It’s now NBA free agent season, which means that we get to now discuss how badly teams overpay for every single player that signs other than LeBron. Nate Duncan recently made a good post about the remaining FA’s: once the stars land, there is a lot of money to be allocated to not many good players. This is how it always is, and it’s why everybody always seems so overpaid. Teams are basically filling their roster gaps by dumping whatever money they have on whoever is available, and the bang per buck is often uninspiring.
My feelings are that it is exceptionally difficult to find a worthwhile deal in the $3M-$10M AAV range. There are some situations where it makes sense, as I agree with the consensus that the Warriors signing Shaun Livingston was a good idea since they are so close to contention, and the move is especially good if it’s a prelude to a Klay Thompson for Kevin Love deal. They need somebody to fill out the backcourt minutes, and having it be Livingston instead of Steve Blake or Jordan Crawford is worth the $5.3M AAV for a team in their position.
Take the other signings: Ben Gordon 2/9 (lol), Jodie Meeks 3/19, CJ Miles 4/18, Avery Bradley 4/32, Marcin Gortat 5/60. Even forgetting the baffling Gordon signing, Meeks, Miles, Bradley, and Gortat would fill up half of a single team’s cap space without providing a world of talent. Suffice it to say that if the other half was filled with similar players, that team would lose many games the following season.
On average if you fill up a high % of your cap with mid-tier FA’s, it’s not going to result in a strong team. The Hawks seemed to somehow be incredible value hunters last offseason, as their starting playoff lineup of Teague/Korver/Carroll/Millsap/Antic nearly knocked off the Pacers in a 7 game series after costing a total of $27M of cap space on the open market. But Millsap, Korver, and Carroll were arguably the three best value signings of the offeseason, so the Hawks are an anomaly and they were still < .500 relying entirely on non-elite free agents.
I believe Danny Ainge is a good drafter, good trader, and makes good coaching hires. These are the qualities that make him an overall good GM, but he doesn’t do that well in free agency because he targets too many mid-tier players. In 2012 he spent $25M/year on 3-4 year commitments for Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, Jeff Green, and Brandon Bass. They didn’t provide a world of help, as the Celtics finished 41-40 with aging Pierce and Garnett as comfortably their top two players and the pricey signings providing limited assistance. Collectively those players wouldn’t have even formed a great 2nd unit, and they were even selected by a comfortably above average GM.
Thus far my favorite move of this offseason has been Masai Ujiri trading John Salmon’s partially guaranteed contract for Lou Williams’s expiring deal and Bebe Nogueira. Atlanta gained just $4.3M of cap space, and Toronto got an expiring who isn’t much worse than the multi-year MLE signings and a free prospect on the side. Bebe has good tools for a center and has good stats in the ACB, the toughest European league. He seemed like great value at 16th overall and he is the type of player I would love to add for a small slice of cap space. The crazy thing is that Salmons had a $1M buyout, so any team with $5.3M+ of cap space could have one upped the Raptors and taken on the same package for air. Think about this: a single season of Jodie Meeks cost $2M more than a single season of Lou Williams…and a free mid-1st rounder on the side! Further you are required to commit to Meeks for two years beyond this one, which I perceive as a clear negative. And people don’t even hate the Meeks move that much!
Unfortunately opportunities to scoop up Bebe on the cheap are few and far between, and teams have to spend their money on something. If I was a GM, I’d diligently avoid mid-tier signings unless I felt the value was stellar along the lines of the deals the Hawks found last offseason. I would try to commit as few years and as little money as possible to fill out my rotation. If I was going to commit multiple years to a player, I would strongly prefer that I be committing to his 24-28 age span rather than his 30-34 age span. And if I was going to overpay, I’d do it on the best players I could attract rather than the middling players who fit the best. The best example of that this offseason is Gordon Hayward. While he’s a RFA and the Jazz can match any offer he receives, there is some doubt as to whether he’s good enough to merit a max.
Hayward is 24 years old and in my estimation a good player. He can handle, he can pass, he can shoot, and he works well as a secondary ball handler who can space the floor and create offense for himself and others. As far as I am aware he’s a decent defensive player (I am not a serial Jazz watcher), which means that there isn’t a significant cost to getting his offense on the floor. His 13-14 stats may not be stellar, but he was asked to carry the offense for a horribly coached, tanking team. Further his 3p% fell far below his career norm in which almost assuredly is due to poor variance and/or poor offensive environment. I expect his stats to take a clear step forward next year, especially if he lands with a good coach such as Jeff Hornacek or Brad Stevens. He is already a top 50 or so player and with minor improvements for season to season he could easily be top 30 by the end of the contract. Taking up 25% of the cap at the cost of no assets is not an expensive price to pay in a league where the 5 starters and the coach are what drive almost all of each team’s success.
This becomes especially true for a team like Philadelphia. Their roster is filled with cheap rookie contracts and they need to unload a huge chunk on something. Imagine if they maxed Hayward and outbid the Pacers’ 5/44 offer for Lance Stephenson (say 4/50). Their starting 5 would be MCW/Lance/Hayward/Thad/Nerlens. If Brett Brown can coach, that team is making the playoffs in the East. Granted, they could use a genuine center to fill out the rotation, they do have this Joel Embiid guy to eventually fill that role. And because Hayward and Stephenson are so young, they should get better in lockstep with the other young players. Philly doesn’t need to tank again, they don’t need to sell off Thad. They have a million 2nd round fliers to eventually become solid bench players, and rounding out the rotation with mini-MLE and vet’s min players isn’t the worst thing in the world. If just one of Embiid or Nerlens stays healthy and becomes good, that team may become unbeatable down the line. Their defensive potential would be absolutely stellar and that’s without any of their starters having an Avery Bradley level of limited box score stats.
The same goes for a team like Boston, who is loaded with rookie contracts and future Nets’ picks as cheap value and trade currency.Hayward is great for any team transitioning from tank to respectability.
When you are micro-analyzing bench players, the difference between the 200th and 250th best player in the league may seem immense. But in reality, it negligibly impacts the bottom line. Talent is valued on an exponential curve, so the value is all packed into the top end guys. Even though Gordon Hayward at $15.8M/year seems insane compared to LeBron at $20M/year, that’s because maxes are silly and broken for the super studs. Once you constrain to what is accessible for most, what is truly insane is Jodie Meeks at $6.3M/year compared to Hayward at $15.8M.
The optimal way to fill out your bench isn’t to pay a premium for your first choice of role player, it’s to get better at identifying the best players available for cheap. Sam Hinkie has tried to build his bench by overloading on 2nd round picks. The Spurs are constantly pulling players such as Danny Green, Patty Mills, and Boris Diaw off the scrap heap and turning them into legitimately good role players. It’s fairly amazing that the team that destroyed the Heat in the finals had that many players who were available for free once upon a time on top of not having a true superstar. Today they signed undrafted free agent Bryce Cotton to a partially guaranteed 2 year deal, and I like that move much better than jumping into the MLE donation party.
The bottom line is that the NBA salary curve is broken and teams could gain an edge if they pay attention to the inefficiencies. Thus far most of the early signings have failed to do so. Even if the overpays are the standard, they remain suboptimal and I take little issue with annual declarations of fringe players being overpaid as they always are.