NBA Metrics 101: Grading Late-Season Additions Based on Impact
Not every late-season NBA acquisition works out.
Some players fizzle after joining another squad, plagued by uncertainties about their role and shooting slumps as they adjust to their new teammates. Whether acquired in a trade or picked up as a free-agent signee, they can underwhelm and fail to justify the assets sent to bring them aboard.
But others are worth every penny. They fill the intended holes and thrive in their new homes, lifting the ceiling of their organizations and leaving no room for regret.
The 2016-17 campaign has provided players who fall into both overarching categories. And based solely on their on-court efforts, we're here to put the big-name acquisitions in order from least to most beneficial.
Those receiving the worst grades were detrimental to their team's efforts, failing to live up to the hype in a big way. Those earning top marks exceeded expectations and thrived as individuals, both by helping their squads improve their winning percentages and by putting up fantastic numbers. TPA scores, which are provided here by NBA Math, are part of the equation, but everything done on the floor during live action matters.
Brandon Jennings, PG, Washington
Win Percentage Change: 2 percent worse
TPA With Washington Wizards: minus-35.63
Brandon Jennings was signed to give the Washington Wizards depth at point guard. Before his arrival, they'd squandered leads whenever John Wall was sent to the bench to either rest, stave off foul trouble or deal with an injury. Even after the acquisition of Bojan Bogdanovic, the second unit desperately needed a capable ball-handler who could give the offense a shot at staying afloat.
There was only one problem.
Jennings was atrocious in his new home, averaging just 3.5 points, 1.9 rebounds and 4.7 assists while shooting 27.4 percent from the field and 21.2 percent from downtown. The issues plaguing his jumper canceled out the value of his distributing. Paired with his woeful defense, they made him a distinct detriment to the team's second-half surge.
"Jennings' defense, however, has to change," J. Michael wrote for CSN Mid-Atlantic. "He's not old and slow. He doesn't have any apparent physical limitations. There is no shame in getting beaten 1 vs. 1 in the NBA. It happens. But Jennings is getting beat on the first move before his help defense is in position to clean up the miss."
Maybe the point guard should earn some credit for his intangibles. He brought a new level of confidence and swagger to Washington's bench mob with his behind-the-back passes, no-look feeds and fancy dribbles. But as an individual, the surety often seemed to border on hubris, and the downfalls came quickly and frequently in the form of jumpers clanging off the iron.
Ersan Ilyasova, PF, Atlanta Hawks
Win Percentage Change: 14.8 percent worse
TPA With Atlanta Hawks: minus-2.57 TPA
Ersan Ilyasova played his first game for the Atlanta Hawks on Feb. 24 against the Miami Heat.
Before that date, the team was drawing 0.88 charges per game, which left it behind only the Dallas Mavericks (1.25), Houston Rockets (1.03), Boston Celtics (0.89) and Indiana Pacers (0.89). Once he arrived, Atlanta increased its charge-taking output to 1.12 per contest (behind only the Rockets' 1.22) and then drew a league-high two whistles per outing during the playoffs.
Ilyasova may not be a game-changing defensive presence, but his willingness to sacrifice his body is contagious. He alone drew 0.33 charges per game for the Hawks in the playoffs (the No. 7 mark in the league), and that impact still falls well short of his offensive contributions.
Well...it's supposed to.
Ilyasova was actually an offensive minus for the Hawks, putting up a 13.5 player efficiency rating (PER, for which the league-average mark is 15) and a below-average minus-0.6 offensive box plus/minus (OBPM). For once, he was more useful on defense than the scoring end, thanks to his missing three-point stroke and inability to get comfortable in head coach Mike Budenholzer's offensive schemes.
His rebounding in the playoffs helped recoup some of his value, but the regular season remained disappointing. Perhaps a season of continuity rather than bouncing between three organizations would do wonders for him in 2017-18.
Serge Ibaka, PF, Toronto Raptors
Win Percentage Change: 15.9 percent better
TPA With Toronto Raptors: minus-29.5
Advanced metrics don't love what Serge Ibaka did during his regular-season stint with the Toronto Raptors.
Offensively, he assisted the team by knocking down 39.8 percent of his three-point attempts. But that was about all the assisting he did, since he recorded far more turnovers (39) than dimes (15). He also struggled to finish plays just outside the restricted zone (35.8 percent from between three and 10 feet) and was often uninvolved in the proceedings.
He wasn't too much better defensively, either.
After his move to the Raptors, he allowed opponents to shoot 51.6 percent at the rim while contesting just 7.9 shots per 36 minutes. That's an improvement upon the marks he earned during his uninspired tenure with the Orlando Magic, but it still pales in comparison to the work he produced for the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015-16.
The Raptors were expecting OKC Ibaka, and they didn't get him. And while that's changed during the playoffs, the larger sample should still be viewed as more indicative of the big man's actual level these days. Maybe the Milwaukee Bucks just played right into his hands during the first round.
Another standout series against the Cleveland Cavaliers would do a lot to elevate this grade, but the impact just wasn't there in his first 23 games north of the border.
Lou Williams, PG/SG, Houston Rockets
Win Percentage Change: 6.5 percent worse
TPA With Houston Rockets: minus-32.01
Though it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking Lou Williams maintained his Sixth Man of the Year candidacy with the Houston Rockets because of his high-scoring exploits, his value dropped dramatically in his new digs.
Yes, Williams scored 14.9 points per game for Houston, but those came while he was shooting 38.6 percent from the field and 31.8 percent from downtown. His stroke dried up, leaving him shooting his team out of more games than the ones he single-handedly won.
"Up and down, probably not as consistent as I would like," Williams explained about his play late in the season, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. "It happens. It's part of the season. It's a long season. Overall I think I put together a pretty solid 82 games. You have stretches when you don't play well that you'd like to and you have stretches when you are incredible."
Shooting slumps do happen. They can even be palatable. But when they're taking place while a player continues to function as a defensive sieve, they're truly problematic.
Houston outscored opponents by 1.8 points per 100 possessions with Williams on the floor, which sounds great in a vacuum. However, the net rating skyrocketed to a whopping 9.3 without him—the more telling number, fully indicative of his two-way struggles upon leaving the Los Angeles Lakers.
Williams has begun to redeem himself during the playoffs, but it's an uphill battle.
Terrence Ross, SG/SF, Orlando Magic
Win Percentage Change: 4.8 percent worse
TPA With Orlando Magic: minus-19.61
The Terrence Ross era began with so much promise for the Orlando Magic, who received the swingman in return for Serge Ibaka in their deal with the Toronto Raptors.
During his second outing with the new organization, he torched the Atlanta Hawks for 24 points on 10-of-15 shooting from the field and a 4-of-7 showing from downtown. Better still, he contributed across the board and even made a sizable defensive impact in the blowout victory.
"Reduced to a reserve role playing behind DeMar DeRozan in Toronto, Ross never had much opportunity to 'let it fly.' Now in Frank Vogel's up-tempo, small-ball lineup, Ross has the green light. He's been aggressive and fearless every time he's touched the ball," Josh Cohen wrote for NBA.com after the standout showing against a superior Eastern squad.
But regression came quickly.
During Ross' next 22 outings, which took him to the end of his first campaign with the Magic, he averaged 11.9 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.8 assists. Worse still, he shot just 43.0 percent from the field, 33.3 percent from three-point territory and 83.3 percent at the line. His defense was just about average, and his spot in the lineup helped move Aaron Gordon back to his natural position at the 4, but the positive contributions were limited.
Ross is still only 26 years old and has plenty of athleticism, but any false impressions about his ceiling created by his first few performances in an Orlando uniform should now be cleared up. He's a solid rotation player—underrated, even—but he's not a star.
Bojan Bogdanovic, SG, Washington WIzards
Win Percentage Change: 6.3 percent worse
TPA With Washington Wizards: minus-31.68
Bojan Bogdanovic was tasked with fixing the Washington Wizards' putrid bench, and he did help. Though the team wasn't winning as frequently while he was on the roster, it was tough to let the blame fall entirely on his shoulders when he finally gave the second unit a legitimate offensive contributor.
After arriving in the nation's capital, Bogdanovic averaged 12.7 points, 3.1 rebounds and 0.8 assists while shooting 45.7 percent from the field, 39.1 percent from downtown and a scorching 93.4 percent from the stripe. Combined with an ability to minimize turnovers, that was enough to make him a positive on the scoring end.
Unfortunately, defense mattered, too.
Bogdanovic was an atrocious stopper off the Washington pine, and that's the primary reason the Wizards were still outscored by 1.5 points per 100 possessions when he played during the regular season. The defensive woes negated many of the offensive strides, though it's worth noting he was never acquired to be the team's all-encompassing bench panacea.
The swingman helped the offense, and his overall contributions left him well short of stardom. In other words, he did just about what was expected when Washington sent a lottery-protected first-round pick to the Brooklyn Nets for his services.
Buddy Hield, SG, Sacramento Kings
Win Percentage Change: 10.1 percent worse
TPA With Sacramento Kings: minus-21.56
This isn't about the trade itself. The Sacramento Kings still got ripped off, since Buddy Hield shouldn't be serving as the centerpiece of a deal for DeMarcus Cousins, no matter how tenuous the big man's relationship was with his former franchise.
All that matters is impact.
That's good news for the Kings, because while Hield didn't quite live up to the Stephen Curry comparisons made by his new team owner, he still shot the ball much better after getting a fresh start. Thrust into a featured role midway through his rookie campaign, the Oklahoma product upped all of his scoring numbers rather drastically:
|New Orleans Pelicans||8.6||15.1||39.2||36.9||87.9||50.2|
"He's sniffing 40 percent from deep, and has enough off-the-bounce juice to catch a swing pass and slice by defenders rushing to close out on him," ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote in early April. "That stuff alone makes Hield a useful NBA player. Incremental improvement at everything else would make him a solid starter. That would be a nice outcome."
The defense will likely never come around, but that's alright. Hield showed flashes of the upside that made him a late-developing lottery pick and proved he could handle a bigger load on offense. It didn't lead to many victories, but did anyone reasonably expect Sacramento's win percentage to improve after trading away Cousins for a deal centered around an unproven rookie?
Deron Williams, PG, Cleveland Cavaliers
Win Percentage Change: 29 percent worse
TPA With Cleveland Cavaliers: minus-43.83
Deron Williams was never acquired for the regular season, which makes it more difficult to judge him.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have reached a point in the Eastern Conference where they can afford to experiment during the first 82 games, trying different lineup combinations and set plays to figure out what works best for their inevitable playoff run. So while Williams was brought aboard to serve as the sorely needed playmaker, it wasn't too concerning that he struggled so immensely during his first handful of games in a Cleveland jersey.
But "too concerning" is different than "not concerning at all."
Williams made a substantial impact for Cleveland; it was just all negative until a one-off performance against the Miami Heat in which he scored 35 points. Take that game out of the equation, and he'd have played porous defense while averaging 6.1 points (on 44.3 percent shooting from the field and 38.6 percent from deep), 1.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists.
Just consider his minus-43.83 TPA with the Cavaliers, which does include the aforementioned outburst against Miami. Had that been his only score during the 2016-17 campaign, it would've left him sandwiched between Wade Baldwin IV and Rashad Vaughn on the league-wide leaderboard.
Still, Williams' presence was about the playoffs, and his performance thus far has been beyond reproach. In the first-round sweep of the Indiana Pacers, he scored 33 points on 13 field-goal attempts (a staggering 2.54 points per shot) and never turned the ball over.
Will it continue against tougher foes? That will determine how high his grade eventually rises, though for now, his regular-season work (C+) and playoff showings (A+) can average out as a B+.
P.J. Tucker, SF, Toronto Raptors
Win Percentage Change: 12.9 percent better
TPA With Toronto Raptors: 13.22
The Toronto Raptors acquired P.J. Tucker for two primary reasons: floor-spacing and defensive.
He fulfilled the first role with aplomb, shooting 40 percent from downtown during his 24 regular-season appearances with the Raptors. Considering he'd exhibited a strong gravitational pull in previous locations even with lesser percentages, that's been great news for Toronto.
But defense is still more important
Tucker gives the Raptors a tough-nosed defender who can slow down both small forwards and power forwards. He's a willing and able body on the glass who ends possessions when some players at his position wouldn't bother venturing into the paint. His versatility lets him switch through pick-and-rolls, sag off shooters and recover, pester ball-handlers and impact the proceedings in a multitude of ways. All in all, Toronto allowed nine fewer points per 100 possessions while he was on the floor during the regular season.
Even during the playoffs, when Tucker's offense fizzled, he maintained value by playing inspiring defense against the Milwaukee Bucks. That type of effort and leadership can be contagious, especially on a team that seems to need a jolt of energy every year when it first ventures into the postseason portion of the schedule.
Ibaka was the Raptors' most glamorous addition. But it's actually Tucker who has made the bigger impact.
DeMarcus Cousins, C, New Orleans Pelicans
Win Percentage Change: 3.6 percent better
TPA With New Orleans Pelicans: 57.42
DeMarcus Cousins' presence did improve the New Orleans Pelicans, even if he couldn't carry them into the playoffs. Don't be fooled by the losses that piled up at the beginning of his bayou-based tenure, since the big man eventually settled in and resumed playing like one of the league's best bigs.
All that should matter here is how he performed alongside Anthony Davis—and, to a lesser extent, Jrue Holiday, who could and should be brought back in free agency to continue forming the third leg of the New Orleans triumvirate.
It's great that Cousins put up big numbers for the Pelicans, averaging 24.4 points, 12.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.1 blocks while shooting 45.2 percent from the field, 37.5 percent from downtown and 77.7 percent on his free-throw attempts. It's encouraging that he was able to post 57.42 TPA with his new squad and finish the 2016-17 campaign with the No. 2 cumulative score among all players since 1973 who suited up for more than one team in a single season, trailing only 1994-95 Clyde Drexler.
But the best news of all is the 2.8 net rating New Orleans posted while both Cousins and Davis were the on the floor, which looks even better when compared to the season-long 1.7 net rating earned when Davis was playing. The offense needs significant work as both players learn how to move away from their favored left sides of the half-court set, but allowing just 99.6 points per 100 possessions already leaves them in elite territory. That mark, had it been maintained all year, would've paced the Association.
"I think we can build something special," Cousins said in late March, per NBA.com's Jim Eichenhofer. "Just stay positive, keep moving forward. At the end of the day, if we don't make the playoffs, we can still use this as an opportunity to learn one another and get better every game, to use this as a training camp before training camp."
This is a work in progress, but at least there are positive signs for the new era of New Orleans basketball.
Nerlens Noel, PF/C, Dallas Mavericks
Win Percentage Change: 3 percent better
TPA With Dallas Mavericks: 24.12
"We've all gotta learn how to throw lob passes," Harrison Barnes said after the debut of his new teammate, per Mavs.com's Bobby . "That's the biggest thing now."
Though Nerlens Noel and the rest of the Dallas Mavericks had to watch the playoffs from their couches, the big man made a substantial impact after he was acquired from the Philadelphia 76ers. Whether he was throwing down alley-oop slams, protecting the rim or rolling to the hoop after setting a pick, everything he did helped the Mavericks continue their second-half improvement and increase the long-term ceiling of the organization.
Of course, to maintain that ceiling, Dallas will have to re-sign Noel, who becomes a restricted free agent this offseason. But that's a story for another time. We're focused on what he's already done.
On March 7, I ranked the league's late-season additions by their projected impact, and Noel sat in the No. 2 spot, behind only DeMarcus Cousins. Based on his early work with the Mavericks and the portion of his season that came with the Sixers, he was expected to earn 19.1 TPA in his new uniform.
Despite missing three games due to injury, he still outpaced the projection by a solid margin. Thanks to his efficiency around the hoop, defensive impact (opponents shot 52.6 percent against him at the rim, but he contested a whopping 11.3 shots per 36 minutes) and willingness to do the little things, he made both himself and the Mavericks a bit better as he gained comfort operating alongside Barnes, Dirk Nowitzki and the rest of his new teammates.
Jusuf Nurkic, C, Portland Trail Blazers
Win Percentage Change: 21.7 percent better
TPA With Portland Trail Blazers: 31.77
It was a true tale of two seasons for Jusuf Nurkic.
With the Denver Nuggets, he was relegated to the bench after the early-season experimentations alongside Nikola Jokic didn't pan out. His attitude kept him from earning too many more chances, and a lack of conditioning and/or effort turned him into a plodding, relatively ineffective center. Though there were still flashes of upside, he looked nothing like the trash-talking breakout candidate he'd become in prior go-rounds.
After a midseason trade to the Portland Trail Blazers, everything changed.
Nurkic suddenly showcased passing skills he'd never unleashed in the Mile High City, often finding cutters with barely any room for the proper feeds. He thrived on defense, looking reinvigorated and active on that end at all times. And though turnovers and fouls curtailed some of his value, he made it clear that he could be considered a franchise centerpiece.
Sure, a minor fracture in his leg ended his regular season prematurely and eliminated much of the momentum he'd helped the Blazers earn as soon as he worked his way into the starting five. In his return against the Golden State Warriors in the postseason's opening round, he was far less effective and clearly limited.
But Rip City wouldn't have made the playoffs without Nurkic. He turned the season around, sprung up the league-wide center hierarchy and re-established himself as a dynamic prospect with an incredibly high ceiling.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.