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Some Basketball Savants Dungeons & Dragoned the Entire 2016 NBA Free Agency

It took Nate Duncan, Danny Leroux, Dan Feldman, and Kevin Pelton five whole hours and still nobody predicted Kevin Durant joining the Warriors.

The NBA salary cap is a pile of complex minutiae, that only about a hundred sports nerds on the planet actually understand. But long story short, this season it's about to jump by a huge amount, meaning nearly every team will be throwing around cash like Michael Jordan in a casino.

Now, as we all know, Kevin Durant has jumped to the Golden State Warriors—thus momentarily reducing NBA commentary to a series of memes. But prior to this mega-move playing out, the question most people were asking was the same butterfly-effect-market-forces-head-scratching type question we ask every off-season: will anything actually happen or not?


To try and figure that out, four of the world's smartest NBA writers got together to roleplay their way through the entire off-season, Dungeons & Dragons style.


Hosted by Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) , the Annual Mock Off-Season is basically a homemade, basketball-themed RPG. Nate plays the Dungeon Master / Player Agents whilst Danny Leroux (@DannyLeroux), Dan Feldman (@DanFeldmanNBA) and Kevin Pelton (@KPelton) play as ten General Managers each.

It's complex, on some levels impenetrable, but also incredibly compelling—even if they failed to predict the formation of the five-headed golden asp that is next season's Warriors outfit. You can listen to the whole 5 hour podcast here, but I gave Nate a call so you don't necessarily have to if you have an actual life.

Editor's note: this interview took place a few days before free-agency started, before stars like Al Horford, Luol Deng, Derrick Rose, and others found their way onto new rosters. For in-depth coverage of offseason action, head over here.

VICE SPORTS: What are you trying to achieve by playing out a hypothetical version the entire off-season?
Nate Duncan: It was simply really a way to project for myself what players are likely to get. You know there's a certain amount of cap space around the league, you can project the top ten players that might get max contracts or something, but how low into the pool does the money go? That was the main question. I obviously have my own views of what players are worth, when you introduce some market dynamics in with multiple teams bidding for a player, is that going to cause their value to go up? It answers a lot of questions and it's also a tonne of NBA nerd fun as well.


So this isn't the first time you've done it either. What felt different about this year given this kind of cap jump is practically unprecedented in professional sports?
I thought even last year, in the actual real-life offseason, teams didn't throw enough money around early on. There's an old saying in the league, that it only takes one asshole and when there are 30 assholes—saying that jokingly—running NBA teams, that have different perceptions of value, it takes just one guy to think Jared Dudley is going to complete their team. They offer him big money and throw off the whole market.

Will more cap space mean more D-Leaguers and undrafted guys could get a shot?
I think there'll be a lot of players coming over from Europe. Once you get past the top 200 or so players in the world, there's not that much difference between guys in Spain or guys on the end of an NBA bench. Especially smart teams that have scouted overseas.

I thought Nando De Colo would be awesome and could get like 8 million a year, but he's signed with CSKA Moscow. But we could see guys like Sergio Rodriguez and Epke Udoh come back for sure.

In the podcast, you talk a lot about the Nene Test. Is that something will go out the window this season?
The Nene Test is something that my colleague Danny Leroux came up with when Nene signed a contract with the Nuggets back at the end of 2011 and was traded shortly after. It basically says if you sign X player for X amount of dollars, is he an asset that you can trade and get something in return? Or is he a liability where you have to include another outgoing asset like another player or draft pick to move on from him?


With the cap going up quite a lot again next year as well, I think it'll be much easier for teams to kind of move off of money. Especially if the guy can play, even if he's overpaid by like 5 million bucks a year but can still be in your rotation and help you. I think nearly anyone could be moveable over the next few seasons.

You could call that the Aron Baynes test
I don't want to get into a talk with another Australian about how good Aron Baynes is, let's keep it non-controversial for now.

Spoiler alert, but it seems like the overall winner of the mock free-agency was J.R. Smith.
Much like Tristan Thompson last year, if you're over the cap like the Cavs are, you can go over the cap to sign your own free agents. But if they leave, you don't really have any tools to replace them. J.R. is also signed to Klutch Sports—Lebron and Rich Paul's agency, just like Tristan Thompson. So if The Cavs don't come in with a generous offer at the start of free-agency and he gets on the open market, he could get paid handsomely. He really behaved this year, his defence improved, there are plenty of teams that want a good two guard like J.R.

Are there any other players with that kind of leverage?
Maybe not extreme leverage—other than the obvious max-contract players—but guys like Garrett Temple, who's on a minimum contract at the moment. The Wizards can exceed the cap to re-sign him but have to convince him to wait around to the end of free agency to do that. So he'd get paid more than if he was on a team with tonnes of cap room like Utah that could afford to go out and replace him.


It seems like despite how hard everyone tried in your mock session, pretty much every major free agent stayed with their incumbent teams.
You can only get a 4 year contract if you go elsewhere, for guys like Mike Conley, Nicholas Batum, Al Horford in their late 20s—or early 30s in the case of Horford—that fifth year really matters a lot. Because you're not going to be able to go on the market in your mid 30s and get that kind of money again. That's the system working the way it's intended, the home team is supposed to have that advantage. On the downside, if the Grizzlies don't want to re-sign Conley, what is their alternative? It's so hard to pry guys away from their current teams so Conley is really their only option for that level of talent.


Who could be the most surprising player to get a max contract this year?
I think there are a number of players that could be given the max for just a year or two, maybe even someone like Luol Deng or Marvin Williams, who got that from Houston in the mock off-season from Houston. A team might just say "hey, come and play with us for one year for 25 million."

Speaking of overpaying players, The Brooklyn Nets are in a really interesting situation, with basically no assets or decent players, or reasons to attract free agents other than the stadium being in Brooklyn. With a newly minted New Zealand born General Manager, was there anything in your mock that you saw that people could be overlooking, or is it total doom and gloom in Brooklyn for the foreseeable future?
Now that they've traded Thaddeus Young, I don't think there's a lot of surprises left. I think they'll just have to act like they're a rebuilding team even though they don't have the ability to tank. I think they'll just try and draft well with the picks they have, hit the overseas market hard with their ties in Europe and Australasia. They should trade Brook Lopez as soon as possible before he gets injured again and have the same attitude as the 76ers the last few years. Sam Hinkie (former 76ers General Manager) was just constantly trying to churn through guys and found a couple keepers like Robert Covington, who's under contract for 2 more years for basically nothing. The future isn't bright, but the fact they've acknowledged that is a great first step.

Is there anything else you think you've learnt from role-playing the entire off-season that other people could have missed or projecting incorrectly?
I think the teams that go big strike early will end up looking really smart, I just think you'll be way better off with one guy at 20 million a year even if it's overpaying than trying to find 3 guys at 7 million a year, those lower tier guys left over at the end of free agency could be more likely to be a bad contract than anything else. Just find one guy that you know can help you especially if he fits into your system and pay whatever it takes to get him. There'll be a big first mover advantage.

Also, the market may not be so hot for centers, teams want to go smaller and play faster. It'll still be robust compared to past years, but there may be a few players left out in the cold, so to speak. There's also a growing understanding that centers who are defensive liabilities can really hurt a team.

Would you recommend guys like Mahinmi and Biyombo look to take big one year deals and come out on the market again next year when there is less rim protection available on the market?
No, those guys will get paid plenty. I think they should both take the most guaranteed money they will get. It's more at the Pau Gasol, Al Jefferson type of level in the market where those guys may not get paid like we expect starters at other positions to get paid, especially if they want to go to good teams.

You can check out parts one and two of the mock off-season here.