NBA free agency: Skills market 2.0

In the wake of a seven-game NBA Finals and the one of the most unpredictable drafts in recent memory, the NBA community turned off their cell phones this weekend, sat down on the couch with a bowl of chips, and finally got around to watching those Netflix DVD’s which had been sitting next to the TV since the All Star break. But after a weekend spent relaxing, recovering, and being disappointed by Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, it’s time to get back to work. Free agency is here once again, and though this crop of free agents may not be as bountiful as years’ past, the stakes have never been higher for NBA teams.

The effects of the new CBA are finally being felt as teams scramble to sign impact players while trying to avoid the dreaded repeater tax. In addition to a more punitive luxury tax, the new rules have limited exceptions for tax-paying teams making it harder to sign valuable role players. Now more than ever, teams have to maximize player value for their contract dollar. One bad deal can cripple a team financially and fatally limit their roster flexibility for years to come (Unless of course Danny Ainge is willing to take those contracts off your hands.) Properly valuing free agents and having the discipline not to overpay for them is the name of the game this summer. In the spirit of that, I’ve spent the last several weeks building an economic model for player salaries. Welcome to the NBA Skills Market 2.0.

The principle behind the Skills Market is simple. Every player in the NBA has specific skills and abilities that make them valuable. Teams quantify that value with the annual salary paid to the player. Some skills, like scoring and shot blocking, are valued very highly, meaning teams are willing to pay more money for players who possess them. Other skills, like generating a lot steals, aren’t valued nearly as much. The Skills Market model achieves two things. First it determines which skills, stats, abilities, and career achievements have the most significant effect on player salaries. Second, it assigns dollar values to each of those criteria. These dollar values are essentially the current market price for a specific level of production or achievement. With these values in hand, current player salaries can be evaluated to determine whether a player is overpaid, underpaid, or properly paid. More importantly, these values can also be used to predict how much a free agent will sign for in the open market.

Before we get started, a few notes about the model.

I used salary figures from the 2012-13 season for every player except the handful of restricted free agents who had already signed an extension. For those players, I used their 2013-14 salaries. Players on rookie contracts, non-guaranteed contracts, and minimum contracts for the 2012-13 season were excluded from the model. Rookies have not yet had the opportunity to have their value determined on the open market. Because this is a model for free agents who will sign guaranteed contracts, I excluded the non-guaranteed guys. And minimum contracts were excluded because they can artificially inflate a player’s value simply because of the number of years he has spent in the league. For player stats, I went back four seasons to 2009-10. Stats were averaged on a per game not per season basis.

Elite Scorer

Criteria: > 20.0 points per game

Value: $1,928,865

Most of the stats I used are valued on a singular basis (Example: $ per rebound or $ per assist.) Points were the exception. As was the case in the original Skills Market last season, points scored correlated better with salary when tiered, not valued on a per point basis. It will come as no surprise that elite, 20 ppg scorers are valued so highly by teams. They are quite rare. Over the last four years of statistical data, there have only been 19 players who have averaged 20 or more points per game.

2nd Tier Scorer

Criteria: > 15.0 ppg

Value: $1,755,134

The similarity in value of Elite and 2nd Tier scorers is proof of how inflated the market for secondary players really is. There are far too many players in the NBA who are paid as though they’re elite, but who produce like 2nd bananas. The Brooklyn Nets will start five of them next season. It’s impossible to win a championship without a capable secondary scorer. But teams shouldn’t necessarily pay those players like they’re a perennial All-NBA selection.

3rd Tier Scorer

Criteria: > 12.0 ppg

Value: $667,210

Even if they don’t drop 20 points in a game all season, teams still need players who can score double digits and keep defenses honest. For many of the players in this category, their scoring production is just an added bonus because they do so many other important things for their teams like rebound and get easy baskets for their teammates.

Isolation Scoring

Criteria: Isolation points scored per game (according to Synergy)

Value: $853,645 (per point per game)

One of the biggest improvements I wanted to make in this year’s model was to evaluate not only the amount of points a player scored, but also how he scored those points. I considered several different methods for answering that question. Eventually, it became clear that the most valuable scoring ability is being able to create shots for yourself. Synergy measures a players’ isolation scoring in points per play. I’ve extrapolated those figures out to assess how many points a player has scored in isolation per game over the last four years. As you can see, a player who averages just two points per game in isolation is nearly as valuable a player who averages 18 points a night (2nd Tier scorer.) More than 22% of Kobe Bryant’s value is derived from his 7.33 points per game in isolation (Kobe, no surprise, is the league leader in that category.)

Post Up Scoring

Criteria: Post up points scored per game (according to Synergy)

Value: $374, 293

The rationale for measuring the value of post up scoring is the same as isolation scoring. Having the ability to pass the ball to a player and have him score without needing a screen or any help from a teammate is a valuable skill. Every team needs at least one player who can catch the ball in the post and go to work. The per point value here is lower than isolation scoring, but that seems to fit with the decline of post play in today’s NBA. More than 43% of Nikola Pekovic’s current salary value (and 21% of his predicted free agent salary value) comes from his 5.41 post up points per game.

Free Throws Made

Criteria: Free throws made per game

Value: $350,289

Just like points scored in the post or isolation, points scored at the line are quite valuable. I looked at both free throws made and free throws attempted. FTM had a better correlation to salary almost entirely because of Dwight Howard who misses more free throws per game than 90% of the league attempts.

Shot Blocking

Criteria: Shots blocked per game

Value: $1,954,904

At first glance, the value per block seems astronomical. But consider the fact that the number of blocks a player like Dwight Howard has in the box score doesn’t capture the number of shots he changes or the way he causes offenses to alter their strategy of attack. For players who aren’t pure shot blockers, blocks are an indication of effort and positioning. The value for blocks is so high because much more so than steals, blocks are a great indicator of defensive impact and value. Players like Monta Ellis lead the league in steals but would never be mistaken for great defenders, where as guards who don’t patrol the paint, but still average nearly a block per night are generally good defenders.


Criteria: Rebounds per game

Value: $249,189


Criteria: Assists per game

Value: $286,732

These values don’t compared to points scored, but they are still the basis for many players’ value. Guys who can grab double digit rebounds or dish out a lot of assists can find themselves very well compensated for their production, even if they’re limited in other areas. A player like Reggie Evans derives nearly all his value from his work on the boards. Likewise, the Knicks’ point guard duo of Raymond Felton and new Brooklyn Nets’ head coach Jason Kidd, can attribute nearly all of their value to their assist figures.

All Star Selections

Criteria: All Star appearances in the last four years

Value: $886,963

I looked at a number of different honors including selections to the All Star team, All-NBA team, and All-Defensive team. All Star selections correlated the best to salary by a wide margin (I suspect this is due to sample size. Each season there are at least 25 All Star selections whereas the All-NBA teams select only 15 and the All-Defense teams select only 10.) Quantifying recent All-Star selections (last four years) was much more accurate than using total All Star selections. The idea being that recent All Star selections are more valuable than selections in the past.

3-Pointers Made

Criteria: 3-point FG made per game

Value: $137,120

This valuation of 3-pointers looks incredibly low at first. When I initially ran the numbers, I was convinced I had made a mistake. But when I looked closer, it became clear just how easy it is to find good three point shooters. The market is just saturated with them. And the salaries that 3-point shooters garner are typically quite low. Of the Top 30 shooters in 3PM/game this season, nine were on rookie contracts. This speaks to teams’ ability to find cheap shooting through the draft. Also, 10 of the Top 30 shooters made $5 million or less (non-rookie contracts.) Players like Danny Green, Randy Foye, and C.J. Miles knock down two shots from downtown per game and create spacing for big men inside. But they do so on short term contracts with less than average annual salaries. The majority of these players’ value comes from their scoring overall. They’re ability to shoot threes is important, but it’s the most replaceable skill in the NBA.

This model is not perfect by any means, but it does help put into context what NBA GM’s value the most and what NBA player agents use to promote their clients. Come back tomorrow to see which free agents are in for a big time pay day in the NBA Skills Market.

All salary information was obtained from Sham Sports. The stats were culled from MySynergySports and I’d like to thank Professors David Rapach and Muhammad Islam of the St. Louis University Economics Department for their help.

And 1

Names are slowly creeping in as teams fill out their summer league rosters. So far, it appears Iowa State shooting guard Chris Babb and Davidson big man Jake Cohen have been offered spots on the roster.

Tags: Free Agency

  • Bill-in-Tokyo

    What’s the base salary to which these figures are added? Did you run a linear regression to get these figures or simple average? Or do I need to do my homework and read last years article?

  • Scott

    But isn’t a steal more valuable than a block? Steals often result in an easy bucket, whereas a block doesn’t even guarantee that you gain possession.

  • m.i.milliman

    I think, Scott and Bill-in-Tokyo, you’re missing the big question here: How can anyone sit down to watch Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters and not foresee the misery that lay ahead. I feel bad for Ryan, because being disappointed means he had hopes that it would be good. I wonder if he liked Van Helsing?

  • Scott

    I saw Van Helsing. It wasn’t that bad. Heck, I even liked the Halle Berry Catwoman, Jennifer Garner’s Elektra, and Affleck’s Daredevil.

    But even I know better than to watch Hansel and Gretel. :)

  • http://ValleyoftheSuns Ryan Weisert

    @milliman You are spot on. I wanted to like Hansel and Gretel, but I knew it was garbage about 30 seconds in. Van Helsing was also awful.

    @Bill The model is a multi-linear regression. Two things I factored in but didn’t discuss were years of experience and the corresponding minimum salary. These values are in addition to the minimums.

    @Scott You are right that steals lead to baskets, but it’s not always good defense that leads to steals. Blocks not only measure defensive positioning and effort, but also blocks have a greater impact on team defensive strategy.

  • Scott

    Not sure I agree. A team that gets deflections and steals is more likely to win. It’s a sign of good defense.

    A player who regularly gets deflections and steals is helping his team’s defense.

    But I’ll agree there are other factors at play, in that maybe a player who gets steals gambles on defense too much, and is thus a net loss on defense, or a player who blocks shots hits them out of bounds, thereby allowing the opposing team to reset their offense.

  • http://ValleyoftheSuns Ryan Weisert

    You’re correct that a team that gets deflections is a better defense, but only because the player or players who are being aggressive are being covered by their teammates who are hedging and rotating behind them. That said, a player getting steals is not necessarily a good team defender because if he is gambling on his own without his team helping behind, his steals are outweighed by the times he gambles, misses, and gives up open looks at the hoop.

  • Azbballfan

    The heck with all these nerd stats!

    when does the Hansel and Gretel sequel that goes straight to blue ray come out?

    The Suns need to target young talent that has been overlooked by other teams in free agency

    unless your part of a very elite select few, you almost always lose when you pay for a free agent

    which reminds me, we will probably have to make a trade to even sign anyone as a FA, especially considering we kept brown for atleast another year

    btw, whats the chances that we ship off Scola to a playoff team that needs a starting or backup PF?

    i would love to get a 2014 pick for anyone on the Suns roster except our two rookies and dragic

  • m.i.milliman

    @Scott, your taste in movies leaves a lot to be desired, although I did like Daredevil.

    I think there needs to be a balance on D, but the case can be made that one of the best defenses was the MJ/Pippen led Doberman D and nobody would ever accuse the two Bills as being shot blocking machines. I think it’s better to have wings that cause chaos and bigs that just play solid D rather than having week wing D and a great shot blocker, like, say, the Kicks this year. Chandler just couldn’t keep up with the gaping hole that was Carmelo’s D.

  • DBreezy


    I’m not sure there has or will be much interest in Scola.
    The trade machine is on the fritz tonight, but could he fit with the Warriors if Landry moves on? The salary slot is similar.

    Thing is the Suns current talent wasn’t even enough to snag an additional pick in this draft. Without naming names, McD indicated that they tried to get another pick from 15 on down in the first round. In the end, cash was preferred to any Suns player to move up from 30 to 29. I’m sure anybody willing to give up a pick for a Suns player, has a horrible contract for the Suns to absorb in the process. Can’t really see them going there.

  • Michael

    If this horrible contract is an expiring one, I wouldn´t care a lot, if it nets us a 1st rounder in 2014 or 15.
    Even a contract like the one from Perkins (OKC) has to be considered, if they would give us some combination of picks and Lamb/ Jones.
    We have a lot of cap space, and as it´s unlikely we will be contenders the next two seasons, it would be some waste of cap space to fill it with 2nd tier players. I would prefer to fill it with bad contracts we take off other´s payrolls in exchange for potential.

    This way, I could see a deal go through including Gortat and/or Scola.

  • DBreezy

    It absolutely makes sense to look at the return for a bad contract, but finding a worthwhile match is tough. An ideal situation would yield a ’14 pick with light or zero protection from a team that is likely to be in the lottery. I just don’t think it’s worth it otherwise to mess up your future flexibility for trades and signings. It’s part of why teams struggled more than usual last season to even give away their expiring contracts at the deadline. There’s a very good chance Gortat plays all of next season with this team if he isn’t moved this summer.

  • Foreveris2long

    Well said D’Breezy. I strongly suspect if McD had been here the last two years Gortat would have been traded when Nash caused Gortat’s stats to be inflated. With Blanks and Babby at the controls, the team was married to Gortat and others to give the fans the impression the Suns were playoff relevant, causing the ship to sink further into oblivion. To add fuel to the Blanks fire I saw yesterday the Rockets dumped Brooks who Blanks gave the Ferrari keys to hoping we made a late playoff run. If Blanks gets another front office job other than secretary in the NBA, I will be stunned.

  • Scott

    Just wondering … if Gortat is gone by the end of this season (if not sooner), who is going to share the center spot with Len?

  • Azbballfan

    A free agent center that is young and cheap?

    Or jermaine oneal

    I don’t think it really matters since this next year needs to be all about developing young guys

  • JZ

    Phoenix should trade Marshall, Shannon Brown, and 2 2nd rd picks for Greivis Vasquez.

  • Ty-Sun

    It’s interesting that what I just read in an article on the top 90 free agents about OJ Mayo. “If a team offers Mayo a fat contract, you can tell they don’t pay attention to advanced stats. No advanced metrics like Mayo. At all.”

    I would expect that if Gortat is traded mid-season that Frye and/or Oriakhi would back up Len.

  • Scott

    I’m just thinking about the future at C. There’s Len right now, and the Suns aren’t really looking for a C in the next draft, I gather.

    Frye’s on contract for this year and the next. So is Scola. If they are still with the team, I imagine they will play some center.

    Oriakhi is on a non-guaranteed contract for this season, and he and/or Lee might be cut to give room for free agents.

    But looking ahead … I would think someone is going to have to join Len at C, because these other measures are stop gaps, which are fine for losing seasons, but when you want to start winning again …

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  • Foreveris2long

    If you think trading Gortat is difficult, watch the number of hangups McD gets as soon as he mentions wanting a draft pick for Marshall. I am not convinced we could get a 2nd round pick for him.

  • Ty-Sun

    I don’t see the Suns actually trying to trade individual players. I think they will try “bundle” trades of 2 or more players at a time. I also don’t think they will be pushing to trade any specific players but will probably also let other teams know that they are willing to trade almost anyone on the roster if the right deal comes along.

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