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Value in the NBA: Updates for the Summer of 2018

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Money talks. What does it say about the Milwaukee Bucks?

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

You might remember this familiar question: how much is a win worth? Back in 2016, we explored the idea of “value” from the perspective of how player salaries correlate to Win Shares, and took a look at how the Milwaukee Bucks have fared over the past few years. Though imperfect, that series helped us boil everything down to the one metric that translates universally: money. Today, we’re here to give a brief update on how things have gone league-wide, and how the Bucks’ salary commitments look compared to their performance, and how it fits in with their larger goal of actually winning games.

As a refresher, here’s a summary of our original premise from October 2016:

...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.

As a recap, we can determine a player’s estimated “WS Value” by dividing their annual salary figure by their total Win Shares rating. If that value is less than the league average for that season, that player delivered a surplus. If that value is higher, then the player took away more than they added into the team’s success.

We originally went back as far as the 2011-12 season (shortened by the lockout) to look at how much the value of a single Win Share changed with the salary cap. For all past seasons, we took the actual dollar amount spent by all 30 teams, and divided it by 1230 (the number of available wins in an 82-game season, and prorated for 2011-12). Try and guess which year the salary cap exploded in the chart below!

* lockout-shortened season **projected

Keeping track of these rolling averages is helpful, because it gives you an estimate of what should reasonably be expected from a team (and a player) simply by looking at their cap sheet. After all, if a team that’s already over the cap thinks that a player is worth $8 million per year (say, a mid-level exception contract) instead of $2 million (like a minimum-level contract) they had better see a tangible return on their investment lest they be found having committed the most grievous sin of overpayment.

So who have been the most financially successful teams over the past two season? Winning games is great, but sustainable success in today’s NBA means that you get the most bang for your buck. So if you want to break payroll records, you better break win records alongside them, and if you’re okay being a cellar dweller, make sure you’re not overpaying for the privilege of losing three-quarters of your games!

League average WS Value: $2,406,297

In 2016-17, the Golden State Warriors were the big winners, both in this exercise and in real life. They came short of their record-breaking 73 wins from the year before, but they still ended up paying far less than average for their 67-15 record. Sneaking into the top-5 were the Minnesota Timberwolves, who were dreadful on the court at 31-51 but managed to maintain the lowest payroll in the league.

The Bucks bounced back and into a winning season at 42-40, but also paid a somewhat high price (financially) for their success. 2016-17 was the year that the team paid Matthew Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic a combined $20 million, alongside the eight-figure extension previously inked by John Henson. That trio thoroughly disappointed relative to what their salary slot expectations were, but were buoyed by the efficient contributions of Tony Snell, Jabari Parker, Malcolm Brogdon, and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

League average WS Value: $2,730,328

Last season, the biggest winners were the Philadelphia 76ers, in no small part due to the play of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Dario Saric while on rookie scale contracts. No team in the top-10 had fewer than 46 wins on the year, and the majority of the league’s weaker teams filled out the bottom of the WS Value Differential rankings. I guess you could say that tanking doesn’t pay (even though it totally does).

Milwaukee improved its win total by two (44-38) last year, but fell from 11th to 18th in WS Value Differential. The reason for this swing has less to do with the team’s actual performance (the only major underachievers were Delly (who was miserable), Snell (who had gotten a huge raise), and Jabari (who missed a significant part of the year)), and more to do with the dead money on the cap. Teletovic missed the vast majority of the season with his scary injury, and the continued payments from stretching Larry Sanders and Spencer Hawes meant that the Bucks paid a combined $14 million (aka one year of a player on par with Eric Bledsoe or Khris Middleton) for virtually nothing.

As of June 28, both Tyler Zeller and Brandon Jennings are non-guaranteed for the 2018-19 season.

Looking ahead to next year, it’s important to recognize a few things.

  • All hail the rookie scale contract! Thon Maker’s improvement was marginal but at least kept pace with his deal, while the damage done by D.J. Wilson’s limited minutes was also reduced thanks to his low salary. As we look ahead to the age of Donte DiVincenzo, low expectations leave room for pleasant surprises, as his contract figure translates to a very low (and very realistic) WS performance.
  • Giannis continues to vastly outperform his salary expectations. With his consistently high positive WS Value Differential, he should be looked at as the next vastly underpaid player even on his next (supermax) contract, because he still makes contributions beyond what can be expected.
  • In short, Delly’s contract hurts the most out of any financial decision the team has made in recent memory. More than Henson, more than Snell, and if Jon Horst’s plan comes to fruition, even more than Mirza Teletovic (long term). Performance-wise, Delly is a middling third-string guard masquerading as a high-end backup, and his presence on the floor simply does not lead the team to more wins. Zach Lowe and Kevin Arnovitz recently commented that the theme of this summer is how the Summer of 2016 is coming home to roost, and the Bucks are feeling the pain more than most.
  • Tyler Zeller and Malcolm Brogdon were both big-time positives on the lower end of the cap sheet, and in Brogdon’s case he could have done even better without his quad injury limited the number of games he appeared in.
  • Weighted by average playing time, Coach Bud might consider the following suggestions when building his rotations: continue to play Giannis and Khris 34+ minutes, reduce the minutes allocated to Bledsoe in favor of Brogdon, and put Delly in the “break glass only in emergency” box and give those minutes to nearly anybody else (Sterling, DiVincenzo, or even Jennings if he is retained.)
  • The Jabari Parker saga is, in short, the matter that most requires a favorable resolution in the short-term. Middleton, Brogdon, and Bledsoe are all (effectively) expiring deals this season, but determining how much (if at all!) to pay Jabari will supercede each of their contract statuses, because each of their next deals will be influenced by how well the team performs in 2018-19. If Jon Horst even decides to offer or match a deal that pays Parker $15M, that salary would necessitate Jabari supplanting Bledsoe in the team’s hierarchy (in terms of overall contributions to wins). If the salary goes up to $18M (or even higher), then Parker’s expectations will rise to the point of surpassing Khris Middleton as the Bucks’ second-best player. Is he up for that? Is he up for even half of that? Is that the type of role you want to plug a guy with a twice-torn ACL into?