Crunching Numbers With NBA Math, Episode 5
Looking for the best NBA minds weighing in on the trials and tribulations of players throughout the Association? Want insights into the statistical side of the sport? Trying to identify sleepers and overrated players?
Just hoping to increase your basketball knowledge?
We’ve got you covered at Crunching Numbers—NBA Math’s weekly roundtable that will feature a handful of writers and/or analysts weighing in on five different topics. This is the fifth edition, focused largely on the aftermath of the Feb. 23 trade deadline, and we have another quartet of special voices featured.
Follow them on Twitter with the links provided below, then see what they have to say:
Salt City Hoops
16 Wins a Ring
1. Who was the biggest winner of this year’s trade deadline?
|The best player traded last week, without a doubt, landed in New Orleans. It would be easy to declare them a winner, except that the Pels are now 0-3 in the Boogie era. And if the departed King is as much of a cultural millstone about the franchise’s neck as we’ve been led to believe, we might need to let this one play out over time before declaring victors there.
In the immediate term, it’s hard not to like what the Raptors and Rockets did in the context of two teams considered to be just shy of contenders deciding, “Eh, what the hell?” For Houston, the Lou Williams trade confirms that Daryl Morey definitely has a type: unconscionable scoring guards with less than average defensive skills. But hey, who needs to defend when you score 135.5 points per outing, which is what the Rox averaged in their first two games with Lou.
Toronto’s move is even bolder, finding a starting-caliber big with the exact skill set to match what they have. In the Raptors’ new three-big rotation, they now have a steady 18-foot-and-in scorer in Jonas Valancuinas, a potentially elite defender who can hit open jumpers in Serge Ibaka and a little-bit-of-everything guy in Patrick Patterson. I’m not as bullish on P.J. Tucker, but they got him in exchange for a guy who was a bit redundant (Jared Sullinger), given their other move. Not sure it gets them over the top against Cleveland, but I applaud a team for going after it.
|This sentiment may not be shared by many others, but what the Cleveland Cavaliers have been able to acquire with almost absolutely no assets or cap room is quite flummoxing.
Acquiring sharp-shooter Kyle Korver for Mike Dunleavy, a floating contract and a pick swap has proven huge for team that had lost J.R. Smith for a while. Picking up Deron Williams (filling in a
huge backup point guard and playmaking role) and (probably) Andrew Bogut, an excellent rim protector, via the buyout market gives Cleveland a—for lack of a better word—stacked roster with almost no holes anywhere. Once Kevin Love and Smith return, you could argue that Cleveland has one of the deepest teams in the league.
|The Dallas Mavericks had their cake and ate it too.
They acquired a 22-year-old potential franchise big man without having to sacrifice any first-round picks. That’s not easy, especially when you look at what the Toronto Raptors gave up for Serge Ibaka. This trade doesn’t necessarily make Dallas’ path to a championship clearer, but if we’re just grading teams on how they performed within the “trade deadline vacuum,” Mark Cuban’s franchise walks away a big winner.
|The Oklahoma City Thunder were able to acquire Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott, two players who could help them with a potentially deep playoff run. Both beautifully solve Oklahoma City’s immediate needs: Gibson, the beastly power forward with a ton of postseason experience, and McDermott, the three-point specialist the Thunder desperately lack.
Gibson’s VORP is a modest 0.3, but the player he will (eventually) replace in the starting unit—Domantas Sabonis—is at minus-0.8, the seventh-worst mark in the NBA. Gibson’s rebounding and defense (a healthy 12.06 defensive points saved, per NBA math) are leaps and bounds over anything Sabonis is going to offer them this year.
Moreover, McDermott shoots 42.6 percent on wide-open threes (no defender within six feet). The Thunder, as a team, shoot 32.5 percent on similar opportunities. McDermott will provide Russell Westbrook with a wonderful safety valve on the perimeter.
Oklahoma City didn’t lose much in the transaction, either. They sent Cameron Payne (young, but minus-0.4 VORP), Anthony Morrow and Joffrey Lauvergne to the Chicago Bulls, and they also netted a 2018 second-round pick in the deal.
Seriously, what are the Bulls doing?
2. Who was the biggest loser of this year’s trade deadline?
Not only did Philadelphia seem to whiff the return on the Nerlens Noel deal—a trade, by the way, that could look good for the Mavs with some time—but they also had to awkwardly bring Jahlil Okafor back into the fold. Even if we set aside all of the concerns about Jah’s mesozoic game in contrast to the new day for NBA bigs, it’s just weird to send a guy away in advance of a trade that doesn’t happen. That had to be an uncomfortable moment when he walked back into the locker room after apparent exile. They also got some draft considerations for downgrading from an expiring big who can play (Ersan Ilyasova) to an expiring big who can’t (Tiago Splitter), reminding us that they are, after all, the Sixers.
Runner-up: In principle, it’s not hard to see why Chicago sought to deal Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott. The idea was to see if an expiring bench contributor and a disappointing young player who still has some chance of being good can net you anything. So what did they get? Two (inferior) expiring bench contributors and a disappointing young guy who still has some chance of being good.
|The Chicago Bulls. What a joke of a front office. By trading Doug McDermott (whom they had drafted a few years prior by using five picks to trade up for him), Taj Gibson (the most reliable Bulls player of this century) and an unprotected future second-rounder (just why?) for a project point guard (like they didn’t already have five) in Cameron Payne and parts…
They aren’t rebuilding. If they were, they would’ve traded Jimmy Butler to the Boston Celtics for Jaylen Brown and two first-rounders. That would be, at the least, attempting to rebuild.
Like I wrote earlier this week for 16 Wins A Ring, the Bulls organization only cares about making money. A literal cash cow, POBO John Paxson pulls at the udders while fans watch in this place called basketball purgatory.
|The Sacramento Kings are an easy choice. DeMarcus Cousins is a top-10 talent in his prime with one year left on his contract. These players are almost never traded. But when they are, the package back tends to be lucrative.
Sacramento’s haul was anything but.
Buddy Hield, a middling first-round pick and flotsam for the most dominant center in basketball is silly, especially when you consider the Kings aren’t in a very good position to start over. Their 2019 first-round pick belongs to the Philadelphia 76ers (another deadline loser) and they have no obvious blue-chip prospect to build around going forward. Hield may be that guy, but it’s unlikely. The Kings will be bad for a very long time.
|Can it be anyone but the Sacramento Kings?
Demarcus Cousins averages 27.8 points, 10.7 rebounds and 4.8 assists per contest, and he’s ninth in the league in box plus/minus (among players with over 30 games played). His newfound extended range this season (35.3 percent from three on 4.9 attempts) has transformed him into an even rarer talent. Not to mention he’s still just 26, barely hitting his apex as a player.
In exchange for Cousins, the Kings received a package centered around rookie Buddy Hield. Hield certainly has some potential (as a shooter, at least), but he’s already 23, so his exact upside may not be all that high. He’s also currently 314th in win shares, despite having played in every single game this season.
Not only that, but the Kings didn’t even get two first-round picks for their former franchise center. The New Orleans Pelicans sent them one, along with a second-round pick and two other players in Langston Galloway and Tyreke Evans with negative total points added, according to NBA Math.
A paltry haul for one of the best bigs in the game.
3. What was the most underrated decision made at this year’s trade deadline?
Nothing I haven’t already mentioned really moves the needle in a meaningful way for a relevant team. Bojan Bogdanovic should probably be getting more attention for how much he’ll help the bench of a team that had already flipped the switch in 2017. The Wizards had the league’s best post-January 6 record (until two post-break losses tripped them up), and then added more of a skill they need: a willing shooter. The Wiz are bottom seven in three-point ratio, even though they’re a top-10 team in efficiency behind the arc. So Bogie could help them find the will to bomb away a little more.
It’s just hard to call this an “underrated decision” when they gave up a first-rounder. (Sure, that first also helped them dump Andrew Nicholson’s bad deal.) And they still have shaky depth up front and at the point.
|Lou Williams to the Houston Rockets is huge. The Los Angeles Lakers needed to get some sort of value for him. Even though Rockets general manager Daryl Morey rarely trades first-round picks, especially for a rental, it was worth acquiring another deep threat.
This gives Houston the option to run out a small lineup of James Harden, Lou Williams, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson. Talk about a death lineup? Houston has so many options from three, it’s scary.
I haven’t been a believer in Houston’s possible contention for the Western Conference crown, but adding Williams has to give Steve Kerr a bit of a scare if and when it plays the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.
|The Oklahoma City Thunder traded pieces that weren’t a part of their future for a possible long-term contributor and Taj Gibson. Doug McDermott is a nice get and will probably improve the Thunder’s lack of spacing. But Gibson is by far the best player in the deal, and even though he’s an unrestricted free agent this summer, he should have an immediate impact on Oklahoma City’s playoff run.
The Thunder are now in a position where winning a first-round matchup against the Los Angeles Clippers, Utah Jazz or Houston Rockets is possible. They possess arguably the best player in any of those matchups, and adding Gibson to a frontline that already has Enes Kanter and Steven Adams will turn the paint into a slaughterhouse for opposing bigs.
Billy Donovan can even experiment with small lineups that feature Russell Westbrook, Victor Oladipo, Andre Roberson, McDermott and Gibson. Nobody will want to play the Thunder this spring.
|For a while, I thought everyone knew what a heist the Lou Williams acquisition was for the Houston Rockets.
I was wrong.
A “D”, Chauncey Billups? Seriously?
I’ve already written in depth on the matter, but to reiterate, Williams is one of the most efficient scorers in the NBA. He’s in the 86th percentile in iso situations, and the 94th percentile as the pick-and-roll ball-handler.
The future Sixth Man of the Year draws a lot of fouls, converts them at an 88 percent rate, and shoots 39 percent from three. Williams is only going to bolster what’s already a top-two offense in the NBA (according to offensive-rating).
He’s already making an impact, too. In his first game with Houston, he scored 27 points on 16 shot attempts while hitting 7-of-11 from three.
Maybe Mr. Big Shot meant to write an “A+” as his grade, but his handwriting is really bad. Yeah, that must be it.
4. If you had taken over for Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge during trade season, would you have handled the team’s situation any differently?
|Assets have a tipping point, so I understand the angst coming from Boston fans who have been waiting for a seemingly inevitable trade for years. The reality, though, is that all of Ainge’s options are still open to him. If the Brooklyn pick turns out to be the top overall pick this June, that may arm the Boston GM to get more than he could get now in exchange for just a 1-in-4 chance at No. 1. Or he could keep the pick, and instead spend this summer’s cap space to add another star player.
The only option he really robbed himself of was making the C’s better this year, and it doesn’t feel like that should have necessarily been their goal. That said, a time will come when the chips he’s holding are worth less on the trade market.
|I think Danny Ainge made the smart decision in not using his Brooklyn Nets pick and guys like Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley to deal for a Jimmy Butler or Paul George. I also wouldn’t tell you he made a wrong decision if he had traded Crowder and picks for either Butler or George.
He has the leverage in this situation. He could very well use fewer assets to acquire Butler or George before, during or after the 2017 NBA draft. The option of waiting for the perfect deal to fall into his lap is the safest thing he can do.
Does that mean he misses a chance to have a Butler- and Isaiah Thomas-led team contend in the East? Yes, but every GM (except Bob Meyers) in the NBA is playing the “wait until LeBron retires” game. Do you contend or rebuild?
The Boston Celtics have the blessing of both options.
|It’s hard to finalize judgement before dust clears on the buyout market, but the answer is no as it relates to acquiring Paul George or Jimmy Butler. Doing so would likely require the forfeiture of several key role players and a potential No. 1 pick in this year’s draft (plus other stuff?).
Ainge might’ve been able to trade for an expiring contract like P.J. Tucker, JaMychal Green, etc., but optics matter for opposing general managers, so we don’t know if the Suns would’ve accepted a similar package from Boston as they received from Toronto (translation: Settling for two second-round picks looks a lot worse when you complete a trade with a team that can give you so much more).
The Celtics are still in a terrific spot, and just about every team short of Golden State and Cleveland would happily swap places.
|Although I commend Danny Ainge for his unshakable patience, I would have taken a different path.
Granted, Jae Crowder is a vastly underrated player on an incredible contract, so I understand why he may have been the sticking point in a potential deal. But as presently constructed, do they have enough to challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Golden State Warriors? No.
Perhaps by adding Jimmy Butler, they could have taken the next step in contention. Butler is seventh in the NBA in win shares, 10th in VORP and 12th in box plus/minus. In hyping up the Celtics current crop of wing players and, of course, their cherished assets, we may be ignoring just how good Butler is.
Let’s say the Boston Celtics traded both of the Brooklyn picks, Jae Crowder, Jaylen Brown and Tyler Zeller for Butler and Nikola Mirotic. They would boast a starting give of Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Butler, Amir Johnson and Al Horford, with Marcus Smart, Kelly Olynk, Terry Rozier and Mirotic coming off the bench.
Add a buyout candidate like Andrew Bogut to the mix, and that’s possibly enough to overtake the Cavs in the East. Or maybe it wouldn’t be, and it’d all be for naught. It’s a risk without a doubt, but one that should have been taken.
5. What’s the one move you wish happened that never actually came to pass?
Since my main beat is the Utah Jazz, I’ll end close to home for this question. I get why the Jazz—who on Sunday played just their third game of the season with nobody injured, resting or on a minutes restriction—wanted to see what they had. Their preferred starting five has played just 11 games together (they’re 10-1), so a little patience makes sense.
That said, it’s fairly evident that neither Boris Diaw nor Trey Lyles are quite fulfilling Quin Snyder’s wish of having a shooting 4 to rotate with Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors. Utah is another team armed with some assets to get things done, and that’s the kind of deal that would have helped them keep the Clippers in the rear-view mirror in their fight for the No. 4 seed. However, Snyder did come back from the break having decided to convert Joe Johnson to a full-time small-ball power forward, so that could be Utah’s answer to reserve minutes that were mostly a drain on their efficiency.
|If I’m being entirely honest, I wish the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics had agreed to send Jimmy Butler to Boston. I feel adding Butler to the equation would give the Celtics a chance to make a series out of the Eastern Conference Finals without mortgaging their future.
For Chicago, I just want to seem it tear this team down and rebuild. Fans are tired of seeing mediocrity on the court. After seeing the Chicago Cubs’ (and now the White Sox’) attempt at rebuilding, the same is desired for a team that isn’t going anywhere. Having Jaylen Brown, Malik Monk (or whomever they would draft) and Denzel Valentine on the same team would bring an exciting future for the Chicago Bulls.
|The Detroit Pistons had a golden opportunity to blow things up and avoid compounding future mistakes (i.e. long-term, big-money contracts) by selling relatively high on Andre Drummond and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, then squeezing as much as possible for Reggie Jackson, Tobias Harris and any other young veteran who they’ve locked up over the past couple seasons.All this is easier said than done, of course. KCP is an increasingly useful puzzle piece and worth the max contract he’s set to earn as a restricted free agent this summer, while Drummond is only 23 years old and on a manageable contract as one of the three top rebounders in the world.
But this core isn’t working. Drummond isn’t Dwight Howard, and the NBA has evolved in dramatic ways since 2009. Centers who can’t shoot, pass or dribble better be dominant on defense. Drummond is not.
A quick honorable mention goes to the Indiana Pacers. Not only did they hang onto Paul George despite an avalanche of rumors that suggest he’s prepared to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018, but they also failed to improve George’s supporting cast in any way. Trading another first-round pick for short-term gain isn’t necessarily the right thing to do—and hints that Larry Bird probably sees the writing on the wall—but the Pacers failed if their primary goal was to appease the franchise player.
|There’s actually a couple.
Tyson Chandler to the Celtics would have been mutually beneficial. Boston lacks rebounding and rim protection, and Chandler is fourth in the NBA in defensive rebound rate at 33.8 percent. A Chandler-Horford fit is intriguing considering how rebound-allergic the latter is.
Plus, it just sucks to see Chandler getting DNP-CDs at this point in his career. The Phoenix Suns understandably want to give Alen Len a long look before his impending restricted free agency. But they’re doing so by giving him all of Chandler’s minutes. The veteran big man is good enough to be contributing on a contender, and that’s exactly what he should be doing.
Ricky Rubio to the New York Knicks was a fun idea, too. (Not for the Minnesota Timberwolves, though, who were set to receive Derrick Rose in return.) Adding a pass-first, -second and -third point guard like Rubio to a lineup with Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis would have made the Knicks’ impending second-half tank a bit more bearable.