Metrics 101: Ranking the NBA's Top 10 Free Agents This Summer

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistApril 10, 2018

Metrics 101: Ranking the NBA's Top 10 Free Agents This Summer

0 of 10

    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Whether your favorite NBA team is set to embark on a playoff run and chase after the Larry O'Brien Trophy or is gearing up for an offseason spent with Ping-Pong balls and lottery picks, you can already start looking forward to free agency. And this summer's class is loaded with high-level talents and huge names, so feel free to dream big. 

    But based on their levels of performance throughout the 2017-18 campaign and their current status in the ceaseless battle with Father Time, who's going to sit atop the crop? 

    To objectively determine the standings, we're turning to a modified version of the formula for Player Score used in previous articles.

    For every player in the NBA who's logged even a single minute during 2017-18, we pulled scores in four different overarching metrics: NBA Math's total points added (TPA), ESPN.com's real plus/minus wins (RPM Wins), player efficiency rating (PER) and win shares (WS). The first two look at volume/efficiency combinations, while the third focuses on per-possession effectiveness and favors offensive production. The fourth element rewards those whose individual merits lead to more victories. Volume and time on the court matter more than they might in other evaluations.

    This time around, we also included current age as a fifth metric. Older players are less valuable in free agency than their younger counterparts, though some exceptions obviously still exist. 

    To standardize five numbers that operate on drastically different scales, we found the z-scores in each category and summed them to find a player's total score. The cumulative z-scores are all that matter for these selections, which focus entirely on work during this season.

10. Derrick Favors, PF, Utah Jazz: 4.51

1 of 10

    Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

    Age: 26

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.0 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 100.72 TPA, 18.5 PER, 7.6 WS, 4.17 RPM Wins

    Derrick Favors hasn't received too much attention during the Utah Jazz's climb up the Western Conference standings. Headlines are reserved for standout rookie Donovan Mitchell, Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert and plenty of other storylines. Joe Ingles keeps thriving, while Ricky Rubio has discovered how to shoot the basketball, as two of many examples. 

    But quietly, this 26-year-old big man has continued to play strong basketball on both ends of the floor.

    After operating with a bum leg for much of the 2016-17 campaign, Favors is now showcasing the explosion that once made him such an intriguing prospect. A staggering 22.8 percent of his field-goal attempts have been dunks, which is now the highest mark of his professional career and reminiscent of his early-rookie-year efforts for the New Jersey Nets. He's even blocking more shots per 36 minutes and putting some spring on display around the painted area. 

    Favors' untapped superstar potential is pretty much dried up at this point, but that's fine. He's become a valuable veteran who rarely makes mistakes on either end, and his efficiency and two-way prowess allow him to blend in with myriad lineup combinations. 

    Whether the power forward's price tag rises too high for the Jazz or he re-signs to stay in Salt Lake City, Favors should continue to fly under the radar and subtly make his team better all the while. 

    Honorable Mentions: Tyreke Evans, SG/SF, Memphis Grizzlies (4.09); Julius Randle, PF, Los Angeles Lakers (4.45); Fred VanVleet, PG, Toronto Raptors (4.1)

9. DeAndre Jordan, C, Los Angeles Clippers: 5.68

2 of 10

    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Age: 29

    Type of Free Agency: Player Option

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.2 points, 15.3 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.9 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 112.35 TPA, 20.2 PER, 9.3 WS, 6.29 RPM Wins

    Age doesn't exactly work in DeAndre Jordan's favor. 

    The explosive center will celebrate his 30th birthday this summer, which should serve as an orange flag—not quite a fully red one—for organizations looking to hand him a long-term contract. Big men with games wholly predicated on superior athletic abilities don't always age well, and Jordan's eventual near-max salary could become an albatross as he moves toward the back end of his next deal. 

    But right now, he's still an asset to any team.

    Jordan was a quality interior defender for the Los Angeles Clippers throughout 2017-18, earning a distinctly positive score in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus and capably cleaning the glass as he tracks toward more than 15 rebounds per game. And even without Chris Paul throwing him lobs, he's remained such an effective pick-and-roll finisher that his 1.28 points per rolling possession leave him in the 83rd percentile

    Nevertheless, signs of the inevitable decline do exist.

    Just compare his marks in the two aforementioned metrics over the last pair of seasons, and the downward trend already becomes obvious. Jordan's DRPM fell from 3.44 to 1.65, and he sat in the top percentile as a roll man during his last go-round alongside Paul. Even if he's still playing at a high level, he's not the fringe All-NBA candidate he was in the past—perhaps at least partially a reflection on the diminishing quality of his teammates. 

8. Kyle Anderson, SF/PF, San Antonio Spurs: 5.68

3 of 10

    Mark Sobhani/Getty Images

    Age: 24

    Type of Free Agency: Restricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 7.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.8 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 157.02 TPA, 15.8 PER, 6.0 WS, 7.0 RPM Wins

    Kyle Anderson doesn't play a glamorous game. He often seems like he's fighting through molasses on the court while other players operate in warp speed. His per-game numbers—the scoring average, in particular—don't give the feel of a star-level talent. 

    And that's fine. 

    Just like Otto Porter Jr. and Joe Ingles before him, Anderson is going to get flat-out paid on the back of his sterling advanced metrics and ability to do all the little things well. Now that he's learned how to take and make the right shots while serving as a secondary facilitator for the San Antonio Spurs, he's not too much of an offensive liability to negate his superb work on defense. 

    Only 15 players sit ahead of Anderson in ESPN.com's DRPM, and just three—Andre Roberson, Robert Covington and teammate Dejounte Murray—have a superior score while listed at point guard, shooting guard or small forward. Similarly, NBA Math's defensive points saved has just three players toppling Anderson, and two of them get a significant bonus from their numbers on the defensive glass.

    The Spurs, who are usually so deep and well-coached that they minimize individual on/off effects, allow two fewer points per 100 possessions with this UCLA product on the floor—the second-best mark among rotation members behind only Murray. 

    Anderson has become a veritable defensive ace, perfectly positioning himself on every possession before using his lanky arms to disrupt the action. He's been to the San Antonio stopping unit what LaMarcus Aldridge has been to the offense in 2017-18, and he should get to cash in shortly. 

7. DeMarcus Cousins, C, New Orleans Pelicans: 6.08

4 of 10

    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    Age: 27

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.6 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 196.39 TPA, 22.6 PER, 4.6 WS, 8.25 RPM Wins

    Had DeMarcus Cousins remained healthy, he likely would've moved up these rankings. But now that he's recovering from an Achilles rupture as he starts to move away from his true athletic prime, he's a far more risky investment for teams seeking impact through free agency.

    The New Orleans Pelicans should remain the primary suitor for this 27-year-old center, given how well he was working with Anthony Davis before the brutal injury removed him from action for the rest of the season. In his last 10 games before going down against the Houston Rockets on Jan. 26, he helped earn an 8.9 net rating alongside his primary frontcourt mate, per PBPStats.com

    Of course, other teams will certainly come calling. Cap-rich organizations like the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls could make bids, while contenders could try convincing him to accept a discounted salary for a shot at his first playoff appearance. But they'll all be doing so with full knowledge they're assuming a monumental risk. 

    Returning from an Achilles tear is tough for any player, much less a physical behemoth of a center who's likely going to celebrate his 30th birthday while on his next contract. Getting back to All-NBA form is far from guaranteed, and that concern doesn't even take into account Cousins' status as a perennial lottery finisher who hasn't always played nice with teammates and coaching staffs. 

    Don't be shocked when he has to accept something slightly less than a max deal to mitigate some of these worries. And for the record, the returning-from-injury concern is far more meaningful than any overblown attitude apprehensions, no matter how much attention those might receive. 

6. Paul George, SG/SF, Oklahoma City Thunder: 7.04

5 of 10

    Sean Gardner/Getty Images

    Age: 27

    Type of Free Agency: Player Option

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 21.6 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.5 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 136.21 TPA, 18.4 PER, 8.4 WS, 10.58 RPM Wins

    As relayed by ESPN.com's Royce Young in early April, Paul George sure sounds like a player who wants to stay put, even if he'd be doing so by opting out of his current contract and hitting the open market as an unrestricted free agent before re-signing with the Oklahoma City Thunder: 

    "I can see myself being here. I've been happy here, I've been happy with the organization, happy with my teammates. Our record is not what we want it to be, but I think I've enjoyed just learning and being around these guys. So my answer is still the same. I'm not going to let the playoffs or how we finish this season persuade or indicate where I'm going to this offseason. I'm going to put everything into this and again, I can definitely see myself being here."

    And yet, nothing feels guaranteed

    George has continuously said and done the right things since joining the Thunder, and it's genuinely seemed as if he's created a strong bond with point guard Russell Westbrook. But the Los Angeles Lakers are still going to come calling, offering a chance to return to his home state and lead the charge for an up-and-coming squad. So too will other organizations—maybe the Philadelphia 76ers, assuming they can't land LeBron James

    Whatever his final decision may be, George has earned these overtures. Changing locations hasn't prevented him from functioning as an elite wing defender who can knock in a plethora of three-point buckets. Wearing a new uniform hasn't stopped him from looking the part of a go-to scorer capable of single-handedly altering a night's proceedings. 

    George remains a two-way star, and he's only just starting to move away from that true athletic prime we so often see at 26 and 27.  

5. Clint Capela, C, Houston Rockets: 7.88

6 of 10

    Bill Baptist/Getty Images

    Age: 23

    Type of Free Agency: Restricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.9 points, 10.8 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.9 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 122.79 TPA, 24.5 PER, 10.1 WS, 6.6 RPM Wins

    Though Paul George is the established star, Clint Capela has one portion of his resume working distinctly in his advantage: age. 

    During his breakout season for the Houston Rockets, he's already played like he's deserving of a max contract, and he's still just 23 years old. Whoever ponies up for his next pact—probably the Rockets—can do so with confidence that he'll either continue operating at this impressive level or make further strides toward becoming one of the game's truly elite centers.

    After all, take a gander at the exclusive list of other 5s to earn at least 10 win shares during their age-23 seasons throughout NBA history: 

    • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
    • Walt Bellamy
    • Wilt Chamberlain
    • Dave Cowens
    • Alex Groza
    • Al Horford
    • Dwight Howard
    • Neil Johnston
    • Ed Macauley
    • Moses Malone
    • Bob McAdoo
    • Yao Ming
    • Bill Russell
    • Wes Unseld

    If you dropped those names into a hat, you'd have a better chance at picking a legendary figure than not. And if you came up with one of the lesser inclusions, he'd still be a multi-time All-Star (Groza, who had one All-Star appearance in two professional seasons, is the lone exception). 

    That's the type of company Capela is keeping these days as he leads the league in field-goal percentage, thrives as an athletic roll man and makes monumental improvements on defense. 

4. Chris Paul, PG, Houston Rockets: 8.71

7 of 10

    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Age: 32

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 18.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 7.9 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.2 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 258.91 TPA, 24.2 PER, 9.9 WS, 11.09 RPM Wins

    He's not considered an MVP candidate because injuries took away too many opportunities, but Chris Paul sits atop the leaderboard for ESPN.com's real plus/minus, narrowly edging out teammate James Harden and Western Conference rival Stephen Curry. He's not thought of as the Houston Rockets' best player, but the team's net rating declines by 7.9 points per 100 possessions when he leaves the floor—more than double Harden's change of 3.5. 

    Though various maladies have marred Paul's season, he's looked like one of the NBA's most dominant forces when in working order. Already among the greatest point guards in NBA history, he should now be making you wonder what astronomical heights he might have reached if granted the luxury of playing under Houston head coach Mike D'Antoni during his prime years. 

    But his success should also give you faith that he can stave off Father Time far better than most floor generals, since the position's leading stalwarts typically undergo stark declines upon entering their 30s. Paul is "only" 32 and already looking like one of the exceptions with his continued excellence on both ends of the floor. 

    Chances are good he doesn't leave the Rockets, though a number of teams can, will and should make their acquisition desires known. He's fit perfectly in D'Antoni's run-and-gun system, freed up to fire away early in the shot clock but also break the rhythm of the offense with the occasional probing mid-range attempt. Paul just doesn't make mistakes, and he's now getting opportunities to make more positive plays, even while sharing the court with Harden. 

    In other words, the Point God remains the Point God. 

3. Kevin Durant, SF/PF, Golden State Warriors: 9.45

8 of 10

    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Age: 29

    Type of Free Agency: Player Option

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats26.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.8 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 276.32 TPA, 26.2 PER, 10.5 WS, 9.08 RPM Wins

    View this placement with more than a few grains of salt. 

    We're remaining entirely objective by trusting the numbers, which place Kevin Durant behind two members of the 2018 free-agency class. But for all intents and purposes, we can subjectively consider him bumped up to the second spot, since two pieces of contextual evidence explain why his score is lower than a certain up-and-coming member of another Western Conference outfit. 

    Whereas our No. 2 finisher is only 23 years old and benefits from that youth, Durant is going to enter his 30s in late September, just before the onset of the 2018-19 campaign. But while his age is objectively held against him here, he has the technical skills, shooting touch and feel for the game necessary to remain effective well into the next decade of his life. That relatively advanced number shouldn't have as large a negative impact for him as it does for others (he missed significant time just once in 2014-15). 

    Secondly, Durant missed 14 games this season, which hurts his scores rather substantially in our volume-based metrics: TPA, WS and RPM Wins. If we assume he would've performed at the exact same level while achieving perfect attendance, his score in our analysis would rise to 11.53. And if we remove the age factor, he'd then supplant our current No. 2, 12.23 to 11.7.

    See? I wasn't kidding when I said the placement was entirely explained away by two different pieces of context. 

    Fortunately for the Golden State Warriors, this is all irrelevant. Durant is ostensibly a member of the 2018 free-agency class since he can opt out of his deal and sign a long-term contract if he so desires, but he isn't leaving Oakland. Even if he does turn down the player option, he'll be doing so to restructure with the Dubs and continue what he started in the summer of 2016. 

2. Nikola Jokic, C, Denver Nuggets: 12.72

9 of 10

    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Age: 23

    Type of Free Agency: Team Option

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 18.3 points, 10.6 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.8 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 333.21 TPA, 24.4 PER, 10.3 WS, 12.74 RPM Wins

    At this point, you shouldn't doubt that Nikola Jokic is one of the NBA's elite centers. He's carried the Denver Nuggets to the brink of the playoffs in the brutal Western Conference, submits gaudy box-score numbers on a nightly basis and plays better-than-advertised defense. 

    Cue Ben Falk of Cleaning the Glass

    "Jokic's critics are right: he does have real deficiencies. Denver's eFG% defense has been really bad with Jokic in the game, hasn't gotten much worse when he sits. The Nuggets have also forced many fewer turnovers with their big man playing.

    "But it turns out that those issues are outweighed by the things he does really well: prevent shots at the rim and rebound through size and positioning, all without fouling."

    Falk contains plenty of statistical proof that the defensive concerns surrounding Jokic are largely hyperbolic. But everything can be summarized in a simple statement: The big man struggles at the point of attack and protecting against the shots that do occur at the rim, and we're not used to paying mind to the areas in which he excels because they happen away from the primary action. 

    In an attempt to negate the actual flaws, the Denver Nuggets will continue trying to surround him with the right pieces. His free agency isn't going to be a dramatic affair. The front office will inevitably turn down his team option to avoid letting him hit unrestricted free agency in 2019, then immediately offer him a max contract before he has a chance to sign an offer sheet with a different franchise. 

    Boom. The 23-year-old center will be locked up throughout the foreseeable future, ready to continue passing both the eye test and any metric-based evaluations. 

1. LeBron James, SF, Cleveland Cavaliers: 15.41

10 of 10

    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    Age: 33

    Type of Free Agency: Player Option

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 27.7 points, 8.7 rebounds, 9.2 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.9 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 589.57 TPA, 28.6 PER, 13.8 WS, 14.02 RPM Wins

    Age can't bring LeBron James down. 

    He's the oldest of our top 10 free agents, but he's been so marvelous for the Cleveland Cavaliers that he's still the No. 1 finisher with room to spare. That's what happens when you lead the NBA in TPA, trail just James Harden and Anthony Davis in PER (among qualified players), accumulate more win shares than everyone but Harden and sit behind only Harden and Russell Westbrook in RPM Wins. 

    James might be 33 years old, but he's doing things he's never done in his NBA tenure. His rebounding and assist averages are career highs. He's tracking toward the first 82-game season of his professional life. He's putting up triple-doubles more frequently than ever. The highlights just won't stop coming. 

    Perhaps he'll decline by the end of his next contract, though even that's unlikely while he keeps signing short deals with opt-out clauses to maintain financial upside and roster flexibility. That won't stop every team from coveting his services and understanding that the extreme value he provides in the near future will make up for whatever happens on the back end. 

    Will James stay with the Cavaliers? Will he team up with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid on the Philadelphia 76ers? Are we ready to see him thrive alongside Harden and Chris Paul as a member of the Houston Rockets? Could he begin a new era of Los Angeles Lakers basketball? 

    That's a conversation mired in uncertainty. This one isn't. 

    James is the leading member of this free-agency class. Period. End of story. 

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball Reference, NBA.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com and are current heading into games April 9.