If you’re an NBA free agent next summer, your hopes of a lucrative deal like we’ve seen over the past two offseasons have just been altered by the league’s new financial reality. Bobby Marks and Brian Windhorst produced an excellent piece this week breaking down the looming cap crunch NBA teams will be facing this summer and how it will impact upcoming free agents.
The article does a thorough job of explaining the upcoming dollar drought through the lens of the summer of 2016 where the league’s salary cap spiked and marginal players started landing deals normally reserved for superstars. Because the NBA had never seen such a drastic jump to their cap structure, it seems unavoidable that teams would be facing luxury tax problems and roster rigidity given the uncharted terrain…..right?
But what if the 2016 offseason didn’t force teams down an immutable track leading them to this point? Instead, it may have actually exacerbated flaws in front office to the point we can finally see them clearly.
“Moneyball” in the NBA
It’s become an overused trope, but the groundbreaking book by Michael Lewis released 15 years ago has a lot of applicability to the situation NBA teams find themselves in now. For those that still haven’t read the book (or seen the movie), Lewis chronicles the Oakland A’s, a low-budget MLB franchise, as they attempt to replace the production of expensive, departed stars. Billy Beane finds success by understanding his economic environment and using an unorthodox, analytics savvy approach to maintain a high level of success despite limited financial muscle.
The idea of exploiting market inefficiencies for a competitive advantage isn’t some earth-shattering concept. NBA teams are creating analytics departments now hoping to uncover the same thing Beane did in the early 2000s. So saying basketball teams need to get their “Moneyball” on is obviously pointless -- they already are.
But the lesson NBA teams haven’t really learned from that MLB era with Beane isn’t so much in the macro-level approach, it’s in one of the smaller concepts inside it. What Beane did with that team in particular is accept a standard deal -- accepting less production if he got it at a fraction of the price. For Beane and the A’s, getting a player to produce at three-fifths the level of a key contributor for one-quarter of the price wasn’t ideal, but overall it was a win. And given the roster building dynamics of baseball, if he “won” enough of those moves, it’d produce a team like the one chronicled in Lewis’ book.
NBA teams are clearly not built the same way. Instead of 25-man rosters, nine-player lineups and a host of specialized performers (pitchers, individual batters, etc) the NBA has smaller rosters that need produce dynamic, 5-player combinations. A baseball team could replace a star’s production by throwing two or three players into a well-organized approach. Basketball teams can’t replace someone like LeBron James with three players unless they get special rule exceptions to play 7-on-5 after he leaves.
The reason that this concept matters for NBA teams, however, has nothing to do with stars and everything to do with filling out a roster around them. The Portland Trail Blazers' decisions over the past two offseasons show us why.
Let’s Run That Back
After 51 wins in 2015, the Blazers were forced into a new course of action. Franchise centerpiece LaMarcus Aldridge left Portland for San Antonio, leaving behind Damian Lillard and lot of uncertainty. Portland went into the following season expecting to tank and instead wound up in the playoffs due to a dynamic backcourt featuring Lillard and CJ McCollum surrounded by a crew of unlikely contributors.
After 44 wins and a surprising playoff appearance, the Blazers went to work improving on their unexpected success right as the NBA entered the uncharted wilderness of a massive cap spike. What followed was players like Allen Crabbe, Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard netting nearly $200 million to either return or come to the Northwest and join forces with the team’s explosive backcourt. Those deals were met with skepticism at the time, and now, with the benefit of hindsight, they’ve proven catastrophic.
Additional contracts doled out to Al-Farouq Aminu and Mo Harkless along with the three above helped push the Blazers deep into luxury tax hell. That then prompted the team to basically give Crabbe away to Brooklyn (more on that in a second) for essentially nothing just to lessen their tax bill by about $40 million. Even without Crabbe in the fold, the team currently will sit snugly against the tax threshold with rotation players like Pat Connaughton, Shabazz Napier and Jusuf Nurkic eligible for restricted free agency this summer.
It’s easy now to say those are deals Portland never should have made. But the reality of the situation is that the Blazers found an unexpected level of success and needed to maintain it. Simply foregoing signing anyone and letting Lillard lead a cast of misfits into the lottery the following season could have caused irreparable damage to the team’s relationship with their franchise cornerstone. Nobody in the NBA wants to squash unexpected momentum.
Portland needed to do something to stay at around 44 wins or build toward something even better. That’s why the deals for those players were handed out, locking Portland -- 29-25 entering tonight’s games -- into a state of mediocrity that’s going to be hard to escape. The lessons of Beane’s A’s could have proved to valuable to the team that summer.
The deal for Turner is low hanging fruit, but it’s still worth dissecting. For the Blazers, Turner represented a player they could pair with either McCollum or LIllard while also perhaps initiating offense on his own. Turner is essentially an average defender who can function as a nominal point guard. His outside shooting was and still is a problem.
So what Portland was essentially looking for was a wing-sized player who could function as a primary ballhandler while accepting that the player was a non-shooter. Even without touching Turner’s annually awful on/off splits, the Blazers didn’t need to play $75 million over four years to find a player who could offer similar production. James Johnson signed a one-year deal with the Heat that same summer. Nando de Colo, formerly of the Spurs and Raptors, is currently destroying the Euroleague with powerhouse club CSKA Moscow (and he can shoot!). It’s a safe bet to say that Portland could have gambled on a couple of players like that and secured Turner’s previous production for a fraction of the cost.
Harkless falls into the same vein. A 6’8’’ combo forward with no real track record as a floor-spacer isn’t exactly a rare commodity. Although Harkless’ inclusion in the starting lineup triggered the Blazers late postseason run during the 15-16 season, the team needed to objectively look at what he offered. Portland could have perhaps scoured the end of rosters or dove into the D-League and banked on their development to find a cheaper alternative to Harkless.
If that failed, there’s always the fact that Jeff Green took a one-year deal worth $15 million to go play for the Magic that same summer. Luc Mbah a Moute, another established NBA vet, also went to the Clippers during that 2016 offseason for peanuts. The really smart move for Portland would have been securing a player like Mbah a Moute or Green while developing a younger player with the same game behind them on a multi-year, non-guaranteed deal.
Just imagine how different Portland’s future flexibility would be if Turner and Harkless weren’t on the teams cap sheet for nearly $30 million combined next season. The entire calculus for the Blazers offseason moves would be changed. As of now, the team will have to make a string of clever moves to jettison two unessential pieces without incurring similar costs.
Contracts doled out to Turner and Harkless are obviously easier targets. Things get a little different when looking at re-signing young, restricted free agents like Leonard and Crabbe. Deals involving players like that simply requiring placing a bet. The Blazers were likely hoping that those two youngsters would gel with their backcourt and form a potent, youthful core for years to come. There’s nothing wrong with swinging and missing in that context.
The problem is that deals like that become problematic in when compounded when a team like Portland whiffs on a free agent deal for a player like Turner. That’s why it’s crucial for NBA teams to thoroughly examine the type of production and they need and see if they can get all or a good chunk of it from players that are massively undervalued -- just like Beane and his Oakland A’s.
It’s Not Just Them
Obviously because of the Turner deal, it’s easy to pick on Portland. But the truth is, more NBA teams fail in this regard than succeed. The Detroit Pistons have handed out weighty, mid-level deals to players like Langston Galloway, Jon Leuer, and the recently departed Boban Marjanovic. Years ago I wrote about Milwaukee’s infatuation with mid-level free agent deals. Teams like the Pelicans probably now realize they could have gotten similar or better production from guys on the vet minimum than Alexis Ajinca or Solomon Hill (who has, in fairness, missed the entire start of this season to injury).
To be clear, NBA teams are going to miss on free agents. Simply going back and pointing out those misses isn’t the goal. The real takeaway is that NBA teams aren’t doing enough to minimize their risk when they do.
Before the great cap spike of 2016, teams operated in a landscape where cap room was bountiful and teams could pawn off bad deals into another club’s cap space at the small price of a draft pick. As Windhorst and Marks pointed out, that world is gone for at least the near future. Very few teams will have cap room and even less will want to use that harbor shoddy free agent deals.
That’s why at this point more than any other, we’re seeing a big flaw in the way NBA teams operate. While a team’s star search is obviously its most crucial, quite a few franchises are shooting themselves in the foot by continuing to overpay for middling production despite a marketplace they knew was about to go haywire. If there was ever a time for NBA front offices to adjust their approach, it’d be during a time where we see the major ramifications for overpaying for replaceable production.
In the early 2000s, Beane found success in baseball by scouring his marketplace for overlooked assets he could turn into wins. Now after the dust of 2016 has settled, it’ll be interesting to see which NBA front offices will do the same.