Grade the deal: Bucks learn from past, extend John Henson in sound move

The Milwaukee Bucks gave John Henson the same extension they gave Larry Sanders: four years, $44 million. Although the two players have similar stats, they couldn’t be more different. 
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The terms might look similar and the underlying motivations might be the same, but the Bucks are surely hoping their rookie contract extension with John Henson ends up looking a lot different than the one they gave Larry Sanders just two years ago. In fact, it already does.

Milwaukee has reportedly inked Henson — a long-armed, defense-first center — to a four-year, $44 million extension that could be worth up to $48 million. If those numbers sound familiar, that’s because Sanders, also once a skilled back-line defender, raked in the same early-extension payday with a similar spread in incentives in 2013.  

Remember, though, that an NBA dollar in 2015 is not the same as an NBA dollar in 2013: Sanders’ $11 million average annual salary represented 17% of the 2014–15 salary cap, while Henson’s same $11 million average annual salary will represent just 12% of the 2016–17 salary cap, assuming that it comes in around $90 million as expected, when it starts next year. While any contract that pushes past $10 million-per-year territory still generates a certain degree of sticker shock, the difference between those percentages — Henson’s 12% and Sanders’s 17% — is vast. Given the new salary cap climate, Henson isn’t actually being compensated like Sanders was, as an established starter and Defensive Player of the Year candidate, but rather as a valuable rotation big man.

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For comparison’s sake, a big man would need to earn $8.4 million this season to receive an equivalent 12% of his team’s 2015–16 cap. That’s well above the mid-level exception, of course, but hardly star money. Sacramento’s Kosta Koufos ($33 million over four years), Minnesota’s Kevin Garnett ($16 million over two years), and Detroit’s Aron Baynes ($20 million over three years) are among the frontcourt players who signed contracts this summer for a similar cap percentage as unrestricted free agents. There’s little doubt that Milwaukee, or any team, would prefer the 24-year-old Henson over any of those players from now through the 2019–20 season when his rookie extension will end. This conclusion speaks to the inherent value that can often be found in reaching early extensions with developing players and suggests that, once the new salary cycle goes through another round or two of unrestricted free agency, Milwaukee will look like it did quite well for itself in this negotiation.

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Sanders makes for an interesting comparison point on the court as well. Henson and Sanders received their extensions on the same timeline: both spent three years in college and three seasons in the pros before receiving their extensions as they prepared for their age-25 seasons. Sanders clearly received more fanfare than Henson did in their respective third campaigns, in large part because he emerged as a full-time starter, but their contributions weren’t all that different on a per-minute basis.

Here’s how their per-36 minutes numbers and other advanced stats compare:

Sanders (2012-13): 12.9 points, 12.5 rebounds, 3.7 blocks, 50.6 FG%, 18.7 PER, 98.8 Defensive Rating

Henson (2014-15): 13.8 points, 9.1 rebounds, 4 blocks, 56.6 FG%, 18 PER, 97.6 defensive rating

Their profiles have far more similarities than differences. Both players received extensions at least partly on faith, as they didn’t average 28-plus minutes in any of their first three seasons and had somewhat modest per-game numbers (Sanders averaged 9.8/9.5 and Henson averaged 7.0/4.7 after averaging 11.1/7/1 in his second season). Both players are incredibly productive shot-blockers with a demonstrated ability to improve a team’s defense. Both project as complementary, paint-crowding options on offense. Sanders was certainly more ferocious and intimidating than Henson, who has made progress filling out but still has a ways to go, but he was also clearly more volatile ( … a lot more volatile).

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The biggest difference between the two, other than temperament, is their role in Milwaukee’s roster-building cycle. Whereas Sanders was viewed as a foundational piece and ultimately proved to be miscast as a leader, Henson is simply a cast member. The arrival of Greg Monroe, who will be the focal point of the Bucks’ interior offense, makes Henson a cast member. The blossoming of 2014 No. 2 pick Jabari Parker, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton will make Henson a cast member. Henson’s 12% salary slot makes him a cast member, once the economics play through league-wide. 

To pull these strains together, it’s fair to say that Milwaukee’s risk here is significantly lower than it was with Sanders: Henson doesn’t have Sanders’ off-court red flags, he isn’t being asked to do too much, and he is making far less percentage-wise. While Sanders seemed to possess more individual upside at the time of his signing and while the Bucks are surely hoping for growth in Henson’s game, the franchise’s future doesn’t hinge on it, like it briefly did with Sanders.

For these same reasons, it’s hard to imagine, barring a serious injury, that Henson will ever be hit with the “untradeable” tag that followed Sanders during his multi-year implosion. The same teams that felt this summer they needed to spend to acquire the likes of Koufos or Baynes would theoretically be interested in trading for Henson midway through this deal, when he’s still in his mid-20s and capable of being an athletic, impact-making interior defender who is willing to be flexible when it comes to his role.

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Even if one is skeptical of Milwaukee’s ability to build on its success from last year, and the departure of multiple veterans make a step back possible, the Bucks’ long-term planning looks better than it has in a long, long time. The Monroe/Parker/Antetokounmpo/ Middleton core is awfully promising, and locking up Henson while Parker and Antetokounmpo continue to play on cost-controlled rookie deals makes all the sense in the world.

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After enduring the Sanders debacle, the Bucks deserve credit for getting right back on the horse. If ever there was a player who would make you hesitant to commit big money to an unfinished product, it would be Sanders, who got in a nightclub fight, received drug suspensions, launched public debates over the ethics of marijuana and ultimately received a costly contract buyout. But had the Bucks been scared away from extending Henson early, they very easily could have faced a situation where he received an offer sheet that was too rich for their blood in restricted free agency next summer. Why spend all year worrying about pitches to keep Henson or contingency plans to replace him when there’s a reasonable solution right in front of you?

Milwaukee did well to avoid compounding the mistake of a poor investment in Sanders and missing out on a potentially sound, fairly safe investment in Henson.

Grade: B+