Thursday, February 2, 2017

Introducing Net Differential Part IV: New Orleans Through Portland

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. Part III broke down the L.A. teams through Minnesota. Part IV will look at New Orleans through Portland.

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. All numbers are current as of Tuesday's games. For this installment, I've added a column for 2015-16 net differential so we can begin to compare a player's performance year-over-year. You can view net differential data for 2015-16 (minimum 500 minutes played) here. In the entries below, if a player did not play in the NBA last season or played fewer than 500 minutes, their 2016 Diff column will be blank.

I've also changed some of the column headers. Following is the key for those headers:

POS - Position

GP - Games played

MIN - Total minutes

OFF-ON - On-court offensive rating (the number of points per 100 possessions the team scores with the player on court)

OFF-OFF - Off-court offensive rating (the number of points per 100 possessions the team scores with the player off court)

OFF-DIFF - Offensive rating differential (on-court offensive rating minus off-court offensive rating)

DEF-ON - On-court defensive rating (the number of points per 100 possessions the team surrenders with the player on court)

DEF-OFF - Off court defensive rating (the number of points per 100 possessions the team surrenders with the player off court)

DEF-DIFF - Defensive differential (on-court defensive rating minus off-court defensive rating)

NET-ON - On-court net rating (on-court offensive rating minus on-court defensive rating)

NET-OFF - Off-court net rating (off-court offensive rating minus off-court defensive rating)

NET-DIFF - Net differential (on-court net rating minus off-court net rating)

2016 DIFF - The player's 2015-16 net differential

New Orleans Pelicans

There's not much that can be said about the Pelicans other than they don't have the talent to compete. Anthony Davis is spectacular with a +8.5 net differential and Jrue Holiday is solid at +5.1. Free agent acquisition Solomon Hill, who played for the Pacers last season, has been a solid +4.8 and looks like a reasonable value on a contract with three more years at about $12 million per.

But Tyreke Evans is a disappointing -0.4 and Omer Asik has been a complete disaster. The Pelicans obtained Asik to allow Davis to play power forward. But last year New Orleans was 7.4 points per 100 possessions better with Asik on the bench and this year the team is 3.1 points better.

Asik has played less than 500 minutes this season as the team has been forced to move Davis to center to try to win games. His contract, with three more seasons at about $11 million per, is practically untradeable. Backing up Asik is Alexis Ajinca, who has a team-worst net differential of -12.4 in just 297 minutes. Rookie Buddy Hield has only been marginally better at -11.5. The Pelicans reportedly discussed obtaining Dwight Howard from the Hawks, but Atlanta likely thought better of taking on three more seasons of Asik.

The good and bad news for New Orleans is that Holiday and Evans are both on expiring contracts. With Davis under contract for at least three more seasons, the Pelicans can hit something of a reset button. Losing Holiday would hurt, but if the Pelicans can't attract the right free agents to surround Davis, it's probably better to seek help in the lottery. Moving on from Evans is probably a good idea and New Orleans has the rest of the season to see what they have in former Rockets Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas. Barring a miracle -- like the return of Chris Paul -- it's hard to see this franchise becoming competitive any time soon.

New York Knicks

Speaking of talent deficits, many of the Knicks' problems can be traced back to Carmelo Anthony's decision to force a trade in 2011 that robbed New York of the assets it needed to put a competitive team around him. The Andrea Bargnani signing was predictably terrible and Phil Jackson didn't help by trading away two rotation players -- Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith -- to the Cavs for practically nothing.

The best move of Jackson's tenure as Knicks GM was listening to VP of player personnel Clarence Gaines Jr., who convinced him to draft Kristaps Porzingis. But that move almost didn't happen. According to the New York Post, Jackson was prepared to draft Jahlil Okafor if he had dropped to the Knicks at the fourth pick. That would have been an unmitigated disaster. Okafor posted a team-worst -10.8 net differential in his rookie season for the 76ers and currently sports a team-worst -12.9 in his second season.

But just when it seemed the Knicks were finally going to have some luck, Jackson traded promising point guard Jerian Grant along with solid-if-unspectacular starting center Robin Lopez to the Bulls for Derrick Rose. The Knicks are a fairly pedestrian +1.4 in net differential with Rose on court. That's a problem when you consider all of the off-court distractions Rose brings, the fact that he's in the last year of his deal and that he's made no secret of the fact that he'll be seeking a max contract in 2017 free agency.

To top it all off, Jackson gave Joakim Noah a fully-guaranteed, four-year $72 million contract despite a career plagued with injuries. After posting a respectable +1.9 net differential with the Bulls last season, Noah has fallen off a cliff, posting a net -4 that is second-worst on the Knicks. Only Lance Thomas, who fell even more dramatically from +4.1 in 2015-16 to -9.4 this season, is performing worse.

But the biggest disappointment for the Knicks has been the play of Carmelo Anthony himself. While superstars like Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul set themselves apart from the crowd via net differential, the Knicks are 2.1 points per 100 possessions better with Anthony on the bench. Aside from Noah and Thomas, only Brandon Jennings has a worse net differential for the Knicks than Anthony.

And this is why a Kevin Love or Blake Griffin trade for Anthony will never happen. Love is a team-best +14.5 in net differential for the Cavaliers. Griffin's +14.2 for the Clippers is second only to Paul's league-best +20.9. Anthony is firmly in the bottom half in net differential for a Knicks team that is seven games under .500 and currently 11th in the Eastern Conference.

The only bright spot for New York is the play of its young players. Willy Hernangomez' +5.5 net differential is the best of any Knick with at least 300 minutes. Justin Holiday, who came over from the Bulls in the Rose trade, is +4.9, just behind Hernangomez. And Mindaugas Kuzminskas, an undrafted rookie free agent from Lithuania, is +2.8. A full-blown youth movement would obviously be the wisest course for New York, but that will likely require finding a contender the Knicks can ship Anthony to for scraps.

Oklahoma City Thunder

You could make a case for Russell Westbrook as MVP based on this fact alone: The Thunder are +4.3 points per 100 possessions with Westbrook on court and -12.1 when he goes to the bench. Five of the six OKC players with at least 1000 minutes as of Tuesday have posted a positive net differential, including Steven Adams, Andre Roberson, Victor Oladipo and Enes Kanter. The sixth, rookie Domantas Sabonis, is a respectable -1.9.

Kanter has taken a huge step forward this season, posting a +0.4 net differential after last season's -7.3, the worst of any Thunder player with at least 1000 minutes in 2015-16. It's after those top six where OKC has issues. Anthony Morrow, Alex Abrines, Semaj Christon and Joffrey Lauvergne have all played fewer than 600 minutes as of Tuesday and range from Morrow's -6.4 to Lauvergne's team-worst -11.9. Small forward Jerami Grant crossed the 1000 minute threshold in Wednesday's loss to the Bulls, but his -10.3 is worse than every teammate except Lauvergne.

With Oladipo and Adams starting four-year, $84 and $100 million extensions next season respectively, the Thunder won't have much in the way of cap space even with Nick Collison and Morrow expiring. This means OKC will have to look primarily for internal improvement. Orlando GM Rob Hennigan made a massive mistake in trading Oladipo for Serge Ibaka, whom the Magic are rumored to be shopping ahead of the trade deadline. He provides Westbrook with a secondary wing scorer and ball handler who spent time at point for Orlando. OKC's front line is deep with Adams, Kanter and the promising Sabonis. The Thunder just need more depth at wing and point guard.

Orlando Magic

Hennigan was off to a promising start after he won the Dwight Howard trade. Howard and Andre Iguodala, the two big names in that trade, made little impact before bolting from the Lakers and Nuggets, respectively. The 76ers got practically nothing out of Andrew Bynum and Jason Richardson, whom they gave up Iguodala for. But the Magic received Nikola Vucevic, Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Moe Harkless and three protected first round picks, a massive haul for the departed Howard.

Hennigan then flipped Afflalo to the Nuggets for Evan Fournier, who has become a foundation piece for the Magic. Adding to the pile of young assets were promising draft picks in point guard Elfrid Payton and forward Aaron Gordon. All the Magic needed to do was be patient, continue to build through the draft and allow the young core to grow and coalesce. But patience was in short supply in the Magic Kingdom and Hennigan began a series of panic moves that has completely derailed the once-promising Magic.

Jacque Vaughn, a Gregg Popovich understudy, was a worthy gamble as a first-time head coach. But when the Magic decided to accelerate their timeline, Hennigan hired possibly the worst coach for the personnel and situation: Scott Skiles. The former Pistons coach had already run Magic forward Tobias Harris out of Milwaukee. And when the two clashed again in Orlando, Hennigan, whose record as Magic GM was nearly flawless at that point, made the first of a series of transactions that would ultimately demolish what he had built.

The Magic sent Harris to the Pistons for Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings. Skiles got the veterans he wanted, but they didn't move the needle or remain with Orlando. Jennings is currently backing up Rose in New York and Ilyasova was packaged with Oladipo and Sabonis for Ibaka in the offseason. Oladipo signed the aforementioned four-year extension with the Thunder and will be a long-term piece, along with Sabonis, for OKC. The Thunder subsequently traded Ilyasova and a protected first round pick to the 76ers for Jerami Grant. Currently Ilyasova sports a net differential of +10, which is second only to Joel Embiid (+13.2) for the 76ers.

So Hennigan essentially traded three rotation players -- Oladipo, Ilyasova and Sabonis -- for the expiring contract of Ibaka. On top of that, Hennigan traded Maurice Harkless to the Trail Blazers for a second round pick that has protection through pick 55. He gave Harkless away. As of Tuesday, Harkless' +6.3 net differential trails only Al-Farouq Aminu and Mason Plumlee (both +6.5) for Portland. Hennigan must now either move Ibaka to get something to show for the trade or likely overpay to retain him. Ibaka is forcing Gordon to play out of position at small forward. If he remains with the Magic to season's end, he'll have massive bargaining position due to what the Magic gave up to obtain him.

To top it all off, Hennigan signed Bismack Biyombo in the offseason, creating a crowded front court and cutting into the role of Vucevic, who is on one of the most team-friendly contracts in the NBA. We won't even talk about giving Jeff Green $15 million for one season. This is what we call a Class A dumpster fire. At 19-32, the Magic have the fourth-worst record in the NBA. If I was an opposing GM, I'd try to steal Vucevic or Payton while Hennigan is still around to make bad trades.

Payton, whose name has been in trade rumors, leads the Magic with a +5.1 net differential. Vucevic is third at +4. Fournier at +1.1 hasn't been as good as you would like and Biyombo's -2.8 is a huge disappointment for a player on a four-year, $68 million deal. Hennigan likely traded Oladipo, one of the most promising young two-way wings in the NBA, because he thought he needed to open up minutes for Fournier and former first rounder Mario Hezonja. The latter has been an utter disappointment, posting a team-worst -10.6 net differential after posting a promising +1 in 2015-16.

Philadelphia 76ers

Wow, that was depressing. Fortunately, now we get to talk about Joel Embiid, the most fun thing to happen to the NBA since ... ever? Ilyasova has been the perfect compliment to Embiid as a stretch four, Robert Covington has continued his solid career with a +5.3 net differential that's fourth on the team and T.J. McConnell has proven that he belongs with a net +5.9 in a plentiful 1100-minute sample. Nik Stauskas has also taken a step forward this season, improving to a net differential of +1.3 after posting a -3.1 last season.

But now we've got to kill our buzz and talk about Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor. It's hard to draw conclusions about Noel in a microscopic 376-minute sample. But he has regressed from a -1.9 net differential last season to -3.4. Okafor is a walking disaster. Don't say I didn't warn you. The decision to draft Okafor over Kristaps Porzingis was the defining moment in former 76ers GM Sam Hinkie's career. If he had drafted Porzingis, he'd be the king of the world right now. Philly ownership would have never turned to the Colangelos if Porzingis had a similar rookie season with the 76ers as he ultimately had with the Knicks.

Putting aside could-have-beens, Dario Saric has been getting a lot of hype for his rookie season in Embiid's shadow, but his -6 net differential is worse than every teammate except Okafor. Overall, in spite of "The Process," Philly still faces a substantial talent shortfall. Bryan and Jerry Colangelo will prove their worth if they finish what Hinkie started and avoid draft fiascoes like Okafor.

Phoenix Suns

Devin Booker, at age 20, is already a beast. Dragan Bender looks promising with a team-high +7 net differential in limited minutes. Tyson Chandler is having a bounce-back season with a +4.5 after posting a -8.3 last season. Jared Dudley is the gift that keeps on giving, posting a +4.5 net differential after his +3.7 last season in Washington. T.J. Warren looks to be improving while Eric Bledsoe has fallen way off his +7.5 pace from last year.

Marquese Chriss is a player I projected to be a long-term project and that certainly appears accurate. But the biggest disappointments for the Suns have been the stunted development of Alex Len (-9.6) and the total collapse of Brandon Knight's game (-13.3). Just as Hinkie had a strange proclivity for hoarding centers, it's hard to understand the Suns' fixation on point guards. It's also hard to understand what the Suns were thinking on Feb. 19, 2015 when they sent the Lakers' protected first rounder to the Suns in a three-team trade that brought Knight from the Bucks. In addition to surrendering what could be a high lottery pick this summer for Knight, the Suns traded Isaiah Thomas on the same day to the Celtics for a Cavaliers pick that will be at the end of the first round.

In other words, they went full Rob Hennigan. There's not much else to say about the Suns other than they need to keep trying in the draft and free agency. Lay off the trades ... it's not your thing. Phoenix is set at both back court spots and has good utility pieces in Dudley and P.J. Tucker but there's not much to work with in the front court. Chandler's shelf life is set to expire any minute now and Len might be a bust. T.J. Warren could be a player but there aren't enough pieces in the front court.

Portland Trail Blazers

Our last entry in Part IV will present an object lesson in how to use net differential to avoid wrecking your franchise. Net differential is obviously influenced by lineups and roles (starter versus bench player). Net differential is also subject to volatility. We've discussed numerous players who have experienced precipitous drops or sudden rises. But if you're going to invest in massive, cap-clogging contracts, it's probably best not to spend that money on players who don't have a track record of making their team better.

Timofey Mozgov is the poster child for this. After he posted a -7.6 net differential for the Cavaliers last season (third worst), the Lakers somehow decided it would be a good idea to throw a four-year, $64 million contract at him. Mozgov has rewarded L.A.'s largess by posting a -6.8 this season, worse than every Laker except Thomas Robinson.

Which brings us to the Trail Blazers and Evan Turner. You could rationalize matching the offer sheet on Allen Crabbe with upside potential. But Evan Turner's -2.7 was worse than every Celtic last year except Tyler Zeller. He didn't make his team better. That's what net differential can help reveal. And Turner has played long enough that what you see is what you get. And what the Trail Blazers got is four years and $70 million worth of untradeable dead money on their cap.

Both Turner (-8.3) and Crabbe (-10.3) have been horrifically bad. Meyers Leonard (-5.7), signed for four years and $41 million, hasn't been much better. And thus, despite the value additions of Aminu and Harkless plus the emergence of Mason Plumlee, Portland is going to have a hard time surrounding Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum with sufficient talent to contend during their primes. Portland has locked itself into mediocrity: Too good to get high draft picks, too average to contend. This is the worst place for an NBA team to be, and failure to pay attention to net differential is what got them here.

Up next: Sacramento through Washington.

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