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NBA free agent madness: What's going on with all these giant contracts for mid-level players? Where is the "Moneyball" revolution in basketball?


Steve Nash signs a $66 million deal with the Suns that will pay him until he’s 36, an age at which point guards not named John Stockton simply don’t play well anymore. His replacement in Dallas will be Marquis Daniels, a backup last year as a rookie after going undrafted. Daniels signs a six-year contract worth $38 million.

The Jazz sign Carlos Boozer for $68 million and Mehmet Okur for $50 million, both for six years. The Warriors sign career backup center Adonal Foyle for $41.6 million for five years and Derek Fisher, a point guard who would struggle for playing time on most decent teams and may even do so in Oakland, for $37 million for six.

The list goes on and on. Often-injured Marcus Camby, $60 million or more to stay in Denver. Kenyon Martin, $90 million in a sign-and-trade to be Camby’s teammate — on a team that also has Carmelo Anthony and Nene in the frontcourt.

What’s going on here? This NBA free-agent season is looking like baseball offseasons used to, with aging, midlevel or unproven players signing long, massive deals. Baseball, thanks in part to a lagging economy and in part to the Oakland A’s using sophisticated statistical methods to construct a winning roster frugally, has tightened its belt.

To use the title of the bestselling book about the A’s success for want of a better shorthand term: Where is the “Moneyball” revolution in the NBA?

“The difference is the salary cap that we have that baseball doesn’t,” says Mavericks owner Mark Cuban in an e-mail. “Teams feel obligated to spend that money, and they do. When there is more total salary cap dollars available than there are good players, it’s a seller’s market, and you get the craziness of this summer.”

There’s no denying that comparing basketball to baseball doesn’t get you very far. That’s because both sides of the “Moneyball” equation are very different in basketball than they are on the diamond.

“The science of basketball is not as consistent as baseball,” says Dean Oliver, author of “Basketball on Paper,” which uses Bill James-style, or sabermetric, statistical analysis on the NBA. Oliver and others who do this type of work point out that baseball is far easier to measure because most of what needs to be measured comes down to a series of one-on-one confrontations between the pitcher and batter. Basketball is a flowing, team game, and it’s difficult to figure out how much credit to assign to each player on the floor for a made basket or a defensive stop.

“I hear that when I talk to NBA people,” Oliver says. “When I raise the fact that ‘Moneyball’ is working in baseball, they say, ‘Baseball is very different than basketball.’ And they’re right.”

But the other side of the new baseball thinking — not paying superstar money to players who don’t perform like superstars, or to superstars who aren’t likely to play at that level for much longer — is far more widespread than the use of sabermetric stats.

“An argument can be made that the statistical folks that are doing NBA stuff, including me, really don’t have answers that are of tremendous value,” says Dan T. Rosenbaum, an assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina Greensboro whose study of the NBA’s business includes a sophisticated analysis of on-court action. “Although there’s a lot of simple things like: Don’t give $50 million contracts to guys who are 30 years old over a six-year period.”

That other side, the belt tightening, hasn’t caught on in basketball either, as Messrs. Foyle and Camby, among others, can attest. That’s mostly because there hasn’t been a need.

“The NBA is a cash cow. It’s an unbelievable money machine,” says Paul Staudohar, a business management professor at Cal State Hayward who studies sports. “The economics of the sport are as good as they get.” (It’s worth noting that NBA salaries seem inflated in comparison to baseball’s because while overall payroll totals are comparable, there are less than half as many players in the NBA as in the major leagues.)

The NBA also has complicated salary cap, salary floor, luxury tax and maximum and minimum individual salary rules. Larry Coon’s well-known online Salary Cap FAQ runs to more than 30,000 words to give you an idea of the complexity. The rules would be far too complicated to explain here even if this column fully understood them, which it does not. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see they’ve had a major effect on the economics of the sport.

As Rosenbaum has pointed out in his work, maximum overall salaries keep the superstars from making their true market value, while maximum salaries on rookie contracts also keep the new players with the most potential — the LeBron Jameses and Carmelo Anthonys of the world — from making what they would make in an open system. Combine those phenomena with minimum salary rules, and it’s easy to see why there’s money available to pay the great veteran middle class.

“I think what you’re reacting to when you see Boozer’s contract,” Rosenbaum says by way of example, “you’re saying, ‘Well, geez, Kobe [Bryant] is only getting paid twice as much as Boozer. That’s not right.’ But really it’s not Boozer’s contract so much, it’s that Kobe’s contract probably should be twice or three times as much as what his is.”

“All these guys are not too far from the middle,” says Oliver, the “Basketball on Paper” author, about this summer’s free agents. “Some of the guys are better than the middle, some are worse than the middle, but they’re getting a lot of money.”

Or as maverick baseball owner Bill Veeck once put it, “It isn’t the high price of stars that is expensive, it’s the high price of mediocrity.”

Not that Carlos Boozer, specifically, is a mediocrity. He’s a fine player, and maybe more than that. Statisticians Wayne Winston and Jeff Sagarin have developed a system, called Winval, that rates NBA players according to how well their team does when they’re on the floor, a system that Mavs owner Cuban has employed. Winston told the Washington Times this spring that the Cavaliers’ improvement this season should be credited more to Boozer than to the man who has gotten most of the credit, LeBron James, who by the way Winston says should have lost the Rookie of the Year race to Dwyane Wade of the Heat.

But even if this rating system or that one elevates a player or two from middle class to superstar status or vice versa, it’s clear that NBA teams are lavishing big bucks on fairly ordinary players.

“In baseball there’s no constraints, really, on how much you spend other than just normal economics,” Rosenbaum says. But in the NBA, “the free market has kind of been eliminated to such an extent because of all these interventions — the salary cap, the luxury tax. I think there is this weird feeling that they don’t feel hemmed in by economics anymore.

“I think what Cuban’s saying [about owners feeling obligated to spend up to the cap] is to a certain extent true. If they have the money they feel like they have to spend it. I don’t think that necessarily makes a lot of sense. But I think as a sociologist Cuban’s doing a pretty good job of explaining what’s going on. Whether that makes economic sense is a little bit different question.”

It doesn’t make sense when you consider that the Detroit Pistons won the NBA championship with only the 14th highest payroll in a 29-team league, one year after the Spurs won it with the 17th highest, not even in the top half.

The Pistons proved that you can win without a superstar, but every other recent champion, including the Spurs, has had at least one superstar and most have had two. When you combine that with the fact that because of maximum salaries, superstars are actually a bargain compared to their true market value, it makes sense to refrain from paying big bucks to non-superstars so you’ll have cap space available to enter the bidding for superstars when they do become available.

This offseason, Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Tracy McGrady have all been in play to one extent or another, and only a handful of teams had the financial flexibility to get in the game even if they wanted to.

“If you don’t manage that middle class well,” Oliver says, “you’re going to get killed.”

Rosenbaum agrees. “There’s a lot of opportunities that teams don’t take advantage of in terms of ways they can use their cap space that they don’t use.”

Not so fast, says Cuban, whom Rosenbaum credits as one of the more cap-savvy owners.

“Teams feel pressure from fans to compete,” Cuban says by e-mail. Cuban, who has a weblog, felt the need to describe in some detail the Steve Nash negotiations to Mavericks fans who were, like the owner, heartsick over the popular point guard’s departure.

“If you have cap room,” his e-mail continues, “it’s probably because you gave up in a previous season and promised your fans you would use your cap room to improve. So the question is, How long can you stand to be bad? It’s harder than it sounds.”

Just ask the New Jersey Nets, who lost Martin, their power forward, to the Nuggets and appear to be falling apart two years after they won back-to-back Eastern Conference titles.

“What’s fascinating is watching teams [spend so freely this summer] while at the same time seeing people arguing Jason Kidd’s no longer worth his contract,” Rosenbaum says. “It was only last summer when he was the 30-year-old that every team would have liked to have signed.”

“I think you’re right,” he continues. “This is baseball a long time ago. But I think it’s more complicated than baseball.”

Previous column: A view from the TV truck

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