Free agency's best point guard, Kyle Lowry, agreed to a 4 year, $48M deal to return to the Toronto Raptors yesterday, ending speculation that he might supplant Dwyane Wade as Miami's third best player. It's another interesting datapoint to toss onto the heap of mid-to-upper tier point guards in the league today, a group that comprises Jrue Holiday.
Here's a list of point guards, listed by the richness of current deal, and tiered by my arbitrary ratings system. Older players (Calderons, Nelsons, Nashes) aren't listed here since the variability of their skills/discount deals, etc. is relatively unpredictable.
Player: Years/Dollars in Millions
Tier 1: Max/Franchise Players
Tier 1.5: Max/Franchise Players that weren't maxed
Tier 2: Borderline All-Stars
Tier 3: Good Starters
Tier 4: Mediocre Starters
Tier 5: Current Rookie Deals, Future Tier 1/2/3/4s
Jrue Holiday's Deal
Holiday ranks right in the middle of Tier 2 -- borderline All-Stars that could make the Game in any given year and that, in a good year, could be the 3rd or 2nd best players on legitimate contenders. We can debate endlessly as to where guys rank within that tier, based on defensive contribution, shooting ability, shot creation volume, etc., but a lot of those individual rankings will ultimately depend on what each specific team is in search of. A team built on strong, pressing perimeter defense isn't likely to value Goran Dragic as highly as, say, Kyle Lowry, while a team that requires an ace 3-point shooter at lead guard isn't likely to value Kyle Lowry as highly as Jrue Holiday. It's all relative.
What can be instructive though is determining how often a player of this tier becomes available. In terms of just dollars and years, you'd be hard-pressed to make a case that Holiday is not worth his contract. He absolutely is, and one look at the above should settle that easily. Importantly though, the team gave up a #6 (Nerlens Noel) and #10 (Dario Saric?) for his services. Whether that was worth it is just as important a question as whether his contract is a good one.
Tier 1 guys are, of course, never freely available. Half the league spent the larger portion of two years attempting to wrest Chris Paul out of New Orleans before the Clippers finally succeeded. The same will go for Kyrie Irving, Russ Westbrook, John Wall, and Steph Curry as they near the ends of their respective first max deals. Not only can we say they're very, very expensive to acquire, but also, the majority of teams can never acquire them, even if willing to pay the price, because the players themselves are elite enough to wield significant leverage.
Tier 2 guys don't hold the same leverage, obviously. It's interesting to look at the fates of exactly how each Tier 2 guy on the list arrived on his current team:
Tony Parker: San Antonio, via Draft
Parker just won his 4th Finals, but he's almost been moved on multiple occasions. The most recent was in 2011, when San Antonio considered moving him for the 5th or 7th overall picks (eventually Jonas Valanciunas and Bismack Biyombo). It's worth noting that Parker was about to turn 29 at the time, and San Antonio believed they had his future replacement already in place in George Hill. It's also worth noting that the deal obviously didn't happen, so a 5th overall pick for a 29 year old Tier 2 guard wasn't enough.
Kyle Lowry: Toronto, via Trade for Gary Forbes, 12th Pick
Daryl Morey dealt Lowry to Toronto, arranging the protections on the incoming draft pick such that Houston would be guaranteed a lottery pick. That pick eventually turned into #12 overall (Steven Adams), conveyed to Oklahoma City in the James Harden deal, part of a meticulously crafted long-term plan by Morey. It's worth noting that at the time of the deal Lowry was coming off a season with Houston that eclipsed Holiday's best with Philadelphia.
Ty Lawson: Denver, via Draft
Lawson didn't receive nearly as much attention as expected during his restricted free agency, but Denver's deal with him still ended up being one of the most expensive in this tier. It's tough to say what the asking price would be for him currently, but Denver likely wasn't letting him get away at any cost (up to the max) at the end of his rookie deal.
Mike Conley: Memphis, via Draft
Conley's a fascinating case because when he signed his 5 year/$40M extension in November 2010, he was decidedly not a Tier 2 guard. At a 13.9 PER and 25% assist rate in the previous year, Conley looked decidedly like a Tier 4 guard, but Memphis clearly knew what they were doing. With Conley, the question moves from whether he could've been had at the time of his extension via trade to how many teams, Pelicans or otherwise, would've even had the foresight to not only grab him but to outpay the team that developed and knew him best.
Goran Dragic: Phoenix, via Free Agency
Dragic is the best deal in this tier and could've easily been had by any team that decided to pay him a salary befitting players in his value range; Phoenix underpaid him by about $10M over the life of his deal. Part of that was foresight on their part, but a lot must be ascribed to the general ignorance of league-wide talent evaluators; in the prior season, Dragic posted an 18.0 PER, 111 ORtg, 33% assist percentage, while suffering what appeared to be a temporary dip in 3P% at least partially induced by career-low assisted percentages by teammates.
Jrue Holiday: New Orleans, via Trade for 6th pick, 10th pick
Of those players acquired by new teams, it's clear that Holiday was the most expensive player in the tier. Parker, Lawson, and Conley weren't acquirable. Kyle Lowry was, and it took one late lottery pick to get him. Goran Dragic was, and it took nothing to get him. We could throw Jeff Teague into the mix here as a high Tier 3, maybe Tier 2 guy in the future as another player that could have been acquired for free (transactionally speaking).
But there are really two important takeaways here. The first is that Holiday was expensive in relative terms. That's undeniable to me in general terms, and especially so if you like Nerlens Noel as much as I do. Nonetheless, the second point here is probably more important than the first: Tier 2 guys are much rarer in availability than we generally think. Exactly two Tier 2 point guards have been available in the last half-decade. Two Tier 3 guys (Jennings, Teague) have been available as well, but whether you're willing to drop quality at point guard is a question for another discussion. Over the next five years, four guys look poised to break into Tier 2 (Bledsoe, Walker, Thomas, Burke). Not all will make it, and it's exceedingly unlikely that Phoenix, Charlotte, or Utah are letting any of their guys walk. That leaves one Tier 2 possibility in Thomas, and if we factor in his defense, he may not be a Tier 2 guy at all.
Yes, But What of the Draft?
This is ostensibly the forgotten question. If you're not trading for them or signing them, can't you just draft them in the first place? After all, I rank 14 players in Tiers 1 and 2; that's enough point guards to populate half the league. Isn't simply drafting players a cheaper, smarter option to acquiring these guys rather than overpaying in assets for them?
Well, not really. There are a couple complicating factors here.
For one, as much as the draft is panned as a crapshoot, every single Tier 1 point guard was taken at least in the Top 4. Three were taken #1 overall. The Pelicans have Anthony Davis on the roster; barring obscene luck -- not a bankable strategy by any means -- the team wasn't drafting in the Top 4 ever again the day they drafted Davis.
The second is that the teams that did draft Tier 1 or Tier 2 guards either played the lottery many, many times (Washington, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Boston, Golden State) or got very, very lucky with late picks (San Antonio, Houston, Denver) either in terms of unheralded players excelling or heralded players dropping. For a team with a legitimate superstar already on the roster, playing draft roulette to acquire a decidedly difficult to acquire position that also happens to most facilitate development of said superstar is... unwise. Dell Demps recognized a Western playoffs window opening almost the day we saw Davis step on an NBA floor, and it can't be emphasized just how steep the drop is from Tier 2 to Tier 4 (D. Collison level players).
New Orleans ultimately paid more than other teams have paid to acquire players of Jrue Holiday's caliber. The more important bottom line though is that four teams (four teams!) have acquired Holiday-level or better players either in free agency or via trade in the current age of point guards (Paul, Williams, Dragic, Lowry). They're rare. One became available last summer, and the Pelicans moved quickly.