Shopping for Unrestricted Free Agents

Teams often turn to the NBA draft to change their fortunes.  A few days ago, Erich Doerr provided a wonderful analysis of how much talent teams will find at the end of this June. Although there does appear to be some players who can help next year, it’s important to remember one basic fact about NBA rookies: Most rookies suck!!!

“Suck”, by the way, is a technical term often employed by economists for resources that do not perform up to expectations. 

Okay, I just made that up.  But Seth Stevenson at Slate.com did provide a wonderful defense of this word, and I think it does apply in this case.

Given the inability of rookies to consistently make much of a contribution, teams might turn to other places to find talent.  And one of those places is the free agent market.

The Unrestricted Free Agent Market

According to ESPN.com, there are 100 unrestricted free agents available this summer (included in this list are free agents with early termination options, player options, and team options and I am going to pretend all of these are actually available).  Of these, 58 appeared in at least 41 games this past season and also averaged at least twelve minutes per game (which means 42 did not meet these minimum thresholds).

Table One reports how well each of these players performed with respect to Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] and NBA Efficiency per 48 minutes [NBA48]. 

Table One: The Unrestricted Free Agents of 2008

NBA Efficiency -as The Wages of Wins argues – is not a great measure of actual productivity (despite being highly correlated with Game Score and PER). But NBA Efficiency is a very good representation of how talent is perceived (by both the media and NBA insiders).  In contrast, WP48 is connected to team wins.  But it’s not as correlated with player salaries and the voting for post-season awards. In sum, each measure gives a different perspective on performance and can be thus used to determine which free agents are likely to be overpaid or underpaid.

Before we get to that subject, though, let’s start at the top.  At the top of Table One we see a name that’s likely to be worth what he’s paid.  Shawn Marion is the top unrestricted free agent in terms of NBA48 and WP48.  So although he will help somebody next season, he may not be much of a bargain. This same story also applies to Antawn Jamison and Baron Davis. 

Looking a little further down the list we see DeSagana Diop, Bonzi Wells, Michael Ruffin, and James Posey.  Each of these players is ranked as above average in WP48 but below average in NBA48.  So unlike Marion, Jamison, and Davis, each could be a bargain.  Of course, Wells, Ruffin, and Posey are 31 years old, so if these players are a bargain, it may not be for long.

Searching for bargains is not the only issue in the free agent market.  Teams also want to avoid over-priced players.  And at the bottom of Table One we see some players are probably going to command more than they are worth.  At the top of the list of overpaid players is Jermaine O’Neal.  A few days ago I noted that J. O’Neal was the most overpaid player in the NBA this past season. And although NBA Efficiency indicates he’s still a productive player, WP48 tells a different story.

Table Two: The Career of Jermaine O’Neal

That specific story is told in Table Two. Table Two is an update of a table I posted last January.  And with this table I noted the following:

When we look at O’Neal’s career we don’t see a major star.  His career WP48 is above average, but a mark of 0.143 (prior to the 2007-08 season) pales in comparison to the top players in the game.  Still, O’Neal has generally been a good player and he did lead his team in Wins Produced for three seasons.

What makes O’Neal “good” is his ability to get rebounds and block shots. Shooting efficiency, though, has been a consistent problem.  Except for the 2002-03 season – again, his best year – O’Neal has always been below average with respect to getting his shots to go in the basket.

And this season the inefficient scoring issue has worsened. In addition, O’Neal is now below average on the boards.  As a consequence, his overall productivity is now well below the average mark.

As noted, these were my words in January.  And these are the same words I would say about O’Neal today.  With respect to shooting efficiency, rebounds, steals, and turnovers, J. O’Neal is below average.  So although he’s still taking and blocking shots, his overall contribution is below par.  Consequently, if J.O’Neal departs Indiana – or Indiana pays to keep him – it’s likely J. O’Neal will be paid more than he is worth.

O’Neal is not the only player who will be potentially overpriced.  Stromile Swift, the second pick of the 2000 draft, has never produced as much as his draft position suggested. For his entire eight year career he has only produced 13.3 wins [with a 0.060 WP48].  His career NBA48 of 23.8, though, exceeds the average mark of 22.2.  So it’s possible that another team will take a chance on Swift (and once again be disappointed).

Looking at Those That Didn’t Play

Table One only considers free agents who played significant minutes in 2007-08.  What of the 42 free agents who didn’t play in 41 games (and/or 12 minutes per game)? 

Topping that list would be Elton Brand and Gilbert Arenas.  Brand is 28 years old and a veteran of nine NBA season.  Due to injury, he only played 274 minutes in 2007-08 [with only a 0.058 WP48].  In his career, though, he has produced 107.2 wins and posted a WP48 of 0.219.  If Brand is healthy in 2008-09, he can be a player that pushes an average team into contending status (or a below average team like the Clippers back to average).

Like Brand, Arenas has also been hurt.  Unlike Brand, though, Arenas is not quite as productive as people seem to believe.  For his career he has produced 47.1 wins with a 0.140 WP48. Yes this is above average.  But hardly worth the maximum contract Arenas was demanding before he got hurt.  So Arenas may not be a bargain.

For those still searching for bargains, consider the names Trevor Ariza and Chris Andersen. The merits of the latter I discussed last March.  As for Ariza, his career WP48 stands at 0.163 and he is only 22 years old. 

Of course if you don’t like young players, Dikembe Mutombo is once again available.  Once again Mutombo stepped in for an injured Yao Ming and performed extremely well.  In 619 minutes he posted a 0.271 WP48, a mark that is well above average.  Of course, Mutombo is also past 40 years of age.  So if you wish to see a free agent actually log major minutes on the court, Mutombo may not be your man.

Let me close by noting one last old guy.  Brent Barry – who I labeled “The Better Barry” last March — is also listed as an unrestricted free agent.  He posted a 0.215 WP48 this past season and could probably help someone in 2008-09.  Of course Barry could have helped someone besides the Spurs this past season but refused to leave San Antonio.  And this was after the Spurs traded him to Seattle.  So Barry will probably not leave this summer either.

Okay, those are my thoughts on the unrestricted free agents.  Next week I hope to look at the restricted class.  And that examination will address the question: Who made a worse decision last summer – Luol Deng or Ben Gordon?

- DJ

The WoW Journal Comments Policy

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.

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