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What’s he worth? Estimating free agent values

Orlando Magic v Washington Wizards
Forward Kyle Kuzma re-signed with the Washington Wizards for four years and $102 million.
Photo by Jess Rapfogel/Getty Images

The 2023 free agent frenzy is largely over, and teams have committed to contracts paying players more than a billion dollars over the next five years. Lucky for the league, that billion-plus in salaries will be covered twice over by revenues.

Assigning dollar values to individual players has long been a guessing game. Executives have sought to bring science to the task, but a solution has proven elusive. Contracts are negotiated based on lots of factors beyond a player’s on-court performance, including perceived popularity, owner fan-boy/girl status, market competition, age, location, etc.

A few years back, I assembled a “salary formula,” which tries to translate on-court performance into cap dollars. It was good enough to get stolen by a stat consultant, but it doesn’t account for the array of other factors that play into determining salary.

Even so, let’s take a look at notable contracts in this year’s free agency through the prism of my salary formula.

  • Washington Wizards — Kyle Kuzma — four years, $102 million — Expected by many to leave for more money and wins, Kuzma decided to stay in Washington for now. His deal starts at $22.8 million and has an average annual value (AAV) of $25.5 million. The salary formula pegs his per 82-game production last season at $18.7 million against the new cap. Use that as a starting point, and it suggests a four-year deal worth about $83.8 million. Perhaps a bit of an overpay, but I think this contract is designed for a future trade.
  • Portland Trail BlazersJerami Grant — five years, $160 million — Portland awarded this deal to Grant a day before franchise icon Damian Lillard requested a trade. They’re committed to paying the 29-year old Grant an average of $32 million per season. My salary formula estimates his value last year at $22.9 million. Use that as a starting point, and it works out to a $132.8 million over five years — an AAV of $26.6 million. If I get reincarnated as an NBA player, I want Grant’s agent.
  • Houston Rockets — Fred VanVleet — three years, $128.5 million — The Rockets needed to spend some money, and VanVleet was ready to accept it. Max dollars for a diminutive 29-year old? Before I get to the formula, I want to make clear that while I respect and appreciate what VanVleet has accomplished in the NBA, I also think he’s been significantly overrated. That said, he’s supplanting Kevin Porter Jr. at guard, which means he’s a massive upgrade. The salary formula says he’s worth $30.2 million — a starting point $10.6 million below his maximum salary. That would yield a three-year, $95.1 million deal.
  • Houston Rockets — Dillon Brooks — four years, $80 million — This contract reportedly declines in future years, which is good for the Rockets. You may be shocked-SHOCKED to hear I think Brooks has gotten massively overrated. He still probably helps Houston a bit with toughness and defense. Still, the salary formula guesstimates his value at $11.6 million — a full $10 million more than his real contract’s starting point. On a declining deal, that’s four years and $42.9 million. With 5% annual increases, it’s $49.9 million.
  • Los Angeles Lakers — Rui Hachimura — three years, $51 million — The former Wizards lottery pick went on a shooting hot streak during the playoffs, and the Lakers paid him $17 million a season to run it back. The salary formula estimates his value from his time with the Wizards last season at about $10 million over a full season. With the Lakers: $13.2 million. Full season: $12.7 million. Using the highest of these works out to three years and $42.8 million, which is an AAV of $14.8 million. If he plays the way he did during the regular season, it’s probably a modest overpay. If he plays all year the way he did in the playoffs, it’s a fair deal for both Hachimura and the team.
  • Dallas Mavericks — Kyrie Irving — three years, $126 million — Irving ended up getting a bit less than the full maximum, which makes sense considering his penchant torpedoing his teams. He’ll still get paid an AAV of $42 million, if he exercises his third-year, $45.1 million option. Without the Pain in the Ass discount, my salary formula estimates Irving’s full-season value at $44.5 million. That’s $144.2 million over three years. One could argue that being a flake could cost Irving as much as $6.2 million a year.
  • Brooklyn Nets — Cameron Johnson — four years, $108 million — Johnson’s been a productive player with the Phoenix Suns before going on to playing even better when he got shipped to Brooklyn in the Kevin Durant deal. He’ll receive an AAV of $27 million. The salary formula suggests that could be a bargain. His salary formula value was $30.9 million ($34 million looking only at his time with the Nets). That would $138.4 million over four years for an AAV of $34.6 million.
  • Golden State Warriors — Draymond Green — four years, $100 million — The 33-year old Green opted out to take a little less money sign a new deal with more total money that will take him to the end of his career. He’s a complex figure — an all-time great on defense whose interpersonal volatility helped drive away Kevin Durant. He also sucker-punched promising young teammate Jordan Poole, which resulted in Poole eventually coming to the Wizards. Plus, he’s an NBA geriatric. All that said, my salary formula says he was worth $22.0 million last season. The starting point of his new deal: $22.3 million.
  • Cleveland Cavaliers — Max Strus — four years, $63 million — Cleveland’s glaring roster weakness was a wing who could shoot and defend. Strus was probably the best they could find in free agency, and they pried him from the Miami Heat. Strus’s contract starts at $14.7 million and has an AAV of $15.8 million. The salary formula has his value at $15.5 million.

Let’s speed round a few more:

  • Los Angeles Lakers — Austin Reaves — four years, $56.3 million, AAV: $14.1 million. Salary formula value: $21.6 million; four years, $96.8 million; AAV: $24.2 million
  • Toronto Raptors — Jakob Poeltl — four years, $80 million, AAV: $20 million. Salary formula value: $28.7 million; four years, $128.6 million; AAV: $32.1 million
  • Milwaukee Bucks — Brook Lopez — two years, $48 million; AAV: $24 million. Salary formula value: $34.8 million; two years, $72.4 million; AAV: $39 million
  • Houston Rockets — Jock Landale — four years, $32 million; AAV: $8 million. Salary formula value: $7.8 million; four years, $34.9 million; AAV: $8.7 million
  • Indiana Pacers — Bruce Brown — two years, $45 million; AAV: $22.5 million. Salary formula value: $19.7 million; two years, $41 million; AAV: $21.3 million
  • Portland Trail Blazers — Matisse Thybulle — three years, $33.1 million; AAV: $11.0 million. Salary formula value: $9.5 million; three years, $30.8 million; AAV: $10.3 million

If you’re interested in the value of someone you don’t see above, please let me know in the comments.