Chris Kaman - The Paradox of the Expiring Contract

Over the summer, SBNation had a series of meetings in Las Vegas. It was the first time the company had done this sort of thing, and since it was a pretty easy trip for me, I drove out to the desert. (As an aside, I drove out with Chris Clark of Silver Screen and Roll, and the joke in Vegas was that we should have a buddy sitcom - "He's a Lakers' blogger; he's a Clippers blogger! Hilarity ensues, Tuesdays this Fall!")

There were about a dozen NBA bloggers in attendance at the conference, and of course we were in the throes of the lockout. The best part of the experience was definitely just sitting around talking basketball face-to-face with such a knowledgeable group of people.

Over dinner one night, the rumored trade of Chris Kaman for Andre Iguodala came up, and Michael Levin of the 76ers blog Liberty Ballers was among the hoop heads at the table. As the conversation progressed, I realized something very interesting was happening: to many at the table, and these are smart guys, Kaman was just an expiring contract. The fact that he might also be a very good player was immaterial to some regarding a trade discussion. In fact, Levin among others even posited that Kaman's effectiveness as a player might even drive down his value as a trade chip! WHAT?

The logic, such as it is, goes something like this: an expiring contract has value in a trade for exactly what it is - money that will come off your books in short order, and nothing else. A good basketball player has value as a good basketball player. And the two are essentially at cross purposes. If a team is looking to dump salary, it implies that they are in rebuilding mode, looking to get far enough under the cap to be able to pursue free agents at some future date. Another large part of the strategy is also to rebuild through the draft, and you want the best possible draft picks you can get. So if you ship out a player like Iguodala in a trade to save money, you might want picks and/or young prospects back - but the salary relief you take back in the deal should be nothing more than filler. If you take back a player in that situation that actually helps you win basketball games, it's a bad thing for the rebuilding process.

I won't get into the "moral hazard" of the draft or the implications of preemptively tanking a season in this manner. (Don't the fans deserve to see some wins during any season they buy tickets?) The Oklahoma City model is the template for rebuilding at this point, and they got Durant and Westbrook and Harden by being really, really bad three straight seasons (which is how the Clippers got Gordon, Griffin and Aminu as well, by the way) - so it's not hard to see why teams might want to do this. And if you're in that situation, you might indeed want to play some rookie center that might or might not amount to anything ahead of a 29 year old Chris Kaman who's headed into free agency, even (or especially) if Kaman is going to help you win more games.

The irony here is that while Kaman is to some "just" an expiring contract right now, when you look at the contracts signed by Tyson Chandler, Nene, Marc Gasol and DeAndre Jordan this week, it's obvious that Kaman will be a highly sought after free agent next July. If he has a relatively healthy season and plays at anything close to the level he was at in 2010 or 2008, he should certainly be worth more than Jordan, right?

It's true that in the final year of his contract, like Chris Paul, he has less trade value as a player if you have no confidence that you can keep him. So that's another reason to view him as "just" salary relief. But that doesn't mean he couldn't help you win games now.

This paradox became even clearer to me today when I was looking at the proposed three team trade for Dwight Howard. Who knows whether there's anything to it, but the deal has Orlando getting Brook Lopez and Gerald Wallace and (maybe) a first round pick, while losing Howard and Hedo Turkoglu. Now, I won't get into how that trade package compares to the proposed Chris Paul deals, except to say that if the NBA owned the Magic David Stern wouldn't be able to say "No" fast enough. But then I thought about the general idea of Brook Lopez as the centerpiece of a trade for Dwight Howard.

I ask you: is Brook Lopez any better than Chris Kaman? He's younger, I get that. And he's cheaper - today. But Lopez is going to be a restricted free agent after this season, which means that compared to Kaman you'd save $10M this year, but he'll no doubt be making more than Kaman for four or five years after that.

Looking at Lopez' last season compared to Kaman's last non-injury season in 09-10, the two are pretty similar. (If you are viewing this post in narrow view, some data may get cut off; switch to wide view and you can scroll left and right to see it if need be).

Totals

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Rk Player Season Age G GS MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
1 Chris Kaman 2009-10 27 76 76 2608 589 1202 .490 0 6 .000 230 307 .749 184 520 704 120 37 94 223 213 1408
2 Brook Lopez 2010-11 22 82 82 2889 644 1309 .492 0 1 .000 385 489 .787 197 291 488 129 47 120 176 240 1673

Per Game

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Rk Player Season Age G GS MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
1 Chris Kaman 2009-10 27 76 76 34.3 7.8 15.8 .490 0.0 0.1 .000 3.0 4.0 .749 2.4 6.8 9.3 1.6 0.5 1.2 2.9 2.8 18.5
2 Brook Lopez 2010-11 22 82 82 35.2 7.9 16.0 .492 0.0 0.0 .000 4.7 6.0 .787 2.4 3.5 6.0 1.6 0.6 1.5 2.1 2.9 20.4

Per 36 Minutes

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Rk Player Season Age G GS MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
1 Chris Kaman 2009-10 27 76 76 2608 8.1 16.6 .490 0.0 0.1 .000 3.2 4.2 .749 2.5 7.2 9.7 1.7 0.5 1.3 3.1 2.9 19.4
2 Brook Lopez 2010-11 22 82 82 2889 8.0 16.3 .492 0.0 0.0 .000 4.8 6.1 .787 2.5 3.6 6.1 1.6 0.6 1.5 2.2 3.0 20.8

Advanced

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Rk Player Season Age G MP PER TS% eFG% ORB% DRB% TRB% AST% STL% BLK% TOV% USG% ORtg DRtg OWS DWS WS WS/48
1 Chris Kaman 2009-10 27 76 2608 16.5 .527 .490 8.1 23.2 15.6 8.6 0.7 2.7 14.3 27.1 99 109 0.0 2.4 2.4 .044
2 Brook Lopez 2010-11 22 82 2889 19.3 .549 .492 7.8 12.3 10.0 8.8 0.9 3.2 10.4 27.3 108 110 4.4 1.9 6.3 .105

Offensively, the two are eerily similar. Per 36 minutes, Kaman took 16.6 shots, Lopez 16.3; Kaman made 49% of his, Lopez 49.2%. Lopez gets to the line more often than Kaman, which makes him the slightly better offensive player both in points scored and in efficiency. But neither is particularly efficient for a center.

The numbers are pretty similar in a lot of other areas as well, like blocked shots and steals and assists and offensive rebounds. Kaman turns the ball over more, which isn't a surprise to us.

But look at the defensive rebounding! Kaman got twice as many defensive rebounds per minute as Lopez! Twice as many! I don't know about you, but I like my center to get some rebounds, and looking at these stats, I'd be tempted to call Kaman better than Lopez. (Interesting that both PER and WS/48 rate Lopez quite a bit higher - looking at the raw numbers, I'm hard pressed to understand why. Lopez' only significant advantages are in free throws and turnovers, and I would think that the massive difference in rebounding would more than make up for it. This illustrates one of the issues with single number stats - the weighting they use may or may not be the weighting that makes intuitive sense to any one individual.)

I understand that there are massive differences between Chris Kaman and Brook Lopez as trade pieces today. Kaman is 29, Lopez is 23. Lopez makes about $10M less than Kaman this year, even though that gap will be erased this summer, and Lopez will probably end up making more. Most importantly in a trade discussion, Kaman will be an UNrestricted free agent next summer while Lopez will be restricted. You can't view Kaman as a long term asset in any trade, as there's no guarantee that you'll be able to keep him (even if you'll have an advantage with his Bird rights).

So yeah, no one is going to take Chris Kaman back as the centerpiece in a trade. But still, isn't he more than just an expiring contract?

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