NBA Metrics 101: Ranking Biggest Moves of the Offseason
Apparently, the 2017 playoffs were only an appetizer.
The NBA's offseason has been a delectable main dish, with plenty of notable players changing hands through trades and free agency. We've seen multiple All-Stars shipped from East to West, one franchise-altering talent sign with the Boston Celtics and plenty of other moves whose impact will be felt throughout the 2017-18 campaign.
But which mattered most?
To be clear, we're only interested in the impact on the upcoming season; long-term aid isn't relevant here, which makes it harder for rookies to rank among the top 10. Don't worry, though. There's still one first-year player popping up.
The 10 biggest moves are ranked by the on-court rise or fall expected from their teams as a direct result of the decision. And in all 10 situations, it'll be a rise.
Departing from a team isn't quite as impactful as joining a new one, since the organization left behind is typically either already operating at a low level, able to replace the production with a subsequent acquisition or ready to enter into a rebuilding period.
10. Los Angeles Lakers Steal Away Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Consider the decision to draft Lonzo Ball a close second for the Los Angeles Lakers, as the addition of the rookie guard won't push them into playoff contention (sorry, LaVar!) but will work toward changing the culture and reputation of the organization. For 2017-18 alone, the Kentavious Caldwell-Pope acquisition is a bigger deal.
To be clear, Caldwell-Pope wasn't a stud during his final season with the Detroit Pistons.
NBA Math's total points added (TPA) had him adding less value than Tobias Harris on his own roster and finishing at No. 73 overall. ESPN.com's real plus/minus (RPM) listed him as the Nos. 20 and 62 shooting guard on offense and defense, respectively. Overall, he sat at No. 29 among the 97 listed 2-guards.
Caldwell-Pope isn't a star yet, and he hasn't made the impact of the big-name players populating the majority of this countdown. But his upside is palpable, since he's showed off the ability to catch fire from beyond the arc and lock down against tough assignments for short spurts.
A motivated Caldwell-Pope (and he'll be highly motivated while trying to position himself for a huge financial windfall as an unrestricted free agent in 2018) should fit in nicely alongside Ball and Brandon Ingram, complementing their skills on both ends. He's still not enough to push the Lakers toward the postseason in a brutal Western Conference, but that's not the immediate goal.
Having the Georgia product drawing away defensive attention and guarding more difficult matchups will ease the pressure on Ball, Ingram, Larry Nance Jr., Julius Randle and all the other youngsters set to wear purple-and-gold uniforms. He gives the franchise more of the legitimacy it's lacked in recent years, no matter what his individual production looks like.
And if his Klutch Sports connections come through in the hunt for LeBron James...
9. Dwight Howard Becomes a Charlotte Hornet
Dwight Howard was discarded by the Atlanta Hawks. Not only did they receive nothing more than Miles Plumlee and Marco Belinelli back from the Charlotte Hornets, but they were also forced to trade down 10 spots in the second round to help facilitate the deal.
But don't mistake Atlanta's desire to move on from Howard and his contract for a lack of impact on the big man's part.
He remains a remarkable rebounder coming off one of the best board-crashing seasons of his career. Though he played fewer minutes per game, he actually set a new career high in total rebounding percentage (23.5), topping the established mark from his 2009-10 campaign with the Orlando Magic (22.0). Among all qualified players, only Andre Drummond (25.2), DeAndre Jordan (24.2) and Hassan Whiteside (24.0) beat his score.
Moreover, he can still play high-quality interior defense.
While facing 5.9 shots at the rim per game, Howard held the opposition to just 48.7 percent shooting. Those numbers aren't quite in line with his prime marks, but they're still well above average and indicative of a true force in the paint.
Meanwhile, Charlotte struggled in both these areas. It finished No. 20 in total rebounding percentage and allowed opponents to shoot 54.1 percent at the tin—a mark that outpaced only 11 organizations.
Cody Zeller remains one of the league's most underrated centers, but Howard brings a new element, and it's one that's sorely desired by head coach Steve Clifford and his defensive proclivities.
8. Danilo Gallinari Signs with Los Angeles Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers did a fantastic job remaining competitive after learning Chris Paul desired a departure.
They managed to complete a sign-and-trade with the Houston Rockets that returned a significant amount of talent, rather than just letting Paul walk to his new home. They signed Milos Teodosic, who was widely regarded as the best point guard not yet in the NBA. They brought back Blake Griffin to serve as the unquestioned alpha dog.
And the cherry on top was luring Danilo Gallinari away from the Denver Nuggets.
To be clear, Gallinari is not a perfect fit with the Clippers. He's been best when playing the 4 in recent seasons, and that won't happen frequently while he lines up alongside Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Head coach Doc Rivers has never been one for unorthodox lineups or staggering stars, either.
But his playing style should still mesh nicely with the rest of LAC, especially when Griffin is handling the ball and hitting shooters spotting up on the perimeter.
During the 2016-17 campaign, Gallinari spotted up on 26.4 percent of his possessions and scored a whopping 1.16 points per possession. That was enough to leave him in the 86.9 percentile, trailing only a dozen players among the 119 who used such plays for at least a quarter of their plays and appeared in no fewer than 40 contests.
And that's not all he does.
Gallinari is adept at drawing contact as he moves to the hoop, which allows him to throw up 20-point games without taking too many field-goal attempts. That's an element the Clippers will lack without J.J. Redick's efficiency at the stripe or Paul's savvy half-court play, and he'll help mitigate the concerns.
7. Brooklyn Nets Trade for D'Angelo Russell
Talk about a culture change.
The Brooklyn Nets have floundered without an ability to move away from their perpetual rebuild for the last few seasons, but acquiring D'Angelo Russell changes all of that. Even if the Los Angeles Lakers viewed him as damaged goods and were unable to find a massive return for his services, the former Ohio State standout gives Brooklyn something it hasn't had in a while.
Perhaps even more importantly, he plays a style of basketball conducive to facilitating growth from the rest of his teammates. His willingness and ability to pass the rock should fit in perfectly with head coach Kenny Atkinson's system, as Anthony Puccio explained for Nets Daily:
"You'll see that Russell easily finds slashers and guys cutting baseline...it's like he knows where they're going to be before they're even there—hence why he's able to pull off the no-look passes. It's a rare gift. The Nets moved mostly along the perimeter this past season, but with a playmaker like Russell, you'll see more slash-and-cuts, baseline movement with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and/or Caris LeVert, both of whom will need to get stronger and finish better around the rim. The ball will be there."
Though Russell's shot was inconsistent and he didn't win over the entirety of the Lake Show fanbase, he did make his team better with his passes.
The Lakers as a whole shot just 45 percent from the field last season, but they connected on 51.1 percent of the looks that, if successful, would've resulted in assists when it was Russell passing them the rock. He knew how to put the ball into advantageous situations, and he should look even better while operating in a system more suited to his talents.
6. Philadelphia 76ers Trade Up and Draft Markelle Fultz
Was giving up this year's No. 3 pick (Jayson Tatum) and a future first-rounder worth Markelle Fultz?
Cue FiveThirtyEight's Kyle Wagner, who detailed what makes the Washington guard such a special offensive prospect:
"Not just any player commands the sort of defensive attention Fultz saw—even when he is by far the best player on his team. And what makes Fultz special is how good he is shooting off the dribble in traffic. On all pull-up jumpers, he scored 102 points per 100 plays, which is already very good. But when he was working out of the pick-and-roll, that number shot up to 118 points per 100 plays, as Fultz took advantage of the little bit of daylight created by the screen to get a slightly better look or to a better spot on the floor.
"Having a god-tier pull-up jumper is an increasingly critical skill for NBA guards, but so is finishing at the rim. Being a genuine threat on the drive is the reason the pick-and-roll offense works—it's what makes James Harden and Russell Westbrook nightmares for opponents and what powers the LeBron Offense in Cleveland. And Fultz scored 130 points per 100 plays when going to the rim out of pick-and-roll plays."
All this sets Fultz up for early success.
Even with late-debuting prospects such as Teodosic and Ben Simmons likely to compete for Rookie of the Year, Fultz is the gem of this class. He's ready to contribute right away, and he should be a perfect fit next to Simmons and Joel Embiid for the Philadelphia 76ers.
So long as the point guard stays healthy, they should immediately become far more competitive in the weak Eastern Conference. Embiid's remaining on the floor is also key, but Fultz alone should give Philadelphia so much of what it was missing offensively, allowing it to skyrocket up the standings and compete for a playoff spot.
5. Denver Nuggets Sign Paul Millsap
Breaking news: Paul Millsap is quite good at this whole basketball thing.
During his final season with the Atlanta Hawks, he averaged 18.1 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.9 blocks while playing fantastic defense. Though his shot wasn't as consistent as it had become in previous go-rounds, he managed to consistently make a positive impact on both ends through sheer versatility and the accompanying all-around contributions.
But this isn't just about how good Millsap is in a vacuum. He remains a legitimate All-Star contender (I had him at No. 25 in my year-end rankings), and that's still less important than his overwhelmingly positive fit with the Denver Nuggets.
If you could design a player in a lab to fit perfectly next to Nikola Jokic, the final product would likely look something like Millsap.
Not only is he a high-quality defender who's comfortable switching to prevent dribble penetration, using his quick hands to disrupt passing lanes and serving as the last line of defense around the rim, but he's also a versatile offensive contributor. Whether he's facilitating, cutting to the hoop or spotting up on the perimeter, he knows how to provide positive production.
With Jokic on the floor last year, the Nuggets posted a 117.7 offensive rating while allowing 111.9 points per 100 possessions. Conversely, the Hawks' marks stood at 107.7 and 105.6, respectively, when Millsap was playing.
Now, imagine meshing those strengths together while surrounding the two frontcourt standouts with a growing cast of youthful supporters.
4. Boston Celtics Land Gordon Hayward
Danny Ainge's patience paid off.
The Boston Celtics general manager refused to use his organization's plethora of assets in a trade for Paul George or Jimmy Butler, and it didn't matter. He still wound up with one of free agency's biggest prizes when the C's inked Gordon Hayward to a contract worth $128 million over the next four years.
Hayward is a franchise-altering talent who's capable of contributing in virtually every area. He's on the verge of establishing himself as an undisputed top-25 player in today's NBA, and he's only getting better as he continues to learn how to leverage his strength and athleticism on both ends of the floor.
There's no question he makes Boston significantly better, especially because he gives head coach Brad Stevens, with whom he's already intimately familiar thanks to their shared time at Butler, even more flexibility when trying to employ a positionless scheme.
But does he drastically alter the balance of power in the Eastern Conference?
Not really, and that's why it's tough for him to rise into the top three of this countdown. Boston already finished with the No. 1 seed in the East last season, though it fell to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs' penultimate round. To keep ascending, it has to get past that perennial bogeyman, and the addition of Hayward—particularly when it comes at the cost of losing Avery Bradley to open up cap space—doesn't do the trick...at least not in the immediate future.
Boston's move for Hayward preserved its future assets, and it should be competitive now while still trending in the right direction for a while longer. It has the ability to wait for the inevitable decline of James and the Eastern juggernaut, even if that doesn't happen in 2017-18.
Hayward improved the Utah Jazz's net rating by 5.7 points per 100 possessions last year. Let's pretend he does the same in Boston, even though that's not how on/off splits. In that scenario, the Celtics' new net rating (8.8) still can't touch the 9.7 Cleveland posted during the playoffs, which factors in the Finals disparity against the Golden State Warriors.
3. Minnesota Timberwolves Land Jimmy Butler
The 2014-15 Chicago Bulls 2017-18 Minnesota Timberwolves figure to be one of the Association's most improved bunches, but that's not the result of just one signing. We're evaluating individual moves here, so the acquisitions of Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson aren't factored into the trade for Jimmy Butler.
Plus, while Butler is incredible and should emerge as the second-best player to change hands this summer (maybe the first, if Chris Paul begins to decline in his 30s), the 'Wolves also lost a significant amount of talent in this deal.
From a 2017-18 standpoint, giving up a lottery pick is almost irrelevant. Kris Dunn's departure won't set the team back, though he did experience some defensive success as a disappointing rookie. It's losing Zach LaVine that matters most, since the up-and-coming 2-guard had developed into one of the league's premier spot-up threats before tearing his ACL.
But still, Butler is an obvious upgrade.
Not only does he enjoy familiarity with the schemes of head coach Tom Thibodeau, but he's become one of the league's premier two-way players. During his final season with the Chicago Bulls, he was one of just five men with a score of at least 50 in the defensive portion of NBA Math's TPA and a mark above 300 in the offensive one.
He joined Russell Westbrook (defensive stats inflated by defensive rebounds), James Harden (ditto), LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. Any time you're the fifth member of a quintet that includes the top four finishers in the MVP race, you're doing something right.
Actually, that's inaccurate.
You're doing a lot of things right.
2. Houston Rockets Acquire Chris Paul
"The more point guards you have on the floor, the better it is," Houston Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni said, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. "Whether James [Harden] is running the pick-and-roll and Chris [Paul] is there hitting shots, the ball swings to him and you can't stop it. Or vice a versa. Whether it's Chris bringing it up or James, we'll figure it out. There will never be a time one of those two won't be on the floor."
That's one huge benefit of the Paul acquisition.
The Rockets were still good whenever Harden was on the pine in 2016-17, but their net rating sunk by three points per 100 possessions in those situations. Now, they don't have to worry about such discrepancies. Harden or Paul will always be playing, which elevates the floor of this Houston bunch.
And the ceiling is rising, as well.
Though the Rockets will inevitably endure some struggles as they figure out how to maximize their two Hall of Fame talents, they don't need to worry about Paul and Harden looking like oil and vinegar. Their styles should mix together nicely, especially now that both have become such adept spot-up threats.
Paul in 2016-17? He produced 1.1 points per spot-up possession, which left him in the 77.3 percentile.
Harden in 2016-17? He sat pretty at 1.2 points per relevant possession and ranked in the 90.6 percentile.
Those two together are sure to produce plenty of fireworks, and it's not like they can only do damage in catch-and-shoot situations. Paul will help cover up for some of Harden's defensive inadequacies, and the cross-matching they could force from opponents is terrifying.
Plus, keep in mind that Paul finished at No. 10 in NBA Math's TPA last year despite only playing in 61 games. Now he gets to team up with a coaching wizard who's been able to coax more production out of point guards than any other signal-caller.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder Trade for Paul George
Russell Westbrook expends a ridiculous amount of energy leading the Oklahoma City Thunder offense, so it's a bit more understandable that he functioned as such a defensive sieve in 2016-17. And now, he'll be able to replicate the strategy with fewer repercussions.
Though Andre Roberson did a fantastic job shutting down opposing wings and picking up some of the defensive slack, he wasn't a perfect fit as the lone stopper next to Westbrook. His lack of shooting ability diminished the spacing around the point guard, and he wasn't capable of playing 40 minutes per game.
But now, the Thunder can throw Paul George onto the court as well, thanks to an offseason trade that shipped Domantas Sabonis and Victor Oladipo (and, still shockingly, nothing else) to the Indiana Pacers. That ensures a top-tier defender is joining Westbrook at all times, and that a two-way asset is running up and down the floor.
Not a single player produced more assists per game off drives than Westbrook during his MVP campaign, and he did so in spite of a roster that largely struggled in catch-and-shoot situations. Josh Huestis, Doug McDermott and Alex Abrines were the only members of the Thunder who produced above-average scores in spot-up efficiency, and the first two combined for just 50 attempts.
George, meanwhile, finished his Indiana career with 1.14 points per spot-up possession (84.1 percentile), and he immediately becomes the best weapon for Westbrook to use as he bursts toward the hoop.
This is a perfect fit for one of the league's 20 best players, and it came while parting with two contributors who struggled to boast consistently positive production in 2016-17. Everything checks out, which should allow OKC to rocket up the Western Conference standings and compete for home-court advantage in the postseason's opening round.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.