Who was the best free-agent bargain this summer? The answer is LeBronJames, according to an analyst who shared his numbers with me.
James signed a near-max deal with Miami for $110 million over six years at an average of $18.3 million per season. But that turns out to be a small price to pay.
"I'm projecting for next year he'll be worth $31 million," said Rich Steinlauf, a New York-based analyst who has been studying the NBA for three decades.
Next season, James will be paid $14.5 million because cap restrictions on him and his new Heat teammates prevent the two-time MVP from earning his market value. It just so happens that Steinlauf has developed a system for rating each player's dollar value. If there were no ceilings on salaries and every player's compensation was based on his impact, then this season James' salary would be $16.5 million larger his current pay rate.
Steinlauf calculates that the second-best bargain on the market was James' teammate Dwyane Wade, who is rated as a $22.5 million player for next season. The Heat re-signed Wade to a six-year deal worth $17.9 million annually, so they're getting him below market value.
Miami's offseason coup of signing James, Wade and Chris Bosh has given the Heat the league's most cost-efficient payroll, according to Steinlauf. While some will question the $18.3 million average salary Bosh will earn over the next six years, Steinlauf insists that the Heat are paying him what he's worth.
"I have Bosh projected at $18 million and that's what he's getting from Miami," said Steinlauf. "They've got the Nos. 1 [James], 6 [Wade] and 10 [Bosh] players on the same team."
Steinlauf's valuations are based on the current salary cap of $58 million per team. If an owner is paying $58 million in salaries, James is worth $31 million of that pool based on his myriad contributions.
Steinlauf is a computer programmer and former sportswriter who in the 1970s provided recruiting assistance to Chuck Daly when he was the coach at Penn in the Ivy League.
"[Chuck] brought me into his program and I got an inside look from a perspective I never would have seen," said Steinlauf. "I tried to turn that into a career [in basketball] and found out that I could not get a normal job evaluating players in a normal way. So I tried to come up with something unique."
In the '80s, Steinlauf developed a system of watching every game on videotape to grade college players based on a plus/minus system, which looks at a team's scoring output with a certain player on the floor. "I wound up working for six teams on the college draft over a nine- to 10-year period," he said. He also helped two teams evaluate themselves during the playoffs, including the Houston Rockets during their 1995 postseason run to the championship. But it took him four to five hours to break down each game, which made it impossible for him to analyze the entire league.
In 2007, he began to create a new model using the full 17-item box score. Steinlauf weights those stats -- scoring and rebounding are most important -- but he understands the box score is an imperfect source.
"I remember Chuck telling me that the box score had gaps that coaches had to transcend, that you could average 10 points and another guy could average 20 -- and the 10-point scorer could be the better player," Steinlauf said. "Dennis Rodman proved that for Chuck [with the Pistons' championship teams]."
So Steinlauf watches every team on TV to round out his ratings. He rates James and Wade higher after watching how they raise their production defensively in the closing minutes to help win close games. "The biggest adjusted player in the league last year was Steve Nash," he said. Based solely on his stats, Nash was worth $7.7 million last season. But Steinlauf raised his rating to $14.7 million based on his impact on the Suns.
"If I just went straight from the box score using my standard formula, Nash wouldn't have been in the top 30 or 40 players because he led the league in turnovers and I think he was last in rebounding for point guards -- so he's taking big hits in two of the important categories," Steinlauf said. "But from watching the games, I could see that a tremendous portion of the other players' points could be attributed to the way Nash ran the offense. Look at what he did for Channing Frye last year."
Steinlauf is an example of the entrepreneurial approach to statistical valuations that is revolutionizing the NBA. How many hundreds of number-crunchers are at their computers every day trying to make sense of this league? Every team is seeking to find a balance between the old-fashioned opinions of scouts and the cutting-edge analysis of statistics. What makes Steinlauf's formula especially interesting is that he places a dollar sign on his valuations -- because isn't that what matters most in today's NBA?
Now, Steinlauf is seeking to sell his system to an NBA team. A year ago, he sent all 30 franchises his analysis of the 2009 free-agent market. He determined that Ben Gordon would prove to be the worst signing of 2009 -- that he should be making $2.5 million less than the $10 million he was paid last season by the Pistons -- and that Ron Artest was the most cost-efficient pickup, worth $4.1 million more than the $5.9 million he was paid last season by the Lakers. Of the top 20 signings, Steinlauf turned out to be correct last season on all but one of them. His only mistake was to rate former Knicks center David Lee as a $6 million player in what turned out to be an All-Star season.
Here are Steinlauf's five best and five worst free-agent signings of this summer:
1. LeBron James. He'll make $14.5 million, and Steinlauf rates him at $31 million.
2. Dwyane Wade. He'll make $14.2 million, but Steinlauf believes he'll be worth $22.5 million in 2010-11.
3. Shaquille O'Neal. The Celtics will pay a veteran's minimum of $1.4 million for a future Hall of Famer who can be expected to play like a $5.5 million player. "I had him as the second-best player for Cleveland in the Boston series last year," Steinlauf said. "When you're the second-leading scorer for your team in one of the marquee playoff series, you're probably a pretty good player."
4. Matt Barnes. He'll make $1.8 million but he projects as a $4 million performer for the Lakers. "He's a good glue guy if you have a team with scorers," Steinlauf said.
5. John Salmons. The Bucks will pay him $8 million, but he's worth $9 million. "He fit very well with Brandon Jennings in that backcourt,'' Steinlauf said, "and I don't see why that shouldn't continue.''
1. Richard Jefferson. The Spurs re-signed him at a starting salary of $8.4 million, but Steinlauf believes he's worth $5 million. "I get the sense that JasonKidd meant even more to him than one might have thought," he said.
2. Kyle Lowry. The Rockets will pay $5.8 million to a bench player rated at $3.5 million by Steinlauf.
3. Darko Milicic. He'll make $4.3 million with Minnesota, but Steinlauf rates him as worth no more than $2.5 million.
4. Chris Duhon. His salary of $3.5 million is at least $1.5 million too much, according to Steinlauf.
5. Amir Johnson. Steinlauf projects him as a $4 million player next season, but the Raptors will pay him $5 million. Most troubling to Steinlauf is that Johnson received four guaranteed years at $23 million. "He's being handed starter's money before he proves it," Steinlauf said. "I'd rather see him show that he can do it before he's guaranteed all of that money."