Saturday, January 28, 2017

Introducing Net Differential Part II: Evaluating NBA Teams

In Part I, I introduced net differential as a new tool for evaluating the NBA. Net differential is the difference between how an NBA team performs with a player on court and how it performs with that player out of the game. I'm going alphabetically through the entire league. Part I included Atlanta through Cleveland. This post will look at Dallas through Indiana. All numbers are current prior to Friday's games.

Net differential is the difference between a player's on court net rating and the player's off court net rating. On court net is a lineup-influenced stat while off court net is completely isolated to the individual player. In cases where the player has either a small on court or off court sample, net differential becomes less useful. It is optimal when the player has at least 1000 minutes on and off court. For this reason, net differential is listed only for players with at least 300 minutes on court. All numbers are current as of Thursday's games.

Dallas Mavericks

The Rajon Rondo trade will haunt the Mavericks for years to come. According to, Justin Anderson was the first Dallas rookie since Josh Howard, drafted in 2003, to receive significant minutes in the playoffs. It has become obvious in retrospect that Dallas had no idea what it had in Jae Crowder. Part I detailed how Crowder, not Isaiah Thomas, has become the Celtics' most indispensable player in terms of net differential. The Celtics are 11 points better with Crowder on court compared to when he's on the bench. They're less than a point better with Thomas on court.

In looking at Dallas' net differential numbers as of Friday morning, it appears that a full-blown youth movement is what's needed. Dirk Nowitzki has performed poorly in the few minutes he's been available and Wes Matthews is the Mavericks' worst performer in net differential. Dallas is 8.3 points per 100 possessions better with Matthews on the bench than with Matthews on the floor.

Joining Matthews at the bottom of the net differential rankings is Anderson. The Mavs are 8.2 points per 100 possessions worse with Anderson on court compared to how the team performs when he's out of the game. On the bright side, Seth Curry and Dorian Finney-Smith have been remarkable and Salah Mejri has made a positive impact in limited minutes. Andrew Bogut has also been a positive contributor but has played fewer than 600 minutes.

Deron Williams and Harrison Barnes are hanging right around zero, which isn't bad. But Dwight Powell, the only thing Dallas has to show for giving away Crowder and a first round pick to Boston, is -2.1 in net differential compared to Crowder's +11.1. J.J. Barea has been a positive, but again he's played fewer than 500 minutes. The Mavs simply aren't getting enough out of an aging core and it's time to move on. If Mark Cuban think he can turn a core of Barnes, Williams and Matthews into a contending team, he's sadly mistaken.

Denver Nuggets

The first thing net differential tells us about the Nuggets is that they should get Arturas Karnisovas signed to a long-term contract immediately. Huh? According to Denver Stiffs, Nikola Jokic was in advanced talks to sign with Barcelona before Karnisovas swooped in to convince him to move to the NBA. That's a franchise-altering win for Denver. The Nuggets are +12 per 100 possessions with Jokic on court compared to when he's on the bench. That's almost twice as good as the next-best Nugget, Danillo Galinari, who is +6.3.

Joining them on the plus side of the list is Gary Harris, who has turned into the biggest steal of the 2014 NBA Draft outside of Rodney Hood. Harris is +6.1 in net differential, which ranks third for the Nuggets, just behind Gallinari. The biggest surprise for Denver is that, in almost identical minutes, Jameer Nelson is +4.6 while Emmanuel Mudiay is a staggering -9.1.

Denver's good fortune with the draft continues with Jamal Murray, currently +2.7 in net differential in almost 900 minutes. This makes Murray one of the top performers among rookies in net differential. Fellow rookie Juancho Hernangomez has been less successful, posting a -6.7 net differential in a limited 318 minute sample.

Between Wilson Chandler and Gallinari, the latter is clearly the keeper. Chandler is -3 while Kenneth Faried is -3.7. If Denver can get significant assets for Chandler and Faried, the team should seriously consider it. Another player who has been in trade rumors recently is Jusuf Nurkic, who has been an absolute disaster. The Nuggets are 11.1 points per 100 better with Nurkic on the bench, making him the anti Jokic. If Denver can get something for Nurkic despite how poorly he's played this season, they'd be insane not to consider it.

Mudiay is only a second-year player so he could still develop into a positive contributor. But the Nuggets should build around Jokic, retain Gallinari and have a Plan B in place if Mudiay isn't significantly better by next season when Nelson will be playing on an expiring contract.

Detroit Pistons

The first thing to note about the Pistons and net differential is that Detroit is a staggering 10.5 points per 100 possessions better with franchise player Andre Drummond on the bench. Joining him in the bottom three is Tobias Harris and Reggie Jackson. This means the Pistons' three highest-paid players are its three worst players in net differential. This is a complete disaster.

All of the Pistons on the plus side of net differential are relative bargains. Some may have scoffed when Detroit signed Jon Leuer to a four-year contract at about $10 million per season, fully guaranteed. But the Pistons are 9.3 points per 100 better with Leuer on the floor, a team-best. And this isn't a small sample ... he's played almost 1100 minutes.

Pistons owner Tom Gores has been quoted as saying he's willing to go into the luxury tax to retain shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. This is the right approach as Caldwell-Pope is +5.2 in net differential, third on the team. Detroit made the right move by signing Boban Marjanovic to a three-year deal at $7 million per. Marjanovic has yet to play 300 minutes this season, but the Pistons' front office knew it would have little chance of retaining Aron Baynes after this season. Baynes has a $6.5 million player option he will almost certainly decline to enter unrestricted free agency this summer. He's second on the team in net differential at +7.2.

In contrast to Jackson, Ish Smith has been outstanding at +3.6. Detroit's front office will never get what it would want in exchange for Drummond and Harris has little trade value. The Pistons must hope to find a taker for Jackson and look for an upgrade at point guard. Detroit could still claw its way into the seventh or eighth seed, only to likely get swept by the Cavaliers or Raptors. But the Pistons are much more likely to find the pieces they need at a price they can afford in the lottery.

Golden State Warriors

One glance at net differential for the Warriors shows Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green at the top of the list, right where you'd expect them. Zaza Pachulia is probably the poster boy for how on court ratings can be influenced by teammates. But not so fast. Pachulia has the best defensive rating on the team. The Warriors allow only 99.4 points per 100 with Pachulia on court and are 2.4 points per 100 worse defensively with Pachulia on the bench.

Interestingly JaVale McGee, in a small 336-minute sample, is the only other Warrior with a positive net differential at +1. Andre Iguodala is right at zero while David West is slightly under water at -2.1 in 484 minutes. Guards Shaun Livingston, Ian Clark and Pat McCaw are all deep in the negative.

Facing the prospect of super max contracts for Curry and Durant, it's fair to wonder how the Warriors will be able to stock their bench next season. Losing Iguodala would be a major blow. But Pachulia has significantly raised his value with his play this season and will command a substantial raise on the open market. West will be a year older next season which could mean a substantially-increased role for McGee if they're able to retain him on the cheap.

I wouldn't expect much in the way of moves at the trade deadline for Golden State since eight expiring contracts actually helps them clear as much cap space as possible for the forthcoming blockbuster deals. The Warriors must hope for more bargains late in the draft like Green and hope that McCaw develops into a viable replacement for Livingston.

Houston Rockets

The Rockets have a very balanced roster without any major discrepancies in net differential. Only two players on the roster -- second year forward Sam Dekker (-5.1) and third year center Clint Capela (-5.4) -- rate in the negative. Capela was counted on the replace the departed Dwight Howard at center, but the Rockets are surrendering a team-worst 109.3 points per 100 possessions with Capela on court. Dekker is effectively a rookie after back issues limited him to a handful of minutes last season.

Meanwhile the Rockets are getting good minutes in a limited role from Nene. Another bright spot has been the play of second year forward Montrezl Harrell. His +3.3 net differential through Thursday's games ranks fourth on the team. Corey Brewer's name has come up in trade rumors and he's a solid +3. He's not thought to have much trade value but he certainly hasn't hurt the Rockets in his 774 minutes.

Mike D'Antoni's system appears to be an ideal fit for James Harden. Every significant rotation player is under contract at least through next season except for Nene. But the Rockets don't really have any significant trade assets to pull off a deal that would improve them beyond where they currently sit with the NBA's third best record. As good as Houston has been, if they make it past a likely second round match-up with the Spurs and beat probable Western Conference Finals opponent Golden State, they will have absolutely earned a spot in the Finals. That's as tough a road as it gets.

Indiana Pacers

With a net differential of +9.8, Paul George is about where you'd expect him to be. What's surprising is that Myles Turner towers above him with a team-leading +12.5. Jeff Teague has performed well for the Pacers, but George Hill's spectacular play for the Jazz will leave some second guessing the trade that brought him home to Indiana. Thaddeus Young has also proven to be an excellent pickup resulting from an offseason trade with the Nets. C.J. Miles has proven to be a huge bargain which could make retaining him past this season difficult.

But it's the edges of the rotation where the Pacers have problems. Next season will be make-or-break for Indiana as it's the last season of George's contract before a player option he will almost certainly decline for 2018-19. Unfortunately, the Pacers are locked into two contracts through next season for players that aren't making the team better: Monta Ellis and Al Jefferson. Ellis hasn't been terrible, sitting right in the middle of the roster with a +0.3 net differential. But Jefferson has been a disaster, posting a -9.8 in 676 wasted minutes.

The combined approximately $21 million the Pacers have guaranteed to Ellis and Jefferson for next season could have gone to a real difference maker. Instead, the Pacers must look for a trade partner willing to take on one of these onerous contracts if they wish to improve. Lavoy Allen should probably never play another minute for this team, given how bad he's been at -16.7 heading into last night's games.

Rodney Stuckey (-4.4) has also been bad in a limited 345-minute sample. But the team has gotten good mileage out of Glenn Robinson III, who was waived by the Timberwolves then claimed by the 76ers, who declined to extend him a qualifying offer. His -1.7 net differential hasn't been a disaster and he's soaked up nearly 1000 minutes as a part time starter.

With the lack of attractive trade assets or the ability to open up major cap space, the Pacers can only hope to score in the draft and via fringe free agents to improve this roster ahead of George's final season before the option year. The team must also deal with Teague's unrestricted free agency this summer. He will have major bargaining leverage since the team traded away Hill to obtain him and the team would likely have to start Ellis in his place if Teague were to walk.

Up next: Los Angeles through Minnesota

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