Cost Efficiency in the NBA

The NBA draft lottery, when we learn whose tanking efforts paid off, is tomorrow night.  I’ve never been this excited for an NBA draft lottery in my life and it’s all because of the Lakers situation.

If the Lakers fall out of the top three, they forfeit not only their 2017 first round pick (it’s top three protected) but also their first round pick in 2019.  It all goes back to the ill-fated Steve Nash and Dwight Howard trades that Mitch Kupchak made.  The Lakers have a 46.9 percent chance of slotting within the top three which means it’s more likely than not that they lose the two first round picks.

This is the most interesting draft lottery since the NBA conspired to force LeBron into his Cleveland captivity to spite the Logo.  It would be fascinating to watch Magic Johnson sit and smile at the lottery as this unfolds, much like how Jerry West endured the loss of LeBron James (and any first round pick) in 2003.

If the Lakers lose these picks, the future of their franchise rests on the young shoulders of two former #2 overall picks, D’Angelo Russell (he of the Nick Young recording) and Brandon Ingram.  Ingram was one of seven players to contribute negative win shares during the 2016-2017 regular season (i.e., he made his team worse by showing up to each game).  That is more concerning for the future of the Lakers than the failed Lakers ownership coup, which originated after Jeanie installed Magic as president of basketball operation and threw her brother under the Buss (I couldn’t resist the pun).

Which brings us to the question that this post answers!  Which players provided the most and least contributions to their teams in terms of value per dollar earned?  In my last post, I talked about the leaders in win shares, offensive win shares, and defensive win shares.  Today, we’re going to measure value by win shares and player efficiency rating (PER).  For this exercise, I restricted the set to anyone who played at least 500 minutes (about 1/8 of minutes available) and earned at least $1 million during the past regular season.

Win Shares

The most valuable players in many sports leagues are those on their cost-controlled rookie contracts.  In baseball, the Cubs will pay Kris Bryant $1.05 million this season since they hold his rights for his first seven seasons (Bryant becomes arbitration-eligible after this season, his third in the majors).  This is no different in basketball.  Players on their rookie contracts (especially late first round picks and second round picks) are extremely valuable, assuming they don’t turn out to be Ndudi Ebi or Jonny Flynn.  The table below shows the most valuable players in terms of per dollar production of win shares this past season.

The top five players here were all drafted between 15th and 41st overall.  Nikola Jokic, a second round pick of the Nuggets in 2015, emerged from his basketball womb this past season after the Nuggets traded away the Bosnian Beast, Jusuf Nurkic.

Rudy Gobert, drafted 27th by the Nuggets and subsequently traded to the Jazz on draft day, has the second highest win shares total of any player this past year (as I discussed in my previous post) and the second lowest salary to win shares ratio, due to his $2.1 million salary.  Other than when Stephen Curry spins Gobert in circles, his defensive prowess and all around good looks make him one of the most valuable players in the league.  Before you feel bad for him and wonder how he feeds his family, don’t worry, he signed a four year $102 million extension on Halloween last year.

With respect to the other three players on this list, Clint Capela and Montrezl Harrell are third and second year low-cost role players, respectively, on the Rockets.  They are well-versed in Moreyball (layups, free throws, and 3s) and play with an MVP candidate, James Harden, who, when not flaming out in Game 7s, is one of the best players in the league.

The remaining guy on this list has the potential to become a perennial MVP candidate like Harden.  I won’t repeat the Greek Freak’s name here because I’ll probably spell it wrong but he established himself as a superstar this past season, and like Gobert, has a $100 million extension that kicks in next season.

For the most part, these guys are up and comers who have either signed their first big contract (Gobert, the Greek Freak), will eventually (Nurkic), or are young above average role players.  All are 24 or younger, which explains their relatively low salaries.

This next list, the players with the worst salary to win shares ratios, also primarily features young players on their rookie contracts.

All of these guys generated negative value (in terms of wins) for their teams.  Of the top five players with the worst salary to win shares ratios, three couldn’t legally drink alcohol in the US when the season began (Justise Winslow, Ingram, and Dragan Bender) and a fourth (Mario Hezonja) celebrated his 21st birthday four months after his NBA debut.  These guys are young and play on bad teams (their teams averaged 30 wins last season).  It’s way too early to call them busts but it’s clear that this year was not a good one for them.  As I mentioned earlier, Ingram is most likely the future of the Lakers (assuming no Paul George signing).  The other three guys probably don’t have as much pressure on their shoulders but they all have a lot of work to do to earn their next contract.

Unlike the other four players who could have promising futures, Rodney Stuckey is just plain bad at basketball.  The Pacers paid Stuckey $7 million to take away a tenth of a win last season.  As much as I want to trash the Pacers for playing Stuckey, I really can’t.  Stuckey played in 39 games this past year, battled leg injuries, and was waived in late March after another leg injury.  His contract also isn’t exorbitant either when we consider that Phil Jackson gifted Joakim Noah $72 million dollars last offseason.  Sorry Phil you’re just such an easy target these days.


So what happens if we redo this exercise and use PER (player efficiency rating) instead of win shares?  As a refresher, PER is a composite stat of a player’s box sore statistics that is adjusted for pace of play and calibrated to league average.  The PER of a league average player is 15.  The table below shows the players with the highest salary to PER ratios last season, all of whom have a PER above 15.  PER and win shares have a correlation coefficient of 0.82, so the result should be fairly similar.

Nikola Jokic and Montrezl Harrell also showed up in the top five on the win shares list so there is overlap between the two lists (Clint Capela was sixth).  I had never heard of Richaun Holmes before this, which speaks more to my intentional ignorance of Philadelphia basketball (except for Joel Embiid’s 31 games) than his abilities.

Willie Reed took the hard road to the NBA.  After leaving college and going undrafted, Reed played in the D-league for three years before catching on with the hapless Nets and then the Heat this past season.

JaVale McGee’s story is not as winding as Reed’s but it is also one of redemption.  After years of being the laughingstock of the NBA, he’s, well, actually good at basketball and not completely clueless on the court.  Sorry Shaq, just like in Orlando against Hakeem, you’re on the losing side of this battle.

This brings us to the five players with the worst salary to PER ratios this past season.

At first glance, it’s easy to summarize this list as comprised of veterans on recently signed bloated contracts.  However, after a more careful review, each player tells a different story.

1.  Chandler Parsons, 28, appeared (just appeared, he didn’t really do anything on the court) in 34 games due to a pair of knee injuries. It looks like a really stupid signing by the Grizzlies given that knee injuries is the reason Mark Cuban chose not to resign his bromance partner in the first place.

2.  Luol Deng giddily accepted $72 million from the Lakers this offseason to finance his post age 30 decline. When Luke Walton and Magic realized they might lose draft picks if they won a few games, Deng racked up 22 straight DNPs to end the season so that the Lakers could “develop their young players.”  Sounds like tanking if I’ve ever heard of it, though given Deng’s abilities, they probably would have lost more had they kept him in there.

3.  The Nets offered Allen Crabbe a four year $75 million offer sheet this past offseason, which the Trail Blazers matched. I totally understand what the Trail Blazers are doing.  Given that their two best players, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, are prolific scorers with no defensive ability, they really needed to invest in a bench player who is a complete sieve on defense.

4.  J.R. Smith is great. He has the ability to make eight 3s in a playoff game but he also has the audacity to airball a 30 foot shot to begin an NBA Finals game with ample time on the shot clock.  Unfortunately for J.R., his courage doesn’t always match his ability, especially this past season (though injuries played a role).  There was talk of LeBron parenting J.R., but who knows how long that lasted.

5.  I was really surprised to see Al Horford on this list. It’s undeniable that his stats have slipped in his first year in Boston.  While Horford may not be worth the max contract he received, his teammates would argue that any statistical slip is because he’s providing unmeasurable value through floor spacing.  Similar to Kevin Love in Cleveland, Horford’s lesser role on his second NBA team is partially due to the evolving role of the NBA big man.

Teams need good players on cheap contracts to compete in the salary cap era.  This is the only way for teams to create depth when the inevitable injury occurs.  That being said, it’s important to remember that the goal in any professional sports league is not always to maximize surplus value (the value a player provides above the expected value for the player’s salary) but to maximize value within the bounds of the salary cap.

Unless you’re the cheapest owner known to man and have no desire to win.  I would rather start a team with a few Goliaths and pay them ungodly amounts of money (e.g., LeBron, Wade, Bosh in Miami) than acquire the 15 most dollar-efficient players available.

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