The Disappointment Zone

Musings from a Cleveland sports fan

Ilgauskas, Gooden, and Varejao

Posted by disappointmentzone on 14 August 2006

The Cavs have yet to reach an agreement with restricted free agent Drew Gooden. Though the power forward free agent market this year is weak—as is the entire free agent market—and thus the relative value of Gooden is higher than it might be in other years, no team seems willing to pay Gooden the type of money he is seeking: around $10 million per season over four to six years. The most comparable free agent to Gooden is Chris Wilcox, who is close to signing a three-year, $21 million contract with the Sonics. If Wilcox signs this contract the market for power forward free agents will be set and Gooden will be offered a comparable contract to Wilcox. My guess is that Ferry would offer no more than four years and no more than $32 million. Alternatively the Cavs might be interested in signing Gooden to a one-year contract for the mid-level exception, or $5.4 million, thus allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

Gooden wants a lot of money, for sure. But as I have noted elsewhere on this site, the Cavs are playing Ilgauskas a lot of money as well and, base on Wins Produced, a tidy metric from the Wages of Wins for evaluating production, Gooden and Ilgauskas performed almost equally last season. So Gooden looks at what the Cavs are playing Z and wonder why, if Z is worth that amount of money, he is not.

Of course, the Gooden deal is not being negotiated in a vacuum. There are outside influences at play. Last year the Cavs were $28 million under the salary cap in the offseason. This amount of space allowed the Cavs to sign Ilgauskas to a very lucrative deal without approaching the cap limit. This offseason the Cavs are already very close to the salary cap and therefore don’t have the same amount of wiggle room as they did last season. Even if the Cavs wanted to sign Gooden to a deal worth $10 million this season to do so would require restructuring in the roster to fit in that amount of money, something the Cavs are unwilling to do. So that is one factor. Another factor is that for the 2007-08 season the Cavs have already committed a lot of money in current player salaries; there will be even less wiggle room next offseason. Sometimes having very little room for signing or resigning players isn’t a problem. But after next season Anderson Varejao will be a free agent.

Now, Gooden and Varejao both play power forward. Ilgauskas is exclusively used as a center. But Varejao also plays center. And Gooden, though rarely used as a center, did log minutes at that position this past season. How do the players compare? Here are last season’s statistics for each player (Bold indicates leader).

We can use another Wages of Wins metric, Win Score, to further contextualize these statistics. The average big man (PF or C) last season had a per-minute Win Score of .22. Last season Ilgauskas had a per-minute Win Score of .256. Varejao had a per-minute Win Score of .27. And Gooden had a Win Score of .29. Though Gooden didn’t lead in any of the statistics above, he was nonetheless a very productive player and all players performed above average.

In the playoffs the statistics for each player changed significantly. Click here to see the statistics.

Ilgauskas still led in points-per-minute and points-per-game, but his scoring efficiency dropped a lot. This is crucial. Ilguaskas was able to lead in ppg and ppm because he took a lot of shots. But he also missed a lot of shots, and missing a lot of shots is inimical to winning (see: Iverson, Allen).

Meanwhile, both Gooden and Varejao increased their scoring efficiency, especially Varejao. In the playoffs Varejao shot a robust 62% from the field and a respectable 70% from the foul line. And take note of FTA/FGA and FTA/M. While Ilgauskas declined in FTA/M and Gooden actually saw his rate fall by almost 50% in the post season, Varejao’s numbers did not drop. In the regular season and the post season Varejao’s FTA/FGA was insanely high. Anderson got to the line at a very high clip, which not only allowed him to score more points, but also meant the Cavs got to the bonus more frequently and the opposing players were in foul trouble more often.

In the playoffs Gooden cut down on his turnovers and increased his rebounding; the combination of maintaining possession (fewer turnovers) and gaining possession (rebounds) is critical for success. All told, Gooden’s Win Score per minute in the playoffs was .29; Varejao’s was .24; and Ilgauskas’s was .17. In the playoffs Gooden and Varejao outperformed Ilgauskas and the margin isn’t even close. Ilgauskas didn’t just perform below his average; he performed well below the average big man in the NBA. Ilguaskas’s precipitous decline in production in the playoffs is amplified even more when you consider that the playoffs should be the ideal time for Ilgauskas—every game is slowed down to a pace that better suits Ilgauskas, or should, since Z is not fast enough to run in the open court or quick enough to defend an active player man-to-man. With all of the foot injuries it’s not hard to believe that Ilgauskas’s problems in the playoffs were in part the result of fatigue. Only Eric Snow (2354) and LeBron James (3361) played more minutes than Ilgauskas (2283).

These statistics only touch on the defensive production of the players, but during the playoffs Gooden was often on the bench next to Ilgauskas, often because he was playing poor defense.

I said earlier that Gooden is primarily a power forward. According to 82games.com last season Gooden played 38% of the Cavs’ total minutes at power forward. Using John Hollinger’s PER metric, a complicated per-minute rating of player performance, while playing power forward Gooden’s per-48-minute production was 17.1 (PER is calibrated so that NBA average is 15) or slighly above league average. His opponent counterpart (the other team’s power forward) had a per-48-minute PER of 17.3 while Gooden was on the court as a power forward, however. Though Gooden enjoyed a lot of success while playing power forward, so did the man he was guarding most of the time. Over the course of the season, the opposing power forwards outperformed Gooden while Gooden was on the court as a power forward.

I’m not yet familiar enough with PER to give it a lot of weight, but in case you were wondering about what Gooden did with the time he spent on the court as a center, here are the results. Last season Gooden played 15% of the Cavs’ total minutes at center. During that time his PER was 23.4 and the opposing centers’ PER was 15.9, for a net gain of 7.6. Ilgauskas, meanwhile, logged all of his minutes as center and accounted for 57% of the Cavs’ total minutes at that position. His PER was 23.2 while the opposing centers’ PER was 13.4, for a net gain of 9.7.

Based on the net gains it appears as though Gooden is nearly as good a center as Ilgauskas. At this point it’s probably good to qualify PER with a few remarks. PER does not, as far as I know, take into account the quality of the opposing player. Gooden may have a PER as a center that is practically identical to Ilgauskas’s, but this may be the result of Gooden playing against inferior opponents. For instance, Ilgauskas may log most of his minutes against a Samuel Dalembert (an average center) while Gooden logs most of his minutes against Steven Hunter, Dalembert’s backup. If this were the case Gooden’s PER would be inflated against the actual ability of players at the center position while his opponents’ PER might also be inflated against Gooden’s relative inability to defend the center position. In other words, the net difference might make Gooden appear to be more able than he actually is. If Ilgauskas logged most of his minutes against the Steven Hunters of the NBA his PER might be even higher while his opponents’ PER might be even lower. Net gain, then, might not be the best way to measure overall performance or the best gauge for defensive ability.

So what do the Cavs face?

If the Cavs sign Gooden to a one-year deal you should expect to see them aggressively pursue Varejao next offseason should his performance not regress. This is assuming that as an unrestricted free agent Gooden would sign with another team (a fair assumption). If the Cavs sign Gooden to a lucrative long-term contract, signing Varejao next offseason becomes more difficult without first dumping someone’s contract.

Ideally the Cavs would resign Gooden to a long-term contract worth about $6 million per season, sign Varejao to a similar deal using the money saved by trading away Larry Hughes (or even better, Eric Snow), replace Hughes with a cheaper alternative (a la Flip Murray), sign Reggie Evans to back up Gooden/Varejao, and hope Shannon Browns turns into a decent combo guard. Signing Ilgauskas to such a huge deal was a mistake, but Ilgauskas is still an elite center. Mike Brown should rest Ilguaskas frequently, using Varejao in his place, so that by the time the playoffs roll around Z hasn’t played more than 1750 minutes. Quality big men are hard to find and the Cavs could have four of them with a little roster adjustment.

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