The nature of the NBA market often lends itself to reckless abandon, questionable contracts and deals that cripple a team's future cap flexibility. (Say hi to the camera, New York Knicks.)
As always, it's the smart NBA teams that exercise careful judgement -- instead of overpaying for a mid-tier free agent, they delve into the bargain bin for cheap role players to allow leeway for future moves -- which benefit the most from current market.
Teams like, well, the San Antonio Spurs. Operating within the constraints of their small market and image, San Antonio has crafted championship-caliber teams without breaking the bank in free agency (with the exception of last year). They've benefited from luck, of course, and from the continuity that comes with having a generational talent like Tim Duncan.
But otherwise, San Antonio has been in title contention for the last 19 years because of their ability to maximize the value of each dollar. The NBA, by and large, is a zero-sum game. One sunk cost -- even if it's at the bottom rungs of the roster -- will hurt a team's chances for success. And with a finite amount of roster space and salary cap, there isn't much margin for error. A couple missteps here and there and good teams can be toast.
So to gauge the success of the Spurs front office this season, I devised a metric to define whether a player outperformed his contract.
Allow me to get a bit nerdy. The primary metric we'll be using here is Value over Replacement Player (VORP). Basically, VORP is a box score estimate of the points per 100 possessions a player contributed more than a replacement level player. If that sounds convoluted, think of VORP this way: It's simply a measure of how much better an individual player performed over a replacement player available on the NBA market.
Next, we convert VORP to Wins Above Replacement (WAR) by multiply by 2.7. WAR is exactly what it sounds like -- how many wins a player contributed to the team over a replacement level player. Kawhi Leonard, the runner-up in MVP voting last year, contributed 16.7 wins above a replacement player last year. (That's really, really, really good.)
Once you have the wins above replacement, multiple that number by 2.22. That gives you how much value the player produced on a million dollar scale. The 2.22 number means NBA teams typically spend about $2.22 million for each win above replacement. (Note: Daniel Myers, who created one of the primary metrics involved in calculating WAR, gave me this figure. Then I translated it to WAR.)
Last step: Take the value you just calculated and subtract it from the contract value. The resulting figure will give you how much more (or less) the player outperformed (or underperformed) his contract.***
*** This metric does not define who the best basketball players are. Players with cheap contracts benefit because it doesn't take much production to justify the contract. Players with larger deals (ie: LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker) are affected because of their high salary. It takes more production to payoff that deal. A negative number doesn't mean the player sucks; it just means that he didn't live up to his contract. Please do not take this as a definitive ranking of the best Spurs on the team. This metric is just calculating value relative to their contract. I cannot stress this enough.
So, for example, Leonard contributed $37.2 million worth of value last season. Subtract his $16.41 million salary in the 2015-16 season and Leonard outperformed his contract by a whopping $20.8 million.
- Kawhi Leonard: +$20.8 value ($37.2 million value produced, $16.4 million contract value)
- David West: +$9.9 value ($11.4 million value produced, $1.5 million contract value)
- Tim Duncan: +$8.4 value ($14.4 million value produced, $6.0 million contract value)
- Manu Ginobili: +$6.8 value ($9.6 million value produced, $2.8 million contract value)
- Kyle Anderson: +$6.1 value ($7.2 million value produced, $1.1 million contract value)
- Patty Mills: +$6.0 value ($9.6 million value produced, $3.6 million contract value)
- Danny Green: +$5.0 value ($15 million value produced, $10 million contract value)
- Boban Marjanovic: +$3.0 value ($4.2 million value produced, $1.2 million contract value)
- Rasual Butler: +$1.5 value ($2.4 million value produced, $0.9 million contract value)
- Jonathon Simmons: +$0.7 value ($1.2 million value produced, $0.5 million contract value)
- Andre Miller: +$0.3 value ($0.6 million value produced, $0.3 million contract value)
- Matt Bonner: +$0.3 value ($1.2 million value produced, $0.9 million contract value)
- Boris Diaw: -$0.9 value ($6.6 million value produced, $7.5 million contract value)
- LaMarcus Aldridge: -$6.5 value ($13.2 million value produced, $19.7 million contract value)
- Tony Parker: -$7.4 value ($6.0 million value produced, $13.4 million contract value)
- No surprise here that Leonard outperformed his deal by more than another Spur. Just for fun, I calculated the value of other elite players to see where Leonard's value ranked. Leonard's $20.8 million value is ranked sixth in the entire league, only trailing Steph Curry ($47.4 million value), Russell Westbrook ($33.0 million value), Kyle Lowry ($26.6 million value), James Harden ($25.6 million value) and LeBron James ($22.6 million value). Leonard is ahead of Draymond Green ($18.7 million value) and Kevin Durant ($18.2 million value), for what it's worth.
- Here are the top five Spurs in order of value produced: Leonard ($37.2 million), Green ($15 million), Duncan ($14.4 million), Aldridge ($13.2 million) and West ($11.4 million). This isn't factoring in the contract value, which is the last step in the equation.
- To the Danny Green haters: Here's the door. The dude earned $10 million last year, fourth-highest salary on the team, and still outperformed his deal by $5 million. His erratic shooting stroke and inability to dribble a basketball don't endear him to the fan base, but he's a defensive marvel. Pair Leonard, a world-class defender, with Green and you have one of the most intimidating perimeter duos in the league. That has real value.
- Only three Spurs (Diaw, Aldridge, Parker) didn't outperform their contracts last season.
- And, man, this metric doesn't like Tony Parker at all. He had the lowest value and the 10th-highest value produced.
- But the other two remaining members of the Big Three -- Duncan and Ginobili -- fared very well in this metric, despite a combined age that is approaching 80. Not too shabby for a pair of old geezers.
- In all, the Spurs received $141.6 million worth of value from the entire team but only spent $87.6 million on the payroll. Spurs gonna Spurs, man.