Grading the free agent class of '05

Updated: December 12, 2005, 4:38 PM ET
By John Hollinger | ESPN Insider
In business, there's a phenomenon called the "winner's curse." What it says, essentially, is that the winner of an auction usually regrets it, because making a winning bid and overpaying tend to go hand in hand.

Jerome James
Bill Baptist/Getty Images Jerome James can clog the lane and a team's payroll.

That seems to apply in basketball too. For example, let's say there are three teams bidding for a free agent, whom we'll call "Jerome." All three get their personnel people working to determine the player's market value and come up with a contract offer. Team No. 1 estimates the player's market value correctly and makes a fair offer. Team No. 2 underestimates his value and makes an offer that's too low. But Team No. 3 overestimates his value and comes up with an offer that will overpay Jerome considerably.

Guess who wins the bidding? That's right, the team that overpaid. And that's why winning free-agent wars are often pyrrhic victories -- overpaying on a multiyear deal can put a team in a tight salary cap spot for years.

It seems a particularly appropriate time to discuss the winner's curse because so many of this year's free agents have been such crushing disappointments. Of the offseason's 25 most prominent free agents who changed teams, only a couple have been unqualified successes. The rest have either failed miserably or, at best, underperformed for their contracts. And most of the successes have been in the lower tier of players -- those who make less than the midlevel exception.

For proof, let's take a look at those 25 team-switching free agents and, much like Professor Ford out in Hawaii, assign grades based on how they've done so far. As you'll see, it ain't pretty.

In order of total salary:

Joe Johnson, Atlanta Hawks, 5 years, $70 million.
Johnson has played hard and shown that he's a quality NBA shooting guard. That's not the problem. The issue is that he's clearly not a superstar, or even an All-Star, but he's being paid like one. Making matters worse, the Hawks gave up two first-round picks and swingman Boris Diaw to get him, and right now Diaw is outplaying Johnson. Finally, the original plan to play Johnson at the point proved unworkable, leaving Atlanta with a glut of wingmen and a paucity of point guards.
Grade: D


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