Analytics in NBA Free Agency

Statistician Dean Oliver is one of the grandfathers of basketball analytics.  In 2004 he published his 4 factors of winnings basketball that highlighted the statistics that most attribute to winning basketball games.  It is of no major surprise that shooting well, not turning the ball over, owning the boards, and scoring from the free throw line are winning characteristics, but looking at them in detail and building your team and game plan to emphasize these factors is what modern analytics is all about.  Here we will take a look at these 4 factors, how the Mavs stacked up against the rest of the NBA last season, and which free agents can be added to improve the Mavericks chances of returning to winning basketball.

 

1. Efficient Shooting

The statistic that Oliver used to measure efficient shooting is effective field goal percentage.  Equivalent to (FGM+.5*3PM)/FGA effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%) emphasizes high percentage shooting while taking into account the added benefit of three pointers.  This is the singular most important team statistic in basketball.  When it comes down to it this is a make-or-miss league where on any given night if you get hot and make shots you can win.

2018-2019 effective Field Goal Percentage Rankings
Rank Team eFG%
1 Golden State Warriors* 56.5%
2 Milwaukee Bucks* 55.0%
3 Toronto Raptors* 54.3%
4 Houston Rockets* 54.2%
5 Utah Jazz* 53.8%
19 Dallas Mavericks 51.9%
League Average 52.4%
* Denotes Playoff Team
Malcolm Brogdon – 57.5% eFG on 15.6 ppg

An outside free agent that dominates the effective Field Goal Percentage stat is the 26 year old restricted free agent out of Milwaukee, Malcolm Brogdon. In his third year in the NBA this point guard out of Virginia joined the rare air of the 50/40/90% club by shooting 50.5% from the field, 42.6% from three, and 92.8% from the line for an eFG of 57.5%.

Seth Curry – 57.7% eFG on 7.9 ppg

Shooting guards can often be a position of high shot volume and low efficiency but there are still some available that can help in this category.  Namely, ex-Mavericks, Seth Curry. In 19 minutes per game this season Curry put up an impressive eFG number of 57.7%. He is without a doubt one of the most deadly three point shooters in the NBA, knocking down 45% of his attempts this season.

Bojan Bogdanovic – 57.5% on 18 ppg

Bojan Bogdanovic was a 2nd round draft pick in 2011 out of Croatia, making his NBA debut in 2014 with the Brooklyn Nets.  Even though he is not a household name, Bogdanovic is an elite shooter and very efficient scorer.  He has good size at 6’8″ and though he is not the most athletic but he does not seem out of place with the NBA pace.

Now with a more expanded role this season Bogdanovic has only grown more efficient and displayed more offensive skills.  He may not move the needle and make you feel like a contender right away but he is a great shooter and at the right value could be a great complement to Luka and Porzingis.

Dwight Powell – 63.7% eFG on 10.6 ppg

A big factor in generating above average eFG% for the Dallas Mavericks is not just who they can add but also who they can retain.  I’m talking about the high flying uber efficient Dwight Powell.  With a 63.7% eFG% Dwight Powell ranked 6th in the entire league for players who averaged at least 20 minutes per game.  Dwight has always been incredible at setting a high screen then sprinting to the basket and soaring for an acrobatic lob. As he has matured over his 4+ seasons in Dallas and has improved his ability to catch in the lane, gather, and finish below the rim with efficiency.  In previous years we had repeatedly seen Dwight lose the ball out of bounds on the baseline in traffic but this season he was much more composed and productive when handling the ball.

Other eFG% leaders who are free agents
Player Age eFG% PTS
Thomas Bryant 21 64.8% 10.5
DeAndre Jordan 30 64.1% 11
JaVale McGee 31 62.5% 12
Danny Green 31 62.2% 10.3
Ed Davis 29 61.6% 5.8
Richaun Holmes 25 60.8% 8.2
Kenneth Faried 29 60.4% 10.4
Jonas Valanciunas 26 57.2% 15.6
Hassan Whiteside 29 57.2% 12.3
Dewayne Dedmon 29 57.1% 10.8

There is also a flip side to each of these big four factors to winning basketball, defense. While scoring efficiently is important, so is preventing opponents from doing so. Defense is much harder to measure than shooting, we will have to rely on the Defensive Rating statistics that tries to measure the number of points a players allows per 100 possessions.

Shooting Defense

Here are the players that had the best defensive rating while playing at least 15 minutes per game.

Player Def Rtg
Hassan Whiteside 99
DeMarcus Cousins 102
Brook Lopez 103
Nikola Vucevic 103
Ed Davis 105
Khris Middelton 106
Tyreke Evans 107

 

2. Protect the Ball

Turnovers are killer. If you turn the ball over you are just giving your opponent more opportunities to score and crushing your own team’s momentum. The best measure of protecting the ball is turnover percentage (TO%), a simple measure of how often your team’s possessions end in a turnover. This is better than just going off of total turnovers because it accounts for differences in pace of play.

Rank Team TOV%
1 Charlotte Hornets 10.9
2 San Antonio Spurs* 11
3 Minnesota Timberwolves 11.4
4 Sacramento Kings 11.5
5 Boston Celtics* 11.5
21 Dallas Mavericks 12.7
League Average 12.4
* Denotes Playoff Team

Anyone can just not turn the ball over. The real skill is being able to be aggressive and make plays for others without turning the ball over. To find players that can help the Mavericks climb the rankings of TOV% rankings we are looking for players with high assist to turnover rates and low TOV%.

Derrick Rose – 9.1 TOV%, 5.7 AST per 36 min

The former MVP is not talked about much in free agency but based on his performance this season he should not be forgotten. D-Rose is still an efficient playmaker who had an extremely low turnover rate while racking up 4.3 assists per game. He also did this while averaging over 18 points per game and shooting a career best 37% from three point range.

Nikola Vucevic – 9.9% TOV%, 4.4 AST per 36 min

Nikola Vucevic is one of the best Centers available in upcoming free agency.  Not just because of his over 20 points, 12 rebounds, 1.1 blocks, and 1 steals per game but also because he is one of the most efficient passers at the position averaging 3.8 assists per game. His elite low post scoring draws double teams allowing him to find open cutters and shooters for easy baskets. Vucevic will demand a bunch of money in free agency but if he performs like this every season, he is worth it.

Trey Burke – 7.5 TOV%, 5.1 AST per 36 min

Traded to the Mavericks as part of the Kristaps Porzingis deal, Trey Burke had some impressive moments in Dallas over his 25 games with the team. At 26 years old, Burke is just coming into his basketball prime and his extremely low TOV% shows it. Now only is he an efficient playmaker but he can also fill up the points column in a hurry. If Burke falls through the free agency cracks he could be a great value signing for the Mavs this offseason.

Other TOV% leaders who are free agents
Player Age TOV% AST/36
Jimmy Butler 29 8.2 4.3
Kawhi Leonard 27 8.4 3.5
Terry Rozier 24 8.8 4.6
Tyus Jones 22 9 7.5
Malcolm Brogdon 26 10 4
Kemba Walker 28 10.1 6.1
Trevor Ariza 33 11.6 3.9
Al Horford 32 11.8 5.2

The opposite of not turning the ball over is having the ability to force turnovers from your opponents. Very simply, we will measure this as steals per 36 minutes played.

Steals per 36 min leaders who are free agents
Player STL/36
Jimmy Butler 2
Kent Bazemore 2
Tyus Jones 1.9
Kawhi Leonard 1.9
Darren Collison 1.8
Thaddeaus Young 1.8

 

3. Crash the Glass

More offensive rebounds result in more direct opportunities to score.  Steals are another way to gain extra possessions but offensive rebounds give you possession in your own zone and more often that not result in open threes, layups, or foul shots; the three most efficient ways to score.

NBA Rank Team ORB%
1 Denver Nuggets* 26.6
2 Portland Trail Blazers* 26.6
3 Oklahoma City Thunder* 26
4 Detroit Pistons* 24.8
5 Miami Heat 24.8
15 Dallas Mavericks 22.7
League Average 22.9
* Denotes Playoff Team

There are some elite offensive rebounders available in free agency this summer.  Each of them have their flaws, but when it comes to giving their team extra possessions there are few better.

Enes Kanter – 16.8% ORB%

Kanter has a nose for the basketball and a knack for scoring around the rim but he does not provide much on defense.  He has never averaged more than .5 blocks per game and is not known as much of a floor spacer. Any team looking for great low post scoring and rebounding would really appreciate the skills of Enes Kanter.

We saw how effective he can be and the overall impact he can have on winning in the first and second rounds of the 2019 NBA Playoffs. His relentless assault of the offensive glass helped the Blazers send home two really good teams in the Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets.

Hassan Whiteside – 16.3% ORB%

Whiteside is an elite shot blocker and rebounder, ending the season as the third best offensive rebounder in the NBA. His free-throw shooting is just god awful at 45% and he really doesn’t have any offensive game outside of dunks and put backs. But when it comes to rebounding and protecting the rim Whiteside is one of the best there is.

Ed Davis – 15.8% ORB%

This 29 year old 9 year NBA veteran ranked 4th in NBA in offensive rebounding this season.  In just 18 minutes per game Davis managed to rack up 8.6 rebounds per game, that would come out to be a per 36 minute number of 17.3 reb/36.

Other Off Reb % leaders who are free agents
Player ORB%
DeAndre Jordan 11.70%
JaVale McGee 12.30%
Ivaca Zubac 11.90%
Richaun Holmes 10.60%

In order to stop teams from dominating the offensive glass you need players who are able to pull down defensive rebounds at a high rate.

REB% leaders who are free agents
Player DRB%
Hassan Whiteside 35.60%
DeAndre Jordan 35.20%
Ed Davis 34.60%
Nikola Vucevic 31.90%
Jonas Valanciunas 31.40%

 

4. Live at the Charity Stripe

There is no more efficient way to score than unguarded from the free throw line. But beyond that, drawing fouls, putting pressure on opposing players, and controlling the tempo all come into play.  This also helps take into account a team’s ability to close out tight games by burying free throws when teams are trying to foul their way back in the game during the final seconds.

The stat that Oliver uses to measure a team’s free throw ability is free throws made divided by field goals attempted (FT/FGA).

NBA Rank Team FT/FGA
1 Los Angeles Clippers* 25.8%
2 Philadelphia 76ers* 24.1%
3 Houston Rockets* 22.1%
4 Utah Jazz* 21.7%
5 Dallas Mavericks 21.6%
League Average 19.8%
* Denotes Playoff Team

To find players who can help in this category I searched for players with at high FT/FGA attempt rates who shoot at least league average from the line and attempt at least 5 field goals per 36 minutes.

Player FT/FGA FT% FT/36 min
Dwight Powell 40.0% 77.2% 4.2
Jimmy Butler 34.2% 85.5% 5.1
Kevin Durant 32.6% 88.5% 6
Jeremy Lin 32.4% 83.8% 4.4
Kawhi Leonard 32.2% 85.4% 6.4
Jeff Teague 29.7% 80.4% 3.5
Jonas Valanciunas 27.5% 79.5% 4.9
Ricky Rubio 26.8% 85.5% 3.7
Ivica Zubac 26.7% 80.2% 3.5
Jeremy Lamb 23.6% 88.8% 3.7

Honorable mention to Dallas Native, Julius Randle.  He was fifth in the entire NBA in free throws attempted per 36 minutes but shot only 73.1%, below the league average of 76.6%. Despite the low free throw percentage he was still 10th in the NBA in free throws made per 36 minutes.  If he can up his efficiency from the line above league average than he would skyrocket up this list and be an incredible asset towards a winning team.

 

All Around Winners

Free Agent Guards with above average eFG%, above average FT%, above average TOV%, and more than 3.5 AST/36 minutes.
Player Age MP eFG% TOV% AST/36 PTS
Kyrie Irving 26 33 55.7% 11.3 7.5 23.8
Malcolm Brogdon 26 28.6 57.5% 10 4 15.6
Ryan Arcidiacono 24 24.2 54.4% 12 4.9 6.7

 

Free Agent Forwards with above average eFG%, above average FT%, above average TOV%, more than 2.5 AST/36 minutes, and higher than 2 ORB%.
Player Age eFG% AST ORB% TOV% PTS
Tobias Harris 26 54.9% 2.9 2.6 9.8 20
Kawhi Leonard 27 54.6% 3.5 4.2 8.4 26.6
Rudy Gay 32 55.4% 3.6 3.8 12.3 13.7
Jonas Jerebko 31 55.6% 2.8 6.6 9.9 6.3

 

Free Agent Centers with above average eFG%, above average FT%, above average TOV%, and above 8 ORB% rate.
Player Age eFG% FT% ORB% TOV% PTS
Nikola Vucevic 28 54.9% 78.9% 9.4 9.9 20.8
Dwight Powell 27 63.7% 77.2% 9.1 10.1 10.6
Thomas Bryant 21 64.8% 78.1% 8.1 9.6 10.5

All of this is a bit of an over generalization of winning and the small difference in most of these stats only result in a small difference in points per game.  The most important factor to winning is having elite talent but these factors need to be considered when trying to build out a Championship contending roster. It is the work of General Managers to find the right balance of these factors that blends the best with the talents of their star players. The Mavericks have a lot to improve on in order to make it back to the Playoffs but there are many free agents available to get this franchise back where it belongs.

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