2021 Free Agency
Free agency notebook: Bulls improve, Lakers reload and more
Dig into some notes, numbers and film about the players changing locales via free agency and trades.
The free agency moratorium came to an end at noon ET on Friday, meaning that teams can officially make trades that were agreed to around the Draft and sign free agents to contracts that were agreed to over the last four days.
We’ll have new, offseason Power Rankings for both the Eastern and Western Conferences in the coming weeks. For now, here’s a first round of some notes, numbers and film regarding players that have agreed to deals or will be traded to new teams now that the moratorium period is over…
Bulls’ upgrade offensively
Ball will pass ahead
The Chicago Bulls have had a bottom 10 offense in each of the last six seasons (only Orlando — nine seasons — has a longer active streak). Last season, they actually ranked lower after adding Nikola Vucevic (22nd) than they did prior (18th).
One issue is that, despite having a slightly better than average defense, they didn’t get a lot of early offense. The Bulls ranked in the bottom five in both the percentage of their possessions that were in transition (according to Synergy tracking) and the percentage of their shots that came in the first six seconds of the shot clock (according to Second Spectrum tracking). There’s not a strong correlation between the percentage of shots that come early in the clock and offensive efficiency, but for every team, effective field goal percentage is highest in the first six seconds.
And Ball should help the Bulls get more of that early offense. In L.A. and New Orleans, he has consistently gotten the ball up the floor quickly, via the dribble or the pass. In 2019-20, he led the league with 8.3 “pass-ahead” passes per game, according to Second Spectrum. Last season, though the Pelicans saw the league’s fourth biggest drop in pace, he still ranked fourth with 6.5.
Getting the ball up the floor quickly can have value beyond early shots. After a made basket in a February game against Phoenix, Ball’s pass ahead to Zion Williamson had the Suns’ defense scrambling a bit and got Williamson matched up with Devin Booker (with Deandre Ayton late to get back). Ball got the ball back and tossed a lob to Williamson over Booker’s head …
Mismatches could help two of the three most efficient isolation players from last season. According to Synergy, DeMar DeRozan (1.20) and Zach LaVine (1.14) ranked first and third in points per possession on isolations among 42 players with at least 100 isolation possessions.
Having two guys that can play one-one at (or near) that level will be important in close games. The Bulls were just 14-21 (fifth worst) in games that were within five points in the last five minutes last season. DeRozan, meanwhile, ranked second (behind Jayson Tatum – 8) with seven buckets to tie or take the lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime.
LaVine’s iso efficiency was more about his shooting from the field, while DeRozan’s was more about his ability to get to the line. DeRozan doesn’t take the the most efficient shots from the floor.
In fact, only 32% of his shots came in the restricted area or 3-point range — the lowest rate among 250 players with at least 300 field goal attempts. But he had the 10th highest free throw rate (47.8 attempts per 100 shots from the field) in that group. And shooting 88% from the line, he had the fourth biggest difference between his effective field goal percentage (50.5%, 186th among the 250) and his true shooting percentage (59.1%, 85th). The former is about shots from the field, while the latter is about overall scoring efficiency.
Biggest difference, true shooting % vs. effective FG%, 2020-21
eFG% = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA
TS% = PTS / (FGA + (0.44 * FTA)))
Rank = Among 250 players with 300+ FGA
DeRozan has also developed as a playmaker, seeing his assist ratio (assists per 100 possessions) go from 12.6 in 2016-17 to a career-high 25.7 last season. And though he doesn’t take a lot of 3-pointers himself, he ranked 11th with 200 assists on 3s last season. He’s not throwing cross-court darts through multiple defenders, but when you’re a great one-on-one player, you draw extra attention from the defense and can create open shots by making the simple pass …
LaVine was a very good 3-point shooter, both off the catch (72-for-148, 48.6%, seventh among 227 players with at least 100 attempts) and off the dribble (123-for-315, 39.0%, 11th among 61 players with at least 100 attempts), last season. But trading some of the latter for some of the former, while taking some of the playmaking burden off of his shoulders would be a great thing.
The Bulls might take a step backward defensively, but should certainly end that streak of finishing in the bottom 10 in offensive efficiency, and have a shot at ranking in the top 10 for just the second time since Michael Jordan left Chicago in 1998. (The only other time was the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.)
Lakers reload, lose some size
The first thing you notice about the group of players that the Los Angeles Lakers are adding in free agency is their age. Carmelo Anthony, Trevor Ariza, Kent Bazemore, Wayne Ellington and Dwight Howard are 37, 36, 32, 33 and 35 years old, respectively. They join a roster that already includes a pair of 36-year-olds: Marc Gasol and LeBron James. Russell Westbrook is also more than four years older than all three of the guys he is being traded for.
The Lakers are adding some youth to their backcourt with Malik Monk (23) and Kendrick Nunn (25), two players that showed big improvement last season. Nunn saw the 10th biggest jump in effective field goal percentage (from 51.4% to 57.8%) among 110 players with at least 500 field goal attempts in each of the last two seasons. Monk, meanwhile, saw the fourth biggest jump in 3-point percentage (from 28.4% to 40.1%) among 202 players with at least 100 3-point attempts in each of the last two seasons. Both shot 42% on catch-and-shoot 3s last season.
But those are two small-ish guards. And that leads us to the other thing about the changes that the Lakers have made. They’ve gotten smaller, which could affect how much Anthony Davis plays center.
Over his nine seasons in the league, Davis has played more minutes at power forward than he has at center. Last season, Davis played a career-high 91% of his minutes at the four, with 1,052 of his 1,162 total minutes coming alongside Gasol, Montrezl Harrell or Andre Drummond. That rate dropped to 73% in the postseason (play-in + playoffs), but that mark was still almost double the rate of 40% in the 2020 playoffs.
Drummond and Harrell are gone, replaced by the returning Howard. And with Howard and Gasol turning 36 and 37 early in the 2021-22 season, the Lakers are also losing Markieff Morris, a big power forward who who had some good minutes (189, in which the Lakers outscored their opponents by 16.5 points per 100 possessions) alongside Davis in those ’20 playoffs where Davis played more at the five.
Over his two years in L.A., the Lakers have been better with Davis at the five (+8.2 points per 100 possessions) than they’ve been with him at the four (+4.4). And they’ll likely play small more in the playoffs than they do in the regular season. But the younger guys who can eat minutes over 82 games (Monk, Nunn and Talen Horton-Tucker) are all in the backcourt.
Howard has been pretty durable recently. In fact, only three bigs – Nikola Jokic (145), Ivica Zubac (144) and Rudy Gobert (139) – have played more regular season games over the last two years than Howard (138). But it seems that the Lakers should use one of their open roster spots – they have three after waiving Alfonzo McKinnie on Thursday – on a younger big who could eat some minutes as the Lakers try to keep Davis and James healthy. With Willy Hernangomez (27) off the market as of Friday morning, Harry Giles III (23) could still be an option.
Some more East notes
1. Small wings in Brooklyn
In Nicolas Claxton, the Brooklyn Nets have a young big who can eat minutes. But they seem to be lacking size on the wings. They have Kevin Durant, obviously. But they’re starting 6-foot-6 Joe Harris (who’s not very disruptive defensively — he was last among their rotation players in deflections per 36 minutes) at the three. And behind their starters, their perimeter players are Bruce Brown (6-foot-4), Jevon Carter (6-1), Patty Mills (6-1) and rookie Cam Thomas (6-4).
Brown and Carter are tough defenders, but opposing offenses can take advantage of a switching defense that employs such small guards. So you can see why the Nets were interested in 6-foot-6 Andre Iguodala, even though he’ll turn 38 in February. With Iguodala choosing to return to Golden State, the Nets reportedly reached an agreement with 6-foot-5 DeAndre’ Bembry (just 12-for-45 on catch-and-shoot 3s in 972 minutes last season) on Friday.
2. Tucker moves on
The loss of P.J. Tucker will be felt in Milwaukee. In the playoffs, Tucker accounted for just 6.2% of the Bucks’ points while he was on the floor. That was the lowest rate among 91 players who played at least 150 postseason minutes. But the Bucks were at their best (+8.6 points per 100 possessions) with Tucker on the floor in the playoffs.
In 123 playoff minutes with Tucker and Giannis Antetokounmpo at the four and five (no Brook Lopez or Bobby Portis on the floor), the Bucks outscored their opponents by 14.7 points per 100 possessions. Semi Ojeleye is another thick and strong forward, but it will be tough to replicate the success that the Bucks had with Tucker.
3. More defense in Miami
With the additions of Tucker and Kyle Lowry, the Miami Heat could have one of the toughest defenses in the league. The Heat have ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency in 18 of the 25 seasons for which we have play-by-play data, and they should make it 19 of 26.
Jimmy Butler led the league in steals last season, averaging 2.1 per game. For the seventh time in his career, he had more steals (108) than personal fouls (71). Only three other players – Tyus Jones, T.J. McConnell and Delon Wright – played at least 1,000 minutes with more steals than fouls last season and no other player has done it more than three times over the last 10 years.
Lowry ranked third in charges drawn per game (0.43), though, like Butler, he will take some risks from off the ball, unafraid to leave shooters in the strong side corner to throw his body in front of a driving ball-handler …
Bam Adebayo is one of the best isolation defenders in the league, though his isolation defensive numbers weren’t quite as good last season (0.78 points allowed per possession, fifth among 20 players who defended at least 75 isolation possessions) as they were in 2019-20 (0.66, second of 26).
And in Tucker, the Heat have the guy who defended Kevin Durant for much of an epic, seven-game series less than two months ago.
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