Welcome back to the NBA’s dead zone. August is exciting for those who are following the international contests (Team USA with Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez, and Team Greece with Giannis Antetokounmpo…oh, and Thanasis too!), but there’s not much else for fans of the Association to do besides watch highlight videos or listen to GOAT episodes of Road Trippin’.
Around these parts, we can take an opportunity to advance some knowledge that we started gathering a few years back. Back in the days when Eric Nehm called himself a Brew Hooper, he and I asked this question: how do we better understand the concept of value in the NBA, and what is the value of a win? Here’s the gist of where we started from:
* There are 30 teams in the NBA.
* Under normal circumstances, each team plays 82 games, and no game can end in a tie.
* As a result, there are 1,230 total wins available each season for each team…as well as 1,230 total losses, which are allocated game-by-game.
With that in mind, it’s fair to say that regular season wins are a finite commodity in the NBA. There’s only so many of them to go around, and all 29 of your competitors are pursuing them right alongside you.
Another thing that all NBA teams have in common is how they employ players (thanks to the CBA). Of course, there’s many ways to build a team (draft vs. free agency vs. trades), but all players share this fact: they get paid. That makes salary a common resource with which teams can pursue wins, and one which is both guaranteed and virtually finite (thanks to the salary floor and the luxury tax, respectively). Furthermore, it makes salary the de facto common denominator for all players, regardless of how they join a team.
With those two core assumptions in place, you can calculate the rough “value” of almost anything: a contract extension, a late first round draft pick, a multi-player trade, and everything in-between.
To answer that question effectively, we need to nail down how we’re going to define “value”. Again, as the annual “What does the V mean in MVP?” conversation shows us, this isn’t easy to do! But at its core, value is comparing what you get to what you spent; if you spend less to get something, you got better value than someone else who spent more for the same thing.
Effectively, the goal of this exercise is to accumulate as many wins (in this case, Win Shares) as possible while spending as little money as possible. For anyone out of the loop, I generally use basketball-reference.com‘s definition of Win Shares (found here), which seeks to quantify an individual player’s contributions to his team’s wins (or if it’s negative, his lack thereof). This time around, I started with WS/48 instead of straight WS, for the sake of precision.
Let’s take a quick look at how the landscape of the league has changed. More specifically, the player salary pool, and how its grown since the beginning of the decade. Player salaries have been growing by leaps and bounds since 2013, and the 2016 cap spike accelerated that growth. The “cost” of a win will be set to have doubled from this starting point by the 2022 season (by current projections, under the current collective bargaining agreement), which is mind-boggling when considering that the league’s players comprised $3.564 billion of salary paid last year.
What hasn’t changed is the number of games played or the number of teams that play them. The league’s members have existed in a sort of stasis for quite some time (no new teams since 2002), and while the number of games or possible expansion into additional cities is on the table for the future, those things won’t change anytime soon. The games are 48 minutes long, and the league’s 30 teams each play 82 games in a regular season.
A behavior we have seen change over time, though, is how coaches handle minutes distributions. 40-minute nights are reserved for the postseason; the regular season is all about steady rotations and load management. Contracts and salary aren’t often determined based on playing time, but there are some interesting things we can do with the data available since the 2013-14 season, when the steady rise of WS Value started.
The table above shows us the league-wide totals for minutes played, and the number of players active that year (and subsequently were paid for their services). In order to more easily translate into Win Shares by using WS/48 (a more accurate measurement), I divided those minutes into 48-minute “units” in order to break the data down into more manageable chunks. This then gives us the overall average “cost” of a 48-Minute Unit and the average player salary for that season.
There are some obvious trends: salary has grown considerably, while minutes played is relatively static (again, the league’s mechanics are largely unchanged at this level). The introduction of two-way contracts in 2017 led to a marked increase (over 10%) in the number of active players, making the overall cost of those 48-Minute Units even higher since players average fewer “units” on a per-person basis.
What this graphic does do, though, is give us a baseline with which to compare the league’s population not just in terms of contributions to winning, but contributions in general. You can’t accumulate stats if you don’t play, and there’s a massive difference between the league’s mainstays (guys like James Harden or Bradley Beal, who consistently play an ungodly number of minutes) and the NBA’s also-rans (Zhou Qi, we see you and your 1 minute of playing time!). Basketball is a team game, and one’s teammates factor heavily into Win Share production. But if your franchise is paying someone an 8-figure salary for 2-figures of playing time that season, the urge to point fingers becomes strong.
So let’s take a look at how well (and poorly) teams saw their investments perform in terms of managing to get on the court, before we even measure the quality of their contributions. To do so, we set up some filters to give us a more realistic look at the players who matter most; we made 800 total minutes played the cutoff point for the league-wide population, and then re-ran the same sort for players within that segment that also averaged over 24 minutes per game. The goal was to compare a player’s actual salary to how much they would be paid if it were based on the amount of time they actually played; if you play twice as many minutes as the average NBA player, it’s fair to say that the franchise is getting more value out of you. With that in mind, here are the players who provided the highest return on investment based on playing time:
As you may have guessed, the top of this list is littered with low-cost players who became major fixtures in their team’s rotations. Perhaps no one in the NBA fit this description better than Pascal Siakam, a late-first round pick who played the 27th-most minutes in the entire league. Other notable high-value performances belong to Kyle Kuzma, Devin Booker (before that extension kicks in), Ben Simmons (ditto), and Jayson Tatum. For the Bucks, Malcolm Brogdon shows up just outside the top-10 on the first list, even when considering his time lost to injury, while Brook Lopez appears on the second as a major positive value when comparing his actual salary to the amount of playing time he logged.
What about the other end of the spectrum? If the top-end is populated by players with low salaries and high minute totals, that means the bottom is the opposite, right?
Not quite! It’s true that some of the league’s highest-paid players (Chris Paul, LeBron James, Blake Griffin, Gordon Hayward, Stephen Curry, among others) show up here, but their minutes totals aren’t that low. True, many of these players missed time due to injury, and with the nature of guaranteed contracts it’s a certainty that a player’s value will decline as a result. But as we look deeper into the second list (the one with a higher floor for minutes played), we’re seeing nearly all of the league’s best (alongside the players mentioned above). Giannis Antetokounmpo! Paul George! James Harden! Kawhi Leonard! Some of these players were making far less than the max; how is it possible that they still result in a negative return?
The answer is relatively simple: like with salaries, there’s a maximum amount that any player can play in a season. Playing time is strictly hard-capped not by the CBA, but by the mechanics of the league: 48 minutes of regulation across 82 regular season games (3,936 total minutes). Even with overtime periods, it’s simply impossible to have anyone play much more than 4,000 minutes in a season, if ever there was someone who was even capable of such an Allen Iverson-ian feat. With those constraints, it’s almost obvious that the league’s richest members won’t be able to provide a positive return on playing time alone…but their talent and skill should make up for it in the arena of Win Shares, right?
Not exactly! Again, when it comes down to value, the biggest wins are on the margins, which is what both of these lists show us. It cannot be overstated how valuable low-cost contributors can be to a team, especially teams buoyed by high-cost superstars. The most obvious example of this is, once again, Pascal Siakam. Like Giannis before him, Siakam’s rookie scale salary and high-level productivity make him a value-based dream come true. But the players beneath him in these rankings are more “productive role player” than “perennial All Star,” at least in this stage of their careers. For the Bucks, the best example of this dynamic is Brook Lopez (again) and Pat Connaughton, value signings from late in the offseason who made the most of their contributions on the floor while taking up very little of the salary cap in return. For when new contracts kick in, like with Lopez’s new deal or soon-to-be-max players like Karl-Anthony Towns or Jamal Murray, expect them to disappear from the top of these charts next summer. Will they end up towards the bottom?
For their sake, let’s hope not. The first list of players who provided the lowest return is a rough one, containing growing rookies on awful teams (Collin Sexton, Kevin Knox), overpriced middling veterans (Tim Hardaway Jr, Evan Fournier, DeAndre Jordan) and second-tier stars who either got hurt (John Wall, Goran Dragic) or are actually not stars at all (Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker…ouch).
The second list is actually fairly similar to that from the playing time section; there are a number of players who simply performed badly on teams who performed badly, but there are also some huge names like Russell Westbrook, CJ McCollum, DeMar DeRozan, and Klay Thompson. These guys might not be getting any MVP votes anytime soon, but it’s tough to hold them up in too negative of a light. Their contracts might certainly be bad values, but they’re still excellent players. So how do we reconcile that?
More than anything else, this exercise paints the picture of a league where not all players are treated equal. There are three distinct classes of player divided up by two factors: talent and compensation. There are the superstars who command the most money because they have the most talent, the useful rookie-scale players or underpriced veterans who put in valuable contributions for a low dollar amount, and then there’s everyone else, where the talent isn’t quite on the same level while the salary figure grows and grows. Teams that have any hope of playing for a title need to start with the first group; you need at least one star, but more is better, and if you can somehow underpay them (hello, Golden State Warriors of the last five years!), that’s the best. You also need a number of underpriced players to fill in gaps on the margins…all while avoiding the third group, that everyone else group, like the plague. You’ll probably end up with some, it’s inevitable, but a roster comprised mostly of players making median contract money is a limited roster.
This is a specific area in which the Bucks had struggled mightily until last offseason, where they (mostly) knocked it out of the park by making smart choices. Not only did they sign Connaughton and Lopez, but they avoided overspending on Jabari Parker. They’ve also exhausted their draft capital in recent trades (netting Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, and Nikola Mirotic) and while they were also able to correct past contractual mistakes by discharging Matthew Dellavedova, John Henson, and Tony Snell, they’ve also just finished paying similar money to Bledsoe, Lopez, and Hill. That very well may be the price of remaining in the Eastern Conference’s upper crust, but it’s simply less likely that the Bucks enjoy any surplus value after plunging a ton of cash into players who aren’t cheap anymore and are simply not superstars.
This isn’t specific enough, though, so let’s get into the nitty gritty details. As we explored after the Bucks filled out the bulk of their regular season roster for 2019-20, here’s where things stand, including a few caveats. First, we took our best guess at what each Buck’s minutes total will be at the end of the season, based largely on how much they played last season and accounting for general environmental changes for the newcomers. We also estimated everyone’s WS/48 performance by rounding slightly down (for incumbent Bucks) or rounding slightly up (for newcomers like Robin Lopez or Wesley Matthews or Kyle Korver, who played for teams worse than Milwaukee last year), while also accounting for age and development. Lastly, we came up with another projected WS/48 benchmark for each player, based on what they should produce based strictly on their salary (compared to the 2019-20 league average WS Value, which we’re estimating to be around $3 million). Here is how things shook out for the upcoming season:
As the color-coding suggest, values on the far right below $3M are better, and those above $3M are worse. The lower the number, the less the team is paying for the player’s contributions. As you can imagine, those who have lower cap holds project to provide the most value: Pat Connaughton was perhaps one of the Bucks’ most useful reserves last season (by this metric), and he’s making minimum-level money. Alongside him are Sterling Brown (who has been slightly forgotten as he enters his third year) and newcomer Kyle Korver, and the name of the game for them is to stay in their lanes and execute their roles as best they can.
Further up the chain are veterans Robin Lopez and Wes Matthews, each of whom is paid a little bit more but ought to be able to maximize their production in their new roles; they’ll likely play less than they did last season and should have clearly defined roles and responsibilities: play D and shoot threes. Alongside them are rookie scale contracts D.J. Wilson and Donte DiVincenzo, who should at least provide an average return if they are roughly what they were last year.
The real value is higher up on the depth chart, with Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Bledsoe and Lopez both took deals that were fair market rates for their positions, and Giannis is in the middle of his first extension that was far short of a max contract. Given how important these players are and how much they’ll be relied upon, it’s safe to say that they’re keys to Milwaukee’s success.
Remember how we noted that the Bucks historically suffered from offering median-sized contracts to median-level players, and how it consistently crippled their cap sheet? In the case of Ersan Ilyasova and George Hill, the Bucks are unlikely to extract positive value out of them on their current contracts.
This is not to say that either Ersan or Hill are bad players. Rather, the amount of money that they’re paid exceeds the amount that their projected Win Share production would dictate, if the goal was to meet the league average (again, ballparked at around $3M). The real issue is that neither player is going to play as many minutes as they otherwise might need to to get there; both are older, more injury prone than most, and in Ilyasova’s case there’s less need for his services with Robin Lopez in the fold at the center position.
Oh, and Dragan Bender and Thanasis Antetokounmpo are simply unlikely to provide very much at all. Which is fine, their place is at the end of the bench until further notice.
You’ve been on Twitter, you know what the general argument over Khris Middleton is. On the one hand, he’s hugely important to the Bucks’ success, fits like a tailored suit next to Giannis, combines a number of valuable skills (on both ends of the floor), and is happy doing it. On the other hand, $30 million is a lot of money for a guy who just made his first All Star game and isn’t knocking on the door of the “Top-10 NBA Players” conversation.
Both are true.
Khris Middleton is highly unlikely to perform, statistically, at the level to return equal (or better) value on his new contract. That’s just the way it is; the benefits he provides are not always captured in the box score, and because he’s a jack-of-all-trades, it’s easy to point to his well-rounded game and misconstrue it as limited. As we’ve discussed ad nauseam over the past month or so, Khris might be overpaid, but his value to the Bucks is more than just what this exercise would indicate.
As always, we welcome your discussion and feedback in the comments. What else do you see from the information presented here? Which conclusions do you agree with, and which deserve to be refuted? Let us know. The regular season is only a few months away!