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July 2, 2010
Summer 2010 Preview
Ranking the Free Agents

by Kevin Pelton

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We've evaluated the teams vying to sign the top free agents in almost excruciating detail, culminating in yesterday's final comparison of their assets. With that complete, let's turn our attention to the players on the market.

Since we last used SCHOENE to compare the cream of the free agent crop back in February, there have been a couple of important changes to the methodology. First, we've refined the process by which we use comparable players to project each player going forward, using larger groups of up to 50 players with a similarity score of 90 or higher to reduce the influence of any one comp. Second, our updated WARP formula (WARP 2, if you like) rewards players who can stretch the floor with their three-point shooting. As a result, there are a few changes to the rankings.

Additionally, a couple of veterans who were included last time (Marcus Camby and Manu Ginobili) took themselves off the market by agreeing to contract extensions. New to the list are Richard Jefferson and John Salmons, neither of whom was expected to opt out of their contract a few months ago. We've also added a handful of other interesting free agents, including every player who reportedly agreed to a contract on Thursday, the first day where teams and free agents could negotiate with each other.

The Three Amigos

Player             Team   Type     Age   10-11  11-12  12-13    Tot
-------------------------------------------------------------------
LeBron James        cle    UFA    25.3   14.1   17.4   15.5    47.0
Dwyane Wade         mia    UFA    28.3   14.5   13.5    9.3    37.4
Chris Bosh          tor    UFA    26.1   10.2    9.1    6.8    26.1

No change at the top of the class, where Bosh, James and Wade clearly stand out--albeit with an equally clear pecking order among the three of them. Most interesting here might be what these multi-year projections suggest should all three players sign with a Heat team that has otherwise cleared house. Combined, they conservatively project to 38.8 WARP next year. Add in the 10 wins we grant for replacement level and we're looking at a team near 50 wins and possibly even better depending on whether Miami could sign the three while hanging on to Mario Chalmers. Assume the Heat can convince a couple of quality veterans to sign on for the minimum and you have a championship contender. Still, such a team would clearly be better positioned to compete a year or two down the line when the roster could be filled out via free agency.

The Consolation Prizes

Player             Team   Type     Age   10-11  11-12  12-13    Tot
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Dirk Nowitzki       dal    UFA    31.8    7.7    6.1    4.9    18.6
Amar'e Stoudemire   phx    UFA    27.4    6.8    6.2    4.4    17.4
David Lee           nyk    UFA    27.0    5.7    5.5    4.0    15.3
Rudy Gay            mem    RFA    23.7    4.2    5.1    4.6    13.9
Carlos Boozer       uta    UFA    28.4    6.5    4.1    3.0    13.5
Joe Johnson         atl    UFA    28.8    4.5    3.9    2.5    10.9

Even though Dirk Nowitzki is the oldest player in the second tier of free agents, he's also the most accomplished, and SCHOENE suggests he's likely to maintain much of his value over the next three seasons. If Nowitzki re-signs, joining Rudy Gay and Joe Johnson as players from this tier taken off the market, things will get really interesting for the teams that are unable to sign James and Bosh. There are only so many max players to go around, and we might see some players get massively overpaid if teams don't look at alternative options for their cap space.

For that matter, max offers look awfully generous to most of this group. Despite his youth, similar players to Gay have been unable to make major strides (his best comp, Jason Richardson, is a good example of a major athlete who peaked relatively early). David Lee is more of a second or third option, and Carlos Boozer may be entering the decline phase of his career and was already a fringe All-Star in his prime.

Then there's Johnson. His numbers look better now than they did in February because WARP 2 is more favorable to wing players. Still, Johnson is expected to heavily decline by the 2012-13 season, when he'll be 30. That will put him only halfway through the six-year contract Atlanta reportedly offered him yesterday. No matter the metric you use, second-tier wings have aged very poorly, and a long-term contract for Johnson could be a disaster for the Hawks. It's not unreasonable to suggest that within a couple of seasons we will see Johnson's contract as the single worst in the entire NBA because of its cost and its length.

The Restricted Free Agents

Player             Team   Type     Age   10-11  11-12  12-13    Tot
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Tyrus Thomas        cha    RFA    23.7    6.8    5.1    5.5    17.5
Raymond Felton      cha    RFA    25.8    5.0    4.3    4.6    13.9
Amir Johnson        tor    UFA    23.0    3.2    3.5    3.4    10.1
Anthony Morrow      gsw    RFA    24.6    2.6    3.4    3.1     9.1
Ronnie Brewer       mem    UFA    25.1    2.7    2.0    1.2     5.9
J.J. Redick         orl    RFA    25.8    1.5    1.3    1.7     4.5

Value-minded free agent shoppers will probably be wise to shop in this section of players who are still generally on the rise, despite the fact that they may have to pay a premium to get teams to decline to match their offer sheets. The Bobcats may have a tough time re-signing both Raymond Felton and Tyrus Thomas, who fit in with the previous group based purely on total three-year projected WARP. Felton is far and away the best point guard on the market.

The Memphis Grizzlies declined to tender Ronnie Brewer a qualifying offer, making him unrestricted. Usually that only happens in the case of players too poor to be worth the QO, but in this case the Grizzlies were simply being conservative knowing that they were prepared to tender a significant offer to Gay. So Brewer is there for the taking, though shooting guards like Brewer who are poor outside shooters have tended to peak surprisingly early.

Amir Johnson is the other anomaly here. Because he was a second-round pick out of high school, he's hitting free agency for a second time at age 23, making him both the only true unrestricted free agent in this group and the youngest of these players. The Raptors' reported five-year, $34 million deal with Johnson isn't the bargain you'd hope for, but in comparison with other players signed for the mid-level Johnson at least has room to grow. There's an excellent chance he's Toronto's starting power forward next season.

We round things out with a pair of shooters, Anthony Morrow and J.J. Redick. SCHOENE prefers Morrow because Redick's subpar 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons count here as well as his breakout performance last year. I like Redick's chances of beating that projection, and he's the better defender, but Morrow could be the superior value if the Warriors let him go.

The Veterans

Player             Team   Type     Age   10-11  11-12  12-13    Tot
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Paul Pierce         bos    UFA    32.5    4.0    3.2    2.4     9.7
Shaquille O'Neal    cle    UFA    38.1    3.3    2.9    1.2     7.5
Brendan Haywood     dal    UFA    30.4    3.2    2.2    1.5     6.9
Channing Frye       phx    UFA    26.9    1.8    2.4    1.6     5.8
Drew Gooden         lac    UFA    28.6    2.0    1.8    1.1     4.9
Luis Scola          hou    RFA    30.0    2.3    1.5    0.9     4.7
Ray Allen           bos    UFA    34.8    2.9    0.9    0.8     4.6
Mike Miller         was    UFA    30.2    1.0    1.7    1.7     4.3
John Salmons        mil    UFA    30.4    1.7    1.4    1.0     4.0
Darko Milicic       min    UFA    24.8    1.5    1.6    0.8     3.9
Tracy McGrady       nyk    UFA    30.9    1.5    1.2    0.7     3.4
Richard Jefferson   sas    UFA    29.8    1.4    0.5    0.3     2.2

If these projections play out, Paul Pierce picked the right time to opt out of his contract, since he looks to be in fairly steady decline at age 32. The news is worse for Ray Allen. While his solid postseason doesn't factor in to this projection, Allen is in danger of falling off a cliff after next season. The years on his contract may be much more important than the money.

In general, these players represent the "buyer beware" sweet spot of free agency--veterans on the decline who get mid-level-type contracts. A couple of years ago, I looked at how disastrous mid-level contracts have historically been, and I suspect Milwaukee's signing of Drew Gooden will only be another example. Channing Frye has a better shot of providing value to the Suns because of his evolution as a player with the development of a three-point shot last season (his projection is still weighed down by the two preceding campaigns), though it should be noted that he has alternated good and disappointing seasons throughout his career to date.

John Salmons might actually have the highest $/WARP ratio of any major free agent this summer. Salmons parlayed two good months and the Bucks' desperate need for scoring (even after the addition of Corey Maggette) into a reported $39 million offer over five years. He's on the wrong side of 30 and was never substantially better than replacement level, so this has ugly written all over it.

Lastly, my, how Richard Jefferson and Tracy McGrady have fallen. At least McGrady has injuries to blame. His projection, already low, dropped even further because he played poorly with the Knicks last season post-microfracture knee surgery. Jefferson has simply declined quickly in his late 20s. I've been wrong before, but I remain unconvinced that even in a sellers' market that any team is going to be suckered into giving Jefferson the kind of long-term contract at around $8-10 million a year he's hoping to get after opting out of the $15.2 million he was schedule to make in 2010-11.

For more on the rest of the free agent market, check back next week as Basketball Prospectus begins the most comprehensive breakdown on the Web looking at the top 20 players at each position.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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Summer 2010 Preview (07/01)
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2010 Free Agency (07/06)

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