Introducing Cost Per Win and the list of most valuable NBA free-agent signings

Ball Don't Lie
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4244/" data-ylk="slk:Kevin Durant">Kevin Durant</a> has tuned out the noise and turned up the Warriors. (AP)
Kevin Durant has tuned out the noise and turned up the Warriors. (AP)

We at Ball Don’t Lie have been knee deep in basketball since the 2016-17 NBA season’s start —  previewing all 30 teams, tackling the top 25 storylines and covering everything else that’s happened since — but we understand casual fans don’t fully dive in until Christmas. That’s why we’re bringing you a series we’re calling NBA Season’s Greetings. Consider it a refresher course on the free agents, coaches, trades, rookies and potential award winners that have shaped the league thus far.

NBA teams spent more than $4 billion on free agents over the summer, and almost 100 players changed teams during the offseason. If you’re not a diehard fan who followed the ebbs and flows of the summer news cycle on social media, it’s probably going to be all fairly confusing when you turn on basketball for the first time in an attempt to avoid spending time with your family on Christmas.

So, here’s a review of who’s where now, what moves paid off for which teams, why so many bad choices and when will GMs ever learn, all boiled down to one easily digestible new stat: Cost Per Win.

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That should cover it, at least so when that one weird uncle says, “I never knew you liked basketball,” you can respond, “What do you mean I don’t like basketball? I’ve been saying for months the Washington Wizards never should’ve signed Ian Mahinmi, Andrew Nicholson and Jason Smith!”

To make this dish more easily palatable, like your grandmother’s green bean casserole, we limited our scope to free agents who swapped one NBA team for another this summer. That excludes guys like Nic Batum, Bradley Beal, Mike Conley, DeMar DeRozan, Andre Drummond, LeBron James and Hassan Whiteside, all of whom signed nine-figure deals to remain with their respective teams. And if you aren’t familiar with any of those players and the franchises they play for, you’re probably not going to pass the basketball test your little cousin is bound to berate you with once basketball is on anyway.

We’re also excluding the European stars who signed their first NBA contracts as free agents over the summer, because we doubt anyone’s going to grill you about Nicolas Brussino. Just know that most of them play for the New York Knicks now, and they have cool elvish names like Mindaugas Kuzminskas.

That brings us to the 75 free agents who moved from one NBA city to another this past offseason. We separated those players into three salary tiers — those who signed for average annual salaries of $0-4.99 million, $5-9.99 million and $10 million-plus — because signing Timofey Mozgov for four years and $64 million is a whole lot different than bringing in Terrence Jones on a one-year, $1 million deal.

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Finally, we organized those three tiers using a back-of-the-envelope calculation to sort free agents based on who’s contributed most to his team’s success so far. Taking the average annual value of their contracts (AAV) and dividing it by win shares (WS) — an imperfect statistic inspired by the one Bill James developed for baseball and created by Basketball Reference to estimate how many of a team’s wins each individual is responsible for — and then correcting for the fact we’re only a quarter of the way through the season, we theoretically determined each player’s cost per win (CPW).

There are a whole lot of caveats to be shared here, the most important of which is that this is by no means scientific. We’re extremely early into these contracts — even the one-year deals — and the demand for stars disproportionately increases their market cost (whereas there is inherently greater value to be had on low-end contracts), but sorting players by their cost per win is meant to be fun.

Got all that? Because I probably just made this more complicated than it needs to be. All you really know is the less a free agent costs per win, the better value his team is getting — in theory.

So, here are the 26 free agents who changed teams this summer for more than $10 million annually:

Jeff Bower (left) and Stan Van Gundy (right) got more than they bargained for in <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4922/" data-ylk="slk:Jon Leuer">Jon Leuer</a> (30) and <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4800/" data-ylk="slk:Ish Smith">Ish Smith</a> (14). (AP)
Jeff Bower (left) and Stan Van Gundy (right) got more than they bargained for in Jon Leuer (30) and Ish Smith (14). (AP)

* Keep in mind, Ian Mahinmi (one game played), Jeremy Lin (five), Chandler Parsons (six) and Al Horford (14) have all missed significant time due to injury, so take their ranks with an extra grain of salt. This actually makes Horford’s middle-of-the-pack status here all the more impressive — and the minimal contributions from Evan Turner, Jeff Green and Luol Deng all the more disappointing.

• It’s hard for Kevin Durant to be among the most valuable of this bunch, since his average annual salary is higher than everyone on this list, except for Horford, and he’s win sharing with three other All-Stars, so this should give you an idea of how great he’s been this season. Despite sharing the floor with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, the 2014 MVP owns the most win shares of all 443 players who have appeared in at least one NBA game this season — not just 2016 free agents.

• As expected, Solomon Hill, Joakim Noah, Harrison Barnes, Timofey Mozgov, Rajon Rondo, Bismack Biyombo, Turner, Green and Deng are all meeting expectations … as overpaid free agents.

• And how about Jon Leuer? He’s averaging career numbers with more minutes in Detroit, and if his 3-point percentage (30.0) climbs to his career average (35.6) or the 38.2 percent clip he achieved last season, Leuer could prove quite a bargain, as crazy as that sounds for someone making eight figures.

Now, here are the 22 free agents who changed teams in 2016 for between $5 and $9.99 million a year:

John Wall (2) may be regretting the day the Wizards parted ways with Trevor Booker (left) and Garrett Temple. (AP)
John Wall (2) may be regretting the day the Wizards parted ways with Trevor Booker (left) and Garrett Temple. (AP)

* Again, Festus Ezeli and Jared Sullinger have yet to play a game due to injury. That’s little comfort for the Blazers and Raptors, who made their investments despite obvious risks, but it at least explains their lack of value thus far. Likewise, Jerryd Bayless has played only three games with a wrist injury.

• Boban Marjanovic, Anthony Tolliver and Andrew Nicholson have all missed considerable time as well, although each has earned his share of “DNP—Coach’s Decisions.” It’s unclear which is worse — adding little to no value from the bench or adding negative value on the floor, as Jason Smith has managed to do, at least according to this metric, despite appearing in 21 of the Wizards’ 22 games this season.

• Save for the four-year, $29 million contract for D.J. Augustin, the relatively low cost of the top six guys on this list led many to believe they would be free-agent bargains, and they’re proving as much.

• Trevor Booker might be the most productive of this bunch, nearly averaging a double-double in Brooklyn, but it’s hard to earn win shares on a team that doesn’t win all that often. Still, he and former D-Leaguer Sean Kilpatrick give Nets fans reason for optimism in new Brooklyn GM Sean Marks.

• Props to the Detroit Pistons for adding Leuer and Ish Smith for a combined $16.25 million in 2016-17. Despite similarly troubling shooting percentages, Smith’s production for parts of the past two seasons on a struggling 76ers squad is translating on a competitive Pistons team. By this measure, Leuer and Smith’s combined 3.6 win shares has proven greater value added for Detroit than Dwight Howard on the Atlanta Hawks. We can debate the merits of these offseason additions, but both teams are .500.

• The Wizards have had a tough early go of it with their 2016 free-agent class, as they’ve gotten less than nothing from Mahinmi, Smith and Nicholson for a combined $105.7 million price tag. The Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans are in a similar boat, and perhaps none of that should come as a surprise, since all three front offices are working with less-than-stellar reputations.

Now, here are the 27 free agents who changed teams in 2016 for less than $5 million a season:

Marreese Speights is known as Mo Buckets, and he’s probably worth even Mo Duckets. (AP)
Marreese Speights is known as Mo Buckets, and he’s probably worth even Mo Duckets. (AP)

* James Ennis, Kevin Seraphin, Dion Waiters and Brandon Rush have all missed time due to injury, although each player’s status remains in question when healthy. A host of others have received “DNP—Coach’s Decisions,” and that’s to be expected when it comes to players making the NBA minimum.

• On the other hand, when a team can find a gem for less than $5 million per season in this market, as the Los Angeles Clippers have done with Marreese Speights, the value added is almost off the charts. (That presupposes Speights doesn’t incite a locker room riot with his recent criticism of the Clippers.)

• Guys like Speights, David Lee, Zaza Pachulia, Raymond Felton and David West were all penciled in as bargain signings this past summer, so it’s no surprise they’re living up to that billing. This is the reward for top-end teams. Veterans want to win, and sometimes they’re willing to accept less than market value to play for a contender, and the Clippers, Spurs and Warriors are reaping the benefits.

• Other teams must find diamonds in the rough, and it appears Memphis has discovered a couple. Ennis earned a starting spot before a Nov. 23 calf injury, and Troy Daniels has stepped up in his absence, averaging 13.4 points ever since. It’s no wonder the Grizzlies are an early season surprise.

As we mentioned earlier, Cost Per Win is not an exact science, but the rankings above reflect a fairly accurate portrayal of what teams are getting from their offseason investments through the first seven weeks of the season. The one glaring issue is Durant’s billing as the second-most valuable player in the $10 million-plus category, and nobody here is arguing the Warriors should rather have Leuer on the roster. Any team should be happy to pay max money for the guy who leads the NBA in win shares.

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Win shares may be a flawed statistic, as most advanced analytics in basketball can be, but any calculation that counts Durant, Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, James Harden and Stephen Curry among the top five is doing something right. (By that logic, we should also accept the bottom five of Emmanuel Mudiay, Al-Farouq Aminu, Georges Niang, Mario Hezonja and Isaiah Whitehead as equally accurate.)

So, with all that in mind, it’s at least interesting to note that Speights is arguably the summer’s most valuable free-agent signing, and Deng is the least valuable. Any metric that spits out those two answers must also be doing something right. Now, try explaining all that to somebody on Christmas, because it’s just the sort of nerdy basketball stuff that will get your family to stop talking to you.

More from our NBA Season’s Greetings series:

BDL’s Very Official First-Year Coach Power Rankings

Learn your trade(s): Winners and losers of the NBA season’s swaps so far

The rookie class of 2016 isn’t great, but it’s a product of the system

Ball Don’t Lie’s 2016-17 NBA awards ballot, so far

How to talk about the NBA, to those who haven’t been watching, on Christmas Day

Toasts of Christmas past: 27 of the NBA’s greatest Christmas Day moments

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Ben Rohrbach is a contributor for Ball Don’t Lie and Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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