Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Instant Reaction to the Ilyasova Trade and Updated On/Off Differentials

By Buddy Grizzard

In January I started a five-part introduction to net differential, a new tool for analyzing the NBA. Net differential is the difference between a player's on-court net rating (offensive points per 100 possessions minus defensive points per 100 possessions) and off-court net rating. I have updated on/off differentials for all 30 NBA teams at the All-Star break here. Differentials for the 2015-16 regular season are here and for the 2016 playoffs here. Click the first cell of each spreadsheet to view the key.

The most surprising revelation from the introductory series was that, while the Raptors are unsurprisingly better with Kyle Lowry on court, the team -- shockingly -- performs significantly better with DeMar DeRozan on the bench. As of the All-Star break Toronto is +8.1 points per 100 possessions with Lowry on court and -5.3 off for a net differential of +13.4. Meanwhile the Raptors are +2.8 with DeRozan on court but +8.7 when he's out of the game. This results in a net differential of -5.9. Only Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and Cory Joseph perform worse in this stat for Toronto than DeRozan.

This tells us Kyle Lowry is a true difference maker. With core players Jonas Valanciunas, DeMarre Carroll and DeRozan signed for at least the next three years, there's only one strategy for the Raptors moving forward: Toronto must re-sign Lowry regardless of the cost and take full advantage of this window to contend. Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders had this to say in yesterday's NBA AM column:

Sources close to the Raptors said this weekend there was almost no scenario in which the Raptors wouldn’t pony up the money unless Lowry told them directly that he does not want to be there. Today, though, that is not the case. 

In this piece, I will give brief, updated thoughts on all 30 teams at the All-Star break guided by the latest on/off differentials. I've also sorted players by position in descending order of net differential. You can view point guards, shooting guards, small forwards, power forwards and centers.

Atlanta Hawks

This table shows on/off differentials for the Hawks in losses since trading Kyle Korver to the Cavaliers. Korver had Atlanta's worst net differential by a wide margin. His collapse since last season, when he was second only to Dennis Schroder in net rating among Hawks with at least 600 minutes, had an obvious correlation with Atlanta's uneven play this season. But with Korver out of the picture, the spotlight now shifts to the disappointing play of Schroder.

As I mentioned in my introduction to net differential, on-court net rating is heavily influenced by the other nine players on court while off-court net rating is 100% isolated to the individual player. In eight losses since the Korver trade, the Hawks are -6.1 points per 100 possessions in Schroder's 160 minutes on the bench. His closest teammates are Thabo Sefolosha and Mike Muscala, both tied at -13.7. This means the Hawks are almost eight points better per 100 possessions with Schroder on the bench than any other Hawk. Overall, the Hawks are an astonishing 19.1 points per 100 better with Schroder on the bench than they are in his disastrous 224 minutes on court, during which Atlanta has been outscored by 25.2 points per 100 possessions.

Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher wrote earlier this month that he spoke with an Eastern Conference executive who believes that Schroder may be distracted by off-court activities.

One rival Eastern Conference executive insists Schroder is a party animal. Schroder did open his own night club, DS17 Lounge, where he has been known to hang out late and smoke a hookah now and then, but he says he has never had a drop of alcohol and does not do drugs. Told of Schroder's proclamation, the executive rolled his eyes.

Schroder did not win many fans around the league last season when he appeared, in an interview with German magazine Bild, to openly campaign for Jeff Teague's job. Schroder insisted to me last season in Charlotte that he was misquoted by Bild. Nevertheless, now that he has the starting position, he doesn't appear to be playing with the same passion as while he was attempting to win it.

What Schroder needs to understand is that Paul Millsap's decision in free agency will be heavily influenced by how deep Atlanta goes in the playoffs. If Schroder doesn't turn his season around, he could quickly find himself the starting point guard on a rebuilding team.

Meanwhile the front office tandem of Mike Budenholzer and Wes Wilcox continues to impress. The Hawks are well stocked with second round picks, so giving up a pair for a starting-caliber power forward in Irsan Ilyasova is a huge win, even with his contract expiring. The biggest disappointment for the Hawks since the Korver trade -- outside of Schroder's play -- has been the play of reserve power forward Mike Muscala. Atlanta is 16.4 points per 100 possessions better with Muscala on the bench than on the floor in six losses he's appeared in since the Korver trade.

With the problem of Atlanta's third big man finally and decisively solved, the Hawks just need Dennis Schroder to start playing like he cares again and they can secure home court in the first round.

Brooklyn Nets

Not much to add here that I didn't already say in the intro. Bojan Bogdanovic and Trevor Booker have been disappointing while young pieces Isaiah Whitehead, Caris LeVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson have shown promise. Jeremy Lin was having a positive impact before injuries derailed his season. All the Nets can do is continue to seek talent late in the draft and hope to sign more impact free agents. It's surprising to see the Nets give up on Bogdanovic this soon.

Boston Celtics

I'll get called a hater for it, but I continue to believe that Isaiah Thomas is overrated. As I detailed for BBallBreakdown, Al Horford has a lot to do with Thomas' emergence and Schroder's decline. Schroder isn't simply stumbling because he's playing more minutes against starters. He's stumbling because he no longer has the luxury of playing with a big man in Horford who is elite at stretching the floor and finding the open man. Thomas is getting all the headlines but it's fair to wonder if he'd be having this type of season if Horford had stayed in Atlanta.

As a Hawks fan, I hope Gordon Hayward ends up in Boston next season. Jae Crowder, the Celtics' most impactful player by a wide margin, has already expressed disapproval of the courting of Hayward, who plays the same position. I would love for Crowder to become available.

Charlotte Hornets

In Part I of the intro series, I wrote that: "What Charlotte could really use via trade, free agency or the draft is an upgrade at backup point guard and a rim protector who is more mobile than Hibbert."

Charlotte GM Rich Cho obviously had similar thoughts as he traded Hibbert and a disappointing Spencer Hawes to the Bucks for the more athletic Miles Plumlee. However, the disastrous play of Ramon Sessions continues to be the most obvious issue.

Chicago Bulls

It's hard to imagine the Bulls getting full value for Jimmy Butler. What Chicago should really hope for is the departure of Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, two relics of the past who haven't helped the Bulls win basketball games. Chicago apparently wants a lot in any trade for Taj Gibson but I remain suspicious that the Bulls don't properly value Nikola Mirotic. The latter is second only to Butler in net differential for Chicago and could be the next Ryan Anderson.

Cleveland Cavaliers

I've proclaimed the Hawks the winners of the Korver trade but his play has improved since my introductory series. His net differential as a Cavalier is now virtually identical to Mike Dunleavy's. I predicted Korver would be a better fit in Cleveland than Atlanta due to the Cavs' superior shot creation so I wouldn't be surprised if his net differential continues to trend up.

Otherwise, the Cavs are reaping what they've sown with salary commitments. When you have the largest salary in the NBA, it's hard to find room to maneuver when injuries suddenly leave you with a talent deficit. Nevertheless, Cleveland has been the gold standard in making trades and free agent signings on the margins to improve their team. I expect more of the same.

Dallas Mavericks

It's not just that the incompetent Sacramento Kings organization let Isaiah Thomas go. Look at what Seth Curry is doing as a Maverick. He's currently second in net differential at +3.5 in a plentiful 1468-minute sample. DeMarcus Cousins has a long list of issues but Sacramento will never get a pass for its failure to surround him with sufficient talent to become playoff contenders.

The Mavericks likewise need to stop living in the past and move on. And I'm not just talking about Dirk Nowitzki. Wes Matthews is supposed to be a cornerstone piece in Dallas but he's just not very good anymore.

Denver Nuggets

Jusuf Nurkic was a team-worst -11.7 in net differential and clearly giving Denver nothing. You can second guess the Mason Plumlee acquisition all you like. Clearly there's duplication of roles with Nikola Jokic since both are big men most noted for their passing ability. But at least the Nuggets got a guy that is definitely an NBA player. Nurkic could emerge out of the shadow of Jokic, but as of right now this looks like a worthy gamble for Denver.

What's really needed in Denver is patience. So many teams have tried to skip steps and burned themselves as a result. There hasn't been a huge market for Emmanuel Mudiay for obvious reasons: He's not very good. But you take your lumps on your missed picks and keep building. There are pieces here but it's not going to happen overnight.

Detroit Pistons

One look at net differential will tell you why Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond are dogged by so many rumors. As alleged franchise building blocks, both have been massive disappointments. Stan Van Gundy is obviously smart enough to realize when he's building on a cracked foundation. Pistons fans, like Nuggets fans, should settle in for an extended rebuild. Meanwhile, teams that are looking to steal a big man at the deadline could do a lot worse than Aron Baynes.

Golden State Warriors

If you look at how imbalanced this roster is in net differential, you realize that, like the Cavaliers, this team is one or two injuries away from being in serious trouble. All of the reserve wings and guards have disappointed. Yes, the Warriors look invincible now. If they suffer no injuries to their four best players, they should win multiple NBA titles. But there's not a lot of depth here.

Houston Rockets

This is one of the league's feel good stories and James Harden's MVP chase will continue to be an enjoyable romp through the regular season. But it's hard to see this roster winning a playoff series against Golden State or San Antonio, even with the addition of Lou Williams, who was outstanding for the Lakers. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Indiana Pacers

According to net differential, the Pacers are getting a lot more out of Jeff Teague this season than the Hawks are out of Schroder. But the Hawks have a substantial 3.5-game lead in the standings. As I've said before, Monta Ellis and Al Jefferson are like boat anchors on this roster. Larry Bird has gotten a lot right as an NBA executive but those two contracts he probably wishes he could do over.

L.A. Clippers

As with Kyle Lowry, Kyler at Basketball Insiders reports it's full speed ahead with the Clippers' commitment to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. The problem is the depth is so poor that it will really hurt if someone throws a big money offer at J.J. Redick. This is a legitimate fear as Redick is like Korver in his prime. Teams will have money this offseason and everyone has finally figured out that you need shooters.

L.A. Lakers

Jerry Buss knew what he was doing. You can tell because he left the smart kid in charge. Although Luol Deng's play has improved, Timofey Mozgov's contract remains an albatross Magic Johnson will have a hard time moving or working around.

It remains to be seen if Johnson will be an inspired hire or have an executive career similar to Michael Jordan. Just because a guy played at a high level doesn't mean he won't draft Adam Morrison. There's a lot to work with but patience is again the key. And with the Kings going into full tank mode, the Lakers' odds of keeping their pick just got longer.

Memphis Grizzlies

It's nice to see Mike Conley earning his record contract at the top of the net differential rankings for the Grizzlies. Chandler Parsons was a gamble, and 523 regular season minutes later it doesn't look like a good one. This sucks mainly because Memphis really needed a talent infusion to make the most of Conley and Marc Gasol's primes.

Vince Carter remains a modern marvel, second only to Conley in net differential. But overall this is a really good team that can't be great because it simply lacks the horses. Get well soon, Chandler Parsons.

Miami Heat

Since the dissolution of Miami's Big Three, I've told anyone who would listen that Eric Spoelstra was and remains one of the top three coaches in the NBA. Miami's remarkable run is the latest evidence.

There's only one season remaining before our long national Josh McRoberts nightmare is over. Ironically, as bad as he's been, McRoberts was second in net differential in the playoffs for Miami with a +9.4.  With cap relief coming in the way of Chris Bosh's abandoned contract, the Heat will have options. I may have spoken too soon in doubting Goran Dragic.

Milwaukee Bucks

Malcolm Brogdon is Joel Embiid's only competition for Rookie of the Year, and he has a legitimate case. Brogdon leads Milwaukee with a +8.5 net differential from a 1406-minute on-court sample. He's legit, and the Bucks needed something to go right with the disastrous season Matthew Dellavedova has turned in. The return of Kris Middleton will help more than the loss of Jabari Parker will hurt. Only Dellavedova has notched a worse net differential for the Bucks than Parker.

Dumping Miles Plumlee will give Milwaukee more salary cap flexibility but it came at the cost of one more guaranteed season for Hawes, who was unplayable in Charlotte. His contract will be dead money on the Bucks' cap next season.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Nate Duncan had a mock trade deadline in which Minnesota's desire to trade Rubio became a running joke. It looks like the actual organization is just as desperate to trade him as its fake GM. The problem is that Rubio has played so terribly that he's killed any trade value he might have had.

The Timberwolves need to hit a home run in free agency to bring this team the depth that it needs. The young pieces are highly talented, but Minnesota has made poor moves on the margins like giving up a future first round pick for Adreian Payne, who is not an NBA player.

New Orleans Pelicans

The NBA's least competent owner hired the NBA's least competent GM and the result was the Pelicans getting DeMarcus Cousins for a bag of chips and a box of stale donuts. This is literally one of the five worst trades in NBA history. But for the Pelicans, it instantly vaults them into contender status for years to come.

The Kings did New Orleans a favor by taking the under-performing Tyreke Evans off their hands. Buddy Hield's -7 net differential was the worst on the team. This is typical for rookies who are still trying to gain their footing in the league. But Hield has not shown any early signs of future stardom. The Pelicans just gave up two of their worst four players and a first round pick that might not even be a lottery pick for the best center in the NBA. New Orleans now becomes a free agent destination.

New York Knicks

Dumping Derrick Rose for Ricky Rubio would be a massive culture upgrade for the Knicks. Joakim Noah has possibly the worst contract in the NBA ... worse than Mozgov. Carmelo Anthony has played like garbage all season. The Cavs would have been insane to trade Kevin Love for him. Courtney Lee has also been a major disappointment.

The positive notes for the Knicks are primarily the play of their international players. Adding Rubio to that mix would be a step forward for the organization. Anthony will likely outlast Phil Jackson in New York but the sooner they move on from Jackson's failed tenure, the better.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Domantas Sabonis has been one of the NBA's most productive rookies. Enes Kanter was having a nice year until the injury. Russell Westbrook has gone supernova but it's an open question if he can elevate the surrounding talent past a second round playoff appearance. Cameron Payne and Jerami Grant have disappointed.

Orlando Magic

This is an organization that makes Phil Jackson look like an executive of the year candidate. Moving Aaron Gordon to his natural position of power forward full time should help. Why they ever started D.J. Augustin -- -8.7 net differential -- over Elfrid Payton -- +4.4, second on the Magic -- will remain a mystery.

Philadelphia 76ers

If they get anything substantial for Jahlil Okafor -- owner of a -14.5 net differential that is a team-worst by more than 10 points -- they should count it a miracle. Okafor has been horrifically bad. Ersan Ilyasova, by contrast, has been brilliant. This is just further evidence of how poorly-run the Magic are.

With Ilyasova's contract set to expire, the 76ers were wise to get a pair of second round picks for him from Atlanta. T.J. McConnell and Nik Stauskas continue to silence their critics while it's fair to wonder why Gerald Henderson gets minutes. Dario Saric is having a productive rookie season but he's nowhere near Brogdon's level. Nerlens Noel is a keeper.

Phoenix Suns

As I said during the intro series, if the Suns can get anything for Brandon Knight -- bag of chips, six pack of beer, anything -- they should. I'm not sure it's possible for a player considered starter material to play any worse than Knight has this season. Alex Len, again, looks like a bust. Hopefully the Suns can get something substantial for P.J. Tucker, one of their only legitimate rotation NBA players.

Portland Trailblazers

Evan Turner and Allen Crabbe were two of the worst contracts signed last offseason. As a result, the Trailblazers are the poster children for painting yourself into a corner with wasted cap space. It's hard to see how they're going to get out of this mess and assemble a roster of competent NBA players that can contend.

Sacramento Kings

When the NBA intervened in the internal affairs of the 76ers, it should have also intervened on behalf of the Sacramento Kings, which were much more in need of an infusion of competence in the front office. This is the worst-run franchise in professional sports. It's an embarrassment to the NBA to continue to allow Vivek Ranadive to own a franchise. This is a borderline D-League roster and will be that way for a long time.

San Antonio Spurs

Here again, there's not much I can say to advise the most competently-run franchise in professional sports. They'll continue to find NBA talent almost no one else has heard of. It was a travesty for the Spurs to only have one representative in the All-Star game.

Toronto Raptors

The most impactful injury that's flown under the radar is that of Patrick Patterson, the Raptors' leader in net differential. Adding Serge Ibaka was a power move to address that issue. The Raptors were in danger of losing home court advantage but this looks like a move that will put their season back on track. With Terrence Ross gone, it will put added pressure on DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll and Norman Powell to carry a depleted wing rotation.

Utah Jazz

The Jazz take a step back if they trade Derrick Favors and replace him in the starting lineup with Trey Lyles. The latter's -7.3 net differential is worse than every Jazz player except Shelvin Mack. You better be getting a significant piece if you trade Favors. This team obviously needs to keep Gordon Hayward in free agency to remain a team on the rise. If successful, the Jazz will contend for home court advantage in the first round next season.

Washington Wizards

Andrew Nicholson barely played for the Wizards and Marcus Thornton was Washington's worst player by a wide margin. Bogdanovic hasn't had a great season for the Nets but this will be a fascinating case study. Will Bogdanovic improve in net differential while surrounded by greater talent? Other than the first round pick, the Wizards gave up basically nothing to find out.

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