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The Hired Gun II

Posted by Neil Paine on February 9, 2010

Yesterday, I laid out a scenario which could be an unforeseen consequence of a new CBA which limited contract lengths and imposed a hard cap -- namely, that if a player with all-time-great type ability (let's call him "Jim LeBaron") was sufficiently motivated to chase rings at the expense of everything else, the incentive to keep him in one place for a long-term would be removed and he could conceivably ink a never-ending Tim Wakefield-esque string of one-year contracts with the top contender who had the cap room to sign him. Today, I'm going to run a program I built to simulate this scenario, and see how many titles Jim The Ring Vulture would grab on average.

First, the parameters of the sim: We begin in 2010, and every team is assigned an SRS-like talent score with a mean of 0 and a standard deviation of 4. Jim starts out on a randomly-chosen team that's in the top 5 in talent, much like the real-life Mr. James this year. His career follows this general path (based on the SPM projection system):

Year Age MP SPM
2010 25 3000 13.81
2011 26 3000 15.30
2012 27 3000 16.00
2013 28 3000 16.30
2014 29 3000 15.90
2015 30 3000 15.00
2016 31 3000 13.60
2017 32 3000 12.00
2018 33 3000 10.00
2019 34 3000 8.50
2020 35 3000 6.70
2021 36 3000 5.10
2022 37 3000 3.80
2023 38 3000 2.70

...With some year-to-year variance built in, of course. Now, if Jim's current team wins the championship, he automatically stays with that team in the following season; if not, one of the top 5 teams in wins will bid on his services, and he'll jump to either the defending champ (who has first priority) or the bidder if they had more wins the previous season than his current team. When Jim changes teams, he's replaced with a good player (SPM +5-ish) on his old team, and on his new team he replaces a player at the same position with an SPM equal to the team's SRS the previous season.

Here's an example: In 2010, Jim plays for the Cavs, where he puts up his 13.81 SPM on a 53-win team that loses in the Conference Finals to the eventual champs, the Raptors. In the offseason, Orlando bids on Jim, and he jumps to the Magic, who had won 56 games in 2010. In 2011, Cleveland drops to 39 wins without Jim, and Orlando becomes a 67-win juggernaut, winning the NBA title, the first of 6 consecutive rings. In 2019, Toronto wins the title and bids on Jim for 2020, so he signs with the Raptors, who ironically lose to Cleveland in the 2020 Finals. Cleveland then offers Jim a deal that offseason, and he accepts, returning to the Cavs and playing out the final 3 years of his career there (albeit without a title). The final tally for Jim's career as an unabashed ring-hound: six championships. Then you repeat the process all over again with different randomly-generated results, etc.

I did this 1,000 times, and on average the absurdly mercenary "Jim LeBaron" ended his career with a Jordan-like 6.282 titles. Four times in 1,000 sims, he won a title all 13 years from 2011-2023, smashing Bill Russell's 11-ring record. Sadly (or karmically, depending on how you look at it), there was also one season in 1,000 where Jim's ring-chasing ways led him from Utah, to Minnesota, to Miami, to Houston, and back to Utah for a second stint... all without a single ring!

Meanwhile, if we re-run the sim and force LeBaron to stay with his initial team, his average # of championships per career drops to just 1.825; 32.8% of the sims saw his career end with no titles at all. That's the price of loyalty, I suppose, but the good news for a certain tortured fanbase is that if you flip that around, Jim won at least one title 67.2% of the time. I'm not saying the real-life version has the same odds, but you have to admit they are on a roll right now.

But I digress. The take-home message? If Commissioner Stern eschews long-term deals, guaranteed green, and Larry Bird exceptions, the incentive for megastars to stay put could be greatly decreased, especially since this simulation shows a title-hungry baller could increase the rings in his trophy case by three-and-a-half fold if allowed to jump ship after every season to the biggest contender with cap space. And as an added bonus for the fans of the 29 teams not losing a star of LeBron's magnitude, think of how exciting free agency would be with this kind of yearly player movement. I'm not saying I want this situation to happen every summer, but it would definitely make things interesting.

18 Responses to “The Hired Gun II”

  1. Gold Star for Robot Boy Says:

    Let's talk about a different tortured fanbase... How many times did LeBaron end up with the Suns, and what's the count of ringz?

  2. P Middy Says:

    I'm assuming it's impossible for the sim to take account of things like familiarity?

    Recently, the trend has been bucked with Boston and Miami. But generally speaking, experience tells us that one of the harder things to do is add a major piece and win a ring in the same year. The Championship Spurs, Pistons, Lakers, Bulls, 80s Celtics, and 80s Lakers all had cores that were in tact over several years. 24 of the past 29 championships belonged to those squads.

  3. Jason J Says:

    The flip of that argument, Sir Middy, is that those teams all (except the Pistons - who incidentally did have a big acquisition during their championship season) had a top 15 all time player at or near his prime. I'd say continuity had a great deal to do with the success of those teams, but another team that has good continuity and is adding an apex player near his peak is probably going to be dominant. The 1983 76ers actually had that happen pretty much.

    Imagine if Dirk's 2002 Mavs suddenly picked up Tim Duncan. Do they have to change anything? Imagine if Webber's 2000 Kings picked up Shaq (okay they would instantly become Shaq's Kings, but the point is Rick Adelman makes it function inside of a month, no problem - Bibby, Peja, Christie, and Turk would be unbelievably open). Imagine if Ewing's 1993 Knicks picked up Jordan - oh yeah, you like imagining that, don't you? Imagine Larry Bird leading the 1986 Rockets. Imagine Magic Johnson running the break for the 1988 Hawks or Pistons or Blazers.

  4. P Middy Says:

    Well, if that's the scenario, there's not just ONE great player flipping from team to team. Bird's going to the 86 Rockets, and Barkley's going to 86 Lakers. Then what? Do they kill each other in a 7 game series and the Celtics in the Finals win with Worthy, McHale, Parish, and Dominique Wilkins and whoever else?

    And as long as if we're in the realm of imagination, I can imagine Dirk and JET feeling put off by Duncan coming in and trying to change the culture. I can imagine Chris Webber not producing once all his touches go to Shaq. I can imagine Patrick Ewing's pride getting hurt by Jordan becoming the man on his franchise, and leaving town to play with Karl and Stock, etc, etc

    If you're thinking purely basketball, yeah it would work. But these are some of the most competitive, selfish, and fragile psyches on earth we're talking about here!

  5. Matt Says:

    Pretty sane indeed, but I don't see this as a likely scenario. What stops a player from doing one-year max deals now? Nothing. I'm pretty sure lots of teams are willing to do it right now - aren't they always taking on "expiring contracts"? Players tend to seek the longest contracts they can command, and they sign one-year deals when their market position prevents them from signing longer ones. Even in professional football, where nothing but the signing bonus seems to be guaranteed, players still sign long-term deals.

    Why? Reason 1: Financial security and maximation of their market position. is always a risk of career-ending or career-diminshing injuries, and diminishing skills are eventually inevitable. A string of one-year deals create a substantial risk for a superstar of leaving tens of millions earnings on the table. At the height of his powers a superstar is at his best negotiating position and it seems that the vast majority take advantage of it. Later in their careers you will see superstars take substantially less money to go for a title (Karl Malone?), but in their prime when do you see them do this? In baseball, Ken Griffey left millions on the table in his prime - but it was to play for his hometown team. Which leads of to Reason 2: stability.

    Reason 2A: personal stability. How many players really want to move every year, especially if they have a family? And how many want to change workplaces that often? Uncertainty is stressful. Adjusting to a new workplace and having to create new relationships (and losing old ones) with players, the front office and coaching staff, that's gotta be tough. Life in professional sports with its gueling schedules and all the time on the road must be stressful enough - why add to it by putting a big question at the end of every season?

    Reason 2B: team stability. Team chemistry is important in all team sports and basketball is no exception. I'm not convinced that a one year rent-a-teams would outperform a well-chosen team built for the long run. Perhaps your premise is that the CBA will make building a dynsty with a nucleus of complementary players more difficult, but I don't know that it would. The current system already makes team building financialy and strategically challenging. Again, pro football shows us that even without guaranteed contracts teams still strive for this and players do to. There's no way to really know if a team will mesh until you try it, so I'm sceptical that players would want to roll the dice from year to year, especially given all the personal disadvantages and risks that go with it. Finally, I confess that I don't know what statistical methods you are using to predict team success, so I would just ask whether it takes team chemistry, continuity and coaching into account. Players' indiviudal stats are a product of their own skill as well as their playing environment. Won't players who fit well on a good, well-coached team have better individual stats than they would in a less favorable environment? Lots of team hopping could result in different stat projections than expected. Of course, this could mean higher-than-expected or lower depending on the individual case. But is there a reliable way to predict this? If not, then team hopping would yield greater uncertainty, and if the player's goal is maximizing his chances of winning championships it doesn't look like a good way of acheiving this.

    Which leads me back to my original question above: what is stopping players from doing this now? It would be better to do this in today's market (assuming that teams are now more stable because of long-term contracts) than they would be in your new cba scenario. Nobody does it.

  6. kevin Says:

    The best way to win is to stay put with players you feel comfortable with. Basketball is such an intensely emotional, team-oriented sport, it's hard to keep putting winning formulas together one after the other with different personnel. It took Wilt 4 yrs to win one crummy title with the Lakers, and he had Jerry Fucking West and Elgin Fucking Baylor to play with, combined with his nemeses Bill Russell and Sam Jones out of the way through retirement.

  7. Jason J Says:

    why are we talking in hypothetical and conjecture?

    moses joins contending sixers? fo, fo, fo. ring.

    chuck joins almost contending suns. wins west. takes a jordan 55er w/ a game winner and another game winner from paxson to keep him from winning a ring.

    shaq joins the suns in 2005, and the team is a wade injury away from the finals.

    now in the scenario that neil is suggesting, there's no trade. this is pure FA acquisition on the cheap - an apex star looking to gobble up rings rather than cash. bring hornacek and long back to phoenix. bring lamar and butler back to miami. that's the game being played here.

    i'd also question the value of continuity somewhat in terms of the 2000 lakers who dumped eddie jones and elden campbell and brought in glen rice and started running the triangle. also the 1996 bulls were a really still integrating jordan (only players from the 1993 team on the 1996 team? pippen and jordan) and of course also added rodman.

  8. P Middy Says:

    I think that makes the point quite well. You've got 1 example of a championship actually happening with a big piece being thrown in, and two almosts.

    There might not be a trade, in Neil's scenario - but FA acquisitions go both ways. Nothing promises that if Jim LeBaron goes to a squad, their previously most talented player does not go somewhere else. It might be a net gain in talent, but it's not the massive increase being assumed.

  9. Downpuppy Says:

    What promises that if LeBaron goes somewhere the rest of his new team will still be there is the telephone.

    I don't think they can charge players with tampering.

  10. P Middy Says:

    Not if they're free agents in the same off season, like Bron and David Lee are. Let's say this system is in place this off season, Bron gets a 1 year 15mm deal from the Knicks. They offer Lee a 1 year 9mm deal. But Orlando calls Lee and says we've got 12mm ready for you. Why stay in NY? You've got just a good a shot, maybe better in Orlando. Plus no state income tax.

    Now imagine this 3 or 4 years down the road when all the previous contracts for guys like Williams, Boozer, Howard, Roy, etc . . . have expired, and every star is signing 1, 2, or 3 year deals - probably with opt out clauses after year 1. What's keeping ANY good player on a single team?

  11. P Middy Says:

    Sorry, I'm beating a dead horse. I'll shut up now.

  12. Jason J Says:

    I actually think that that is the scenario that Neil ran, that the team that picks up LeBron stays basically the same, and the other contenders aren't blessed with similar miracle signings. Is it realistic? No. I don't think that's the point. The game isn't what if every all-star moved every season. And it's not, let's go where the money is. And it's not, let's trade the farm for a great player. It's what if LeBron put the money aside and took a series of one year deals with different top contenders. These teams we've mentioned that almost made it with significant losses are a totally different issue really, just an example of how far a team without longstanding continuity can make it even with important losses when they pick up a star.

    Miami lost its second and third best player and still may have won it all if not for injuries to its two best players - in Neil's hypothetical, Odom and Butler are still there. Barkley's Suns were on their way to victory despite the loss of Hornacek until Jordan exploded - and of course in this scenario the modern Jordan - LeBron - would be the one joining the contender rather than the Charles (Kobe? Melo?) player. I didn't even mention the 2008 Celtics who picked up Garnett, Allen, Posey, Brown, Powe, Glen Davis and Cassell (and for all practical purposes Paul Pierce who missed a big chunk of the previous season w/ injuries) and still won because it's not even close to the same issue anymore.

    The championship continuity that we see seems to be very important to the teams that already have Jordan, Shaq, Duncan, etc.

  13. P Middy Says:

    Well, my question is what's the point of simulation an impossible situation? I mean, do we really need complex math to know that if LeBron played for $1 on the Lakers next year they'd win a championship? Doesn't discussing what might actually happen if this insane combination of limited contracts and a hard cap were in the new CBA seem like much more fun than sitting in uniform agreement than an impossibly strict (and completely unrealistic) set of criteria lead to a specific outcome?

  14. Jason J Says:

    You're out of your element, Donnie.

  15. Gabe Says:

    I don't get the Time Wakefield reference at all. Can someone clue me in?

  16. Neil Paine Says:

    Until this upcoming season, Wake was on a unique contract that provided for a (theoretically) never-ending series of 1-year, $4 million mutual options.

  17. Sharon Robinson Says:

    Well, this is the second time I have tried to email this comment so it will be simple. I will teach Shaq how to shoot free throws. I am a 60 years woman and if I can't do it no coach can. So let me try. fly me out, give me a stipend and let us work! Holla at me and you will see, Shaq will be shooting free throws and maybe 3's!

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