On Ersan Ilyasova, the Milwaukee Bucks, and a Long-Term Contract


Should Ersan Ilyasova get paid?

Ilyasova is going to be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and one of the top questions facing the team is the decision on whether or not to re-sign him to what should be a pricy deal.  Ersan, who struggled through concussion issues as part of a disappointing 2010-11 campaign, has outperformed nearly every expectation of him this season in a prototypical ‘contract year’.

Is he a one-year wonder?  I’m not sure, but he certainly had one wonderful year.

Take the list of every season for every NBA player. Going back to the 1979-80 season — when the three-point shot was added — there have been approximately 10,000 player-seasons (i.e., think roughly 325 NBA players per year times 32 seasons).

Now take that list and cut it down in three steps.

1)  Eliminate players who shot less than 48% from the field.
2)  Eliminate players who shot less than 44% on three-point attempts (or made fewer than 10 three-pointers).
3)  Eliminate players who grabbed fewer than 16% of available rebounds when on the court.

Who’s left?

2012 Ersan and no one else.

Here’s a list of players/seasons who have made 45% of their field goals, 40% of their three-point field goals, and grabbed 15% of total rebounds (min 25 three-point field goals):

1Kevin Love2010-1122MIN73261148210268821111121476.470.41723.6.210
2Ersan Ilyasova2011-1224MIL60165529459751112529782.492.45517.6.185
3Larry Bird1979-8023BOS8229556931463581438521745.474.40616.0.182
4Donyell Marshall2003-0430TOT82298847010201313258081205.461.40315.5.167
5Troy Murphy2008-0928IND7324823647671613588611041.475.45019.1.165

Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table

That’s not the only way to spin Ersan’s surprising numbers.  Truman Reed pointed out that Ilyasova is on pace to become the first NBA player of his era to average 12 points and 8 rebounds in less than 28 minutes per game.  No players have accomplished that feat since Robert Parish and Arvidas Sabonis pulled it off back in the 1990s.

David Aldridge of NBA.com also noted that Ilyasova is 11th in the league in double-doubles and that he should win the league’s Most Improved Player Award.  In my mind, three players passed the ‘eyeball test’ when it comes picking this year’s award winner:  Avery Bradley, Nikola Pekovic, and Ersan.  Any of them would make deserving winners of the league’s fuzziest award category.  But if Ilyasova didn’t improve as much as the other two, it was only because he didn’t have as far to go.  Ersan improved his shot selection and his three-point touch, but he was already a viable NBA player on both ends prior to this season.

Ilyasova helped the Bucks in other ways besides shooting and rebounding, too.  For the 2011-12 seasons, the category of ‘charges drawn’ is no longer an official NBA statistic.  But according to Hoopdata.com, Ilyasova is third in the NBA in charges drawn with 36.

It’s a familiar Ersan tactic.  As an opponent starts a drive, Ilyasova slides into position, arms crossed, eyes fixed at a point low in the distance.  He braces, takes the contact, falls backward, and more often than not, a refs blows a whistle and vigorously points down to the opposite end of the court.

Is it flopping if you get hit and make zero attempt to stay upright? Honestly, who cares?  The combination of footwork, effort, and disregard for one’s body merits a call when done properly.  And it will transform into a more potent weapon when/if he plays in a Bucks’ uniform beside a competent defensive NBA center.

He can score efficiently, he can rebound, he can defend, but there are plenty of things Ilyasova can’t do — and it’s those flaws that have Milwaukee fans hemming and hawing on whether or not Ersan should be brought back with a higher price tag.

Fans of the Bucks already know the limitations, and most of them have to do with the fact that he doesn’t directly create offense:  no low-post game, nothing off the dribble or in isolation.  According to Synergy.com, Ilyasova failed miserably in both of those situations (although, to his credit, he knew enough this year not to try them very often.)  In isolation, he made 8 of 20 attempts and turned the ball over 17% of the time.  In post up situations, he converted a dreadful 6 of 16 attempts and  booted the ball away via turnovers a staggering 21% of the time.

So on offense, he’s not a #1 scorer and most likely not a #2 scorer, either.  Is being an elite #3 scorer enough to merit a big contract?

If there is a cautionary tale, it lies in the career trajectory of Troy Murphy.  Like Ilyasova, his two main weapons were an accurate shot and the ability to rebound.  Like Ilyasova, he contended for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award in 2002.  (He finished 3rd. Speaking of cautionary tales, his teammate Gilbert Arenas was the winner that season.)  So what did Troy Murphy get for his first, big payday in 2004?  A six-year, $58 million extension that sat like an Gheorghe Muresan-sized albatross over the rest of his career.  Ilyasova won’t get that.  (Or will he?!? Ilyasova is more athletic, has a better three-point shot, and is better on the offensive glass. Gulp.)  The NBA of 2004 operated under a vastly different set of market rules than the NBA of 2012 does.  At least, I think that’s the case.

One last reminder:  if the Bucks want to sign Ilyasova, they won’t only have to outbid their NBA counterparts.   Ersan has suitors all over the world, and if the price is right, he may take an offer overseas.  As he said earlier this season in an interview with Hoopsworld:

“When I look at it I have to remember that it’s a business. Some teams overseas wanted to buyout my contract but I wanted to finish this season in the NBA. This is where I want to be right now, but we will see what happens in the future. Financially, whoever pays me more will be the team that I decide to sign with.”

There was a point during the last days of the lockout where Ersan was saying that he wanted to stay overseas, his Turkish coach was making the same point, and I was sweating the fact that he might not make it back to the Bucks.

I hope there is a FIBA rule which would allow me to play the season in Turkey and Efes to keep me. We will fight for TBL and Euroleague. Our goal for the season is to reach the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four in Istanbul. 

Many international teams would have the added advantage of presenting Ilyasova with a package of financial incentives that would bypass a lot of the tax burden he would see here in the United States — making it easier for them to compete with the NBA on a smaller budget.

When the 2010-11 season ended, Ilyasova was a young, 23-year-old player struggling in the NBA with health issues, playing time, and living away from home.  He was ripe to be plucked away by a FIBA team.  The lockout further opened the door to him leaving.  He had one foot out of Milwaukee, to be sure.

Many factors have reversed course for Ersan since then.  He finished his first truly successful NBA season, albeit on a team that only crept up marginally in the win column. Team chemistry improved — especially following the Jackson/Bogut trade. Scott Skiles’ playing rotations remained a mystery, but for Ilyasova, the issue of playing time only arose in a few scattered occasions.  The circumstances surrounding Ersan’s long-term prospects in Milwaukee have gotten better.  But the main question in Ilyasova’s eyes still looms.

Will the Bucks be the highest bidder?