A Tale of Two Free Agents

By Kevin Pelton
For Hoopsworld.com
Sep. 21, 2002

Seattle SuperSonics forward Rashard Lewis and Los Angeles Clippers center Michael Olowokandi are tied by Wednesday free agency deadlines. For Lewis, it was the Sonics telling him to “take or leave” their offer of $60 million over seven years, tired of waiting for Lewis to decide between them and the Dallas Mavericks. Olowokandi too has failed in his attempts to get more money out of the Clippers, leading him to declare that if he didn’t get a long-term deal by Wednesday, he’d accept Los Angeles’ tender offer of slightly more than $6 million over one year and become an unrestricted free agent next season.

The deadline worked as the Sonics had hoped, convincing Lewis that their current offer was the best one he was going to get. He returned to Seattle Tuesday night and came to an agreement on a seven-year deal by Thursday morning. Olowokandi’s Wednesday deadline has come and gone without any deal -- long- or short-term -- with the Clippers. (There is still some chance of the two sides agreeing on a long-term deal.)

However, I’m not so much interested in discussing the negotiations both players have had this summer. Instead, what interests me is how the two players -- and, perhaps more importantly, their teams -- have been perceived by fans and the media.

While the $60 million the Sonics offered Lewis was far less than most observers -- and, more importantly, Lewis -- expected and led him to explore alternatives in Dallas and Houston, the attitude of many fans was mirrored by SportingNews.com’s Sean Deveney, who criticized Lewis in arguing that the Sonics would be better off without him. The Clippers, meanwhile, have been chastised as being cheap for not giving Olowokandi a long-term contract starting in the eight figures.

Perhaps most ironic in the comparison between Olowokandi and Lewis is the complaint that Lewis -- who averaged 16.8 points and 7.0 rebounds per game while shooting 46.8% from the field -- is being paid on potential. Meanwhile, no such complaint has been made about Olowokandi, whose numbers paled in comparison (11.1 points and 8.9 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3%, granting that he did block 1.8 shots).

Indeed, Olowokandi’s entire career seems to have been based on potential. The Clippers drafted him first overall over such talents as Vince Carter and Paul Pierce despite the fact that Olowokandi played inferior talent at the University of the Pacific in the hopes that he could harness his athletic talent and became the next big thing at center.

To say he’s fallen short is an understatement. Olowokandi’s 11.1 points per game last season were a career high and the first time in his career he averaged double figure scoring. However, this improvement was not due so much to any actual improvement (his field-goal percentage dropped from 43.5% to 43.3%, though his free-throw shooting did improve from 54.5% to a still-inadequate 62.2%) as to simply shooting more in his contract year. Olowokandi’s shot attempts per game went from 8.6 per game to 11.1 per, a 28% increase that is almost entirely responsible for his scoring increase. (And is hypocritical in light of Olowokandi’s comments last April that his teammates were more concerned with stats than playing as a team because of their uncertain status.)

Olowokandi also set a career-high in rebounds per game last season, going from 6.4 to 8.9 per game. However, his average of 13.3 rebounds per 48 minutes was only a slight improvement on his career rate of 12.7.

That makes comments like Deveney’s all the more confusing. In his mailbag yesterday, Deveney wrote, “When Olowokandi was drafted, Elgin Baylor was asked how long it would take before he started reaching his potential. Baylor said four years, and here we are in Year 4, and it looks like Baylor was right.” While aesthetically, Olowokandi did look better last season, it would be difficult to tell he’s improved from his rookie years by looking at the stats.

Olowokandi’s scoring efficiency has gone from 44.0% to 45.3% since year one, with a career rate of 45.2%. His rebounds per 48 minutes have gone from 13.4 to 13.3, with a career rate, as noted, of 12.7. Olowokandi hasn’t cut his turnover rate, going from 3.2 per 48 minutes to 3.3, with both marks slightly better than his career average, 3.4 per 48 minutes. To his credit, Olowokandi has improved his passing, nearly doubling his assists per 48 minutes from 0.9 to 1.7, and is a better shot-blocker than he was as a rookie, going from 2.1 blocks per 48 minutes to 2.7. There is some improvement there, but enough to justify claiming that Olowokandi has started to reach his potential? Hardly.

Much credit for Olowokandi’s improvement has to go to the 23 games he played during the months of March and April, when Olowkandi averaged 16.5 points and 9.6 boards while playing 38.2 minutes per game. If this final stretch of games is indicative of what Olowokandi will bring to the table next season and beyond, maybe he is worthy of a contract close to what he’s supposedly looking for. However, he wouldn’t be the first player to happen to step up his game just before becoming a free agent only to see that improvement dissipate with a long-term guarantee at hand. Additionally, think just how bad Olowokandi was in the first four months of the season for those final 23 games to bring him to only a slight improvement over his rookie season (here’s a hint . . . through 59 games, he was averaging 8.9 points per game, precisely the same as his rookie season).

All in all, a long-term deal for Olowokandi at major money seems like an awful gamble that I wouldn’t take myself. The Clippers shouldn’t allow themselves to be swayed by fears of being called cheap if they determine not to pay Olowokandi. Fortunately, they’ve shown little sign of caring about public opinion so far.

Then there’s Lewis, with whom the consensus seems to be that he has peaked -- at age 23. To be sure, Lewis’ ratios haven’t shown much improvement since year two, when he broke out, either. His scoring efficiency has gone from 53.9% to 55.9% (both numbers, of course, dramatically better than anything Olowokandi has ever done) and his rebounds per 48 minutes have dropped from 10.2 to 9.2. Lewis has cut his turnovers and improved his free-throw and three-point shooting, but the 2002 model is not appreciably different than the 2000 model. Like Olowokandi, however, Lewis set career-highs in per-game stats thanks to playing 36.4 minutes a game, more than twice what he played during the 1999-2000 season.

Which of these two players, then, would I regard as a better bet to improve next season and beyond? Olowokandi has potential and his strong close to the season in his favor, but Lewis has already demonstrated the ability to improve as a pro, going from a perimeter liability during his rookie season (and even, to some extent, in year two) to one of the league’s best spot-up shooters. As well, Lewis, who entered the NBA out of Alief Elsik High School, is four years younger than Olowokandi, who is already 27, not far from the statistical peak for NBA players.

The argument Deveney was quoting Clippers GM Baylor on was that Olowokandi will be a proverbial ‘late bloomer’ because he got a late start in basketball while growing up in England. After four years of college basketball and four years in the NBA, however, I would believe that any ‘catching up’ Olowokandi has to do has already been completed. Foreign big men like Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo were stars during their rookie seasons, let alone by year four. It’s unlikely that Olowokandi will be appreciably better in his career than he already is.

I don’t expect dramatic improvement from Lewis either, but I think his game will become more rounded in coming years as he spends more time playing with the ball in his hands and learns to score off the dribble and in the post. The departure of ballhog Vin Baker will free up possessions for Lewis, and it’s not inconceivable that he could average 20 points a game next season.

So if Lewis has achieved more during his career and has more potential, why on earth is Olowokandi considered the better free agent? The obvious answer is that Olowokandi plays center, the toughest position in the NBA to fill. After all, the thinking goes, if unproven players like Calvin Booth, Jerome James, Todd MacCulloch, and Marc Jackson can get the median exception, what does Olowokandi deserve? I’d agree that none of the players is as talented as Olowokandi. But players like Booth and James can provide as much, if not more, on the defensive end and on the glass. On offense, they are not necessarily skilled but also not as trigger-happy as Olowokandi. Are the Sonics really doing that badly to be getting both Booth and James for less than the amount Olowokandi will likely command?

Part of it too may be backlash from Lewis’ comments; in January, he infamously compared himself to Kobe Bryant and established that he expected a maximum contract. While Olowokandi may be looking for a similar contract himself, he has avoided such costly public comments. However, I question whether this public image is really reflective of the players’ true characters. Lewis has been a model citizen and fit in well with his teammates in Seattle, while Olowokandi seemed distant last season and also had a run-in with the law during December 2001 when he was arrested for domestic abuse.

Then, of course, there’s the question of how free agent coverage has affected fans’ opinions of Olowokandi. While Lewis has been repeatedly listed as one of the top free agents, Olowokandi has been called the best overall -- and no, I’m not sure how -- by many columnists.

Lastly, there’s the assumption that whenever the Clippers decide not to re-sign a player, it’s because of money -- and therefore not right in terms of basketball thinking. Unfortunately, the Clippers are to the point that they’ll necessarily be second-guessed if they let Olowokandi go even if it makes sense. The same is not true of the Sonics, who were generally supported by fans in negotiations with Lewis.

In the end, there’s only one thing I can conclude from a comparison of Lewis and Olowokandi, and it’s an important thing to remember. In the NBA, as in politics, perception may be more important than reality. Olowokandi is perceived as the rising star, Lewis the greedy maxed-out secondary player, and what is really the case isn’t that important.

Kevin Pelton is the Lead Editor for the Pacific Division of News@Hoopsworld.com. He can be reached via e-mail at kpelton@sonicscentral.com.