The crazy part of the free agency summer is now over with nearly every consequential move made, except for a few restricted free agents and teams tinkering around the edge of their roster with smaller salary cap exceptions and minimum-salary level moves.
Every free agency in the NBA is crazy in its own way, but with the salary cap rising from $70 to $94.1 million, and slated to move to around $102 million during the summer of 2017, we are in the midst of a particular nutty episode of deal making.
Just the opening minutes of free agency are a rather hilarious farce. By 12.30 on the night of the start of free agency, Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical had reported a four-year, $64 million agreement between the Lakers and Timofey Mozgov. By the NBA’s rules in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, free agents aren’t allowed to meet with teams before midnight on the start of free agency, and unless the Lakers miraculously negotiated a $64 million contract in the span of a short coffee break, it’s clear that everyone is ignoring the rules.
Joakim Noah‘s four-year, $72 million deal with the Knicks was public knowledge about two full days before July 1, which was also a wonderful and giant middle finger to the NBA’s tampering rules.
Mike Conley signed for the biggest guaranteed amount of money in NBA history with the Grizzlies on a five-year $153 million contract. In addition, we saw a ton of seemingly crazy deals that made eyes pop among NBA players and other athletes on Twitter.
Obviously, the Warriors are the big winners of free agency getting Kevin Durant, and then having David West for the minimum and Zaza Pachulia for the $2.9 million room exception fall into their laps. For the rest of the league, improving via free agency isn’t so simple, however, and we saw different teams go different routes in trying to improve both short- and long-term. We learned a ton about how different organizations operate, how teams view themselves and what their future plans are – though some take quite a bit of unraveling.
Mistakes splurging on mid-tier free agents
Financially, some of the biggest winners of free agency were mid-tier players who could find at least one team willing to give them starter-level money. In the new cap environment, average starter money is going to hover somewhere around $15 million per year, and if a player and their agent were able to get just one team to bite, it meant a big payday on a long-term deal.
The best examples of such deals were Noah going to the Knicks, Mozgov and Luol Deng to the Lakers, Evan Turner and Allen Crabbe with the Blazers, Ian Mahinmi with the Wizards, Kent Bazemore with the Hawks, Solomon Hill with the Pelicans, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon with the Rockets, and Bismack Biyombo and Evan Fournier with the Magic. Some of these “starter money” contracts that have been signed will end up as great value for their teams, particularly among the young players, while others may begin to look bad very quickly.
Basically, wherever there’s a red flag and a significant opportunity cost for the team, these mid-tier deals are some of the riskiest moves NBA teams can make because of one rather simple reason… In the NBA the unknown always outweighs what can reasonably predicted.
Max-level salaries typically go to players who are clearly worth that money, but among average starter-level players, committing long-term money can end up as a disaster. NBA players decline in unexpected ways, whether it be from injury or diminished athleticism taking away a crucial piece from their game.
The increasing salary cap actually heightens this risk, and should make teams uncomfortable giving out long-term deals to players with risk. From an economic perspective, this should make sense by looking at the concept of a replacement level player, i.e. players at the minimum salary level.
You may have read something about how Turner’s contract with the Blazers isn’t such a bad one because under the old cap Turner’s salary is closer to $10 million, and there are tons of tables published on NBA sites scaling the contracts signed today – heading into an even larger salary cap over the next few years – compared to deals under the previous salary cap.
This analysis seems fair, but is actually a red herring and demonstrably false.
Here’s why… While the contract of an average starter has jumped about $5-7 million per year on average, the minimum contract has stayed almost the same in terms of absolute dollars. If a player suffers injuries – or more likely is just terrible for a random reason due to fit, age or any number of other factors – limiting them to being a player a team could replace with a someone on a minimum contract, the cost of replacing that player has jumped significantly.
The simple way to think of the problem is: “How much would the Lakers save by replacing Mozgov with a minimum salary player? And how much worse would that make the Lakers?”
The answer to the second question has remained the same regardless of the growth in player salaries, while the answer to the first question has increased by north of $5 million. Thus, risk is increased.
During the free agency period, there have been multiple deals that are likely to fall into this category sooner rather than later. Noah is already 31 years old with a slew of injuries following him. And in the last two seasons, his ability to finish at the basket has completely disappeared and Noah’s True Shooting Percentage from last season (40.6 percent) is unbelievably horrendous and ranks as one of the worst efficiency marks among big men in the last 30 years. Mozgov is 30 years of age and just went through a botched knee surgery which ruined his entire season.
Turner is coming off the best season of his career under the wizardry of Brad Stevens and last year was the first time he even sniffed being close to league average in terms of efficiency. Turner doesn’t shoot three pointers and needs the ball to be effective. Generally, teams should be very careful about allocating ballhandling duties and on a team with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum – not to mention Crabbe and Moe Harkless (who is a restricted free agent that the Blazers may not keep) waiting on the wing – handling the ball already.
The Rockets have always been a super smart team, but perhaps due to increased pressure from ownership to remain competitive, they’ve committed to two long-term deals with Anderson (four-years, $80 million) and Gordon (four years, $53 million) that could quickly turn sour. Both have an illustrious injury history, and Anderson is one of the worst defensive big men on a team whose big problem last year was defense. Due to his strength, Gordon is probably best off guarding bigger wings and technically plays the same position as James Harden, so it’s hard to understand where the Rockets will fit Gordon defensively. At point guard, Gordon may be a bit slow fighting over screens, and on the wing the Harden-Gordon combinations could be a fiasco.
Houston ranked eighth in offensive efficiency and 21st in defensive efficiency last season. The offense shouldn’t be a problem at all, but the defensive will be terrible in all likelihood again.
Teams with questionable plans
The Orlando Magic had a super weird summer, which is compounded by the Tobias Harris for Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings trade they now have nothing to show for. Harris is under a very fair, probably below market-value contract, and the Magic gave him away for almost nothing (the Serge Ibaka trade could have been accomplished even without Ilyasova).
Half the signings the Magic have made have been completely fine. Getting Fournier under a five-year $85 million deal was a coup, and signing Biyombo for a reasonable contract, even with the fit issues with Nikola Vucevic was a good deal to make. Sometimes fit doesn’t come first and it’s valuable just to sign good players under good contracts, particularly since Vucevic’s defense has been a real problem.
The other half of what the Magic have done seems completely bizarre. Trading for Ibaka, who is an unrestricted free agent next summer, for Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and Ilyasova is baffling considering their expected timeline to compete. Orlando’s best blue chip prospect is Aaron Gordon, and he plays the same position as Ibaka. Gordon now has to play significant minutes at small forward considering the frontline depth, and that’s completely missing the point on Gordon. He has the potential to be the perfect modern small-ball power forward, a player who can switch multiple positions, handle the ball and potentially be a great passer in short roll situations. Signing Jeff Green, whose teams have been better with him off the court literally every year of his career, just makes Gordon’s situation worse. It is literally unbelievable how badly the Magic have screwed over Gordon.
Another team that took the notion of ‘baffling team-building’ to an art form were the Bulls. In the 11 games Jimmy Butler played without Derrick Rose, he averaged 27.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game. Per NBAWowy.com, Butler had a 57.1 True Shooting Percentage without Rose on the court compared to just 54.0 percent when the two played together. In addition, Butler’s Usage Percentage jumped from 22.3 to 30.
Butler was amazing without Rose, and moving on from Rose looked like a clear signal that the Bulls were going to build their offense around Butler. That notion is completely gone with Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo on the team now. Rondo is completely useless off the ball, and while Wade is a smart cutter and player, neither space the floor at all.
Butler together with Wade could have made sense, and by staggering their minutes the Bulls could have found a nice rhythm between bench-heavy and starter units. Replace Rondo with just a random point guard who can make three-pointers and defend a bit, and the Bulls roster would look much better and it’s hard to find a situation where more talent (and name recognition) has been put together with such effectiveness. Rondo and Wade also do whatever they want on defense, and Rondo in particular never gets back in transition or does anything helpful including his over-gambling for steals.
The Mavericks continued their streak of being a super weird free agency team by signing Harrison Barnes to a crazy max-contract and trading for Andrew Bogut. The team isn’t going anywhere but they should be competing for a playoff spot during the last couple of years of Dirk Nowitzki’s career.
Dallas is basically banking the fact that every guard looks good running pick-and-rolls with Nowitzki, and Bogut is still a premier defender who should keep the defense respectable for the minutes he plays. Barnes’ shooting may fall off a cliff now that he’s not wide open from the corner on every shot, but he’s also an underrated versatile defender who can switch over and guard power forwards.
The Hawks signing Dwight Howard to a three-year, $70 million deal is basically fine considering where the franchise is at. Atlanta as the fifth worst defensive rebounding team and their 19.1 offensive rebounding percentage was historically low, and while losing Horford was bad, Howard should be able to fix some of their biggest weaknesses and can be an effective rolling to the rim with a spaced floor.
The Western Conference power structure is about to change
It was only a matter of time until balance in the Western Conference started to change. From a Top 8 that all won 50 games back in 2009-10 to a largely 4-5 team contending group in the past few years, and now it seems as though there’s one team at the top and the rest are playing catch-up – with the bottom half of the playoff seeding being a relative unknown.
The Spurs are going to be good, but losing Tim Duncan’s defense and replacing him with Pau Gasol’s is a clear negative, even if the offense is going to stay very good. The Thunder are not going to contend for the championship, but could be quite good. The Clippers are running it back for the 400th time and the aging Grizzlies should be competitive, but could also suffer drop-off due to an aging core and significant injuries problems with Chandler Parsons and Marc Gasol.
Last season, the Timberwolves ranked 11th in offensive rating and 26th in defensive rating, and it’s only a matter of time until they make the leap into being a well-above 50-win team. The main reason to be optimistic it could happen this year is Tom Thibodeau. The offense should be quite good again, if not better with the continued development from Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Ricky Rubio and Karl-Anthony Towns. Young teams always struggle defending, but having Thibs drilling them every night and day about missed defensive rotations mixed in with a smart system could immediately propel Minnesota to the top half of the league in defensive efficiency, and a being near Top 10 on both ends is a pretty good recipe for starting to edge near 50-wins.
The team most clearly poised to make the leap into the upper echelon of the Western Conference is Utah. Both Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert missed major parts of the season due to injuries, partly at the same time compounding the negative effect, and the Jazz have been very good for a season and a half with their core players on the court. Utah underperformed against their point differential of +1.6 points per possession last season, and their four most played lineups all outscored opponents by 7 points or more per 100 possessions.
Trading for George Hill was a wonderful move and he’s a perfect fit in Quin Snyder’s offense and defense. The Jazz led the league in passes per game at 354.8 and the team works incredibly hard to create looks and space in an offense that features two traditional bigs the majority of time. Hill is a very good spot-up shooter and a smart player who moves the ball and himself off the ball well. He’s a very good pick-and-roll player, but doesn’t require the ball to be effective, leaving Rodney Hood and Gordon Hayward with more than enough opportunities to create.
We don’t yet know what Dante Exum is going to be next season and going forward, and Hill can give the Jazz a reliable point guard option while Exum matures. Hill and Exum can easily play together and over the next few years due to his length and shooting Hill should transition nicely into a backup role.
A couple of teams lower on the NBA totem pole began making moves that should eventually put them in the right direction. The Pelicans, after largely wasting the first four years of building with patience and smarts around Anthony Davis, finally took a turn in the right direction, letting Gordon and Anderson walk while signing E’Twaun Moore, Solomon Hill and Langston Galloway. None of the three are high-level starters, but all can be good in supporting roles and are under fair contracts considering where New Orleans as a team now.
The Nets made the right move going after restricted free agents Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe with overpays, and were quite unfortunate not to land either. However, the thought process behind getting young players under tradeable contracts was the right one, and Jeremy Lin’s three-year $36 million deal was a bargain. Brooklyn is going to be bad for quite a while, but with the former assistant GM of the Spurs Sean Marks making the decisions, there’s hope the Nets will be considered one of the smart teams in five years.
Mika Honkasalo is an NBA writer, geek, chart maker and most of all fan. He studies computer science and works in software development and business analytics. His writing can be found at Nylon Calculus and Vantage Sports, and you can find him on Twitter @mhonkasalo.