. I think both teams managed to lock their players up to fair deals, but even if they overpaid by a few million dollars, it will likely be worth it, considering the lack of alternatives available.