Free agency is fun. Rumors are fun. Trades are fun. It’s understandable. But, while it’s certainly an exciting period, though a bit idealistic, building a team through free agency is a highly inefficient model of business. There are some notable exceptions, as Miami’s burgeoning dynasty attests, but unless you are blessed with a superstar or large market — preferably both — only then will you utilize the market successfully.
The only thing? The majority of the league doesn’t have a legitimate superstar or a large market. Without those crutches for support small-market teams are forced to overpay for their own players and second-tier players. These players are alluring because their numbers are tantalizing. But making them sole focus of an entire team will probably go awry.
That’s because they appear as valuable as a star in the contexts of a bad team but, due to some inconspicuous flaw, they shouldn’t be compensated as such. Yet they are. That’s why Joe Johnson and Rudy Gay made $4 million more than LeBron James and Kevin Love combined last season.
Building a team around a second-tier player is a quick-and-easy fix though the success is unlikely to be anything other than transient and unfulfilling. A couple of playoff finishes but, other than continually being classified as a “threat”, nothing of substance or significance. (See Atlanta Hawks, Houston Rockets et all.)
The best way to construct a team remains: find a superstar (which is the hardest part of the process) and build through the draft. Does that model look familiar? Well it should: San Antonio is the most successful small market team to utilize this strategy. They received their fare share of luck, sure. But consistently savvy decisions, bolstered by the presence of a superstar, can vault a team from the lottery to the NBA Finals.
Other than a couple missteps on Leandro Barbosa, Goran Dragic and Luis Scola (arrghhhh), San Antonio’s only notable erroneous mistake was dabbing in Richard Jefferson. He wasn’t a free agency mistake per se but he was a second-tier player that was earning $10 million per year. Instead of rectifying their mistake when they could, San Antonio committed a cardinal sin. They paid a middling player a lot of money. That simple.
Ideally, teams should consist of a couple of high salaries (superstars), a bunch of cost-effective pieces (Tiago Splitter, Matt Bonner type guys) and rookie scale contracts (Kawhi Leonard). Rookies, for a brief period spanning four years or so, offer the highest return on investment. Hence why building through the draft’s efficacy holds true.
Exhibit A: Kyrie Irving, the No. 1 pick in the 2011 Draft, is set to earn approximately $19 million over the next three seasons essentially the price of one year of Pau Gasol. Considering Irving is already developing into an elite point guard is there any question that you would rather have three seasons of Irving over one year of Gasol? (No.)
Exhibit B: Kawhi Leonard. Leonard will earn around $7 million over the next three seasons including two team options. That is an obscenely low number for a guy who most Spurs fans expect to develop into a starter and potentially an All-Star. If Leonard falls off a cliff (*knocks on wood*), the Spurs could cut their costs in the 2013/14 or 2014/15 seasons by declining their team options, ridding them of an unproductive player. If Leonard proves his worth then he enters restricted free agency, giving the Spurs the ability to match any offer.
Rookies are generally low risk/high reward scenarios. Free agents, on the other hand, are mostly high risk/high reward scenarios. The risk is higher because the investment is much more significant and, thus, more damaging. A poor free agency decision can set a franchise back a couple of years. A draft mistake sucks but it’s not nearly as damaging.
You can’t find bargains in free agency as often. Even though netting Boris Diaw to an average of $4.5 million is certainly a good value, it still pales in comparison to Leonard’s deal. The guy they flipped for Leonard, George Hill, earned a five-year, $40 million contract from Indiana a couple of days ago. It appears high but it’s well-deserved for a combo-guard that can also hold the fort at point.
San Antonio, of course, couldn’t have offered Hill $40 million unless they ravaged their team. They like Hill but probably not that much.
Besides when you can find a guy like Leonard for a fifth of the cost, and who is an even better fit, how could you pass that deal up?