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Free Agency War Games

In the summer of 2008, Elton Brand and Baron Davis were far and away the biggest prizes in free agency.  Brand was a two time All-Star, and a one time second team All NBA selection.  Baron also was a two time All-Star and had once been a third team All NBA selection.

When I first had the idea for this post, I thought that Brand and Davis were the poster kids for the "Just say no to free agents" public service announcements.  Then I decided to do a little something extra; a little empirical research.

Following is the list of every free agent who signed a contract for more than $20M during the month of July 2008, in order of size of contract.

  • Gilbert Arenas - 6/$111M
  • Elton Brand - 5/$79.8M
  • Emeka Okafor - 6/$72M
  • Luol Deng - 6/$71M
  • Baron Davis - 5/$65M
  • Andris Biedrins - 6/$62M
  • Corey Maggette - 5/$50M
  • Jose Calderon - 5/$40M
  • Beno Udrih - 5/$32M
  • DeSagana Diop - 5/$32M
  • Louis Williams - 5/$26M
  • Mickael Pietrus - 4/$26M
  • James Posey - 4/$25M
  • James Jones - 5/$23M
  • Ryan Gomes - 5/$22M

Ouch.  That's 15 contracts, and I'd say perhaps three of them aren't regretted by the teams today (Pietrus, Williams and maybe Udrih).  So what's that, a 20% chance of not having an epic fail?  Even deals that looked like smart moves at the time (like Calderon) have turned out badly for teams (as Toronto is now stuck with a complementary player making big long term money on a team that missed the playoffs and is going to lose its cornerstone this summer).  Two of the 15 names have been waived (Jones and Gomes).  Four were so unappealing to their teams that they've since been traded.  But those were the less bad deals in relative terms - at least those guys were tradeable.  As many as six of the 15 would be considered untradeable at this point, and that's a top-heavy list with all of the big money signings.  In a nice little twist on the subject, a couple of these names are entagled in the free agency madness of 2010 (Jones was waived by Miami to free more space, the Bulls would dearly love to move Deng to do the same).

Was 2008 a particularly disastrous year for free agent signings?  Well, it was bad to be certain.  But 2009 wasn't much better, with names like Hedo Turkoglu, Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva and Andrea Bargnani signing big contracts which their teams almost immediately rued.  (Poor Toronto - three bad deals in two years.)

So why does anyone think that 2010 is going to be any different?  Certainly LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are in a totally different category than any of the 2008 or 2009 names, and any team that manages to sign them will be lucky to have them and will not regret it, barring an injury or a gun incident.  But ask yourself this question:  where would Baron Davis and Elton Brand, circa 2008, slot into this free agency class? 

Brand was coming off a serious injury, which certainly raised concerns, but consider that his career PER in 2008 was higher than Bosh's career PER today (22.7 versus 21.3); higher than those of Carlos Boozer and Amare Stoudemire also.  Don't even bring up Rudy Gay (he doesn't even have the highest career PER of the free agent small forwards from the Grizzlies).

As for Baron Davis, what do you suppose happens when you compare him to Joe Johnson?  Well, Baron's career PER as of two years ago far outstrips Johnson's career PER (18.5 versus 16.3).  So you're probably assuming that Baron's last few seasons in Golden State were not as productive as Johnson has been in Atlanta, but you're wrong.  Baron posted PERs of 21 and 19.8 in the two seasons prior to free agency, while Johnson has posted an 18.2 and a 19.3.  So you're thinking, Baron was old when he signed with the Clippers so his decline was inevitable.  Baron was 29 years and 77 days on July 1 2008; Joe Johnson turned 29 years two days ago.  So yeah, if you think those two and a half extra months of youth are the difference, by all means, offer him a maximum contract.

As hard as it is to put yourself in the mindset of the 2008 GM, I think it's safe to say that Brand and Baron would slot right in with the big names of this historic free agency class, probably in the group right after Bosh (that's giving CB4 a nod on the age issue). 

Based on recent history, it seems pretty clear that whoever signs any free agent not named LeBron or Dwyane will overpay.  That's just how it works.  Of course, there are two ways of looking at that.  One would be that it's simply the cost of doing business.  You have to overpay to get players, so in that sense it's not really overpaying - it's just what the market will bear.  The other philosophy would be to avoid big contracts on anything other than absolute can't miss superstars.  And I just don't consider most of these players to be in that category.

Happily, the Clippers will not be tempted by the likes of Bosh or Boozer or Stoudemire.  But after LeBron rejects them, they may very well be drawn towards Johnson or (FSM forbid) Gay.  The Hawks can do the rest of the league a HUGE favor if they really are offering Johnson a full max deal for 6 seasons (Joe Johnson making $30M at the age of 34?  Really?)  Hopefully the Clippers will stay away from Gay, if only to avoid tying up their cap space waiting for Memphis to match.

Interestingly, there is actually a wing in Memphis who I would like to see the Clippers sign.  For some unknown reason, the Grizzlies decided NOT to extend a qualifying offer to Ronnie Brewer today.  That may be a message that they are planning to retain Gay.  The paradox is that Brewer may actually be the better player than Gay - he certainly would come cheaper.

In the end, NBA free agency may turn out to be like Global Thermonuclear War in the 1983 film War Games:

A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.

Now, how about a nice game of chess?