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Dennis Schröder and the incentives of a “prove it” season

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Dennis turned down big money to test the market. Long story short, he’s on a cheap deal with the Celtics now. What role does that give him and how will he embrace it?

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The incentives of a contract season have led to some of the most thrilling and terrible basketball I’ve ever seen. Remember when we thought Marcus Morris should make an All-Star team? Remember Terry Rozier hijacking the offense for 20 minutes per game? The range of outcomes here are miles apart, which makes it all the more interesting how well Dennis Schröder plays this next season.

Nerlens Noel has long been the name most closely associated with turning down money and never seeing a big payday. The bet-on-yourself gambit gets a bad rap because people tend to only recognize stories of failure. Reggie Jackson once turned down four years and $48 million dollars from OKC before getting traded to Detroit, where he then signed for five years, $80 million. Noel himself signed for three years, $27 million this offseason, which is both well earned, but well short of the four year, $70 million bag he turned down in Dallas.

Enter Dennis Schröder, who turned down four years and $84 million from the Los Angeles Lakers, to eventually sign with your Boston Celtics for the taxpayer mid-level exception for next season. We also got word that Dennis signed knowing full well that Marcus Smart was the team’s starting point guard:

What does that mean for Dennis’ contract season? Dennis hasn’t always been billed as a starter, so maybe it doesn’t matter. All I’d like to avoid is another situation where bench players who think they should be starters hijack the offense and create somewhat of a minutes distribution crisis.

Say what you want about all the Kyrie drama in 2018-19, but not enough was said about the guys who were really let off the hook as a result: Marcus Morris Sr. and Terry Rozier. I love watching both of these guys, but I’ll never get over how Jaylen Brown played less minutes per game in that season than the previous as Brad Stevens took on an impossible task of managing the egos of two players who wanted to get paid and another who just wanted to leave. It’s pointless to dredge up all the drama again, but we should note that Jaylen was losing minutes to a vortex of things that were at least partially avoidable.

Now, Dennis Schröder is not Terry Rozier. Doesn’t play like him at all. But forgive me if I’m at least a little bit hesitant to celebrate the “value” of having a Sixth Man of the Year candidate for $5.9 million who turned down a fortune to discover there was virtually zero suitors waiting to pay him in the offseason. Something about it just doesn’t pass the sniff test.

Of course, this video has more blocked shots than Semi Ojeleye’s entire 2020-21 season and for that reason alone, I’m happy to have a solid bench contributor on the team. Between Schröder, Smart, and Payton “too good for Summer League” Pritchard, the guard position looks to be outstandingly more consistent than last season. I’m higher than most on the Celtics for no reason other than they have some reasonable depth without the previously mentioned dilemma of having too many bench players who think they should be starters.

Still, the contract year is a powerful concept. Schröder will want to prove that he’s still worth $80 million and players generally play well during them. Yet, players betting on themselves often get burned and just cycle through “prove it” seasons over and over again. Neither of these ideas are new or foreign, but they uniquely impact Schröder’s situation in a way we don’t often see.

Not only do I hope he’s ready to buy into Boston’s system, but I hope Ime Udoka has a system in place worth buying into. It’s at least a curious position that Schröder signed up for: after starting all 61 of his games with the Lakers and rejecting a contract for starter money, can he regain that value on a team that isn’t offering him that opportunity? My best guess is it won’t be an issue, but I’m really stuck on the fact that Schröder got zero offers in the off-season where a bunch of role players got paid. It’s weird.

Now that the Celtics have signed Marcus Smart to a maximum extension, the hierarchy is clear. It’s already been established that Schröder signed with the knowledge that Smart would start, and Smart’s extension makes it pretty clear the franchise is committed to him. We can only speculate what Schröder thinks of his role, but at least we know the messaging has been consistent from the Celtics: Smart is the starter and Schröder is backing him up.