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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Free Agent Follies

Building an NBA team today is different than it was in previous eras for many reasons. There was a time when most NBA prospects were juniors or seniors at big-time NCAA programs, but now teams must scout freshmen--which means that they have evaluate the best high school players--and must also keep track of the best players on every continent other than Antarctica. The salary cap and luxury tax have combined to curb spending--except for the Knicks--but some of the huge contracts that have been handed out in recent seasons have made for a very interesting distribution of wealth; most teams are spending a significant portion of their payrolls on a few players and then filling out the rest of the roster with inexpensive contracts (inexpensive being a relative term). For instance, Boston--the chic pick by many people to win the Eastern Conference, though I have my doubts--will pay roughly $56 million to Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen this season; the rest of the roster will receive in the neighborhood of $13 million, which is $3 million less than Allen's salary.

This system can work out quite nicely if your top three guys are named Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, who will comprise more than half of San Antonio's payroll this year. If your leaders are great players who stay healthy and your role players are productive then your team is in fine shape. On the other hand, if a significant percentage of your payroll is devoted to Pau Gasol and Mike Miller, then you will end up with the worst record in the NBA like the Memphis Grizzlies did last year. The important choices do not only involve which big dollar players to build around but also which role players to sign/retain. The Celtics have determined the first part of this equation but how well they deal with the second part will ultimately decide whether or not this team meets the highest expectations that have been placed on it.

All free agent signings have to be viewed in this light, with consideration given not just to a player's on court statistics but also his impact on his team's salary structure. Phoenix considers Grant Hill to be a bargain not only because he is still a productive player but because he is just costing the Suns $1.8 million, which is vitally important to the financial bottom line of a team that has about $50 million tied up in Shawn Marion, Amare Stoudemire, Steve Nash and Boris Diaw.

However, even taking financial matters into account, some free agent signings simply don't add up. Here are a couple "free agent follies" who may turn out to be overpriced even at bargain rates:

1) Smush Parker, Miami Heat; terms of the deal not disclosed by the team but probably in the neighborhood of $5 million for two years.

Miami is the fifth NBA team to sign Parker since 2002. On the one hand, that means that a lot of teams like him--or liked him at one time. On the other hand, it means that teams have found him to be very easy to replace. His last employer, the L.A. Lakers, signed him in desperation two years ago because their cupboard was completely bare of point guards. That cupboard is still pretty bare--except for Derek Fisher, who dropped in their laps long after Parker was sent packing--but the Lakers figured that getting rid of Parker was addition by subtraction. After signing Parker, Heat Coach Pat Riley declared, "He brings size, shooting and defense to our backcourt. He has been improving every year, and we feel that this could be his best year yet." That just goes to show (1) Riley did not watch many Lakers games last year and (2) hope springs eternal. Speaking of spring, by that time next year, if not sooner, Parker will be firmly rooted to Miami's bench, complaining that Riley does not understand how to properly utilize him--or, Parker will be on the court because every other Miami point guard is injured, in which case Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade will feel first hand some of the pain that Kobe Bryant experienced last season. To paraphrase Ralph Nader's line about "unsafe at any speed," Parker is not a bargain no matter how cheap the price.

2) Jamaal Magloire, New Jersey Nets; $4 million for one year

Magloire averaged a double-double in 2004 for the only time in his seven year career, earning his first and only trip to the All-Star Game. For most of the rest of his career he has been a talented but underachieving player who never quite lives up to expectations. The Nets hope that they will get an inspired effort from Magloire because he will be playing alongside Jason Kidd and because he will be playing for a new contract since they only signed him to a one year deal. Magloire takes the place of the energetic Mikki Moore, who left to sign with Sacramento because the Kings offered about $3 million more in guaranteed money than the Nets did. In order to keep from paying the luxury tax, the Nets also waived Cliff Robinson and Hassan Adams. Robinson is near (or past) the end of the line but Adams is a productive reserve player. It will be interesting to see whether or not these moves really turn out to be a bargain for the Nets.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:13 AM



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