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Wins, Contracts, and the Concept of Value in Today's NBA

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So what is a win worth, anyway?

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Eric Nehm: Since the moment I was welcomed into the Brew Hoop family, I have been increasingly interested in a theory I believe to be more common among basketball fans than fans of any other sport:

Two people can look at the exact same thing (one play, a decision, a roster move, a pre-draft workout, one pass, a single defensive rotation, on and on) and have completely opposite opinions.

Now, I’m sure that same thing exists in other popular American sports, but it just feels more commonplace among basketball fans. In baseball, there is a single event that dictates an outcome. Every pitch has a distinct measurable outcome. In football, though there are 22 players on the field, there are regular stoppages in play, which can allow for very specific analysis of singular plays, and there is typically a single player (quarterback, sometimes running back) that has an overwhelmingly large effect on the effectiveness of the play.

The best basketball is full of complex interactions between a number of players. A single player may be the catalyst behind those interactions, but it is often much more difficult to assign responsibility to successes and failures of a team unit. The difficult untangling of on-court responsibility leads to many of the arguments people have about basketball in general and about the moves the Bucks have made in the Brew Hoop comment section.

As I thought more and more about this conundrum, I thought that there had to be a way to attempt to understand and assign value to the moves made by the Bucks over the years.

Rarely does a week go by without some sort of argument about the merits of the swap made last year for Michael Carter-Williams. Or the lack of value the Bucks received for Jared Dudley and Zaza Pachulia last offseason. Or the needless selling of second round picks. Or the recent free agent signings of Matthew Dellavedova, Mirza Teletovic, and Miles Plumlee.

The disagreements are incredibly regular, but agreements are rare. Players are traded all the time and yet there seems to be little consensus on whether or not trades are bad or good. At this point, there should be something more than just subjective arguments. We should be able to develop something that can quantitatively measures the effectiveness of a move.

With that thought in mind, I approached Mitchell with the idea of trying to develop something that would attempt to measure the effectiveness of trades. It turned out that we found more than just that.

(Editor’s note: This is Eric’s fancy way of saying he sent Mitchell a message that said: "I’m so tired of arguing about the same moves over and over again. Why isn’t there a way for us to say a roster move was good or bad? WHY, MITCHELL?!? WHY??!?!" There may or may not have been incessant cursing involved in that message.)

Mitchell Maurer: When I first started pondering this topic, I tried to organize my thoughts by asking one simple question: what do we know, full stop, about winning in the NBA? Might seem like a silly question, but in taking that far of a step back we find ourselves with an interesting premise. Consider the following:

  • There are 30 teams in the NBA.
  • Under normal circumstances, each team plays 82 games, and no game can end in a tie.
  • As a result, there are 1,230 total wins available each season for each team...as well as 1,230 total losses, which are allocated game-by-game.

With that in mind, it’s fair to say that regular season wins are a finite commodity in the NBA. There’s only so many of them to go around, and all 29 of your competitors are pursuing them right alongside you.

Another thing that all NBA teams have in common is how they employ players (thanks to the CBA). Of course, there’s many ways to build a team (draft vs. free agency vs. trades), but all players share this fact: they get paid. That makes salary a common resource with which teams can pursue wins, and one which is both guaranteed and virtually finite (thanks to the salary floor and the luxury tax, respectively). Furthermore, it makes salary the de facto common denominator for all players, regardless of how they join a team.

With those two core assumptions in place, you can calculate the rough "value" of almost anything: a contract extension, a late first round draft pick, a multi-player trade, and everything in-between. To do so, I like to use the basketball-reference.com version of Win Shares, since they quantify each individual player’s contribution to their team’s wins, and in aggregate are generally closely correlated to their team’s actual W/L record.

Beyond that, once you start thinking about value in terms that translate between different perspectives, you can see some pretty interesting things. Some of them are obvious, like how much more valuable rookie contracts have become, or how advantageous it is for a major contributor to come with a low salary cap figure. Some are less clear but still logical, like how superstars are vastly underpaid relative to their capped contracts, or how overpaying for aging players is a risky proposition.

One of the things that I found to be very interesting was how timing plays into everything. We might be fools to assume that NBA teams think on a scale as small as one season, even if there are enough examples of moves so shortsighted they make...a shortsighted person look less shortsighted… (ba-dum-tss) No, teams likely have three- and five-year plans (minimum), and presumably take future repercussions into consideration. Yes, even the Kings.

Consider a scenario: It’s mid-summer, and your team has a player that’s a near-All Star going into the final year of their contract. They could be the cornerstone of your franchise for the duration of their next deal...if you can get them to re-sign. Or they might not take the next step, and end up as an albatross on your cap sheet. While you’re mulling all of that over, you get a trade offer and have a young prospect and a mid-first round draft pick on the table. Do you take the deal? Do you wait and see how the rest of the summer goes?

That is the type of question we want to be able to address in more concrete terms. And now that Eric and I have worked out the specifics of what we want to focus on, we’re going to do just that.

In the posts that will follow, we'll look at a great number of things. We can look at which players over-performed relative to their contracts, and which ones fell short of their cap figure. We can analyze trades based on the information known at the time, and the performance after the fact. We can even determine the relative value of a win, and how that value fluctuates with the ever-changing salary cap landscape.

Specifically, these are the questions that we want to answer:

  1. How much was a single win worth to each NBA team?
  2. Which players were the best values in the NBA last season? Which were the worst?
  3. Who did the Bucks get the best value from? Who offered the least value?
  4. What does the Bucks’ recent history look like, from a value perspective?
  5. What does the Bucks’ future look like, again from a value perspective? How will players have to perform to "justify" their contracts?

But we won’t stop there, and you can help us out. If you have answers you’d like to submit to these questions, or if you have other questions of your own that aren’t listed above, please leave them in the comments! If a question or another post gets enough recs, we’ll be sure to address it in our follow-ups.