Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Guess What? I'm an Insider!

Now that I'm doing this blog thing, I figured maybe I should spring for the subscription to ESPN Insider. I never did it before, because it is contrary to my view of what the web is about, and because it always seemed that there was too much free information out there to really keep up with, so why would I pay for more? Besides, it's not like I'm that enamoured of the work of John Hollinger or Chad Ford. Puh-lease.

So far, it seems like I was right all along and I should have kept the 30 bucks.

Hollinger's twin articles on winners and losers in free agency so far are typical NBA punditry. (Of course you'll need an Insider subscription to access the links, but I'll excerpt along the way.) In fact, he uses techniques common to all pundits, in all fields: 'I'll use an argument when it supports my opinion, but ignore the same argument when it doesn't support my opinion.'

You know, nothing is ever black-and-white, and the signing of an NBA free agent is ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS going to boil down to the question of value to the team versus salary cap space used, over the long run. Hollinger looks at two similar situations (the Bulls and the Hornets), and declares that the Bulls are the big winners in summer 2006, while the Hornets are the big losers. Hmmm.

The Bulls and Hornets made by FAR the two biggest free agent signings of the summer (for players changing teams, no one else has gotten more than the mid-level exception so far, though Harrington, Wells and Wilcox could yet do so.) Big Ben's deal is for 4/$60M, while Peja signed for 5/$64M. So Ben is getting more per year, while Peja is getting more total, but they're both getting A LOT.

And of course these teams are doing more than these deals this off-season, but let's face facts, these two deals are the 800 pound gorillas in the gym. So why does Hollinger make Chicago the big winners and NO/OKC the big losers? Let's see if we can figure it out.

One big point he makes is that the Hornets are not being realistic about their chances. They finished 38-44 last year, barely missed the playoffs, but he feels they overachieved and weren't really that good. Great point.
Stojakovic and Chandler will probably help, but will it really matter if they do? The Hornets won 38 games a year ago, and were significantly worse than their record indicated -- based on points scored and points allowed, they could have expected to go 31-51. Thus, even with Stojakovic and Chandler, they could easily end up south of .500.
But wait a minute. Chicago finished 41-41, barely made the playoffs with the 7th seed in the East, and WOULD NOT HAVE MADE THE PLAYOFFS in the West, which is of course where NO/OKC plays. The argument that they played so well against Miami in the playoffs is a little overwrought - they still lost in the first round, and they happen to be a match-up problem for the Heat. But could anyone honestly argue that the Bulls were significantly better than their 41-41 record? I don't think so. Bear in mind also that playing in the East means playing against weaker opponents for 2/3rds of your games, so I'd argue that 41-41 in the East is WORSE than 38-44 in the West. Final point - Chicago closed the season 9-1, while the Hornets limped home at 3-7. So, that means the Bulls were playing better at the end of the season, but it also means that the Hornets had a BETTER record than the Bulls through the end of March.

If Hollinger wants teams to be realistic about their chances of winning before paying out big money in free agency, the same argument applies to the Bulls.

OK, so what else about these signings screams 'great deal' for the Bulls and 'bad deal' for the Hornets? Hollinger just flat out doesn't think Peja is worth the money:
Stojakovic will be making $13 million a year for the next five years, even though he's barely been worth half of that over the past two seasons. He's also had injuries to virtually every square inch of his legs in that time -- plantar fasciitis, sprained ankles, pulled hamstrings, sore knees -- which should be a giant red flag for any team about to sign him to a long-term deal that runs into his 30s.
He's probably right. I myself never really thought Peja was that great, even when he was having his All-NBA season in 03-04. But the interesting thing is, in the 40 games Peja played for Indiana, his numbers were about as good as they were during his time as a starter in Sacto (outside of the exceptional 03-04 season). So Hollinger's contention that Peja hasn't been worth the money for the past two seasons is flat wrong. His breakout 03-04 season is really the anomaly, more so than the last two seasons. He's probably NEVER been worth the money, but his production in Indy was right on par with the rest of his career.

So what about Big Ben? In the interest of full disclosure, let's be clear that I have always considered Ben Wallace to be one of the most overrated players in the NBA. But you wanna talk about declining numbers? People seem to think that Ben still leads the NBA in rebounding and blocked shots every year. Well, in 05-06, he was 5th in rebounding and 9th in blocked shots. His blocks per game have decreased EVERY YEAR for the past 5 seasons, while his rebounds per game have been on the decline for 4. Obviously, top 10 in rebounding and blocks shots is still quite an accomplishment, but all I have to say is you'd better be top 10 in those categories when you play 35 minutes a game and you're the worst offensive liability in basketball (yes, worse than Reggie Evans.)

Are you ready for the bombshell? On a per minute basis, Tyson Chandler was a BETTER rebounder in 05-06 than Ben Wallace (16.2 rebounds per 48 min. compared to 14.8). And Sam Dalembert, whom Hollinger presents as an example of an overpaid big, blocked a LOT more shots than Ben Wallace last year (2.42 per game and 4.37 per 48 compared to 2.21 and 3.01 for Ben.) In fact, Chandler and Dalembert compare favorably with Ben on both counts on a per 48 basis:

. . . . . . .Rebounds . .Blocks
. Wallace. . . 15.4 . . . 3.01
. Chandler . . 16.2 . . . 2.36
. Dalembert. . 14.8 . . . 4.37

Ben's proponents will argue that there is much more to his value than his numbers, and they are right. His defense (both on the ball and helping) is still excellent, and difficult to quantify. But I've often wondered how many other 'Ben Wallaces' are out there, if only their teams were willing to leave them on the floor, despite the offensive end. Ironically, high on my list of potential NBWs (Next Ben Wallace, as opposed to NMJ, Next Michael Jordan): Tyson Chandler.

Ben Wallace will be 32 years old before he plays a game for the Bulls; Peja just turned 29. Hollinger is concerned about paying Peja 'into his 30s.' Well, the Bulls don't have to worry about that, since Ben is already there. The Hornets are on the hook to give Peja about $14M when he is 33. The Bulls on the other hand will owe Ben about $15M when he is 35. And whose game is more predicated on quickness and jumping, i.e. the things you lose as you get older?

Here's my favorite part. Hollinger falls all over himself lauding the Bulls for being clever enough to sign Ben for only 4 years.
Additionally, the Bulls gave Wallace a four-year deal, not the standard five or six-year fare, which means if he turns out to be a bust they won't spend the next five years trying to dump his contract. That may seem like a minor point now, but it's an important consideration when you look at some of the recent big free-agent contracts.

This is so important, he dedicates no fewer than 8 paragraphs to the point. Unfortunately, all he really does is demonstrate his ignorance. First of all, there is no such thing as a 6 year contract - not under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), and not when signing a free agent from a different team. 5 years is the max. So, let's just point out that Hollinger goes a LONG WAY to compliment the Bulls on saving one year on the contract. (Not to pick nits, but since the Hornets deal ended up being a sign-and-trade with Indy, technically they too saved 1 year over the maximum 6 years allowed.)

But Hollinger is also forgetting about the new 'Over-36' clause in the CBA. We're really getting into the nitty-gritty now, but suffice it to say that whether the Bulls signed Ben for 4 years or 5 years made LITERALLY NO DIFFERENCE to their cap space. The Over-36 clause takes the salary to be paid after the age of 36 in a long term deal and spreads it out over the other years in the contract. Since Ben turns 32 in September, a 5th year on this contract would have activated the Over-36 clause. Whether they paid him $60M over 4 years or $60M over 5 years, it would have been represented on their cap space identically. Hollinger may not have known about this rule change, but John Paxson certainly knew. He wasn't being extra clever. In fact, if he had been clever, he would have signed Ben to the 5 year deal, and gotten his services for FREE in that 5th year. Not that they would want him at 36, but they could have had him for free. I'm guessing that Paxson wanted the 5th year, and Ben said no.

Hollinger thinks the Bulls are the winners based on some of their other deals as well (moving Tyson Chandler is a big part of both Bulls 'winning' and Hornets 'losing' in his mind.) But none of this other stuff makes any sense. Are the Bulls going to win a ring this season? If not, then PJ Brown is gone, and now Ben Wallace is 33. And as for Brown's salary, well that's just money, not actual cap space in summer 07, since Hinrich and Nocioni have to be re-signed, and Gordon and Deng will be eligible for extensions. (Technically, if the Bulls waited to match offers to Hinrich and Nocioni, they could clear enough under the cap to sign another free agent next summer, but doing so would put them in luxury tax land after they re-signed their young guys, and I don't see Rheinsdorf allowing that.) And he's just crazy about the potential of J.R. Smith - only problem is, the Bulls don't agree, as they are sending him to Denver for a 2nd round pick.

I don't think the Hornets really helped themselves that much this summer. BUT, if Tyson Chandler uses his new surroundings to become the NBW he looked like two seasons ago, and if Peja can sink the open J's that Chris Paul sends his way, these moves could work out very well. Let's just say I see potential. And, by the way, Peja is 29 and Chandler is 23. And unlike the Bulls, the Hornets will be under the cap again next summer, when Desmond Mason's contract comes off the books. It's a long shot, but if things work out for these guys, they could be pretty good in 2 or 3 years.

The Bulls got MUCH OLDER (not that PJ will necessarily start, but if he does, the Bulls bigs will be a combined 67 years old on opening day). They still have NO POST OFFENSE (they actually got worse, if that is possible) and not one single player on the roster who demands a double team. And each year that they DON'T win a ring makes this signing look worse. I'm not prepared to say that they have to win a ring in 2007 to make this pay off, but they'd better make SIGNIFICANT strides in that direction.

So these are the 'insights' I'm getting from being an 'Insider.' At least I still have 29 days to cancel and save my money!