The Free Agent Market Is Buyer Beware, But Not Always
“Right now, I see the draft and trades as the best way to use cap space to rebuild or replenish with certainty. I am hopeful we can use free agency as well—time will tell. But it may be that having cap space is a bit over-valued in free agency.” —Ted Leonsis, on the thing about cap space.
That’s a bit of wisdom shared by the Wizards’ owner at a time when the contracts being thrown at some of the NBA’s available talent pool leave you scratching your head—it’s seems to be more about dollars than sense.
Restricted free agents Roy Hibbert and Eric Gordon are set to make max-contract money (nearly $60 million in Gordon’s case), though the teams they’ll be playing for are still in question. Crash Wallace, 29, will earn about $10 million per year as a member of the Brooklyn Nets. Wallace’s teammate Deron Williams, a stud, inked a five-year $98 million (!) contract.
Landry Fields has agreed to a $19 million (back-loaded) offer with the Toronto Raptors, which seems to disagree with his 12.79 career PER. To a certain extent, Fields’ contract is representative of the state of the free agent market, and, perhaps, the stakes in the chase for Steve Nash. There had been talks about Fields being sent to Phoenix in a sign-and-trade for Nash, but that backfired. Nash woke up on the right side of bed this morning, as a Los Angles Laker (with a $28 million payday).
And then there’s Jrue Holiday, who was recently added to the USA Basketball Select Team roster and is looking for a maximum contract extension—odd, considering his rookie contract runs through 2012-2013 and he averaged 13.5 points and 4.5 assists per game on .432 shooting last season.
“Just because you have available cap space, it doesn’t mean you can use it and grab the free agent that you so desire,” said Leonsis. “And usually when you do, you have to over pay in terms of dollars and length of contract.”
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In 1973, five years before the Washington Bullets won their first and only NBA championship, social scientists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber defined a class of challenges they termed “wicked problems.”
Wicked problems are problems like poverty and the lack of access to adequate, affordable healthcare. Wicked problems are messy and much more complex than most realize; they are countered by “tame problems,” those solvable problems which can be just as complicated, but are neatly defined, fully understood and fixed by technical solutions—problems like launching a satellite or developing a mobile system to combat counterfeit medicines.
Succinctly explained by Atul Gawande in the New Yorker, solutions to tame problems work or they don’t.
“Solutions to wicked problems, in contrast, are only better or worse. Trade-offs are unavoidable. Unanticipated complications and benefits are both common. And opportunities to learn by trial and error are limited. You can’t try a new highway over here and over there; you put it where you put it. But new issues will arise. Adjustments will be required. No solution to a wicked problem is ever permanent or wholly satisfying, which leaves every solution open to easy polemical attack.”
That sounds kind of like owning a sports team, regardless of the franchise model being followed, with the greatest challenge being the pursuit of a championship. The unanticipated complications. The steep learning curves. The intolerance for failure (“But Ernie Grunfeld is still here!” Wizards fans mutter).
The truth is that there are plenty of ways to build a championship-caliber team, but overpaying role players isn’t one of them.
“Unless you’re getting a star, or just have uncommon good luck, winning an open-market bidding war for an NBA player with a recognizable name is a classic way to hurt your team’s long-term prospects,” wrote ESPN.com’s Henry Abbott. “There are exceptions, but by and large those guys are bad contracts waiting to happen. Paying any of these guys anything like that would be somewhere between incredibly risky and a full-on mistake.”
How are we supposed to purposefully address such interdependent challenges? Simply: trying to succeed (while knowing that comparable “max-contract talent” can be had for far less.)
“Troubles do arise, but the reforms evolve, as they must,” said Gawande. “Adjustments are made. And, when people are determined to succeed, progress generally happens. The reality of trying to solve a wicked problem is that action of any kind presents risks and uncertainties. Yet so does inaction. All that leaders can do is weigh the possibilities as best they can and find a way forward.”
Unrestricted free agents hold all of the cards, wrote Leonsis in analyzing cap space in the NBA. The talent decides where to play and for how much. The truth is that not many of the players at the top of this year’s free agent class would be willing to play for your Washington Wizards … which is exactly why the the team looked to upgrade its frontcourt by trade.
“When you make a trade, it is certain that the player will come to your team and play. Nene is a great example of this dynamic with the Wizards [...] We are certain he is under contract and will play for us. Sometimes certainly—the bird in the hand—is worth more than uncertainty and options—two birds in the bush.”
This approach was applied in the pursuit of Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza, whose services—primarily defense, rebounding and competition—were acquired in exchange for a suit on the sidelines and an albatross in the bank (and, yes, Kentucky’s Darius Miller at pick No. 46). Nene has already been a critical addition to the roster. In time, we may discover that Okafor and Ariza have had a similar impact. And we may not. Either way, it’s a better alternative than having the franchise sit on its monumental hands, wishing fate would bring a legitimate max-contract talent to the nation’s capital.
“The best teams have a certain pattern in how they are built: They get meaningful minutes from cheap role players—many of those are on rookie contracts,” said Abbott. “The best teams, by and large, pay their top three players vastly more than $5 million each a season.”
“If their fourth-best player makes more than $5 million a year, though, chances are the team would love to ditch that guy. Almost never do teams built for the long haul pay their fifth- or sixth-best players as much as $5 million a season. Many of them get $1 million or less, and are not big-name players.”
Even so, you’ve gotta pay somebody.
The Washington Wizards have $46.75 million committed to five contracts. Franchise player, John Wall, is set to make $5.9 million next season. Nene will earn $13 million. Newcomers Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza will pull in a combined $20.75 million. And then there’s Blatche, who is on the books at a regrettable $7.1 million in ’12-’13.
The Wizards are probably overpaying for role players here. Such an approach seems to go against the mentality that “good teams pay stars,” but that’s OK for the moment. None of last year’s youngest contributors, Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker included, will earn anything close to the salaries of the players above—a million dollars and change, thanks to the rookie salary scale.
Jan Vesely – $3.2 million
Kevin Seraphin – $1.8 million
Chris Singleton – $1.55 million
Trevor Booker – $1.38 million
Jordan Crawford – $1.12 million
Shelvin Mack – $762,195
They’re a bargain, and so too is Bradley Beal, who will make about $3.5 million as a rookie. As such, the Wiz have the unique luxury of playing (and paying) good players at discount prices, while spending some of the remaining cap space on veteran role players with complementary skill sets. Nene, Okafor and Ariza’s “big, bad contracts” would hurt teams like the Thunder, Spurs or Bulls, but they’re a perfect fit in Washington’s books. The team is happy to pick up their tab for the next two seasons (if that long).
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“I heard a story once about a dud of a son, who wowed the whole family on Christmas by presenting his mom with a showy presentation of a high-definition big-screen television,” said Abbott. “Who knew he could afford such a thing? Who thought he would ever be so generous? Sure enough, a few weeks later it came clear that in fact he had not bought the television, but instead had made a down payment … while signing his mom up for the payment plan.”
The moral of the story, according to Abbott: “If free agency has an element of Christmas to it, it’s that kind of Christmas. The one that comes with a bill that stings for years.”
The Wizards—who look at free agency as a nuclear option—still have a wicked problem to deal with, but they’ve shopped carefully. A frugal approach to free agency is wise, because in the business of basketball, there are no money-back guarantees.