A few weeks ago on ESPN's studio show, Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons called Chandler Parsons "almost untradable," which struck me as an interesting construction worth looking at further. There are a few things about Chandler Parsons worth noting.
1. He makes $2.7 million through 2014-15. That's just plain mean.
2. He's somewhere between the second and fourth best player on the Houston Rockets' roster.
3. Despite spending a long time in college, he's only 24. After his current contract expires he has a solid four years of expected prime left.
4. He's a classic role filler: an athletic wing who can get out in transition, a decent deep shooter, a good passer and fair rebounder. I honestly can't tell much of anything about Houston's defense, so I'd rather not judge him there. I don't think he's terribly good, but that's a soft anti-endorsement.
All of that adds up to create an enormously valuable player, thanks primarily to points No. 1 and 2. A legitimate superstar on any contract -- like a Kevin Durant or LeBron James -- will always trump that; you'd trade every Chandler Parsons you could get your hands on if it meant landing a true superstar. And that definition of "true superstar" is pretty malleable -- if you want to set it at the top 3 percent of the league, your All-NBA teams have your true superstars. You can get tighter or looser at your pleasure.
Then there are the potential stars on their rookie contracts. Kyrie Irving might qualify as a true superstar already, but a guy like Ricky Rubio would fall under this category. No one's trading Ricky Rubio. You could also include John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Kentucky!) on this list. These players produce, have massive potential and are relatively cheap. Wall, a former No. 1 pick in his third year, makes right about the NBA average salary ($5.9 million). That's a danged steal no matter how underwhelming his career to date has been. When you consider his potential to be a superstar, clearly, it's very difficult to trade him without getting a fantastic asset in return.
It's here after those two groups where we can place our cheap blue chippers. With Parsons I'd add Eric Bledsoe, Avery Bradley, pre-back surgery Jared Sullinger, Kenneth Faried ($4.9 million total through 2014-15), Greivis Vasquez and, generously, Kevin Seraphin. A fella like Larry Sanders is either here or in the above category. In a brighter world where Keith Smart played his best players the most minutes, Isaiah Thomas ($1.5 million through 2013-14) would be here, too. Draymond Green is a fringe case. Membership is fluid.
How do you get players like this?
1. Draft well for production (offense and defense both count) in the late first and second round. Parsons was old for a draft prospect. But he came in and produced. The same applies to Faried: everyone knew his strengths and limitations. Guess what? Both translated, and the strengths ended up producing a lot of value. On Bradley and Bledsoe, that's plain ol' good drafting. Both are valuable because of defense, but have the athleticism to do some things will the ball. The scouts from the Celtics and Clippers saw that and made good choices.
2. Structure those second-round contracts well. The keys: as long as possible (four years in the maximum) with as many team options as possible. The standard is a four-year deal worth no more than what the No. 30 pick overall makes with nothing guaranteed after Year 1 or Year 2. Parsons being locked up for four years on minimum salary is almost criminal. (And brilliant.)
3. Keep and/or buy those late first-round picks. A ridiculous number of good to very good players come out of that range. Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson and Jeff Teague went back-to-back-to-back from Nos. 17-19 in 2009. Taj Gibson went No. 26 that year. You had Bradley, Bledsoe, Seraphin, Trevor Booker and Vasquez outside the lottery in 2010. Kawhi Leonard (who I'd call a star on his rookie deal at this point), Iman Shumpert and Faried were outside the lottery in 2011. There is almost nothing to justify trading away a late first-round pick for cash. If you're doing that, you're being shortsighted or you lack faith in your scouts to find the right gem. We can almost guarantee the gem exists. You just need to find it. And no team is 15-deep with talent. You can make a roster spot.
Why are these players so valuable, anyways? Because their low-cost production allow you to overpay in other areas. The Rockets would probably prefer to pay Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik less. But having Parsons under contract through 2015 for such a cheap price allowed Daryl Morey to splurge a little on critical positions. For a capped-out team like the Celtics, having blue chippers like Bradley and Sullinger allows the roster to remain competitive without breaking into the $80 million level. It's just like anything else. If you have a cheap mortgage, you can afford a higher car payment. A guy like Eric Bledsoe is like a screaming deal on an apartment. You don't want to give that up unless you're getting something really great in exchange.
Of course, there are times when exuberance over cheap blue chippers can go wrong. Witness the case of Rodrigue Beaubois. Before the 2011 NBA Championship triumph, Rick Carlisle had trouble using Beaubois a whole lot. When he did find time for him, the world watched in amazement. A lightning bolt scorer, Beaubois looked like a star in the making. But he couldn't get on the court amid Carlisle's veteran squad. The Dallas front office went as far as to say that only Dirk Nowitzki and Beaubois were untouchable; you even had the Mavericks reportedly declining to trade for Carmelo Anthony because Denver wanted to include Beaubois.
And Beaubois ... never developed. He's still in Dallas, still not playing a whole lot, still young, still cheap as all get-out but his star has faded. In retrospect, perhaps Dallas should have traded him when his value was sky-high. He makes $2.2 million this season, and if Dallas elects to extend to him a $3.2 million qualifying offer, he'll be a restricted free agent in July. If not, he'll be unrestricted, meaning that there's a possibility that after all that hype the Mavericks will have gotten nothing out of him and nothing for him. Staying in Texas, DeJuan Blair is another example: a brilliant second-round pick who was awesome as a rookie and ... who has pretty much flatlined. He'll stick around the league a while, but his value is marginal at this point.
So perhaps the lesson here isn't that you should not trade your cheap blue chippers, but that you should leverage their cost-effective production for 1-3 years, let the hype build as everyone realizes what a good deal they are and then flip them ... unless, of course, they have that star potential. Bradley and Bledsoe might. Parsons, Sullinger, Seraphin and Vasquez likely do not. Faried is so ridiculously productive that trading him would be too risky. In the end, the decisions need to be weighed like any other, and good front offices will do this better. But the lesson of Parsons is to use those non-lottery picks instead of selling them off, and to look for players who can be productive early, and to keep a reasonable mind about their long-term potential and trade value.