The Motives of Free Agents

by Jeeves

After the formation of, for lack of a better name, (I’ll oblige them), the Heatles and now that Carmelo officially has become a Knick, it appears that the free agency landscape has changed drastically in the NBA. Throw in the impending (2012) free agencies of Chris Paul, Deron Williams, and Dwight Howard and it would be perfectly reasonable to assume that the (star) players now have all the leverage in terms of where they end up. The teams that these stars are leaving are desperate to get at least pennies on the dollar so they kowtow to the wishes of their star even as he orchestrates his departure. Inevitably, that star will leave for greener pastures in a larger market. That is, at least, the perception.

It is that perception that I want to take a look at. Do stars really leave their teams to sign larger contracts in a city they deem better? Plus, what qualities do these cities have that make them “better”?

So these are the rules, if you will, of the way I treated the data. I scoured the Internet for reliable lists of the highest paid players in their respective leagues. For the NBA, I used a HoopsHype list of the highest salaries of players for this season. This means that I wasn’t looking at the largest total salaries, just single season salaries from this current season. The site listed the top 30 players. For the MLB, I used the invaluable Cot’s Contracts. He had the top 33 total contracts in history listed, meaning the total value over the life of the contract. That means for the MLB, it’s more of a snap shot of the last 15-20 years rather than a single season snap shot. Finally, for the NHL, I used a listing from USA Today which had the top 25 salaries from LAST (2009-2010) season. (I ignored the NFL because things get hairy after including signing and roster bonuses).

So after choosing my lists, I parsed the names to find out which players either A) Signed with a different team as a free agent or B) Forced a trade/was traded and immediately signed an extension. Those in group B weren’t technically free agents, but things worked, to the same effect. It does, however, exclude players such as Matt Holliday who was traded to the Cardinals, played through the remainder of the season, hit free agency, and then resigned with the Cardinals.

Let’s take a look at the lists starting with the NBA since this is what set me on this line of inquiry:

NBA – 10/30 – 33%

Rashard Lewis (Magic)

Carmelo Anthony (Knicks)

Gilbert Arenas (first salary) (Wizards)

Amare Stoudemire (Knicks)

Kenyon Martin (Nuggets)

Elton Brand (76ers)

Peja Stojakovic (Hornets)

Lebron James (Heat)

Chris Bosh (Heat)

Carlos Boozer (Bulls)

Of the 30 highest paid players in the NBA, only 10 of them met my criteria. Bosh, Lebron, and Carmelo are all prominently on that list. They also, make up a sizable portion. The teams that the players signed with don’t seem to have any sort of correlation. For every Carmelo who wanted the big market you have a Peja who signed with the small market Hornets. For every Lebron James who headed for warm weather, there’s a Carlos Boozer who went to a cold weather city. I think what it comes down to is that the players went to the teams that could pay them the most. They also seem not to be (LBJ excluded) the premier talents of the league. Yes, Amare Stoudemire is a very good player but he wouldn’t be in your top 7 of players with whom to start a team with. Taking this all into account, it seems (recently) that star players usually sign extensions with teams that drafted them (2/3 of the listed 30). It means that the Heatles and Melo are breaking the mold, so to speak, with the way that they orchestrated their moves to their current teams. It’s impossible to say whether this is a trend or a blip, but if history says anything it is that you can expect some superstars to move about, but the vast majority will stay put.

After the jump we’ll take a look at the NHL and MLB.

The NHL list looks as follows:

NHL – 12/25 – 48%

Chris Drury (Rangers)

Daniel Briere (Flyers)

Scott Gomez (Rangers)

Wade Redden (Rangers)

Marian Hossa (Blackhawks)

Zdeno Chara (Bruins)

Marian Gaborik (Rangers)

Ilya Kovalchuk (Devils)

Roberto Luongo (Canucks)

Brian Campbell (Blackhawks)

Jay Bouwmeester (Flames)

Kimmo Timonen (Flyers)

There was a bit more movement in the NHL than in the NBA. Nearly half of the highest paid players from 2009-2010 met my criteria. There are a few trends that can be discerned here. When players in the NHL move about, they head for bigger cities and/or cities with more history. There aren’t any Atlantas or Los Angeleses on there. There are original six cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston and other storied hockey cities like Philly, Vancouver and Calgary. It’s quite possible that this is due to those teams having more money to spend to begin with, but since there is a hard cap, all teams, in theory should be able to compete for free agents. What I do find amazing is that the Rangers have 4 of the 12 on this list yet haven’t reached a conference finals. (It should be noted that with the hard cap, the Rangers never had all 4 on the team at the same time).

Major League Baseball looks like this:

MLB – 15/33 – 45%

Mark Teixeira (Yankees)

CC Sabathia (Yankees)

Carl Crawford (Red Sox)

Johan Santana (Mets)

Alfonso Soriano (Cubs)

Barry Zito (Giants)

Jayson Werth (Nationals)

Mike Hampton (Rockies)

Cliff Lee (Phillies)

Carlos Beltran (Mets)

Ken Griffey Jr. (Reds)

Kevin Brown (Dodgers)

Carlos Lee (Astros)

Barry Bonds (Giants)

Torii Hunter (Angels)

Again, there is a lot of movement when compared to the NBA. Most of the players on this list ended up signing with teams in larger cities. This makes sense, as baseball doesn’t have a salary cap. They do have a luxury tax, but trades and player moves aren’t hindered by breaching the luxury tax a la the NBA. This allows for the financially stronger teams to flex their financial muscle and explains why more than a quarter of the list ended up with one of the New York teams. The surprises here are Mike Hampton with the Rockies and Ken Griffey Jr with the Reds. The Reds and Rockies don’t typically come to mind when thinking of large budget franchises. Oddly enough, neither move worked out well.


Moving forward, I’ll be interested in seeing what happens in the NBA. Right now, there’s clearly less player movement (in terms of high value free agents) than in the NHL or MLB. It is, however, possible that Lebron and Carmelo’s methods catch on and lead to an uptick in player movement. We’ll just have to wait and see, especially with the CBA up in the air.


2 Comments to “The Motives of Free Agents”

  1. The thing is, in the NBA, individual players have so much influence over teams that whenever a top 15 player changes locations, it has a huge effect on the league as a whole. Sure, money is probably the most important factor for the majority of free agents, but when we are talking about the highest echelon of free agent players, your Lebrons, D Wades, Boshs, Amares (notwithstanding his overratedness), Carmelos etc… it almost always becomes a question of city preference rather than money, because every team will essentially be competitive with salary. So this is why I believe the NBA is headed in a bit of a questionable direction–when the ELITES of the elite choose to team up with one another

    • The thing I wanted to address but didn’t know where to fit it is that youth basketball is also fundamentally different now. All these star players are friends from all their AAU tournaments and Sneaker showcase games so it will probably be more common to see players team up with their pals…of course, pending the new CBA

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