Summer Free Agents 2010: Are NBA Teams Relying Upon This Too Much?

95705409JM187_2010_NBA_All_This Web site has yet to directly address the impending doom that is the salary cap space of the several teams in the Summer of 2010 until right now. Analyzing how recent NBA finalists have reached the promised land however, it shows how planning through and relying upon the free agency period is not common at all.

What I did for this study was to look at the past 10 franchises that made the journey to the NBA Finals. Franchises that did not make the Finals are not worthy of this discussion since that is certainly the goal of the Cleveland Cavaliers currently as well as the teams aiming to spend big in the summer of 2010. From these 10 teams, I analyzed all of the various players on their playoff roster as well as the number of minutes each one of these individuals played. What this does is to get an introductory look into how successful playoff teams are built over the course of time. The results give us a hint about how successful teams in the NBA generally treat free agency.

For starters, I will go in order and list these past 10 franchises to make the NBA Finals. I have used these teams in my study to gain some insight as to how these teams, in their most recent journey to the finals, built their roster. Here are these 10 different teams, their results in that particular year as well as the one individual that lead that team in playoff minutes played. The minutes per game figure is their total minutes divided by the number of team playoff games, just for simplicity:

Lakers 09 (win) – Kobe Bryant 40.9 mpg
Magic 09 (lose) – Rashard Lewis 41.1 mpg
Celtics 08 (win) – Paul Pierce 38.1
Spurs 07 (win) – Tony Parker 37.6
Cavs 07 (lose) – LeBron James 44.7
Heat 06 (win) – Dwyane Wade 41.7
Mavericks 06 (lose) – Dirk Nowitzki 42.7
Pistons 04 (win) – R. Hamilton/B. Wallace 40.2
Nets 03 (lose) – Jason Kidd 37.0
76ers 01 (lose) – Allen Iverson 44.2

First of all, it is intriguing to see the various breakdowns in terms of minutes played for the lead player of these teams. LeBron James clearly had the most minutes played for his team per game, with Allen Iverson first, while Jason Kidd in 2003 was last with only 37.0. What did all these teams have in common in the end however? They all lost, showing how that stat has little to do with eventual success.

This led me to then figure out how all of these players arrived on that particular team. Clearly, Kobe Bryant was acquired in an off-season trade following the draft while players such as Paul Pierce, Tony Parker and LeBron James entered their teams through the draft. Rashard Lewis and Dirk Nowitzki were also examples of off-season trades, which leads to the start of my first theory about these successful finalists. Did they most often rely upon trades (off-season or in-season), the draft or via free agency?

The image below is a table that breaks down these 10 teams, the number of individuals that registered the most minutes in order for their team during the playoffs and how they ended up on that team. For example, you can go line-by-line through the top to double-check the work (Hamilton is treated as #1 for Detroit in 04, with Ben Wallace as #2 although it doesn’t matter much since both were acquired through off-season trades):

Finals teams

One of the surprising facets of this study is the finding of only four individuals to rank among the top four of their team in minutes during this span. Follow me there? Thus, of the 40 players to rank in the top four in minutes for these 10 teams, only four of them were acquired to that team via free agency. Here are these players:

Hedo Turkoglu (Magic 09 – signed in 04)
Bruce Bowen (Spurs 07 – signed in 01)
Larry Hughes (Cavs 07 – signed in 05)
Chauncey Billups (Pistons 04 – signed in 02)

Not exactly the superstars that the teams vying for in the summer of 2010 are looking to lure to their team. Essentially, what these very good teams over the past decade have done, is to rely upon trades (usually off-season) and the draft for their key parts to their success. Of the 40 players that ranked in the top four minutes as I mentioned earlier, 29 of them came from off-season trades and the draft.

Moving further down the list, only about 21.7% of all of the free agents for these teams ranked in the top six in minutes. For all of the other acquisitions here is that number: off-season trade = 76.5%, draft = 56.3%, in-season trade 51.7. The estimated average minutes played per team game for these four different types of players are the then the following: off-season trade = 26.1, in-season trade = 21.5, draft = 20.6, free agent signee = 12.2.

In conclusion, what does this show about the recent history of the NBA’s best teams? The pattern for manufacturing a roster has been to most importantly rely upon drafts and trades (usually off-season) trades for the star players. Free agent signings are generally used in this pattern only for players towards the bottom rung of the lineup, usually #’s 7-11 in the playoff rotation in terms of minutes played. Not one single individual has been a free agent signing on these 10 different franchises and then led his team in minutes during the playoffs.

After sending out the preliminary data of this study to my brothers as well as the staff writers here at WFNY, I got the following responses. The purpose of sending out the data early was to gage the responses and see if I was really on to something with this information:

Adam = “They [the free agents] are all role players too despite being in the top 4 in minutes. Even Chauncey Billups wasn’t the best player on that Pistons team. They all played important roles (aside from Larry Hughes) and the Knicks strategy is so flawed on so many levels. This is the highest caliber FA class in history but the NBA has a history of stars staying with their teams, especially now with Bird rights and a shrinking cap.”

Denny = “Taking a look at that data, I agree that FA signings don’t look as important as they’re cracked out to be. But, it’s also clear that off-season trades are pretty important in the grand scheme of things, and as much as it seems that Bosh, Amar’e, etc will go to free-agency, there’s also the possibility of a sign-and-trade with them. If the sign-and-trade data is there as well it might be worth adding.”

Rick = “I think what the Knicks are trying to do is “the Boston model” where they completely re-tool their team with more than one ‘star’ player. It worked for the Celtics. And quite frankly, if they are able to draw two superstars over the summer they will put themselves in contention to be a contender. What if Wade and Bosh joined the Knicks with Harrington and Lee? Tell me that isn’t a top 4 team in the East?”

Cavaliers Knicks BasketballMy brother Adam makes a strong point about how the salary cap and the recent history is moving towards the path of star players even just staying with the team’s they first had success with. Denny mentioned the data for sign-and-trade’s, something that I wish I could look up and add to the study. I know of a few involving these individuals, but in the end my guess is that it would take from the off-season trade pool by about 3-5%. So while these are certainly important and a possible factor in this summer, probably only 1/20 players on these 10 teams were acquired in this way.

Rick then brings in the classical argument for why the Knicks believe they will be able to contend immediately in the fall of 2010. The only problem with this analysis is that even the teams with the most salary cap saved for this team, don’t have the certain space to definitively say they can sign two max players. For example, the Knicks have approximately $31.4 million in available salaries, according to salary cap expert Larry Coon of the New York Times. Under an estimated $53 million cap, each max player such as James, Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade would be $15.9 million, introducing a major problem for these teams.

What the Knicks would then have to do is the not only relinquish the rights to their best player and All-Star forward David Lee as previously addressed by Rick, but also be creative with their sign-and-trade possibilities. While this may be what some people believe could happen, it ultimately then shows how improbable building through free agency is. The reason why the Boston Celtics were able to build in the fly as they did was because it was through trades for players with longer contracts while giving up much younger players.

So there you have it. All the reasons why teams relying upon the free agent class of 2010 are not in line with how recent teams have built NBA Finalists. Now all we have to do is sit and wait for the next six months as this all plays out. Hopefully, history repeats itself as only those who build through trades and the draft are able to successfully conquer the journey of the NBA Playoffs.

(Top photo above by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images and the second photo of Jay-Z and LeBron is via AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

  • Jack

    Jacob – Another fun foray into the world of free agency statistics. The s-and-t data would be interesting. But the rest of this has been good stuff to look at. I also think it would be interesting to see where those draft picks came in the draft. You have your Duncan/Bron/Wade’s, but you also have steals like Kobe. The whole Celtics plan was to drop to the top and nab Oden or Durant…their plans took a fortuitous turn for their short-term future.

    Glad you addressed Rick’s point. It is an almost impossible scenario that they sign two “max players” and keep David Lee. How do they even fill out the rest of their roster? I’m not really sure about the answer to that question; it seems impossible. Won’t they have maxed out their cap with about 7-8 players on the roster? Can you clarify that for me? How do they get to the mandatory 13-14?

    Stil, I don’t think the Knicks would ever say they are trying to follow the “Boston” model. The Boston model was to have their star player fake an injury, sit a whole season, and get a top draft pick. I rejoiced when they didn’t get Oden which turned out to be bad karma (even though they may have picked KD). But the model is completely different. They are letting T-Mac play. They still try to win games it seems. Oh, right, because they don’t have one. The Celtics already had a star to build around in Pierce. They only needed to bring in two pieces. Only one of those had to come by giving up big time talent. The other came because of the draft pick which I believed Seattle turned into Jeff Green. The Knicks don’t have that franchise player…anywhere. They can’t add EVERYTHING in one off-season. Or even two. It’s just not feasible as far as I can tell.

    There is, of course, the caveat of the pay-cut. If players decide to play for less, that could be interesting. Still, I really don’t think you can compete with two stars, especially a Bosh and Wade, without having solid players all over the place. Look at how stacked the Lakers are. I would certainly argue that Kobe/Gasol are just as potent a 1-2 as say Wade and Bosh would be. And the Lakers still have Artest/Odom/Bynum–aren’t locks by any means (though they are still the best team). But the sheer lopsidedness of the Gasol trade may make all this data irrelevant if players decide that, in order to overcome this NBA Live-like glitch, they have to team up. Again, unlikely; but we’ll see.

    Now you COULD say that a couple of these guys, maybe LeBron even, would team up. Giving them two max guys, and a bunch of scrubs surrounding them…let’s be honest, Gallo is never going to be a solid player. And then they can develop together over the course of a season or two. But as I’ve argued before, this is an extremely valuable two year period for someone like LeBron if he is really in the quest to win championships.

    Dwight still doesn’t have a reliable post game. The Lakers (i.e. Kobe/Fish/Artest) will be aging. The Celtics looks finished. The Hawks are still learning how to win and need size. The Spurs and Suns are done. The Jazz are still in limbo. And the up and coming teams still don’t have the gall/play-off experience to make a lot of noise. The next two-three years is a great chance to win a ring or two (unless there is no season two years from now). Really it’s just a banged up Kobe working mercilessly deep into the post-season year after year and the Nuggs/ORL combo that are concerns.

    Still, at this point, as others have noted, I have confidence in the Cavs organization and their showing. I rest assured that if LBJ leaves, he was leaving anyway…and really just sorta sucks.

  • Jack

    Wow, mad sorry, Jacob. I had no idea how long that ramble was.

  • Jacob

    @Jack – No worries. I’ll try to address some of the things. First, a team with fewer players than 12 usually has a minimum cap hold for as many spaces as they need to fill. Thus, as I believe how it works, if a team has $11 million left but still 4 more spots to fill, they can’t go and assign all $11 million to one player. Their max available deal they can offer would then be something less than $11 whereas they can still offer minimum contracts to the final three players.

    I’m no salary cap guru, that would be Larry Coon at the NYT and he is on Twitter as well. I do agree with the bulk of your arguments, just trying to throw the numbers out there and show how teams don’t normally rely heavily upon free agency to find their star players for a playoff run.

  • Jack

    And it’s true. What was the last game-changing FA acquisition? Shaq. I totally agree, which is why I think the Knicks plan is infeasible.

    But they are great marketers. That’s for sure. Everyone believes in the party line there. At least the average joe. Having spent a great deal of time in the “concrete jungle” that is so near and dear to Alicia Keys, it’s amazing how much people eat it up and talk about it.

  • boogeyman

    I hate math always have and always will and avoid it whenever possible! 😉

  • JM

    Boston got better by all those trades. Lakers got Kobe Bryant in a trade along with Gasol a few years ago and Odom in 2005 I believe. Even our beloved Cavs drafted and traded. Orlando did make huge free agent pick ups but the norm is drafting and trades.

  • Boney

    one would argue that the past free agent classes are not like the summer of 2010’s free agent class…

    it’s been a long time, if ever, that 3 potential franchise players are potentially available to the other teams in the NBA for nothing but money.

    Chauncey Billups, Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, etc are not franchise changing/altering players. Shaquille O’Neal is a franchise altering talent, as evidenced by the immediate success the Lakers saw when they signed him to a 7 year deal. The Lakers won 56 games the first year Shaq was on the roster.

    LeBron and Wade are the only players who could have this immediate affect on a team, like Shaq did with LA.

    I think, while the numbers are possibly there with minutes per average and whatever else…. a “con” to this argument is, there has never been a potential free agent class as deep as this one in several years.

  • jim

    Knicks cannot financially sign two players to max contracts AND keep David Lee. Lee will not be taking less than Andy $ on the FA market and with all the teams flush with cash, he will assuredly get at least 10-12 million a year. With 31-32 million in cap, the Knicks can sign two top FA’s and lose Lee, or one max player, give 12 million to Lee, and then sign a solid 3rd player as well.

  • Big shon

    What about exceptions?? Becasue of cap holds. the knicks should also be entitled to both the MLE and bi-annual exceptions if im not mistaken. shouldnt this offer them more cap space?? I believe as it stands they have about 17 or 18 mil guaranteed next season, if the cap is set at 53 that should give ny roughly 35 to spend between FA and role players. there arent too many difference makers out there who would be willing to play for less. But Mac sounds like hes on board. if the team could bring in two max FA i think they could also attract some veteran players seekin a ring.
    Knicks are only gonna play 8 anyway. is it possible they could sign Amare and Wade while Retaining Mac and House, and either using the bi-annual or splitting the MLE between Camby and Blake. along with Gallo and Chandler theres your rotation. to ensure that we have 12 guys on the roster Curry will still be under contract, Douglas will be under contract Im sure bender can be resigned for the vet minimum and we have a second round pick. as well as summer league invites.

  • Jake In Ohio City (Natty The Dog)

    Jack great first post. It was a long book to read, but I enjoyed it.

    Jacob – well written article. You do your homework every time.

    Can I hibernate until July? One…to get done with winter….Two……The Lebron stress is killing me.

  • mark

    i’d like to expand on two earlier comment pieces.

    first, boney brought up the point that it is not often that any true franchise players even make it to (or more accurately, leave in) free agency (which is mostly because of the bird rights). the ONLY true franchise player in recent years to leave was shaq and 3 titles later i think that was a pretty good deal (though he didn’t go to a gutted team).

    the other point brought up was looking at the sign-and-trades separately. sign and trades should really be treated as a free agent acquisition (again, due to the bird rights). the only reason it’s a sign-and-trade and not straight up free agency is so the players can sign for their max contract with their bird right holder – but they are still effectively forcing a trade by not signing and staying with their team. the teams that are being left are happy to go along because then they get something for the leaving player. rarely does something happen like shaq basically telling off orlando and just flat leaving.

  • the bomb

    lebron is the bomb and is way better than kobe!!!!!!!!!