Ryan Knaus

The Numbers Game

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NBA Free Agency Updates

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Free agency continues to dominate the NBA landscape. LeBron James has returned to Cleveland, Carmelo Anthony re-signed with the Knicks, and those two decisions caused a chain reaction. Today's column analyzes all player movements which have occurred since last Monday. Click here to read about earlier signings, which include Dirk Nowitzki, Kyle Lowry, Marcin Gortat, Josh McRoberts, Channing Frye, Spencer Hawes, Avery Bradley and Darren Collison.


I have also updated my original free-agent columns to reflect every signing, and will continue to do so until at least the end of July.


Part 1: Point guards and shooting guards

Part 2: Small forwards and power forwards

Part 3: Centers and restricted free agents


NBA die-hards have another distraction this week with the Las Vegas Summer League in full swing. Rotoworld's Aaron Bruski and Mike Gallagher are both in Vegas taking in the action, so be sure to follow them on Twitter for continual updates about the league's young guns.


Recent Free Agent Signings


Pau Gasol and the Bulls agreed on a three-year deal worth about $22 million. His offensive skills will be eagerly welcomed in Chicago, and even at 34 years old he should hover just below last season's 17.4 points on 48.0 percent shooting, with 9.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.5 blocks per game. It's worth noting that Carlos Boozer, who will be displaced by Gasol, flirted with a career-high usage rate last season -- he finished 26.3 percent of Chicago's offensive possessions while he was on the court, which suggests Gasol will also get plenty of opportunities. He also thrived last year in post-ups and particularly as the roll-man in pick-and-rolls, a play which constituted 28 percent of the Bulls' offense last season.


The bigger concern might be Gasol's health, as he missed 22 games last season and 33 games in 2012-13. Beat writer Nick Friedell has already suggested that Tom Thibodeau "will still likely go with [Joakim] Noah and [Taj] Gibson late in games. They are his defensive closers." It will be interesting to see if that happens, and if so how Gasol handles the decision.


Gasol's arrival also leaves Carlos Boozer's status up in the air. He's been told by the Bulls that he'll likely be waived via the amnesty provision or dealt in a sign-and-trade, but the ship may have sailed for the latter option and Chicago has been very reluctant to amnesty him. From an optimistic point of view, he's currently the fourth-best big man in Chicago's frontcourt.


In other news, LeBron James agreed to sign a two-year deal with the Cavaliers worth approximately $42.1 million, though he has an opt-out clause which he could exercise next season. Mercifully, the belief is that LeBron isn't keeping his options open -- he's simply trying to maximize his lifetime earnings by timing his free agency with the league's next lucrative TV deal, as well as the possibility of a new CBA in 2017.


Rotoworld's Steve Alexander already shared his thoughts on LeBron's return to Cleveland, and I wholeheartedly agree with him. I'm over-saturated with LeBron news and speculation, and won't say much about him, but from a fantasy perspective his value is bullet-proof. Kyrie Irving's ball-dominance isn't likely to be a problem due to LeBron's extraordinary versatility. If he plays off-ball more, he'll likely end up with increased 3-pointers and a higher FG percentage. If he's not exerting himself as often offensively, he'll pick up the slack with increased steals and blocks, etc. Kevin Durant is the clear-cut No. 1 fantasy option and you could argue for Stephen Curry or Anthony Davis at the No. 2 spot, but LeBron is still a safe bet anywhere behind Durant.


Rotoworld's Nick Raducanu asked on Twitter where Kyrie would rank if the Cavaliers do manage to land Kevin Love (far from certain), which got me thinking about how LeBron's arrival will impact Irving. I first dug around in basketball-reference.com to see how point guards have historically fared with LeBron.


I was quickly reminded how awful those mid-2000s teams were, which LeBron carried into the playoffs year after year, and it's impossible to fault him for leaving Cleveland in 2010 (albeit, by his own admission he could have better handled his departure). The Cavs won the Eastern Conference championship in 2006-07 with a supporting cast featuring Larry HughesDrew GoodenZydrunas IlgauskasAnderson VarejaoEric Snow and Sasha Pavlovic. Yikes.


The more interesting takeaway is that since 2007-08 LeBron has always led his team in assists per 36 minutes, and only one of LeBron's teammates ever averaged more than 6.2 assists-per-36 -- that honor belongs to Jeff McInnis, who did it during LeBron's rookie season (but McInnis only appeared in 31 games for Cleveland that year, so the sample size is misleading).


Jeff McInnis (7.7) Eric Snow (6.2) LeBron (5.6) Eric Snow (6.2) LeBron (6.4)
Kevin Ollie (6.0) LeBron (6.1) Eric Snow (5.3) LeBron (5.3) Delonte West (5.2)
LeBron (5.4) Jeff McInnis (5.3) Larry Hughes (3.7) David Wesley (3.8) Eric Snow (5.0)


LeBron (6.9) LeBron (7.9) LeBron (6.5) LeBron (6.0) LeBron (6.9) LeBron (6.1)
Mo Williams (4.3) Mo Williams (5.6) Dwyane Wade (4.4) Dwyane Wade (5.0) Dwyane Wade (5.3) Mario Chalmers (5.9)
Delonte West (3.8) Delonte West (4.7) Mario Chalmers (4.0) Mario Chalmers (4.4) Mario Chalmers (4.8) Dwyane Wade (5.1)


And here are Kyrie Irving's per-36-minute assist totals in his three NBA seasons:


2011-12: 6.4

2012-13: 6.2

2013-14: 6.2


It seems extremely unlikely that Irving's assists will spike with LeBron and Andrew Wiggins alongside him, even though new coach David Blatt is well-regarded for his inventive and effective offensive schemes. In addition to LBJ's need to handle the ball frequently, he doesn't produce a ton of assists for his teammates. Here is a quick breakdown of LeBron's offensive usage last season, by play type:


Isolation: 20.9 percent

Transition: 20.1 percent

Pick-and-roll ball handler: 16.0 percent

Post-up: 14.0 percent

Spot-up: 8.2 percent


The remaining 21 percent of his usage came on a wide variety of plays (cuts, offensive rebounds, etc.), and as you can see the vast majority of his plays weren't likely to lead to assists for teammates, barring a handful of spot-ups and transition opportunities.


Kyrie Irving ranked 16th in the NBA in touches per game last year, per SportsVU data. He tied for 14th in total assists (6.1) but more tellingly he ranked 20th among the league's starting PGs on a per-36-minute basis, where he was 48th overall (6.2). He also ranked 27th in passes per game (56.1), and 26th in assist opportunities per game.


To be sure, part of the problem was the Cavs' middling supporting cast which thrust Kyrie into a do-it-all role in Mike Brown's stagnant offense. Defensive weaknesses notwithstanding, Irving handled an abnormal amount of responsibility with aplomb and Cleveland did well to keep him on a five-year, $90 million extension this summer.


The Cavaliers have reportedly refused to part with Andrew Wiggins in trade talks for Kevin Love, and the Warriors are still a real threat to acquire Love if they agree to part with Klay Thompson. Nevertheless, if Love did land in Cleveland it may create an offensive bottle-neck -- Love ranked 8th in touches per game (86.2), Irving was 16th and LeBron James was 28th (75.6), which means something would have to give. I'll refrain from going deeper into that scenario, given that it's purely speculative.


Carmelo Anthony returned to the Knicks on a five-year deal worth roughly $122 million. The deal includes a slight discount in the early years of the contract to give New York some "wiggle room," in Phil Jackson's words. The Knicks are poised to be awful next season, to be blunt, even though the arrival of Jose Calderon (a pass-first PG and deadly outside shooter) should be hugely beneficial for the whole team, Carmelo included.


Melo remains the be-all, end-all of the Knicks' offense, which is where he makes his money (and fantasy value), so he's a safe bet to repeat as a first-round fantasy option. Last year he notched 27.4 points, 2.2 threes, a career-high 8.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.2 steals and a career-high 0.7 blocks. Draft him past the middle of the first round and don't look back.


Luol Deng agreed to a two-year, $20 million deal with the Heat. He's coming off a poor season in which he missed 19 games and bottomed-out at 41.7 percent shooting after getting bogged down in the Cavaliers' offense. The Heat offer a structured offense and a chance for Deng to re-establish himself as a top-tier NBA small forward -- he's only 29 years old, but years of huge minutes in Chicago have taken an obvious toll on his body. Deng typically contributes in every fantasy category except blocks, and he'll have some upside if he falls past the middle rounds in this year's drafts -- after all, somebody has to fill in the scoring void created by LeBron's departure.


Paul Pierce signed with the Wizards for $11 million over two years. He'll give Washington steady production and outside shooting in their hunt for a second straight playoff berth, and he'll be just as important as a leader off the court and in the locker room. On a more nuanced level, Pierce's offensive usage consisted of 36.9 percent spot-up attempts with the Nets last season. He shot 38.8 percent from downtown on those attempts, not quite as good as Ariza's stellar 42.9 percent, but Pierce was slightly better overall on spot-ups (43.6) than Ariza (42.7).


The Wizards' offense led by John Wall relied on spot-ups for 17.4 percent of their offensive plays last season, more than any other play type, so the takeaway is that Pierce should be a natural fit offensively. His defense is a clear drop-off from Ariza, but even at age 36 he's not glaringly poor enough to make this a bad match. Kudos to Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld for not missing a beat on Saturday -- Ariza agreed to sign with the Rockets, and hours later Pierce was a confirmed Wizard. It'll be weird to see Pierce in a Washington uniform, and I doubt he'll return more than middle-late round value in fantasy leagues, but it makes for a great real-world addition.

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Despite residing in Portland, Maine, Ryan Knaus remains a heartbroken Sonics fan who longs for the days of Shawn Kemp and Xavier McDaniel. He has written for Rotoworld.com since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter.
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