Bargain shopping or "taking a flyer" to use Mike's parlance is one of the most misunderstood phenomenas in professional sports. Often, it is one of the most expedient ways for a GM to appear like they are making a move yet reduce any blow back from possible ramifications of the action. By investing low in a product that is considered "undervalued," the GM appears to be the smartest man in the room. If the investment returns and above average value then the GM has hit a homerun and can dine out on his success for years to come. If the move is a failure, the GM can normally cut ties with the low value investment quickly with little harm being done to his reputation. Bargain hunting has existed since time immemorial and the most well regarded GMs are normally the ones who have turned coal into diamonds on more than one occasion.
However, I want to advance a different theory in this article in that bargain hunting can be seen not only as a pernicious act but an addictive one that can hurt the development of a franchise. The constant hunt for bargains can in and of itself become a consuming act that can result in the false valuation of players. Worse still, bargain hunting can fog the judgement of management and the fanbase to the GM in question. As Mike once questioned Etan Thomas' false hustle, the "move to make a move" actions of a GM often obscure his true ability.
Sometimes, a fan base and the wider public are savvy to this type of shell game and the GM in question becomes either a laughing stock or exposed as someone who is in over his head. In the recent past we have the example of Isiah Thomas, who has become such an example of GM incompetency that he has become the punchline for every bad trade made in the Association. Currently, we have David Kahn of the Minnesota Timberwolves to kick around and laugh at for drafting and acquiring players in a scatter shot manner. Both GMs are rightly regarded as the worst in their field and are now used as the measuring stick for bad GMing.
All this is a long and convoluted way to bring us back to questioning the bargain shopping tactics of Ernie Grunfeld and the Washington Wizards. Now I used David Kahn and Isiah Thomas in the previous paragraph to illustrate that a truly terrible GM is plain to the naked eye. Grunfeld, no matter how you judge his stewardship over the Washington Wizards is by no means a terrible GM. His successful career in New York, Milwaukee and brief revitalization of the Wizards demonstrates that he is a competent if unimaginative hand at the tiller. However, one troubling theme that has become increasingly pronounced over time is his predilection for bargain shopping. While I would not go as far as to describe it as a "mania," it is a troubling aspect to his player acquisition strategy that may do more harm than good to the long term future of the Washington Wizards. To do so we must look at the characteristics of the bargain shopper and how those characteristics have and will adversely effect the franchise.
There is only so much room for "bargains"
Bargain shopping often leads to the purchase of things that you think you may need in the future regardless of the issue of present need. This is how you find yourself exiting Costco with a 20 pound bag of dog food without owning a dog. You may have plans to own a dog in the future, but the current value of that food is zero as applied to your current situation. In the NBA, roster flexibility is one of the key necessities to retain at all times. Therefore if one wants to limit the risk one takes on bargains, a savvy GM needs to learn what is an acceptable risk and how many bargains a team can afford. (You may also substitute "upside" for bargain.) Unlike MLB or the NFL where bargains can be stashed or jettisoned easily, the NBA with its limited roster and lack of a proper developmental league punishes the overaggressive bargain shopper. Therefore bargains in the NBA should arguably be limited to those players who slot between the 8-12 role on the team or demonstrate such a overwhelming ceiling that the risk is determined acceptable.
In point of fact, if one takes a look at the Wizards current roster it displays an alarming quantity or perceived bargains on the roster. Taking a quick look at the roster, the following players would qualify as fitting the bargain tag:
Now some of these players represent a proper use of the term bargain, so for the moment we can disregard Cartier Martin from the discussion. Other players such as JaVale McGee and Nick Young represent acceptable risk considering their contract status and are further excluded from being considered false bargains. The truly damaging players to the roster are players like Yi Jianlian and Al Thornton and to a lesser extent Josh Howard and Andray Blatche who limit the flexibility of the roster and its ability to make short term moves.
Take in case Yi Jianlian who should serve as exhibit 1A for the pursuit of the bad bargain. At the time many thought the acquisition of Yi Jianlian was an acceptable risk considering the Wizards had the cap room to "take a flyer" on a player who was former high draft pick and had bounced around throughout the league. As the team only lost the services of Quinton Ross and had the cap room to spare it appeared to be little cost for a larger potential reward. Fast forward to a few months later and we find the Cleveland Cavaliers acquiring Semih Erden and Luke Harangody for the measly pittance of a second round draft pick. Why couldn't the Wizards make this move? Because they had already their cap room on Yi. To return to the buying stuff you don't need metaphor, the Wizards fell for the trick of grabbing stuff at the Best Buy checkout line. So instead of having the capacity of buying a marked down Blu-Ray player (Erden) the Wizards splurged on marked down Hannah Montana DVDs.
But you can't place the blame solely on the shoulders of the Yi acquisition which in and of itself did not completely kill the Wizards cap room. However, the Wizards front office compounded the issue by signing Josh Howard on a one year deal for 3 million. Now we enter the issue of the Wizards acquiring players because they are perceived as "bargains" rather than accounting for fit or structure. In acquiring Yi one assumes that the Wizards are in full rebuild mode and are willing to accept a bad year in order to take a look at his talents. However the acquisition of Howard was a statement by the franchise that there was the lingering hope that the team could compete for a spot in the playoffs. In total, seven million dollars was spent without a clear indication of how either player benefited the team.
Now both moves have done nothing to effect the long term financial flexibility of the franchise as they are both expiring contracts. However, both effected this season's flexibility and have hamstrung the Wizards in making the type of move we just witnessed from Cleveland. To dive deeper into the past, moves for players like Fabricio Oberto, despite their small value have also limited the Wizards flexibility in making moves in-season.
There is always a better bargain than the one you had before
Another issue that bargain shoppers face is that there will always be a better deal for an item you have previously purchased. In this case, let us use a toaster as an example and assume that you own a toaster that makes perfectly acceptable toast even if it has a bit of it's luster. However, that toaster only cost you 20 bucks. Now let's say that a brand name toaster comes along that has a timer that lights up and plays your favorite song when you wake up. Even better, the toaster is marked down by 30% off of 100 bucks.
With the Wizards, the new shiny toaster is Yi Jianlian and the old dinged up toaster is James Singleton. The problem is the Wizards are not at a point in their rebuild where a toaster that plays music is a necessity and they really could use the extra money saved to pay rent. If they had simply just keep their old dented up toaster for another year they could have used the extra money to buy some better plates or a flatware set. Making matters worse is that the Wizards already owned another toaster which also plays music and has an alarm clock. They then went and extended the warranty on the toaster because it tends to overheat and will sometimes char your bread. That toaster's name is Andray Blatche.
In total, the Wizards now have two toasters that do exactly the same thing for about three times the cost of what it would have taken to just keep the old toaster as a backup for the flashy new toaster with the extended warranty. Complicating matters further is that the both flashy toasters work on European outlets and cannot be plugged into the wall while you are using your blender. The blender being JaVale McGee. So now the Wizards have put themselves in the position where they have a lot of stuff in their kitchen, some it redundant and most of it incompatible with the other appliances. One of the flashy toasters is shoved in the back of the closet and we still don't have a Blu-Ray player to run our Hannah Montana DVDs. But at least we have another microwave (Jordan Crawford) that we purchased marked down in case our current microwave (Nick Young) breaks.
The perception of a bargain falsely inflates value
Having labored over an extended metaphor and lost you all I would like to get to the heart of the matter and the most dangerous aspect of bargain shopping. Bargain shopping tends to enhance the value of items you have already purchased because they were a bargain at the time. Yesterday, I saw one poster refer to the fact that Andray Blatche could still be considered a deal because he was a second round draft pick. And yes, while Andray Blatche was a deal at the time, he could no longer by any means be considered a bargain. As soon as Blatche earned his first extension, he ceased to be a bargain and instead became an investment. Yet the perception remains that Blatche retains his value simply because he was drafted in the 2nd round six years ago. The same can be said Yi Jianlian and to a lesser degree Nick Young. Their draft status is used to prop up their perceived value regardless of their output. Yi Jianlian's status as a former 6th pick should have no bearing on his perceived value especially as both he and Blatche underperform when compared against their peers. Further, Young only retains his value as a bargain while he is on his rookie contract. Past that point he loses his status as an accruing asset and becomes a person that you need to pay larger dividends.
You could further this argument by considering the case of JaVale McGee. McGee is considered a steal by many as his ceiling and upside appear to have no limit. Yet we are already in Year Three of his contract and the time in which McGee can be considered a bargain is growing short. As soon as McGee comes to the point where the Wizards need to resign him, it becomes a question as to whether the team is willing to invest above market value for a project or hope that McGee magically learns the fundamentals of basketball overnight.
I don't want anyone to draw the conclusion that I think the Wizards front office should stop actively seeking out perceived bargains but I do want to point out that these moves have greater ramifications that may have originally been intended. Filling your roster full of former washouts with high pedigree and prestige veterans will often get you plaudits from casual fans or media members that don't pay close attention, but they damage your ability to do the smaller things that can transform your moribund franchise into a successful one. Instead of giving the Yi Jianlians and Adam Morrisons of the world another shot at basketball redemption, the Wizards should be looking to acquire lower profile players from teams looking to dump bodies in order to make one last move. Today we could be thinking about how to use Semih Erden to spell JaVale McGee. Instead, we acquired our fourth SF and have the chance to yell Yiiiiiiiiiii once a game.
I think I'll make some toast.