2021-22 Lakers Player Projections

With the opening night of the 2021-22 NBA season less than a month away, it’s time for a preview of the upcoming season. HoopsHype has already come out with their projection and has the Lakers finishing atop the Western Conference. The Lakers return just three players from last season’s squad, but when two of those three are LeBron James and Anthony Davis, that can only mean championship aspirations. Let’s take a look at how each of the Lakers’ players project according to the trusty FiveThirtyEight Player Projections. These projections use the past performance of statistically similar players to project future performance for the upcoming season (read the full explanation here).

The All-Stars

The Lakers’ two stars are both projected in the All-Star category, one notch below the top tier of players who project as MVP Candidates (Giannis, Jokic, Harden, Doncic, Embiid). Davis was a projected MVP Candidate heading into last season, but sees a drop in projected Wins Above Replacement (WAR) after an injury-plagued 2020-21 campaign. LeBron remains a projected All-Star, even heading into his age 37 season. His two most comparable players according to FiveThirtyEight are the two players ahead of him on the leaderboard of all-time regular season scoring, Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Lakers’ dynamic duo will have to carry a heavy burden this season if FiveThirtyEight’s projections are right about the Lakers’ supposed third star.

A Dubious Starter?

Brutal. Russell Westbrook is one of the most polarizing players in the game today, and apparently FiveThirtyEight’s algorithm is not a fan. He replaces a point guard in Dennis Schroder who last year projected as an “Average Starter.” Despite averaging a triple-double last season, skeptics remain dubious of Westbrook’s ability to impact winning. His high usage % will seemingly have to take a dip this year. But the question of whether he or Lebron cedes control of the ball-handling and playmaking duties will be one of many fascinating Westbrook-related storylines to follow as the season progresses.

Rotation Players

New additions Kendrick Nunn (projected 2.2 WAR), Kent Bazemore (1.2 WAR), and Wayne Ellington (0.6 WAR) all project as rotation players. Who wins the other starting spot at guard, and who closes out games in that slot should be interesting positional battles to watch throughout the season. Head coach Frank Vogel has some serviceable options to choose from, but he has shown a propensity for mixing up his rotations and trying out different lineup combinations during the regular season. It will be an interesting choice between young legs and shot creation (Nunn), pure shooting (Ellington), and defense (Bazemore).

An Offensive Specialist and an Up-and-Comer

The Lakers also have two other young guns on the wing in Talen Horton-Tucker (projected 2.1 WAR) and Malik Monk (0.6 WAR) who will compete for minutes with Nunn, Bazemore, and Ellington. Horton-Tucker is marked as an “Up-and-Comer”, a category usually reserved for first round picks. A move like snagging THT in the 2nd round of the 2019 draft, and then re-signing him this season may be one of the keys to extending the Lakers’ title window. Ditto for signing a former lottery pick in Monk, an offensive specialist who finished last year shooting 40% from 3-point range. The Lakers will have to hope that these guys develop, otherwise they’ll be relying on (mm… how to say it nicely?) their veterans.

Scrappy Veterans

A couple of players who have been part of previous Laker title runs, Trevor Ariza (projected 1.2 WAR) and Dwight Howard (0.7 WAR), both at age 36, figure to have roles carved out in the Laker frontcourt rotation. How much these guys have left in the tank is a common question for not only for these two, but also the remaining players on the Laker roster. FiveThirtyEight is relatively kind to bestow the title of “Scrappy Veteran” on Ariza and Howard. The last 3 Lakers were not so fortunate.

A Scrub and Two Guys Way Past Their Prime

Former All-Stars DeAndre Jordan (“Scrub”, age 33), Rajon Rondo (age 35) and Carmelo Anthony (age 37) all project to have negative WAR contributions in the upcoming season. Anthony was the only one of the three to have had a positive WAR last season (+0.1), but both he and Rondo are now in the “Way Past His Prime” category. Rondo can likely help the team without being on the court much. DJ and Melo figure to compete for minutes with Ariza and Howard. Egos will need to be put in check. On the bright side, an aging roster means a high potential for games missed due to injury and rest, which may open up ample opportunities for everyone to shine.

Minutes Distribution

We can expect LeBron, AD, and Russ to each be in the 32-34 minute per game range this upcoming season. Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had the Lakers’ 4th and 5th highest minutes per game last season at around 28 per game. Nunn was the only one to have that high a minute per game total last season, so we can probably pencil him in there once again. I’m hoping that THT takes that 5th spot in the 28 minute per game range. The rest of the guys should be fine with 15-20 minutes per game.

Is this a Championship Roster?

The Bucks won it all last season with three projected All-Stars (Giannis, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday), one average starter (P.J. Tucker), two rotation players (Brook Lopez, Pat Connaughton), and two scrubs (Bobby Portis, Bryn Forbes) as their top 8 rotation players. In order for the Lakers to win it all this year, they’ll need Russ to be closer to borderline All-Star than “Dubious Starter”, and LeBron or AD to be closer to MVP Candidate than All-Star.

The Brooklyn Nets loom large as a juggernaut. While Harden is the only one projected as an MVP Candidate among the Brooklyn big 3, Kevin Durant could just as easily be too if not for missing all of 2020 and part of last season due to injury (which brings down the algorithm’s projected WAR significantly). FiveThirtyEight’s projections are bullish on other Net players as well including Joe Harris (Average Starter), Blake Griffin, Bruce Brown, Patty Mills, and Landry Shamet (rotation players). The Nets have enough talent to win a championship even if they were to hit some bad injury luck throughout a playoff run (as they nearly did last season).

The Lakers’ margin of error is much smaller, as they’ll need a clean bill of health and all the pieces to fit better than many expect them to. LeBron, AD, Russ, and Melo won a gold medal together way back in 2012 at the London Olympics. Can they win an NBA title together almost a decade later? Father time is not on their side.

NBA’s All-Time Scoring Leaders Bar Chart Race Using R

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has sat atop the NBA’s leaderboard of career regular season scoring since taking the top spot from Wilt Chamberlain in 1984. LeBron James, who currently sits at #3, is the only active player currently in the top 10, and likely needs three more healthy seasons to surpass Kareem.

Bar chart races have become a somewhat controversial data visualization, with detractors decrying them as information overload. But one thing the haters can’t deny is that these charts are attention-grabbing, even captivating. Here’s how to make one using R.

The data needed to create the bar chart race can be found in this Google Sheet. Start by loading the necessary packages and reading in the data (I am using a csv saved locally with the same data that’s in the Google Sheet referenced above).

library(dplyr)
library(ggplot2)
library(gganimate)

chart_data <- readr::read_csv("yearly_totals.csv")

The dplyr and ggplot2 packages should be familiar to most R users. The third package, gganimate, is what is used to stitch together several static plots created with ggplot2 and turn them into an animated plot. Let’s start with how to create each individual static plot.

Creating a Static Plot

I’ll walk through a few intermediate steps before showing the more polished version of the chart to demonstrate how ggplot allows you to build plots iteratively. We can start by filtering for just one year of data and plotting the top 10 scorers. That can be accomplished using the code below:

chart_data %>%
  filter(YearEnd == 2020) %>%
  ggplot(aes(x = -Rank, y = CareerPts, fill = Player)) + 
    geom_tile(aes(y = CareerPts / 2, height = CareerPts), 
              width = 0.9) + 
    coord_flip()

This basic plot uses geom_tile rather than geom_bar, which works better with the animation we will eventually be using. The way geom_tile works is that you specify the center of the tile (i.e. the midpoint of the rectangle, which is the height divided by two, hence CareerPts / 2) as well as the width and height. The call to coord_flip gives us horizontal bars rather than vertical bars (also note the x and y-axes are now flipped). The reason for specifying -Rank as the x aesthetic mapping is so that we get the top-ranking player at the top of the chart rather than the bottom.

Add Plot Labels

Next we’ll add the labels for the player names and point totals onto the bars. That can be accomplished with the following code:

  chart_data %>%
  filter(YearEnd == 2020) %>%
  ggplot(aes(x = -Rank, y = CareerPts, fill = Player)) + 
    geom_tile(aes(y = CareerPts / 2, height = CareerPts), 
              width = 0.9) + 
    coord_flip() +
    # Add player labels to bars
    geom_text(aes(label = Player), col = "white", 
              hjust = "right", nudge_y = -1000) +
    # Add point totals next to bars
    geom_text(aes(label = scales::comma(CareerPts, accuracy = 1)), 
              hjust = "left", nudge_y = 1000)

The code above adds two calls to geom_text, the first of which adds the player labels in white, with the latter adding the point totals. These both inherit their x and y aesthetics from the original call to ggplot, which sets their position at the tip of the bars. The hjust argument makes the player labels right-justified and the point labels left-justified. The nudge_y argument offsets the player labels -1000 along the y-axis (remember our coordinates are flipped, so this is now a horizontal shift), and the point labels +1000. The call to scales::comma is for formatting the points labels.

Final Formatting

  chart_data %>%
  filter(YearEnd == 2020) %>%
  ggplot(aes(x = -Rank, y = CareerPts, fill = Player)) + 
    geom_tile(aes(y = CareerPts / 2, height = CareerPts), 
              width = 0.9) + 
    geom_text(aes(label = Player), col = "white", 
              hjust = "right", nudge_y = -1000) +
    geom_text(aes(label = scales::comma(CareerPts, accuracy = 1)), 
              hjust = "left", nudge_y = 1000) +
    # Final formatting
    coord_flip(clip = "off", expand = FALSE) +
    ylab("Career Points") + 
    ggtitle("NBA All-Time Scoring Leaders") + 
    scale_x_discrete("") +
    scale_y_continuous(limits = c(-4000, 49000), 
                       labels = scales::comma) +
    theme_minimal() +   
    theme(plot.title = element_text(hjust = 0.5, size = 20),
          legend.position = "none",
          panel.grid.minor = element_line(linetype = "dashed"), 
          panel.grid.major = element_line(linetype = "dashed"))

For the final formatting steps, we add the clip = "off" argument to coord_flip, which prevents the point labels from getting cut off as in the previous chart. The expand = FALSE argument prevents the chart from expanding beyond the specified x and y-limits. A title is added along with axis labels, with the x-axis (vertical) being set to blank with scale_x_discrete. The y-axis limits are set using scale_y_continuous and labels are given some nicer formatting using scales::comma. The final touches are added with theme_minimal, which removes the gray chart background, and additional theme elements to center the plot title, remove the legend, and use dashed gridlines.

Create Multiple Plots

Now that we have one polished plot created, we need to reproduce that across several years. You can create a visual of this across a few years using facet_wrap.

chart_data %>%
  filter(YearEnd >= 2018) %>%
  ggplot(aes(x = -Rank, y = CareerPts, fill = Player)) + 
...
 + facet_wrap(~YearEnd) 

Updating the filter(YearEnd == 2020) in the previous code to YearEnd >= 2018 and adding + facet_wrap(~YearEnd) to the end of that same code produces the following:

You can see that the only difference since 2018 is LeBron James moving from #7 in 2018 to #4 in 2019 and #3 in 2020. These plots are the building blocks for the animation. Once these are all set up, it’s time to bring in the gganimate functions.

Add Animation

Now we want to stitch together the plots created in the previous section and animate them using gganimate. We replace the facet_wrap function with transition_time(YearEnd). Let’s also update the filter to go back to 2010 to see how this works across a short but meaningful period of time.

chart_data %>%
  filter(YearEnd >= 2010) %>%
  ggplot(aes(x = -Rank, y = CareerPts, fill = Player)) + 
...
 + transition_time(YearEnd) +
  labs(subtitle = "Top 10 Scorers as of {round(frame_time, 0)}") + 
  theme(plot.subtitle = element_text(hjust = 0.5, size = 12))

The resulting animation should show Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, and LeBron James moving up the rankings. A subtitle is also added, which references the frame_time, a handy property that you can access when using gganimate (try it without the round function wrapped to see how gganimate iterates through individual frames).

Putting it all together

If everything has worked up to this point, the final steps are to use the full data set, and set some animation parameters so that you can save it in a nice format.


anim <- chart_data %>%
  # Comment out the filter
  # filter(YearEnd >= 2010) %>%
  ggplot(aes(x = -Rank, y = CareerPts, fill = Player)) + 
...
 + transition_time(YearEnd) +
  labs(subtitle = "Top 10 Scorers as of {round(frame_time, 0)}") + 
  theme(plot.subtitle = element_text(hjust = 0.5, size = 12))

animate(anim, renderer = gifski_renderer(),
        end_pause = 50, 
        nframes = 5*(2020-1950), fps = 10,
        width = 1080, height = 720, res = 150)

anim_save("NBA_Leading_Scorers.gif")

The animate function allows you to specify the details about the animation. The default renderer is the gifski_renderer, but you can also choose others like av_renderer or ffmpeg_renderer if you wanted to save a video instead of a gif. The end_pause parameter lets you have a nice pause at the end of the animation so that the gif doesn’t cycle back to the beginning right away. You set the number of frames and frames per second with nframes and fps respectively (you may need to tweak these arguments depending on how fast or slow you want the animation). The width, height, and res arguments let you specify device dimensions and resolution, which will determine the size and resolution of the gif in this case. Finally, the call to anim_save is how you save the animation to a file.

One footnote: I also had a mapping of team colors to make the color scheme a little more meaningful, which I declined to include in this walkthrough (that’s why the colors are different in the gif at the beginning of this post). When all’s said and done, you should have something like this:

Data for these charts was from basketball-reference.com. This is hopefully my first of many posts for R-bloggers.

Stat-Based Player Archetypes, Part 2

As the 2020-2021 season is set to tip off, we take one final look back at 2019-2020. Building off of the different player archetypes outlined in the previous post, I now present a dashboard that makes it easy to view the statistical profile that was hinted at in that post. The snapshot below shows the profile for LeBron James, including the most statistically similar players, the stats that he ranks well in (notably #1 in Assist Percentage), and a shot distribution chart. Traditional per game stats are also included as a reference point (though these were not considered in the previous analysis).

The dashboard can be viewed at the link below:

https://westamanaha5.shinyapps.io/NBA_Dashboard_2019-2020/

Stat-Based Player Archetypes

Can statistics be used to find player archetypes such as 3-and-D wings and stretch-forwards? What are some of the other player archetypes that teams should be aware of that can help them win? In order to answer those questions, we can start by building a statistical profile for each player. What that profile will allow us to do is evaluate quantitatively how similar one player is to any other player. Once we have a measure of similarity between each player, we then would need a way to group similar players together. That problem can be solved by performing a common statistical technique known as a cluster analysis. The results of that analysis can then give us clusters of statistically similar players, which can be understood as player archetypes.

Let’s start by considering the statistical profile for 2020 Finals MVP LeBron James. What statistical measures can be used to help describe what James is like as a player? James led the league in assists in 2019-2020, while also scoring over 25 points per game. He measures in at 6 feet 9 inches and 250 pounds while masquerading as a point guard. His combination of size, scoring, and passing is what has made him one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Which players from the 2019-2020 season bear the closest statistical resemblance to King James? As it turns out, two of the three most statistically similar players are guys next in line to take the mantle as the world’s best player, Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

After performing a cluster analysis on players’ key regular season stats from the 2019-2020 NBA season, LeBron, Luka, and Giannis emerged as three of the players within the first archetype, the all-around star. Only ten players comprise this first group, all of whom are All-Star caliber players who can do a little bit of everything. Every player in this group other than Doncic had a salary north of $25 million in 2019-2020. The other players include Nikola Jokic, Anthony Davis, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Joel Embiid. The averages of players within this elite group outpaced those of any of the other groups in a number of different statistical measures including 2-point field goals and free throws made per 36 minutes, assist percentage, usage percentage, and both offensive and defensive box plus-minus.

There were nine other clusters of players that emerged from the analysis, which will be outlined below. For each group, I’ll give a descriptor, along with the distinctive stats characteristic of the types of players in the group, note details about average salaries, and point out some of the notable players. The table below summarizes the top players for each of the guard and wing archetypes.

3-Point Threat with
Passing Skills
2-Point Scorer with
Passing Skills
Multi-Level Shooters3-Point SpecialistsDefensive-Oriented
Damian LillardChris PaulBuddy HieldDuncan RobinsonFred VanVleet
Jayson TatumDeMar DeRozanCJ McCollumDanny GreenMarcus Smart
Trae YoungShai Gilgeous-AlexanderWill BartonDavis BertansGeorge Hill
Khris MiddletonJrue HolidayBogdan BogdanovicJoe HarrisJoe Ingles
Kemba WalkerRussell WestbrookSeth CurryJustin HolidayMikal Bridges
Guard and Wing Archetypes

3-Point Threat with Passing Skills
Damian Lillard, Jayson Tatum, and Trae Young headline a group that makes more 3-point field goals per 36 minutes than any other group. They also rank second behind the all-around star group in several other offensive measures including usage percentage, free throws made per 36 minutes, and offensive box plus-minus. The median salary of players within this group is also second to the star group, coming in at $18 million. A total of 28 players were included in this group, including the Lakers’ newly acquired guard Dennis Schroder. He’s in good company with All-Stars like Kyle Lowry, Devin Booker, Bradley Beal, Paul George, Donovan Mitchell, and Kyrie Irving also included in this archetype.

2-Point Scorer with Passing Skills
The players within this group take more shots from floater range (3-10 feet) and midrange (10-16 feet) than any other group, while also having the highest assist percentage of any group other than the all-around stars. These playmakers are the second most expensive among guards and wings, with a median salary of $8.2 million. Chris Paul, DeMar DeRozan, Jrue Holiday, and Russell Westbrook are the four max-salary level players within the group. 16 of the 20 players in this archetype were listed as point guards, including veterans like Eric Bledsoe and Ricky Rubio, and also included up-and-comers like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

Multi-Level Shooters
Every team needs shooters nowadays, and this group has a total of 54 players to consider, tied for the most of any group. The players in this group are marked by a strange affection for anti-analytic long 2-pointers (2-point shots beyond 16 feet), with a higher percentage of shots from that range than any other group. CJ McCollum and Mike Conley were the only max-salary players to be included in this group, and the median salary for multi-level shooters was $4.6 million. Laker guards Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Avery Bradley, and Quinn Cook were all sorted into this category. In addition to the long 2’s, these players also tend to take and make a fair number of 3’s, but not as much as the next archetype.

3-Point Specialists
The 52 players in this group combined to take an astonishing 66% of their shot attempts from 3-point range on average. Most of these players are on the floor to do one thing: shoot 3’s. The accuracy of the group varies, and the combined rate of 3-point makes is second behind the 3-Point Threat with Passing Skills group, but these players are marked by a persistence in making sure their shot diet consists mainly of long-range attempts. Duncan Robinson is the perfect example of this archetype, and every team now wants to find and/or develop players like him. Newly signed Laker guard Wesley Matthews fits this archetype, as does the man he’s replacing, Danny Green. No max salary players fit in this category (Green was actually the 2nd highest paid), and the median salary of this group was the minimum salary of $2.56 million. We did however see a couple of sizable new free agent deals for Davis Bertans and Joe Harris, which may prove that the best of these types of players can still demand big money.

Defensive-Oriented
All-Defensive First Team selection Marcus Smart is probably the best player to represent this archetype. The players in this group have a higher median steal percentage than any other group and also tend to rate well in defensive box plus-minus. The median salary is just $3 million for these players, and the only notable high-salary player is Draymond Green. 54 players fit this archetype in total, including Patrick Beverley, former Laker Lonzo Ball, and current Laker guard Alex Caruso.

That wraps up the guards and wings. The table below shows the top players in each of the forward and center archetypes.

Paint BeastsVersatile Big MenBig 3-Point ShootersScoring Stretch
Forwards
Rudy GobertBam AdebayoBrook LopezNikola Vucevic
Hassan WhitesideDomantas SabonisNemanja BjelicaAl Horford
Jarrett AllenBen SimmonsOG AnunobyPascal Siakam
Mitchell RobinsonMontrezl HarrellRobert CovingtonGordon Hayward
Ivica ZubacSteven AdamsMarc GasolTobias Harris
Forward and Center Archetypes

Paint Beasts
The 17 players in this archetype are best known as shot-blockers and lob threats. They have the highest average block percentage as well as both offensive and defensive rebounding rate. These players take more shots near the basket (0-3 feet) than any other group by a wide margin with an average of 76% of players’ shots coming from close range. They subsequently have the highest true shooting percentage at 68%. Rudy Gobert and Hassan Whiteside are the two max-salary players among the group, and the median salary is $3.75 million. Both of the Lakers’ previous centers, JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard, fit snugly into this mold.

Versatile Big Men
34 players were classified as versatile big men, sharing many statistical similarities with the previous group. They have high block percentages, rebounding rates, and percent of shots near the basket, though generally not as high as Paint Beasts. These players tend to have a higher assist percentage and take more shots away from the basket than Paint Beasts. Steven Adams and Andre Drummond are the only max salary players and the median salary of these players is $4.9 million. The extremely versatile Ben Simmons is the only player listed as a point guard to be included in any of the forward and center archetypes, which speaks to his unique size and shot selection for a “point guard”. Rookie sensation Zion Williamson is also included in this archetype along with newly signed Laker big man Montrezl Harrell. Interestingly, Harrell was the player most statistically similar to Williamson.

Big 3-Point Shooters
The 40 players in this group are distinguished by their size and rate of 3-point attempts. The average player in this group is 6’9″ and 234 pounds, with 44% of shots coming from 3-point range. Newly acquired Laker center Marc Gasol is the only player who was on a max-salary contract in 2019-2020 among this group, and the median salary of these players is $5.5 million. Laker forward Markieff Morris also fits in this category, and should help stretch the floor along with Gasol for the Lakers this coming season.

Scoring Stretch Forwards
The final group contains 30 forwards and centers and shares some similarities with the previous group. While this group hits slightly fewer 3’s per minute than the previous group, they score more frequently from 2-point range and at the free throw line, while also boasting a higher usage and assist percentage. These players are more well-paid than any of the other forward and center archetypes, with a median salary of $14.5 million and 11 players making over $20 million. Kevin Love, Kristaps Porzingis, and LaMarcus Aldridge are other high profile players that fit this archetype. Laker forward Kyle Kuzma is among the lowest paid players within this group (but not for long if he gets the extension he’s hoping for).

For a full list of the players in each archetype, the google sheet here has every player along with their individual stats. Details about which stats were considered in the analysis are also included, along with the summary stats for each group that were noted throughout the article. All data was sourced from Basketball-Reference.

The New-Look Laker Rotation

The Lakers will return six key rotation players from their 2020 championship roster and add two new centers (Montrezl Harrell, Marc Gasol), and two new guards (Dennis Schroder, Wesley Matthews) to work into the rotation for 2020-2021. Assuming those ten players form the core of the Laker rotation for the upcoming season, finding enough minutes to go around may be a challenge. Three of the Lakers’ new additions played significantly more minutes per game last season than the players they are set to replace. For 35-year old Marc Gasol, a step down from his 26 minutes per game in 2019-2020 will likely be a welcome change. But for Schroder (31 minutes per game) and Harrell (28 minutes per game), will the Lakers be able to find enough minutes for a couple of players right in the middle of their primes? And will the Lakers find a way once again to make all the pieces fit together to form a championship rotation?

To get a sense of what the Laker rotation might look like in the upcoming season, let’s take a look back at the substitution pattern from 2019-2020. The graphic below gives a helpful visual to see how the rotation played out over the course of the regular season in 2019-2020.

http://alexwainger.github.io/NBASubstitutionPatterns/

Some notable patterns that seem like they might carry over into the upcoming season include Anthony Davis playing the entire first and third quarters, with LeBron James leading a bench brigade at the start of the second and fourth quarters. But some interesting questions emerge with the Lakers’ revamped roster. Will reigning Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell or runner-up Dennis Schroder move into a starting role with the Lakers? After going with a variation of lineups to close the final minutes of games last season, will the Lakers employ a similar strategy once again in the upcoming season? Below are a couple of possibilities for how I think the rotation might look in 2020-2021.

The first lineup has Wesley Matthews and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope starting in place of Avery Bradley and Danny Green in the backcourt, with Marc Gasol stepping into the starting role filled by JaVale McGee last season. Anthony Davis once again sees a few minutes at center to end the first and third quarters. The LeBron-Kuzma-KCP lineups to start the second and fourth quarter remain, with Schroder and Harrell in place of Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard. The crunch time lineup has Schroder, KCP, LeBron, AD, and Harrell.

The second lineup has Schroder starting and platooning minutes at point guard with Alex Caruso. Wesley Matthews comes off the bench and platoons with KCP. The crunch time lineup has Kuzma in place of Harrell. Looking at the total minutes for each player in each of these lineups, it’s hard to find minutes for all three of Kuzma, Morris, and Harrell. Because of their positional overlap with LeBron and AD, who are both likely to play at least 32 minutes per game, someone will have to sacrifice.

If we use this minutes distribution as a baseline for what to expect in the upcoming season, we can project what each players’ per game production might look like. Using per minute numbers from Basketball-Reference for each player over the last few seasons, below is what a reasonable expectation might be for each of the Lakers’ new acquisitions.

Dennis Schroder – 28 minutes, 14 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists, 1.5 3-point makes
Montrezl Harrell – 23 minutes, 13 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block
Wesley Matthews – 22 minutes, 7 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 1.4 3-point makes
Marc Gasol – 16.6 minutes, 5 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 0.8 3-point makes

Schroder has excelled in a role coming off the bench for the Thunder in each of the last two seasons, and put up numbers similar to those listed above. In one of those seasons, he played with a team that also featured multiple All-Stars (Russell Westbrook and Paul George), similar to this year’s Lakers squad. Schroder should see a good mix of time as the primary ball-handler, and also minutes sharing the court with LeBron. In crunch time, he gives LeBron an intriguing pick-and-roll partner. His speed gives the Lakers an ability to create mismatches on the perimeter that they didn’t have last season.

Harrell should give the Lakers great energy off the bench, and a reliable pick-and-roll finisher. After becoming one of the most potent pick-and-roll duos alongside Lou Williams over the last few seasons, he’ll have to develop new chemistry with Schroder, LeBron, and even Alex Caruso. His effectiveness during minutes together with AD will also be something to keep an eye on. Harrell played the majority of his minutes with the Clippers last season as the lone big man on the court for the Clippers. If Harrell and Davis can’t play much together, Harrell will have a tough time getting anywhere near the minutes he saw last season. Lineups with Davis as the lone big man still appear likely to be the most dangerous; Harrell will have to fit better than expected next to Davis to prove otherwise.

Wesley Matthews and Marc Gasol give the Lakers two veterans who should in theory adequately replace the losses of Avery Bradley and JaVale McGee. But with both players over the age of 34, some amount of decline is also possible. Matthews’ 3-and-D skillset is very similar to both Avery Bradley and Danny Green, who were effective in the starting lineup with LeBron and AD. But he may not do as well containing quick guards as Avery Bradley, or bigger wings as Danny Green.

Gasol is a much different kind of big man than the ones he will be replacing (JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard). Gasol isn’t the shot-blocking presence or lob threat that either of the Lakers’ previous centers were, but he protects the paint by being in the right spots and using his size. He also gives the Lakers a different offensive dimension as a stretch-5 with playmaking skills, hopefully including some high-low action with AD. If Gasol was this effective with ground-bound Zach Randolph, just imagine the possibilities with Davis (pardon the grainy YouTube footage from 2013).

Add it all up, and this looks like a team that has the potential to be much better offensively than last season’s squad, which finished 11th in points per game and points per 100 possessions. With Schroder and Harrell’s added scoring punch, it seems likely that they break into the top 10, or even the top 5. The question will be whether they can be a championship-level defensive team once again. They lost a lot of shot-blocking with McGee and Howard leaving. Wesley Matthews is solid, but not quite as big on the wing as Danny Green. LeBron may regress, whether because of age or the shortened offseason.

But by all accounts this team has more talent than last season’s championship roster. They once again have the lineup versatility to play big or small, fast or slow. They’ll need it in the loaded West with the Clippers, Nuggets, and Blazers each looking like contenders. And in the East, the Bucks, Heat, Celtics, and Sixers each present different challenges as potential Finals opponents. The Lakers will have some kinks to work out in the rotation, and a shortened season to do so. But if they can figure it out, there’s no reason (barring an injury to LeBron or AD) that this team can’t repeat as champs.

What History tells us about the 2020 NBA Draft

The 2020 NBA Draft will take place on Wednesday, November 18, and will be hosted virtually by ESPN. There is no consensus top player, as there was last year with Zion Williamson, leaving intrigue at the top of the board. Teams have had, in one sense, longer than ever to prepare for the draft, due to the delayed end to the 2019-2020 season. But teams have also been limited in some ways, including an allowance of just 10 in-person visits with draft eligible players, and the lack of an NCAA Tournament slate of games to evaluate.

Projecting who the top players are will always be an inexact science. That’s why year after year is filled with both draft busts and overachievers who outplay their draft position. Looking back at history can give us a good baseline of what to expect though. Taking a look back at the last 20 years of draft history with stats from Basketball-Reference will allow us to cover all of the player still active today. In fact, only four players played in 2019-2020 who were drafted prior to 2003 (Vince, Carter, Jamal Crawford, Udonis Haslem and Tyson Chandler). Reigning Finals MVP LeBron James, who was drafted #1 in 2003, will possibly play next season in a league comprised of zero players who were drafted in a year before his own draft year. That is mind-boggling.

How many rookies will be immediate contributors?

How you define “contributor” is a bit open to interpretation, but a minimum number of minutes and games played, along with a baseline level of production (as measured by Win Shares or Value Over Replacement Player) seems like a good start. Looking at the players in 2019-2020 who played at least one third of the regular season games, at least 15 minutes per game, and had at least 1 Win Share or a VORP at or above zero yields the following list of 12 players:

PlayerPosAgeTmMPGWSVORPDraftPk
Brandon ClarkePF23MEM22.4585.01.721
Ja MorantPG20MEM31.0673.81.22
Matisse ThybulleSG22PHI19.8652.30.820
Cameron JohnsonPF23PHO22.0572.70.711
Zion WilliamsonPF19NOP27.8242.00.71
Jaxson HayesC19NOP16.9643.90.58
Darius BazleyPF19OKC18.5611.00.123
Tyler HerroSG20MIA27.4551.60.113
Cody MartinSF24CHO18.8481.0036
Grant WilliamsPF21BOS15.1691.6-0.222
Eric PaschallPF23GSW27.6602.1-0.341
Rui HachimuraPF21WAS30.1481.8-0.49

This list excludes some rookies like Coby White, Jarrett Culver, and Cam Reddish who played big minutes but whose status as “contributor” is a bit questionable. Using this criteria across all years going back to 2003, an average class has around 15 contributors, with the weakest classes having as few as 9 (2003, 2014), and the strongest class having 20 (2008). The 2020 draft isn’t expected to be a particularly strong class, so it seems reasonable to expect 15 or fewer of the 60 drafted players to contribute right away.

Should teams draft older or younger?

For teams looking for immediate contributions, it might be tempting to pick an older, more experienced player. But the players who stay in college or overseas longer are often also those with less talent, who need the extra years to boost their draft stock and develop. The overall number of contributors (using the same criteria as previously stated) at or above age 21 are higher than those who come in at age 19 or 20. But the percentage of players who contribute among their age group is actually higher in the younger players. Age 20 seems to be the sweet spot, having the highest amount of contributors, and also the highest percentage among their age who contribute. In other words, older freshmen or young sophomores are ripe for the picking. Tyrese Haliburton, a sophomore guard from Iowa State, is the only player projected to be taken in the lottery who fits that profile.

Which players have had the best rookie seasons?

According to VORP, Chris Paul had the greatest rookie season of any player drafted since 2003. He averaged 16 points, 4 rebounds, 8 assists, and 2 steals with an assist-to-turnover ratio above 3 en route to winning Rookie of the Year honors. After Paul, 4 out of the next 5 players were drafted first overall, and 6 of the top 10 rookie seasons were produced by players taken with the first overall pick.

PlayerPosAgeTmGWSVORPDraftYearDraftPk
Chris PaulPG20NOK7810.45.120054
Ben SimmonsPG21PHI819.24.520161
Blake GriffinPF21LAC829.83.620091
Luka DoncicSG19DAL724.93.420183
LeBron JamesSG19CLE795.12.920031
Karl-Anthony TownsC20MIN828.32.720151
Nikola JokicC20DEN806.72.6201441
Rudy FernandezSG23POR786.12.5200724
Kyrie IrvingPG19CLE514.12.420111
Andre IguodalaSG21PHI826.62.320049

Given that this list only has three 19-year old’s, it would be surprising to see any of the top prospects in this year’s class supplant one of the players here. LaMelo Ball, James Wiseman, and Anthony Edwards will each enter the league at 19, but none is considered as good a prospect as players like LeBron and Luka.

The Chasm between #1 and #2

A strange trend that has developed since 2003 is a huge drop-off between the amount of production from players drafted with the top overall pick and the players drafted second. Even though last year’s #2 overall pick, Ja Morant bucked the trend and won Rookie of the Year, players drafted 2nd overall have produced fewer rookie season win shares than picks 3, 4, 6, 7, and 9, and fewer career win shares than picks 3-5.

A couple of forwards from the University of Texas, Kevin Durant (2008) and LaMarcus Aldridge (2007), have helped salvage an otherwise cursed draft position. The Lakers are keenly aware of the pain of drafting at #2. In 2015, they missed out on top pick Karl-Anthony Towns and were left to take D’Angelo Russell. In 2016, it was Brandon Ingram instead of Ben Simmons. 2017 brought some good fortune with Lonzo Ball rather than Markelle Fultz. It will be up to the Warriors to determine if they want to try and reverse the trend or trade the pick elsewhere for veteran help.

Who are the top players in the 2020 Draft?

For deep dives into all the top players in the upcoming draft, I recommend the guides put together by The Ringer and ESPN. I particularly like the way The Ringer’s guide does player comparisons. Instead of giving a single player comparison, they list a few players who the prospect has shades of. For example, LaMelo Ball has shades of Jason Williams, Lonzo Ball, and Shaun Livingston. This type of comparison is much more helpful than saying “Lonzo Ball reminds me of Jason Kidd.” Those types of comparisons are almost always impossible for the players to live up to. The top 2 picks in 2019 (Zion Williamson and Ja Morant) largely were able to live up to the hype that accompanied their early draft position. With the condensed offseason and rapidly approaching 2019-2020 season, we’ll know soon enough if 2020’s top picks can do the same.

Evaluating the Laker Role Players of 2019-20 (Forwards And Centers)

Last week’s post took a look at the Laker role players at the guard position and compared their production to other guards on similar contracts. This post will do the same for the Laker forwards and centers, once again using stats from Basketball-Reference.

PlayerSalaryAgeGMP3P3P%PTSTRBBLK
JaVale McGee$4,000,000326816.60.06.65.71.4
Dwight Howard$2,564,753346918.90.07.57.31.1
Kyle Kuzma$1,974,600246125.01.432%12.84.50.4
Markieff Morris$1,750,000301414.20.933%5.33.20.4
Regular Season Statistics: G – Games Played, MP – Minutes Per Game, 3P – 3-point makes per game, 3P% – 3-point Percent,
PTS – points per game, REB – rebounds per game, BLK – blocks per game
Kyle Kuzma

Key 2019-2020 numbers: $2 million salary; regular season per game stats: 25 minutes, 12.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.3 assist, 1.4 made 3’s (32% 3-point shooting).

Kuzma’s season got off to a slow start after suffering a foot injury while playing for USA Basketball. He missed the first four games of the regular season as well as the entire pre-season and training camp. Kuzma also had to adjust to a smaller role coming off the bench after starting for most of the 2018-19 season. The Lakers hoped that Kuzma could provide a scoring punch off the bench, and while he did finish as the Lakers’ top bench scorer, he was nowhere near the league leaders in bench scoring, most of whom are high-usage guards.

Kuzma’s fit with LeBron James and Anthony Davis felt awkward at times throughout the season, ironic given Kuzma’s chemistry with LeBron from the season prior. That chemistry was part of what made the Lakers fight so hard to keep Kuzma out of the trade package for Davis in 2019. The numbers were good when Kuzma and LeBron shared the floor this season as they were the season prior (+14 points per 100 possessions in 870 total minutes). But the Kuzma-Davis pairing was among the Lakers’ worst 2-man lineups who played a minimum of 500 minutes (granted most of those minutes were without LeBron). The LeBron-Kuzma-Davis big 3 was +16 points per 100 possessions, but only saw the floor for a total of 284 minutes. Davis’s arrival seemed like it would lead to fewer touches for Kuzma, but his usage percentage and per 36 numbers actually stayed about the same as previous years. What actually dropped off the most for Kuzma were his minutes. That’s really the primary reason why his overall production dropped this season compared to his first two.

Kuzma’s step back in overall production is disappointing after his promising first two seasons had people talking about what a steal he was for the Lakers late in the 2017 draft. Players who have had similar dips in production over their first three seasons (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Tim Thomas, Stromile Swift) inspire some doubt (or possibly panic) over Kuzma’s future outlook. His production this season puts him back in the middle of the pack among a group of 25 other forwards on similar contracts, most of whom like Kuzma were 1st Round draft picks outside the top 10. The most productive players among that group have become All-Stars (Adebayo, Sabonis, Siakam) or starters (Anunoby, Collins), while Kuzma fits into the second tier who are solid contributors off the bench.

PlayerTeamSalaryAgeGMP3P3P%DWSWS
Bam AdebayoMIA$3,454,080227233.60.014%3.98.5
Domantas SabonisIND$3,529,555236234.80.325%3.47.5
OG AnunobyTOR$2,281,800226929.91.339%3.75.7
Pascal SiakamTOR$2,351,839256035.22.236%3.65.4
Brandon ClarkeMEM$2,478,840235822.40.436%1.65.0
John CollinsATL$2,686,560224133.21.440%1.24.9
Dario SaricPHO$3,481,986256624.71.336%1.53.6
Josh HartNOP$1,934,160246527.01.934%1.83.1
Kyle KuzmaLAL$1,974,600246125.01.432%1.92.0
Grant WilliamsBOS$2,379,840216915.10.325%1.41.6
Regular Season Statistics: G – Games Played, MP – Minutes Per Game, 3P – 3-point makes per game, 3P% – 3-point percent,
DWS – Defensive Win Shares, WS – Win Shares

It hurts a bit to see Josh Hart just ahead of Kuzma on this list. I have often wondered if he was the right young guy for the Lakers to keep rather than Kuzma. The good news for Kuzma is that he is still young and capable of improving. He is known as a hard worker, and made good strides on the defensive end during bubble play and in the postseason. He’ll need to improve his 3-point shooting, which was below average for a second straight season (though he did shoot a scorching 54% on corner 3’s) after shooting a promising 37% as a rookie. With an abbreviated offseason there may not be much time to add any new parts to his game. But defense and shooting are what the Lakers need around their two superstars.

Kuzma didn’t fare much better in the postseason, as his numbers across the board saw a slight dip in comparison to the regular season. He ended up playing fewer postseason minutes per game than Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rajon Rondo and Alex Caruso. He didn’t have a big playoff moment or scoring outburst during the Laker postseason, never cracking the 20-point barrier. His game-winner against Denver in the final game of the regular season was probably his best moment of the season.

Kuzma’s opportunities will be limited as long as he’s behind Davis at the power forward position. Unless Davis has a change of heart about his preference to play the 4, it’s likely that trend will continue. While Davis may not prefer it, the playoffs showed how effective lineups with him at center can be. Basketball-reference estimates a 60-40 split of Davis’s minutes at power forward versus center this past season. What if that split flipped the other way? That may be Kuzma’s only hope for more minutes.

The Lakers will have an interesting decision to make with Kuzma over the next year or so. He only has one season remaining on his relatively cheap rookie contract. His fit around both of the Laker superstars becomes a much bigger deal when the investment required to keep him likely exceeds the $10 million per year range. If the Lakers decide Kuzma is not part of their long term plans, would he have much value as a trade chip following his performance this past season? The rumored deals involving Kuzma at the last trade deadline suggest Kuzma can net at best a mid-tier player like Derrick Rose or Nemanja Bjelica. My bet would be that Kuzma is still a Laker at the start of next season, and remains in a bench role behind Davis.

Markieff Morris

Key 2019-2020 numbers: $1.75 million salary; postseason per game stats: 18 minutes, 6 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 1.4 made 3’s (42% 3-point shooting).

Morris signed with the Lakers mid-season after a contract buyout with the Pistons. He was signed to replace the injured DeMarcus Cousins using the Lakers’ disabled player exception. He only played 14 regular season games with the Lakers, but went on to play in all 21 Laker playoff games, including two starts. It’s unfortunate for Morris that his most memorable moment with the Lakers was probably his Game 5 gaffe in the Finals, because his overall playoff performance was actually solid. He led the team in playoff 3-point percentage at 42% and played a key role in allowing the Lakers to match up with the smaller lineups of Miami and Houston.

Morris seems to fit in place alongside LeBron and AD a bit more seamlessly than Kuzma does. He spaces the floor on offense and is a decent defender. If the Lakers are able to re-sign Morris, it makes exploring trades for Kuzma that much more feasible. While his regular season numbers are pedestrian in comparison to other big men on similar bargain contracts (less than $5 million), his postseason performance suggests he can succeed as a role player for the Lakers next season (on what would likely need to be a minimum salary contract). The big men on similar contracts who outperformed Morris actually include both Laker centers.

PlayerTm Salary AgeGMPPTSREBBLKWS
Mitchell RobinsonNYK$1,559,712216123.19.77.02.06.8
Dwight HowardLAL$2,564,753346918.97.57.31.15.4
Christian WoodDET$1,645,357246221.413.16.30.95.1
Nerlens NoelOKC$2,028,594256118.57.44.91.54.9
Richaun HolmesSAC$4,767,000264428.212.38.11.34.9
JaVale McGeeLAL$4,000,000326816.66.65.71.44.7
Enes KanterBOS$4,767,000275816.98.17.40.74.4
Chris BoucherTOR$1,588,231276213.26.64.51.03.8
Marquese ChrissGSW$758,804225920.39.36.21.13.4
JaMychal GreenLAC$4,767,000296320.76.86.20.43.1
Regular Season Statistics: G – Games Played, MP – Minutes Per Game, PTS – points per game, REB – rebounds per game,
BLK – blocks per game, WS – Win Shares
JaVale McGee & Dwight Howard

JaVale McGee key 2019-2020 numbers: $4 million salary; postseason per game stats: 10 minutes, 3 points, 3 rebounds, 0.7 blocks, 62% shooting. 7 DNP’s (did not play).

Dwight Howard key 2019-2020 numbers: $2.6 million salary; postseason per game stats: 16 minutes, 6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 68% shooting. 3 DNP’s.

The Lakers were able to find 35 minutes (per regular season game) of quality center play for less than $7 million. That is no easy feat in 2020. Everyone thought JaVale McGee was a joke when he signed with the Lakers in 2018. And no one thought Dwight Howard would buy in to a lesser role after bouncing from team to team over the past four seasons. But now JaVale and Dwight have the last laugh, and championship rings to show for it.

McGee started 68 of the Lakers’ 71 regular season games, but just 11 of their 21 postseason games. He was unplayable against the smaller, faster lineups of Miami and Houston that were stacked with 3-point shooters. His postseason ineffectiveness may foretell a bench role in the coming year, assuming he picks up his $4.2 million player option for next season. In a lesser role, he can still provide the Lakers with valuable rim protection and vertical spacing as a lob threat. And even if he were to fall out of the rotation completely, McGee is still one of the best bench celebration guys in the league.

Howard spent most of the season coming off the bench, but supplanted McGee as the starting center during the Western Conference Finals because of his effectiveness against Nikola Jokic. But like McGee, Howard also struggled against Miami and Houston’s spacing and 3-point shooting. Howard is a free agent and will turn 35 in December. Will any team be willing to sign him for more than a minimum salary contract this offseason? He may have outperformed that salary this past season, but who knows if another team is willing to bet that he can replicate that performance again next season. If the Lakers can re-sign Howard for the minimum, I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t. So given that it hinges on Howard getting a larger offer from another team, my guess is that he returns with the Lakers for next season. But if he doesn’t, I hope the Lakers will sign another big man needing to revive his career.

DeMarcus Cousins

Cousins did not play a single minute for the Lakers this season after tearing his ACL in August of 2019. His injury paved the way for Howard and McGee to take most of the minutes at the center position, and eventually the aforementioned addition of Markieff Morris. But think back before that injury and everyone would have had Cousins penciled in as the starting center, with Howard signing later as more of an insurance policy (a necessary one as it turns out). It’s unfortunate to see all the injuries that have derailed the career arc of a 4-time All-Star like Cousins (torn Achilles in February 2018, torn quad in April 2019, torn ACL in August 2019). I hope he can get back to something resembling his pre-injury form, whether that’s with the Lakers or another team. But bringing back Boogie and the Brow would be a fun story. For now, Cousins is simply an interesting footnote on the Laker season, and he actually is eligible to receive a championship ring.

The overall story of the Laker role players at the forward and center spots was similar to that of the guards. No single player emerged as a clear third star or third scoring option behind LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Instead, each played their role and mostly exceeded expectations. For the one player who failed to exceed expectations (Kuzma), it likely has more to do with the expectations themselves rather than the player performance. Morris and Howard were key contributors that the Lakers would do well to bring back. But the uncertainty of their return, in addition to that of guards Rajon Rondo and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, could mean as much as a third of the rotation needs to be replaced with minimal salary cap space.

Evaluating the Laker Role Players of 2019-20 (Guards)

With the NBA reportedly pursuing a pre-Christmas Day start to the 2020-2021 season, there isn’t much time to evaluate what happened last season and get ready for the upcoming season. Seven of the Lakers’ key rotation players, including Anthony Davis, have player options or an expiring contract heading into the 2020-2021 season. While Davis is reportedly likely to re-sign with the Lakers, that still leaves question marks for other key players including Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, JaVale McGee, Dwight Howard, and Markieff Morris.

Assuming Davis re-signs, he and LeBron James form the foundation upon which the rest of the roster will be built. There were doubters all year who said the supporting cast this past year wasn’t good enough to help the Lakers win a championship. They questioned who the third scoring option was and who should play in crunch time. As it turns out, this was in fact a championship supporting cast with no clear third option and a crunch time lineup that was subject to change based on the matchup and who was playing well on a given night.

Let’s take a look back at how each of the Lakers’ key role players performed in 2019-20, with a view towards how the roster might look next season. We’ll evaluate in comparison to players across the league with similar contracts at the same position using stats from Basketball-Reference. This post will focus on the Laker guards (Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Avery Bradley, Alex Caruso, Rajon Rondo), while a later post will cover the forwards and centers (Kyle Kuzma, Markieff Morris, JaVale McGee, Dwight Howard).

PlayerSalaryAgeGMP3P3P%PTSREBAST
Danny Green$14,634,146326824.81.837%8.03.31.3
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope$8,089,282266925.51.339%9.32.11.6
Avery Bradley$4,767,000294924.21.336%8.62.31.3
Alex Caruso$2,750,000256418.40.633%5.51.91.9
Rajon Rondo$2,564,753334820.50.933%7.13.05.0
Regular Season Statistics: G – Games Played, MP – Minutes Per Game, 3P – 3-point makes per game, 3P% – 3-point Percent,
PTS – points per game, REB – rebounds per game, AST – assists per game
Danny Green

Key 2019-2020 numbers: $14.6 million salary; regular season per game stats: 25 minutes, 8 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 1.8 made 3’s (37% 3-point shooting).

Some questioned the two-year, $30 million deal that the Lakers gave Danny Green last summer, but he proved to be a very solid 3-and-D wing. His 8 points and 3 rebounds per game don’t sound like much, but he is one of the few wing players who can actually do both parts of the 3-and-D. He didn’t have a stellar shooting season, but among a group of 25 wing players with salaries between $10 million and $19 million, Green was right in the middle of the pack in terms of regular season win shares (see top 10 list below). That’s mostly because he rated as possibly the 2nd best defender among that cohort behind only All-Defense guard Marcus Smart.

PlayerTeamSalaryAgeGMP3P3P%DWSWS
Joe InglesUTA$11,954,546327229.72.040%2.14.8
Spencer DinwiddieBRK$10,600,000266431.21.931%1.64.8
Evan FournierORL$17,000,000276631.52.640%1.74.6
Norman PowellTOR$10,116,576265228.42.140%2.34.6
Marcus SmartBOS$12,553,471256032.02.335%2.84.5
Will BartonDEN$12,960,000295833.01.938%1.84.2
Bojan BogdanovicUTA$17,000,000306333.13.041%1.64.2
J.J. RedickNOP$13,486,300356026.43.045%0.64.1
Marcus MorrisLAC$15,000,000306231.22.341%1.53.6
Danny GreenLAL$14,634,146326824.81.837%2.53.4
Regular Season Statistics: G – Games Played, MP – Minutes Per Game, 3P – 3-point makes per game, 3P% – 3-point Percent,
DWS – Defensive Win Shares, WS – Win Shares

I don’t know that any of the wings in this salary range would be clear upgrades over Green (possibly Dinwiddie, Smart, and Bogdanovic). Although Green’s most memorable moment of the season was a missed 3-pointer that could have clinched the title, he made enough shots throughout the postseason to help the Lakers win. Green is on the books for $15.4 million in 2020-2021. If the Lakers were to try and trade for a third star this offseason, Green would almost certainly need to be included in the deal for salary matching purposes. But with the Lakers’ dearth of trade assets, it seems likely that Green will be back next season.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

Key 2019-2020 numbers: $8.1 million salary; regular season per game stats: 25 minutes, 9 points, 2 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.3 made 3’s (38% 3-point shooting).

KCP’s $8.1 million 2019-20 salary was a step back from the $12 million contract he signed with the Lakers in 2018, which was a step back from the $17 million contract the Lakers gave him in 2017. There were 12 other wings in the $6-10 million range on non-rookie contracts (which excludes top-level young talent like Luka Doncic and Jayson Tatum). KCP was right in the middle of the pack in regular season production in terms of win shares. Similar to Green, KCP ranks near the top of his group in terms of defensive win shares.

PlayerTeamSalaryAgeGMP3P3P%DWSWS
Delon WrightDAL$9,473,684277321.50.60.371.84.4
Joe HarrisBRK$7,670,000286930.82.50.4241.84.3
Seth CurryDAL$7,441,860296424.62.30.4520.84.3
Lou WilliamsLAC$8,000,000336528.71.70.3521.84.1
Jae CrowderMIA$7,815,533296528.82.10.3432.23.8
Kentavious Caldwell-PopeLAL$8,089,282266925.51.30.3851.93.7
Bogdan BogdanovicSAC$8,529,386276129.02.70.3721.33.1
Regular Season Statistics: G – Games Played, MP – Minutes Per Game, 3P – 3-point makes per game, 3P% – 3-point percent,
DWS – Defensive Win Shares, WS – Win Shares

KCP has always given great defensive effort, even going back to his first two Laker seasons when the overall team defense was poor. His 3-point shooting was solid throughout the regular season in 2019-2020. When he stepped into the starting lineup in place of Avery Bradley, he was able to maintain the same efficiency in a larger role throughout the playoffs (2.1 3-point makes per game on 38% shooting). He hit big shots that helped secure wins in Game 4 of both the Finals and the Conference Finals. It has been reported that KCP will opt out of his player option for the 2020-2021 season, which suggests his camp believes he is likely due for a raise or a longer term contract. With his playoff performance, he may have earned it. A few other guys in his salary range are also up for new contracts and will likely bump up to the Danny Green salary range (Joe Harris, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Jae Crowder). I’m tempted to guess that KCP will re-sign with the Lakers (because of the Klutch connection) for somewhere in the $10-12 million per year range. But it may depend on what the Lakers do with another one of their guards hitting free agency.

Avery Bradley, Rajon Rondo, Alex Caruso

Avery Bradley – Key 2019-2020 numbers: $4.8 million salary; regular season per game stats: 24 minutes, 8.6 points, 2.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.3 made 3’s (36% 3-point shooting).

Alex Caruso – Key 2019-2020 numbers: $2.75 million salary; regular season per game stats: 18 minutes, 5.5 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 0.6 made 3’s (33% 3-point shooting).

Rajon Rondo – Key 2019-2020 numbers: $2.56 million salary; regular season per game stats: 20 minutes, 7 points, 3 rebounds, 5 assists, 0.9 made 3’s (33% 3-point shooting).

Avery Bradley, Alex Caruso, and Rajon Rondo were all on bargain-bin contracts for the 2019-2020 season. Teams like the Lakers with high-salary stars are often forced to fill out their rosters with these types of players, and their production can mean the difference between a title and an early playoff exit. There were a total of 30 guards and wings in the $2-5 million salary range (excluding players on rookie contracts once again). Bradley, Caruso, and Rondo were all near the middle in terms of regular season win shares, but Caruso and Rondo both finished in the top 10 in terms of Value Over Replacement Player (VORP).

PlayerTeamSalaryAgeGMP3P3P%DBPMVORP
Justin HolidayIND$4,767,0003073251.841%1.81.5
Alec BurksPHI$2,320,044286626.61.839%-0.71.1
T.J. McConnellIND$3,500,000277118.70.129%0.40.8
Danuel HouseHOU$3,540,000266330.42.036%0.00.6
Rondae Hollis-JeffersonTOR$2,500,000256018.70.113%1.50.6
Kyle KorverMIL$2,564,753385816.61.742%0.70.5
Alex CarusoLAL$2,750,000256418.40.633%2.40.5
Garrett TempleBRK$4,767,000336227.92.033%0.30.4
Ish SmithWAS$5,853,659316826.30.937%-1.00.3
Rajon RondoLAL$2,564,753334820.50.933%-0.10.2
Regular Season Statistics: G – Games Played, MP – Minutes Per Game, 3P – 3-point makes per game, 3P% – 3-point Percent,
DBPM – Defensive Box Plus-Minus, VORP – Value Over Replacement Player

Given that Bradley did not clearly outplay other players on similar contracts in the regular season, it seems likely that he will opt in to his $5 million player option for the 2020-2021 season and rejoin the Lakers. Bradley was also unable to show what he could do in a playoff run, electing to forego the restart due to health concerns with his oldest child. It has now been over three years since Bradley’s last playoff appearance, which was a Conference Finals run with the Celtics back in 2017. Bradley has a reputation as a good defender, but his defensive win share and defensive box plus-minus numbers don’t particularly stand out. Still, from watching the games you can see that Bradley plays hard on that end, and his tenacity helped the Lakers establish their defensive identity early in the season.

Alex Caruso on the other hand, did have the defensive numbers to back up his reputation. He led all players in this salary tier in defensive box plus-minus by a fair margin. However, his 3-point shooting is still a work-in-progress. After shooting 33% from 3-point range in the regular season, he shot just 28% in the postseason. Yet even in spite of that poor shooting, he never got played off the floor in the playoffs because of defenses ignoring him. He started the Lakers’ title-clinching win, finishing with a +20 plus-minus rating in a playoff-high 33 minutes in Game 6 of the Finals. Legendary. Caruso is locked in for another season at $2.75 million; after that he will likely be in line for a raise.

Rajon Rondo likely also believes he is due for a raise, as he will reportedly opt out of his $2.7 million player option for 2020-2021. Rondo’s regular season numbers and performance weren’t anything special. But there’s a reason they call him “Playoff Rondo.” The advanced stats paint him as a top-20 or 25 postseason performer in terms of win shares, VORP, and box plus-minus. His numbers jumped from 7 points, 3 rebounds, 5 assists, and 0.8 steals in 21 minutes per game in regular season play to 9 points, 4.3 rebounds, 6.6 assists, and 1.4 steals in 25 minutes per game in the postseason. He suddenly became a 40% 3-point shooter when it mattered most. His 16 point, 10 assist double-double helped the Lakers cruise to a Game 2 Finals win, and he closed his second Laker season with 19 points in the title-clincher. We’ll see if that was his last game as a Laker. If he demands a raise, that may mean the Lakers will need to make a choice between his playmaking and KCP’s defense and 3-point shooting. I tend to believe that LeBron would favor bringing back a cerebral player like Rondo.

So overall, the Lakers had 3 of their 5 rotation guards outperform their 2019-2020 salary (KCP, Caruso, Rondo), one who did about as expected (Green), and one who may have slightly underachieved (Bradley). It would be a slight surprise to see all of them back on the roster for next season, but it may depend on what other teams are interested in KCP and Rondo. KCP’s age and skillset probably make him attractive to a wider array of teams. That combined with the LeBRondo relationship means I’m betting on KCP as the odd man out among the guard corps.

What to Expect from NBA Free Agency and the NBA Draft

As the NBA offseason sets in, the next thing on the horizon is the NBA Draft on November 18, followed by the start of free agency (the start date of which is yet to be announced). These are crucial transaction windows during which teams have the opportunity to improve their rosters for the upcoming season. Just take a look at the last two NBA champions: the Los Angeles Lakers and Toronto Raptors each added a superstar via trade during the previous summer’s free agency period that helped get them over the hump.

On the flip side of that, teams must also weigh the value of team continuity from season to season. The Denver Nuggets’ 2nd Round playoff win over the Los Angeles Clippers is a great example of the value of standing pat and letting young talent grow together organically. The Clippers appeared to have more talent going into the series with newly acquired All-Stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, but ultimately pointed to a lack of team chemistry as the reason for their playoff defeat.

Let’s take a look back at the last few years to see what kind of production teams have had from returning players in comparison to newly acquired players via free agency, trade, or from newly drafted rookies. We’ll use Wins Over Replacement Player (WORP) from Basketball-Reference’s Advanced Stats to measure player production for each team. The individual players’ combined WORP for a given team is meant to approximately add up to the team’s win total for that season.

We see that in three of the last four seasons, the eventual champion was able to add a superstar in the previous summer’s free agency period. And in each of the last four seasons, contenders have been created by key off-season acquisitions. The Los Angeles Lakers adding Anthony Davis in order to become 2020 contenders and eventual champions is just the latest example. The Raptors did the same in 2019 by adding Kawhi Leonard. While 2018’s championship Warriors squad did not include much in the way of new acquisitions, their stiffest competition came from a Rockets team which traded for All-Star Chris Paul in the summer prior. And of course that 2018 championship Warriors roster was actually assembled two years prior with the free agent signing of Kevin Durant, who also helped the Warriors win the 2017 title.

Look back at the league’s bottom feeders in each season, and you’ll note that these teams tend to have a lot of negative production from rookies. Seeing the amount of negative value that rookies tend to produce across years and teams puts a bit of a damper on the excitement of the NBA Draft. In any given year, only a few teams are generally fortunate enough to get production that is above replacement-level from their prized first year players. I’ve learned not to expect much from rookies, many of whom are only 19 or 20 years old. But if you want to dive deep, I’d recommend The Ringer’s 2020 NBA Draft Guide.

The Player Empowerment Era

Much has been made of the so-called “Player Empowerment Era”, but have we actually seen more players changing teams in recent years? A look at the last four years certainly shows a lot of key players changing teams and contributing to title-contending teams, but how far back does the trend go? Looking back over the last 20 years, we can definitely see that there has been an upward trend in player movement, starting with a spike in 2011 (the same season that LeBron James made the decision to take his talents to South Beach).

Additionally, the overall production of players changing teams has seen a slight uptick. Since the 2010-11 season, new acquisitions make up 27% of total player win shares in comparison to just 23% from 2000-2010. But for as much as fans love to speculate about trades and free agency, a good portion of team rosters within the league stay the same each year. The majority of players don’t change teams, and those returning players have accounted for anywhere between 60-75% of total player win shares within a given season since 2011.

Players Maybe on the Move

This post isn’t intended to cover a list of the top free agents (HoopsHype’s list is a better source for that). Instead, let’s think about players on young and/or bad teams who might affect the championship picture if moved to a new team. You never like to see a good player waste away his last few years playing for a middling or losing team that has no shot at contending. Chris Paul, at age 35, is the guy that has most often been mentioned as a potential target for teams with 2021 title aspirations. Aside from Paul, who are the other players teams should target? Here are 7 players that I hope will find new homes, each on sub-.500 teams, with an age at least 3 years above his team’s average age:

PlayerTeamW-LAgeTeam
Age
WSWORP
DeMar DeRozanSAS32-393026.3  7.36.2
Jrue HolidayNOP30-422924.9  3.95.4
Nemanja BjelicaSAC31-413126.2  5.35.1
Kevin LoveCLE19-463124.6  3.84.9
LaMarcus AldridgeSAS32-393426.3  4.54.1
Derrick RoseDET20-463125.5  2.53.8
J.J. RedickNOP30-423524.9  4.13.0

If any of these teams elect to embrace a youth movement, these are players who showed last year that they can help a team win games. Their win shares and WORP totals suggest that they accounted for anywhere from 3 to 7 wins for their teams in the 2019-20 season. I’d like to see DeMar DeRozan head to the Magic and give them a much-needed boost on offense. Jrue Holiday’s defense and play-making make him a fit on any of a number of contenders; I’d like to see Brooklyn try and put together a trade package for Holiday with some of their young players. Bjelica, Love, and Aldridge are all big men who can stretch the floor, and Love and Aldridge can also post-up smaller defenders. Boston and Houston seem like good landing spots for any of the three. Derrick Rose can help a team in need of a scoring punch off the bench; the Jazz or the Lakers would be happy to have him. And lastly, J.J. Redick is still one of the best shooters in the game, and no team is in need of shooting more than the Philadelphia 76ers.

But alas, many of these moves will likely not be made. Among a similar list of players from 2019, only Mike Conley was traded from a non-contender to a playoff team. It takes guts for teams to pull the trigger on a deal that may mortgage the future with a win-now move that brings in a star. But we’ve seen the last two teams to win a championship do it. We’ll see if that emboldens others to do the same in this offseason.

The Top 10 Players of 2019-20

Each year going back to 2011, ESPN has released an annual ranking of the top players for the upcoming NBA season called NBArank. According to ESPN’s panel, these were the projected top 10 players of the 2019-20 season:

  1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
  2. Kawhi Leonard
  3. LeBron James
  4. James Harden
  5. Anthony Davis
  6. Stephen Curry
  7. Nikola Jokic
  8. Joel Embiid
  9. Damian Lillard
  10. Paul George

Not a bad list. Giannis Antetokounmpo ended up winning MVP and 7 out of the 10 were named to the All-NBA 1st or 2nd Team. The other 3 (Curry, Embiid, George) missed varying amounts of time throughout the season due to injury. What should the list look like now that the 2019-20 season is complete? And what will the list look like next year going into the 2020-21 season?

For starters, let’s take a look at the top 10 players by total win shares (WS) and value over replacement player (VORP) for both the regular season and playoffs from Basketball-Reference. These all-in-one metrics have their biases and shortcomings, but they give us a good baseline to be able to measure which players had the best seasons overall. By combining regular season totals with playoff totals, players who had deep playoff runs get bigger boosts (Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Jimmy Butler), which mirrors the way we tend to think about who the best players of the season were.

8 of the top 10 players appear in the top 10 for both metrics: James Harden, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard, and Jimmy Butler. Win Shares favor a couple of All-Defense caliber big men (Rudy Gobert and Bam Adebayo), while VORP places a higher value on two shot-creating wings (Luka Doncic and Jayson Tatum). With all due respect to Gobert and Adebayo, I don’t think either player would garner as much support as a top-10 player in 2019-20 as Tatum and Doncic. The VORP top 10 is actually the exact list I had in mind when I did the mental exercise of trying to think of the top 10 players of 2019-20.

A strong playoff performance can vault a player up in the rankings, as we saw with Kawhi Leonard last year going from #8 in 2018 to #2 in 2019 thanks to his title run with the Toronto Raptors. Jimmy Butler seems to be the one most likely to join the top 10 with his postseason performance for the Miami Heat.

Conversely, a poor playoff showing usually foretells a drop in ranking. Paul George and Joel Embiid seem like the two most likely to fall out of the top 10 heading into next season. Each finished 2020 no higher than #25 in either Win Shares or VORP. Steph Curry played in just 5 games this season due to injuries, but figures to get a pass in NBArank with the way this season felt like a year off for the Warriors. Curry hasn’t ranked lower than #6 in NBArank going back to 2013.

Heading into the 2020-21 season, you also have the return of Kevin Durant, who has had a top-4 NBArank in every healthy season going back to 2012 (2014 and 2019 being exceptions due to injury). While a top-4 rank might be tough to come by coming off an Achilles tear, it’s hard to imagine him falling outside of the top 10. Last season’s top 6 (Giannis, Kawhi, LeBron, Harden, AD, Curry) likely aren’t going anywhere. With those 6 locked in plus Durant, that leaves just 3 spots for a handful of extremely talented players.

The players vying for those last 3 spots include a long underrated star who just went toe to toe with LeBron James in the Finals (Butler), a couple of top-10 incumbents coming off of 2nd-Team All-NBA seasons (Jokic and Lillard), and a couple of 22-and-under rising stars who only figure to improve (Doncic and Tatum). With that in mind, this is my best guess at what NBArank 2020 will look like:

  1. LeBron James
  2. Giannis Antetokounmpo
  3. Kawhi Leonard
  4. Anthony Davis
  5. James Harden
  6. Kevin Durant
  7. Stephen Curry
  8. Luka Doncic
  9. Nikola Jokic
  10. Jimmy Butler

The gap between Jimmy Butler at #10 and Damian Lillard, who just misses the cut, is razor thin. Butler has never been in the top 10, with his highest ranking of #11 coming in 2017. Lillard ranked #10 in 2016 and 2018 and then #9 in 2019. Tatum is right there too. Had he been able to lead Boston to the Finals and get past Butler and Miami, he might have been the one to break into the top 10. But I think Butler gets the nod looking ahead to next season because of his playoff performance in 2020. It’s hard to pick against a guy who just put up a 26-8-10 Finals stat line.

Nikola Jokic falls back a couple spots to #9 with the return of Kevin Durant and the arrival of Luka Doncic at #8. Luka’s 1st-Team All-NBA appearance means he was voted a top-5 regular season performer in 2020, and his playoff performance showed that was no fluke. Although his team exited in the 1st round of the playoffs, his individual performance (including an iconic game winner) only gives us reason to believe he will be even better next year.

Luka would be the youngest player in the top 10 since Kyrie Irving in 2013 (Irving hasn’t made it back into the top 10 since). Durant and Curry at #6 and #7 feels about right coming off of seasons lost due to injury. As each enters the latter stages of their respective primes, their shooting figures to allow them to continue to perform as top-10 players, even as their athleticism wanes. Durant’s health is a big question mark, given his return from a torn Achilles. If he returns at 80% of what he was, he probably falls just behind the top guys; with a full recovery he should possibly be even higher than #6.

Harden, who lands at #5 on my list, is hurt by a lack of team postseason success in these rankings. The metrics shown earlier (Win Shares and VORP) paint him as a top-2 player. But fair or not, he likely needs to lead his team to a title to pass any of the top 4 guys. The order of those top 4 will be interesting to see. Davis got some “best player on the planet” buzz at certain points throughout the playoffs, notably after hitting the biggest shot of his career that gave the Lakers a 2-0 Conference Finals lead.

But with some of the ups and downs he had, I think he still ends up at #4, just behind Giannis and Kawhi. With earlier than expected postseason exits for both Giannis and Kawhi, it would be hard to see either of them claiming the top spot. I move them each back a spot from where they were last year to #2 (Giannis) and #3 (Kawhi).

And lastly, the #1 spot has to go to LeBron James. With his Finals MVP performance fresh in everyone’s minds, it will be tough for ESPN not to give him back the spot which he owned from 2011 to 2018. Projecting a player who will turn 36 before the season ends as the top overall player feels a little risky. He is just over a year removed from a season marred by injury in which he missed the playoffs. No one his age has ever even cracked the top 10 (Kobe was the closest at #6 in 2012, entering his age 34 season). The two players who ranked ahead of him in 2019 will be square in the prime of their careers at age 26 (Giannis) and 29 (Kawhi). But by leading the Lakers to a 2020 title, he showed that the crown was taken from him at least a year too early. The King should have his chance in 2021 to defend not only the title, but also his rightful place atop NBArank as the #1 player.

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