Introducing Detroit MLE Dreams

If you haven’t been reading Patrick Hayes’ great series on potential Pistons draft picks, you’ve really been missing out. Seriously, go check out all the posts now:

The series has been so great, I’m (semi-shamefully) going to rip it off.

Introducing Detroit MLE Dreams

Since Joe Dumars announced in March the Pistons would use the mid-level exception, there has been a fair amount of speculation about whom he will target. Patrick Hayes ran down a list of potential players, and Mike Payne of Detroit Bad Boys analyzed the available point guards.

Instead of a mass rundown, this series will take an in-depth look at several of Detroit’s potential signees one-by-one.

Projecting the mid-level exception

The first step is projecting how much Detroit will have to spend. The mid-level exception starts at the NBA’s average salary. From Larry Coon’s FAQ:

The league computes the average salary by taking the total salaries paid during the previous season, dividing by 13.2 times the number of teams (other than expansion teams in their first two seasons) and then adding eight percent.

Using salary data from ShamSports.com, the average salary this offseason will be defined as $5,798,000 (assuming Larry Coon’s table indicates the MLE is rounded to the nearest $100,000).

Because a player can receive up to eight-percent raises with a mid-level exception contract, the most the Pistons could offer a player is five years, $33,628,400.

The stakes

The Pistons have a better chance at landing a franchising-altering player with the seventh pick than with the MLE. But the cost of the MLE can be much greater.

The seventh pick will receive about $4.8 million guaranteed for two years. Plus, the Pistons will have options for about $2.7 million and $3.4 million the next two seasons. Then, if Detroit chooses, the player will become a restricted free agent. That’s great value.

Five years, $33,628,400 is much riskier. The Pistons already have Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva, Richard Hamilton and Jason Maxiell locked up to weighty contracts. Another one could be crippling.

Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus thoroughly analyzed the mid-level exception in 2008. Here’s a sample of his findings:

Through last summer, 49 mid-level-type deals had been signed (including three players–Jerome James, Nazr Mohammed and Joe Smith–who have twice been signed using the exception). As a whole, these players were predictably average the year before they hit free agency, with average ratings of a .505 winning percentage and 3.6 Wins Above Replacement Player.

Actually, because of their minutes played, the group was really more valuable than average before becoming free agents. If salaries and performance were perfectly distributed, a player making the mid-level salary could be expected to add about 2.5 WARP per season. How has the mid-level group done compared to that standard? Not well at all.

Combined, the mid-level free agents have played 160 seasons on their contracts. Of those, 52–less than a third–have been rated as worth at least 2.5 WARP. Performance over the life of the deal is even more striking. Of the 49 players signed using the mid-level exception, just 13 have averaged more than 2.5 WARP per season during the contract. Nearly as many (10) have rated as below replacement level over the course of the deal.

When he announced his intention to use the exception, Dumars noted he’s had success with it in the past. Pelton agreed, rating Chauncey Billups as ”far and away the best player ever signed for the mid-level” and Antonio McDyess the fifth best.

Once again, any faith in the Pistons turning around is based on moves Dumars made long ago, not recently. After all, the last player he signed with the MLE was Nazr Mohammed.

The opportunity

Because the MLE is based on contracts signed years ago and the salary cap is based on last year’s revenue, the value of the exception is at an all-time high.

The NBA projected the salary cap will be $56.1 million next year, which is down from last year. But the contracts signed years ago weren’t based on the cap going down. So, this year’s MLE is worth a higher percentage of the salary cap than ever before.

Summer MLE Salary cap Percent
2010 $5,798,000 $56,100,000 10.3
2009 $5,854,000 $57,700,000 10.1
2008 $5,585,000 $58,680,000 9.5
2007 $5,356,000 $55,630,000 9.6
2006 $5,215,000 $53,135,000 9.8
2005 $5,000,000 $49,500,000 10.1

Is that significant enough to make a difference? I’m not sure. But I’d rather have the MLE to spend this year than 2008.

What to expect

The coming individual analysis will focus on what each player would bring and how he’d fit with the Pistons. Synergy will certainly play a part in the analysis. And I’ll try to get the TrueHoop Network blogger of each player’s current team to contribute, too.

Obviously, the focus will be on big men and point guards. I have a few players in mind, but let me know in the comments who you’d like to see me profile.

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