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February 24, 2010
Summer 2010 Preview
The Free Agents

by Kevin Pelton


Since LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all signed extensions during the summer of 2006 that allowed them to opt out after three seasons, teams, fans and the media alike have been pointing toward the 2010 free-agent crop as a defining one in the NBA's history. Now, that free agency is just five months away, and moves made by several teams leading up to last Thursday's trade deadline ensured there will be plenty of money to spend. No fewer than seven teams could have enough space to make a maximum or max-type offer--Chicago, the L.A. Clippers, Miami, New Jersey, New York, Sacramento and Washington--while the Heat and Knicks could both potentially fit a pair of max players under the cap.

The question, then, is whether there are enough free agents to go around. More to the point, when those teams don't land a James, a Wade or a Bosh, where will they be looking to spend their money? To help answer that question, I turned to our SCHOENE projection system and a new feature I've been toying with--projecting multiple years into the future using comparable players. This is very much a work in progress, and somewhat problematic because of the uniqueness of many players, but it provides an interesting baseline for what teams can expect from the free agents they'll add this summer.

For 20 of the biggest names on the market, I've projected their value over the upcoming three seasons (2010-11 through 2012-13) using the 10 most similar players based on three-year similarity scores that include this year's performance to date. Going any further out than three years taxes SCHOENE's ability to see into the future. There are simply too many variables that affect player attrition so far down the road. As it is, the projections tend to be awfully conservative for veteran players, especially in the third year.

Those disclaimers out of the way, let's take a look at four key groups of free agents.

1. The Super-Duper-Stars

Player             Tm  Stat    Age  2011  2012  2013    Tot
LeBron James      cle   UFA   25.3  14.3  17.2  15.9   47.4
Dwyane Wade       mia   UFA   28.3  14.1  13.0  10.3   37.4
Chris Bosh        tor   UFA   26.1  13.4  11.4   8.5   33.4

Look, you didn't need any fancy calculation to tell you that James, Wade and Bosh are the top players available. In fact, these projections understate their potential because there are so few players who produce as many WARP as them, meaning they're inevitably compared to inferior players. There are a handful of Bosh cynics out there, and it's instructive to note to them that the difference between his projection and Wade's is relatively small. Bosh is two full years younger and still hasn't necessarily found his peak as a player.

2. The Consolation Prizes

Player             Tm  Stat    Age  2011  2012  2013    Tot
Manu Ginobili     sas   UFA   32.7  11.6   9.5   5.7   26.7
Amare Stoudemire  phx   UFA   27.4   6.7   5.9   4.1   16.7
David Lee         nyk   UFA   27.0   6.3   6.2   4.1   16.6
Rudy Gay          mem   RFA   23.7   4.7   4.5   5.1   14.3
Dirk Nowitzki     dal   UFA   31.8   7.1   3.9   2.5   13.5
Paul Pierce       bos   UFA   32.5   4.3   3.9   3.5   11.7
Carlos Boozer     uta   UFA   28.4   6.8   3.1   1.0   10.9
Joe Johnson       atl   UFA   28.8   3.6   2.5   0.9    7.1

Here is where teams that strike out on the first group will be shopping, and the pickings are very much mixed. There are several surprising numbers here, probably none more unexpected than the top player in this group, Manu Ginobili. Outside of the top three players, Ginobili is the only other free agent projected to be worth double-digit WARP next season despite turning 33.

It's a terrible cliché, but it seems entirely apt here: Rumors of Ginobili's demise have been greatly exaggerated. In part, he probably is hurt by a comparison to his own younger self. Ginobili is no longer at that level, but he had plenty of room to take a step back and remain a valuable contributor. Let's compare him to Johnson, for example.

Player      Win%   WARP    TS%    Usg   Reb%   Ast%   SB%
Ginobili    .647    6.3   .555   .243    7.6    7.8   3.7
Johnson     .544    5.4   .542   .267    7.3    5.6   1.6

Johnson is known as one of the league's most versatile guards, yet Ginobili has him beat across the board except in terms of the ability to create his own shot. Does that explain why Ginobili is at the top of the group and Johnson the bottom, especially when the latter is four years younger? Not entirely, but in terms of players who could make an immediate impact by changing teams next year, Ginobili belongs in the discussion. I do think SCHOENE is understating Ginobili's riskiness because it does not specifically account for durability and proneness to injury, something that has always been an issue for Ginobili.

As for Johnson, a fine recent fanpost on BlogABull raised concerns about his long-term development using similar players. Even that post, however, was not quite this pessimistic about Johnson. There are a couple of factors at play here. First, Johnson's statistics have never matched his reputation. Second, players of Johnson's ilk--above-average starting wings--have tended to decline in a hurry in their early 30s. By year three, just two of Johnson's top 10 comparables (Steve Smith and Jalen Rose) were offering their team any kind of value. A max deal for Johnson could end up very ugly.

SCHOENE is also especially pessimistic about the group of Carlos Boozer, Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce (who is fairly unlikely to opt out of the last year of his contract and become a free agent). Boozer and Nowitzki are similar in that their projections for 2010-11 are pretty solid, but things go downhill quickly from there. In these cases, I'm somewhat less inclined to believe the projections. It should be noted, though, that Nowitzki has taken a clear step back the last couple of seasons, in large part because he is no longer a contributor on the glass. As recently as three years ago, Nowitzki was grabbing 14.7 percent of all available rebounds. This year, that's down to 11.6 percent. The gradual drop can't entirely be blamed on the Mavericks adding Shawn Marion to compete for rebounds with Nowitzki.

Beyond Ginobili, SCHOENE offers an endorsement for David Lee. Lee could be a bargain, offering similar production to some of the bigger names (most notably Amar'e Stoudemire) at a lower cost. Stoudemire's age isn't a concern (despite having played three more seasons than Lee, the two are virtually the same age) but his declining production is. It's amazing that an athlete the likes of Stoudemire would end up with Dino Radja and Christian Laettner as his top two comps, but that's a testament to the conspicuous lack of rebounds and blocks (the usual athleticism markers) in Stoudemire's stat line.

Rudy Gay is probably the single player who benefited the most from last week's cap-clearing frenzy. After James and Wade, he will be the best young wing on the market and would fit neatly in the Clippers' lineup at small forward. Gay isn't a terrible investment, but his numbers indicate secondary option much more than the star he'll likely be paid to be.

3. The Youngsters

Player             Tm  Stat    Age  2011  2012  2013    Tot
Tyrus Thomas      cha   RFA   23.7   8.5   6.5   7.2   22.2
Raymond Felton    cha   UFA   25.8   4.6   3.5   4.1   12.2
Ronnie Brewer     mem   RFA   25.1   4.2   3.4   2.5   10.1

Even four years into his NBA career, Tyrus Thomas' numbers are still dripping with potential. Consider that his top 10 comparables include both Shawn Kemp and Antonio McDyess, along with solid starters like Marcus Camby and Gerald Wallace. But--and with Thomas, there's always a but--his No. 1 comp remains the enigmatic Stromile Swift. That perfectly captures the upside and the risk Thomas brings to the table.

Ronnie Brewer and Raymond Felton are both young enough to still potentially have some growth ahead of them, and they've demonstrated that they are starters in this league. Should the Bobcats get stingy, Felton might be a good fit in Sacramento or paired with another second-tier free agent in place of a max contract (New York, perhaps?). The relatively small gap between Brewer and his new teammate Gay by this method is noteworthy.

4. The Veterans

Player             Tm  Stat    Age  2011  2012  2013    Tot
Marcus Camby      por   UFA   36.1   5.6   4.7   3.1   13.4
Shaquille O'Neal  cle   UFA   38.1   4.1   3.4   1.6    9.1
Brendan Haywood   dal   UFA   30.4   3.9   2.8   1.9    8.7
Tracy McGrady     hou   UFA   30.9   3.2   1.7   0.3    5.2
Luis Scola        hou   RFA   30.0   2.7   1.1   0.9    4.7
Ray Allen         bos   UFA   34.8   2.4   0.0   0.4    2.7

For contending teams looking to make use of their mid-level exception, there are some effective quick fixes available. Marcus Camby and Shaquille O'Neal remain effective centers past the midpoint of their 30s. Note that this method almost certainly overstates Camby's value, especially in the long term, because there are few second-tier centers who maintain their value this long. As a result, Camby gets compared to aging stars like Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson despite relatively low similarity to them.

As for Tracy McGrady, the numbers place him squarely in this group rather than among the consolation prizes. If McGrady was previously hampered by his knee and is now healthy, he has the potential to surpass that projection, but that's an awfully big if. Teams will be watching closely as McGrady starts for the Knicks over the final two months of the season.

Since Luis Scola has spent just three seasons stateside, it's easy to forget that he'll enter his 30s at the end of April. SCHOENE suggests a rapid drop-off, which could leave the Rockets searching for an answer at power forward after trading Carl Landry last week.

Lastly, though he's one of the bigger names on the market, the numbers are very unkind to Ray Allen's future. Reggie Miller will be trotted out as a best-case scenario for Allen, but Miller was basically the only player of Allen's ilk to maintain his value into his late 30s. The next best player in the group was Dale Ellis, who had a strong season as a sharpshooter off the bench for the Seattle SuperSonics in 1997-98 at age 37. Allen may not yet be ready to embrace that kind of limited role. Buyer beware.

Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton.

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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The List (02/23)
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