Projecting the '09 Bustahs: Will Jordan Hill and Terrence Williams be Rockets in 2013?

January 25th is the deadline for 2008 draftees to sign extensions with their current clubs. If they don't, and if their teams extend a qualifying offer, they will become restricted free agents this summer. January 25th is also, according to at least some people, the deadline day for option decisions. I'm not totally sure on that, especially since the option deadline was extending "indefinitely" back during the lockout and I have yet to see an update on it (meaning that the deadline might be June 30th with the rest of the team option decisions), but now is as good a time as any to look at our favorite Rockets sub-group: the 2009 Draft "Busts" -- Terrence Williams, Jordan Hill, Hasheem Thabeet, and Jonny Flynn.

If, for some reason, you don't remember how or why these guys got onto the Rockets, here's a quick recap. Jordan Hill came over in his rookie season (2010) as part of the three-way McGrady-Martin swap. For the remainder of the 2010 season, he played pretty well, filling in for Carl Landry (who left for Sacramento as part of the deal) and showing enough skill on offense and the glass to make most people think that the "bust" label attached to him in his first few months in New York were a tad premature. Since then, he has usually been the backup forward/center, getting mostly center minutes once rookie Patrick Patterson broke into the rotation last year. He isn't the player that Donnie Walsh might have wanted him to be, but he puts forth valuable contributions, even if there are some glaring flaws (his awful jump-shot and inefficient offense, for instance).

Terrence Williams was part of the Trevor Ariza erasure. The Rockets recognized that they probably made a mistake when they gave Ariza the full midlevel exception (a mistake that was perhaps compounded by Yao's injury early in the 2011 season). It was a fair mistake to make, though -- Ariza was 24, coming off a great season and playoff run, and seemed like he could take on a heightened role. But instead of hanging onto Ariza and hoping he would increase his level of play, the Rockets dealt him to the Hornets in a weird four-way trade that brought Courtney Lee and Williams to Houston and sent a protected draft pick to New Jersey. Daryl Morey likely saw the risk as a good one -- if the Rockets make the playoffs this year, they will almost certainly still have New York's draft pick, so whatever. Williams hasn't exactly impressed so far, though, failing to break into the rotation for any extended length of time. He has definite skills as playmaking and tough-rebounding shooting guard, but his poor shooting and inability to put his athleticism to use has meant that Chase Budinger, Courtney Lee, and even Chandler Parsons have beat him out for one of the backup wing spots.

Hasheem Thabeet came over in the Battier deal last year. The truth is that he was (and probably is) more of a warm body and contract than a real player (he is also an injured-player carrier). The 2013 Memphis draft pick in the deal is probably more likely to yield a rotation player than Hasheem's development will -- it was used in the Motiejunas trade, by all accounts a pretty good pickup. Hasheem has played a grand total of 15 minutes for Houston since the trade.

Jonny Flynn is here because the Rockets needed the numbers to work for the Brad Miller salary dump/Donatas Motiejunas trade. The Rockets moved up in the draft, got rid of Brad Miller's contract (thanks, Rick), and also got a chance to give Jonny Flynn some time (David Kahn sucks, y'all). They haven't really made much of that opportunity, and it's tough to argue with that decision. He hasn't really been lighting it up.

The point is, none of these players were ever much more than flyers and fillers to the Rockets. So while what they paid for these guys should have no impact on whether or not the Rockets should pick up their options for next year (basic microeconomics, y'all), the Rockets didn't really pay anything for them, anyways. They were the extra ketchup you get in your bag at Whataburger: a pleasant surprise, but not the focus.

But will any of them be here next year? More interestingly, what (or who) would these guys have to play like in order to warrant their options? The answer is after the jump.

I think the popular consensus (okay, the consensus Xiane and I came to the last time we talked about this in the comments) is that Hill's option will probably be picked up, Williams's might be, and Flynn and Hasheem are no-goes, valuable more for their expiring contracts this season than for any on-the-court skills. That consensus seems right to me, but the Rockets are dealing with millions of dollars here. They need evidence. Whose contributions are worth paying for next season? Who is likely to actually justify their contract?

I think it's that latter question that is the most difficult to answer. It's obvious right now that, other than Hill, none of the '09 Crew is actually playing anywhere close to the level demanded by his contract. "But," we think, "what if Thabeet improves or Flynn becomes the backup PG or Williams takes it to another level?" Fortunately, if we understand what these players are currently contributing in limited time, we can also understand what they are likely to do when given regular minutes. And, from there, we can figure out what sort of play would be required of them to justify their current contracts.

In order to answer these questions, I'll be looking at three statistics: minutes (self-explanatory), Win Shares, and WP48.

For those unfamiliar, Win Shares is a system developed by Dean Oliver (he's like the Bill James of basketball) a while back and modified by Basketball Reference over the years. It looks largely at per-possession statistics, crediting players with scoring efficiently, rebounding, and not turning the ball over. A fuller discussion of how, exactly, offensive and defensive contributions are valued in WS is available at the above link. Basically, it looks at how many possessions and points a player "produces" and credits them with an adjusted number of wins. Because of the way it works (looking at margin of victory, for instance) it has a reputation for over-crediting players on winning teams and undervaluing players on losing teams.

WP48 is the statistic developed by Dave Berri at Wages of Wins. It operates in much the same way as WS, looking at how often a player generates possessions (rebounding, either offensively or defensively, steals, blocks, etc.) and how often a player uses possessions (shooting, turnovers, fouls, assists). Using possessions well is rewarded based on data from the whole NBA. Using possessions by turning the ball over or shooting inaccurately is penalized. Because of this, WP48 tends to see volume-shooters (think JR Smith or Jamal Crawford) as pretty marginal players, while strong rebounders and efficient shooters (Chuck Hayes, Shane Battier, Dennis Rodman) tend to be seen as very valuable. On the other hand, its take on defense tends to get knocked a lot (put simply, it credits players with team defense and largely leaves it at that, though it also values defensive rebounding very highly).

I used these stats for two reason: First, I like rate stats. Advanced plus/minus stuff is interesting (mostly in telling you whose backups suck), but it has so little correlation from year to year that I doubt it really means much. Rate stats (those that look at boxscore statistics like shooting percentages and rebounding) tend to correlate fairly well from year to year, and that is a good indicator of meaning. These sort of composite rate stats let you look at the total value of a player and compare that to his peers.

Second, Win Shares and WP48 are updated daily. Basketball Prospectus has its own rate stat (WARP), but B-Pro doesn't update daily (or annually now, it seems, besides what is given in its yearly book). And since I have neither the skills nor time to perform the requisite regressions and analysis to come up with my own rate statistic (OALIPP -- the OAL Index of Player Performance, pronounced "wallop" -- is currently defined as "a number between -10 and 10 that indicates how much swag you've got," and while that's valuable it isn't something you should be making basketball decisions on), I have to look at these.

So, with that in mind, I performed four projections based on combinations of Win Shares, WP48, and projected minutes. I have also included Chase Budinger's numbers, because he has an option for next year and I wanted to look at someone who is actually outplaying his contract. For reference, in both WP48 and Win Shares, a value of .100 is considered "average." That changes based on position, but it's a good estimate.

P1_medium

This first projection uses each player's WS/48 value for the first fifteen games of this season, and projects how many minutes they will get in the 66 game season based on how many they have gotten in the first fifteen games. So Hill has played 236 minutes thus far in 15 games, and that projects to a little under 1300 minutes in an 82-game season. Form there, we can find how many wins each player should produce next season. Then, using last year's value of $1.7 million/win (the cap and tax has changed, but this shouldn't move around too much), we can figure out what that contribution is worth, subtract the value of the option for next year, and he have a rough estimate of how much each player will outperform or underperform his contract. As you can see, former #2-overall pick Thabeet will be paid over $6 million next year if the Rockets pick up his option, and (combined with a projected value of about $800 thousand) Thabeet looks like an obvious cut choice. There's a reason why the Rockets were very willing to use their amnesty option on him before the offseason got stupid. Not much better can be said for either Flynn (playing below replacement-level) or Williams. Hill doesn't look very good, either, however. With an almost $5 million option for next year, his value only projects to be a little over $3 million.

The bright side is Budinger, whose ridiculously cheap contract makes his slightly-below-average play an absolute bargain. But, again, he's included here so we can have a bit of green in that "difference" column, not because the Rockets really need to think about picking up his option.

There are some obvious problems with those projections, however: current minutes might not indicate how much a player will actually get on the court, after all, and win share rates for the first 15 games aren't nearly as predictive as career rates.

P2_medium

In this set of projections, I have taken a slightly different approach to estimating minutes for next year. I basically just guessed. Arbitrary, but whatever. I assumed each player would play about 77 games and get around the current minutes/game for their career. WS/48 is just their career rate. Basically everyone looks better except for Williams. This is because Williams's current WS/48 is drastically better than his below-replacement career rate. Flynn also looks worse, but only marginally.

Most interestingly, Hill suddenly meets (and slightly exceeds) his contract value. That's mostly because he possesses an average-ish WS/48 value across his career. Hill's worse shooting numbers this year have hurt his WS value. I think there's some good reasons to think those will improve (if he can stop taking jump shots, for instance, and just focuses on cleaning up and complementing the offense, and he has shown signs he can play like that), so maybe the Rockets can expect him to be an average big man this and next year as time goes on.

Okay, but Win Shares has its biases. Let's look at WP48's value.

P3_medium

Suddenly, Hill looks like he'll definitely be employed come June. This shouldn't be especially surprising, given WP48's love for good rebounders and guys who don't shoot too much. While Hill can't shoot, he usually doesn't try, either, and when combined with Hill's very good rebounding numbers this year (yeah, he disappears some games, but he also sometimes grabs a lot in limited minutes), Hill suddenly looks like the best '09 Lottery Guy on the Rockets.

Even Williams looks better, but he still looks remarkably poor -- again, it's because he rebounds reasonably well and didn't shoot much in his limited time on the court. Budinger faces the biggest drop, based on poorer shooting and rebounding this year, but this isn't nearly enough to sink his value. The most remarkable change is Thabeet, who has put up great rate stats in his very, very limited (nigh-meaningless) playing time. Because he can't get on the court (and I don't expect him to do so), Thabeet's contract is still way too big for him.

Changing to career WP48 numbers and more minutes makes Bud look a little better, but it doesn't change too much, otherwise:

P4_medium

So what does this mean? From the numbers, only Hill looks like a good choice for keeping around next season. Williams, Flynn, and Thabeet all put in sub-replacement win totals while being paid like above-average players. That's not good. But maybe you think Thabeet and Co. can turn it around. Even if that's the case, it's going to take a minor miracle for those contracts to work out.

Unless Thabeet totally remakes his play, his contract is hopelessly huge regardless of how much he plays (if he can get on the court for about 2000 minutes next year and play significantly above-average, his contract becomes semi-worthwhile (if he plays 2000 minutes at .12 WP48 or WS/48, he produces just enough to justify the contract). The path to employment for Williams is a little easier -- he just needs to get on the court in a backup role and play around average, and his contract is then semi-worthwhile. It doesn't become a value or anything, but it stops being a black hole for money.

Wishful_thinking_medium

This is a rough estimate of what minute totals and level of play would have to be for the non-Hill Bustahs to be worthwhile. The NBA Rookie-Scale contracts are generally fantastic values, but that's only because most players don't play like total shit. At the upper levels of the draft, the contracts assume that the player getting picked will turn out to be, at the very least, a decent enough backup. At #2 overall, Thabeet has to be basically a league-average starter (or a backup playing well) to justify that contract.. But that's because his contract is worth almost twice as much as that of Terrence Williams. Williams just needs to be a decent backup to be worth his contract. Same goes for Flynn.

With the use of B-Ref's player finder, we can actually find comparables to what is necessary for Flynn, Thabeet, and Williams to be worthwhile. These estimates are, of course, just one variation of what would be required, but they seem like the most likely combinations of minutes and wins/minute. Any more minutes and we push the boundaries of what they are ever likely to get. Any better play and we push the boundaries of believability (though Hasheem as league-average is a major stretch right now).

For Flynn, looking at just active guards with WS/48 values greater than or equal to .06, playing more than 2000 minutes, and producing less than 3 wins, we see a wide range of players: Earl Watson in '08, Chauncey Billups's rookie season, Darren Collison as a rookie. Can Flynn be any of those guys next year (or this)? Many of the indicators are there (his assist rate is good, his true shooting as a rookie was alright), after all. Flynn's horrendous play in Minnesota came when he was being asked to play in the triangle, so maybe he could do it if given the minutes. Wouldn't bet on it, though. Darren Collison as a rookie had a true shooting percentage fifty points over Flynn's career. Billups's numbers are perhaps the most reasonable, actually, with a true shooting only twenty points higher (but only five points higher than Flynn's rookie year), comparable assist percentage (22% vs. Flynn's 25.8%), and similar rebounding (4.5% vs. 5.0%). Turnovers are a significant issue (16% vs. 20%), but maybe Jonny can solve that by dribbling the ball more. So, you know, possible.

Hasheem's contract seems utterly hopeless at first glance, but we get some interesting players in the constraints listed above: Andrew Bogut in '07, Tony Battie in '06, and Chris Kaman in '08. Bogut's '07 season was more a product of injury than anything, and Kaman seems so different from Thabeet (he sort of has skills, though they don't amount to much in terms of actual production), but Tony Battie seems like a decent enough comparison to me. He doesn't have any post moves, he plays okay defense (which is why he keeps earning new contracts), and usually puts in "sub-replacement" performances (thanks, BPro!). Maybe, if Hasheem becomes Tony Battie, he can sort of earn back his contract wait that's depressing.

We knew Hasheem and Flynn were largely hopeless. What about Squid? His comparables are interesting: Omri Casspi last year, Evan Turner's disappointing rookie season, Raja Bell in '05. These are fairly small expectations, and if he were given routine playing time, I think he could earn the value of his relatively modest contract back. The biggest stumbling block is Williams' terrible true shooting, which just has to get higher with a more complementary role, right? He has the court vision, size, rebounding, and speed to be a superstar, but his actual ability to finish at the rim and make shots is ridiculously poor right now. Maybe, just maybe, he can become more, but I would remind everyone that the league's history is littered with guys just like Terrence who could never put their athleticism together into actual wins.

But actual ability isn't the only consideration for whether or not the Rockets should pick up these guys' contracts: they likely won't get playing time at all unless a trade is made, and even if they do, free agency might provide significantly better players (and if it doesn't, the d-league's replacement stock is certainly more cost-effective).

All told, the '09 Draft Crew (not including Bud, of course) would cost $17.5 million next year. Dropping them would create more than enough room to offer a max deal or offer several smaller deals. Making a tough decision like amnestying Scola would increase the free space to over $27 million. That's a lot of cap space, and while it's unlikely that the Rockets can attract a big-time free agent (unless everyone suddenly realizes how fucking cool Kyle Lowry is) with the right moves they can put together something pretty interesting.

What that could be a discussion for another time, however. In any case, don't be entirely surprised if the Rockets decide to scrap the whole thing and take the cap space. All things considered, it's what I'd probably do. You don't want deals like that for Hill or Williams -- you need deals for them where they are mostly producing pure profit, not where they're struggling to make the deal worth it. Under the cap rules, cap freedom is just too precious for you to waste significant money on guys like that, no matter how endearing Squid's dunks or Hill's occasional bursts of goodness are.

Anyways, my point is a simple one: We can say that these players "might" become worthwhile. We can marvel at Terrence's athleticism and Flynn's handle (I guess) and Hasheem's height, but the gap between where they are right now and what it would take to justify their contracts is, for the most part, enormous. These are players who, given their production, belong in the D-League or Europe, not an NBA bench. It's unfortunate, because all of these players would perhaps have been better served (developmentally, not financially) by being picked much later in the draft. Were Hasheem taken as the first pick in the second round, were he stashed in Europe for a few years while he learned the basics of footwork and playing professionally, then perhaps he would now be playing on an NBA team as a legitimate contributor. Were Williams and Flynn overseas (or even in the D-League), they might learn how to better use the tools at their disposal.

Instead, these players were taken in the lottery. Williams floundered as a rookie and has been stuck on the bench ever since. Flynn was put in a system that didn't in any way fit his skills. Hasheem didn't flourish immediately, and so the Grizzlies hid their mistake from nightly viewing. All three were mistakes. They should not have been taken so early in the draft, and if there is a great case for expanding the D-League's role, it's these guys.

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