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):
...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.