NBA Metrics 101: Ranking Late-Season Additions by Biggest Projected Impact
Not every NBA acquisition is equal.
Some are all hype without the corresponding production. There are those who flew below the radar but will prove more important than expected. Others are doing exactly what the world thought they might.
To see how they all stack up, let's turn to NBA Math's total points added (TPA), which balances volume and efficiency to show overall impact. For each player, we'll use two different sets of projections: a pre-trade (or pre-signing) projection that indicates how the man in question would fare if he performed at the same pace he was on with his original team, and a post-trade (or post-signing) one that prorates what he's done since changing locations.
The former captures a player's skill, but it isn't as predictive, given changing roles and circumstances after these players throw on different uniforms. The latter relies on small samples, failing to account for slumps and hot streaks that happen to coincide with the moves.
By averaging the two projections, we can get the most accurate picture.
Maybe he was just disinterested while playing for a losing team, but Serge Ibaka didn't produce much to write home about while with the Orlando Magic. His rebounding continued to decline from the levels he'd previously reached for the Oklahoma City Thunder, and he failed to stand out in any singular facet of the game.
Ibaka was a positive on both ends of the floor for the Magic, but only barely.
Since joining the Toronto Raptors, he's been in for a rude awakening. Though his three-point stroke has returned with aplomb, his rebounding has continued trending in the wrong direction, and his ever-growing turnover figures negate much of what he does on offense. Even his defensive positioning has been poor as he adjusts to his new surroundings.
During his brief time with his new squad, Ibaka grades out as a negative on both ends in TPA. That's likely to change, but not by enough to overcome his lackluster numbers with the Magic, thereby relegating the Congolese power forward to an honorable omission.
Don't fall victim to the hype created by prominent names from the past.
Deron Williams may well develop into a solid backup point guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers, but he hasn't done anything in 2016-17 to indicate he's still an above-average player.
The relatively solid offensive numbers he produced for the Dallas Mavericks prior to his release were more than negated by his defense. ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus, for example, lists the 1-guard as the No. 63 stopper at his position, with a score so negative it more than cancels out his offense.
Three games into Williams' Cleveland tenure, he's been even worse. Not only does he continue to struggle defensively, but he's also shot just 35 percent from the field and misfired on all six of his three-point attempts.
Honorable Mention: Andrew Bogut, Cleveland Cavaliers
Andrew Bogut originally ranked No. 8 (projected at minus-1.88 TPA) before suffering a fractured tibia just 58 seconds into his first game with the Cleveland Cavaliers, per Cavs.com's Joe Gabriele. His projection is obviously now irrelevant, as his recovery will be a lengthy process.
But if A) he's not released and B) he somehow regains his health for the inevitable postseason run, Bogut could still add value. It's not hard to estimate his impact based on his time with the Dallas Mavericks.
Age and prior injuries had prevented Bogut from thriving as an efficient, low-volume scorer who excelled as a rim-runner. He knocked down just 46.9 percent of his field-goal attempts before leaving Dallas behind, and his 1.07 points per possession as a roll man left him in just the 62.6 percentile—a far cry from his early-career heydays.
But Bogut still maintained value with his interior defense, and that's likely the role he could fill for Cleveland if he returns. LeBron James would inevitably generate a few easy attempts for him around the tin, but it would be his ability to reject shots and protect the rim that could add a new element to the Cavaliers cause.
In his first location, the Australian center allowed just 48.6 percent shooting at the rim while facing 5.4 shots per game. Cleveland, meanwhile, hasn't been bad defending the interior, but its production largely comes from weak-side help and players working out of position; Tristan Thompson and Channing Frye have been the closest things to true centers since Chris Andersen's release.
If he could heal quickly to protect the hoop, set tough screens and pick up easy points every so often, Bogut would add to the Cavaliers' veteran-laden bench.
9. Justin Anderson, Philadelphia 76ers
Pre-Trade Projection: minus-9.57 TPA
Post-Trade Projection: minus-10.03 TPA
Final Projection: minus-9.8 TPA
Justin Anderson was solid during the portion of his sophomore season that came while he was still a member of the Dallas Mavericks. Though his three-point shot was inconsistent as could be, he finished adequately from inside the arc, suppressed any penchant for making mistakes and held his own on defense while covering a number of different positions.
Since he was included in the trade headlined by Nerlens Noel, the same story has held true for the Philadelphia 76ers—just with a few notable exceptions.
Maybe there's something inspiring about the different-colored uniform, but Anderson has been unable to miss around the rim in his new digs. He's shooting 73.3 percent on his two-point attempts, primarily because his athleticism has translated into terrific finishing ability at the hoop.
Though the second-year small forward has been a bit more porous on defense, that touch from close range has mitigated any negative point-preventing impact and ensured he remains at a level rather close to the league average (0 TPA).
Anderson's name might not be a glamorous one, and he plays for a team already well out of playoff contention. But we're talking about raw impact here, and it's hard to argue with this breakout candidate's performance as he tries to carve out a bigger role with a team that should rise up the ranks in 2017-18.
8. Ersan Ilyasova, Atlanta Hawks
Pre-Trade Projection: minus-6.33 TPA
Post-Trade Projection: minus-0.86 TPA
Final Projection: minus-3.6 TPA
If the Atlanta Hawks are expecting Ersan Ilyasova to play defense, they'll be let down. He might slide over to take a few charges, but his lack of lateral quickness and tendency to ease off the throttle when his team isn't in possession of the rock proves too detrimental to be made up for with a few forced offensive fouls.
It's on offense where this Turkish forward thrives.
Ilyasova struggled with his shot while opening the 2016-17 campaign with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He blossomed with the Philadelphia 76ers after an early-season trade. Now, he's reaching an even higher shooting level in the Mike Budenholzer system that seems perfectly designed for his floor-spacing habits.
Granted, the sample remains small. But over his first six games with the Hawks, Ilyasova is connecting on 47.5 percent of his field-goal attempts, 40.0 percent of his triples and 90.9 percent of his freebies, making the most of the limited run he's granted while adjusting to his new teammates.
Already, the Hawks are scoring a gaudy 109.5 points per 100 possessions when the new addition is on the floor, which stands in stark contrast to the putrid 98 offensive rating earned while he's riding the pine.
If he can continue making that type of impact—and given his offensive excellence for a Philadelphia squad that couldn't offer as much protection from defensive attention, there's no reason to believe he can't—he could be the type of piece that pushes Atlanta to the next tier of contention in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
7. Tyreke Evans, Sacramento Kings
Pre-Trade Projection: minus-0.78 TPA
Post-Trade Projection: minus-2.75 TPA
Final Projection: minus-1.77 TPA
Tyreke Evans is a completely different basketball player now than when he first left the Sacramento Kings for the New Orleans Pelicans during the 2013 offseason. He's more comfortable guarding different spots, doesn't look to set up his teammates quite as often, curtails his turnover figures and is capable of spacing out the court a bit more.
It's that last part that has allowed him to make quite the impact during the first portion of his return. In his first four games for Sacramento, he's averaged 13.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.5 steals and 1.0 blocks while shooting 45.0 percent from the field and 53.8 percent from three-point territory.
But while his three-point prowess is almost certainly a small-sample-size fluke, his overall level of play isn't. He was a perfectly average player (by no means an insult, considering how tough it is to maintain average play in the NBA) for the Pelicans prior to the DeMarcus Cousins trade that shipped him back to Sacramento, and he's been just about the same since his arrival.
The only major concern is health. He's already rested during the second half of a back-to-back, just as he did in New Orleans while continuing to recover from knee surgery, and he may miss a handful of contests during the stretch run. But that shouldn't be too relevant, since the Kings presumably won't be competing for the Western Conference's final playoff spot and will instead be evaluating their rostered talent for 2017-18.
Evans' contract expires after this season, but he's already playing well enough with his new teammates that the Kings front office will have to seriously consider bringing him back on a long-term deal.
6. Terrence Ross, Orlando Magic
Pre-Trade Projection: 0.88 TPA
Post-Trade Projection: 5.24 TPA
Final Projection: 3.06 TPA
The trade that sent Serge Ibaka to the Toronto Raptors for Terrence Ross and a first-round pick may turn out to be mutually beneficial.
During his time north of the border, Ross morphed into an underrated player by relying on his three-point stroke and turnover-averse play. He never lived up to the hype associated with being the No. 8 pick of the 2012 NBA draft, but he was a solid rotation wing who could hold his own defensively and aid Toronto's offensive explosions.
He's been even better since the trade.
Even though Ross's three-point stroke has dried up for the Orlando Magic, he's been granted more opportunities to work on the ball. That's allowed him to start facilitating for the rest of the team more than he ever did while working alongside Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and it's also unlocked his vertical ability on drives to the hoop.
Plus, he's fit in nicely with the defensive schemes.
"It's a small sample size—four games to be exact—but the Magic appear to be a better defensive team with Terrence Ross as opposed to Serge Ibaka," Josh Cohen wrote for NBA.com. "Understandably, four games aren't enough to come to any definitive conclusions. However, the Magic's speed and versatility is playing in their favor. Ross, for one, is an underrated perimeter defender. He helped limit Dion Waiters to just 1-of-11 shooting from the field in Orlando's victory over Miami on Friday."
When Ross' shooting returns, Orlando may realize it has unearthed a gem. But even if he regresses in other areas while trending up there, it'll have landed a legitimate rotation player who's still only 26 years old.
5. P.J. Tucker, Toronto Raptors
Pre-Trade Projection: 10.12 TPA
Post-Trade Projection: 6.58 TPA
Final Projection: 8.35 TPA
"At only 6'5" and 230 pounds, [P.J.] Tucker is as tough as any big man in the NBA. As such, he has two specialties—playing fearless defense and hitting treys," Charley Rosen wrote for FanRag Sports. "Screens present only temporary obstacles for Tucker. While he might be solidly banged and forced to execute a switch, he quickly makes up the few lost steps [sometimes by hooking the screener to squeeze around the contact] and routinely gets back in close touch with his man."
That defensive acumen has already been readily apparent.
Tucker's first six games with the Toronto Raptors have come against some strong offenses and devastating wing matchups, and he's still helped the team allow 14.1 fewer points per 100 possessions while he's adapting to his new surroundings. He isn't afraid to take on tough assignments, and it shows.
Better still, his shot has returned. It abandoned him during his last few seasons with the Phoenix Suns, but he's drilled 42.9 percent of his triples while taking 1.2 per game for the Raptors. Whether that's sustainable remains to be seen, but it's a nice bit of gravy to go along with the delicious meal that is his stopping ability.
Toronto desperately needed someone exactly like Tucker. Even when the interior defense is humming along, Kyle Lowry (when healthy) has been forced into too much responsibility by DeMar DeRozan's sieve-like nature and the inability of the wings to cover up for the porous backcourt.
Now, that last part is no longer true.
4. Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers
Pre-Trade Projection: minus-18.43 TPA
Post-Trade Projection: 38.23 TPA
Final Projection: 9.9 TPA
Jusuf Nurkic was stuck while with the Denver Nuggets.
After the early-season experiment of playing him alongside Nikola Jokic failed, he was never going to carve out a large role in the Mile High City. Not with Jokic blossoming into a top-20 player and nightly triple-double threat. Not with his pouting on the bench as he didn't get the minutes he might have deserved on a team with a different construction.
But Nurkic was freed when the Nuggets sent him to the Portland Trail Blazers for Mason Plumlee, and he's taken advantage of the opportunity. Through six appearances—five of which have featured him in the starting lineup—the Bosnian big man has averaged 14.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.5 blocks while shooting 57.6 percent from the field.
"I guess you would call him a tough guy—every play he's saying something," Damian Lillard said about his new teammate, per the Oregonian's Joe Freeman. "He's got something to say every play and that's just the type of attitude that you want to see in a big. You want a kind of an angry guy out there and a competitive guy."
There's little doubt Nurkic is a competitor, and apparently a trade was every ounce of motivation he needed. Now, he's displaying previously dormant parts of his game—his impressive facilitating ability from the blocks, his improved interior defense and his touch around the basket.
It appears Rip City may have found a steal.
3. Lou Williams, Houston Rockets
Pre-Trade Projection: 22.61 TPA
Post-Trade Projection: 12.48 TPA
Final Projection: 17.55 TPA
Since he was brought aboard for a Feb. 23 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans, Houston's second unit has posted a staggering 8.8 net rating, thanks in large part to the league-leading 122 points scored per 100 possessions. Eric Gordon alone already made the Rockets reserves potent, but adding Williams to the mix just isn't fair.
Of course, basketball isn't a one-way sport. It's defense that prevents Williams from rising any higher up these rankings, since he typically gives away nearly as much as he adds. For every bucket he scores, he's almost as likely to allow the opposition to blow by him for an easy finish around the hoop.
On the season as a whole, Williams has added 172.12 points on offense, per NBA Math, which leaves him trailing just 20 of the NBA's brightest stars. However, he's also subtracted 100.14 on the point-preventing side, which leaves him ahead of only C.J. McCollum, Andrew Wiggins, Devin Booker and Isaiah Thomas.
The net is still positive, but it's not hard to see why expectations about the overall package must be tempered.
2. Nerlens Noel, Dallas Mavericks
Pre-Trade Projection: 33.52 TPA
Post-Trade Projection: 4.67 TPA
Final Projection: 19.1 TPA
"Even Salah [Mejri] caught a lob last night, so it's been good for us with the spreading of the floor," Devin Harris said about the newfound offensive mentality Nerlens Noel brings to the team, per Dwain Price of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
"Ideally that kind of sets a free place to run, and I think we're starting the see the benefits of having roll guys and shooters on the back side. I think it's going to open up our shooters a little bit more. When we have a roll presence like that where guys have to react to it, you'll see Dirk [Nowitzki] start to get a little bit more shots."
Nerlens Noel has already made an impact with his rim-rolling tendencies—the main reason he's shooting a scorching 63.6 percent from the field—but he's also done so much more.
The big man has been more aggressive than ever on the glass, regardless of whether he's crashing the boards to create second-chance opportunities or trying to end the opposition's possessions. Only 13 qualified players this season are averaging 3.8 offensive boards and 8.0 defensive rebounds per 36 minutes, and that's exactly what Noel has done since moving away from the Philadelphia 76ers.
Of course, the former Kentucky standout's work in his old location still aids him in these projections.
He flew under the radar after returning from offseason knee surgery, losing hype while the team shopped Jahlil Okafor and enjoyed impressive performances from Joel Embiid. But he was dominant defensively and efficient on the scoring end—both of which have remained true in Dallas.
If the Mavericks complete their against-all-odds comeback in the race for No. 8, it'll be (in part) because Noel keeps making a bigger and bigger impact.
1. DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans
- 2016-17 DeMarcus Cousins, 374.96 TPA with Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans
- 1994-95 Clyde Drexler, 347.23 TPA with Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets
- 2004-05 Vince Carter, 281.06 TPA with Toronto Raptors and New Jersey Nets
- 1977-78 Adrian Dantley, 254.28 TPA with Indiana Pacers and Los Angeles Lakers
- 1976-77 Bob McAdoo, 207.57 TPA with Buffalo Braves and New York Knicks
Pre-Trade Projection: 97.47 TPA
Post-Trade Projection: 76.67 TPA
Final Projection: 87.07 TPA
Was there any doubt?
Including both the Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans portions of his season, DeMarcus Cousins sits at No. 7 in TPA, trailing only Russell Westbrook, James Harden, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. If our projection holds, he'll complete the season with a score of 374.96, which would make him the top finisher among all those who spent a single campaign with multiple teams:
No one else who changed locations in 2016-17 comes close to matching Cousins' level. His partnership with Anthony Davis may not yet have resulted in too many wins, but they'll develop into a dominant duo as they continue to build chemistry and are surrounded by pieces better suited for complementing them.
Thus far, the Pelicans have been better without Cousins on the floor. But that's only natural when a team is incorporating such a big new piece midway through the year, and it shouldn't be viewed as a reflection of the center's impact.
As an individual, he's still as good as it gets at his position.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.