A crappy side effect of the NBA’s salary cap is it’s usually better business for your favorite team to have a cheap good player than an expensive one, so you are conditioned to think of cheap contracts for good players as “good” and pricier contracts for comparable players as “bad.” Sticking with that unfair binary, for a moment, it is safe to say Bobby Portis’s agent is not likely to have many admirers among Knicks fans for the deal he just got for his client in New York.
This is not to say that Bobby Portis sucks—well, it’s not to say it yet, anyway—but taken against contracts signed by comparable players in the first couple days of free agency, his deal, um, stands out. Portis will get $15.5 million next season, despite never having played for a good NBA team, and despite never having been a winning player. Taj Gibson’s deal to be Portis’s teammate on the Knicks will pay him $10 million next season. The Warriors retained Kevon Looney—the very respectable starting center on a Finals team—via a three-year deal worth a total of $15 million. Enes Kanter, who started at center for a Blazers team that made the Western Conference Finals, will make $10 million total on a two-year deal in Boston. Robin Lopez, Portis’s former teammate with the Bulls, agreed to basically Kanter’s same deal, but with the Bucks. Portis’s deal has a team option second year tacked onto it—a common feature for Knicks free agency contracts this summer, as the team positions itself for more cap space next year—but suffice to say the Knicks will be hard-pressed to get $15.5 million worth of value out of Portis in a league where Kanter is making $5 million.
There’s something instructive in the career arcs of Portis and Looney in particular. They were both drafted in 2015; they’re similarly earth-bound; and they’re both undersized by the traditional standards of NBA centers. Looney is a center because he hasn’t shown much three-point range or ball-handling ability—in any serious lineup in the modern NBA, if a forward is not a ball-handler and lacks three-point range, that forward is a center. Portis is a center because, though he has three-point range, he cannot hope to guard quicker players on the perimeter. He also happens to be a terrible rim-protector, but in the modern NBA a big man who can’t guard anyone along the arc is a center.
Looney was drafted down the board in 2015 by a title contender deep with superstar talent. On the one hand, this meant that his team could afford to be patient—Looney required hip surgery before he’d ever played an NBA minute—and could develop him into a specific, narrow role. On the other hand, at no point in his career has Looney ever been invited to stretch himself, eat up possessions, and try his hand at stardom. Looney didn’t become a rotation player until his third NBA season, but the Warriors knew more or less how they wanted to use him, and Looney had an idea what his job was supposed to be among his All-Star teammates. At the end of his rookie contract, Looney is viewed as a solid role player with limited potential.
Portis was drafted by the Chicago Bulls when their roster was going to shit and they were entering a rebuild. He’s played more than 2,000 more minutes in the NBA than Looney has, but exclusively for crummy teams. The Bulls cycled through players and lineups and identities, and Portis therefore had plenty of freedom—he attempted more shots in the 2017–18 regular season alone (811) than Looney has attempted in his entire regular-season career (654). It was a thorough enough look for Portis to be shipped off to Washington in exchange for Otto Porter in a salary dump trade; in Washington Portis continued to be n inconsistent but hyper-aggressive offensive player on a very bad basketball team. He is, right now, a replacement-grade goof. FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO projection system says the sum of Portis’s contributions to winning are worth something like $1.4 million a season, less than a tenth of what he’ll make next season and about $400,000 less than the minimum annual salary for someone with his NBA experience.
It’s funny how this works. Being on bad teams has given Portis a kind of opportunity that Looney has never had, but it’s also deprived him of certain other opportunities. For example, advanced stats are going to have a harder time with Portis, because it’s tough to be efficient and to win your minutes when your role is vague and you’re surrounded by bozos. It’s hard to shine as a center when the best point guard you’ve ever played with is late-career Rajon Rondo. On the bright side, Portis’s path through the NBA has created the perception that he might have some reservoir of potential that could be tapped by the right team, under the right circumstances.
The Knicks are in that tier of NBA teams where they have to pay a premium in free agency, because they suck. And because they were stiff-armed by their two primary free agency targets and thus denied the chance to pay for production, they find themselves paying a premium for what they hope is potential. It’s tempting to think of the Portis contract as just more Knicks bullcrap—for now it’s safe to assume it will wind up being more Knicks bullcrap—but it’s also an illuminating example of how doing business with bad basketball teams can help and hurt a player’s development arc. Portis’s new contract is a blessing and a curse—he’ll make $15.5 million next season, but he’ll have to produce quite a lot in order for the Knicks to consider picking up his team option for the following year, at that same price tag. If he falls out of their rotation early in the season, Portis could quickly become an expiring contract to be dangled in pure money swaps—not a desirable player on a reasonable deal, the kind of guy who could get moved to a playoff team ahead of the deadline, but a bad-money deal to be moved to a team looking to create salary cap space if the Knicks shift into asset acquisition mode. That’s a bottom-rung position in the NBA’s hierarchy.
Looney’s Warriors contract is also a blessing and a curse. He will be dramatically underpaid while he starts or plays significant rotation minutes for a playoff team, and it will take him three years to make as much money as Portis will make next season. But Looney will never lack for work. There is always room in the NBA for solid rotation guys on cheap contracts, and a quality big man with championship experience and a low price tag will be attractive to actual good teams for a long time. That binary will for a little while make Portis seem like a leech and Looney seem like a hero. A smart and well-run team got a bargain on Looney, and in doing so made him seem handsome and attractive. A bad and poorly run team paid a premium for Portis, and brought him one step closer to the chaos of negative-value. He’ll be well-compensated for this next phase of business with a crummy organization, but there’s always a price.