Moses Malone has spent much of August playing pickup basketball at Houston's Fonde Rec Center. Lee Fentress has spent much of it vacationing in Maine. That is all you need to know about the state of the NBA's free-agent market. Malone was last season's Most Valuable Player and is—or at least should be—this season's most coveted free agent. Fentress is his lawyer, which means he should be sorting out offer sheets instead of trimming sheets on Penobscot Bay. But what was supposed to be a summer of bidding has become a summer of biding and, as a result, Malone probably will not be jumping ship.
Oh, he will get good money to stay in Houston; at last report Fentress and the Rockets were discussing a multiyear deal calling for up to $2 million annually. But Malone hasn't received even one offer sheet from another NBA club, and a certain Hewlett-Packard 3000 computer can't figure out why.
The computer is in the offices of National Economic Research Associates, Inc. in New York's World Trade Center, near where two of the world's tallest buildings post Manhattan up low. Lou Guth, a NERA senior vice-president who usually pores over the arcana of antitrust law, frequently pulls up a chair to the HP-3000's terminal and converses with it. Listen:
Tip tip tip, tip tip tip. Guth taps out RUN NBA on his keyboard.
August 29, 1982
Whhrrrr. Tictictic. Hmmmmm. The computer issues a greeting on its CRT screen: "Welcome to NERA's NBA Free-Agent Market. You can select any leading NBA player and see how much he would be worth to a team that you choose." Guth, who has a vague resemblance to Gabe Kaplan, twitches his mustache contentedly.
"Before choosing your player," the machine goes on, "make a philosophical choice about what characteristic (defense or offense) you feel is more important and the program will value a player's contribution to a team accordingly."
So Guth taps out "offense," then raps out "Malone." Within seconds, the Free-Agent Market Simulator (FAMS) spits out a table listing the increase in each NBA team's attendance if it were to sign Malone (see page 55).
Pressed, FAMS will say more: that the New Jersey Nets, for instance, would improve their 1981-82 44-38 record to 66-16 next season with Malone and draw 5,695 additional fans per game. If each new spectator generated $12.50 in ticket, parking and concession-stand revenue, Malone alone would mean almost $3 million mo' at the gate.
If so, why has Moses gone untouched in the free-agent market? Despite Houston General Manager Ray Patterson's repeated insistence that Ma-lone is The Franchise, Fentress says, "Moses' desire to stay in Houston would seem to exceed their interest in keeping him." And the Nets, big losers when San Antonio matched their $650,000-a-year offer for Center Dave Corzine and traded him to Chicago, haven't been heard from. Nor have the Knicks. Nor the Lakers. Nor anyone else. Also, there has been little interest in other NBA free agents—and through last weekend just two of the league's 23 first-round draft picks had signed.
All of which makes the players suspicious. Their basic collective-bargaining agreement with the NBA is up for renewal, and among the proposals management has broached were the elimination of guaranteed contracts and the institution of a "salary moderation plan." A week later Commissioner Larry O'Brien said that the league's franchises are "collectively suffering very severe financial losses." The owners, whose payrolls eat up more than 70% of their gross receipts (for hockey it's 65%, baseball 40%, football 38%), may have already begun their own salary moderation plan by not bidding on free agents. If so, the players say, it's an illegal conspiracy, and they're prepared to file an antitrust suit.
Meanwhile, Malone goes unpursued. On June 6 Gavin Maloof, then the owner of the Rockets, declared he was going to make his center the highest-salaried athlete in history. Less than two weeks later Maloof sold the Rockets to Charlie Thomas, a Houston car dealer.
"The sale will not affect 'our pledge to sign Moses," Patterson said. "We had the same budget before the sale that we're operating under now." Malone said he'd like to remain with the Rockets—under the right conditions. After a meeting in Houston on Aug. 12, Fentress, Patterson and J. Livingston Kosberg, a local businessman who represented Thomas, reiterated their desire to keep Malone in Houston.
But FAMS, which is a sort of computer-dating service for players and teams, wants Malone to be a Net. To conclude that he's worth $2.9 million to New Jersey, the HP-3000 searched out the 1981-82 stats for Moses and for the Nets. Then, taking such categories as blocked shots and steals as well as offensive rebounds, points and field-goal percentage—but weighing them according to the phase of the game (offense) that Guth had chosen—FAMS replaced a composite figure for all of the New Jersey centers with an equivalent number of minutes' worth of Malone's stats. (The computer model isn't yet sophisticated enough to plug one particular player in for another—a Malone, say, for incumbent Net Center Len Elmore.) A formula projects how the stats affect a team's won-lost record, and a complex program—taking into account a market's size, income, the competing spectator sports, arena capacity and attendance history—translates those extra wins into extra fans and additional revenue.
The program can be misleading, of course; the contributions of players who produce impressive numbers in relatively few minutes are exaggerated when they are projected as starters. What's more, almost any free agent looks like a liability when plugged into a team that's already strong at his position. And a player whose team's style is conducive to running, e.g., a Denver Nugget, will appear to be a savior to a grind-it-out team like the Atlanta Hawks.
"The computer just does so much," Guth admits. "It arranges information for you, but a team's chemistry or style or the philosophy of a coach are all factors an intelligent user has to figure in."
With Malone, though, the HP-3000 does seem to have at least a hunch about chemistry. Common sense says that Denver Coach Doug Moe's helter-skelter style would leave Malone behind in the backcourt, where he'd be unable to pound the offensive boards, his specialty. For reasons of its own, FAMS also counsels against Mo joining Moe: The Nuggets would prosper with Malone but less so than any other NBA club. They'd average only 316 more fans a game and actually lose money if they paid him as little as $165,000 per annum.
On the other hand, if the Knicks signed Malone, they would improve their record from 33-49 to 50-32, attract 3,783 more fans per game and could pay him $1.9 million annually—about what the Rockets have reportedly offered. The HP-3000 says that both Dallas and Washington would benefit at the gate with Malone, but unless they got $20 a head in per-game revenue, neither could prudently match Houston's offer.
The computer figures that if Golden State Forward Bernard King were to play for the Mavericks, he'd produce eight more wins and 20,712 more fans, but deserve no more than a quarter million for his efforts. (Sentimentalists who'd like to see Bernard join his brother Albert on the Nets are advised that the addition of Bernard would result in New Jersey's losing four more games.) And if Nets owner Joe Taub doesn't want to pay $2.9 million for Malone, he'd be wise to sign veteran Denver Center Dan Issel to a $1.25 million-a-year pact. Issel would mean 11 more wins and 102,173 more fans to Jersey, and would more than earn his wages.
What of free agent Forward Bob McAdoo, who was so crucial to the world champion Lakers' offense last spring? Mac and his agent, Bill Madden, want their doo, and on a team that already boasts two million-dollar-a-year players, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Earvin Johnson, the $800,000 a year they're said to be demanding doesn't seem out of line. But the computer says that only the lowly Mavs would improve their record and their gate with McAdoo in the lineup, and that if McAdoo were to play for the Nets (something that's already been tried with little success), the effect would be so deleterious that he'd cost the Nets $1 million.
For contrast, Denver Guard T.R. Dunn helps every team. With his contribution weighted for defense, his forte, Dunn improves a club's draw from an average of 240 a game in San Antonio, Utah and Milwaukee to an average of some 2,700 for each home date in Chicago, New York and New Jersey. (Free agents tend to have a big impact on the latter three franchises because all are mediocre teams with big arenas in large population centers.) Put Dunn in Boston and his computer reviews are raves: "The Celtics' winning percentage would change from 76.8 to 88.1, and attendance by 49,236. Note: The total attendance is more than you can accommodate in your arena. Better build a new one."
Not so fast. If something tells you no single player will enable a team to win 88% of its games—and certainly not one named T.R. Dunn—you've got the right measure of skepticism. The real data will get processed on the court. "Absolutes don't mean nearly as much as the relative impact of one player over another," Guth says. "Anyone who offers a free agent something based only on this information is using it improperly."
Anyway, as they say around the NBA, "Is what is"