I’m kind of obsessed with trying to figure out which all-in-one metrics best measure player productivity and goodness in the NBA. I’ve built a basic statistical plus-minus in the past, called DRE, which essentially functions as an updated version of John Hollinger’s GameScore, only with more accurate weights.
I spent a lot of time tweaking and refining the models for offense and defense to attempt to maximize predictiveness out-of-sample. (Methodological note: I utilized the caret package in R, using the “glmnet” method, and 10×10 repeated cross-validation to arrive at these values). I gave a lot of thought to different variables to include and which variables to drop due to obvious collinearity issues, as well issues of overfitting based on variables being included that just made no basketball sense.
For projecting Offensive LA-RAPM an elastic net model proved best for maximizing out of sample prediction. For Defensive LA-RAPM a LASSO model was best. For Tracking Plus-Minus Offense, the following variables and coefficients were selected:
FG2M_100: 2 Point Field Goals Made per 100 possessions
FG2A_100: 2 Point Field Goals Attempted per 100 possessions
FG3M_100: 3Point Field Goals Made per 100 possessions
FG3A_100: 3Point Field Goals Attempted per 100 possessions
FTM_100: Free Throws Made per 100 possessions
FTA_100: Free Throws Attempted per 100 possessions
ADJ_ORB_PCT: Adjusted Offensive Rebounding Percent — the percentage of offensive rebounds per chance, excluding rebounds deferred to teammates
AST_PTS_100: Points assisted on per 100 possessions
TOV_100: Turnovers per 100 possessions
DIST_OFF_TOP: Distance (in miles) traveled on offense / time of possession on offense (hat tip to Krishna Narsu for suggesting this variable)
STL_100: Steals per 100 possessions
MPG: Minutes per game
In looking at the variables and their relative values it seems that the regression matches general basketball sense. Efficiency and volume (in scoring as well as passing) is highly prized. Adjusting for deferred rebounds to get a picture of a player’s rebounding prowess when actually trying helps better separate the best rebounders. Turnovers are bad. Off-ball movement (measured by proxy via the amount of distance traveled per time of possession) brings additional value. Steals create easy offense and serve as a positive athleticism proxy.
On the defensive side of the ball the r² on the resampling results was lower (.50 for offense v. .39 for defense), while the root mean squared error (RMSE) was actually very slightly smaller for predicting Defensive Luck-Adjusted RAPM (1.38 for offense v. 1.37 for defense). The variables and coefficients selected are:
The variables not already defined above are as follows:
DREB_CONTEST_PCT: The percentage of defensive rebounds a player collects that are actually contested
DRB_100: Defensive rebounds per 100 possessions
LT6_2PTS_SVD_100: Points Saved per 100 possessions within 6 feet of the basket (calculated using the tracking data)
GT6_2PTS_SVD_100: Points Saved per 100 possessions outside 6 feet, but still on 2 point shot attempts (calculated using the tracking data)
DFG3_PTS_SVD_100: Points Saved per 100 possessions on 3 point shot attempts (calculated using the tracking data)
OFD_100: Offensive fouls drawn per 100 possessions
We can see from these coefficients that offensive load (proxied by made 2 point shots, attempted 3 point shots, free throw attempts) generally carries with it a negative effect on defense, all else equal. In addition, shot defense seems to matter a great deal, as points saved from each area of the court mattered (though to slightly varying degrees). Steals and offensive fouls drawn pair to provide significant predictive value, which mirrors the work of others. Interestingly, when shot defense is accounted for, blocks are no longer needed to predict defensive impact. Finally, MPG remaining a predictor of defensive impact, even when controlling for these other variables, shows that coaches are able to provide us additional valuable information about which players are best at defense.
After developing those weights, I utilized a mean-regression method via Jacob Goldstein to add 350 minutes of -1.7 points per 100 possessions impact of offensive play and 450 minutes of -.3 points per 100 possessions impact of defensive play, which is one of the ways he mean-regresses his metric, Player Impact Plus-Minus (“PIPM”).
After that, I calculate the league wide difference between possession-weighted Tracking Plus-Minus for both offense and defense and 0 and then adjust the numbers so that the league is zero sum on both offense and defense.
Now for what most of you have probably been waiting for, the results!
The whole 6 years of results (2013–18 is in sample while 2018–19 is out of sample) can be found here.
These results jive pretty well with my own eye test and the top 3 in MVP voting also made it into the top 3 of the metric, albeit in slightly different order. I feel pretty good about the results overall.
Hope you enjoyed! I should have more to come on Tracking Plus-Minus, as I’ll be utilizing it to predict win totals for this year’s NBA season before the season stars.
I like projecting the NBA. I’m not the best at it and I mostly build on the work of others who are more sophisticated than me, but I enjoy the exercise and it’s fun to do for me,as a big nerd. One frustration I have often had with projections is how black box-y they can sometimes be. I like to know exactly how people do certain things and why they do them. I like poking at the assumptions they make and wondering if those assumptions make sense. I figure some of you out there might be like me, so I figured I would share what I did to come up with my projections for the player level and then explain how I fed that through the NBA schedule to get my win projections for this season.
Real Plus-Minus is a combination of boxscore information and regularized adjusted plus-minus (“RAPM”). The rough weights for the components are that RPM is around 65% RAPM and 35% BoxScore. That’s an inexact approximation, but it’s close enough to be quite useful. The exact makeup of the BoxScore component is not completely known, but we do know that it is some variant of a statistical plus-minus (“SPM”), which is to say, it is a summation of good and bad boxscore statistics to try to estimate plus-minus impact. One of the better implementations of a statistical plus-minus comes from Neil Paine of Five Thirty Eight, and formerly of Sports-Reference.com. Neil’s SPM is on a per 36 minute scale, adjusted to a per 100 possessions pace, which made it very useful for the inputs I wanted to use. My method for projecting player performance from a boxscore perspective was simply to nab Basketball-Reference’s Simple Projection numbers, which are per 36 projections for all the basic boxscore statistics.
Unfortunately, these projections are not adjusted for pace. But I could handle that. I simply went to the NBA Stats page and grabbed individual player pace for the last three years and ran the same methodology as the Simple Projection system (.6/.3/.1 weights for the pace numbers, from most recent to least recent year, and with a mean regression component of +1000 minutes of average pace play). After getting to individual player pace numbers to match the SPS numbers for each player, I could normalize them all to a per 100 possession environment. Then I just pushed those numbers (plus MPG guesses from Kevin Pelton) through Neil’s formula to get an SPM estimate. I paired that with single year RAPM for the last 3 years (2017, 2016, and 2015) weighted again using the same method as the Simple Projections, 60%, 30%, and 10% with additional mean regression tossed in. I paired the SPM numbers with the RAPM estimate using the 35% and 65% weighting I mentioned previously and that got me my list of player RPM projections (with the exception of rookies, for whom I used my rookie model), which you can see in the link below.
Not surprisingly, Stephen Curry and LeBron are in a tier by themselves. This feels about right, especially given the weight to the last few years.
The final step was to put all these player projections into teams via minutes and games played projections (again via Kevin Pelton) to determine team strength and then feeding those ratings through the schedule to determine my final wins projections, which are here:
My projections are significantly lower on the Celtics than conventional wisdom and their Vegas Over/Under. This system is also probably a bit high on the Cavaliers, given their roster fit issues and turnover. Isaiah Thomas’s minutes will also play a huge part in how close they get to 60 wins. I wouldn’t bet on it. Speaking of betting, here are my five favorite bets, based on my projections relative to Vegas:
Despite their crummy on-court results, the Nets are rebuilding the right way
[Ed. note — this was my March 14, 2017 Newsletter. With Brooklyn’s amazing on-going offseason, I decided to share this with everyone.]
Let’s get this out of the way: the Brooklyn Nets are screwed. They mortgaged their future years ago to trade for the over-the-hill versions of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in a classic “make a big splash for your flashy new owner and flashy new building” move. After acquiring Joe Johnson and Deron Williams when he was still really good, the bet didn’t seem like a terrible one, at least not to me. For a fun laugh at myself, here’s some crow that I have to choke down:
“I’ve seen some people try to bash this trade for the Nets, which I just don’t understand. The Nets made immediate improvements to their team and gave up picks that will likely now not be worth a whole heck of a lot in 2014 or 2016, who knows about 2018? But people saying they’ve mortgaged their future have it exactly wrong. They didn’t have a future, they just lost to half a Bulls team in the first round(!), now they’ve firmly ensconced themselves in the tier of contenders beneath the Heat. If Dwyane Wade has an off series next year or suffers more knee pain or an injury, it’s totally conceivable that the Heat could fall and the Nets will be as well positioned as anyone to take advantage of such a situation.”
WELP. Suffice it to say, I severely under-indexed on the Nets’ newly acquired stars’ ages and the possibility of a significant and severe decline, which is what we ended up seeing. I also didn’t predict Deron Williams’s precipitous decline, which given his age, was much less predictable than the declines of Garnett and Pierce. My full expectation was that the Nets would remain a playoff team for quite a while, thereby significantly devaluing the picks they gave up. That, uh, did not happen. I was wrong, wrong, wrong and so was then Nets General Manager, Billy King. As a result of that deal, the Nets are, as I said before, screwed.
With all of that out of the way, it’s time to start acknowledging how nice a job Brooklyn’s new front office has done in its short time in power at operating within the straight-jacket that the prior administration locked them in. In many ways, the Nets are doing a stripped-down version of the much discussed Process of the 76ers under Sam Hinkie. That may sound strange at first, as unfortunately for fans in Brooklyn and the front office that’s in place, they don’t have the ability to rack up lottery picks by simply being bad. Seemingly all of those picks are going to the Celtics indefinitely.
But the Process was never just about tanking. It was about maximizing expected value and finding as many slight edges as possible. This explains Hinkie’s seeming obsession with accumulating second round picks. The relatively low cost of acquiring second round picks (some teams still do not properly value them, I’m looking at you, Bulls) paired with the low cost of second round picks once under contract made them an easy way to get multiple bites at the apple of acquiring NBA talent before the competition for incredibly low risk and low cost. Second round picks are basically free expected value. Most of the time, they won’t work out, but sometimes you land a Paul Millsap, Gilbert Arenas, or Draymond Green. Another thing about the Process and the losing that went along with it was that it provided the space for the Sixers to try players out and see if they had anything, without worrying too much about the effect on their win-loss record.
There are echoes of this approach that the Nets are now replicating. In the mold of a venture capitalist, the Nets are making asymmetric bets. That is to say, they are making bets where their downside is capped at a very low risk and where the upside is much more substantial. There’s a reason it’s good to be a venture capitalist. The game is essentially rigged in their favor, simply because of how the math works. If one bet works out, all the relatively cheap bets they’ve made that fail are worth it.
The first of these bets was signing Sean Kilpatrick to a three year deal after having him in on a ten day contract. Kilpatrick had been a journeyman bouncing around the D-League and having a short stint in Minnesota after spending five years (he was a red-shirt freshman) at the University of Cincinnati. Kilpatrick was already 26 at the time he signed with the Nets, but he had flashed talent and the Nets had spots available and a need for young bodies with upside. Kilpatrick fit. He finished the season with 13.5 points per game in just 23 minutes per game on a very solid 57.8% true shooting. He’s regressed a bit in terms of efficiency this season, and he’s never graded out as a better than replacement level player. Still as a relatively young player who can score well per-minute, he has enough potential to provide substantial upside with little downside risk. This is the mark of a solid contract. If he never improves, very little is lost for Brooklyn. If he does improve, the Nets got him for essentially nothing. That’s how you make positive expected value bets.
In his first off-season at the helm, Sean Marks was very aggressive in restricted free agency. It was clear early on he understood what the rising salary cap would mean for contracts, as he signed Tyler Johnson to an offer-sheet at what seemed like an insane amount of money at 4 years, $50 million dollars. It turns out, though, that under the new cap environment, $15 million dollars a year is average starter money and the offer to Johnson was less than that. Given his status as a 23 year old who had already posted a -0.2 BPM per 100 possessions over his first two regular seasons and posted even better numbers in his first playoffs (admittedly in a very small number of minutes) and as a restricted free agent, ponying up that level of cash made all the sense in the world. Unfortunately for Brooklyn, Miami matched their offer and kept Johnson in South Beach.
Marks then turned his eyes towards Allen Crabbe and made an even more aggressive offer of 4 years and $75 million to try to pry Crabbe from Portland. Crabbe was also just 23 years old last season and had, like Tyler Johnson, performed better in the playoffs than his decent production in the regular season. Portland matched. Despite their lack of success, these moves showed a coherent plan for improvement from Marks right out of the gate. He was seeking to grab young talent with the potential and perhaps even likelihood to grow into being worth more than their contracts. It’s also noteworthy that Crabbe and Johnson both have the physical tools to indicate that they could be plus defenders in short order, while also contributing positively on offense. Essentially, the Nets were trying to buy their way into talent, but instead of buying access to old, decaying stars, they were looking to grab players on the upswing and sign them through to their primes.
In keeping with that theme, Marks signed Jeremy Lin to a three year deal for just $36 million that brought him back to the New York metro area for what should be his peak years, as he will be 28–30 years old during those seasons. Lin’s no star, but he’s a perfectly solid player: a fringe starter, solid sixth man and despite the injuries he’s suffered through this season, this deal was still a pretty smart one. It also marks a relative break with the Hinkie Process which somewhat infamously was devoid of NBA level point guards for much of his run as GM in Philly. Given the clear culture of development that Marks is striving for with his head coach Kenny Atkinson steering the on-court ship, it was vitally important for their to be a few NBA veterans who could meaningfully contribute and help players along. It’s been unfortunate for Brooklyn that Lin has only been able to play in 19 games this season, as he is their second best contributor, behind Brook Lopez.
At draft time, Marks flipped Thaddeus Young to the Pacers for a first round pick and a conditional second rounder. Young is a solid player, but not a particularly good fit for the Nets rebuilding timeline and good enough that if you could fetch a first for him, you do it 10 times out of 10. With the first rounder he received, Marks nabbed Caris Levert, a rangy forward who probably would have had a good chance to be a lottery pick had injury concerns not knocked his value down. Grabbing guys who have been injured is another way to increase your variance and potentially grab someone higher upside than you might otherwise have gotten. It increases your odds of getting nothing, but when you’re picking at 20, the odds are stacked against you anyway, so you may as well swing for the best talent. Beyond Levert, the Nets walked away with a conditional future second pick.
Another little swing Marks took was locking up Spencer Dinwiddie to a 3 year minimum contract deal that was only guaranteed for $100,000 in 2016–17 and unguaranteed for the following two seasons. This is the ultimate low-risk, decent upside move. If Dinwiddie had been useless, the Nets could have let him go for very little guaranteed money, but if he turns out to be a solid contributor, he’s locked in on a team friendly deal for 3 seasons. I got a focused look at Dinwiddie when he was on the Bulls’ summer league team and started on their roster to kick off the season. He’s a 6’6″ point guard and he showed some ability to shoot from distance in college, despite the results not being there early in his NBA career (on a tiny number of attempts). This season, that shooting ability has come through as he’s converting 41% of his 3s this season (on 61 attempts). He’s probably not a 41% three point shooter, but I believe in his shooting ability, especially off-the-catch. Dinwiddie is just 23 years old and his length and ability to play point guard and play off-the-ball makes him a great fit in the evolving NBA that prizes versatility in role players above all else.
Finally at the trade deadline, Marks was able to utilize the Nets cap space and Bojan Bogdanovic to take back Andrew Nicholson’s contract to nab a first round pick from the Wizards in another move, like the Thaddeus Young deal, that helped restock their crop of young players and to somewhat makeup for the loss of their pick this season to the Celtics. Less heralded, but also indicative of the attempt to replenish their young talent base was Brooklyn taking on K.J. McDaniels from the Rockets for essentially nothing in return beyond cash. The Rockets wanted to clear McDaniels’ salary to pursue Andrew Bogut and others on the buyout market and Marks and the Nets were happy to take on a young player who had shown some promise in Philadelphia before being dealt to the Rockets.
Even the moves where the Nets’ strategy of taking fliers on young talent hasn’t worked out, for one reason or another, show the overall strategy. Marks brought in former first overall pick Anthony Bennett in order to see if another change of scenery and some time in the Nets’ program with more opportunities would help turn his career around. Bennett was still just 23 years old this season when the Nets took a look at him on a minimum contract. Bennett showed the same problems he had shown elsewhere and he was assigned to the D-League and Brooklyn quickly cut bait on him. They had seen enough to conclude what 3 other teams already had. Anthony Bennett was not for them, but it was such a low risk move, that it was worth trying for a team bereft of young talent and in need of alternative means besides lottery picks to grab good, young players.
Prior to his run of fun, bucket-getting play in Dallas, Yogi Ferrell got his first chance this year in Brooklyn. He did not show very much in his 151 minutes for the Nets over 10 games, a 6.6 PER and -7.4 BPM are a pretty good indication of how bad he was. It’s worth debating whether the Nets should have hung on to Ferrell for longer than they did, given how he’s put it together in Dallas, but sometimes you’re just going to miss on guys. It doesn’t really undermine the overall strategy. That’s not a very satisfying thing to say to fans and ultimately, the Nets front office will be judged on their results, just as every team is, but for process-oriented thinkers, having a strategy that makes sense and that should produce +EV bets over time should pay dividends. In addition, the Nets let Ferrell go in order to sign Dinwiddie, who hasn’t been significantly worse than Ferrell over this full season and has more switchy defensive upside given his 6’6″ size relative to Ferrell’s 6′. It’s a defensible choice.
In just a year at the helm, after walking in to a completely bare cupboard, Sean Marks and the rest of the new Nets front office have placed a number of low-risk bets and re-stocked their coffers of young talent. Caris Levert, Spencer Dinwiddie, K.J. McDaniels, and the pick they just nabbed in the Bogdanovic deal are the first steps in rebuilding Brooklyn’s talent base. In Jeremy Lin, they have a competent point guard to help the development of their young guys. (Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is also still just 22 years old, and has very good potential as a lockdown wing defender who could develop into a passable offensive player, but he’s a holdover from the Billy King era, so the new regime doesn’t get credit for him). In his first free agency, Marks showed savvy in targeting young players with upside to grow into their contracts and a desire to pay for future production, not past production, which was the problem with the Nets prior strategy under their prior management. The results aren’t there on the floor, yet, but Sean Marks is running the parts of “the Process” that are available to him and making a lot of positive expected value bets. Over a long enough term, that should pay off for him and for Brooklyn.
Chicago needs to give up the ghost on its playoff chase and preserve Butler’s health
The Chicago Bulls need to shut down Jimmy Butler for the rest of this season. There are a number of reasons why shutting Butler down makes the most sense. Butler isn’t healthy and it has shown recently. The Bulls are also bad with very little chance of improving their roster talent unless they land another good player in this year’s coming draft. Let’s take a deeper look at the case for shutting Butler down.
Butler isn’t healthy
Up until February of this year, Butler had been playing like a top 5 player in the league. He was near the very top of ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (RPM) leaderboard, as well as the leaderboard for Box Plus-Minus (BPM) and Player Efficiency Rating (PER). In my own simple metric, DRE* (Daily RAPM Estimate), Butler was 8th in the league amongst players who had played 25 games or more through February 1st.
(*Note: the weights for DRE have changed a bit since that initial linked article. Updated weights are DRE = (points-.88*fga-.35*fta-1.4*tov+.25*rebs+1.89*steals +.74*blk + .51*ast-.16*pf )*(100/possessions)-7.5))
DRE is just a simple metric and it doesn’t adequately capture defense all that well, so Butler was likely undersold slightly here, but the point is that through February 1st, Butler was somewhere between a top 5 and top 10 player. On February 1st, Butler suffered a heel injury which caused him to miss 4 games, before returning for good on February 15th. Since Butler’s injury, he’s now 54th in the league in DRE amongst players who have played in a minimum of 10 games since February 1. He went from being a +7.4 per 100 possessions according to DRE to just a +3.8. He is clearly not the same player from a high level perspective and as a result, the Bulls have been much worse.
As Tom Haberstroh noted in a great video for ESPN during Butler’s epic run to start the season, the Bulls played like an absolute cellar dweller when Butler wasn’t on the floor being amazing. Well, even with a limited version of Butler, the Bulls are much, much worse than the average team he was able to will them into being. In the month since Butler’s return from the heel injury, Chicago is 26th in the league in Net Rating (-5.6 points per 100 possessions). Such a mark would make them roughly a 26 win team over an 82 game season.
There are other indicators that Butler is still hurting, besides the high level results. He’s getting to the line for about 3 and half less attempts per 100 possessions and he’s also taking fewer shots overall. He’s passing much more frequently when he drives and the Bulls are producing fewer points per Butler drive as a result (which is a nice way of saying Butler’s teammates stink and it’s better when he takes it himself on drives). His finishing on drives is much, much worse the last month as he went from shooting 51.5% on drives to just 42.6% since the injury. Every indication is that Butler is not himself and he’s playing hurt. This is stupid. The Bulls are going exactly nowhere this season and Butler is the only player on their team who really, truly matters. He should not be running himself into the ground in a meaningless season with no direction. Also, every game Butler plays while hurt increases his chances of suffering a more serious injury as the result of compensating for the pain he’s very clearly playing through.
This Draft is the Bulls’ Best Chance to Get Better
Every person who I trust about the draft thinks this draft is really, really special, particularly in the top 10 or so picks. The Bulls have virtually no good young talent on their roster, save for Jimmy Butler and Nikola Mirotic (yes, I still think Mirotic is good, despite Fred Hoiberg jerking his minutes around). They need to finally get younger and more athletic, which was what the plan was supposed to be this past summer. Their best chance to get younger, more athletic, and better for the future is to draft someone great in this draft.
Chicago is already outside of the playoffs and Dwyane Wade just broke his elbow and will be out for the rest of the season. Right now, Chicago would be picking 13th in this draft. That sets them up at a chance to get a contributor, but if Chicago does the right thing and punts on the remainder of the season and allows Butler to get fully right, they could slide into the top 10 or so picks. Currently, Dallas, Portland, and Minnesota are all set to pick ahead of the Bulls, but they are only ahead of them in the loss column by the slightest of margins and all three teams have been playing much better as of late, in the case of the former two due to midseason acquisitions (Nerlens Noel and Jusuf Nurkic, respectively) and in the latter due to players finally picking up Tom Thibodeau’s defense. All three teams seem at least somewhat interested in chasing the 8th seed in the Western Conference playoff race. It’s entirely possible that the Bulls without Wade and Butler could lose their way ahead of all 3 in the lottery odds and end up with the 10th pick in this draft.
Resting Butler Opens Up Minutes for the Young Guys
I mentioned earlier that the Bulls don’t have any great young talent. While that’s true, they do have a bunch of guys who have shown flashes to a greater or lesser extent and would probably develop more with more opportunities to play. Jerian Grant has been very solid when he’s played with the starting unit, Paul Zipser looks like he could stick as a rotation wing in the league, and Denzel Valentine can, at the very least, shoot well with a quick release and swing the ball from side to side. All of these guys have seen their minutes jerked around as the coaching staff flails to try to find lineup combinations that work. Resting Jimmy Butler(along with the loss of Dwyane Wade) down the stretch run of the season would give all of them more opportunities to grow and more opportunity for the front office and coaching staff to figure out what they really have in these players.
Wrapping it all up, everything points to one correct decision here for the Bulls. Jimmy Butler should be shut down and Chicago should focus on developing and understanding what they have on their roster, who fits and who doesn’t, while driving themselves deeper into the lottery of one of the best drafts in recent memory. Of course, having written all this, the Bulls will probably continue to run Butler out there and have him play 37 minutes a night and get hurt again, all while pushing themselves to the fringes of the lottery where the talent is thinner.
Thomas is having an incredible offensive season but being an MVP requires more
Isaiah Thomas is having an incredible season. He’s scoring 29.7 points per game on a startling 62.6% true shooting percentage. That’s absurd enough. Thomas is also adding an additional 15.5 points per game through his assists. In all, he’s responsible for 45.2 of the Celtics points per game in just 34.4 minutes per game. All of that is remarkable and it should come as no surprise that Thomas is leading the league in Offensive Box Plus-Minus (“OBPM”) with an estimated+9.8 points per 100 possessions impact. He’s also third in Real Plus-Minus’s offensive component with a +5.9 impact. Those gaudy numbers have lead some people to start tossing Thomas into the MVP conversation, or at the very least, suggesting that he might belong in that conversation.
Thomas is fun and exciting and a tremendous story. He’s 5’9″ and he’s, at worst, one of the top 5 offensive players in the league this year. That simply shouldn’t be possible, but Thomas has made it happen through sheer force of will. To top it off, Thomas has established himself as the league’s preeminent fourth quarter closer.
That’s all great stuff. Truly. If things were just a little different, it might be the sort of thing that could really catapult Thomas into being a legitimate MVP level star. Unfortunately, there is that whole other half of the game that isn’t offense.
When evaluating a potential Isaiah Thomas MVP candidacy, you have to look at his overall impact. In that regard, Thomas comes up laughably short of the true best and most impactful players in the league. It comes down to one thing, really. Thomas is an absolutely horrific defensive player. He is simply too small to bother anyone when he is guarding them and they attempt to shoot over the top of him. He might as well not even be there. Beyond that, Thomas’s short wingspan doesn’t allow him to contribute much in the way of steals or blocked shots. He also is a non-factor on the glass, as you’d expect given his stature. Most of this is not really his fault. He’s making the most of what he’s been granted, but this is the Most Valuable Player award about which we’re talking. We’re not grading on a curve.
With Thomas on the floor, the Celtics are surrendering an apocalyptically bad 114.5 points per 100 possessions. That would be worst in the league by a significant margin over the entire season. When Thomas sits, the Celtics defend like the best team in the league, surrendering just 103.6 points per 100 possessions. Now, some of that is due to Thomas’s backups. The Celtics’ guard rotation outside of Thomas is full of very good to great defensive players in Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart. Even sophomore Terry Rozier is a toolsy defender who can make opponents work with his length and athleticism. As a result, reading too much into Thomas’s raw defensive on-off numbers would be more than a little unfair.
What about the box score? Amongst players with a significant amount of minutes, Thomas’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus is the absolute worst in the league. That’s right: Thomas is leading the league in OBPM, while putting up the league’s very worst DBPM amongst rotation players. But, maybe that, too, is unfair. Perhaps it’s the case that Isaiah Thomas does the “little things” on defense. Maybe he’s not a guy who gets the things that DBPM is really most influenced by, steals or blocks or defensive rebounds, in bunches, but maybe he moves his feet well, plays good positional defense, and gets deflections or other hustle plays on defense. Maybe he’s good at, say, ball denial.
We can take these things in turn. If Thomas were truly doing all of those little things, we would expect him to at least be able to drag his Real Plus-Minus away from his poor defensive box-score prior towards something like average. Instead, just like in DBPM, Thomas is absolutely dead last in the defensive component of Real Plus-Minus with a -4.4 points per 100 possession impact.
Looking at a brand new measure of defense, presented by Steve Shea over at the Basketball Analytics Book blog, Thomas similarly comes up lacking. Shea developed a metric, called Perimeter Defense Rating (“PDR”) using the NBA’s publicly available SportVU data to better evaluate perimeter defense. PDR’s results pass the initial smell test with a top 5 that goes as follows: Tony Allen, Chris Paul, Draymond Green, Thabo Sefolosha, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. All five of those guys have a reputation for being very good to great perimeter defenders. Of the 184 players in the sample Shea provided (players with over 800 minutes played this year), Thomas grades out 132nd. That is, um, not great. It’s even worse when you consider that many of those players who graded out worse than Thomas as perimeter defenders are simply big men who don’t guard the perimeter very often.
Every defensive indicator for the Celtics is better with Thomas on the bench than when he is on the floor. Let’s look at the Celtics’ opponents shot distribution when he is on the floor versus when he’s on the bench. Shot distribution is a better indicator of the quality of defense played than, say, simply looking at field goal percentages on versus off, because shooting percentages in small samples are noisy. (Note, though, that the Celtics’ opponents do shoot better from every area of the floor when Thomas is on the floor).
As you can see, with Thomas on the floor, the Celtics surrender many more dunks and layups and force many fewer midrange shots. Boston surrenders the same percentage of opponent shots as 3 pointers with Thomas on versus off, but opponents convert 3 pointers at 36.6% with Thomas on the floor versus just 30.4% with him off. That’s probably mostly statistical noise. So, we shouldn’t hold it against him much. His presence resulting in Boston surrendering a much less favorable shot profile, however, we can probably hold against him.
Beyond the shot profile, the Celtics get creamed on the defensive glass with Thomas on the floor versus off, according to NBA.com. They also surrender a greater free throw rate and turn their opponents over less frequently when Thomas plays versus when he sits.
Any way you slice it, Thomas is a huge negative for the Celtics on defense. “Traffic cone” is not an unfair characterization of his defense. It is to Thomas’s immense credit that he is able to overcome his massive defensive shortcomings to still be a player with a positive impact. It takes an absolutely Herculean offensive impact to counterbalance defense this bad. That makes him a fun player and a joy to watch, but it doesn’t make him an MVP candidate. There are simply far too many players that impact the game on both ends or impact the offensive end as much as Thomas or close to it, without cratering their teams’ defenses to even think about putting him in that conversation.
Resist the Narrative
The pushers of narrative have suggested and will continue to suggest that Thomas’s role as the “star” and primary scorer and closer on a Celtics team that is second in the East is enough to put him “in the MVP conversation.” There are a few problems with this.
The East is Weak at the Top
Second in the East isn’t really that impressive. The East is not a top-heavy conference, it is mostly a morass of teams with the Cavaliers being easily the most talented team and a bunch of also-rans. The real competition in the NBA lies out West. There are no less than 5 teams in the West that are better than the Celtics, by Simple Rating System, which is simply margin of victory adjusted for competition. Those teams are the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, Jazz, and Clippers. Additionally, the Toronto Raptors are in a virtual tie with the Celtics on record and look to be the better team according to SRS.
Giving the “Star” All the Credit
To put Thomas in the MVP conversation, despite his defensive warts, because he’s the “best” player on a pretty good team, which is to say, the best offensive player, would be to repeat a mistake that voters made with Derrick Rose in 2011, only moreso. In 2011, at least Derrick Rose was the lead guard and driving force behind a team that won the most games in the league. Even granting that, however, the Bulls won with grinding defense that worked in tandem with Rose’s special talents.
Unlike those Bulls, the Celtics do not win with their defense. In fact, they have a bottom 10 defense, largely due to how bad they are when Thomas is on the floor. They do, however, have a very deep and talented team and to act as if Isaiah Thomas is dragging the Celtics to their status as a pretty good team is to misallocate the credit. Al Horford, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, Marcus Smart, and Avery Bradley can all be counted as players that make a positive impact for Boston. Thomas is no one man band. We shouldn’t pretend like he is for the sake of a fun MVP narrative.
All the Other Deserving Candidates
The NBA is lousy with talent right now. It’s one of the deepest periods ever. As a result, there are simply a ton of guys who deserve consideration over a guy who is arguably the worst defensive player in the league. Quickly, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kyle Lowry, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, and John Wall all have far stronger MVP cases than Isaiah Thomas, and that is hardly an exhaustive list.
Isaiah Thomas is having a career year. He’s got one of the most telegenic games in the league. But he’s no MVP. Stop this nonsense.
Chicago needs to finally invest in the future while building around Jimmy Butler
The Chicago Bulls have no long-term plan. They have, for the most part, not had much of a plan for years. This is pretty obvious if you have watched them closely in the years in which John Paxson and now Gar Forman have been running things. The plan, such as it exists, is simply this: make the playoffs every year, regardless of whether that makes sense in terms of maximizing the ability of the team to win a championship anytime in the next five years or so.
With the recent reporting from ESPN’s Marc Stein that Chicago is interested in signing 33 year old Chris Bosh, it is, once again, clear that Chicago has no plan. Well, they have a plan, like I said, simply to make the playoffs. The problem is that the plan…it is bad.
This year, rather than pursuing younger players who would fit well with and potentially develop around Jimmy Butler, players like E’Twuan Moore or Langston Galloway, for instance, the Bulls instead went out and signed Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade. This despite the fact that their stated goal was to get “younger and more athletic.” But that was clearly not the plan and never has been. The plan is: get to the playoffs and line the pockets of ownership for another year, with no vision for building a team that could ever potentially compete for a championship or even simply maximize the talent of its best player. The Chicago braintrust assumed that simply adding name brand players would be enough to drag them to the playoffs, fit and age be damned. They may make it to the playoffs this year, but only because Jimmy Butler is playing at an MVP level.
If Chicago signs Bosh, it will be another half measure, another admission by the front office that they have no confidence in their ability to try to find young, undervalued talent. It will be Ben Wallace, Pau Gasol, and Dwyane Wade all over again. All of these signings of old, past-their-prime stars were done simply because Chicago knew their names and felt confident they were enough to keep them in the playoffs.
Bosh is well past his prime at 33 years old. He’s obviously got serious health red flags. In the last 3 seasons, he will have played a combined 97 games, with 0 coming this year. Despite his being a solid theoretical fit on the floor with Butler, it is simply not a smart move to bet on him being the guy he used to be or even betting on him to even be cleared to play.
This piece originally ran on the now defunct precursor to the Nylon Calculus, Hickory High (RIP). Thanks to the Internet Archive I was able to rescue it.
This week ESPN rolled out a “new” statistic in its NBA toolkit. They call it Real Plus-Minus, or RPM. RPM is, essentially, the latest version of a statistic called xRAPM which has been made publicly available online by its developer, Jeremias Englemann, for a few years. Now, xRAPM is short for “expected regularized adjusted plus minus,” which, while very accurate, is just a ridiculous mouthful, so it’s understandable that ESPN would want a name that rolls off the tongue a bit more easily. Unfortunately, the use of REAL as the operative portion of the name they chose for their version of this metric indicates a certainty that belies the level of uncertainty that remains in the RPM framework. It is this inability or unwillingness to delve into the uncertainty in the numbers which is the biggest problem with ESPN’s roll out of RPM.
It’s understandable, given the effort ESPN surely had to go through to get these numbers under the ESPN brand, that they’d want to express their confidence in them. Still, these numbers are going to be used in more and more discussions about player value, and as such, it’s important that the underlying assumptions and framework for the metric are properly understood, so that they may be used in proper context. Here’s how ESPN introduced RPM to the general population:
What is real plus-minus
As the name suggests, real plus-minus shares a family resemblance with the +/- stat in the box score, which merely registers the net change in score (plus or minus) while each player is on the court.
RPM is inspired by the same underlying +/- logic: If a team outscores its opponents when a player is on the court, he’s probably doing something to help his team, whether or not he’s putting up big numbers.
But the familiar +/- stat has a serious flaw: Each player’s rating is heavily influenced by the play of his on-court teammates.
For example, in the basic +/- numbers, Thunder backup point guard Reggie Jackson is ranked 27th in the league. But he’s also spent the majority of his minutes playing alongside Kevin Durant, the league’s likely MVP. What we really want to know is how much of Jackson’s elite rating is attributable to his own play, and basic +/- simply can’t tell us.
But real plus-minus can.
(Emphasis mine). This is simply not true. The reason it’s not true is because it is quite literally impossible to totally attribute the impact of an individual player to the margin of victory in a basketball season. The best we can do–and what RPM actually does–is use math to come up with a best estimate of the value of each individual player. Again, ESPN has an incentive to go for the spectacular description, so this is hardly surprising, but it is too bad. RPM, and xRAPM before it, are incredibly powerful predictive tools and are probably the best estimate that presently exists for determining the all-in-one value of a given player, in their role on their team. It is, however, imperfect. It’s imperfect for perfectly reasonable reasons, but it’s not without its caveats, due to the methodology. The trouble is, ESPN has hidden parts of the methodology and described its assumptions insufficiently and incompletely. (Kevin Pelton did go on Zach Lowe’s Grantland podcast in order to explain how RPM works in somewhat more specific terms, but he didn’t get into all of the caveats I’ll get into below, and it’s not entirely clear why the explanation he gave was not part of the initial roll out. There’s also a good chance that many who read the initial RPM introduction did not also manage to listen to a podcast on a totally different, though affiliated website.)
It’s not that the method is proprietary or must stay hidden either, as anyone with the curiosity and free time can go Googling or diving into the APBR Metrics message board archives to find out just about everything that goes into RPM. Englemann has been very open about his process from the beginning. There’s a lot of fancy math involved that goes over my head, but here’s a couple of things I have gleaned from reading and paying attention:
RPM uses data from the prior year to reduce noise.
(Ed. note: After the first season it was used, ESPN stopped using prior year data in its calculation of RPM, which reduced its predictive ability but allowed them to more credibly use it for season-end awards discussions without being accused of using data from years before and muddying the waters.)
In any metric based around adjusted plus-minus, there is bound to be some level of noise or uncertainty. This is due to issues of collinearity and relatively small sample size. Collinearity, in this context, just means that there are often players who play together a lot or who only ever sub in and out for one another and thus it is hard to disentangle their value in +/- from one another. Small sample size results from their being a relatively small number of lineups from each team to draw upon in sussing out the value of individual players. As a result of this, some means are necessary to reduce the noise to have the best possible estimates of player impact.
RPM utilizes just about every possible way to reduce noise there is. All of these methods for reducing noise introduce certain influences to the numbers and its important to note them. The first of these influences is that RPM uses prior year data as a way to inform the regression upon which RPM rests. This helps in terms of overall predictiveness, but it also makes individual player ratings representative of their last two years rather than just the year that is allegedly being measured. This has important implications, given the way that ESPN will likely use the data (particularly in their end of season awards discussions).
Currently, LeBron leads the league in RPM per 100 possessions and (barely) in Wins Above Replacement (WAR). This is partially a function of LeBron’s stellar year last year when he hit his likely peak as a player. The guys at Talking Practice have created Individual Player Value (IPV), which is an all in one metric that is pretty similar to RPM in methodology and results, but they report numbers that are not informed by prior years. Under IPV, LeBron is third behind Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry. It’s clear that giving LeBron credit for last year gives him an upper hand under RPM, but no mention is made anywhere about the use of prior year data in articles using RPM as a tool thus far. This should be mentioned whenever RPM is used to make individual player comparisons.
RPM, like xRAPM before it, uses a box-score based prior which actually makes up a large portion of the metric.
What this means is that when running the regression (i.e. a crazy big math equation where there are many variables that need to be solved for, in this case the variables are the RPM values of the individual players), the equation is given information about where the player should likely shake out in terms of value, given what’s known about their box-score stats. The box-score based prior which RPM uses is based on a regression of box-score stats against season lineup data to best predict results. Basically, what this means is that players that put up great box-score numbers will be benefitted under RPM, even if those numbers are somewhat hollow.
As an example, say you have a player like Carlos Boozer who is a defensive rebounding machine, but who is otherwise an awful defensive player. Under RPM, Carlos’s defensive value will be somewhat artificially propped up, because defensive rebounding, on average, serves as one proxy for defensive value. In terms of overall predictive accuracy and confidence in the numbers produced, the box-score based prior helps a lot, but on the margins, there will be problems like our man Carlos. You can paint a similar picture for a player who gambles for steals a lot or someone who blocks a lot of shots but has poor defensive discipline and blows rotations routinely. The same is true of a player who puts up numbers on offense, while neglecting all of the unmeasured things on that end, the box-score prior will inflate his value relative to his Platonic “True Value.” The portion of RPM which is determined by regression against point differential while on and off the floor mitigates some of these ill effects, but it’s important to know these influences exist.
RPM contains a height-based prior which boosts the defensive ratings of all taller players.
This is a final situation where something is included in RPM which improves predictive accuracy, but which introduces a certain amount of bias into the numbers on the individual level. The reason for including the height based prior is simple: on average, big men tend to be much more impactful on the defensive side of the ball than smaller players. Although this is undoubtedly true on average, not all big men are good defenders, so adding the boost to all players who are big will necessarily inflate some undeserving players for the sake of greater overall average accuracy.
Given the box-score and the height-based priors, it’s again easy to think about Carlos Boozer, who takes frequent naps on defense, but is tall and snags many defensive rebounds. RPM is going to make Boozer look better on defense than he deserves. Unfortunately, these influences can have cascading effects. Due to the fact that the regression of RPM necessarily ties all players together in one big equation, if Boozer is getting more credit than he deserves, someone he plays with frequently is probably getting jobbed. (Yes, I’m mad about Joakim Noah getting screwed in RPM by Carlos Boozer, you guys).
These influences or biases, however you choose to term them, are not the end of the world, and the logic of them is sound in terms of modeling the league, but RPM is not infallible and ESPN would do well to more fully explain the assumptions underlying the model and the potential consequences therefrom. RPM is the best all-in-one estimate of player value (within a given role) in the public domain, and good on ESPN for bringing it to a wider audience. However, it’s not a perfect measure and no one number metric likely ever will be in a game as dynamic as basketball. It is a valuable tool to use, alongside paying close attention to games and the more standard box-score metrics.
* Multiple years are used in order to reduce the noise caused by the relatively small sample of 1 season’s worth of data.
This article was one of my newsletters on my old Patreon. It was originally published to my subscribers on December 26, 2016.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has always had “tremendous upside potential,” to borrow a phrase from the legendary Hubie Brown. As an incredibly long wing player with solid ball handling skills and the ability to make plays for others, Antetokounmpo made a very intriguing draft prospect four years ago. Here’s what Jonathon Givony of DraftExpress had to say in February of 2013 about the at-the-time mostly unknown prospect now known as the Greek Freak:
Adetokunbo stands out first and foremost thanks to the tremendous physical profile he brings to the table, reminding somewhat of a Nicolas Batum or Thabo Sefolosha on first glance. He has great size at 6–9, 196 pounds, to go along with a developed upper body and an overall terrific frame that should fill out considerably in time. His wingspan has reportedly been measured at 7–3, but perhaps most interesting is the size of his hands, as he’s able to palm the ball like a grapefruit which helps him out considerably as a passer, ball-handler and finisher.
It’s popular to say that a prospect — particularly an obscure one — ‘plays every position on the floor,’ but in the game we watched in Greece, that was indeed the case. The competition level, as you can see in the video scouting report above, is indeed nothing to write home about, but it’s difficult not to be taken aback by the incredibly versatile skill-set Adetokunbo brings to the table at 6–9.
There were, of course, questions. They mostly centered on the level of competition he was facing as a young player in the Greek minor leagues. In addition, for most draftniks that aren’t on the payroll of a professional basketball team or work for DraftExpress, there was very little footage of him to form an opinion. He was also rail thin and hadn’t quite grown to his current 6’11” (he was just 6’9″). The talent was there, but it was fair to wonder if the tools and skills he displayed would translate against the very best players in the world.
About a third of the way through his fourth season in the league, that question has been answered emphatically in the affirmative. Antetokounmpo, now known to many as simply Giannis, has undeniably made “the leap.” He’s sporting top 5 marks in the league in all three of the major all-in-one boxscore statistics (Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares per 48 minutes, and Box Plus-Minus), and he’s 6th in ESPN’s Real Plus Minus. He’s also just 22 years old. That last number might be the most important, because what you might not know is that Antetokounmpo is currently on pace to have (arguably) the very best season by any player age 22 or under in the history of the league.
The one thing that really stands out from this list of the best seasons for players age 22 and under is that basically all of these players were great as soon as they entered the league. That was decidedly not the case for Antetokounmpo. As a 19 year old rookie, Antetokounmpo was roughly a replacement level player, sporting a BPM of -1.8 per 100 possessions (replacement level is -2.0) and a PER of 10.8 (replacement level is 11.0).
Looking at his basic box-score numbers, per 36 minutes, the same picture emerges. Giannis averaged 10.0 points on below average scoring efficiency, 6.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.2 blocks. To go from that to where Antetokounmpo is now is nothing short of astounding. It may be the single biggest improvement by a player in a four year span, ever. Giannis has been getting incrementally better each year, but this year something different has happened. What are his per 36 numbers this year? 24.2 points on an absurdly high efficiency (60.8% true shooting), 9.3 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 2.1 steals, and 2.0 blocks. He has become an absolute do-it-all monster. This has largely been the result of Antetokounmpo becoming empowered to truly run the offense as the point-forward he was always destined to be.
Antetokounmpo’s offense has come a long way, largely owing to his ability to use his absurdly long strides to get wherever he wants on the floor with little to no resistance. Watching him run the floor in transition and hit all manner of players with the Gyro Step, his extra exaggerated version of the Euro step, is a joy to watch.
It’s not just in transition where Giannis has been able to get to the basket and finish with touch. Watch how easily he’s able to get to the rim here against the Cavaliers.
Poor Kyrie Irving doesn’t stand a chance. Giannis can just step around him and then reach around any other help defenders to get the ball up off the glass for the easy bucket.
As a result of his ability to go around, through, and over the top of his opponents, Antetokounmpo’s shot chart for this season looks like this:
Due to his ability to get shots around the basket and his success rate at converting them, Antetokounmpo has seen the floor open up for him as defenses scramble to try to find a way to stop him. Check out the attention he draws here on this pick and roll in semi-transition with nominal point guard Matthew Dellavedova against the Washington Wizards.
Dellavedova gets solid contact on Otto Porter and Antetokounmpo is able to turn the corner on John Wall.
All five Wizards are looking at Giannis as he barrels down on Marcin Gortat. This leaves them wide open to Jabari Parker’s dive to the basket.
Antetokounmpo is then able to spoon-feed Parker the easy dunk as all the Wizards are too late to realize that Parker has flashed to the hoop.
A similar thing happened against the Chicago Bulls, only the Bulls were in a set defense. Antetokounmpo had the ball in the mid-post against the diminutive Isaiah Canaan and all five Bulls set their eyes on our new Greek overlord. Mirza Teletovic, like Jabari Parker in the play above, saw his opportunity, cut to the basket, and was rewarded by Giannis with an easy dunk.
All of this offensive wizardry is largely icing on the cake. Where Antetokounmpo really shines is on the defensive end. His 7’3″ wingspan and sharp defensive instincts make him the human embodiment of the Bucks’ front office’s personnel philosophy of tossing out as many long-armed athletes as possible and forcing opposing players to see a mass of limbs everywhere they turn no matter what they try to do. He’s posting the second best Defensive Box Plus Minus by a player his age or younger ever this season, behind only 2015 Rudy Gobert. He’s in passing lanes, he’s bullying smaller players much like Kawhi Leonard and just ripping the ball from them with his massive mitts, and he’s protecting the rim for good measure.
This play from the Bucks’ recent loss to the Cavaliers is illustrative. Giannis is able to plant himself in the paint as he waits for LeBron to bumrush the rim off a pick and roll, while still being able to recover and hit LeBron with a pick-six going the other way when James tries to hit Giannis’s man (seemingly) open in the corner.
That just shouldn’t be possible. But with Giannis, it is. He looks like a 7 foot Scottie Pippen out there. Here are a few more just to give a taste of the world that Giannis is making possible.
LeBron thinks he has the step on Antetokounmpo only to get swatted at the last moment.
Kyrie Irving takes what would be a tough, but make-able shot for him going towards the basket while being guarded by Dellavedova, only for it to be completely erased by Giannis as he helps from the weakside.
What should be really, truly scary for the rest of the league is that Antetokounmpo isn’t even an average jump shooter at this point, but there are signs that he’s getting better. His free throw percentage, typically a pretty good measure of how good someone’s shooting form is, is up around 80% (79.2%) and he’s converting shots between 16 feet and inside the three point arc (the dreaded “long twos”) at 38.5%. If he can get his 3 point shot to merely mediocre from its current relatively unusable state (28.6% on 2.5 attempts a game), he becomes impossible to guard. As it is, he is incredibly hard to contain, but with a consistent jumper, there’s no way to even think about stopping him. Oh, by the way, Dirk Nowitzki’s famed shot doctor, Holger Geschwindner offered to tutor Giannis this coming summer.
Be afraid, rest of the NBA, be very afraid. The era of Giannis has arrived.
Ideas for team-building around Chicago’s newest superstar
In my last post, I outlined the ways in which the Chicago Bulls front office has failed to surround their best player, Jimmy Butler, with complimentary talents. In this post, I’ll toss off some ideas, most of which seem at least theoretically plausible, for the Chicago front office moving forward.
If I were running the Bulls, I’d be trying to flip Taj Gibson for some kind of guard or wing who can shoot. The return for Gibson needn’t be incredible, as he’s 31 years old and unlikely to return to Chicago. The biggest thing is that they shouldn’t let him depart with nothing gained in return like they did with Pau Gasol last year in a completely lost season. Another ancillary benefit would be that it would open the starting power forward spot for Mirotic, alongside Butler.
One team that might be interested in Gibson is the Raptors, assuming their pursuit of Paul Millsap ends up fruitless. If Chicago was able to flip Gibson for Terrence Ross, that’d be a deal worth doing. The Bulls might need to include another asset to get Toronto to bite, but the makings of a deal could be there, as Ross is currently blocking minutes for the possibly superior and definitely much cheaper Norman Powell, and they may want to trim some salary as they prepare to pay Kyle Lowry, while improving their big man rotation to take on Cleveland.
Chicago might also call up their old pal Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota and dangle Gibson and their first round pick or the protected Kings pick for the price of Tyus Jones and Gorgui Dieng. Jones is a very solid pick and roll point guard who can also spot up off the ball very well, a near ideal fit next to Butler. He’d be basically perfect if he was a plus defender. Dieng makes the salaries work and is a solid young big man in his own right. Thibodeau has to be losing his mind a bit at his inability to get the young Wolves to play his defense well and having a coach on the floor in Gibson who really understands his defense may be worth it. Maybe his prior relationship with Gibson gets him the inside track on re-signing him. On the other hand, the Wolves appear to be quickly falling out of the playoff picture, so this sort of win-now move is a little improbable. But these are the sort of deals the Bulls should be exploring for Gibson.
The Bulls also have a couple of mid-first round picks, assuming the Kings remain where they are in the standings, to dangle in trades. Given the depth of this year’s draft, the Bulls might be better suited to hang onto these picks. I will admit, I haven’t investigated this draft much yet, but that seems to be the consensus at this point. At some point further along in the season, I’ll run my draft numbers to see what they think of this year’s crop of young talent.
Finally, the Bulls may trade Rajon Rondo. Rondo probably won’t fetch anything on his own. In fact, he’s likely a negative asset and Chicago would probably need to attach an asset to move him. This would be a mistake. They should just buy Rondo out and stretch provision his $3 million in remaining guaranteed money next year over the next 3 seasons.
I compiled a list of potential free agent targets for the Bulls, most of whom are shooters, with a few exceptions that are explained below.
UFA Target List
Most of the players in this tier are fairly unlikely to move from their current situations, but they are the best fits for what the Bulls need that seem possibly acquirable.
George Hill would be Chicago’s best option, by far, in unrestricted free agency this summer. He also seems pretty unlikely to leave a great situation in Utah for what is a pretty dicey situation with the Bulls. Hill would be a perfect fit next to Butler, however, as he can defend either guard position, he can run pick and roll when Butler sits or with Butler on the floor, and he is a knockdown spot-up shooter from behind the arc. Hill is getting a little advanced in age, but he’s got a game that should age well and would be worth the risk.
Like Hill, Mills is pretty likely to stay where he is, rather than actually coming to Chicago. He’s been San Antonio’s best point guard this year, and they can’t afford to lose him, so expect them to pay up. Mills isn’t the defensive stopper that Hill is and definitely doesn’t have Hill’s switchy defensive versatility, but he’s a knockdown shooter off the catch and a good offensive maestro in the pick and roll and otherwise. He’ll be 29 in the first year of his next deal, so he’s slightly better from an age perspective than Hill, but Hill is still a better option given the overall package he provides relative to Mills.
Theoretical Jrue Holiday is the best option the Bulls have this offseason. He’s a long, very talented defender from the PG spot. He can hit open catch and shoot threes. He can also run the offense, and he’s only 26 years old. Unfortunately, real-life Jrue Holiday hasn’t played more than 2000 minutes in a season since 2013. He’s constantly injured. Chicago would likely need to pay him a max contract or very close to it and given the Bulls’ history with oft-injured point guards, they may decide to look elsewhere. Still, the potential of a Holiday-Butler pairing with shooters in the forward spots is very intriguing.
Teague’s shot from behind the arc comes and goes. He’s a career 35% shooter from deep, right at league average, but he’s shooting below 30% this season on roughly 3 attempts a game. Last year, he shot 40%. Teague also tends to dominate the ball a bit more than you would like in a player paired up with Butler. On the other hand, he’s just 28, he’s a decent enough shooter, and he’s been healthy for most of his career.
2Pat is a bit duplicative of Nikola Mirotic and he’s a couple years older, but he’s probably a little bit better than Mirotic. If the Bulls decide to let Niko walk in restricted free agency, a bad idea it must be said, this would at least be one way to salvage the loss. Patterson is really important for what Toronto does, though, and he has found a great role for himself, so it’d be surprising if he left the Raps.
Players in this tier are more likely to come to Chicago and are, generally, bets on upside, as they skew younger.
Ian Clark is a combo guard who has been marinating in the Golden State special sauce for a couple seasons now after bouncing around from Utah to Denver at the start . He’s a career 37.6% three point shooter with a pure stroke. He can create a little off the bounce, but he’s mostly a spot up player. He’s made great strides as a defensive player, though he’s still not a plus defender, but he should be able to get to the level where he’s not hurting. Clark is only 25 years old and his skill fit next to Butler is strong. His price tag is also likely to be pretty reasonable given his status as something of a journeyman.
Casspi has been underrated for practically his whole career. His burial on the Sacramento bench is just the latest example. Casspi can play either forward position on both offense and defense and he strokes it from range, hitting threes at about 37% for his career on pretty heavy volume for his position. Casspi’s already 28, but he would be a tremendous add to a team in desperate need of players with the versatility to capably swing between the two forward spots. This will be even more the case after the Bulls (likely) lose Taj Gibson, whether via trade or free agency and they need to find players to fill those power forward minutes.
Thompson is only 25 and he’s a 39% three point shooter over his career. His overall efficiency has suffered due to his poor foul drawing and foul shooting ability. From a spacing perspective, though, he provides the goods. He’s also been a poor defender, by the numbers, but he has good tools and the numbers may look different without the drag that playing for Philadelphia has on everyone’s stats. This is a swing on potential. Thompson probably won’t cost a ton and he’s young enough to become something more. If he’s only ever an off-the-bench bomber from the wing, there’s still value in that for Chicago.
Muscala is one of the rarest things in the league, a true stretch five. He’s 6’11”, 240 pounds, so he’s got the size to play down low, but the skill to play either big position and to space the floor. He’s improved his shooting while adding more and more volume from deep each year. “Moose” has developed into another rarity, a player who grades out as a plus on both ends of the floor. He’s playing roughly 20 minutes a night for Atlanta, so they will probably want to keep him. Additionally, the Bulls should have two centers already that will require minutes in Cristiano Felicio and Robin Lopez, but if Gibson departs, Muscala could be an option to fill his minutes, if not his defensive impact, more directly.
If Chicago can’t snag one of the point guards in tier 1, these are the guys they should be looking to grab.
Williams was my preference for the Bulls to give the Rajon Rondo contract to this off-season, at the time. They had already lost E’Twuan Moore and other, superior options (Matthew Dellavedova, Langston Galloway, among others) had also already signed. Instead Dallas got Williams for the same year deal for less money than Rondo got. This offseason would be an opportunity to re-do that decision. Williams is not at all what he once was and some of his defensive numbers have started to take a worrying dip, as he hits 32 this season. He is, however, still a good shooter and a roughly league average starting point guard. He would be worth signing as a year long stop-gap until one of the Bulls’ younger point guards (Jerian Grant, Denzel Valentine, whomever they might draft this year) develops or someone better becomes available.
Collison will be 30 in year one of his next deal. He’s not quite as good as the guys in tier 1, but he is likely to be much easier for the Bulls to sign and he’s a decent fit. He probably won’t require a contract the length of some of the players in tier 1, either, which alleviates some of the concerns about his age. Collison is a pesky on-ball defender and most important for these purposes, he’s a 37.3% shooter from deep for his career. His overall defensive numbers (DBPM and DRPM) are worryingly bad, so that’s a red flag, especially as a soon-to-be 30 year old. Those numbers may be suffering a bit from his presence on the Kings cluster****. Still, he’s probably worth the flier, depending on the size and length of the contract he gets.
Jerebko has been a very nice find for the Celtics since they nabbed him in a trade from Detroit. He can really shoot and has been able to operate as a stretch center for about a fifth of his time in Boston without them getting killed defensively. Having him as a rotational big man would be a nice way to round things out around Butler. As an added bonus, fans would get to yell “HIS NAME IS JONAS!” whenever he did something cool.
Green has been bouncing around the league for a while now, having carved out a niche as a solid shooter on the wings. He’s going to be 32 and he’s not a good defender, despite his athletic tools, but he’d be another end of rotation guy who can shoot from deep.
RFA Target List
There are some restricted free agents who would be good fits for what the Bulls need, but their current teams are definitely matching anything, for example, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is almost certainly getting a max deal that Detroit will almost certainly match. These are the other, more realistic options.
Nikola Mirotic, Cristiano Felicio, Michael Carter-Williams
The top priority should be for the Bulls to bring back their own restricted free agents. Nikola Mirotic and Cristiano Felicio should be prioritized, but even Michael Carter-Williams is probably worth keeping around, so long as the price tag isn’t too high. Mirotic’s shooting is too important and he’s too talented to lose. Felicio has been a great find and if the Bulls can use the threat of their match to retain him on a value contract, so much the better. Carter-Williams is never going to be a shooter or the best fit around Butler, but could be a decent 20 minute a night backup when Butler and the starters aren’t on the floor, if he is surrounded by shooting.
In taking lessons from the Houston experiment, one way to stretch the floor is by sucking in the defense with rim rolling big men that can serve as your defensive anchors. Nerlens Noel had an incredible rookie season on the defensive end, dragging a D-League level supporting cast to a middling defensive efficiency. He was one of the best projected players by statistical models in the last few years. He blocks shots, gobbles steals, and his best offensive skill projects as a pick and roll finisher, in the vein of what Clint Capela is doing down in Texas. Noel was benched earlier this year and the Sixers have a zillion bigs, so with the right offer, the Bulls may be able to snag Noel. In this scenario, they probably let Felicio walk, as he is a pretty similar player in terms of skills, just without the top end upside of a Noel. Chicago also doesn’t have the minutes to realistically pay and play Lopez, Noel, and Felicio.
Despite flying way under the radar (outside of Utah, anyway), the Aussie has a funky combination of skills that all work together to produce an incredibly efficient, really good player. He shoots threes at over 39% for his career, he’s a very good passer for a low-usage wing, and he grabs steals like a madman. He’s also very likely going to see whatever offer he receives in restricted free agency go unmatched by the Jazz, as they have simply too many people to pay with their need to give George Hill and, probably, Derrick Favors big money deals this summer. I really like Ingles as a fit around Butler and on bench units with Carter-Williams or Dwyane Wade running the show. He’s 29, so there is some risk of paying too much for him as he declines, but his game isn’t explosive, anyway. He gets by on skill and craft. As a result, Ingles seems likely to age quite well.
Bullock is a similar swing on potential to UFA target and fellow 25 year old, Hollis Thompson. Bullock hasn’t shot the trey as well as Thompson, but he’s shown more as a defender. He came into the league as a 3 & D prospect, and after being glued to the bench by Doc Rivers in Los Angeles, Bullock has finally shown that he has some ability to be that player in limited minutes in his two seasons with Detroit. At just 1204 career minutes, Bullock is such an unknown that he could be an undervalued player on the market, even if the Bulls “overpay” to steal him from Detroit.
So those would be my targets for the Bulls. It’s not hard to envision them picking a couple of these guys, adding them to their current stable of players, and reshaping the lineups around Butler to accomplish something like a lesser version of what the Rockets have done with James Harden by surrounding him with shooting and rim-diving bigs (hello, Cristiano!). With a bit more opportunity for guys like Denzel Valentine, Jerian Grant, and Paul Zipser this season, the Bulls might get a head start on seeing what this sort of thing might look like. Chicago might lose a little bit more frequently, but they aren’t winning anything of significance this season and would develop their young guys. They also might actually surprise themselves and see better performance, because as I mentioned in part 1, Jimmy Butler with shooting around him is a freaking beast. It’s about time the Bulls fully unleash that beast.
Part 1 of a 2 part look at how the Bulls should build around their star
Almost two years ago, I wrote a piece requesting that the Bulls put the ball in Jimmy Butler’s hands, ala James Harden in Houston. #LetJimmyBeHarden. The context was a specific one: Derrick Rose had just gotten injured (again) and the Bulls needed an option to keep their offense afloat as they prepared for the playoffs. Running things through Joakim Noah had been exposed in the prior year’s playoffs. I thought Butler was probably a better option to run more of the offense, even when Rose returned, because Rose had been pretty poor since his return from his initial knee injuries.
The Bulls didn’t really get the opportunity to make Jimmy the focal point that season, as he got hurt before that article even posted. Last year, the Bulls ran back the same team with Rose as the primary option, Pau Gasol as the secondary option, and Butler in third. Even in that tertiary role, however, Butler was able to emerge as a real star player posting 28.4 points per 100 possessions on a strong 56.2% true shooting. This year with Rose traded and Gasol gone to San Antonio, Butler should have been the obvious choice to be the Bulls’ first option.
Looking at how the best teams are constructed around star players and specifically star players with Butler’s facility for driving to the basket, surrounding Butler with shooters should have been the obvious choice. If you looked at when Butler and the Bulls were most successful last season, it was when he was surrounded by shooters, giving him open lanes to drive to the bucket. When Butler shared the floor with Nikola Mirotic and E’Twuan Moore, two solid spot-up shooters for their positions with average to good defense, the Bulls scored at a 111.1 points per 100 possessions rate (which would have been top 3 in the league last year over the entire season) and surrendered only 104.7 points per 100 possessions (roughly a top 10 defense over the 2015–16 season) for a net rating of 6.4 points per 100 (equivalent to the 57 win Cavs over the full year). That’s really freaking good! Fit matters. Similarly but even better, the Bulls were 111.1 points per 100 and surrendered 103.1 points per 100 in the 329 minutes when Butler, Tony Snell, and Mirotic shared the floor. (All of this information via nbawowy.com).
Eagle-eyed readers will note something interesting about those two 3-man lineups that blitzed the league for Chicago. They included two players, E’Twuan Moore and Tony Snell, that the Bulls willingly parted with in this off-season. They let Moore sign with the Pelicans, when they had the cap space to pay him more than what New Orleans offered. Instead, they used that money to overpay Rajon Rondo for a season, a move that has already blown up in their face. It was always a baffling decision. Rondo can’t space the floor and needs the ball in his hands and out of Butler’s hands to maximize his own value. The fact that the Bulls reportedly had Rondo as their number one free agent target just speaks to how little they seem to understand how to maximize their best player’s impact on the floor.
Then, Chicago traded Tony Snell for Michael Carter-Williams, another floor pincher (the opposite of a spacer) who needs the ball in hands to be relatively successful. Oh, they also brought in more competition for Butler to be “the man” by signing Dwyane Wade to a big contract well past age 30, always a big risk. Wade has been really good for the Bulls, better than could have been expected based on the last couple years, but he’s also a tough fit with Butler. He’s, say it with me now, a poor shooter who needs the ball. The only reason things haven’t been worse is that Wade is a future hall-of-famer who has a super high level of basketball intelligence and works smartly off the ball to find open spaces to cut into around Butler. Why are the Bulls making this so hard on themselves?
Despite all of the roadblocks the Chicago front office has thrown in his way, in some ways literally as they block his path to the basket with non-shooters, Butler has managed to get even better, yet again. He’s scoring over 35 points per 100 possessions on 59.4% true shooting, which is ridiculously good in any environment, but all the more staggering when you consider how often he’s playing against defenses packing the paint.
When Butler has played with space, he’s been even more remarkable. In 187 minutes he’s shared with Mirotic and Doug McDermott, this team’s two best shooters for their positions, Butler is scoring 50.8 points per 100 possessions on 62.8% true shooting, which is obviously freaking nuts. More importantly, the Bulls offense is blitzing the league at 123.2 points scored per 100 possessions, which would be the league’s best offense by a huge margin, while only surrendering 103.7 points per 100, which would be tied with the Warriors for the best defense in the league. (Data again via nbawowy.com). Small sample size caveats aside, pairing this information with the previously cited 3-man lineup data, we can say pretty definitively that Jimmy Butler + shooters is a winning combination.
The Bulls need to be targeting shooters to pair with Butler. They should try to be active during this year’s trade deadline to get shooters to go with Butler, but they also need to be thinking now about who will be available in free agency that they can realistically land that fit with Butler, which is to say shooters who don’t need the ball.
They’d also do well, for the remainder of this season, to start Nikola Mirotic alongside Butler and McDermott to maximize the number of minutes those players share together, given how they’ve lit the league on fire when they play together. I’d also suggest playing Paul Zipser a bit more off the bench, given that he was a 42% three point shooter and an 82% free throw shooter over his 4 year European career. (Data via RealGM). The guy can shoot and, to my eyes, looked to know how to play in the preseason action I caught of him. (His production in very limited minutes hasn’t been there, but the samples are way too small to buy into much there).
Part 2 of this piece, where I lay out a more detailed plan for the Bulls, with options to build this team around Jimmy Butler will be out tomorrow.