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May 19, 2010
Summer 2010 Preview
Reevaluating the Contenders

by Kevin Pelton

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This is a supplement to Basketball Prospectus' series previewing the NBA's 2010 free agency. Part one projected the future value of the top players on the market, part two compared the contenders to sign a max free agent and part three explored other ways those teams could use their cap space.

Since we last took a look at the top contenders in the summer of 2010 free-agent derby in March, much has changed. It was always my intent to update that column after the NBA Draft Lottery, when we had clarity about where several of these teams would pick. The timing also works well because speculation about LeBron James changing teams has reached a fever pitch following Cleveland's early exit from the playoffs. Lastly, the cap projection has grown more optimistic, giving several teams more flexibility.

The most important difference here, however, might be something that has nothing to do with any of these teams but simply the way I'm evaluating them. As I introduced in my awards column, I'm moving toward an updated version of WARP that credits three-point shooters for their ability to space the floor. While the transition is not complete, and will not be until next season at the very earliest, I thought it would be appropriate to redo the player projections using these new and improved ratings that better value perimeter players relative to their interior counterparts.

As a reminder, the goal is this: Trying to put some data behind what is by nature the very subjective question of what is the best destination for the superstars expected to become free agents this summer (James most notable among the group, which also includes Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) by rating the future prospects of the teams with space to sign a max free agent. Now, it's important to note that team quality is surely just one of many factors that will go into these players' decisions of where to continue to career, but of them it's the only one we can really quantify.

What this involves is a comprehensive valuation of all of a team's assets--players, future draft picks and cap space. Think of this as an objective version, if less comprehensive, of ESPN's future power rankings (Insider). Underlying this effort is the use of three-year WARP projections based on the 10 most similar players from our SCHOENE projection system. Draft picks were valued using the average performance of past players by pick number, and cap space is generally valued at 1 WARP for each $2.5 million of room, a figure based on the historic efficiency of the free-agent market.

Because we're interested primarily in comparing these teams as they look to prospective free-agent additions, we were able to simplify a few assumptions. The value of the first $16.6 million in cap space for each team--the amount projections indicate will be needed to sign a player to a max contract--is the same, and picks from 2011 and beyond were projected with identical value (at the level of the 15th overall pick in the first round; second-round picks beyond 2010 do not have any value above replacement level by this method).

We'll go in reverse order, and apologies to the Sacramento Kings, who are not included because I do not expect them to pursue a max free agent.

Washington Wizards

Player/Asset         10-11  11-12  12-13  Total
-----------------------------------------------
2010 Rd 1             2.9    5.0    7.3    15.2
Andray Blatche        4.3    5.5    4.8    14.6
Gilbert Arenas        6.2    3.9    3.2    13.3
JaVale McGee          4.1    4.1    4.5    12.7
2011 Rd 1                    0.7    1.5     2.2
2010 Rd 1 (CLE)       0.2    0.6    1.0     1.7
2010 Rd 2             0.0    0.3    0.6     0.9
2012 Rd 1                           0.7     0.7
Nick Young           -0.1    0.4    0.3     0.7
2011 Rd 2                    0.0    0.0     0.0
2012 Rd 2                    0.0    0.0     0.0
Quinton Ross         -0.9    0.0    0.0    -0.9
Al Thornton          -0.1   -1.2   -1.8    -3.1
-----------------------------------------------
Total               16.7    19.3   22.0    57.9

Winning the lottery more than doubled the value of the Wizards' first-round pick, and with John Wall (presumably) around Washington's long-term future is bright. Still, it would take an awfully hopeful assessment of Wall's game to convince any of this year's marquee free agents to sign with a team that has so many other question marks. The Wizards should continue to point toward future free-agent classes, when the sales job is easier because Wall is closer to superstardom and Washington has added another lottery pick.

Chicago Bulls

Player/Asset         10-11  11-12  12-13  Total
-----------------------------------------------
Derrick Rose          9.1   10.0    9.8    28.8
Luol Deng             3.3    2.3    3.1     8.7
Taj Gibson            3.0    2.7    0.7     6.4
James Johnson         1.9    3.0    1.4     6.3
Joakim Noah           3.4    1.7    1.1     6.3
Kirk Hinrich          2.5    2.2    0.9     5.6
2010 Cap Space        1.5    1.5    1.5     4.5
2010 Rd 1 (MIL)       0.6    1.3    2.0     3.9
2011 Rd 1                    0.7    1.5     2.2
2012 Rd 1                           0.7     0.7
-----------------------------------------------
Total                25.3   25.4   22.9    73.6

In the last week, a loose consensus has developed that the Bulls would be the best destination for James if he wants to win and win big, so it should be a surprise they rank here, right? Well, yes and no. Yes to the extent that I think we can all agree this projection badly, badly underestimates Noah's value. He was worth 6.6 WARP this season and is entering his prime at age 25, so even a pessimistic guess would be somewhere closer to 18 WARP over the next three years. Why is Noah's projection so much lower? Just one of those flukes of using a small group to project, I suspect. Several more accomplished players were just outside the group of 10 players most similar to Noah and many of the top 10 peaked early.

Still, even if we adjust Noah's value, Chicago still comes out as an also-ran among these teams. I think the last memory we were left with of the Bulls (playing Cleveland tough in the first round of the playoffs) has overshadowed the fact that this was a .500 team--and worse than that after dealing John Salmons. Noah and Derrick Rose are two great pieces, but nobody else on the roster projects as even an average starter over the long run, and Chicago will have few avenues to improve after using its cap space this summer.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Player/Asset         10-11  11-12  12-13  Total
-----------------------------------------------
Maurice Williams      6.9    7.8    6.6    21.3
Leon Powe             4.5    3.4    4.3    12.1
Delonte West          2.5    2.9    2.1     7.5
Antawn Jamison        2.7    2.3    1.4     6.5
Anderson Varejao      1.8    2.3    2.1     6.2
2010 MLE              2.0    2.0    2.0     6.0
Daniel Gibson         1.9    1.7    1.5     5.1
J.J. Hickson          0.0    1.2    1.4     2.6
Jamario Moon          1.0    0.8    0.6     2.4
2011 Rd 1                    0.7    1.5     2.2
Sebastian Telfair     1.5                   1.5
2012 Rd 1                           0.7     0.7
2011 Rd 2                    0.0    0.0     0.0
2012 Rd 2                    0.0    0.0     0.0
Anthony Parker        0.2   -0.4    0.0    -0.3
-----------------------------------------------
Total                25.1   24.7   24.1    73.9

On paper, there's little reason from a basketball standpoint that James should re-sign with the Cavaliers. If taken extremely literally, the projections suggest that a Cleveland team without James would miss the playoffs next year. Several key players, including newcomer Antawn Jamison, are aging badly and SCHOENE isn't especially bullish on J.J. Hickson's prospects. Where I do think this underrates the option of staying with the Cavaliers is that owner Dan Gilbert has shown the willingness to spend to put a quality team around James, and expiring contracts (like Jamison's in 2011-12) can be used to upgrade the roster. Still, as the Jamison trade itself shows, those additions tend to be second-tier solutions, not marquee additions.

L.A. Clippers

Player/Asset         10-11  11-12  12-13  Total
-----------------------------------------------
Blake Griffin         9.3    9.8    9.1    28.2
Eric Gordon           4.2    5.6    6.5    16.3
Baron Davis           6.5    5.2    3.5    15.2
DeAndre Jordan        3.6    3.8    3.9    11.2
Chris Kaman           3.7    2.0    1.6     7.3
2010 Rd 1             1.2    2.3    3.4     6.9
2011 Rd 1                    0.7    1.5     2.2
2012 Rd 1                           0.7     0.7
2012 Rd 1 (MIN)                     0.7     0.7
2010 Rd 2 (NYK)      -0.1    0.2    0.5     0.6
2011 Rd 2                    0.0    0.0     0.0
2011 Rd 2 (DET)              0.0    0.0     0.0
2012 Rd 2                           0.0     0.0
-----------------------------------------------
Total                28.4   29.6   31.3    89.4

ESPN.com's excellent Kevin Arnovitz has already made the very reasonable case for why the Clippers might be the best destination for James in basketball terms. The existing talent on the L.A. roster rates better than any of the cores of the other teams with significant cap space. The Clippers are also the only team ready-made for James, who could slide in at small forward without the need to sign anyone else or make any other moves. (Chicago, for example, would surely trade Luol Deng, while Devin Harris' skills might be too redundant with James' addition in New Jersey.)

Comparing the Clippers to Chicago, Blake Griffin (whose projections are based on his translated college stats) rates as just as valuable as Rose, his predecessor as the No. 1 overall pick, while Eric Gordon is of similar value to Noah. I'd take the rest of the Clippers' roster over the other Bulls, and L.A. has a superior first-round pick. Alas, because they are the Clippers and because of Donald Sterling's less-than-sterling reputation, the team probably has no real shot at James.

Miami Heat

Player/Asset         10-11  11-12  12-13  Total
-----------------------------------------------
Dwyane Wade          14.5   13.5    9.3    37.3
Mario Chalmers        5.5    6.3    6.9    18.8
Michael Beasley       3.8    5.3    6.0    15.1
Dorell Wright         3.0    3.3    4.9    11.2
2010 Rd 1             0.6    1.2    1.9     3.7
2010 Cap Space        1.0    1.0    1.0     3.0
Daequan Cook          0.8    0.9    0.8     2.6
2011 Rd 1                    0.7    1.5     2.2
Joel Anthony          0.9    0.4   -0.3     1.0
2012 Rd 1                           0.7     0.7
2010 Rd 2            -0.1    0.2    0.4     0.4
2010 Rd 2 (NO)        0.0    0.1    0.3     0.4
2010 Rd 2 (TOR)      -0.1    0.1    0.3     0.3
2012 Rd 2 (NO)        0.0    0.0    0.0     0.0
-----------------------------------------------
Total                30.0   33.0   33.8    96.8

For our purposes, we'll assume for the moment that the rest of the Heat's cap space will be used on re-signing Dwyane Wade. With that taken for granted, there's a lot to like about Miami's future. The players on hand should be good enough to continue to finish in one of the bottom four playoff spots in the East even without adding another max free agent. The upside is obvious. Worth noting: First, I carved out a significant chunk of the Heat's leftover cap space with the idea of re-signing Dorell Wright, who established himself as a quality wing this season. If you'd rather assume that Miami will spend that money on a veteran, the expected value would be similar if not lower. Second, SCHOENE is much, much more optimistic about Chalmers' future than the Heat apparently is as an organization.

New Jersey Nets

Player/Asset         10-11  11-12  12-13  Total
-----------------------------------------------
Brook Lopez          10.4   10.5   11.1    32.0
Devin Harris          7.0    4.8    4.5    16.4
2010 Cap Space        4.0    4.0    4.0    12.0
2010 Rd 1             2.0    3.6    5.2    10.8
Yi Jianlian           1.9    3.6    2.6     8.0
Kris Humphries        2.2    2.5    2.0     6.7
Terrence Williams     0.9    1.6    1.4     3.9
Courtney Lee          0.0    1.2    1.3     2.5
2011 Rd 1             0.0    0.7    1.5     2.2
2010 Rd 1 (DAL)       0.2    0.7    1.1     2.1
C. Douglas-Roberts   -0.2    0.0    1.2     0.9
2012 Rd 1                           0.7     0.7
2011 Rd 2                    0.0    0.0     0.0
2012 Rd 2                           0.0     0.0
2012 Rd 2 (MIA)                     0.0     0.0
-----------------------------------------------
Total                28.5   33.2   36.6    98.3

When the Nets' logo came up third in the draft lottery, New Jersey lost its chance to became the "it" destination for free agents this summer. Still, that's not the real reason the Nets no longer rate quite as well as they did in March. The No. 3 pick represented just about the average of New Jersey's possible selections. In practice, even though there appears to be a drop-off after the consensus top two players available (Wall and Evan Turner), the Nets could fill a hole at power forward by drafting Georgia Tech's Derrick Favors to complement Brook Lopez in a talented young frontcourt.

No, the Nets' real problem is that they were one of the worst teams in the league when it came to outside shooting, so several players took a major hit with the new alternate WARP. New Jersey's future still appears very bright, especially with the chance to spend $10 million more in free agency even after signing a max player, but the Nets are no longer far and away the best option on paper.

New York Knicks

Player/Asset         10-11  11-12  12-13  Total
-----------------------------------------------
Chris Bosh           12.4   10.3    7.7    30.4
Danilo Gallinari      5.1    6.8    8.2    20.2
Bill Walker           5.5    6.7    7.0    19.2
Wilson Chandler       2.8    6.4    4.0    13.2
Toney Douglas         4.0    4.8    3.3    12.2
2011 Cap Space               4.0    4.0     8.0
2010 Cap Space        1.0    1.0    1.0     3.0
2011 Rd 1 (HOU/NYK)          0.6    1.2     1.8
2010 Rd 2 (LAC)       0.0    0.3    0.5     0.7
2012 Rd 2                           0.0     0.0
-----------------------------------------------
Total                30.7   41.0   36.9   108.7

I promise this is not our attempt to be part of the "LeBron Please Come to New York" storyline that has cropped up recently (besides, of course, evaluating other teams as part of New York Magazine's feature). We came by these numbers honestly, which is not to say I necessarily believe in them. The Knicks more than any other team benefited from reassessing players and putting a premium on shooting, which was New York's lone offensive strength in 2009-10. Every returning player on the roster shot plenty of threes, so our projections for them are much more favorable now. Toney Douglas, for example, was rated as an afterthought in March; now he looks like a potential starting point guard. That's probably going a bit far, though certainly shooting takes on paramount importance when we're talking about playing alongside a player like James sure to draw double-team attention.

The most stunning projection of all belongs to Bill Walker. Going on Walker's hot shooting after the trade deadline (including 41.3 percent accuracy on threes), SCHOENE compares Walker to Reggie Miller and Peja Stojakovic, among others. Needless to say, that is a bit of a stretch. Walker was a nice pickup and should be a tremendous bargain thanks to his non-guaranteed minimum contract for 2010-11, but I'd temper those WARP projections quite a bit.

We've also given the Knicks the benefit of the doubt by using Bosh to estimate their second max-contract spot. The projection drops considerably if we replace Bosh with Amar'e Stoudemire or David Lee (though the latter might be more cost-effective). Even if New York is not as dominant as it looks by this assessment, though, the numbers suggest that the Knicks are a better option for James than the cynics would have you believe. Gallinari is a solid, though not spectacular, No. 2 option and there is some other talent on hand.

I like the graphical comparison of teams' assets because it really gets at the heart of this concept--considering all the different ways a team can create wins in the future. The Clippers and the Nets have already amassed quality talent and have draft picks on the way, but Miami and New York make up for it with their ability to add a second max free agent. Which is better? I think you could make an argument for any of the top four teams, as well as Chicago and possibly even Cleveland.

I wish there was a tidier conclusion to offer here, but there are still important takeaways. The hype around the Bulls may be somewhat premature, and if James does end up signing in New York, it's not necessarily just for marketing purposes or the notion of winning over the fans at Madison Square Garden. There's a basketball argument to be made for the Knicks as well.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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