Monday, August 15, 2022

Collin Sexton deserves far more than what the free agent market appears willing to pay him

Last Friday, 23 days into NBA free agency, Chris Fedor reported that restricted free agent Collin Sexton is sitting on a three-year offer from the Cavaliers worth roughly $40 million. He is not known to have received any other offers. Before you decide whether or not that offer is fair, I’d just like to offer a list of players making more per year than the $13.3 million Sexton would average if he signed that deal:

  • Spencer Dinwiddie signed a deal worth $18 million per year coming off of a partially torn ACL.
  • Tyus Jones will make $14.5 million per year on the deal he just signed despite starting as many games in his career (72) as Sexton did as a rookie.
  • Markelle Fultz is making a whopping $16 million per year despite scoring fewer points in his entire five-year career (1,423) than Sexton did in his last healthy season (1,460). I should point out that Sexton reached that total in just 60 games because COVID-19 shortened the schedule.

Sexton is coming off of a torn meniscus. He’s never played in the playoffs. Restricted free agency has lost better players a lot more money. All of this is reasonable. It’s not as though there aren’t valid explanations for Sexton’s dry market. Maybe that’s the problem here. It shouldn’t take a player like Sexton weeks or months to find a contract. That it has suggests that 30 NBA teams are simultaneously outsmarting themselves. Or taking crazy pills. It’s one of the two.

Over the past five seasons, a total of 32 players have averaged 24 points per game at least once. Let’s sort them into tax brackets:

  • Right off of the bat, 75 percent of the list is either currently playing on max a contract or has signed a max contract that hasn’t kicked in yet.
  • Four of the remaining eight were on max contracts when they reached this criterion (Blake Griffin, Kemba Walker and DeMarcus Cousins, James Harden), but those contracts have since either expired or been bought out.
  • Three of the four left are on slightly sub-max contracts. Members of this club are DeMar DeRozan, Jaylen Brown, and Julius Randle.

Now, points per game are obviously not the be-all and end-all of value, but at a certain point, when everyone else who gets buckets is making $25 million or more per year, it’s worth asking why Sexton is getting offered half of that. It can’t just be his injury, because Dinwiddie was hurt worse and Fultz hardly ever plays. The Jones contract even suggests that his current market value is below that of a top-tier backup. Derrick Rose making even more than Jones sends that same message. Sure, the match rights Cleveland retains on Sexton as a restricted free agent matter, but Lonzo Ball, Malcolm Brogdon and Terry Rozier have all managed to score deals in the $20 million per year range on the restricted market through sign-and-trades. That is reportedly what Sexton is seeking, yet he hasn’t come close.

It was only 18 months ago that Sexton finished the combined All-Star vote just behind Fred VanVleet and just behind Kyle Lowry. Now he’s struggling to command elite backup money. What gives? Let’s try to figure out what’s scaring away the suitors, what should be attracting them in the first place, and how this mess is ultimately going to end.

Why don’t teams want to pay Sexton?

For the less Twitter-inclined among us, Sexton’s ball-hogging exploits became something of a meme earlier in his career. Here’s one play, in particular, that helped craft that reputation for Sexton in large part because of Kevin Love’s hilarious reaction.

There’s some truth to the memes. Sexton was not only a hesitant passer in his earlier years but a largely ineffective one as well. Sexton led the Cavaliers in passes per game as a rookie, but he did so at just 45.5 per game. Only two teams in the NBA that season were led by a player who passed less frequently: the Los Angeles Clippers, who were also starting a rookie point guard in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and the San Antonio Spurs, who run one of the NBA’s most egalitarian offenses. The Cavaliers took on Sexton’s identity by ranking 24th in passes per game, but more distressingly, by assisting on only 8.3 percent of their total passes. Only the Knicks assisted at a lower rate, and Sexton, at just 6.5 percent, was one of the primary problems. He rarely passed, and when he did, it wasn’t leading to effective offense.

But playmaking is one of the slowest skills to develop in primary ball-handlers. That was Devin Booker’s fourth season, and he averaged virtually the same number of passes (45.6) over more minutes per game. Though not a point guard, Jayson Tatum followed that arc. Only 5.8 percent of his passes as a rookie turned into assists. He was up to 9.5 percent last season. Though neither Booker nor Tatum are traditional point guards, both grew meaningfully as playmakers with time. Sexton was on a similar trajectory pre-injury. In his third season, 8.9 percent of his passes turned into assists, and he averaged a career-high 49.2 passes per game despite sharing point guard duties with Darius Garland. Sexton may not ever be a typical point guard, but he can grow into an acceptable playmaker as a high-usage ball-handler.

Playmaking growth among those less inclined towards passing tends to be fairly linear. Defense is much more of a wildcard. Some players get it. Some don’t. Thus far, Sexton hasn’t. Avert your eyes, because his defensive metrics are truly unpleasant to behold.

D-RAPTOR

D-LEBRON

Defensive Real Plus-Minus

2018-19

-5.5

-4.28

-5.28 (dead last among PGs)

2019-20

-4.6

-2.03

-1.79

2020-21

-2.9

-0.87

0.08

The glass here isn’t half full. If you’re looking for the “glass still has a few sips left” perspective, it’s that there’s quantifiable improvement here. He’s still a poor defender, but he’s gone from truly abhorrent to garden variety bad. Progress counts! Effort isn’t really the issue anymore. He was always a high-motor prospect, and his physical tools are quite good. He moves well laterally and pairs his underwhelming height (6-1) with a respectable wingspan (6-6). But at his size, he’s extremely limited in who he can defend (mostly point guards and spot-up shooters). He’s never going to be able to switch or offer much as a help-defender and he really struggles to navigate screens. There is a cap on how good he can be defensively, but he can certainly be better than he’s been.

Booker is another great example here. His defensive numbers were as ugly as Sexton’s early on. He’s grown to something like average in recent years. What changed? Age, for one. It takes time to fully grasp everything that’s happening on the floor. Team culture was another driver of Booker’s growth. Phoenix’s dysfunction in his early years was well-documented. Monty Williams cleaned all of that up. If the 2010s Suns had an Eastern Conference equivalent, it was the pre-Evan Mobley Cavaliers. Sexton has played for four head coaches in four years. Nature may limit Sexton somewhat, but he hasn’t exactly been nurtured as a defender either. In a more stable environment, there’s certainly room for improvement. He doesn’t need to be a stopper. He needs to get to where Booker is now: fine.

Sexton is on the right track in regard to these weaknesses. His medical situation is a bit fuzzier. Tearing a meniscus can be a tricky injury. Lonzo Ball tore his meniscus as a rookie with the Lakers. He’s struggled to stay healthy since, and last season, he suffered another meniscus tear. Zion Williamson dealt with a meniscus tear as a rookie as well, and while his recovery time was truncated, Robert Williams III struggled through the injury during the postseason. No two players and their recoveries are going to be identical, but meniscus injuries are often followed by further issues. To some extent, Sexton is a medical risk. The risk vs. reward calculus will vary from team to team, but based on the offers Sexton hasn’t yet received, teams seem to be underestimating the possible reward here.

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What makes Sexton so potentially valuable?

Scoring a lot of points is hard. Scoring a lot of points efficiently is harder. Scoring a lot of points efficiently early in your career is perhaps the single hardest thing to do in all of basketball. There are few greater barometers of future stardom than that, and Sexton checks all three boxes. Only 16 players have ever scored 24 points per game on 57 percent or better true shooting before turning 23. Sexton is one of them. The other 15 all went on to make All-NBA Teams. You’ve probably heard of most of them. Michael Jordan. Kevin Durant. Luka Doncic. And a player we keep coming back to in this story: Booker.

Sexton isn’t as good as Booker. He might never be. His offensive skillset just isn’t as diverse. But don’t his critics sound an awful lot like Booker’s did earlier in his career? Once upon a time, Booker was considered a ball hog. His defense was lambasted. It was somehow his fault that he’d never played on a playoff team. And then, the moment he was given a playoff-caliber coach and a contending-caliber roster, he made it all the way to the Finals. Is it so hard to believe that something similar could play out for Sexton in the right setting?

It shouldn’t be. On a team with very little supporting infrastructure, Sexton managed to score in the most important ways a player can. He was one of just 33 players to make 200 shots in the restricted area during the 2020-21 season, but only eight of those players were traditionally guard-sized. Among those eight, only Damian Lillard and Zach LaVine shot a higher percentage from 3-point range than Sexton’s 37.1 hit rate. His 34.7 percent free-throw rate that season beats any year of LaVine’s career and all but the best of Bradley Beal’s.

Will Sexton ever be a Chris Paul-level mid-range master? No, and he’ll probably never be able to weaponize his drives as a passer in the way that players like James Harden have either. In that sense, the highest level of on-ball offense is probably not available to Sexton, and he should be paired with another high-usage teammate who can make tough shots down the stretch and shoulder a bit of the playmaking burden himself. All this tells us is that Sexton probably won’t win an MVP or lead a championship team in the near future. But that next level down, the area where guys like Beal and LaVine reside? That’s not exactly a likelihood for Sexton, but it doesn’t feel like an unreasonable level to aspire towards, either. He’s hitting many of the same markers that Booker once did. If he’s healthy, there’s no reason to believe he can’t compete for an All-Star slot in the right setting right away. The better question is whether or not he’ll be able to find that setting.

So where is Sexton going to end up? Where should he?

Only two teams currently have the cap space to make Sexton an offer beyond the mid-level exception. The Indiana Pacers almost certainly won’t with Tyrese Haliburton, Chris Duarte, Bennedict Mathurin and Buddy Hield already crowding their backcourt. There’s a real argument in favor of the San Antonio Spurs doing so. Who is their lead ball-handler going to be next season? Keldon Johnson? Tre Jones? This is likely by design as the Spurs try to tank for Victor Wembanyama, and if San Antonio is at all worried about Sexton making it harder for them to lose, their hesitance would make sense. But without the Spurs and Pacers in the picture, things get a lot more complicated for Sexton. He’d need a sign-and-trade to get paid, and there doesn’t seem to be one on the horizon. 

The Jazz have been rumored in a possible Mike Conley swap, but like the Spurs, the Jazz will almost certainly be trying to lose next season provided they’ve traded Donovan Mitchell by opening night. Eight teams are already hard-capped by virtue of using the non-taxpayer mid-level exception: the Grizzlies, Timberwolves, Thunder, Magic, 76ers, Trail Blazers, Kings and Wizards. Some of these teams have more space under that hard cap than others, but it’s another obstacle for possible Sexton suitors to consider. Any team that acquires a player via sign-and-trade becomes hard-capped. Many of the more expensive teams, like the Warriors, Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, Nets, Celtics and Suns, are simply too far above the roughly $157 million hard-cap line to feasibly consider such a move.

There’s one more team in that range financially that makes a bit more sense. Wouldn’t Sexton be a nice replacement for Jalen Brunson? Dallas could make the money work by sending out Spencer Dinwiddie, Davis Bertans or Tim Hardaway Jr., none of whom served essential roles on last year’s Western Conference finals roster. Doing so would probably cost the Mavericks a first-round pick, and Dwight Powell might need to be included to squeeze Dallas underneath the hard cap line, but Sexton would immediately become the most accomplished perimeter scorer that Luka Doncic has ever played with. He lacks Brunson’s playoff resume, but his 2020-21 self was better than Brunson has ever been in the regular season.

It would take a creative move like that to get Sexton to a winner next season. The far likelier outcome here is that, without a better offer on the table, Sexton takes his one-year, $7.2 million qualifying offer from Cleveland knowing that it would make him an unrestricted free agent next summer. At that point, perhaps San Antonio will be a bit more interested in improving and want to give him some of its cap space. There will be plenty of other cap space teams to choose from as well, but with an uncertain role on a Cleveland team that now emphatically belongs to Darius Garland, there’s no telling what will happen to Sexton’s value in the next 11 months. He might be in line for the contract he deserves. Or we might be discussing the same underwhelming offers he’s mustering now.

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