Sports Reference Blog

Three Big Questions After NBA Free Agency

Posted by Jonah Gardner on July 8, 2016

The hype entering the 2016 NBA Free Agency period suggested that this would be the wildest one in league history. An unprecedented salary cap spike gave essentially every team in the league enough financial leeway to aggressively pursue ways of improving their team.

At the same time, while many of the league's best players were set to become free agents, there were few true superstars in the market. On paper, it seemed extremely unlikely that either of the best players on the market this year - Kevin Durant or LeBron James - would leave teams that at least made the Conference Finals and, in LeBron's case, hoisted the trophy as winners of the 2016 NBA Finals. As basketball fans prepared for nuttiness, it seemed just as possible that this year's feeding frenzy would be a little more laid-back than we expected.

Well, so much for that. As we survey the wreckage, it's clear that this year's free agency period has completely shifted the balance of the league. The loss of cornerstone players has sent the two franchises with the most Conference Finals games since 2010 into rebuilding mode while creating perhaps the most fearsome team in NBA history. The Western Conference looks like it could be a one-team conference while the East has seen a couple of teams add serious star power with an eye towards knocking off the champs. With just three months till the league picks back up, here's a few of the questions we'll be chewing on during the offseason.

Will the Warriors Be As Terrifying As It Seems They'll Be?

On the one hand, this question has an extremely obvious answer. The Golden State Warriors have gone from having one NBA MVP on the roster to two, from having two of the greatest shooters of all-time to three, and from having three current NBA All-Stars to four. This could very well be the greatest collection of talent in NBA history. At the same time, it's just tough to wrap your mind around the idea of a team that just set the record for regular season wins somehow getting better.

And yet, the Warriors have plenty of room to improve, even beyond the obvious fact of their 2nd place finish in the NBA Finals. While the Dubs were number one in simple W-L record, they actually didn't crack the Top 5 all-time in other advanced statistics like Simple Rating System or Net Rating. By the latter rating, they were actually nearly three points per one-hundred possessions worse than the 1996 Chicago Bulls, the best team since 1983-84.

The Warriors stand to be a much better team next year, even if they don't win as many games while doing it, and a lot of it starts with the man Kevin Durant will largely be replacing. While Harrison Barnes' disastrous NBA Finals performance has dominated the conversation around him this summer, the fact is that his statistical performance all year wasn't up to par.

That's quite literal in the case of Player Efficiency Rating (PER), where he finished with a below average 12.3, and Box Plus/Minus (BPM), which saw Barnes finish in the red with a -0.2. Both of those stats attempt to isolate an individual's contributions from those of his teammates, and it seems important that the only advanced stat where he graded out well, Win Shares, also happens to reward players for playing on a team that wins a lot of games.

If you don't trust advanced stats, then this is probably a weird blog for you to be visiting, but don't worry, I've still got the receipts. Here's how the Dubs did when Barnes was on the floor, versus what they looked like when he sat:

Split Tm MP eFG% TRB% AST% STL% BLK% TOV% ORtg
On Court GSW 2042 .560 50.2 67.4 8.4 8.7 14.5 114.4
Off Court GSW 1934 .566 52.4 68.1 8.3 9.8 15.8 115.4
On ? Off GSW 51% -.006 -2.2 -0.7 +0.1 -1.1 -1.3 -1.0
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 7/7/2016.


Barnes played a little over 50% of the Warriors' total minutes in the 2015-16 regular season and, in general, they were slightly worse in those minutes than they were during the half when Barnes sat. In every stat but Steal Percentage, the Warriors improved when Barnes went to the bench.

You could argue that this is because Barnes, as a starter, was facing opposing starting lineups when he played, meaning that when he was off the court, the Warriors faced easier competition. But Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green were also starters and none of them had this kind of decline in team performance when they played.

The same applies to Barnes' replacement. A head-to-head comparison between Barnes and KD only hammers that point home.

Harrison Barnes 2015-16 12.3 .559 8.6 7.8 1.0 0.4 7.6 15.9 -0.2
Kevin Durant 2015-16 28.2 .634 12.4 24.2 1.3 2.5 13.5 30.6 7.9
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 7/7/2016.


As you can see, not only is Durant better than Barnes, he's better in just about every way that Barnes was costing the team. Even if you want to chalk up the difference in Assist Percentage to the fact that Barnes doesn't play on-the-ball as much, KD is still the superior rebounder, shot blocker, and thief. When Barnes was on, the Warriors were worse at rebounding and blocking and just about broke even at steals.

But did KD have an advantage, because he was able to put these numbers up while mostly playing alongside two bigs, as a traditional small forward, while Barnes was pressed into service as a stretch four for much of his playing time? Maybe, but that cuts both ways. On the one hand, perhaps Barnes' rebounding and blocking numbers dropped since he was matched up with bigger power forwards who neutralized the size advantage he has over wings. But, on the other hand, KD was still able to post the same TRB% as Al Horford and BLK% roughly in line with LaMarcus Aldridge, even while having two other players on the court who play positions more traditionally associated with rebounds and blocks.

In other words, while Barnes was a traditional wing playing out of position as a big, KD is an untraditional wing who already plays like a big. As the Warriors learned the hard way in the playoffs, a team that goes "small" by putting the 6'10" Durant at PF isn't really "small" at all. Durant offers the promise of a smallball Lineup of Death that doesn't look or play like a typical smallball lineup. And that's without touching on KD's shooting or his ability to drive or general skill on the ball, all of which greatly outpace Barnes.

The point, then, is that if you aren't afraid of this team yet, you will be very, very soon.

Do the Bulls Realize You Can Only Use One Basketball at a Time?

The Chicago Bulls have had one of the stranger offseasons, dealing away Derrick Rose and looking like they were planning to rebuild from the ground up around 26-year-old Jimmy Butler, only to then pull off the biggest free agent coup of 2009 and sign Dwyane Wade (age 34) and Rajon Rondo (age 30).

In addition, signing Wade and Rondo while shedding Rose is puzzling from an on-court perspective. It means that the Bulls looked at their team and decided that, since flanking Butler with one ball-dominant guard wasn't working, they should surround him with two instead.

Wade's Usage Percentage last year of 31.6 was four points higher than D-Rose's and while Wade was a better player (20.3 PER for Wade vs 13.5 for Rose), that's still not ideal given that A.) there were rumors that Butler wanted more touches last year and B.) Wade's True Shooting Percentage was the lowest of his career.

Rondo, of course, doesn't shoot often, boasting a USG% of 18.8 that puts him in the bottom third of the league among guards. But he does still need the ball in his hands a lot to post the 48.0 AST% he put up last year. If Wade wants to use close to one-third of every possession when he's on the floor, and Rondo wants to hunt the assist almost half the time, that simply doesn't leave a lot of room for Chicago's best offensive player to create a shot for himself.

Wade has deferred before, but that was to a good friend who just happened to be the best player in the world. And while Rondo played alongside another elite wing who didn't necessarily need a shot created for him in Boston, he also only posted an AST% under 40 for just one stretch, and that was his disastrous run with the Dallas Mavericks.

Even if coach Fred Hoiberg can crack that puzzle, another awaits him: Creating spacing with a team full of problematic shooters. If the Bulls roll out a starting-five of Rondo-Wade-Butler-Taj Gibson-Robin Lopez, they'll be playing five players with a combined 43 seasons' worth of NBA experience. And yet, between them, there will only be four seasons total where the player made one or more three-pointers per game; three by Butler (2013-14, 2014-15, 2015-16) and one by Wade (2008-09).

While Rondo shot an uncharacteristic .363 from three-point range last season, he's been a .289 shooter from three for his career. And Wade seemed to have lost his shot completely, shooting just .159 on 44 attempts in the regular season, before going on an unlikely three-point binge in the playoffs.

The lowest-volume three point shooting team in the NBA last year, the Milwaukee Bucks, made 440 threes on 1,277 attempts. If you add up this lineup's 2015-16 three-point numbers, and extrapolate it over a full season, essentially creating a team with just these five players playing 48 minutes per game, you'd get a team that made 229.1 threes on 728.7 attempts. The last team to make 229 threes or fewer in a season was the 2002-03 Denver Nuggets and they won 17 games. And while this obviously overstates the case, and Hoiberg has some obvious tweaks available like moving Nikola Mirotic or Doug McDermott into the starting lineup, Chicago is still facing a spacing crunch.

Horford or Howard?

Five years ago, it would have been insane to even raise a question like this. Yet, while Dwight Howard has seen injuries sap his effectiveness, age drain his athleticism, and a deep hunger for candy and toilet humor erode his reputation, Al Horford's stock has only gone up. That's how Horford has ended up signing a four-year, $113 million contract while Howard got neither a fourth year nor a ninth digit in his three-year, $70 million deal. While it may not reflect their levels of fame, their numbers on the court in 2015-16 largely back it up:

Al Horford 29 82 32.1 6.5 12.8 1.1 3.1 .547 1.3 1.6 .798 7.3 3.2 0.8 1.5 1.3 15.2
Dwight Howard 30 71 32.1 5.2 8.5 0.0 0.1 .620 3.3 6.7 .489 11.8 1.4 1.0 1.6 2.3 13.7
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 7/7/2016.


As you can see, Horford shouldered a heavier offensive burden and has fully incorporated the three-pointer into his game. While Dwight had the better effective field goal percentage, Horford was actually better at the rim, he just took more shots elsewhere befitting his larger role in the Hawks' offensive machine. And, if that's not enough evidence of the narrowing athleticism gap between the two of them, there's the fact that Howard only averaged 0.1 more blocks per game than Horford.

The question for the Atlanta Hawks, then, is how to replace Horford's production using a player who has many of his drawbacks and few of his skills. In exchange for Dwight's rebounding, the Hawks are losing Horford's versatility, ability to space the floor, and willingness to share the rock. What's worse, by trading away Jeff Teague, the Hawks are now going to be putting Howard in pick-and-roll with Dennis Schroder, an explosive young player who, nonetheless, is worse at shooting from long-range.

A Teague/Horford pick and roll featured two players who were threats to score at the rim or shoot from long-range. With Howard and Schroder, defenses can go under screens and hedge towards the rim, safely predicting that, for both players, the final destination is the paint.

For the Celtics, the calculus is much simpler. They get to take their most-used lineup and replace Jared Sullinger (or Amir Johnson, if Sullinger comes back and Brad Stevens still wants to start him) with Al Horford. No matter who gets dropped, the result is a clear upgrade for the Boston Celtics:

Player Season PER TS% 3PAr TRB% AST% STL% BLK% BPM
Al Horford 2015-16 19.4 .565 .244 12.4 16.7 1.3 3.6 4.1
Amir Johnson 2015-16 16.0 .602 .101 14.9 11.4 1.4 3.6 3.0
Jared Sullinger 2015-16 16.7 .476 .128 18.7 15.5 1.9 1.9 1.1
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 7/7/2016.

Swapping Sullinger out for Horford looks especially promising, with Amir Johnson doing a lot of the dirty work that Horford had to handle in Atlanta and freeing the center up to spend more energy as the lynchpin, along with Isaiah Thomas, of Brad Stevens' intricate offense. The concern, however, is that Horford's so-so rebounding may cost the Celtics dearly in making this trade-off.

And that brings us back to Atlanta, whose biggest weakness in the Mike Budenholzer-era has been their rebounding. They haven't had a player average 10 rebounds per game or more since Bud took the helm, and in both playoff sweeps, at the hands of the Cavs, they got killed on the boards by LeBron and Tristan Thompson.

Dwight may not be the same player he used to be, but he's still a top notch rebounder. On a per 36 minute basis, last year was Dwight's best rebounding season since 2011-12, his last with the Orlando Magic. He might be able to give Atlanta the boost the Hawks need on the boards to become a more dangerous team.

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