Play big, pay bigger

Bill "The Sports Guy" Simmons has fans, haters, and even a theme song--but it's still fascinatingly unclear if sports bloggers collectively love or despise the guy. At the very least, his columns provoke conversation and resulting criticism or defense of his alleged homerism, writing style, and knowledge.

The most recent grist for the mill: Simmons' annual trade value column, which is attracting more commentary by the hour.

Every year, Simmons ranks players in order of their value in a trade--by his logic, Dwight Howard is the NBA's 2nd most untradeable player, because the Magic would only deal him for the NBA's most untradeable player, LeBron James. Tim Duncan is the 3rd most untradeable player, because the Spurs would only deal him for Howard or LeBron, and so on. While Simmons better explains his rationale in the article--which is definitely worth a read--the list tends to be highly subjective and admittedly theoretical, with some questionable conclusions. Positional differences aside, at the same age and pay, is David West really a better value than Caron Butler?, we ask Bullets Forever.

(The inconsistencies are easier to understand after Simmons raised the curtain this year, podcasting his annual list-making conversation with buddy Joe House--an entertaining, if not confidence-inspiring discussion. The pair lacked accurate salary data and made inconsistent logical leaps, while House's repeated capitulations to Simmons during the "debate" won't inspire Wilberforce-Huxley comparisons.)

However, buried within the piece are two small, interesting sidebars: Simmons' Top 15 Best and Top 25 Worst contracts in the NBA.

Generated as a side-product of the Top 50 list, these shorter rankings are somewhat more objective. By avoiding the qualitative baggage that Simmons and House talked through, these lists more purely represent good and bad values--and led us to two, quick observations.

1. Playing for the Wizards gets you paid
Well, as we no, not everyone got paid in D.C.

But while Butler's contract (Simmons' 13th best overall) is a model of fiscal restraint, Simmons names one current and five former Wiz kids among the top 20 worst contracts. Sure, Brian Cardinal (#20) got only a cup of coffee in the capital, but the careers of Ben Wallace (#7) and Bobby Simmons (#8) were launched by Washington, and Larry Hughes (#2) and Jared Jeffries (#11) played key roles on the breakthrough 2005 playoff team.

Still, the team isn't exactly the Bulls of the '90s--where guys like Luc Longley, Jud Buechler, and Jason Caffey parlayed their Jordan championships into big free agent contracts--so it's unclear what's so attractive about ex-Wizards. Their coating of magic dust?

2. Big pay + big man = Big mistake
Check out the names we've written in red: The NBA officially lists these guys as playing some center. Scroll back up, and you'll see four of Simmons' 15-best contracts belong to big men; meanwhile, Simmons believes that 15 of the 25 worst contracts in the league--60% of the list--belong to underachieving centers.

Set aside the rankings for a second; it doesn't matter if Larry Hughes is #2 or #12, so long as you agree that his contract is among the worst in the NBA. So if you're generally OK with the inclusion of the contracts listed above, it's not surprising that so many bad deals belong to big men; centers command the highest per-position salaries in the games and competition to get even a decent backup can lead to overbidding. Meanwhile, wing players and big guards tend to have some of the best values per contract, partly because of their relative abundance.

However, overbidding can't be the only reason that center valuations appear inflated. Is it because teams too quickly place a premium on halfway-effective big men? For example, the Celtics offered $42 million to Mark Blount after he had one good year, but aren't there plenty of NBDL, CBA, and European centers who would've provided 85% of Blount's contribution, but at 25% of the price?

Alternatively, maybe the bad contracts signify teams' willingness to roll the dice with centers, who tend to retain value longer than quick guards or athletic forwards. Does it make more sense to take a risk on a Nazr Mohammed, because some other GM who needs size can still be suckered into interested in dealing for him?

Or do these contracts represent teams' desperation for big men in the Shaq/Duncan era? If we went back and looked in the late '80s and '90s, when teams focused on acquiring do-everything guards like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson or versatile forwards like Scottie Pippen, would we see fewer centers being overvalued?

We prefer to end posts with answers, not questions, but appeal for some second opinions here. Perhaps someone can even point to a John Hollinger or Dave Berri post that's already explored this topic (but if so, we're not sure who to trust these days).

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posted by Crucifictorious @ 18:30,


At December 19, 2007 at 12:30 AM, Blogger Steven said...

To use a Simmons-ism, JoeHouse seemed like a funny guy, but he brought nothing to the table. He said that he didn't think Oden or Durant or any rookie belonged in the top 50, then as soon as Simmons suggested putting them in the top 30, quickly agreed. And Durant's #13 overall now. Whuh?

At December 19, 2007 at 12:55 AM, Anonymous phdribble said...

Really like the post. And hadn't read your dead-on comparison of Simmons and Ford as prognosticators.

I come down on Team "Fallen Out of Love with Simmons." I used to be a nut, furiously printing out 18 page opuses, checking to make sure my boss didn't see me, and chuckling to myself in my cubicle. Maybe that's the trick: working in a cubicle makes Simmons long-ass articles seem like candy.

But that's all gone. For the most part, I see him as the guy with the quickest first step on the court. But it got him so far, so quickly, that he never developed a complete game. He just relies on that quick wit or beautiful half-thought and becomes contented with himself. He doesn't seem to have ever developed the editing ability to challenge his own work.

So, for example, he writes in this latest post:

"What's even more fascinating is the Spurs have won four titles (and counting) with a specific strategy that nobody else emulated until Boston voyaged down the same defense-character-chemistry path this season."

It just speaks to everything that falls short in his writing. His homerism is the least of the concerns. It's that half-thought he has (that the Spurs have this different kind of system), okay, interesting thought. But then no further analysis. Hmm, counterexamples: Utah? Detroit? Dallas? He just doesn't seem to have that second thought. He's just so married to that quick first step, that he never learned how to shoot a lay-up.

At December 19, 2007 at 1:14 AM, Anonymous jones said...

Simmons is ok, but no better than most bloggers. In fact, there are four or five blogs I'd read in a second over the sports guy and have no interest in the podcast. He could use a better editor, but he's never had to change his style beause it's worked for him.

Talking about centres, which is an easier question than Simmons' popularity, they've always been overvalued. This is nothing new. Portland took Bowie over Jordan, Philadelphia took Bradley over Hardaway, because teams always think that a good man in the middle is automatically a game-changer. A good wingman isn't always a difference-maker.

At December 19, 2007 at 9:06 AM, Blogger JG said...

I have high hopes that Hollinger's upcoming VORP metric will shed some light on this. Because of their scarcity, quality bigs should command a premium--but my guess is that they're currently getting more than they deserve.

Jim McIlvaine: most overpaid ex-Bullet of all time?

At December 19, 2007 at 11:08 AM, Blogger Crucifictorious said...

Steven, agreed that House added little. While Simmons seems too loyal to swap out an old friend for one of his new buddies, Marc Stein or Ric Bucher could've brought better (insider) knowledge to the process.

PhDribble--who's destined to have it out with our own Doctor Dribbles, it seems--Simmons has definitely lost some luster as his style has worn, so the analogy is appreciated. But Simmons depends too much on his first step because it's still devastatingly effective; we're all reading his work, despite any misgivings over writing style or lack of self-editing. Plus,we're tempted to bestow a lifetime pass for all those cubicle-improving hours he's given us over the years.

Jones, it's true that teams prioritize big men when drafting (also see: Oden over Durant)--but what about later on, when they're up for free agency? Surely, after a few years of disappointment, teams know better than to gamble again on mediocrity, no matter how giant a package it may be.

JG, the VORP tip is appreciated...we're not sharp enough to be statheads, although we exalt them on this site. There must be a rudimentary way to measure this now, however...something like average PER by position compared to average player salary, then contrasting this PER/salary measure to recent deals.

And a Jimmy Mac sighting! Fair to say his contract was the most egregious; who else signed a deal that broke up a team?

At December 19, 2007 at 1:46 PM, Blogger JC said...

Jimmy Mac, Don McLean and Tom Gugliotta all take issue with this post, but wish you happy holidays nonetheless.

At December 26, 2007 at 12:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well written.
Nice to see a Jazzster on the best contracts list.
As for the worst... Jarron Collins and Matt Harpring both belong up there. How ever much they're getting paid is way too much. But that's a biased view, of course.

At January 19, 2008 at 11:25 AM, Blogger Dant said...

Overpaying Wizards free agents didn't start with Larry Hughes. Following the surprising '95-96 season, Jim Mcilvaine, Brent Price, and Juwann Howard all cashed in for more bucks than they deserved. Mcilvaine was an excellent BACKUP center. Not sure how any NBA professional general manager could think that he'd be a good starter. Howard probably has the record for biggest pay cut after his $102 million contract expired. I think he went from 24 million to a mere 4 million. Guess they had to cut back in the Howard household. Probably had to give up cable.


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