Sunday, January 29, 2017

Introducing Net Differential Part III: L.A. Through Minnesota

In Part I, I introduced Net Differential as a tool for evaluating the NBA and began evaluating all 30 NBA teams. The first part included Atlanta through Cleveland. Part II included evaluations for Dallas through Indiana. In this part, we'll look at the L.A. teams through Minnesota.

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.

L.A. Clippers

The Clippers have the most top-heavy roster in the NBA. Chris Paul's +20.9 differential leads the NBA and it's hard to imagine Luc Mbah a Moute would have a +12.7 net differential on any other team. Mo Speights' -5.1 and Wesley Johnson's -7.8 look downright respectable when you consider that the bottom four players on the Clippers are all south of -12. The Clippers are an incredible 14 points worse per 100 possessions with Jamal Crawford on court as of Thursday's games.

As was already discussed in Part I, we're unlikely to see a Blake Griffin or Kevin Love trade for Carmelo Anthony, given how pedestrian Anthony's net differential is (-1.8, seventh on the Knicks). Anthony simply doesn't make the Knicks appreciably better. He seems like a superstar due to his scoring proficiency, but that hasn't translated to the standings. Why would the top team in the East or a top four team in the brutal West trade one of its linchpins for a disappointing player like Anthony?

The Clippers' depth is so shaky that it's easy to question the wisdom of even sending a package of non-starters to the Knicks for Anthony. If the Clippers sent Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford out in a trade for Anthony, Raymond Felton and J.J. Redick would be the only healthy guards on the roster.

With player options for Griffin and Paul -- and Redick on an expiring contract and headed into unrestricted free agency -- don't look for any major moves for the Clippers. Doc Rivers must hope that Paul is at full strength for the playoffs and his team at least reaches the Western Conference Finals. A second round exit could trigger the mass defection of the Clippers' star players.

L.A. Lakers

When Lou Williams is your best player -- by any standard -- you've got a roster construction issue. With a net differential of -6.8, Timofey Mozgov's four-year, $64 million contract will go down as one of the worst in NBA history. Jeanie Buss should probably seize control of basketball operations before her brother has the opportunity to inflict any more damage to the franchise.

On the bright side, D'Angelo Russell's +4 net differential is very promising. Luol Deng's +0.4 isn't a complete disaster, but it's not what you'd like to see out of a player on yet another massive contract (four years, $72 million). Having so astoundingly overpaid for Deng and Mozgov, it will be practically impossible for the Lakers to rid their cap sheet of them. This isn't a team that's one or two moves away. This is a lottery team in mid rebuild that needs a lot of help in the draft.

Unfortunately, due to the ill-fated Steve Nash trade, the Lakers must hope to finish with a poor enough record to land a top three pick or else this year's first rounder will be conveyed to the 76ers. For a franchise that is the ultimate free agent destination in the league's sexiest market, it's hard to imagine the level of incompetence that was required to run the Lakers this far into the ground. If the Lakers keep their first rounder this year, 2018's top pick will be unprotected. It's hard to see the Lakers making the playoffs by next season.

Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies are seven games above .500, which would be good for fourth in the East but gets you seventh in the West. The fact that no Grizzly with at least 600 minutes has performed worse than JaMychal Green's -1.8 is encouraging. Getting only 343 minutes to this point in the season from Chandler Parsons, signed for four years and $94.5 million, is less encouraging. Given that Memphis hasn't been a traditional destination for NBA free agents, one supposes that the Grizzlies were justified in rolling the dice.

On the positive side, can we all take a moment to appreciate Vince Carter? Not only is he playing a consistent role on a winning team at age 40, he's also second on the team in net differential at +5.4 in nearly a 1000 minute sample. Troy Daniels leads the team at +7 in a smaller 629-minute sample and Marc Gasol has been predictably solid at +4.6.

Mike Conley's +2 isn't everything one would hope for from the recipient of the largest contract in NBA history, but the Grizzlies' roster is very balanced. There aren't huge discrepancies here like you see on the Clippers. Memphis also has the advantage of depth, with 13 players with over 300 minutes compared to only nine for multiple other teams.

It's hard to imagine Memphis making any major moves. The team is still getting good minutes from Zach Randolph but age is eventually going to catch up with the Grizzlies. The team's best hope is a return to health for Chandler and positive free agent signings on the margins in the offseason. The Grizzlies owe their first round pick (top five protected) to Denver.

Miami Heat

The Heat, like the Grizzlies, are another deep and fairly balanced roster. There aren't any huge discrepancies in net differential. Justise Winslow, Dion Waiters, Josh Richardson and Tyler Johnson are all encouragingly in the positive. Willie Reed has been a pleasant surprise as the team leader at +6.6 in a limited 518-minute sample. Just below him is another surprise, Luke Babbitt, at +4.8 in 592 minutes.

Less encouraging has been the play of two players thought to be franchise cornerstones: Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic. At only -0.4, Whiteside's net differential isn't a huge disappointment. But he hasn't provided the boost you'd hope for from a player on a four-year, $98 million deal. What is a huge disappointment is Dragic's -3.1, the second-worst net differential on the team. Only Josh McRoberts' -7.2 in 381 minutes is worse. Injuries will likely prevent McRoberts from ever making a positive contribution for the Heat, but Dragic has no excuse.

If the Heat can get a substantial piece for Dragic, it's probably better to continue building through the draft. Pat Riley has been successful in stocking the Heat with young talent but Miami is unlikely to turn the corner any time soon and become a major free agent destination. It's probably wiser to build around a young point guard who matches Miami's timeline more closely than Dragic.

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks made a massive mistake in trading for Michael Carter-Williams and allowing the Lakers' top-three protected pick go to the 76ers in the three-team deal that sent Brandon Knight to Phoenix. The mistake wasn't in letting Knight go. He's dead-last on the Suns with a net differential of -11.6 in a plentiful 949-minute sample. The mistake was in including Philadelphia in the deal.

Milwaukee was able to pivot and receive a solid contributor in Tony Snell (-1.9 net differential) from the moribund Bulls for MCW. But would you rather have Snell or a pick in the 4-15 range from the Lakers in a draft positively loaded with point guards? Matthew Dellavedova has been a huge disappointment with a team-worst net differential of -7.6 in 1069 minutes. He's joined at the bottom of the list by starters Jabari Parker (-6.8) and John Henson (-5.4).

And this is where we truly see the value of net differential. Henson, Parker and Dellavedova have each started over 40 games. This means they've shared a massive amount of court time with Giannis Antetokuonmpo who is second in net rating at +6.7. For every minute these players share on the floor and on the bench with Antetokuonmpo, their net rating is identical. Any discrepancy in net differential is the result of minutes spent with one player on the bench and one on the floor. This means the Bucks are between 12.1 (Henson) and 14.3 (Dellavedova) points better when these players sit and Antetokuonmpo plays. Giannis is an absolute superstar and one of the most valuable players in the NBA. Imagine how good this team could be if it had a competent starting point guard.

The Bucks could go on a run to end the season and end up in a first round series with the Cavaliers or Raptors. It's worth considering if that would advance the franchise more than a lottery pick in the 2017 draft. On the positive side of the ledger, Parker and Henson are still early in their development arcs and could take a step forward by next season. There's no reason to panic. Mirza Teletovic (+3.2) has been a huge positive as a stretch four and Jason Terry (+4.5) has been another ageless wonder like Vince Carter.

Malcolm Brogdon (+6) would be a serious Rookie of the Year candidate if not for Joel Embiid. But the biggest surprise on the Bucks is that Greg Monroe leads the team in net differential at +8.1. When you compare this to the disappointing performance of Henson in the starting lineup, you might question the wisdom of moving Monroe to the bench. In reality, it may be that staggering minutes for Monroe and Antetokuonmpo helps the team since both need the ball to be effective.

It seems almost certain that Monroe will decline his player option to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. It will be interesting to track the Bucks next season if they let Monroe walk. Will Milwaukee suffer a drop-off without its top net differential player? Of course, a return to health for Khris Middleton would improve the Bucks in any number of ways. Overall, this looks like a roster built to be good for a very long time, especially if Milwaukee can find that elusive starting point guard.

Minnesota Timberwolves

The first thing you notice about the Timberwolves is that this is a painfully thin roster with only nine players that have played at least 300 minutes through Thursday's games. The second thing you notice is that Zach LaVine is not living up to the hype with a team-worst -7.9 net differential. A comparison of Ricky Rubio (-3) to Kris Dunn (-1) highlights why the rumors of Minnesota seeking to move on from Rubio appear credible.

At -2, Karl-Anthony Towns isn't making nearly the impact of Antetokuonmpo. Andrew Wiggins has been solid at +0.6. But the real bright spots for the Timberwolves have been Gorgui Dieng (team-best +7) and Shabazz Muhammad (+2, second). If Minnesota makes the playoffs next season, it will convey its first round draft pick (top 15 protected) to the Atlanta Hawks to complete the Adreian Payne trade. Payne has yet to see 300 minutes on a thin roster absolutely desperate for a quality big man reserve. This trade was a disaster for Minnesota but helped save face for Atlanta, after it passed on Rodney Hood to draft Payne.

The Wolves should find a home for Rubio, get something in return and hand the reins over to Dunn, who looks like the future at point guard. Beyond that, the biggest issue is depth. The Timberwolves need more of everything and Tom Thibodeau will have to show his worth in the draft and free agency to meet those needs.

Up next: New Orleans through Portland.

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