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March 3, 2010
Summer 2010 Preview
The Competitors

by Kevin Pelton

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This is part two of Basketball Prospectus' series previewing the NBA's 2010 free agency. Part one projected the future value of the top players on the market.

When LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh decide where to continue their careers as free agents this summer, those decisions will involve many factors. Though contract value won't really be an issue--with a sign-and-trade, they could make up even the small difference between what they can earn by re-signing with their former teams as opposed to leaving--loyalty, the desire to play in a big market and the ability to win will all play a role. Of these, there is only one we can really attempt to quantify--their odds of winning depending on where they end up.

This task isn't nearly as simple as comparing the current records of the teams who have cleared cap space. Those include the performance of players like New York's David Lee who may not be part of the team's future, don't reflect the future growth of young players (or aging of veterans) and ignore the draft.

What must be done, then, is a comprehensive valuation of all of a team's assets--players, future draft picks and cap space. Think of this as an objective version, if less comprehensive, of ESPN's future power rankings (Insider). The three-year SCHOENE projections unveiled in part one of our summer 2010 preview underlie this effort and allow us to compare the talent currently on hand and under contract beyond this summer for each of the teams.

Valuing draft picks required a process similar to the one I originally used at Hoopsworld.com in 2003 and since has been updated by Aaron Barzilai for 82games.com and by Tom Haberstroh for ESPN Insider's D.R.A.F.T. Initiative last year. Where previous studies have looked at career value by pick, I focused on the first three seasons. For 2010 picks, I then used Erich Doerr's Monte Carlo simulator to project the remainder of the season, applied lottery odds and estimated the chances of each team picking in each spot in the draft. The value of 2010 picks, then, is the weighted average of the value of each possible pick.

Because we're interested primarily in comparing these teams as they look to prospective free-agent additions, we were able to simplify a few assumptions. The value of the first $16.6 million in cap space for each team--the amount projections indicate will be needed to sign a player to a max contract--is the same, and picks from 2011 and beyond were projected with the same value (at the level of the 15th overall pick in the first round; second-round picks beyond 2010 do not have any value above replacement level by this method). Additional cap space was valued at 1 WARP per $2.5 million, drawing on the cost for unrestricted free agents I found in a past study.

TEAMS WITH ROOM FOR TWO MAX PLAYERS

Miami Heat

Player/Asset         10-11  11-12  12-13  Total
-----------------------------------------------
Michael Beasley       4.9    6.5    6.7    18.1
Mario Chalmers        5.4    5.5    5.4    16.4
2010 Rd 1             0.6    1.3    2.0     4.0
2010 Rd 1 (TOR*)      0.5    1.1    1.7     3.4
Joel Anthony          1.5    1.1    0.5     3.2
2011 Rd 1                    0.7    1.5     2.2
2012 Rd 1                           0.7     0.7
Daequan Cook          0.1    0.3    0.1     0.5
2010 Rd 2 (NO)        0.0    0.1    0.3     0.4
2010 Rd 2             0.0    0.0    0.1     0.1
2010 Cap Space         ?      ?      ?       ?
-----------------------------------------------
Total                13.2   16.7   19.1    48.9

The Heat really has just two players of any value on the roster, 2008 draft picks Beasley and Chalmers. Beasley has been a disappointment thus far, quite frankly, but his future still looks decently bright based on his comparables. Chalmers, who had a very strong rookie season but has been relegated to reserve duty this season, also looks like a future starter. Outside of those two, Miami should have two first-round picks this season (Toronto's choice is lottery protected; its value here has been adjusted to reflect the possibility that the Heat may not receive the pick) ... and that's about it.

Player/Asset         10-11  11-12  12-13  Total
-----------------------------------------------
Danilo Gallinari      3.7    5.4    8.0    17.1
Wilson Chandler       2.6    6.0    3.4    12.0
2011 Cap Space               4.0    4.0     8.0
Toney Douglas         0.9    1.6    1.7     4.2
2011 Rd 1 (HOU/NYK)          0.6    1.2     1.8
2010 Rd 2 (LAC/NYK)   0.0    0.3    0.6     0.9
2010 Cap Space         ?      ?      ?       ?
-----------------------------------------------
Total                 7.1   17.9   18.9    43.9

So what did the Knicks lose to get the room to sign two players? Jordan Hill's three-year projection is for 10.6 WARP; he's not Brandon Jennings or Ty Lawson, but he does figure to become a useful player. The way I valued the 2011 swap, it cost New York 0.4 WARP, and the 2012 pick only cost them 0.7 WARP. The difference is enough to drop the Knicks below Miami in this analysis, and it stands the potential to be a disastrous trade if the 2011 and 2012 picks are in the lottery, but if New York is successful in free agency it will barely miss them at all.

In addition to a pair of starters in Chandler and Gallinari, the best asset the Knicks have at their disposal is Eddy Curry's contract, which expires in the summer of 2011. Donnie Walsh can either deal for a longer-term contract by next year's trade deadline or hold on to the cap space, which should come in between $9-10 million and add a much-needed starter to the lineup. Still, even with two superstar anchors New York would be painfully lacking in depth the next couple of years.

TEAMS WITH ROOM FOR ONE MAX PLAYER

Chicago Bulls

Player/Asset         10-11  11-12  12-13  Total
-----------------------------------------------
Derrick Rose          7.2    9.6    9.8    26.6
Joakim Noah           5.4    4.2    2.8    12.4
Luol Deng             4.1    3.0    3.3    10.4
Taj Gibson            3.6    3.8    2.4     9.9
2010 Rd 1 (CHI/MIL)   0.6    1.3    2.0     3.9
Kirk Hinrich          1.1    1.9    0.1     3.1
2011 Rd 1                    0.7    1.5     2.2
James Johnson         0.2    1.1    0.8     2.1
2012 Rd 1                           0.7     0.7
-----------------------------------------------
Total                22.2   25.6   23.5    71.3

The Bulls will go into free agency with a solid core of four starters, all of them relatively young, as well as the aging Hinrich (whose future value is limited according to this method). While the teams in this group do not offer the chance for two stars to join each other, several have young players with similar kind of potential. In Chicago's case, that is Rose, who figures to have at least another couple seasons of improvement in front of him. The Bulls could have pushed their total even higher had they gotten more value with last year's No. 16 pick. So far, Johnson has shown very little. He went ahead of Lawson and Omri Casspi, among others.

L.A. Clippers

Player/Asset         10-11  11-12  12-13  Total
-----------------------------------------------
Blake Griffin        10.9    9.8    9.2    29.9
DeAndre Jordan        5.2    5.2    5.3    15.7
Eric Gordon           3.6    5.0    6.0    14.7
Baron Davis           5.5    3.9    2.4    11.8
Chris Kaman           4.9    1.9    1.8     8.6
2010 Rd 1             1.3    2.4    3.5     7.1
2011 Rd 1                    0.7    1.5     2.2
2010 Rd 2 (NYK/LAC)   0.0    0.2    0.5     0.7
2012 Rd 1                           0.7     0.7
2012 Rd 1 (MIN)                     0.7     0.7
-----------------------------------------------
Total                31.4   29.2   31.5    92.1

None of the contenders in free agency boasts a deeper core of talent than the Clippers, with five players valued at 8.6 WARP or more over the next three seasons. Griffin, whose projection is based on his translated college stats, should be a star from the moment he is able to return from surgery to repair his fractured left patella. The surprise here is that Jordan rates ahead of fellow 2008 first-round pick Gordon. While I think Jordan's future is fairly bright, that projection is a stretch. For whatever reason, athletic young centers who produce in limited minutes generate impressive lists of comparables. Jordan has star potential, but the chances of him failing to pan out are also quite high.

Veteran point guard Davis is on the downside of his career, but the development of Gordon and this year's lottery pick should help offset that. The Clippers' totals suggest a .500 team even without considering a possible addition in free agency, so things are looking up in L.A.

New Jersey Nets

Player/Asset         10-11  11-12  12-13  Total
-----------------------------------------------
Brook Lopez          13.2   14.5   14.1    41.8
Devin Harris          7.3    5.4    4.5    17.3
2010 Rd 1             2.2    3.9    5.7    11.8
2010 Cap Space        3.0    3.0    3.0     9.0
Yi Jianlian           1.8    4.2    2.8     8.9
Kris Humphries        2.6    3.0    2.4     8.0
Chris Douglas-Roberts 1.5    1.0    1.3     3.8
Terrence Williams     0.4    1.2    0.9     2.6
2010 Rd 1 (DAL)       0.3    0.8    1.3     2.5
2011 Rd 1                    0.7    1.5     2.2
Courtney Lee          0.4    0.5    0.8     1.7
2012 Rd 1                           0.7     0.7
-----------------------------------------------
Total                32.7   38.3   39.2   110.2

Speaking of looking up, as dark as things are for the Nets, their future is equally bright by this method. In fact, it suggests a team capable of winning nearly 50 games based just on the assets listed. Lopez's projection, of course, is incredibly optimistic. Still, it's hard to ignore the list of similar players generated by his first two NBA seasons: Pau Gasol, Al Jefferson, Elton Brand, Vin Baker, Bosh, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Shawn Kemp, Chris Webber. When Baker and Jefferson represent the downside, you're looking at a valuable prospect.

In addition, Harris has All-Star talent. His dismal 2009-10 season has dimmed his future projection, but not drastically. As a third option, he's still pretty good. Then there's a first-round pick that, at very worst, should be No. 4 overall. With the emergence of Ohio State swingman Evan Turner as an elite NBA prospect, it's no longer John Wall or bust for the Nets, and they've got nearly a 50 percent chance of getting one of the top two players. Lastly, New Jersey will have approximately $24 million in space under a projected $53 million cap. That means even after signing a player to a max contract, the Nets would have room to add a player for more than the mid-level exception. That kind of money should translate into a quality sixth man or even a decent starter.

Washington Wizards

Player/Asset         10-11  11-12  12-13  Total
-----------------------------------------------
JaVale McGee          4.4    4.9    4.7    14.1
Gilbert Arenas        5.8    3.6    2.7    12.2
Andray Blatche        4.8    4.1    3.2    12.0
2010 Rd 1             1.5    2.8    4.1     8.4
2011 Rd 1                    0.7    1.5     2.2
2010 Rd 1 (CLE)       0.2    0.6    1.0     1.7
2010 Rd 2             0.0    0.3    0.6     0.9
2012 Rd 1                           0.7     0.7
Nick Young            0.0    0.3    0.0     0.3
Al Thornton           0.2    0.0    0.0     0.2
Quinton Ross          0.0                  0.0
-----------------------------------------------
Total                16.9   17.3   18.5    52.8

As noted at the trade deadline, while the Wizards have the money to be players this summer, it's hard to see a free agent coming to Washington because the Wizards' immediate future is relatively bleak. We've already delved into Arenas' poor projection (independent of his off-the-court issues) and why the Wizards would benefit so much from being able to void his contract.

Like Jordan, McGee benefits from the bias in favor of project centers. And Blatche has shown tremendous potential since stepping into a featured role after the trades, offering the hope that he could outperform his decent projection. Beyond them, there's not much else. Thornton is not an asset by the numbers and Cleveland's first-round pick--very unlikely to be any better than 29th overall--projects as a bit contributor.

THE CURRENT TEAMS

Cleveland Cavaliers

Player/Asset         10-11  11-12  12-13  Total
-----------------------------------------------
Maurice Williams      5.0    5.2    4.7    14.9
Leon Powe             4.0    3.7    4.2    11.9
Shaquille O'Neal      4.1    3.4    1.6     9.1
Anderson Varejao      2.7    2.9    3.4     9.0
Delonte West          1.9    3.1    2.3     7.3
Antawn Jamison        3.3    2.5    1.0     6.9
2010 MLE              2.0    2.0    2.0     6.0
J.J. Hickson          1.2    1.9    2.4     5.5
Daniel Gibson         1.4    0.6    0.8     2.8
2011 Rd 1             0.0    0.7    1.5     2.2
Sebastian Telfair     1.5                   1.5
Jamario Moon          0.7    0.2    0.5     1.4
2012 Rd 1                           0.7     0.7
Anthony Parker        0.0    0.0    0.0     0.0
-----------------------------------------------
Total                27.6   26.3   25.2    72.0

Though they might be the NBA's best team, the Cavaliers don't have an especially bright future by this reckoning. Other than Williams, Cleveland's top options on offense besides James are in heavy decline. Jamison should be able to outplay his projection, but his All-Star days are almost certainly past; the same is true of O'Neal (an unrestricted free agent this summer). That leaves the Cavaliers with a whole bunch of role players. Hickson is Cleveland's top prospect and best chance for internal growth, but his first two seasons haven't impressed SCHOENE, which is a much bigger fan of Leon Powe based on his pre-injury performance.

The Cavaliers do benefit a great deal from something we can't really quantify here--big-pocketed ownership. As long as James is packing fans into Quicken Loans Arena, Dan Gilbert seems happy to spend to keep Cleveland competitive. So the Cavaliers will make use of their mid-level exception (assuming the next CBA doesn't do away with it), plus Jamison's expiring contract could be turned into new veterans during the 2011-12 season. We also haven't given any value to coaching, and Mike Brown is no longer a punchline. Among the teams with cap space, only New York's Mike D'Antoni has a resume anywhere comparable to Brown's.

Toronto Raptors

Player/Asset         10-11  11-12  12-13  Total
-----------------------------------------------
Jose Calderon         6.5    4.1    4.0    14.6
Jarrett Jack          4.1    3.3    3.1    10.5
Andrea Bargnani       3.0    3.6    3.2     9.8
DeMar DeRozan         1.9    3.1    4.1     9.2
Marco Belinelli       0.4    3.0    2.9     6.3
Hedo Turkoglu         3.1    2.1    0.4     5.7
Reggie Evans          0.6    0.8    1.1     2.5
2011 Rd 1                    0.7    1.5     2.2
2012 Rd 1                           0.7     0.7
Sonny Weems           0.0    0.0    0.5     0.5
2010 Rd 2             0.0    0.0    0.1     0.2
Marcus Banks          0.0                   0.0
-----------------------------------------------
Total                19.6   20.8   21.6    62.0

Riding the league's top offence (and its worst defence), Toronto looks likely to reach the postseason. Nonetheless, these numbers suggest that a .500-type record might be the Raptors' high-water mark. Turkoglu figures to decline in a hurry (his statistical profile is similar to Joe Johnson's, which troubles SCHOENE, and Turkoglu is more than two years older). DeRozan can pick up some of the slack, but it's hard to see anyone else stepping up. In particular, Bargnani's per-game stats have always been better than his advanced ratings because of his poor defense and rebounding. Toronto also won't have a first-round pick unless it slips into the lottery and would likely have to go into the luxury tax to use its mid-level exception if Bosh re-signs.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

Within the categories, it's pretty easy to compare teams. Miami looks slightly preferable to New York as an option for two free agents to team up, while New Jersey's future appears brightest of the teams with room for just one max player. How do we compare Miami and New Jersey, then? We can value that second cap spot using the projections for James, Wade and Bosh in the first article of the series. For example, let's say James and Wade decide they'd like to recreate their All-Star partnership in Miami. In that case, Wade is the second free agent, and his projection is for 37.4 WARP over the next three seasons. Adding that gets the Heat to 86.3 WARP, which is still below the totals for both the Clippers and the Nets. A James-Bosh combination scores slightly worse (83.3 WARP). While Miami isn't in as bad shape as New York in terms of a 2010-11 roster built around two max players--the Heat would have two first-round picks to go along with them, along with a pair of starters in Beasley and Chalmers--the roster would still be awfully thin.

Here's how the comparison looks graphically, using Wade to fill the second slot for a max free agent.

The Nets' projection is probably too strong right now in that it values Lopez so far above other top young players like Rose and Griffin. If we cut Lopez's prediction to 30 WARP over the next three seasons--approximately the same as Griffin, and still a little ahead of Rose--New Jersey is still on top at 98.4 WARP, though the Clippers move within shouting distance. Still, the Nets has three built-in starters in Lopez, Harris and this year's first-round pick, plus the money to sign another player to round out the lineup. Additionally, New Jersey has several young players who can be contributors in Lee, Douglas-Roberts, Humphries, Williams and Yi.

A lot remains to be resolved between now and July. We'll know by then whether New Jersey will add either Turner or Wall or instead a lesser prospect with the third or fourth pick. We'll also have a clearer picture of where the Nets stand off the court. The team's sale to Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov should be finalized soon, leading to decisions on the futures of team president Rod Thorn and GM Kiki Vandeweghe, as well as potentially a new head coach.

Based on the picture as it stands today, however, if I was a free agent and was primarily concerned with winning, the team that has won just six games all season would (however improbably) be my choice.

Basketball Prospectus' series previewing 2010 NBA free agency will conclude next week with a look at other options for teams that are unable to sign a marquee free agent. 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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