After three years on the near minimum salary of a second-round pick, Chandler Parsons got paid on Thursday. By agreeing to a 3-year $46 million offer sheet from the Mavs, Parsons leveraged restricted free agency to make himself one of the highest-paid players at the league at his position. Regardless of what team he will play for next season, he will be making All-Star type money. Whether or not he ends up being worth it will depend in large part on what type of role he will have in the offense.
Parsons averaged 16.5 points and four assists a game last season, but he didn't have that big a role in the Houston offense. He averaged 13.3 field goal attempts and had a usage rating of 19.3 -- Monta Ellis, by contrast, averaged 15.6 field goal attempts and had a usage rating of 26. With James Harden (16.5 FGAs and 27 usage rating) and Dwight Howard (11.3 and 24) dominating the ball, there weren't that many opportunities for Parsons. He was used as a primary option less than Jeremy Lin, who had a usage rating of 20.4 as the sixth man.
Like Harden two years ago in Oklahoma City, Parsons has all the signs of a player who could thrive in a bigger role. He shot 47 percent from the field and had an assist-to-turnover ratio of more than 2:1 -- this is not a guy who was making a lot of bad decisions with the ball in his hands. Parsons is a complete offensive player, with the ability to create his own shot off the dribble, stretch the floor from the three-point line and make plays for others. His efficiency would go down in a bigger role, but hopefully not enough to where it would be an issue.
One of the Mavs biggest selling points to Parsons had to be the bigger role he would have in the offense. There are plenty of shots to be had if Shawn Marion (nine field goal attempts), Jose Calderon (nine) and Vince Carter (10) all end up leaving. Just as important, Dirk Nowitzki is 36 and looking to cut back on his playing time and some of the burden of carrying the offense. With Dirk looking to step back and elongate his career, there's room in Dallas for a younger player like Parsons to take a step forward.
For all of Marion's strengths as a player, he's not a guy whose going to create a lot of offense for himself or others at this point in his career. Parsons, in contrast, could play a much bigger role next to Dirk in the half-court. They could run him off screens, do a two-man game from the 3 and 4 positions and use Dirk as a spot-up shooter when Parsons attacks the rim. The idea would be that the Mavs' new $15 million man could average 20 points and make a run at an All-Star berth.
Parsons may not be able to thrive in a bigger role and his ceiling may end up being as a good but not great secondary option. However, from his perspective, as a guy whose already proven the league wrong before, why wouldn't he be supremely confident in his abilities? That's why the idea of him taking even slightly less money in order to help Houston build a contender was always highly unlikely -- that's not what 25-year olds do. Players take less money towards the end of their careers, not when they are just about to enter their prime.
By signing the Mavs offer sheet, Parsons is forcing the Rockets hand a bit. They have a max contract offer on the table for Chris Bosh and they would need to sign him to that before matching Parsons in order to use his Bird Rights to exceed the cap. However, even if they can maneuver the salary cap to get both while dumping Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin, they would still have a prohibitively high payroll going forward. The combined salaries of Harden, Howard, Bosh and Parsons would be around $71 million and getting higher every year.
In theory, the Rockets could go well into the luxury tax to keep their version of a super team together, but few teams outside the Brooklyn Nets have shown much of a willingness to do that. Given the economic structure of the modern NBA, it's hard to justify paying a fourth option $15 million a season, which is exactly the point of the contract Parsons signed. If Bosh was in Houston, how would Parsons ever be able to make an All-Star team? The Rockets would have to win 70+ games to have any shot at having four All-Stars.
If Houston wants Parsons to stay long-term, they have to commit to him as a featured option -- that's what this salary ensures. There's not a direct correlation between shot attempts and dollars earned, but salary size definitely impacts a player's position in the pecking order. Part of the reason the Mavs can afford to give Parsons $15 million over the next three years is that Dirk is only making $10 million. In other words, Dirk taking less money allows Dallas to sign players who can take the ball out of his hands and give him more of a secondary role in the offense.
The link between the distribution of shot attempts and the distribution of salaries is one of the mechanisms through which talent is shared throughout the league. That's one of the reasons why the Thunder just couldn't give Harden a max contract two years ago -- he was a sixth man averaging 10 field goal attempts a game in Oklahoma City. Pay him $15 million a year and he has to be a starter, where he would be taking the ball out of Kevin Durant's and Russell Westbrook's hands. Paying that many ball-dominant players, meanwhile, would create a very imbalanced roster.
Of course, Oklahoma City could have paid Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka and thumbed their nose at the luxury tax, just as Houston could do with a possible Big Four of their own. In that scenario, Parsons would be a role player paid an All-Star salary. If Bosh doesn't come to Houston and the Rockets match the offer, they would be committing to Parsons as a third member of their Big Three and counting on internal development to take the next step. In almost any scenario, whether it's in Dallas or Houston, Parsons winds up making more money, which means more shots and more touches too.