FanPost

Why Free Agency Wasn't, and Isn't, The Answer

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If you haven’t noticed, free agency has started! Hooray! For some Celticsblog readers, free agency is almost as fun as the real games. It’s a time of new beginnings, a time when teams get to remake themselves. I should campaign my boss to make it an official holiday next year.

If you haven’t also noticed, the Celtics do not seem to be making any major free agent moves this summer. Boo! This is in contrast to last year, which saw us add Jason Terry and Courtney Lee. The offseason has seemingly lost that hope of immediately washing away the sins of last year, as we get to stand idly by and watch Houston pursue its Dream, or even Minnesota steal key players from title contenders. Players we once imagined ourselves to be contenders for, like J.J. Redick and Josh Smith, will move on to other teams with nary a call by Danny Ainge.

And that’s okay.

Really, what has free agency brought the Celtics recently? Unloading Jason Terry became a condition for getting Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. We wish we could have done the same with Courtney Lee. Chris Wilcox was our prize addition the year prior, and he stayed on for just the minimum salary the following season, rarely seeing the court. The year before that was Jermaine O’Neal. Don’t get me started.

It’s clear free agency hasn’t treated us very well of late. The simple thing to do would be to blame Danny Ainge. And in truth, some of the blame probably does lie with the Celtics brain trust, as I would imagine not all of their acquisitions have worked as planned, even if some were due to bad luck (Wilcox had heart surgery) or saw the risk triumph over the reward in the end (as with O’Neal).

But to blame Mr. Ainge would mean that other GMs should be expected to do better. And that got me wondering: do they? Why do teams sign bad free agents? Every year we ooh and ahh about how some team has signed the players we covet. Certainly some times those missed players make us cringe with every made basket or gathered rebound, but if we are honest, there are probably other players we wanted who did not live up to their expectations, but about whom we no longer think. It seems that every team has some contract which we as fans question. Where do these contracts come from?

I decided to look at last year’s free agent class*, and evaluate how they performed as a group. To start with, I separated them into two categories: Free agents who re-signed with their original team, and free agents who left to go elsewhere. From these two groups, I created a weighted PER, which was simply each player’s individual PER weighted by his share of the minutes played by his respective group -- in this case whether he signed with his old team or a new team.

(While I freely admit there are flaws with PER, such as its inability to handle matchup data or defensive statistics, it’s a decent proxy to compare whether one player is better than another, and when you aggregate the PERs of a group, these individual quirks start to disappear, as you would expect to have players in both groups who are overrated or underrated by the measurement. All PERs come from basketball-reference.com). Anyway, onto the results!

Player Group PER
Same Team 15.51
New Team 13.63

As you can see, players who re-signed with their original team performed better than players who switched teams. Why is this? One possible reason is that a team has more inside information on their own players than on others, and so they don’t let the good ones get away. Take Jason Terry and Dallas for instance: JET agreed to a deal with Boston, but still went back to Dallas and offered to stay for the same amount that Boston was paying. Dallas wasn’t interested, and we were left with buyer’s remorse.

An argument that some might make is that since free agency is something of a crap shoot, we should only sign players to minimum contracts. However, GMs were pretty good at offering the right players minimum deals:

Player Group PER
No Minimum 14.75
Minimum 12.57

While there were certainly some notable exceptions, like Andray Blatche’s great year, minimum players signed by their original or a new team performed less well than their counterparts. To confirm that it wasn’t the introduction of minimum-salaried players into the orginal data of players signing with their original and new team, we’ll look at that first table again, but this time with the minimum-salaried players removed:

Player Group PER
Same Team, No Minimum 15.85
New Team, No Minimum 13.85

Clearly, minimum-salaried players brought down the quality of both pools, and overall performed worse than those making more money. GMs got that correct!

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So is free agency hopeless? Possibly yes. GMs target their players whom they want to keep, and are generally successful. Perhaps the only players worth going after are the ones that teams don’t want to let get away (Ray Allen, for instance). While it’s difficult to tell who all of those players are, there does appear to be one group that we can look at, namely, players who changed teams via a sign-and-trade. These were players whom their original team deemed valuable enough to try to get some compensation in return for, and accordingly might have been more desired.

Sign-and-Trade 14.28

While it does appear that this group was better than the overall pool of free agents who changed teams, I want to caveat that this was a significantly smaller sample, with only nine such players. Still, it consistent with the results we might expect, implying that sign-and-trades, while costly, do produce more value, on average, than signing players who require nothing to leave their former team.

At any rate, free agency is far from a surefire endeavor, and is more likely that not to end in regretfully spent dollars. Coming off a mediocre season, and with a very limited amount of dollars to spend due to the new CBA rules, it was very unlikely the Celtics would get much value from whichever free agents they signed, and next year’s team would have performed similarly. Faced with this harsh reality, it is no wonder then that the Celtics chose to cash in their prized pieces to pave the way towards creating a new team that would not have to be built through free agency.

*N.B. I gathered my pool of free agents from this list at NBA.com. There were a few players who didn’t switch as free agents, whom I deleted from the pool. There also were probably a couple of omissions for players who signed late and were not high-profile, but I don’t think they would affect the results too much.

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