Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Middling Exception

When Kyle Korver was traded for Gordon Giricek's expiring contract and a future first rounder last week, it was viewed by many as being a fair trade for both sides. Utah got the long range shooter they were seeking, and Philly got more cap space plus an added goody in the form of the future pick. Personally, however, I saw this as the Sixers fleecing the Jazz.

In years past getting a guy like Korver, who is on the books for about $5 million a year till 2010-11, would be a good pickup. Korver characterizes the type of player who has gotten midlevel or close to midlevel exception money the last five years: a solid player with one particularly strong skill. Players like this certainly help most teams, but the problem is that in this day and age, they are greatly overpaid. There are several reasons for this, but the big one is that presently almost every team in the NBA is close to the luxury tax brink, and owners are no longer willing to open their pockets and be penalized with the tax.

The new fiscal self-regulation of most teams has made it so the midlevel exception is taking on a new face. The players who in years past were considered midlevel guys are now overpaid. Jason Kapono, Morris Peterson and Desmond Mason immediately come to mind as lucky ducks from last summer. There is no way any of those three deserve to make five or six million a year in this day and age. Micky Arison said as much when he admitted that Toronto gave Kapono a contract that Miami would be crazy to match.

Chad Ford recently summed up the fiscal landscape and how it will negatively affect this year's free agents (Insider only, I think, sorry.) Here's a few lines worth repeating from the column:

A whopping 22 teams were either over the (luxury tax) threshold or within $4 million of paying it this year. Owners have become so tax averse, they're putting the brakes on NBA GMs' free-spending ways. This especially hurt players looking for midlevel exception deals. Only a couple of teams used their full midlevel exceptions this past summer. Even fewer are projected to do so next year.

Ford goes on to explain how tough this is for the potentially excellent crop of free agents that will be available in July - and how good it will be for teams looking for a bargain. In brief, $6 million annually is gonna get you a hell of alot more than just Jason Kapono. In a league where insane salaries having gotten increasingly crazier, the pendulum may finally be swinging the other way.

If we look at the dominant teams in the league we inevitably notice that they usually spend their money much more productively than bad teams (duh). The idea that if you are going to spend big bucks it should be on an All-Star player is of the utmost logic, but it is so often ignored that perhaps we need an overly simplistic "moneyball"-type analysis to see things in a more conspicuous light. I immediately recall what Elrod Enchilada always harps about over at RealGM - and how right he is. Eldrod's columns always boil down to the fact that you need a superstar and usually two other All Star-type players to win a championship. The most obvious present example is the Spurs. The Celtics clearly are following this model, and likewise it seems to be what the Suns have in mind. What makes all these teams stand out is that they pay their stars a heck of alot of money - and then try not to overpay anybody else. There are departures from this (Phoenix is kicking itself for giving Diaw a big extension), but a solid groundwork has been laid - pay the very best in the league, and be prudent when it comes to your supporting cast.

Such a financial scheme works so well in basketball because it truly is a stars' league, and for every "starless" team like the '04 Pistons that wins it all, there are ten teams like the '07 Spurs. So to overpay guys who are not close to All Star players is a good way to shoot yourself in the foot - while to overpay players who are perennial All Stars might be just fine. The Celtics have $56 million going to only KG, Pierce and Allen this year - and I don't hear anyone complaining. San Antonio, miraculously, has only $40 million going toward Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. Phoenix has about $42 million allotted to Nash, Stoudemire and Marion. In all three of these situations you see success being bred by paying top dollar for the best. All three of these teams have tried to find "cheap" complimentary pieces to go along with their big guns. This seems the best way to go - or if you can't do this well, at least don't give $15 million a year to guys who hardly ever make the All Star game (Ben Wallace, Peja and Jason Richardson pop into mind without prompting.) There is no more certain way to kill your championship chances than this.

Simmons' column this week talks about similar issues to what we are now addressing, but it relates to how important chemistry is in the league. I agree wholeheartedly that good "chemistry guys" are nice to have, but the key is having stars. Portland might be able to win 13 straight aided by chemistry, but it won't matter come May. Yet Simmons makes a sentient point in the value of having roll guys who know what their role is. But you shouldn't pay these players much money. And the thing is, they can usually be had on the cheap. House and Posey cost the Celtics about $5 million for this year - and they are going to mean much more to the C's than Korver will ever mean to the Jazz.

Continuing on this "moneyball" theme, let me toss out some ideas for salary structure that I suggest teams try to follow, at least somewhat. This is a generalized list, but the point should be clear:

-If a player makes more than $18 million a year he best be a star of stars, a definitive top 10 talent. You can have two damn good players for the price of this one salary, so it better be a transcendental cosmo you're paying. Guys like KG, Kobe and Duncan fall into this category - they leave a definitive imprint on your team. And guys like Michael Finley and Jermaine O'Neal never should have been lucky enough to receive such salary obscenity. Yet they are hardly the only current culprits. Boiling it down to PER (just to make people argue), I'd say you better be in the 25 PER range year in and year out to make this kind of fliff.

-The $12 to $18 million range should only be for those who are All Star-caliber every season. The Rashard Lewises of the world have no place here, and even giving excellent players like Mike Bibby or Kirilenko this much money can have sad results. Your PER should be over 20 for this kind of salary. So step it up, Ray Allen. Just kidding, you're doing fine...

-The $7 to $12 million range is for those excellent players who occasionally make All Star games and can be an awesome third wheel for any team in the league. David West is a good example of this, and we have many potential free agents this summer who could fit into this category (Josh Smith, Iguoldala, Luol Deng etc.) It will be interesting to see who gets more money than they should - and who won't. Statistically speaking these type of players should have PERs of at least 18 - unless they are really good defensively or chemistry marvels.

-The $4 to $7 million range should fetch you a heck of a player. This is the new midlevel money we're talking about here, and you ought to be able to get players like Jamison or Artest with this kind of fliff come summertime. If they get more, it's probably overpaying. Like we said earlier, this subgroup of players are going to be most affected by the new cap constraints that most teams are now suffering from. A player like Ricky Davis is going to be hard pressed to come away with the full midlevel in such a heady market; while in the past he could probably expect such money. But in this market players like Ben Gordon, Artest, Monta Ellis and Corey Maggete could all supersede him. In general for this salary range expect to fetch a very solid player with a PER of at least 16.

-The $1 to $4 million zone can net you a very quality player, you can even pay quality starters this type of money given the financial climate. The point is you don't blow $3 million on someone like Scalabrine - you get someone like Posey instead. Try avoiding PERs below 12, but get greedy and try to get higher - bargains abound to the knowledgeable shopper.

So it will be intriguing to see what trades and "salary dumps" we see before the February deadline. GMs seem much smarter these days, and the main reason is that owners are finally tying GMs' hands behind their back. I think this is a good thing for the NBA, and finally we get to have something like a hard cap.

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