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Value in the NBA: Revisiting Recent Bucks Free Agent History

Giannis Antetokounmpo Day in Milwaukee - MVP Celebration Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

Last weekend, we dove headfirst into the updates to Brew Hoop’s annual evaluation of the concept of value in the NBA. Today, we’re going to pick at the scabs of the past and pass judgement on some of the Milwaukee Bucks’ recent decisions to determine which side of the value ledger they’ve fallen on. We’ll cover some of the big decisions the team has made for this season, as well as some of the Bucks’ “greatest hits” from recent seasons.

In order to do so, be sure to keep in mind the basic premise of our original exercise: to quantify the value of an NBA transaction for the franchise. The way we’ve done that is by comparing a player’s overall production (as designated by their Win Shares performance) to the salary they’re paid. It is an imperfect formula, but it helps us provide some normalized structure for comparing the league’s overall population. The whole point is to win the games, right?

The gist here is that, for 1.0 Win Shares over the course of a season, a player “should” be paid the amount in the middle column. By this logic, if they produce triple (3.0), or half of (0.5) that, then their salary should be tripled halved as well. Invariably, because salary is locked in before a player sets foot on the court, their performance lets us determine whether they provided positive (or negative) value by simply comparing their Win Shares to their salary.

Lastly, before we dive into some of the Bucks’ recent decisions, we should review the recent trends of the league, in terms how how much money has been paid and how that affects the valuation of a single Win Share. The chart below includes the estimated amount of salary paid out per season since 2011-12 (the lockout-shortened campaign of 66 games), and what the league average “cost” of a single Win Share came out to.

* Season shortened by lockout. ** Estimated per

For the sake of consistency, we also put together the same conversion between salary and minutes played, grouping together minutes into 48-Minute Units in order to simplify some of the conversions. We compared dollars paid to minutes played in order to better understand the impact of players on the margins, which is where the largest opportunities to extract value exist. The basic concept is the same as for Win Shares; on average, an individual’s playing time ought to line up with the league average for their salary in order to provide a positive return for the team. If a player logs tons of minutes at a low price, their value is through-the-roof positive; if they make a ton of money and play very little, the opposite is true. Here are the benchmarks for valuation of playing time since 2011-12:

With that all out of the way, let’s get into the Bucks and free agency, both their current additions and some of the greatest hits from recent years. It’s sure to be fun and stress-free!

Free Agents

Brook Lopez: 4-year/$52M

As we saw last year, Brook Lopez provided some of the best value in the league. After the Los Angeles Lakers inexplicably passed on retaining his services, the Bucks swooped in and nabbed Splash Mountain for the biannual exception (1-year/$3.4M) late in July 2018. Based on last season’s numbers, he would have provided an equal return on his contract had he played only 8 minutes per game and produced only enough to amass 1.3 Win Shares (a WS/48 rate of 0.099). He blew those expectations out of the water, logging over 2,300 minutes and 6.7 Win Shares (a WS/48 rate of 0.138, 40% higher than the expected average).

Going forward, the benchmark for Brook to maintain even modestly-positive value is higher, thanks to his new (and well-deserved) contract. However, because of the landscape of the league, expectations for Brook are actually fairly low! Starting at $12.1M next season, the Bucks will break even if he plays only 1,900 minutes (400 less than last year) and adds 3.9 Win Shares (roughly two-thirds of his output last year).

Further down the line, things may tip back the other direction as Lopez ages and his contract value increases, but with the overall league salary levels increasing at a similar (or faster) rate, it’s reasonable to assume that Lopez will continue to provide excellent value on his contract for the foreseeable future. Bucks fans may have been positive about his retention in July, but fans of this exercise ought to be ecstatic; Brook will likely provide far more than his salary would require, which is a boon for the Bucks.

Robin Lopez: 2-year/$9.8M (player option on Year 2)

The value proposition for Brook’s twin brother exists in a very different framework. Whereas Brook was central to the Bucks’ reinvention of the “five-out” offense last year, Robin’s career has been somewhat meandering lately, given his “conventional center” mold and having played for struggling franchises for some time now.

Alternatively, the bar for Robin to return equal value is simply lower than it is for Brook, since as the former just got done with a 4-year deal worth $50+ million, the latter is just starting his. Coming in at the room mid-level exception ($4.8M this season), Robin has to play only 750 minutes and contribute 1.5 Win Shares in order to meet expectations. Robin has played double that amount of minutes every season since 2012-13, and his career WS/48 rate (0.117) indicates that he’s capable of exceeding the expected 0.099 average...even if the past three seasons spent in Chicago saw his averages take a hit.

George Hill: 3-year/$29M (partial guarantee on Year 3)

With Hill’s contract, we come to our first serious question regarding whether he will or won’t provide surplus value over the duration of his tenure in Milwaukee. On his last deal, a 3-year/$57M contract that was ended early thanks to a $1M guarantee (on an $18M salary), Hill came nowhere near to hitting the expected averages for playing time.

At $20M in 2017-18 and $19M last season, an average expected contribution would have been in excess of 3,000 minutes each season, with Win Share totals of 7.3 and 6.5 (respectively). Hill averaged roughly half that amount in each category, which speaks to the poor value of his previous deal and justifies his waiving/re-signing at a lower price point. This isn’t to say that every NBA contract should return a positive value (just by the nature of how averages work); while it’s the goal, there is simply an equilibrium point on the salary side that, once surpassed, makes it impossible to deliver a surplus return. Hill’s previous contract was higher than that point, and his new deal is much closer to what can be reasonably expected from him at this point in his career.

This season, at a cap figure of $9.1M, the goal (in this model) for George Hill is to play about 1,400 minutes (18 minutes/game) and produce 2.9 Win Shares. This is much closer to his actual production over the past two seasons; barring injury, Hill should have no problem meeting these benchmarks.

Khris Middleton: 5-year/$178M

Remember what we said about that salary equilibrium, and how after a certain point it’s nearly impossible to provide higher-than-average value? This is the world in which the NBA’s max-level contracts live, and it’s precisely where Khris Middleton will be for the foreseeable future. Here’s a look at what his expected minutes played and Win Shares totals were for the timeframe that includes the final year of his rookie deal, the duration of his last contract, and the first year of his new one. The 2016-17 season is in italics to call out the fact that Middleton was injured for most of the season, and the 2019-20 season uses our conservative estimates for his playing time and WS totals.

Pretty steep drop-off on the way, huh? While Middleton was obviously a huge steal back in 2014-15, his sub-market contract for the past four years (discounting injury) saw him actually provide a fairly decent return altogether, particularly on the Win Shares side of things. The 2015-16 season wasn’t particularly impressive (for anyone in Milwaukee), and Khris’ steady style of play over the past two years gave Milwaukee 25% more bang for their buck.

Going forward, though? Those days are over, plain and simple. Middleton makes too much money to return equal value in this exercise, and his detractors will simplify that statement to argue that he simply makes too much money. In a certain (narrow) way, this is absolutely the case: Middleton is making more money than Damian Lillard. Joel Embiid, and Anthony Davis, all while clearly ranking as the second-best player on his team. To break even, Middleton would have to achieve 9.9 Win Shares, which would rank him 12th in the league, with a WS/48 rate of 0.206, on par with Kevin Durant. This isn’t likely, therefore Middleton’s contract is a bad value.

In others’ view, this opinion is correct but not right. Khris’ contributions are maybe not so easily captured in the box score, and the Bucks are paying him for the ability to retain him in an active market. Continuity and comfort matter in the NBA, and few players fit in as nicely next to Giannis as Middleton does. Additionally, through the lens of this exercise, Middleton wouldn’t be a “fair” value unless he took a starting salary below $18M. Is another $12M on top of that worth the right to keep an All Star-caliber player?

In the past...

Greg Monroe: 3-year/$50M in 2015

Signing Moose was a massive win for Milwaukee as a franchise, but it didn’t bring about as much on-court success as fans hoped, largely because of how quickly Monroe’s game grew obsolete. He’s 29 years old and hasn’t suffered a major injury...and currently plies his trade in Germany rather than the NBA.

Surprisingly enough, his Win Share Value was only slightly negative during his time in Milwaukee...but it was Monroe’s declining playing time that really led to his fall from NBA grace. Looking into his stats, it’s not even like Monroe fell off in a major way...the NBA just evolved beyond what he could do. He was good at what he was good at, but his lack of defensive acumen, lack of agility and speed, his lack of three-point range, his overall lack of modernity turned him from a free agent prize to a forgotten relic of basketball’s past in four short years.

Jerryd Bayless: 2-year/$6M in 2014

Bayless’ tenure in Milwaukee might be forgettable, but the value he provided on a cheap contract (even by standards at the time) was significant. Over his two years as a Buck, Bayless produced nearly five Win Shares (4.8) with an expectation of around three (3.1), and played 2,000 more minutes than his compensation would have necessitated. In a way, he has some similarities to Pat Connaughton, who also contributes well beyond his salary slot as a wing off the bench. And while advanced age and injuries undermined Bayless’ efforts to continue in that role, it didn’t stop him from signing a 3-year/$27M deal with Philadelphia; Planet Pat has a chance to potentially cash in the same way next summer.

O.J. Mayo: 3-year/$24M in 2013

It’s hard to imagine these days, when $8M/year is a stone’s throw from the midlevel exception, but back in 2013 it was a significant investment. And as was the tradition in Milwaukee at the time, it was an investment that never came back around for the Bucks. Mayo was underwhelming in Memphis and Dallas, and somehow managed to disappoint even further; he never played anywhere near enough minutes to match his contract, and when he did play he failed to elevate the team around him. No, it’s not fair to put the blame for the Bucks’ trash performance (back when Giannis was a young’n) on Uncle Juice...but his stats indicate that he never even came close. And in hindsight (in 2017), even he knows it:

“I want to go back to what I left [in Milwaukee],” Mayo said, when asked for his dream destination. “I was real close with Jason Kidd. That was the best relationship I had with a coach besides [Dwaine Barnes]. I had great relationships with Giannis [Antetokounmpo] and Khris Middleton. I was comfortable there. I felt like I let them down, cheated them for two years. They paid me $8 million to be, in my eyes, a subpar player. They invested millions of dollars for me to be on top of my s---, and when you’re not on top of your s---, it shows. I’ll be 30 next summer. If they just give me the chance, I can make it up. I owe them.”

Mayo never did get his chance, at least not yet, to make it up to the Bucks; despite his reinstatement from a three-year ban from the league, Mayo has yet to even be included in rumors for training camp deals. Hope may spring eternal, but in terms of the value O.J. provided to the Bucks on his contract...“hopeless” is as appropriate a word as there is.

If you’re jonesing for more rehashing the same personnel moves we’ve discussed and debated ad nauseam, fear not! We’ll go through some of the Bucks’ recent contract extensions, as well as some of the larger decisions that will impact the current era of Milwaukee basketball...and quite possibly the franchise’s long-term future. Isn’t the offseason fun?!