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On Marcus Thornton and the messages sent in free agency

Dec 10, 2011, 10:49 PM EDT

Marcus Thornton Getty Images

There’s no use in denying it: free agency in the NBA is kind of a blast, and particularly so when the entire period is condensed into a few hyper-active weeks of player movement. But beyond the surface-level intrigue of roster shuffling is a pretty clear demonstration of league-wide values. Free agency gives general managers the opportunity to bid for players in a restricted market, and thus offers a decent indication of what it is that professional basketball franchises value. Every dollar spent sends a message, as the wide variety of available players forces teams to prioritize their spending based on need and skill valuation.

Obviously, there’s some degree of difference in that regard from team to team and from GM to GM. All franchises are certainly willing to pay big for elite production — or even the potential for elite production. Size, too, has historically provided powerful motivation for owners to open their wallets, largely in the hope that an available center might be able to provide post scoring, rebounding, and interior defense. But beyond those two angles, NBA teams diverge rather strongly in the skills they choose to prioritize, with shot creation as a particularly notable point of contention.

The emphasis placed on shot creation in the NBA is understandable; offense decides the fate of teams on the most basic of levels, and every NBA club has use for another player who can help them outscore their opponent. But the oversimplification of shot creation on a conceptual level is where NBA teams get themselves into trouble. Players who can hit a difficult jumper off the dribble aren’t necessarily worthy of a lucrative contract, and neither are players who are able to generate 20 points per game with significant collateral damage.

Due to the nature of the market, all teams pay for shot creation. But good teams, to great benefit, pay for efficient shot creation.

The determination of a shot creator’s value shouldn’t rely on how many points he scores, but how his production relates to his shooting percentages, shot selection, and turnover rate. Players who grade out well in that regard are worthy of a substantial paycheck, just one reason among many why contracts like the four-year, $31 million deal Marcus Thornton received from the Sacramento Kings is perfectly sensible.

Thornton was an elite scorer for Sacramento last season, but moreover, his 21.3 points per game came on just 17.5 field goal attempts with a single-digit turnover rate. His gaudy scoring contributions come at a perfectly reasonable usage cost, and he’s able to thrive while either creating with the ball in his hands or working without it. He’s also a fair bit more versatile than his scoring-focused reputation gives him credit for; while defense remains an, ahem, area for improvement with Thornton, he’s able to initiate offense in a pinch and does a decent job of setting up his teammates. It’s true that the Kings may have paid a bit more for their own restricted free agent than they had to, but an efficient, highly productive, 24-year-old wing scorer is certainly worth a deal in the vicinity* of the one he received.

*Plus, as noted by Tom Ziller of Sactown Royalty, the potential savings from a mythical “better deal” would likely be marginal. Even if the Kings had bided their time and waited for Thornton to sign an offer sheet with another team, how much would they really be saving here?

As a rebuilding team below the league’s salary floor, Sacramento was essentially forced to spend money in free agency. They had to invest in someone, and though the Kings may not have the best track record overall (remember that time they traded Beno Udrih for John Salmons and moved down in the draft in one fell swoop?), President of Basketball Operations Geoff Petrie capitalized on the team’s situation by signing a useful defensive big and bringing back a prolific, efficient scoring threat. Neither move will usher in a new era or revamp the franchise, but both deals subtly speak to Petrie’s — and the Kings’ — appropriately allocated priorities.

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