In 2016, money was flying around like never before in NBA free agency, as a cap jump saw teams flush with cash and yet to fully understand how to best use it. That led to some massive contracts for the lucky players who happened to be free agents that year, particularly role players who had excelled the year before.
Guys like Bismack Biyombo, Allen Crabbe, Chandler Parsons, Ryan Anderson, Tyler Johnson, Harrison Barnes, and Kent Bazemore all cashed in on massive deals thanks to strong seasons playing a particular role the year before. Those players eventually became cautionary tales for teams about the dangers of taking their massive amounts of cap space and investing them in long-term deals, which has led to teams being much more shrewd in similar situations, often offering big money on shorter deals to avoid ending up locked in to an albatross of a contract that mucks up the cap sheet for years to come.
I covered the Atlanta Hawks in 2016 and Bazemore’s 4-year, $70 million raised an awful lot of eyebrows as he suddenly was going from being a role player to being paid like a star, which brings the expectation of star production. Instead, Bazemore remained himself, which is a very solid and useful player, capable of filling gaps on the wing, bringing energy on defense, and working best offensively off the ball as a cutter and spot-up shooter in the corner. There is always a place in the league for players like that, but fans grow frustrated quickly with a player making a lot of money who isn’t producing to the expectation of a contract (or draft position in the case of lottery picks).
This isn’t the fault of players, who should always secure as much financial security as possible, but more an issue of teams not recognizing what makes a player successful and paying them with the expectation of something more.
I say all of this to lead into the situation Jerami Grant finds himself in with the Pistons, after inking a three-year, $60 million deal to leave Denver for Detroit. We don’t know exactly how negotiations went, but reports emerged after Grant chose the Pistons that the Nuggets had offered him the same deal but wanted him to continue playing the role that made him their third best player in the 2020 postseason, whereas the Pistons offered a larger opportunity, particularly on offense.
Grant chose the allure of a more prominent on-ball role, something he didn’t have at all in Denver. With the Nuggets last season, 100 percent (yes, ONE HUNDRED PERCENT) of his made three-pointers were assisted. Overall, 84 percent of his made baskets were assisted, per Cleaning the Glass. Since he came into the league, that percentage has never been lower than 73 percent. Thus far through the preseason, the adjustment to a larger role has been rocky.
The preseason sample size is admittedly small, but the trends that caused many to question the move by the Pistons to promise Grant a greater on-ball role have continued in Detroit. His usage rate has jumped to 27 percent (it was 16.1 percent a year ago) but his true shooting percentage has plummeted to 44 percent (last year it was 59 percent), and he has just two assists to go along with 12 turnovers. Pistons coach Dwane Casey addressed those problems Grant’s having on Monday and said something that was a bit eye-opening.
Dwane Casey takes some ownership for Jerami Grant's turnovers. He had 12, and just two assists. "It’s probably my fault not getting him in the right position where he’s not making turnovers, because he is one of the elite cutters, he is one of the elite shooters in the league."
— Omari Sankofa II (@omarisankofa) December 21, 2020
And here you see the dilemma facing the Pistons, who are quickly understanding what Grant is best at and what his weaknesses are, but are in the position of having apparently promised him a role playing more into those weaknesses and less to his strengths. Grant is exceptional playing off the ball and thrived in that role in Denver. He has become an excellent catch-and-shoot player, has terrific hands to catch and finish at the rim as a cutter, and is best when taking just a few dribbles to attack closeouts and step in for a rhythm jumper off one or two dribbles. What he’s not great at is being an offensive initiator, creating for himself and others off the bounce.
Beware of the Baze. That’s a warning to both teams and players. Understanding who you are as a player and where you’re going to be at your best is important and also requires a certain humility and willingness to be honest with yourself, a difficult thing in a profession that requires immense self-confidence. For teams, it’s about recognizing what someone is best at and figuring out how to get them to do that as often as possible, not pushing them away from that role just because they’re coveted elsewhere.
Bazemore never found that next step to take in Atlanta, partially because of a roster that quickly changed around him but also because that simply isn’t who he is as a player. In Sacramento last season, his third stop in as many years, he played well and showed the value he can still bring to a team in the role at which he excels. He’s now back in Golden State where he started his career and will be asked to do that again, bringing the energy off the bench and I would expect him to thrive in it. He’s a good player capable of helping a contender, just not of playing a starring role on one.
Jerami Grant is a better player than Bazemore, but faces some of the same problems. He’s an above average starting wing in the NBA, capable of raising both the floor and ceiling of a team as a two-way menace, as we saw last year in the Nuggets run to the conference finals. He’s not, however, a superstar and simply isn’t efficient as an on-ball playmaker, either for himself or others. It’s possible with more reps he’ll get there, but quite literally every trend and stat from his past suggests otherwise.
That sounds like a slight, but it shouldn’t be. Not everyone is a superstar and there’s a way to get in where you fit in and thrive, something Grant did in Denver. He is a tremendous, versatile defender with a smooth shooting stroke who spaces the floor and attacks soft spots in the defense off the ball. That’s worth a lot in the modern NBA, enough so that Denver was apparently willing to pay him $20 million to continue doing that for them. The problem is, now he’s in Detroit where he wanted an expanded role, one that he might not be best suited for, and it’s clear that the coaching staff is even recognizing the flaws in that plan just four preseason games into his tenure.