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Value in the NBA: Setting Expectations for the Milwaukee Bucks

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In the seventh and final part of our offseason exploration of the concept of "value", we look to answer this question: What can we reasonably expect from the Bucks this season?

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

(If you're not up to speed, check out the series introduction here.)

Over the past few weeks, we've gone through the idea of "value" from the perspective of how player salaries correlate to Win Shares, and taken a look at how the Milwaukee Bucks have fared from different viewpoints (focusing on trades and drafts). This series may not have uncovered any shocking truths about winning in the NBA, or unlocked any hidden secrets about building the perfect team, but we have been able to boil it all down to one metric that translates universally: money.

To briefly recap, we already know that every team competes for the same limited commodity (wins) by spending a common resource (salary). By translating wins into a dollar figure (using Win Shares), and determining how much money each win is "worth" under the salary cap, we can determine the Win Share value differential, which shows how much more (or less) any NBA player is worth compared the league average.

There are some important points to consider when going through this process. First, using Win Shares means that the entire study has been results-based, rather than focusing on process, which comes with the same weaknesses that WS already has as a standard metric. Secondly, because of the uncertainty of the draft, the value of draft picks and rookie players is estimated using different tiers. Lastly, the value of a win changes from year to year, based on the salary cap's fluctuations, so comparing players between seasons is difficult.

All in all, this exercise has its flaws. I fully recognize that, and I appreciate the feedback I have gotten from both readers and writers. At the same time, we can use a common definition of "value," and can use it as a lens to consider each different aspect of team building, from trades and free agency to individual development and the impact of time missed from injury or suspension.

So now that we've covered the different angles that the Bucks have taken since 2011, what can we expect from them going forward? What sort of value can we project on the roster that they've built around Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker, and Giannis Antetokoumpo? Let's dive in!

With summer winding to a close, the NBA has begun to adapt to the new salary cap environment. And if you don't think it's all that different, just know that Ryan Anderson is getting $20m/year...and it's not considered a terrible deal! Rotation players can now enter negotiations with the expectation of making what was considered "superstar money" a decade ago. Giannis' extension is worth an average of $25m/year, and he isn't even getting the max!

As the salary cap rises, so does the average cost of a win. As previously established, the 2015-16 league average WS Value was $1.93m per win. Using the projections for the next two seasons, the league average WS Value is estimated to increase by nearly 40% to $2.69m per win in 2016-17, and it will increase again to $2.94m per win in 2017-18.

League-Average WS Value ($)
2015-16 $1,929,216
2016-17 $2,694,286
2017-18 $2,935,200

So given where the benchmark for "league average" sits, how do the current Bucks look from a cap sheet perspective? Here's a chart showing each player's salary, how many WS they produced last season, and how many WS they would produce if their WS Value production was precisely at the league average of $2.69m/win (please note that this is not the final chart for this post!):

Player NBA EXP (Years) 2015-16 Win Shares 2016-17 Salary Expected WS (Salary only)
Greg Monroe 6 7.50 $17,100,000 6.35
Khris Middleton 4 6.10 $15,200,000 5.64
John Henson 4 2.30 $12,517,606 4.65
Miles Plumlee 4 2.20 $12,500,000 4.64
Mirza Teletovic 4 3.80 $10,500,000 3.90
Matthew Dellavedova 3 3.80 $9,607,500 3.57
Jabari Parker 2 3.60 $5,374,320 1.99
Michael Carter-Williams 3 1.20 $3,183,526 1.18
Giannis Antetokounmpo 3 7.10 $2,995,421 1.11
Thon Maker 0 n/a $2,568,600 0.95
Rashad Vaughn 1 -0.80 $1,811,040 0.67
Michael Beasley 8 1.00 $1,403,611 0.52
Jason Terry 17 1.50 $1,551,659 0.58
Steve Novak 10 0.00 $1,551,659 0.58
Malcolm Brogdon 0 n/a $925,000 0.34
Larry Sanders* $2,170,000

Immediately, some things become obvious. First, Giannis is laughably underpaid (thanks rookie scale contracts!) relative to his production. He legitimately could outperform his 2016-17 salary by a factor of ten! To his credit, Jabari Parker isn't too far behind, even if he's only doubling his production vs. his salary. Greg Monroe looks like a good value as well (surprisingly enough), and Mirza Teletovic, Matthew Dellavedova, and Michael Carter-Williams appear to be pretty well matched to their most recent production, salary-wise. On the other side of things, both John Henson and Miles Plumlee will look massively overpaid if they don't improve drastically from last season, and the same goes for Rashad Vaughn, who would have delivered a better WS Value if he had played the same number of minutes as Larry Sanders (Related: Larry Sanders played 0 minutes in 2015-16).

On the topic of "improvements," careful readers will notice that there's another column labelled "NBA EXP", which shows how many seasons each player has accrued in the NBA. To answer why it's included, we'll go back to our conversation about the Khris Middleton Trade (it feels so great calling it that!), where we talked about the "curve" many NBA players follow as they develop into serviceable players.

In that post, we were able to quantify the average rate of improvement within the first six years of an NBA player's career. The most drastic improvements seem to happen in Years 2 through 4, and productivity generally starts to plateau once a player has logged five seasons. This isn't a catch-all, but does help inform what we can expect from young players whose careers fit on the steeper parts of this curve.

With this in mind, the young player additions over the past three years become really important, and we may start seeing the benefits of those decisions as soon as this season (even with Khris missing virtually the whole year). Think about it: of the 15 players on the Bucks' roster, it feels obvious to state that Steve Novak, Jason Terry, and Michael Beasley are (at best) only going to come close to what they produced last season. After Beasley, the Buck with the next most NBA experience is Greg Monroe, who is as talented as he is maligned for being a bad fit in Milwaukee.

After Moose, each player on the team currently has 4 or fewer years of NBA experience. That is an incredible concentration of youth on one team, and reflects the substance of the "Own the Future" slogan. It's evident that John Hammond and company are betting big on player development to carry the Bucks ahead in the standings in the years to come, and the numbers appear to back that up.

This chart shows twice the data as the version used previously, and provides a look at the average rate of development (in terms of WS produced) over the first 10 years of any given player's career (during the current era). As we discussed previously, the biggest jumps for your average basketball player happen between Year 2 and Year 4, and tends to level out at Year 6. But the average is dragged down with how bad young NBA players usually are, and the increases later on can be attributed to the attrition of players who see their NBA careers flat-out end.

So while this information is useful, the averages of all NBA players isn't as applicable when applied to players on vastly different tracks. In short, Giannis' development does not truly correlate to Mirza Teletovic's development. To that end, I divided the same data set into three tiers: the top 20% (the league's elite), the middle 60% (includes players ranging from "pretty good" to "sort of good"), and the bottom 20% (the league's dregs).

As you can see, while the overall rates of improvement are similar, there is a vast difference in the degree of this improvement, particularly at the higher levels. But what this chart also shows is the expected ceiling and floor of players at different points in their development, by way of marking the spots where one tier ends and another begins.

For example, Rashad Vaughn was nearly at the bottom of the lowest tier, coming in at -0.8 WS produced. That's what happens when you're historically bad as a rookie. Going into Year 2, if his development follows the average curve for his tier, could see him improve his productivity as high as 0.7 WS (which is a significant improvement already!) However, there is also a feasible chance that his development carries him into the lower rungs of the middle-60% tier, which would be a even bigger improvement to 1.2 WS produced. Realistically, transforming into a below-average player would be a huge success for Vaughn!

So with these weights in mind, I calculated what reasonable expectations we can put upon each Buck this season (based on career production and years of NBA experience), then compared their modified individual WS Value Differential to the league average. The table below is sorted by 2016-17 salary, with the player's WS Value Differential color-coded for how good (or bad) of a value they project to be going forward:

(Editor's Note: While we all know Khris Middleton will likely not play in 2016-17, he was included on this chart to quantitavely illustrate the value he could provide during both this season and next. -MM)

Remember, these projections are not iron-clad. The chances that each player follows their development curve so closely to the average are infinitesimally small. There are always under-performers and overachievers. However, given the combination of the Bucks' youth and cap situation, there is a very strong chance that most of the players who provide better-than-average value will comprise the main core of the team going forward.

One of the main trends we can see is the value provided by the Bucks' youth. Another is that the team isn't grossly overpaying for any specific player (relative to production), although the argument that Miles Plumlee and/or John Henson are exactly that could be made. But really, the most surprising thing that I can see is how much the Bucks depend on the trio of Giannis, Khris Middleton...and Greg Monroe, which highlights just how confounding his whole situation is.

Overall, this entire project has made me feel very comfortable with the Bucks' future prospects. With a number of players coming off the Bucks' cap sheet after this season, the team should be primed to provide our core group of players the right role players to push them into the next tier of contention in the Eastern Conference.