Wins in basketball are driven by shooting efficiency and gaining/keeping possession of the ball (i.e. rebounds and turnovers). A player's scoring totals are not a good measure of effectiveness, since these can be driven by shot attempts, which are primarily just taken from teammates. The free agent market, though, rewards scoring totals. —David Berri, professor of applied economics at Southern Utah University
The NBA free agent sweepstakes are underway and so far it’s business as usual. Which is to say teams are getting it all wrong.
Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony are being courted heavily and reportedly will get max deals. That was entirely predictable — and dumb. And those unconfirmed reports of Gordon Hayward being offered a max deal by the Cavaliers? If true, that’s just nonsensical. As for LeBron James — he’s the one big-name star who plays up to his reputation.
That’s the opinion of David Berri. He’s a professor of applied economics at Southern Utah University and author of two sports books, "Wages of Wins" and "Stumbling on Wins.” He was espousing the principles of “Moneyball” before it became a movie. I call Berri when I see the brightest people in professional sports following foolish old habits, especially in free agency, which is why I called him this week.
Berri believes the NBA rewards the wrong players for the wrong reasons. They reward scoring average, but how valuable is a 25-point scorer if he is hitting only 40 percent of his shots? When Berri rates players, he weights everything in the box score in terms of its impact on wins, which is, after all, the point.
“Wins in basketball are driven by shooting efficiency and gaining/keeping possession of the ball (i.e. rebounds and turnovers),” says Berri. “A player's scoring totals are not a good measure of effectiveness, since these can be driven by shot attempts, which are primarily just taken from teammates. The free agent market, though, rewards scoring totals.”
At my request, Berri rated the current crop of free agents. Not surprisingly, his ranking of free agents is different than the rankings found on the Internet or, apparently, those produced by NBA teams.
Anthony, the most famous and coveted of the free agents other than James, ranks no better than 41st. He averaged 27 points per game last season — but he took more than 21 shots per game. His shooting percentage: 45.
“Carmelo is very much overrated,” says Berri. “Nine of the 12 players who played for the Spurs shot better than Carmelo. The reason he scores so many points is because he takes so many shots. That’s what he’s always done. I don’t think you need statistics (to see he is overrated). Denver got better when he left. New York wasn’t better with him. And now he is 30 years old. You would think the decision-makers in the NBA would pick up on those data points.”
Chris Bosh, one of the Big Three in Miami, ranks 74th, and yet he reportedly has been offered a four-year max deal by the Rockets. “Bosh is overrated,” says Berri. “He’s about average. His productivity with the Heat declined relative to his play with the Raptors, but he’s older. It doesn’t seem likely he’ll improve with another team.”
You are probably wondering if his stats dropped because he played alongside superstars. Says Berri, "Bosh did a bit less with James and (Dwyane) Wade. In general, there hasn't been much systematic evidence that players impact a teammate's productivity. Players are consistent from season to season and even when they switch teams we still see quite a bit of consistency."
Hayward is getting a lot of attention in the free agent market, but Berri ranks him only 49th among free agents. “His shooting efficiency has declined each season he has been in the league,” Berri says. “But his rebounding took a leap last year. He’s an average player. He certainly is not a great scorer, judging by his shooting efficiency. But his scoring totals are attracting the attention of other teams.”
Not every star is overrated. James ranks No. 1 among free agents because, as Berri says, “He shoots at an amazingly efficient rate — 50 percent.”
As for underrated players, Berri says, “Al-Farouq Aminu is a name that should get more attention.”
There are two players whose rankings near the top of the list will surprise NBA observers — Chris Andersen and Kris Humphries. Berri explains, “Humphries and Andersen are both above average with respect to rebounds. So they help their teams get and maintain possession of the ball. Andersen is also an efficient scorer. Of course, that is because Andersen tends to only take shots he can make. That is actually a very useful skill. It is important that players play within their limitations. When players take shots they are not likely to make — like Melo shooting when he is triple-teamed — that really doesn't help your team win.”
Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol, both former superstars in their mid-30s, are down in the rankings, but that isn’t surprising. Berri says that, unlike players in baseball, it is very rare that a player over the age of 35 can still play basketball at a high level. Tim Duncan is an exception, although he is not the force he once was. “Basketball is a game for young people,” says Berri.
Berri thinks the Utah Jazz could help themselves considerably in the free agent market. They are reportedly interested in Hayward, Trevor Ariza — a very productive player — and Marvin Williams — not a productive player.
“The Jazz look to be in trouble,” says Berri. “The team is awash in lottery picks who have not proven to be productive NBA players. To that mix, they are adding (Australian draft pick) Dante Exum, a kid who has little international experience — 25 games — and was not amazingly productive in that setting. The Jazz are caught in what I call the lottery treadmill.”
This occurs when teams draft lottery picks (one of the first 14 taken in the draft) and then feel obligated to play them for years even when they are unproductive, simply because they have invested so much money in them. The lack of productivity qualifies the team for another lottery pick the following year, and the cycle keeps repeating itself.
The Jazz have collected six players who were lottery picks in one of the last five drafts — Exum, Enes Kanter, Alex Burks, Hayward, Derrick Favors and Trey Burke.
“How long do you play lottery picks before you give up on them?” asks Berri. “Teams invest so much in them, so they just keep playing them and hope they get better, but in this league that rarely happens; you know early on if they can play. The Spurs didn’t build a team through the draft with lottery picks and neither did the Jazz when they were good after they got Stockton and Malone. The Spurs built their team with free agents, second-round picks and trades. The problem with the draft is that it’s the hardest to predict success.”
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: [email protected]