Friday, February 3, 2017

Introducing Net Differential Part V: Sacramento Through Washington

In Part I, I introduced net differential as a tool for evaluating the NBA and began evaluating all 30 NBA teams. The first part looked at Atlanta through Cleveland. Part II included evaluations for Dallas through Indiana. Part III evaluated the L.A. teams through Minnesota. Part IV looked at New Orleans through Portland. This final part of the introductory series will break down Sacramento through Washington.

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 Thursday'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.

Following is the key for the column 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

Sacramento Kings

Rudy Gay is an extremely polarizing player. It's often said that teams get better when they rid themselves of Gay. But for the past two seasons, Gay has been in the top four for the Kings in net differential. This season he's far and away Sacramento's net differential leader, towering over even DeMarcus Cousins. To lose him to a devastating Achilles injury was a massive blow to the team considering he was the only King with a positive on court net and Sacramento was 8.6 points worse per 100 possessions when he went to the bench.

Cousins has been very consistent, leading the Kings with a +7 net differential last season before trailing only Gay at +6.4 this season. Long ago, ESPN writer Zach Lowe wrote that Matt Barnes was the most undervalued player in the NBA. Lowe mainstreamed the importance of 3-and-D wings and cited Barnes as an underpaid example. But after Barnes posted a team-worst -6 net differential in almost 2200 minutes for the Grizzlies last season (Vince Carter was second-worst at -0.2) before posting a -6 for the Kings this season (only Willie Cauley-Stein is worse at -8.7) it's time to concede that Barnes' days as an undervalued asset are over.

The Kings' player who is obviously underutilized these days is Omri Casspi, who is third in net differential for the Kings (+5.3) behind only Gay and Cousins in a microscopic 397-minute sample. Last season Casspi was second only to Cousins at +5.3 in 1880 minutes. Meanwhile Barnes has stunk up the court in 1114 minutes this season. Shifting minutes away from Barnes and toward a healthy Casspi would immediately improve the team but he's been limited to 22 appearances due to injury.

Point guards Ty Lawson and Darren Collison along with center Kosta Koufas and former Wizards shooting guard Garrett Temple have all been in positive territory. Shooting guards Arron Afflalo and Ben Mclemore have been huge disappointments -- both south of -4 -- while journeyman power forward Anthony Tolliver and center Willie Cauley-Stein have regressed significantly to join Barnes at the bottom of the table.

Gay was the only player on this roster capable of taking some of the scoring burden off of Cousins. There just isn't much talent to work with here and the Kings' front office will have egg on its face for years to come for giving away Isaiah Thomas to the Suns for a trade exception and former 57th pick Alex Oriakhi. Sacramento's only hope is to extend Cousins and keep trying to put pieces around him through the draft and free agency. What the Kings need is better talent evaluation.

San Antonio Spurs

Some teams -- like the Clippers -- are extremely top heavy in net differential while others show more balance. The Spurs are the one NBA team whose roster is inexplicably upside down. Starters Kawhi Leonard, Pau Gasol, Tony Parker and LaMarcus Aldridge are all in the negative at the bottom of the table. Danny Green (+0.7) is alone among Spurs who have started at least 30 games with a positive net differential.

Meanwhile Patty Mills, who has started only four games, leads the Spurs with a +9. My only stab at an explanation for this is to suggest that the aging Gasol and Parker are dragging down the starting unit while the reserves, led by Mills, are out-performing them in net differential.

I have no suggestions for the Spurs. They seem to know what they're doing. Davis Bertans is just the latest diamond in the rough for an organization that has found an unfair share of them.

Toronto Raptors

Even more odd than the Spurs' upside-down table is that of the Raptors. I'm going to make a prediction here based on net differential: If the Raptors fail to retain Kyle Lowry in free agency and fail to replace him with a point guard near an All-Star level, this will be a lottery team next season.

While Lowry and Patrick Patterson tower over the rest of the roster at +14.7, the Raptors are actually 5.5 points per 100 better with DeMar DeRozan on the bench. Keep in mind that DeRozan and Lowry spend a huge number of minutes together as a starting backcourt. Any discrepancy between two players in net differential is the result of minutes spent with one on the bench and one on court. Their net rating is identical for minutes spent on court or on the bench together.

This tells us that with Lowry on court and DeRozan on the bench, the Raptors thrive; but with DeRozan on court and Lowry on the bench, the Raptors fall apart. The good news for Toronto is that Terrence Ross is coming into his own with a +2.7 net differential that is fourth on the team. Norman Powell has taken a big step forward from last season with a +2.5 that trails Ross.

Starters DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas join DeRozan in negative territory and Cory Joseph's -11.9 makes him the anti-Lowry. But the hardest number to explain from this table is Lucas Nogueira's +12. I caught a lot of flak for saying in the offseason I would rather give Bismack Biyombo a max contract than Al Horford. I stand by that because I'm opposed to giving any non-superstar a superstar's contract. Biyombo was in the lowest max tier so his max takes up a much smaller percentage of the salary cap than Horford's.

Biyombo ultimately signed for a slightly sub-max deal with the Magic at four years and $17 million per season. But I believe the juxtaposition of Biyombo's disappointing performance in Orlando with Nogueria's unexpected ascension to legitimate rotation player in Toronto is a case study in the importance of role and opportunity ... and how playing with Kyle Lowry helps your career.

Toronto was the perfect opportunity for Biyombo last season. Lowry is one of the game's most elite pick and roll ball handlers. He's able to consistently get a step on his man, forcing opposing big men to help in the lane. As soon as that happens, Lowry can deliver a perfect lob almost every time. And with Biyombo's athleticism, he was the perfect recipient of those lobs. In Orlando, Elfrid Payton is still learning the NBA game while backup D.J. Augustin has been in the -8 net differential range the last two seasons.

In addition, the Magic crowded their front court by signing Serge Ibaka, thus further reducing Biyombo's opportunities. By contrast, Nogueira was able to step right into Biyombo's former rim-runner role. The biggest issue for the Atlanta Hawks is the absence of a competent third big man. Danny Ferry foolishly gave Nogueira to Toronto for nothing. The Raptors have no such issue with Bebe sliding seamlessly into the role Biyombo vacated.

Utah Jazz

Two of the Jazz' top three in net differential, Rudy Gobert and Rodney Hood, are players the Atlanta Hawks passed on to draft Adreian Payne and Nogueira. In 2012 in my first major analysis for ESPN TrueHoop Network, I recommended that the Hawks hire a GM from the Spurs organization and trade Joe Johnson for scraps. Within several months, both things happened. But it was Dennis Lindsey I wanted -- the guy who drafted Gobert and Hood -- not Ferry -- the guy who drafted Nogueira and Payne.

George Hill and Shelvin Mack once again present us with an object lesson in the importance of role and opportunity. Hill was unselfish enough to thrive in a complimentary role in Indiana. But once out of Paul George's shadow in Utah, he finally showed his real worth and the reason Gregg Popovich was so loathe to part with him in the Kawhi Leonard trade.

By contrast, after coming to Utah in a trade from Atlanta last season, Mack started 27 games and posted a team-best net differential of +10. This season, with Hill supplanting Mack as Utah's starting point guard, Mack has started only nine games and posted a -8 net that is worse than every teammate except Dante Exum.

Washington Wizards

What a difference a healthy Bradley Beal makes. Last season Beal's -1.7 net differential was worse than every teammate except Gary Neal. This season Beal's +15.8 leads the Wizards and is among the best in the league. Wall trails him at +12.1 followed by fellow starters Marcin Gortat, Otto Porter and Markieff Morris, all +8.4 or better. This gives the Wizards one of the strongest starting lineups in the NBA, which explains their 21-7 streak since Dec. 8 which has them in fourth in the East, just a half game back from Toronto.

Kelly Oubre is the only Wizards reserve approaching 1000 minutes and he's been a respectable -1.4. Jason Smith, Trey Burke and Marcus Thornton have all been worse than -11 in limited minutes. It remains to be seen if Washington's shallow depth will hurt them as the long NBA season wears on.

That wraps up our introduction to net differential. I'll be updating all of the numbers once we reach the All-Star break and doing some additional breakdowns by position. I'll also try to total up seasons prior to 2015-16 as time allows. Thanks for reading!

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