August 31, 2014

NBA Free Agency: Analyzing stats of top available wings for the Cavs

free agent wings pictures_finalThe Cleveland Cavaliers are one of many teams staring into a deep collection of potentially available wing players this offseason.

For the last four seasons, the Cavs have struggled to find consistent perimeter play at all from the shooting guard and small forward positions. Nothing is more emblematic of the team’s struggles than the fact that Alonzo Gee, journeyman, is second in minutes played with 6,361 since the 2010-11 season.

Luol Deng provided some stability over the final three months of last season, but he somewhat underwhelmed and early indications seem to be that he’s unlikely to return to Cleveland. That leaves the Cavs with a lot of options … and a gigantic amount of uncertainty.

While addressing the fact that, yes, the team has the No. 1 overall pick and some weird, still-hovering outside chance of recruiting back LeBron James, this post will focus on the qualities and strengths of this year’s free agent wing talent. The top players come from different systems, are at different points of their career development and would bring different skills to the table. What are their strengths and weaknesses?

Yes, Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker, both with their known differentiation points, could be the Cavs’ long-term answer at this general gaping hole. There’s no knowing what the team’s plan might be or how they plan to utilize the unique opportunity of again having the top pick. Wiggins is more of a fit for a “wing” position; Parker might be more of a traditional forward.

All I’ll say to compare the youngsters and the veterans is this: Very rarely do 18- or 19-year-olds contribute at even an average level in the NBA. Again, average is very valuable. But if you look at the list of sub-20-year-old player-seasons in league history, you see a whole lot of underwhelming struggles.

That’s not to say that Wiggins or Parker (or anyone else from this loaded draft) might not be sensational long-term. They’ll be good, no doubt. But in 2014-15 or 2015-16, they’ll be fighting to just be average. They’re almost guaranteed to be worse than the players below. Yet, of course, you obviously have some major problems if you’re only constructing a team for two-year windows and ignoring the long-term future entirely.

The five players I’ll be focusing on today are Trevor Ariza, Rudy Gay, Gordon Hayward, Chandler Parsons and P.J. Tucker. For a variety of reasons, these are the five I’m most fascinated about and relate for a nice set of comparison points. Thus, I’m hoping to analyze the numbers and everything we know about them.1

Other potential wing options could include but are not limited to: Al-Farouq Aminu, Jimmer Fredette, Danny Granger, Richard Jefferson, James Johnson, Wesley Johnson, Jodie Meeks, Anthony Morrow, Paul Pierce, Thabo Sefolosha, Lance Stephenson (!), Evan Turner, Marvin Williams, Nick Young and more. There are tons and tons of options for almost every NBA team. Go explore free agency lists and see who you like, too.

Here’s my overall data dump that I’ll explore in more detail individually with each player. Note that ages listed are as of July 1, 2014.

 free agent wings_data

An intro to usage

I’ve written about usage many times in the past, perhaps most notably in The Diff before the 2013 NBA Draft. In that post, I applauded Nerlens Noel and adjusted his PER for his very low usage. It was a bit of fuzzy math and I’ll explain why here as an introduction to my analysis below.

PER, the catch-all, ever-popular rating invented by John Hollinger, is not a rate statistic. That means it also includes counting numbers and is not just a per-minute or per-possession evaluation. Specifically, the more shots a player takes, the higher his PER is likely to be, no matter his efficiency.

That’s both good and bad. It means a player can rack up a higher PER with “empty shots,” inefficient data points when he probably shouldn’t be so involved. Usage is a handy number that more accurately encapsulates some of the counting stats that could inflate PER.

Usage is an estimate of the percentage of possessions that a player uses out of his team’s 100%. That means the average of the five players on the court at any point in time is 20%. Among qualified players in the 2013-14 season, the leader was Kevin Durant at 33% and the lowest was Pablo Prigioni at 9.3%. That makes sense.

The definition of usage includes possession-ending stats: free throw attempts, field goal attempts and turnovers. It does not factor in assists, so it’s a slightly incomplete but still really useful metric. Alongside other numbers (such as Assist Rate and a player’s assisted field goal percentage), you can get a pretty solid sense of an individual’s involvement in the offense. Just remember that 20% is the average and you should be good.2

Among the five wings analyzed in thi post, Rudy Gay had the highest 2013-14 usage at 27.4%. That ranked 15th among 259 qualified players last season. P.J. Tucker had the lowest in the grouping at 14.2%, ranking 221st. The other players were much closer to the token 20% number. Trade-offs for usage and efficiency are explained more below.

Trevor Ariza

Trevor Ariza, the soon-to-be 29-year-old veteran, is an unrestricted free agent after finally reaching the end of a five-year $33.5 million deal he signed with the Houston Rockets in July 2009. If you recall, he also flirted with LeBron and the Cavs that offseason, leading me to proclaim the Cavs “missed big” by not signing him.

However, Ariza’s last five years have been … inconsistent, to say the least. The chart below breaks down his last six years after he rose to the spotlight with a great season off the bench for the champion Lakers in 2008-09:

free agent wings_ariza

Since he’s almost 29, you’re not projecting much here. You should know what he does. I say that knowing that he just went and had a career three-point shooting season with the rejuvenated Washington Wizards offense. He was a star in the postseason. He made 180 regular-season threes, by far a new career high (he made only 187 in the previous three years and had only nine in his first four NBA seasons).

He struggled mightily with high usage as the lead offensive creator in his only season for Houston. He continued to shoot poorly in New Orleans where his usage dropped back down again. Only now in Washington the last two years has he regained the promise and upside he once shined for the Lakers. Over 50% of his shot attempts this season were from three.

Throughout his career, Ariza has always had good steal rates because of his size and athleticism. Offensively, he has his clear limitations: He is best served as an assist-reliant, three-point-dominant wing who can occasionally win you a few games with his hot shooting. He’ll be expensive because of his postseason success. But you clearly know he’s not suited for an increased role.

Rudy Gay

There is no player more widely ridiculed by the basketball analytics community than Rudy Gay. This could be a good thing for teams interested in the soon-to-be 28-year-old, who holds a $19.3 million player option for 2014-15 with the Sacramento Kings.

Last season, Toronto traded Gay to Sacramento and famously became scorching hot right afterwards. Quietly, Gay also found individual success with the Kings, leading to many reports on how this could possibly happen. SB Nation’s Tom Ziller and Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry both wrote about the conundrum. Here’s a graphic that Ziller used:

free agent wings_gay

Throughout his career, Gay has perfectly exemplified the trade-off between usage and efficiency. He’s usually been a high-profile, high-usage offensive creator, but he’s understandably been more effective with a slightly reduced offensive role. He’s not as bad nor as good as either extremes. He’s somewhere in the middle and a usage equilibrium is necessary to bring him to that point.

In Sacramento compared to Toronto last year, his two-point shooting percentage increased by a whopping 12%. He hasn’t been even an average three-point shooter in the last three seasons. His assist and rebounding totals are decent for his size. His defense usually has been criticized in the past.

Gay likely should pick up that player option unless he really abhors Sacramento and/or thinks he’d hurt his long-term value with this next season. It’s hard for any player to option to turn down $19.3 million guaranteed. But if he’s suddenly a free agent, he’s an undoubtedly intriguing offensive weapon if used properly.

Gordon Hayward

While Ariza and Gay are relatively known items, the 24-year-old Gordon Hayward is comparatively an empty slate. He’s only played four back-and-forth seasons with the Utah Jazz and is now a restricted free agent. He’s expected to be a very hot commodity because of his versatility and age.

His back-and-forth seasons have been somewhat similar to Gay in that he has progressively traded efficiency for increased usage. Each year, he is being assisted on fewer field goals and he had by far his career-worst eFG% in 2013-14 at 45.4%.

free agent wings_hayward

Don’t call Hayward’s season a “regression,” however. It’s mostly understandable as he took on an increased role in the creation of Utah’s offense. In 2012-13, he was assisted on 59.0% of his two-pointers; that number dropped dramatically to only 40.2% this year. That’s drastic and can at least somewhat explain the drop in efficiency.

He was a very valuable distributor for the Jazz. He draws a ton of free throws too, beating all of his peers in this statistic. His Offensive Real-Plus Minus was the best at 2.17 and his Defensive Real Plus Minus was the worst at -1.59.3

This year, he was a very, very good midrange shooter for his assist rates. Last year, he was a very, very good above-the-break three-point shooter. His career numbers are pretty solid shooting-wise across the board.

Someone will give Hayward a mega deal (at least $50 million and four years) to try and draw him away from the Jazz. Alongside other offensive creators, Hayward could settle into a really long career as an uber-efficient shooter with backup distributor responsibilities. The upside is very tempting.

Chandler Parsons

It’s natural to then compare Hayward and the 25-year-old Chandler Parsons, another prominent restricted free agent wing in this year’s class. Parsons was a second-round pick in 2011, meaning he’s actually played one less season thus far in the NBA despite being a year-and-a-half older.

The shooting chart below will show Parsons’ tendencies and efficiency. Note how he has taken only 12% of his career attempts from midrange, an oddity for a wing, but par for the course in Houston’s midrange-aversive scheme. Parsons plays in some small-ball lineups as a “power forward” and is a very opportunistic scorer.

free agent wings_parsons

Compared to Hayward, Parsons had lower usage, lower turnover, lower assist and lower free throw rates. With the lower usage, he has higher assisted two-point field goal rates, especially so this past season.

Parsons is a better finisher and corner three-point shooter. His shooting efficiency has still been pretty solid throughout his career, despite a gradual upticks in usage from 16.7% his rookie season to 19.3% this year. He also has increased his free throw rates each season.

Houston interestingly decided to make him a restricted free agent this offseason as opposed to him becoming unrestricted in the summer of 2015. Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski reported it has to do with the team’s plans to draw in another superstar. Fear the Sword’s David Zavac is one of many interested in him joining the Cavs.

Parsons is steady and reliable, a guy who has averaged 16-5-4 the past two seasons in a fairly ho-hum fashion as a third- or fourth-fiddle in Houston. We don’t know if he’d necessarily have lower efficiency with an increased role; we do know that’s been the case with Hayward. We also don’t know the impact of Houston’s unique offensive scheme and how he would perform elsewhere. He’ll still be a very coveted player for good reason.

P.J. Tucker

The final wing I’ll discuss has the most unique NBA journey of all: 29-year-old P.J. Tucker, who has only played three seasons in the league after a five-year hiatus overseas. His rookie season in 2006-07 with Toronto only included 83 minutes, however, so you’re looking at a newly redeveloped legitimate rotation player.

Tucker was a fascinating part of the Phoenix Suns’ small-ball, fast-break-focused success this year. Iterations of lineups with Goran Dragic, Miles Plumlee, Channing Frye and Tucker were among the most frequently used – and most successful – for the Suns this year. That’s why he was registered as a “shooting guard” so frequently.

free agent wings_tucker

Overall, that foursome was +5.7 per 48 minutes in their 1,006 minutes together; the Suns were only +1.6 in all other minutes. With Tucker on the court, the Suns played an even more fast-paced game (98.9 pace on-court; 97.0 off-court). He provided swagger, energy, defense and toughness to a young up-and-coming team that shocked the NBA.

One should note his very, very low usage at only 14.2%. He shot infrequently in the team’s offensive scheme, but was a good individual rebounder and efficient corner-three-point specialist. He was a poor finisher, yet had high shot attempt ratios in the restricted area. He also had very low assist numbers (as did the entire Phoenix team).

Tucker should be an intriguing free agent because of his low cost and potential difference-maker abilities. He was a sensational fit in Phoenix’s scheme; how would he fit elsewhere? Could he work in using more minutes at the small forward spot? His newly developed floor spacing, intensity and rebounding are usually highly valued traits on the open market.

Data Recap

For the next four-to-six weeks, we’ll likely be hearing more and more about the wing players in this free agency class. Ariza, Hayward and Parsons all are expected to fetch multi-year contracts starting at $10 million per year. More likely than not, Gay will pick up his player option and return to Sacramento. It’s just too big of a risk to turn down $19.3 million, so he’s unlikely to be available. But the others will be analyzed several times over.

The Cavs will have a choice of which high-profile player they prefer. Ariza has the lowest upside at 29 and struggled with an increased role years ago, but just had a sensational season playing alongside John Wall and feasting on the three-point line. Hayward’s the youngest at 24 and the best distributor, but he’d also be best served in a reduced usage role to maximize his shooting abilities. And Parsons at 25 is the wild card, a usually steady backup offensive option who has benefited from Houston’s schemes and stars, so he’s perhaps the largest unknown on the open market.

Alternatively, Cleveland also could go down the cheaper route with options like C.J. Miles, Tucker or some of the other shooter-only wings available. This might especially be the case if they want to develop an Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker immediately and use them alongside the two-guard assets of Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters. One could argue that the Cavs should only add floor spacing and shooting on the cheap with so many players on the market.

But most importantly, the Cavs need talent. They really, really need talent on the wings. They’re not there yet and they need to move away from the days of Alonzo Gee in order to move the franchise forward. Ideally, there’s a consideration for both the short-term and long-term dreams to be a consistent playoff team. A big choice is looming.

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Footnotes:

  1. On C.J. Miles: I’m a huge fan. I wrote about his difference-maker abilities for the Cavs in Januarry. He played only 984 minutes this season, however, leaving not as much data to compare to in this study. He’s an admirable shooter and floor-spacer and I absolutely wouldn’t be opposed to him returning next season. He’s probably the best free agency deal for the Cavs in the last four years. []
  2. It’s notable to share that both Kyrie Irving (28.2%) and Dion Waiters (26.9%) ranked in the top-20 in usage last season. Some might argue that’s a bad thing. []
  3. For some reason though, ESPN still has him listed as a shooting guard, although he was marked as playing only 2% of his minutes at the 2 this season. []
  • dwhit110

    Good analytical stuff as always, I was surprised to see Jon, and not Jacob Rosen’s name on the byline for this, given that it’s basketball.

  • mgbode

    I think Houston is being smart in that they can near-guarantee a lockup of Parsons long-term rather than just getting him for 1 more year. Of course, if a superstar indicates interest instead, then they jump at it. Smart move all around.

    Hayward is not going anywhere.

    That really leaves the wing options thin. Like rookie Jeremy Lamb thin. Hopefully, we can utilize the thin wing market in a sign-n-trade with Deng (since it doesn’t look like we are retaining him) and perhaps get back some talent through that route.

  • WFNYJon

    It was plagiarism, pure and simple :)

    Jacob wrote this, of course, and he has since been identified with a proper byline.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com WFNYBen

    People keep trying to talk me into Hayward… and offensively, I think he’s a great fit. it’s the defensive end that worries me (although I’m not sure REAL familiar to be honest). I worry about giving a long term deal (and an overpay, this being Cleveland) to a small forward who will have major trouble defending elite small forwards.

    good stuff, Jacob. I rescind my booing.

  • mgbode

    If I thought we could steal him, then I would urge you to take a longer look at Hayward. Heck, do it anyway. Too many in the media have see a boyish looking white guy who played HS in Indiana, college for Butler, and in the NBA for Utah and just assume that he couldn’t possibly be athletic or good at defense.

    everyone has trouble defending elite small forwards (LeBron and Durant). overall though, he has done quite well on defense. SF have a 14.3PER against him and he had a 1.5 defensive win share last year. Not great numbers, but good numbers when he is shooting the ball as well as he did his first 3 seasons.

    and, therein lies the issue. last year was a huge regression year and there would have to be careful consideration to if it was a blip or what he will become moving forward. I consider it a blip (he’s too good of a shooter), but you never know.

    then again, he does look boyish…

    http://i.usatoday.net/sports/gallery/2010/nba/s100624_nba-draft/Haywordpg-horizontal.jpg

  • Hayward

    I will cease to be a Cavs fan if we sign Gay, that would be a complete disaster.

    Hayward seems like a perfect compliment to our high usage backcourt with his great passing, shooting and scrappiness. I’m not a stats guy; when I watch Hayward I see a very high effort defender who does the little stuff. Maybe we can do a sign and trade for him cuz Utah will undoubtedly match any reasonable offer.

    Irving/Delly
    Waiters/Miles
    Hayward/Wiggins
    Tristan/Zeller
    Hawes/Varejao

    I’d amnesty Jack in a heartbeat for this squad. Good shooting + lots of potential + much improved perimeter defense. Parsons wouldn’t be a bad option either.

  • mgbode

    We cannot amnesty Jack.

  • Kildawg

    I see Rudy Gay as being similar to Andrew Bynum: good (not great, and only good when healthy) players that tend to hurt their teams overall; therefore signing them would be a good smokescreen to actually tank (hey, Milwaukee employed this strategy with Sanders, Neal, and Mayo but ended up with the #2 overall pick).

  • Hayward

    Why?

  • vedwin

    we already used our amnesty on Baron Davis

  • Hayward

    Good call, didn’t know that was a one time thing. Very strange rule and timetable IMO.

  • mgbode

    Yeah, we would have had to have him under contract at the time of the cba too.

  • wildrover4

    Ariza is the best fit on the Cavs roster. Having Kyrie as your franchise player limits how many defensive liabilities you can have on the court with him.

  • heatdust

    Hayward seems interested in the possibility of rejoining Brad Stevens in Boston, and the Jazz might let him walk if another team signs an offer sheet for anything over $12 million per season. Utah tried to sign him to an extension earlier in the season, and it didn’t happen. Don’t count him out completely, but Utah is not letting him go for nothing.

  • heatdust

    I don’t see how your lineup works because you have to give up someone in the sign and trade with Hayward to get him. The only guys the Jazz would take in that sign and trade would be Wiggins and Irving, so you would have to get creative. I agree, Hayward would be great in this lineup, but how do you get him?