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Where Does This Summer’s NBA Free-Agent Class Rank?

NBA fans (and general managers) have had the summer of 2019 circled on their calendars for a very long time. With names like Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving available via free agency — plus the inevitable Anthony Davis trade having already gone down earlier in the month — the sheer amount of star power potentially swapping teams this offseason could reshape the league for years to come.

But is this the most star-studded free-agent summer in recent memory?

It depends on how we look at things.

To calculate the value of every player in each free-agent class since 2010 — the year LeBron James’s “Decision” kicked off our current era of free-agency mania1 — I’m combining three widely used metrics (Value Over Replacement Player, Win Shares and Estimated Wins Added) into a consensus measure of Wins Created, all scaled to an 82-game season. In terms of total Wins Created over the previous three seasons, this year’s top free agents are Durant (39.9), Butler (37.8) and Irving (34.0), who contribute to a three-year total of 1,354.5 Wins Created across all of the 2019 free agents.

Who are the most productive free agents of the summer?

Top 2019 NBA free agents, ranked by Wins Created* over the previous three seasons

Wins Created
Rk Player Age Old Team 2016-17 2017-18 2018-19 Total
1 Kevin Durant 31 GS 14.0 12.9 12.9 39.9
2 Jimmy Butler 30 PHI 17.8 11.0 9.1 37.8
3 Kyrie Irving 27 BOS 9.9 11.4 12.7 34.0
4 Kemba Walker 29 CHA 11.4 10.9 11.3 33.7
5 Kawhi Leonard 28 TOR 17.0 1.2 11.0 29.1
6 DeAndre Jordan 31 NY 12.0 8.9 7.8 28.7
7 Al Horford 33 BOS 8.2 9.8 9.4 27.4
8 Nikola Vucevic 29 ORL 6.0 6.0 14.7 26.7
9 Marc Gasol 35 TOR 10.9 6.7 8.5 26.2
10 DeMarcus Cousins 29 GS 13.8 8.4 3.1 25.3
11 Thaddeus Young 31 IND 5.9 7.0 8.7 21.6
12 Tobias Harris 27 PHI 7.4 7.1 7.2 21.6
13 Brook Lopez 31 MIL 7.2 4.2 7.8 19.2
14 Julius Randle 25 NO 4.6 6.6 6.9 18.0
15 Paul Millsap 34 DEN 8.4 2.8 6.4 17.7
16 Enes Kanter 27 POR 3.9 7.7 5.8 17.4
17 Darren Collison 32 IND 3.0 7.3 6.4 16.8
18 Trevor Ariza 34 WAS 7.1 5.7 3.6 16.4
19 Ricky Rubio 29 UTA 6.3 6.3 3.5 16.1
20 Danny Green 32 TOR 4.8 3.9 7.2 15.8

* Based on a blend of Value Over Replacement Player, Win Shares and Estimated Wins Added. Age as of Feb. 1, 2020.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com, Spotrac

Among free-agent classes since 2010, only the 2015 group — which contained James (who re-signed with the Cavaliers after initially rejoining them the previous summer), Marc Gasol, DeAndre Jordan (whose free-agency saga that year is worthy of its own post), Paul Millsap, Tim Duncan, Kevin Love and Leonard — ranked higher than 2019 by that metric:2

Which free-agent class had the most total production?

Best free agency classes since 2010, based on the total Wins Created* by free-agent players in the preceding three seasons

Summer Best players (by 3-year Wins Created) Overall Total WC
2015 L. James • M. Gasol • D. Jordan 1365.1
2019 K. Durant • J. Butler • K. Irving 1354.5
2013 C. Paul • D. Howard • P. Millsap 1232.1
2017 S. Curry • K. Lowry • K. Durant 1200.6
2010 L. James • D. Wade • D. Nowitzki 1187.1
2012 T. Duncan • D. Williams • G. Wallace 1181.7
2016 L. James • K. Durant • N. Batum 1169.8
2014 L. James • C. Anthony • K. Lowry 1048.0
2018 L. James • K. Durant • C. Paul 1037.7
2011 T. Duncan • N. Hilario • R. Allen 887.8

* Based on a blend of Value Over Replacement Player, Win Shares and Estimated Wins Added.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

The 2019 class’s ranking is also hampered by Leonard’s nearly season-long absence in 2017-18, when the then-Spurs forward generated just 1.2 wins in nine games. Had Leonard played to his average over the preceding three seasons and created 14.8 wins that year, his three-year total would have been 42.7 — tops in the class, and good enough to boost 2019 to No. 1 on our class rankings over 2015. (But then again, how much else about the league would be different today if Leonard hadn’t suffered that quad injury — the management of which led to a rift with San Antonio, a trade to Toronto and ultimately an NBA championship?)

The summer of 2019 also rises up the ranks to No. 1 if we include Davis as a de facto free agent. (Yes, he went to the Lakers via trade, but Davis’s departure from New Orleans was all but assured, and he was often listed among the offseason’s biggest prizes.) When Davis’s three-year value is included among the rest of the free agents, 2019 pulls ahead of 2015 with a total haul of 1396.4 Wins Created by available players over the previous three seasons.

But strictly in terms of top free-agent talent, this year’s class isn’t quite on the same level as other years. Durant’s 39.9 Wins Created over the previous three years ranks third-lowest among leaders for the 10 years we looked at, ahead of only the 2011 and 2012 free-agent groups (both headlined by Duncan). It’s a far cry from James hitting the 2010 market with a class-high 81.8 Wins Created for the last three seasons under his belt. If we look only at the totals of the Top 10 players available, the 2010 class ranks No. 1, thanks to a ridiculously stacked set of Hall of Famers that included James, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen.

Though this year’s crop has plenty of big names, none of them are coming off performances quite as prodigious as James and Wade had in the years leading up to 2010. (Among the top five, Kemba Walker, at No. 4, comes closest to matching his counterpart from that year, Pierce; Walker generated 33.7 wins over the past three seasons, while Pierce had 33.8 from 2008 through 2010.) But the 2019 free-agent class makes up for its perhaps surprising lack of production at the top with sheer depth:

The next tier of free agents — aka the Khris Middletons and Brook Lopezes of the world — might not contain the sexiest names, but it does offer better-than-usual options to teams who strike out on the biggest free agents. And that’s also true even further down the rankings: An unusual number of players up for free agency this summer (101, to be exact) produced at least five wins over the preceding three seasons, compared with an average of 76 players per season in the nine years leading up to 2019.

Of course, the next handful of championships will still probably hinge on the destinations of Durant, Leonard, Butler and the rest of the biggest names on the list. But if this summer’s free-agent class does end up going down among the best of the decade, it should be just as much on the strength of its lesser stars as its top-line players.

Footnotes

  1. And the earliest season for which I was able to grab an archive of Basketball-Reference.com’s free-agency tracker.

  2. Important note: These rankings include players who potentially could have become free agents if they opted out, even if they ultimately didn’t.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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