Return on Investment: FA Class of ’16

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Free Agency is a bit like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get. 2016 was no different, but holy crap did it feel crazier than normal. The boost in revenue meant that the salary cap skyrocketed. Cap space materialised seemingly out of thin air. All of a sudden, every team had money to throw at a decent player. And throw they did, to the tune of an estimated $3.68 billion across 151(!) players.

The effects of this were quite a shock to the system. The highest ever contract, highest valued 3 year contract ever, Timofey Mozgov’s contract…players were getting paid. Free Agency is always a guessing game, but sometimes you’re playing Eye Spy with your 2 year old nephew and sometimes you’re playing Pictionary with your in-laws. Some players like Durant take about 1 millisecond to assess whether he’s worth it. Players like DJ Augustin might and should take longer.

Despite the changing environment, GMs around the league still had to be wary of the new landscape. Value is still important, especially when the cap increases lessen from here on out, now that the initial influx has hit. Players earning more than ever before means expectations are higher than ever before. The performance of the 2016 crop of FAs can effect the next wave of players who might have similar strengths/weaknesses in their game. Performance matters more when you are getting paid more.

So, here at The Four Point Play, David and Xander asked themselves – who is living up to or exceeding expectations? Who is providing value for money? How can we accurately measure value in the New NBA?

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What we decided on, was attempting to compare all the players who signed this off-season and pitting them against each other to evaluate the outliers. Good and bad. Above you can see every Free Agent signing from the summer, with their total salary ($$) and the number of years they are contracted for. You will also notice an index number (#) which will help you locate them on at least one of the five graphs below. Minutes, Usage, VORP, PER and Win Shares (all defined here) have all been plotted on individual graphs against each players average annual salary in order to illustrate how they are faring against their competition.

Like most NBA fans, we had a good idea of who we thought was faring well and who was faring poorly so far this season. However we wanted to know what picture the cold hard data painted and the results are all below. The horizontal axis is constant throughout as the player’s average annual salary in millions, whereas the vertical axis changes dependant on the variable being tested. The two axis cross at the average value for each variable being tested and the data was collected after the Dec 31st NBA games. Here are some names we jotted down before we started;

David: I’ll be keeping an eye on guys who have surprised me for one reason or another while watching games. Guys like Ish Smith, Sean Kilpatrick, Eric Gordon, Kent Bazemore, Bradley Beal, James Johnson and Jon Leuer.

Xander: It’s fun to see who is playing – and contributing in their time on the floor – after inking their deals. Signees who are touted as missing pieces can fall flat, low key signings often pay huge dividends. Players to watch for me are Parsons, Speights, Solomon Hill, Evan Turner, Dwight Howard and LeBron James.


MINUTES PLAYED

Firstly, a look at all 150 signed players we collected data on and their minutes played. The average salary among the entire player pool was approximately $7.8mil and the average minutes a tick under 540. The thin red line indicates the 400 minutes (Ellington scrapes in) minimum cutoff we placed for the remaining graphs. If a player is below the line and listed in red in the chart above, they don’t appear again. So say goodbye to Dirk, Parsons, Mahinmi, Boban, Lin, Plumlee and Bayless after this. 

David: Eric GordonBoban Marjanovic
Eric Gordon got paid a fair bit of money for a guy with an iffy health record but is so far repaying the faith with his best season since ’11/’12. If he stays healthy that deal could wind up being one of the best. On the other hand, big Boban also got a fair bit of cheddar on the back of a relatively patchy recent sample size. He is also healthy but can’t get on the court to prove he’s worth the outlay.

Xander: Maurice Harkless & Chandler Parsons 
It’s quite fascinating looking at the contrast in these 2 small forwards. Harkless has been available basically every game and is playing 30min per night, averaging career highs across the board. I don’t think people would dispute Chandler Parsons is a better player when healthy, but he has struggled big time when on the court so far, which has been a rarity in itself. Considering Harkless costs $54mil less than Parsons, I would say the minutes gap is a glaring disparity.

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USAGE PERCENTAGE

Now we have our smaller sample size of contributing players this season and the average salary moves up over $10mil. Whilst a look at minutes will weed out all the unhealthy players and those sitting at the end of the bench, Usage Percentage can help illustrate of those playing who is a key cog in lineups. No surprise to see the likes of Derozan, James, Conley, Durant & Beal leading the way. 

David: Dion WaitersNic Batum
Usage percentage isn’t everything and the Waiters/Batum combo are here to illustrate that for you. As you can see below, Waiters comes in with a significantly higher usage rate than Batum but keep an eye on their numbers (68 & 138 respectively) as you scroll through the graphs. You will see that one trends one way as one goes the other, Miami is getting the quantity while Charlotte keeps the quality.

Xander: Andre DrummondSolomon Hill
Is anyone else surprised Drummond has the highest usage of all the signed centres, especially with the ball handlers he plays with? Whilst Drummond is having a down year, part of that may be due to Stan asking him to use the ball more than ever before. He needs to expand his game now that he is on a max deal, elite rebounding will not be enough. Solo on the other hand is a reflection of how things have gone south for him in his first season in New Orleans. 2nd lowest usage in our sample size, for $12.5 million per as well. That’s a lot of money for someone who is putting up the worst per36 numbers in his career.

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VORP

Now into the nitty gritty advanced statistics, the first being Value Over Replacement Player. This complicated formula is a great measure when evaluating how good a recent signing has been. LeBron & KD’s top scores below are the clear outliers of the Free Agency pack. The average VORP score at this time was just 0.3, achieved by Solomon Hill and Courtney Lee. The largest ever VORP score record is by none other than Michael Jordan at 12.0.

David:  Al HorfordRyan Anderson/Matthew Dellavedova
Boston, Houston and Milwaukee all went into the Free Agent frenzy with glaring holes in their rosters and a need to spend big for what they needed. Horford is an example of that working tremendously for the Celtics, filling a hole at PF/C and scoring top 5 in VORP so far. Anderson and Delly on the other hand are examples of the output not quite living up to the input so far. Anderson’s $20mil per is producing average results, in the top 5man lineup for Houston but missing from the next best 4. While Delly got paid to be a starter and has lost his job already due to the exact kind of theory VORP works off. Malcolm Brogdon, on the minimum, took his job.

Xander: Kevin Durant & Evan Turner
There are some deals you look at and think, yep you HAVE to make that. Durant is one of those types of deals. The advanced numbers point out a story of efficient dominance. Despite costing an arm and a leg (and a bench), Durant has been worth every penny. Evan Turner? Hmmmm maybe not. When you provide less value than random player x, and the average annual salary cost is $5.2 million, you start to daydream about what you could do with an extra $12 million…per year.

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PER

Free Agency is all about maximising your investment. Player Efficiency Rating is a surefire way of measuring how much you screwed up or hit the jackpot. Taking in everything a player is doing right on the court and subtracting everything they are doing wrong gives you that answer. A reading of 15 is ‘average’ and this sample our average sits just below that. The usual suspects score well but so do Johnson, Powell, Lee and Gasol.

David: Mo Speights & Kent Bazemore
The Clippers and Hawks were at opposite ends of the July money train. There is no bigger disparity to illustrate this than the PER/$$ difference of Speights and Bazemore. Speights is currently getting you a PER score that’s the same distance above the average line, as Bazemore is getting you below it. All while being paid the Vet Minimum compared to Kent’s $17.5mil average.

Xander: Dwight Howard/Dewayne Dedmon & Joakim Noah
Hands up if you thought Dwight would creep back towards pre back injuries Howard? Now keep them up if you thought Dewayne Dedmon would offer a reasonable facsimile at less than one tenth of the price? Both big men have been much better than expected, and statistically are relatively similar. Which begs the question: at their current costs, who would you rather have on your team? The answer is “neither are Noah so they both win”. His PER of 15 is actually up from last year, but his minutes are down and his blocks per game and FT % are at career lows. But hey, at least he shows up for games.

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WIN SHARES

The ultimate Free Agency test; Win Shares. When you sign a player X, you hope they will directly benefit your wins. Win Shares will tell you how much a player has contributed to your win tally, both through offensive and defensive play. Durant contributed 7 wins out of a possible 29 for the Warriors in 2016, the average is around 1.5 and just one player over the 400 minute threshold has a negative WS total; Malcolm Delaney. 

David: Jon Leuer & Mirza Teletovic
From teammates on the Suns, to lucrative deals and now sitting at very different points this far into the season. Jon Leuer is an advanced stat poster boy right now, with more Win Shares than almost 30 guys making more money than he is per year. Mirza got a similar deal from the Bucks but is not even close when it comes to results. He sits in the lower bracket of Win Shares contributed, in this player pool.

Xander: Hassan WhitesideJeff Green
If you earn a lot of money, you are expected to contribute a lot to wins. Considering Whiteside plays for a team that had a grand total of 11 wins in ’16, his win share score of 3.7 is pretty good bang for your buck! Jeff Green on the other hand, well, not so much. Salary Cap manoeuvring and future flexibility aside, when you are paid $15 million in a single season, a score of 0.2 kind of speaks for itself.

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So what did we learn? Being available and/or playable is an important skill. Smart money suggests Washington would like $27.8 million to offer someone who could take the floor. They likely hoped it would go to Durant but instead they got Mahinmi, Nicholson and Smith. Not so smart money. Moves like that mean not even Beal’s data can save you from an average C grade in FA. How did we grade all 30 teams? We formulated our grades for each team using a formula from the data. We also considered contract length and % of the salary cap that is used, particularly to evaluate those under the 400 minute threshold due to health or benching.

Check out all 30 Grades in the index table back at the top of the article.

Final thoughts? LeBron and Durant are crazy good and worth more than they get paid for one. However, generally speaking when you spend $20mil+ per year you will get a solid player. Production in general costs, but it’s finding players like Dedmon or Leuer that prove to be difficult to predict. Ultimately, Free Agency is an expensive gamble, and so much of success comes down to fit. Nic Batum is a nice 2nd option, albeit an expensive one. If he was being asked to be a primary scorer like Barnes, he might be asking for more. The main takeaway though? Find a top 5 player and pay whatever it costs to keep them. They matter.

 

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