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Value in the NBA: What's the Value of a Win?

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In the first chapter of our offseason exploration of the concept of "value", we answer the question: How much is a single win worth to each NBA team?

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

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

Mitchell:

It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game. -Grantland Rice

With all due respect, Grantland Rice is full of it. Winning is what matters in the NBA. Winning separates the teams that ultimately matter from the teams that don't. Winning is the literal barometer of a team's level of success. If winning didn't matter, why even keep track of the score?

While we may agree that winning is important, agreeing on how valuable winning is can be tricky. After all, there are lots of variables that go into team's pursuit of the almighty W, and it can be hard to keep track of them.

But let's not forget about what we know, full stop, about winning in the NBA. Wins are a finite resource, and the one thing all teams have in common is that they use salary to pay players to go out there and win. So which teams make the best of what they have?

To answer that question effectively, we need to nail down how we're going to define "value". Again, as the annual "What does the V mean in MVP?" conversation shows us, this isn't easy to do! But at its core, value is comparing what you get to what you spent; if you spend less to get something, you got better value than someone else who spent more for the same thing. For this exercise, win shares (WS) are what we're buying, actual wins are what win shares convert to, and salary ($) is what we're spending.

So let's start with the basics. In the 2015-16 NBA season, the thirty NBA teams spent roughly $2.353 billion on salaries for 564 players. As with any regular season, those thirty teams split up 1,230 wins based on, you know, actually playing basketball against each other. League-wide, that can be converted to the statement that each win was roughly "worth" $1.913 million.

To respond to a number of comments from the introduction, I fully admit that measuring players' contributions to team wins is imprecise; win shares gets us close, but a close game can can flip a win into a loss (or vice versa) without affecting a player's WS performance. We mentioned that the league saw 564 players under contract last year, and those players amassed a total of 1219.70 win shares. A small difference from the 1,230 total wins that were won, but it's important to specify the difference nonetheless. As a result, we conclude that in 2016, 1.0 player WS = $1.93m salary.

As you can imagine, value is not static from season to season. For those who are interested, here is a table showing the same calculation of league average WS value over the past 5 seasons and a rough estimate of the next 2 seasons (using projected salary data for 2016-17 and 2017-18):

Season League Average WS Value
2011-12* $2,044,456
2012-13 $1,752,792
2013-14 $1,708,041
2014-15 $1,831,294
2015-16 $1,929,216
2016-17** $2,694,286
2017-18** $2,935,200

*based on 66 total games: 2011 NBA lockout   **projected

Taking it a step further, we all know that not all teams spend salary equally. Some will struggle to stay below the tax line, while others will fight to stay above the salary floor. Likewise, not all players will contribute according to their salary scale. An aging veteran with an eight-figure deal might put up the same WS as a rookie second round pick, which is either great for the rookie or terrible for the vet. With all that said, we will need to break down each team's WS and salary totals individually, and compare it to the league average that we determined earlier.

(One quick reminder, as this exercise relates to value: the less you spend for the same commodity, the better the value. As a result, the teams that spend the least on wins can be said to have gotten the best value, whereas teams that spend the most have gotten the worst value.)

I could tell you to do the math and get back to me, but I'm not like that. For your convenience, check out the table below (ranked by Team WS Value for the 2015-16 NBA season):

Rank Team Wins Total Roster WS Total Salary Paid Team WS Value ($)
1 SAS 67 69.1 $87,365,099 $1,264,328
2 TOR 56 54.5 $71,884,665 $1,318,985
3 UTA 40 47.4 $64,783,884 $1,366,749
4 POR 44 44.3 $61,000,674 $1,376,990
5 GSW 73 67.8 $93,707,197 $1,382,112
6 ATL 48 50.0 $71,453,126 $1,429,063
7 IND 45 46.3 $71,286,088 $1,539,656
8 OKC 55 59.7 $94,622,660 $1,584,969
9 BOS 48 48.7 $77,202,316 $1,585,263
10 CHA 48 47.8 $77,609,865 $1,623,637
11 DAL 42 42.0 $74,040,317 $1,762,865
12 MIA 48 47.4 $85,826,352 $1,810,683
13 LAC 53 51.4 $95,585,714 $1,859,644
14 ORL 35 32.4 $63,349,656 $1,955,236
15 CLE 57 53.9 $105,962,520 $1,965,909
16 DET 44 38.1 $76,638,790 $2,011,517
17 SAC 33 34.9 $71,840,771 $2,058,475
18 MIN 29 34.1 $72,458,417 $2,124,880
19 HOU 41 42.0 $90,188,412 $2,147,343
20 WAS 41 39.1 $84,237,317 $2,154,407
21 NYK 32 34.9 $75,311,181 $2,157,913
22 MIL 33 31.8 $71,298,026 $2,242,076
23 DEN 33 31.9 $72,606,354 $2,276,061
24 CHI 42 37.3 $85,385,898 $2,289,166
25 MEM 42 31.2 $82,975,479 $2,659,470
26 PHO 23 25.4 $69,701,209 $2,744,142
27 NOP 30 30.2 $84,384,711 $2,794,196
28 BRK 21 22.7 $84,155,105 $3,707,273
29 PHI 10 16.0 $63,646,397 $3,977,900
30 LAL 17 7.4 $72,415,125 $9,785,828

Some of the outliers league-wide are obvious: the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors each had high payrolls, but won so dang many games that it pushes their averages down below the league standard. Seeing Toronto, Utah, and Portland in the top five of WS value is surprising at first glance, but all three teams had a number of contributors on smaller deals. At the other end of the spectrum, the Los Angeles Lakers paid an awful lot of money for barely any production, spending nearly $10 million per WS! The Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets were also terrible, paying nearly double the league average for a single WS relative to their W/L record, and the New Orleans Pelicans and Phoenix Suns round out the bottom five.

One season doesn't necessarily reflect how well a team has done, so we also put together each team's salary and WS data for the past 5 years, going back to the lockout-shortened 2011-12 NBA season. That data is in the next table below (sorted by Average Team WS Value from 2011-12 to 2015-16):

Rank Team Avg Wins (2011-2016) Avg Roster WS (2011-2016) Avg Salary Paid (2011-16) Avg Team WS Value (2011-16)
1 SAS 58.4 58.00 $72,833,235 $1,247,144
2 IND 46.0 46.10 $63,943,530 $1,390,077
3 OKC 53.2 55.26 $74,392,122 $1,398,348
4 GSW 52.2 52.74 $73,073,445 $1,399,874
5 ATL 46.0 45.24 $65,072,149 $1,414,612
6 LAC 52.4 53.24 $78,255,707 $1,493,430
7 MEM 48.8 41.10 $73,137,882 $1,498,727
8 HOU 46.0 44.28 $69,814,783 $1,517,713
9 TOR 42.0 40.64 $64,512,131 $1,536,003
10 MIA 50.2 48.90 $81,214,582 $1,617,820
11 UTA 36.4 36.84 $59,987,631 $1,648,012
12 DEN 38.8 35.56 $64,665,609 $1,666,639
13 DAL 43.6 40.24 $73,471,843 $1,685,134
14 POR 42.0 41.52 $73,597,312 $1,752,317
15 MIL 31.6 29.62 $60,917,056 $1,927,755
16 BOS 38.6 38.64 $74,421,149 $1,928,009
17 WAS 36.0 35.70 $70,628,075 $1,961,891
18 CLE 37.6 37.20 $73,983,799 $1,967,654
19 CHI 42.0 37.30 $85,385,898 $2,032,998
20 PHO 33.6 31.66 $68,420,515 $2,036,325
21 DET 31.8 30.50 $67,303,029 $2,116,447
22 CHA 30.4 28.06 $65,955,462 $2,169,588
23 NOP 31.4 32.54 $69,060,612 $2,199,383
24 NYK 35.2 35.84 $80,280,552 $2,280,697
25 MIN 28.4 31.92 $66,104,772 $2,327,633
26 SAC 28.0 29.38 $65,509,945 $2,339,641
27 BRK 34.8 31.06 $85,643,660 $2,461,025
28 ORL 28.0 28.20 $69,816,827 $2,493,458
29 LAL 30.2 26.40 $81,760,260 $2,707,293
30 PHI 23.2 24.20 $65,950,406 $2,842,690

This data isn't some great revelation. The good teams are good, the bad teams are bad, and both tend to get good/bad value from the contracts they sign their players to. (Sorry Kobe Bryant fans, but that last contract the Lakers gifted him was absolutely a bad move...but we'll get into individual player value later.) However, the fact that a correlation exists between value (as we've defined here, relating to both salary and WS produced) and team success is proof enough for me that this is worth further examination.

And since this is a Bucks site, let's take a closer look at the Bucks' overall performance since 2011. Curiously ranking dead-center at 15th, they have a pretty low average win total and terrible WS production from their roster (at 29.62/season, the Bucks would be 6th worst in the NBA!)...but because their average salary has remained so low (29th in the league, a shade higher than the Utah Jazz), they actually have gotten relatively "good" value out of the contracts they've signed players to. Part of that is the consistent youth the team has had recently, and another part is the relative lack of big money free agents the team has signed since 2011, but the fact remains that the Bucks have (at least) not vastly overpaid for poor production.

Eric: Here are some of my thoughts:

  • It is very tough for your roster to have value if you don't win more games than you lose. I don't think it's impressive, but seeing the Bucks in 15th in the five-year value chart despite averaging just 31 wins was interesting to see.
  • Paying a lot or a little for your roster doesn't seem to have an effect on the value of your roster.
  • That being said, if you pay a lot for your roster, your players better perform. As is often discussed here on this website, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker are going to get paid a lot of money in the next five years. When they start receiving that money, they need to make a major impact on the floor.
  • It's going to be fascinating to see where Portland ends up on the first list next season. Almost every summer, I'd assume we would be able to find a team high on the value list that didn't pay a ton of money for their roster and had young players outperform cheap contracts. Then, we'd see that same team decide to spend a ton of money on free agents and probably find themselves a little bit lower on the value list a year later.
  • I tried really hard to draw some conclusions about coaching with the idea that great coaches could somehow help you get more "value" out of a roster, but I failed at finding any sort of pattern.
  • If Mitchell and I continue to write on this website for the next five years, we should probably continue to do this exercise each summer. "Value", or at least that the way we defined it in this piece, is going to be of the utmost importance as the salary cap explodes. It could also be highly volatile in the coming years as the entire league tries to figure out how to build teams as the cap rises and then falls a bit after the initial bubble.