Free Agency Analysis: Parte Uno

thumbs upEditor’s Note: The free agency overviews are written with a general idea that spending less than $1.3 million on salary per win is an excellent value, spending around $1.6 million on salary per win is a solid value, and more than $2 million per win is a losing value. This is based on an approximate $80 million luxury tax in 2014 – 2015 & 2015 – 2016, and 60 wins being “excellent”, 50 wins as “solid”, and less than 40 wins…try harder. SWAgR and SWAg are used as the estimates of a player’s value in wins. Also, obviously players improve and degrade in performance with age. In their RAPM calc. @talkingpractice adjusts for age prior to every season using the equation: (27-Age) * 0.06. This is generally taken into account for players significantly younger or older than 27.

SHAUN LIVINGSTON

For years Shaun Livingston was to be remembered more for his horrific Sid Vicious-esque compound fracture than anything he accomplished on an NBA court. Name an acronym in the knee, he tore it. Many NBA pundits dismissed his comeback as a lost cause. Blessed with a ridiculous 6’11’’ pterodactyl wingspan and height that gave him a vantage of passing angles that most All-Star PGs would need stilts to see, it seemed destined that Livingston would be looked upon as another NBA “what if” story.

Five years later, Livingston has partially answered that “what if.” We’ll never know what he could have been, but after a few solid months with the Cavaliers and serving as a top five player on the Nets this past season, he is definitely relevant on the NBA landscape again. While he has lost much of his athleticism, his time on the sidelines has let him introvert himself to the game. Today he has the “old man at the Y game” down pat. He’s not the athlete that other players on the court are, but he’s sudden and knows when to jab and when to throw the hook. He’s mastered timing and spacing. He dominates smaller guards on the block. He knows his strengths and plays to them and that’s why he just signed a contract with the Golden State Warriors for the full mid-level exemption (3 years $16 million).

Based on the RAPM and APM at gotbuckets, this is a nice deal for the team. Livingston’s 3.66 SWAgR ranked 5th on the Nets last season, and his 2-year SWAg approaches 10 wins. At $5 million per season, or about $1 – $1.4 million per victory, this provides a nice boost to the Warriors win column. These will be his age 29 – 31 seasons, so his production is not likely to decline too much, and from Zach Lowe’s reports, the third year is only half guaranteed.

While Livingston is a terrible outside shooter (.204 career 3P%), he is a solid facilitator (23.7 career AST%) and would allow Curry to play off the ball to get a breather, similar to how the Warriors previously played with Jarrett Jack. If Klay Thompson is traded, Livingston will serve as a partial replacement for his production, especially with Kevin Martin linked to most trade scenarios with Minnesota. Whether it is Thompson, or Martin / Love, there is plenty of shooting to help offset Livingston’s deficiency there. Livingston’s signing doesn’t come without potential ramifications though. His signing hard-capped the Warriors at $81 million for the entire 2014 – 2015 season, and it makes them ineligible to participate in sign and trade transactions. Of course, the efficacy is also contingent on the health of a guy who has suffered one dramatic injury in his career. If Livingston stays healthy, the deal is a nice value. He’ll be 32 at the end of the contract and his game is based on craft rather than athleticism so he could still be a fine player in three seasons. If he gets hurt in the first two seasons, his contract could hamper the Warriors ability to take another step forward in a brutally competitive Western Conference.

KYRIE IRVING

For months there were reports from national columnists claiming that Kyrie Irving was counting down the days until he could leave Cleveland, like a convict awaiting parole. Some stated that the Cavaliers wouldn’t even offer Irving an extension because he would turn them down, and they feared being ridiculed by the cliché spewing content fillers of the media monster. Within the first 65 minutes of free agency, Dan Gilbert and Kyrie Irving threw those pundits’ credibility into the Cuyahoga River and set it ablaze.

Of course, the Cavaliers have been far from a buoyant barge, and Irving has exhibited indifferent behavior at times the past three seasons. Kyrie’s immature behavior can not only be attributed to his youth (22), but also to the unique situation he inherited having to replace the best player in the sport, a beloved local legend at that. Blake Griffin wasn’t constantly asked by children if he’d leave them like Elton Brand. John Wall has never had a crazed fan storm the court begging him to stay. Kyrie entered a tough situation, with relatively limited on-court help and now moving towards a third coach in four seasons.

While Kyrie boasts encouraging shooting percentages for a player his age, he has not been a top shelf facilitator and his defensive effort resembles something a janitor cleans up with saw dust. His RAPM Defensive Split resides in the 6th percentile of all NBA players, while 2-year APM pegs him in the bottom quarter. Kyrie’s recent 9.83 2-year SWAg and 2.94 SWAgR actually paint a really ugly picture of the value of his upcoming maximum contract. In Irving’s defense, he flashed abilities of an uber-efficient offensive player, including an age-19 rookie season shooting 47 / 40 / 87. Former General Manager Chris Grant was fired because he failed to provide Irving with a pick and roll partner, off-ball shooters and a rim protector to mask Irving’s defensive deficiencies. Byron Scott and Mike Brown’s stagnant offenses hampered Irving’s offensive production. If Grant’s successor David Griffin can follow through on his mandate to field a roster fitting coach David Blatt’s screen heavy, off-ball movement offense proven to be very guard friendly, Irving could make a dramatic step forward this season. Finally, last season, Irving was a youthful 21 and definitely possesses time to resume an upward arc to his career.

Is Irving worth a potential super max-contract (5 years, 30% of cap)? Maybe not based on last season’s production, but that doesn’t mean that he won’t be; the guy was one of the most ridiculous 19-year old offensive talents in NBA history. Every contract is situation specific. Cleveland isn’t a cosmopolitan destination that NBA players flock to.  Teams like the Cavaliers have to make the bet that their young, two-time all-star will develop into a top-10 NBA player. The NBA is also a business. Avery Bradley just got $8 million a year and he couldn’t sell a seat at TD Garden if he threw in a personal foot massage. Irving is one of the more marketable young stars in the game, a seller of seats, jerseys and cereal…someone was going to pay the man big money and the Cavs were the team with that opportunity.

DIRK NOWITZKI

No owner and player in the NBA are more bound at the hip than Mark Cuban and Dirk Nowitzki. It’s impossible to think of one without the other. Nowitzki preceded Cuban’s ownership of the Mavericks by a year and a half and has been the face of Cuban’s franchise ever since. During their 14-season union they’ve failed to make the playoffs only once and have made two finals appearances, including a dramatic victory over the heavily favored Heat in 2011.

ESPN’s Marc Stein broke the news that Nowitzki signed a three-year contract extension with the Mavericks for $30 million. By the end of the contract Nowitzki will have spent 18 years with the Mavericks. The only players in league history to have spent more continuous years with the same team will be John Stockton (19) and (presumably) Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan. Nowitzki needs an easily obtainable 1,811 points to pass Shaquille O’Neal for sixth on the hallowed all-time career scoring list. Dirk may have been born in Northern Bavaria, but Dallas is his home.

At $8.3 million per season, Nowitzki should be a bargain during his next contract. SWAgR credited him with 17 wins last season, after 10 and 15 in the two prior years; getting All-NBA production for only $300,000 more annually than Avery Bradley is a coup for the Mavs. Not as kind to Dirk, SWAg only credits about 8 wins per season, but even that $1 million per win looks awfully nice. Dirk’s new contract will span his age 36 – 38 seasons. Statistical regression is likely, but since his game hasn’t been based on athleticism for years, it should be minimal.

Nowitzki follows in the footsteps of fellow big men Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan in taking a cut in pay during their golden years to replenish the roster with more talent for one last title run. The Mavericks were heavily criticized for blowing up their 2011 championship roster, but in hindsight it may have been the right move. That aging team caught lightning in a bottle and it was unlikely to strike twice. Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea both failed to live up to the contracts they signed with the Knicks and Timberwolves. The goal of the reboot was to bring in another superstar to play with Nowitzki and eventually replace him as the Mavericks centerpiece. They struck out every time. Dwight Howard, Deron Williams and Chris Paul opted for elsewhere. This summer Cuban is courted Carmelo Anthony and Lebron James, but it appears he’ll whiff again. There are reasons for optimism though. The greatest test the Spurs faced on their Rascal Scooter ride to the title was from the Mavs, who pushed San Antonio to the brink in a thrilling seven game series. Coach Rick Carlisle is arguably the NBA’s second best coach, and they have approximately $15 million in cap space to add to their core of Nowitzki, Chandler and Monta Ellis.

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