Metrics 101: NBA's Worst Offseason Decisions by the Numbers
Not every offseason move works out in the NBA.
Teams misevaluate players all the time. They engage in unnecessary gambles. They intentionally take risks in pursuit of higher ceilings, knowing full well those ventures could backfire. They fall in love with flashy names, even when underlying numbers indicate the actual value of those players falls well shy of expectations.
Mistakes are inevitable, and the summer of 2018 has been no different.
We aren't using a sophisticated projection system to identify the following 10 misfires. The entries here, listed alphabetically by our chosen titles, reflect nothing more than this author's opinions.
Each of them, however, is steeped in numerical support indicating the move will push the respective organization further away from its primary goals.
Aaron Gordon Getting the Extension
The Orlando Magic found themselves caught in a pickle this summer with regard to Aaron Gordon. They could either pay him an exorbitant sum to keep him in Orlando or let him walk and treat the prior investment in his skills as a sunk cost.
Neither option would make for a guaranteed success story, but choosing to hand him a four-year, $76 million deal—even with a team-friendly declining structure—still creates a shaky investment that isn't likely to pay off.
The uber-athletic power forward has shown signs of breaking out in the past, most notably when he began the 2017-18 campaign knocking down triples with aplomb and looking the part of the wing-dwelling, new-age forward perennially envisioned by the Magic brass. But those signs have always been followed by extreme regression that leaves Gordon unable to fill the role into which he's been thrust.
The Arizona product did finish this latest season with a positive score in ESPN.com's real plus-minus, even earning above-average marks on each end of the floor. But he settled in at No. 21 among the 80 players who qualified as power forwards, sandwiched between Luc Mbah a Moute and Montrezl Harrell.
Gordon could continue to improve. He's won't celebrate his 23rd birthday until mid-September, and he's displayed tantalizing tools over the years. However, the Magic aren't building a roster that sets their most expensive investment up for success.
With Gordon joining recent lottery picks Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba, the frontcourt is crowded enough. Throw in Nikola Vucevic, and Gordon seems almost guaranteed to slide back into an uncomfortable fit at the 3 for some of his minutes. During his time there in 2017-18, he thrived on defense—Cleaning the Glass has him in the 98th percentile for points allowed per possession—but he struggled immensely on offense (6th percentile for points per possession).
He was still a net positive, but the fit is even shakier with the addition of Bamba, who can't provide the offense Vucevic does at this stage of his young career. And most importantly, the Magic are no longer paying Gordon to function as a one-way asset; stardom should be expected with his new hefty contract.
Atlanta Hawks Passing on Luka Doncic
Sure, the Atlanta Hawks landed a top-five-protected 2019 first-round pick from the Dallas Mavericks to move back in the draft and select Trae Young rather than Luka Doncic. But even if Young does pan out, Doncic is talented enough that he could make the Hawks regret their decision.
This is not a knock on Young. Even though he struggled to find his shot for much of summer league, he's a significant talent who could become a game-changing offensive force. This summer's action may have created some concerns, but it's by no means an indictment of his status as a top-five pick.
No, this is all about Doncic.
The 19-year-old became the youngest MVP in Euroleague history, led Real Madrid to a championship and earned Final Four MVP in the process. He did all of that while averaging 14.5 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.4 blocks and slashing 45.6/30.9/80.1. Even if you're concerned about that middle percentage, his step-back jumpers showed boundless upside, and he excelled in spot-up situations.
His advanced metrics are even more mind-blowing.
According to Nylon Calculus' Jacob Goldstein, Doncic had the Euroleague's second-best box plus/minus (6.9), trailing only CSKA Moscow's Kyle Hines (7.3). To put that in perspective, that would be the seventh-highest qualified BPM in the NBA, just ahead of Damian Lillard (6.7), Kyrie Irving (6.2) and Kyle Lowry (5.9). Factoring in playing time, Doncic's value over replacement player (2.31) also finished second in the Euroleague field, this time behind only Panathinaikos' Nick Calathes (2.34).
Goldstein isn't the only numbersmith with a pristine view of Doncic. Here's what ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton wrote in his predraft projections:
"Doncic is naturally No. 1, and his 5.8 projected wins above replacement player (WARP)—what we'd expect him to average over his first five seasons, discounting more distant ones to reward immediate returns—are in fact the most for any of the 800-plus players I've projected dating back to 2003. Doncic tops Anthony Davis (5.5) for that honor, though it's worth noting that I don't have a projection for LeBron James out of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School or Dwight Howard the following year."
Young was down at No. 3, with Pelton projecting him to tally 3.0 WARP during his first five seasons.
Chicago Bulls Committing to Jabari Parker
Jabari Parker's two-year, $40 million pact with the Chicago Bulls isn't completely disastrous, as it contains a second-year team option that removes much of the risk. But that financial commitment is still troubling for a team that's likely to slot him in as a small forward alongside Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr., not to mention in a rotation that also includes Bobby Portis and Robin Lopez.
Even in a context-independent vacuum, Parker hasn't proved worthy of such large payouts. He's on the wrong end of multiple ACL tears, has struggled to show his value on offense and has flat-out admitted that he isn't concerned about defense.
FiveThirtyEight's CARMELO projections peg Parker for 0.6 WARP during the 2018-19 campaign and 1.0 in 2019-20. Based on those projections, he's worth a total of $15.7 million during the next two seasons—a far cry from the $20 million he'll receive per year. Even though he's grading out as a slight offensive positive, his defensive porosity more than negates any of those gains.
And that's before we evaluate his fit within Chicago's schemes, as Bleacher Report's Dan Favale recently did while evaluating the biggest enduring hole for each of the NBA's 30 franchises:
"Parker will need to log a boatload of time at the 3 unless Chicago plans to marginalize a handful of its other incumbent bigs. And if his past small-forward reps are any indication, Parker isn't built for a wing's workload. Check out the Milwaukee Bucks' net ratings with him at the 3 (via Cleaning The Glass):
- 2014-15 (244 possessions): -9.4
- 2015-16 (404 possessions): -29.7
- 2016-17 (1,052 possessions): -2.8
- 2017-18 (24 possessions): -16.7
"Chicago is different than Milwaukee. That doesn't mean better. Functioning like a wing on offense won't be a problem for Parker. Small forwards will kill him at the other end. His arrival puts unnecessary strain on the more switchable Carter and even Markkanen."
Yes, this is only a de facto one-year deal with a chance at stretching to two seasons. But Parker doesn't figure to live up to his salary, could prevent the Bulls from creeping up the Eastern Conference leaderboard with his defensive woes and may hinder the development of the bigs around whom this franchise is currently building.
Chicago Bulls Matching Zach LaVine's Offer Sheet
We aren't quite done with Chicago.
When the Sacramento Kings and Zach LaVine came to terms on a four-year offer sheet worth a whopping $78 million, the Bulls couldn't let him walk, viewing him as a sunk cost from the Jimmy Butler trade the prior summer. Instead, Chicago doubled down and created an unnecessary financial liability.
Sure, the Bulls need to place competent scorers around Markkanen and Carter. But LaVine hasn't displayed enough consistency to earn this type of payday, especially since returning from his ACL tear. He has yet to post a positive BPM during any of his four NBA seasons, two of which have been shortened by injuries.
Returning to FiveThirtyEight's CARMELO projections might be painful after their pessimistic view of Parker, but they do help to clarify what to anticipate from LaVine. Below are both his past three years and the expectations over his new pact:
- 2015-16: minus-1.5 WARP
- 2016-17: minus-0.3 WARP
- 2017-18: minus-0.5 WARP
- 2018-19: 0.4 WARP
- 2019-20: 0.8 WARP (a projected career high)
- 2020-21: 0.7 WARP
- 2021-22: 0.7 WARP
To be clear, these are wins over replacement-level players, not league-average ones. He's still checking in with negative numbers, dragged down by his enduring status as a defensive traffic cone, but they're marginally better than what's expected from contributors who could be signed at any point during the year.
Add it all up, and LaVine is projected to be worth $27.8 million over the course of his four-year deal—significantly below the $78 million he'll actually bank. The Bulls dug this hole for themselves, as they were unwilling to admit they might've made a mistake by sloughing off Butler for a relatively meager return.
Continuing to Block Tyus Jones
Giving Derrick Rose $2.4 million to remain with the Minnesota Timberwolves isn't a problem in and of itself. He should prove worthy of that meager contract. Continuity should also serve him well after he suited up for three different organizations during the last two seasons.
But Rose's presence means Tyus Jones won't receive the minutes he deserves—minutes that could be used to aid Minnesota's cause in the brutal Western Conference postseason push.
Despite Jones' lack of national name recognition and Rose's proficiency putting up points (albeit often inefficiently), the former has been the superior player over the last calendar year.
During the regular season, the T-Wolves' net rating skyrocketed by 5.8 points per 100 possessions when Jones was on the floor. Meanwhile, it fell by 4.4 points per 100 possessions when Rose was playing. In the playoffs, Rose helped Minnesota's net rating rise from minus-14.4 when he was off the floor to minus-2.3 with him on it. But Jones, admittedly in far fewer minutes, fostered a gain from minus-11.2 to 2.6.
This isn't just the product of playing alongside superior teammates, either. ESPN.com's RPM, which seeks to negate those effects, pegged Jones at 4.78—the seventh-best mark among the 91 players classified as point guards. Rose sat far lower on the pecking order, checking in at No. 82 with a score of minus-3.59.
The gap between the two isn't quite that large. But Jones' defensive acumen is severely underrated, whereas many casual fans don't grasp the full detriment of Rose's ball-commandeering style and inadequacy on defense.
It also doesn't hurt that the less-ballyhooed floor general rarely turns the ball over. Cleaning the Glass puts his turnover percentage in the 67th percentile relative to position and his assist to usage ratio in the 82nd percentile, whereas the former MVP sits in the 48th and 54th percentiles, respectively.
None of this would be problematic if Minnesota was planning to use Jones as Jeff Teague's primary backup while handing Rose a more sporadic role. But the playoffs painted a far different picture, with the former nearly falling out of the rotation and playing 10 fewer minutes per game than the latter.
Firing Dwane Casey
Even if Dwane Casey hadn't been named Coach of the Year after the Toronto Raptors canned him, this would've been an ill-advised move. He was unabashedly brilliant throughout the 2017-18 campaign, teasing out pristine production from the Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan core while getting the entire roster to buy into an egalitarian system that maximized the production of both the starting five and the bench unit.
Sure, the Raptors fell apart in the playoffs yet again, but that occurred in conjunction with a deviation from the style they employed throughout the first 82 games. Perhaps the pressure of facing—and losing to—LeBron James for the umpteenth time was too great. Maybe the system wasn't perfectly suited for postseason play.
But that second concern should be mitigated by Toronto's willingness to engage in internal promotion, as new head coach Nick Nurse was the assistant responsible for making so many of the offensive changes. Additionally, the numbers show how drastically the style changed after the regular season ended.
Just look at the seismic shifts in a number of notable categories:
- Assist percentage: 59.0 in the regular season (No. 11); 56.0 in the playoffs (No. 9)
- Assist-to-turnover ratio: 1.82 in the regular season (No. 4); 1.56 in the playoffs (No. 11)
- Assist ratio: 18.1 in the regular season (No. 6); 16.9 in the playoffs (No. 9)
- Passes made per game: 300 in the regular season (No. 16); 270.9 in the playoffs (No. 6)
- Secondary assists per game: 3.3 in the regular season (No. 5); 2.9 in the playoffs (No. 4)
- Assist to pass percentage: 8.1 in the regular season (No. 10); 8.0 in the playoffs (No. 10)
- Isolation frequency: 5.9 percent in the regular season (No. 22); 7.4 percent in the playoffs (No. 13)
Each of those seven marks trended in the wrong direction. The Raptors were sloppier with their passes, didn't pass as frequently, threw passes that didn't lead to assists either directly or indirectly and began reverting to their ISO-heavy habits of yesteryears.
Part of that is on Casey. After all, he was ultimately responsible for his players' divergence from what had led to historic levels of success, failing to implement the discipline necessary to keep them playing to those strengths.
But this is also an indication that Toronto's regular-season exploits were by no means fluky, and those exploits led to third- and fifth-ranked finishes in offensive and defensive rating, respectively. His style and his supervision worked, and he never deserved to be the scapegoat for president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri.
Houston Rockets Shuffling Wings
Carmelo Anthony hasn't officially signed with the Houston Rockets, but that move might as well be a lock. Per ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski, he's just biding his time until he clears waivers after he completed a buyout with the Atlanta Hawks.
That acquisition shouldn't be calamitous for Houston, even if Anthony proves unwilling to accept a smaller role. And if his message to those who think he should come off the bench is any indication, as relayed through The Undefeated's Jemele Hill, he's going to prove unwilling:
“I know how to play this game of basketball. I've been playing it for a long time. When I feel like I'm ready to take that role, then I'll take that role. Only I know when it's best for me to take that role. I'm not going to do that in a situation where I still know my capabilities and what I can do. And at the end of the day, the people who really matter know my capabilities and what I can still do. You start getting to the media and debates, it's going to always be kind of back-and-forth."
Regardless, this acquisition alone isn't too troubling. It's only when we look at the overall shuffling of wings, which includes Anthony's impending arrival and the departures of Trevor Ariza (Phoenix Suns) and Luc Mbah a Moute (Los Angeles Clippers) that the Rockets' offseason seems to be pushing them into a tier well below the Golden State Warriors.
Teams often only get a single shot at taking down a dynasty, and the Rockets missed out on theirs when Chris Paul's hamstring betrayed him late in the Western Conference Finals. Now, they may not get another opportunity quite like the one squandered.
PJ Tucker is still in Houston, again set to play his physical brand of defense. But the Rockets struggled (relatively) when neither Ariza nor Mbah a Moute was on the floor. They posted a 4.87 net rating, per PBPStats.com, which was dragged down by a 110.9 defensive rating. Not only is that net rating well below their season-long mark of 8.5, but the defensive rating, which would've sat dead last in the league, isn't going to get better with minimized depth and Anthony's porous habits entering the fray.
Take solace in the continued positivity of the Rockets in those disadvantageous situations. But we aren't talking about this set of moves like it'll push Houston outside the realm of playoff contenders. We're worried about its status as a legitimate Golden State challenger, and even the most minor slippage can have massive ramifications in that conversation.
Inhibiting Lonzo Ball
Regardless of how you feel about the Los Angeles Lakers' decision to sign Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley, those moves likely won't have long-term consequences. They're all coming aboard on one-year contracts, and they shouldn't get too many minutes at the expense of the young purple-and-gold core.
"If the young holdover Lakers can't execute the way [LeBron] James needs, the incoming veteran Lakers will get more of the opportunities," Lakers.com's Kevin Ding wrote. "Lakers coach Luke Walton, [Magic] Johnson and [Rob] Pelinka are already saying no one but James is promised a starting spot."
This isn't too troubling with regard to Stephenson, McGee and Beasley, all of whom are built to fill more minor, specialized roles. But Rondo has a legitimate chance to win the starting nod from the get-go now that Lonzo Ball is spending the offseason recovering from knee surgery.
That could be quite problematic if he ends up inhibiting the development of a special talent at point guard.
Ball was far better as a rookie than his basic numbers might indicate. He struggled to find any shooting rhythm and never put up big scoring tallies, but his defensive brilliance and passing wizardry allowed him to make a significant impact all the same. Ball finished the year ranked 20th among point guards in ESPN.com's RPM, and his DRPM trailed only Dejounte Murray and Tyus Jones at the position.
Just as significantly, Rondo wasn't as stellar as his reputation might indicate. RPM had him grading out as a negative on both ends of the floor, and his overall score left him behind 43 other players classified as point guards, sandwiched between Jarrett Jack and Austin Rivers. As Grant Hughes made clear for Bleacher Report, a competition between Ball and Rondo shouldn't exist, particularly on defense:
"The on/off splits also favor Ball's defense. Los Angeles' defensive rating was 2.7 points better with Ball on the floor, whereas New Orleans' was 1.3 points worse when Rondo played.
"The 6'6" Ball is bigger and a better rebounder, and he projects as a superior switch option. The 6'1" Rondo is notorious for quitting when posted up by a larger opponent, and his consistent failure to fight over screens up top compromises his team's pick-and-roll defense. Rondo ranked in the 50th percentile as a pick-and-roll defender last year. Ball was in the 66th.
"It's damning for Rondo that Ball is already so clearly a superior defender.
"Rookies are supposed to get abused on D, but Ball's physical profile and high intelligence contributed to his positive impact on that end. It seems reasonable to assume there's growth ahead for Ball, and legitimate All-Defense production could arrive as soon as next year. Meanwhile, Rondo is entering his 13th season, having not played well on defense since roughly 2011."
Rondo earning minutes at Ball's expense wouldn't just inhibit Ball's development, preventing him from gaining chemistry alongside LeBron James and the other up-and-comers in Tinseltown. It would also make the team significantly worse, thus diminishing the appeal it needs for the big-name signings it covets in the summer of 2019.
Nemanja Bjelica the Small Forward
Don't be fooled by the Minnesota Timberwolves outscoring opponents when Nemanja Bjelica was slotted in as a small forward during the 2017-18 season. As Bleacher Report's Dan Favale explained, that was a fluke:
"The Timberwolves outscored opponents by 1.5 points per 100 possessions when he played the 3 last season, but that return is skewed toward the rosier side by intractable circumstances, according to Cleaning The Glass.
"Two outlier lineups buoyed Minnesota's plus-differential. One was made up of Karl-Anthony Towns and a bunch of bench players. Sacramento won't have that kind of safety net. The other is propped up by a 17-game stretch in which he replaced Jimmy Butler as the starting 3. That arrangement overachieved on defense—and still barely held up, allowing a so-so, at best, 108.4 points per 100 possessions. Almost every other Bjelica-at-the-3 iteration had defensive ratings north of 116."
This isn't going to stop Bjelica from trotting out at the 3 for the Sacramento Kings. He has to out of sheer necessity, as his new organization is already rostering Marvin Bagley III, Willie Cauley-Stein, Harry Giles, Kosta Koufos, Skal Labissiere and Zach Randolph as well. Some of those players might not carve out rotation roles, but they're bodies on the active roster all the same.
What's especially concerning, though, is that Sacramento is prioritizing the wrong ideas—a message sent loudly and clearly by signing a 30-year-old to play away from his natural position and provide floor-spacing acumen as his greatest enduring skill.
While teams can't have enough shooting in today's NBA, the Kings already made a number of moves geared toward shoring up the offense during the 2018 offseason. They drafted Bagley (an all-around scoring threat who was a less-than-inspired defender at Duke) and swapped Garrett Temple (a two-way contributor) for the enduring hope of Ben McLemore's offensive breakthrough (and Deyonta Daivs). Tripling down with Bjelica means taking too heavy-handed an approach toward fixing one end of the floor.
Tony Parker to the Charlotte Hornets
All good things must come to an end, but Tony Parker's NBA career is continuing to drag on. It'll now feature an entirely new chapter, one that places him in a Charlotte Hornets uniform, ready to serve as Kemba Walker's primary backup.
This isn't to say Parker should've retired. But it'll still make for an off-putting vision, especially when it becomes more evident just how far his game has fallen.
Parker has never developed a consistent three-point stroke throughout his lengthy NBA career, topping out over 40 percent during the 2014-15 and 2015-16 campaigns (on a combined 1.1 attempts per game) but declining quickly in the two seasons that followed. He's instead continued to rely on his fleetness of foot, darting past defenders for off-rhythm finishes in the paint or pull-up jumpers from mid-range zones.
But he was unable to create as much separation in 2017-18, which led to declining percentages in his patented ranges. His 47.9 percent shooting from inside the arc was his worst mark since his rookie season, and the Spurs correspondingly saw their net rating dip by 5.3 points per 100 possessions with him logging minutes—a product of both his diminished shot-creation skills and shoddy defensive work.
Still, why focus this much on a backup point guard, even one whose name carries as much cachet as Parker's?
Had he signed elsewhere, this likely would've been a relative non-issue. But the Hornets have struggled to get over the hump due in part to their dearth of talent behind Walker. When the speedy floor general took a seat last season, Charlotte was out of options, scoring 8.9 fewer points per 100 possessions. Said dip was nearly three times larger than that of any other rotation member in the Queen City.
Parker is now taking over as the primary backup, filling in for a departed Michael Carter-Williams and—to a lesser extent—Treveon Graham. Both of those players posted superior scores than Parker in RPM during the 2017-18 campaign and are projected by FiveThirtyEight's CARMELO model to earn more WARP.