Metrics 101: Ranking the Biggest NBA Offseason Moves so Far
Get excited about any additions your favorite NBA team has made during the 2018 offseason. Seriously. Do it, already!
This is the time of year for optimism. All incoming rookies are blank slates. New free-agency signings haven't yet done anything wrong in new jerseys. Upside reigns supreme, if only because no hard evidence points in other directions.
But after diving into the numbers and using them to inform our subjective order, we can safely say some offseason moves still project as more valuable than others.
As was the case in last year's edition of this countdown, 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. To be clear, that's "harder" but not impossible, which you'll see when two first-year contributors make appearances.
These 10 biggest moves are ranked by the on-court rises or falls expected from their teams as a direct result of the decisions.
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.
Plus, remaining positive this time of year is just more fun.
10. Nerlens Noel Gets Another Chance
Nerlens Noel's brief tenure with the Dallas Mavericks with filled with drama, relative ineffectiveness and plenty of time spent watching the action in warmups or street clothes. But a fresh start with the Oklahoma City Thunder, which comes on nothing more than the veteran's minimum, per NBA.com's David Aldridge, should allow him to regain his former luster.
This big man isn't going to slot into the starting five. He won't displace Steven Adams anytime soon (or ever), and his shooting limitations should prevent head coach Billy Donovan from deploying him at the 4 in a dual-center lineup. But the Thunder desperately needed a reliable rim-protector off the pine, and that's exactly what Noel gives them—along with wide-ranging defensive skills that allowed him to post a career-best 4.5 defensive box plus/minus in 2017-18 even while struggling to find a rhythm in his minimal run.
ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus told a similar story.
Noel's 2.36 DRPM allowed him to slot in at No. 29 throughout the league, leaving him behind only Andre Roberson (4.34) on the Oklahoma City roster. Up next from last year's crew? Dakari Johnson (2.1 in minimal time), Nick Collison (1.59 in 75 minutes) and Russell Westbrook (1.2).
Thoughts of Noel protecting the interior and switching onto pesky perimeter presences while surrounded by Roberson, Paul George and Westbrook (a shaky defender because of his gambles, but beneficial enough because of his remarkable athleticism) should be tantalizing. However, the bigger difference could come when Noel anchors bench units, as the Thunder's non-starters could only muster a 104.5 defensive rating in 2017-18 to sit at No. 13 in the overall hierarchy.
If that morphs into an elite mark, perhaps Donovan can rest his opening quintet more frequently and turn to a bench that played more minutes than only the Tom Thibodeau-helmed Minnesota Timberwolves last season.
Honorable Mentions: Marvin Bagley III to Sacramento Kings; Seth Curry to Portland Trail Blazers; Kyle O'Quinn to Indiana Pacers; Elfrid Payton to New Orleans Pelicans; Anthony Tolliver to Minnesota Timberwolves
9. Trevor Ariza Is a New Suns Mentor
Trevor Ariza's impact with the Phoenix Suns should go well beyond his on-court performance. The 33-year-old small forward is coming aboard on a one-year deal worth $15 million, per Yahoo Sports' Shams Charania, but that's not just so he can grace the desert-based organization with his three-and-D abilities.
This veteran is a battle-tested player who operates with constant energy, never gets down on himself and always accepts whatever role he's handed. He doesn't try forcing the action when his shot isn't falling. That mentality will be invaluable on the floor and in the locker room as he helps mentor Mikal Bridges, T.J. Warren, Josh Jackson, Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and the other youngsters attempting to guide this franchise back to respectability.
But that doesn't mean he'll be some sort of liability as a player.
Ariza isn't a true stud on either end, but he does enough damage as both a spot-up marksman and a perimeter stopper that he can fit into virtually any lineup combination. The Houston Rockets were 16.3 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor during the 2018 playoffs, and he should have another positive impact in Phoenix while trying to lift the Suns out of the 30th spot in both offensive and defensive rating—a truly dire combination that signals a need for across-the-board improvement.
Even if he declines on defense, doesn't learn how to dribble and settles in as a catch-and-shoot asset, Ariza should still aid the cause. He finished in the 73rd percentile for points per spot-up possession last year, and throughout the Phoenix roster, only Troy Daniels (97th percentile), Jared Dudley (92nd percentile) and Devin Booker (82nd percentile) topped that mark.
8. Philadelphia 76ers Trade for Wilson Chandler
First, let's get hypothetical.
The arrival of Wilson Chandler, who joined the Philadelphia 76ers in a salary-dump trade that also gave the franchise access to another second-round pick, could help with subsequent moves. As Bleacher Report's Dan Favale noted while breaking down the ongoing Kawhi Leonard saga:
"But having him on the roster does, in theory, make it easier for the Sixers to flip one or both of Robert Covington and Dario Saric in a potential Leonard blockbuster. Chandler can be moved around the perimeter in a similar fashion on defense, and his career 34.1 percent clip from downtown figures to improve beside the right mix of other floor-spacers."
And yet, Chandler doesn't need to help facilitate a Leonard arrival in order to justify the $12.8 million he'll make after opting into his contract with the Denver Nuggets and setting the stage for this swap. His positional flexibility alone should play marvelously under head coach Brett Brown, who can help maximize his defensive switchability and knack for capitalizing on offensive mismatches.
Statistically, Chandler doesn't always impress. He's coming off a season in which he averaged just 10.0 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.6 steals and 0.5 blocks while slashing 44.5/35.8/77.2. He sat at No. 43 among small forwards in ESPN.com's RPM and just outside the bottom 100 in NBA Math's TPA—hardly indicative of unabashed positive impact.
But all the same, the Nuggets were better with him on the floor.
That's the luxury of rostering a player willing to assume unglamorous responsibilities when he's not beating bigger contributors off the bounce and bullying smaller ones. Chandler might not shine in any one area, but his all-around proficiency opens up so many more opportunities for talented teammates—something Philadelphia has plenty of, regardless of the outcome in the ongoing Leonard pursuit.
7. Trading Up for Luka Doncic
Giving up a future first-round pick to move up two slots in the draft may seem like a hefty price, but adding Luka Doncic is worth it.
The Dallas Mavericks got their hands on a potential star who fits perfectly alongside Dennis Smith Jr. His size should make him easier to use defensively on the wings, and his ability to hit catch-and-shoot jumpers or serve as a primary facilitator should help expedite the development of Dallas' new core. With him, Smith, Harrison Barnes, Dirk Nowitzki and DeAndre Jordan, head coach Rick Carlisle will have all the necessary tools to get back into the playoff conversation.
Yes, even in the remarkably difficult Western Conference.
Doncic's initial projections don't actually look this favorable. FiveThirtyEight.com's CARMELO forecast has the incoming guard slated for minus-0.3 wins above replacement in 2018-19 before soaring to 0.9 in 2019-20 and 2.1 in 2020-21. But his playing style and experience might translate even quicker than expected.
While winning MVP at the sport's second-highest level, Doncic averaged 14.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.4 blocks for Real Madrid in EuroLeague play while shooting 45.0 percent from the field, 31.0 percent from downtown and 78.9 percent from the stripe. Don't be fooled by the mediocre percentages, though; Doncic was the subject of inordinate amounts of double teams and should deal with far less pressure when surrounded by NBA-caliber scorers.
And yet, the statistical analysis built by RealBallInsider.com's Jacob Goldstein shows that this 18-year-old uber prospect already finished No. 2 to Nick Calathes in value over replacement player throughout the EuroLeague field. He's ready for this transition, and he should make an immediate impact on the Mavericks.
6. A New Kentucky Pairing for the New Orleans Pelicans
The entire list of players last season who took at least 300 shots from within three feet, converted at no worse than a 70 percent clip and created at least 40 percent of their shots from that range?
Even though Randle is still developing moves while driving to his right and doesn't yet have three-point range—or much jump-shooting range at all, for that matter—his ability to take bigger players off the bounce and convert with either finesse or overpowering physicality around the basket allowed for major strides. He's a legitimate asset on the offensive end, and the combination of quick feet and strength makes him a defensive asset when paired with the right big.
Anthony Davis counts now that Randle is replacing DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo as the leading Kentucky cohort for the unibrowed ex-Wildcat. His rangy defense makes life easier for his running mates, and it doesn't hurt that he's now comfortable serving as a primary interior stopper.
Plus, Randle should immediately be comfortable as a change-of-pace player, as William Guillory detailed for NOLA.com:
"The Pelicans already had one of the fastest paces in the NBA with Cousins in the lineup, but it moved into warp speed after he went down, and Mirotic's ability to defend multiple positions and shoot from the perimeter allowed him to fit in seamlessly with Davis.
"But adding Randle to the mix will provide some of the paint presence New Orleans lost with Cousins' departure and a big man that's capable of grabbing defensive boards and running the floor to create opportunities in transition."
The Lakers were actually slower when Randle played, per PBPStats.com, but that doesn't mean this power forward is incapable of assuming Cousins' vacated role. You didn't have to watch many Los Angeles games to see him darting down the court and looking to set up his teammates in the fast-break game.
5. DeAndre Jordan to the Dallas Mavericks 2.0
What's the ideal type of big man to pair with Dirk Nowitzki?
Defensively, you need a strong rebounder who can prevent second-chance opportunities while holding down the fort as an interior anchor. Especially as the German 7-footer moves deeper into the twilight of his career, he should be minimizing the amount of banging done in the painted area, instead preserving his energy for spot-up opportunities on the scoring end.
Offensively, the Dallas Mavericks should be looking to pair him with a dominant roll man who can burst into the open space created by Nowitzki's perimeter-dwelling gravitational pull. More shooting would be great, but that's not as important as keeping a defense honest with rim-running.
Sound like anyone in particular?
If your answer was peak Tyson Chandler, that's valid. After all, the Mavericks last won a title when those two bigs were working in harmony during the 2010-11 season. But DeAndre Jordan is also a legitimate response, considering his ability to maintain his primary skills while gearing up for his age-30 season.
Now officially joining Dallas, Jordan is ready to catch lobs from Dennis Smith Jr. and Luka Doncic when he's not exerting himself defensively. He's a perfect fit, even in a slightly declined state.
Jordan allowing opponents to shoot 63.9 percent at the rim isn't exactly ideal, but his willingness to contest myriad opportunities is valuable. Despite that porosity around the basket, he still posted a positive score in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus and could bounce back in a system that doesn't attempt to funnel everything in his direction.
As a roll man, he's even better. Though he couldn't replicate 2016-17's 99th percentile finish for points per rolling possession (breaking news: Losing Chris Paul's set-up feeds is a big deal), he still sat in the 84th percentile. Couple that with extreme volume, and it's no wonder he remains a valuable offensive presence despite not having any shooting range.
4. Selecting Deandre Ayton
FiveThirtyEight.com's CARMELO model can again serve as a reality check, projecting Deandre Ayton to earn just minus-0.3 WAR during his first go-round with the Phoenix Suns. But those numbers are based on comparisons to other players with similar physical and statistical profiles; they don't account for improvement that can come when he's fully focused and playing in a system that maximizes his talents far better than the Arizona Wildcats ever could.
Summer league has already allowed him to showcase these tools. Through three games, the big man is playing only 25.8 minutes per contest but averaging 16.0 points, 11.0 rebounds, 0.3 assists and 1.0 blocks while shooting 66.7 percent from the field, per RealGM.com. Turnovers haven't been an issue, and his defense has already been better than expected—especially in a marquee matchup against Mohamed Bamba.
"That's a talent. That's a talent at 7'1" or whatever," first-year Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov said after the battle with the Orlando Magic, per Justin Spears of the Arizona Daily Star. "He blocks the shot, is a rim protector and runs the floor. That's a talent. That's why we have him, that's why we love him."
Ayton isn't going to require much adjustment time before going to work as a featured member of the Suns' attack. He should immediately slot in as the starting 5 and be handed plentiful touches to alleviate some of the offensive responsibility shouldered by Devin Booker.
He'll struggle at times; even the best rookies do. But this big man has the skills necessary to become an offensive prototype in today's NBA, buoying Phoenix with his combination of interior touch and shooting acumen on the perimeter. Moreover, his team has no reason to hold him back as he attempts to lead the charge out of the Western Conference basement.
Ayton alone won't get the Suns back into the playoff mix. The combined product of their offseason adventures probably won't, either.
But respectability is the first step, and he's ready to help them achieve that part of the rebuilding journey.
3. Pairing Tyreke Evans with Victor Oladipo
Tyreke Evans only has one season of pure, unadulterated excellence in recent years. Perhaps that's why the basketball-watching world has been so hesitant to view him as a player capable of making an All-Star impact going forward, just as he did during his lone go-round with the Memphis Grizzlies.
But Evans really was that good on Beale Street.
He finished with the league's No. 26 score in ESPN.com's RPM. Only 34 players wound up earning superior marks in NBA Math's TPA, though that number would've grown smaller still if he'd remained healthy throughout the year (or maybe not been shut down in a fit of caution by a team with no incentive to win games in the second half of 2017-18). Memphis even outscored its opponents by an additional 11.5 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor.
Why should we expect a drop-off now that he's teaming up with Victor Oladipo to lead the Indiana Pacers to an even loftier seed in the Eastern Conference?
The answer is simple: We shouldn't.
Evans is only 28 years old with a game just now blossoming. Benefited by newfound consistency from beyond the rainbow (43.8 percent with the Sacramento Kings in 2016-17 and 39.9 percent with even more volume for the Grizz), he's keeping defenders off balance before picking them apart with pull-up jumpers and physical drives to the hoop.
Wings already had trouble against Oladipo. Now, offense can come from more directions for a team that could have spacing at all five positions with the right lineup combinations.
Remember, Evans' breakout occurred while Mike Conley was hurt and Marc Gasol was playing like Father Time had taken hold of his career. Given the confidence he built as a primary option and the superiority of the Indiana running mates, we could see further improvements rather than regression back to his prior level.
2. Poaching Away DeMarcus Cousins
If these rankings were determined objectively such that we were seeing how the impact of each move stacked up throughout the entirety of the 2018-19 campaign, DeMarcus Cousins shocking the universe by joining the loaded Golden State Warriors would fall much lower down in the pecking order. But that's not what's happening throughout this article.
This all-world center may not debut until December or January as he rehabs the ruptured Achilles that prematurely ended his tenure with the New Orleans Pelicans. The Warriors, still in possession of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, have no need to rush him back and can instead be as patient as possible. For that reason alone, Cousins' impact is capped while he operates on this one-year deal with the defending champions.
Come playoff time, that all changes.
Imagine, if you will, that Cousins is fully healthy and ready to pick up where he left off—dominating as a high-usage center with a blend of physicality and finesse we haven't witnessed since Shaquille O'Neal. He can shoot threes. He can lead the break. He can function as a secondary hub from the blocks or elbows. He can even play solid interior defense when motivated and switch onto smaller players for brief spells.
In that scenario, Cousins would make the Warriors unfathomably unstoppable. You have to throw doubles at Cousins when he's rolling, but you can't exactly double off the plethora of sharpshooters at Golden State's disposal. If he buys into the ball-sharing schemes, he makes them even more dangerous still.
Per ESPN.com's RPM, Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert were the only 5s playing at higher levels in 2017-18. Now, that's getting added to four incumbent All-Stars still operating in their prime years, if his rehab goes smoothly.
Good luck, NBA.
1. LABron James
Was there any doubt?
LeBron James might be entering his 16th professional season, well past the point at which mere mortals begin undergoing steep declines, but he's also playing arguably the best basketball of his career. Forget about the regular season. During the playoffs, he averaged a scorching 34.0 points, 9.1 rebounds, 9.0 assists while slashing 53.9/34.2/74.6 and willing the Cleveland Cavaliers into a battle with the Golden State Warriors for the umpteenth time.
Despite having so much mileage, he led the entire field in minutes played, player efficiency rating, win shares, win shares per 48 minutes, box plus/minus and value over replacement player. Though Kevin Durant emerged with Finals MVP, James was unquestionably the NBA's leading figure, as has been the case at so many different points throughout his illustrious career.
Precedent might dictate an upcoming drop-off, but James is an unprecedented player. FiveThirtyEight.com's CARMELO forecast, for example, has him falling to 11.5 WAR—higher than the 2017-18 efforts of Durant (7.1), Stephen Curry (8.1), Giannis Antetokounmpo (9.2) and almost everyone else. He may still be the league's best player moving forward, mind-numbing as that may seem.
Now, those talents will benefit the Los Angeles Lakers.
James alone pushes the Purple and Gold from the lottery to postseason contention in the brutal Western Conference, even though the team's subsequent signings (Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and JaVale McGee) haven't done much to facilitate that rise. But we also can't overlook the impact he might have on the growth of incumbent youngsters such as Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball.
Some players have struggled to coexist with James. He's not an easy figure to thrive alongside, given his ball dominance and constant quest for perfection. But those who do accept their roles will benefit from the attention he always draws and potentially grow into even more valuable pieces.