The Real Cost of Elton Brand

In an interview on KFAN Tuesday (here's the podcast), Wolves GM David Kahn was asked about a rumor from ESPN's Chad Ford that Philadelphia may trade the #2 if they can unload the $51 million/ 3 year contract of Elton Brand.  While Kahn can't comment directly on other teams' players without risking fines for tampering, he said this:

David Kahn:  If you look at what Brand makes, there's really only one match, salary-wise, so I'm not so certain that it means more money, but I think its a difference in talent and longevity.  All this stuff gets factored in, along with what other opportunities do you have.

We all have a subjective idea that Elton Brand is overpaid, but how can we quantify it, to get a better idea is a trade for Brand and Evan Turner would be worthwhile?

Let's take a look at some of the factors that may go into David Kahn's decision. 

1.  Let's make a direct comparison between "the one salary match," and compare money, talent, and longevity:

2009-10 Elton Brand (age 31) $15 mil ... 13 PPG, 6 RPG
2010-11 Elton Brand (age 32) $16 mil ... ??? PPG, ??? RPG
2011-12 Elton Brand (age 33) $17 mil ... ??? PPG, ??? RPG
2012-13 Elton Brand (age 34) $18 mil ... ??? PPG, ??? RPG

2009-10 Al Jefferson (age 25) $12 mil ... 17 PPG, 9 RPG
2010-11 Al Jefferson (age 26) $13 mil ... ??? PPG, ??? RPG
2011-12 Al Jefferson (age 27) $14 mil ... ??? PPG, ??? RPG
2012-13 Al Jefferson (age 28) $15 mil ... ??? PPG, ??? RPG

I think its pretty obvious that Al Jefferson is superior in all three facets, and his value for the next three years is far higher than Elton Brand.  Jefferson's upside is far greater, and his trade value will likely increase.

2.  What can we expect from Elton Brand?  With his age, size, and injury history, I think his most likely role is "veteran big man off the bench," a la an Antonio McDyess.  Brand has some upside in his production, but he carries far more downside, particularly because his contract is guaranteed for the next three years.

3.  How much would that cost in today's NBA market?  The question any front office faces when analyzing a trade is how much value they will receive from the package in the future.  I believe that if Elton Brand were a free agent this summer, he'd be unlikely to find a team who was willing to offer him a three-year guaranteed deal for more than the Mid-Level Exception ($5.7 mil).  Cap space will be too valuable.  If the Wolves needed to fill that big man role, they could acquire a replacement player in free agency for the MLE, so a three-year MLE deal is a good estimate for Brand's fair market value today.  A glance at his actual salary demonstrates not that he's simply overpaid, but that he's drastically overpaid.  In my estimation, Elton Brand has one of the three worst contracts in the NBA today.

4.  But what about Turner?  He's underpaid!  That's certainly true, but is he underpaid "enough" that the combination of these players is enough to have positive trade value?

One convenient benefit of estimating Brand's market price at the MLE is that it is remarkably close to Evan Turner's actual salary.  The NBA's 2010 rookie scale was established in the last Collective Bargaining Agreement, and when we factor in the standard 20% raise that teams generally give first round lottery picks, Turner will be paid $17.1 mil over the next three years.  This is identical to an MLE deal for Brand.

In other words, if Brand can earn Turner's contract, can Turner then earn Brand's?

5.  How much is $51 mil for three years?  I think subjectively, we already know that's a lot.  Let me make some comparisons though.  The Thunder's entire team payroll last year was $55.  Next year's salary cap (and our likely total payroll) will be around $56.  Brand's average annual salary is $17 mil/year.  LeBron's new max deal will start at about that much.

6.  But I think Evan Turner will be a superstar!  You could be right, and its hard not to be excited by the kid.  In addition, the Wolves biggest need may be the addition of a superstar, and probably the most likely way we'll acquire one is to get a young player with superstar potential.  However, how sure are you that he will succeed?  While every player must be evaluated individually, here's a look at the last ten years of #2 picks:

2000  Stromile Swift
2001  Tyson Chandler
2002  Jay Williams
2003  Darko Milicic
2004  Emeka Okafor
2005  Marvin Williams
2006  LaMarcus Aldridge
2007  Kevin Durant
2008  Michael Beasley
2009  Hasheem Thabeet

Evan Turner may become a superstar, but these players all had a lot of high expectations a month before their drafts as well, so I'm trying to demonstrate that Turner's superstardom is not guaranteed - risk must be assessed.

 

My point is that a trade like Al Jefferson for Elton Brand + #2 would be a huge gamble for the Minnesota Timberwolves to make.  If the team uses its cap space this season, their total payroll will be close to the salary cap ($56 million) and it will make it hard for the team to outcompete more cost-effective teams if Elton Brand is using up about $17 mil each season for the next three years. 

To make a deal like this, the Wolves would need to believe that Evan Turner will (not "might") become a star.  They need to believe that the value he would bring, in production, revenue, marketing, and excitement, as well as his rights after three years, would be worth such a major investment.  This deal has far more downside than up, but an attempt to get players that may become superstars requires great risks.  And make no mistake -- taking on Elton Brand's horrible contract is a great risk.

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