Thursday, May 3, 2007

What’s the Real Value of Free Agency?- By Adam Jungdahl

Come every spring we hear the same old rhetoric from NBA GM’s whose teams are headed back to the lottery: “we need to focus on building this team, we need to bring in some of this or that, we need to add one more piece in order to make a serious run”, and on and on about how their team has to acquire talent to improve their circumstances. The prevailing thought process here holds that a team should focus little upon the actions of other teams, only so much as if effects their odds at scoring a free agent. In this sense GM’s tend to focus on absolute gains by trying to acquire talent without regard to overall league activity, the primary concern being the accumulation of as many blue chippers as possible. Imagine, just for one moment, that your team’s GM chose to take a broader view realizing that each free agent loss by a potential opponent, be they a fellow division rival or perennial playoff adversary, improved your team’s chances of success. Thus, your GM approaches free agency through relative gains. The question then is how these different approaches would alter GM behavior. The divergent behavior between these two approaches it seems, would be in assigning values to free agents and potential trade targets.
Let’s take Chicago’s signing of Ben Wallace this past summer as an example. When the signing was first announced many questioned the massive contract Chicago was willing to fork over for an aging, undersized center with no offensive skills. Yet, this season the Bulls improved their record by eight games and advanced to the second round by sweeping a Miami team who bounced them out of the playoffs in six games last year. So in this sense Chicago obviously improved by acquiring Ben. More importantly, however, is how Detroit was effected. The pistons by contrast lost eleven more games this season and until the acquisition of Chris Webber languished behind Cleveland for the top spot in the Central. Now these two teams go at it this weekend, with the Bulls sporting a 4 time Defensive Player of the Year in the middle while the Pistons answer back with a bum-legged, Michigan has-been. The key point here is that Chicago may have over paid for Ben Wallace in terms of the production he’s given them, but he has been of even greater value than his numbers indicate, because his departure from Detroit weakened Chi-town’s chief divisional/playoff opponent.
Granted, this approach does not work in all circumstances, but it should be taken into account in certain situations. This summer we could see similar events play out with Milwaukee and Chauncey Billups. When assessing Billups’s value to the franchise, Milwaukee should take into account the chance to get an elite point guard but also an opportunity to severely wound a divisional foe and possible playoff opponent in the years to come. Thus, any massive contract the Bucks throw out there should be judged not solely on Billups’s contributions in Wisconsin, but also the demeaning effect it has on their neighbors across the crystal waters of Lake Michigan.

note: Adam Jugndahl is a special correspondednt for the NBA Guru.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post. It's very interesting to analyze off-season moves in terms of relative gain/loss even if there is no absolute gain/loss. However, this situation is so rare...

However, I have to disagree with your analysis. I wouldn't say Chicago "obviously" improved by getting Wallace, especially when taking salary into consideration. The main reason why Chicago is better is because of the improvement of Hinrich, Gordon, and especially Deng. They are simply not the same players as last year, and it's unwarranted to put all of the glory on Wallace. Furthermore, it was about time Skiles realized who his best players were and abandoned his strategy of playing 25 players a game for 13 minutes each. Even if you do award Chicago's improvement to Ben Wallace, they still only won 49 games in a weak conference for a 5th seed, which I deem minimum expectations when you add a $60 million player to a playoff team.

Also, don't ignore the fact that Chandler improved greatly this year and put up vastly superior numbers to Wallace. It's very difficult to say that Wallace made Chicago so obviously better when Chandler is finally showing signs that warranted his #2 overall pick (and trade for Brand). Finally, don't forget that Chandler is making only 2/3 the money per year as Wallace, and although you bulls fans might be happy now, you're stuck with Wallace's huge contract for the next 5 years (and he's already showing signs of aging.)

The Miami win wasn't because of Wallace, it was because Wade was coming off of injury and was not 100%. Furthermore, it is hard to come back from injury and mesh with teammates who have already adjusted without you (to a lesser extent, Jason Kapono also who just came back from injury and had played 30ish minutes a game for the first 60 games at starting SF). Factor in the fact that Shaq, Payton, Walker, Mourning, etc were all a year older, it's very unfair to compare this Miami team last year's.

Bulls fans shouldn't award Wallace as their savior yet just because Chicago won one playoffs series. And although your relative argument is interesting in that Detroit did get worse, I just don't think Chicago will beat Detroit (sorry Church) and that therefore the 60 million was not worth it.

- Ben Ikuta

Anonymous said...

Testing the hypertext function:

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