31 Aug 2009

Subjective Value Pricing Theory in the NBA

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Based on this favorable review (and funny anecdote) by Robert Wenzel, I got David Falk’s The Bald Truth a few months ago. It makes for great bathroom reading.

Falk is a sports agent, whose most famous client was Michael Jordan. (Jordan’s ghostwriter did the foreword for the book.) This book is good because it shows exactly how Falk was able to negotiate such lucrative contracts for his clients; it doesn’t just say, “And so then I went in there, and really drove a hard bargain.” No no, Falk explains the back-and-forth, and how he got the teams to pony up what seemed at the time to be ludicrous sums of money.

Falk actually has a very good intuition about economics and game theory. When I hit the following passage, I knew that I had to stop reading and blog it, since I doubt there will be a better illustration of what I mean:

I was presented with extraordinary opportunities like these starting with James Worthy in 1982…then Patrick Ewing in 1985 and Danny Ferry in 1989. There were unique situations in the marketplace that demanded a unique response. I think the Ewing and Ferry deals, along with Michael’s Nike deal, cemented my reputation not so much for being a hard-driving negotiator, but for being someone with a creative vision, or perspective on the value of players and where those valuations were going. Nobody ever believed Danny would be Larry Bird, and nobody believed Patrick would be Kareem, but Danny and Patrick made more as rookies than either Bird or Kareem was making at the time. And that’s what was demanded in those situations.

A talented player on one team may not be worth as much as a less talented player on another team. James Worthy was a good example. He was a great player, one of the fifty greatest of all time, according to the league’s experts. He was the first player selected in the 1982 draft, a remarkable performer in the playoffs, an all-star, a great teammate, and an extremely hard worker. Yet he was the third-best player on his team behind Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. James was probably one of the ten best players in the league. Another player, let’s say the twenty-fifth best player in the league, might have been the best player on his team. Even though that player wasn’t as good as James Worthy, without him his team would be in the lottery. On the other hand, the Lakers were going to be a great team with or without Worthy. Worthy’s incremental impact wasn’t as great on the Lakers as that of a lesser player on another team. As a result, the twenty-fifth-best player might have had a greater value to his team than Worthy did to the Lakers. (pp. 120-121)

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