Ten takeaways from 10 days of free agency (with some pre-free-agency trades mixed in):
1. Early continuity rankings
There are still plenty of free agents available and about 30* open roster spots across the league. There may also be another trade or two coming … sooner or later.
* Not including two-way spots. The Oklahoma City Thunder also have 20 players (five too many) with non-two-way contracts for 2022-23.
But a lot of deals have already gone down, and a lot of teams have turned their roster over quite a bit. The Atlanta Hawks, for example, have seen five guys from their end-of-season roster leave via trade or free agency. They’ve been replaced by five new vets plus rookie AJ Griffin. But the Hawks aren’t at the bottom of the early continuity rankings, an honor that belongs to the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Blazers have actually lost only two players from their end-of-season roster, and neither of those two guys — Eric Bledsoe and Joe Ingles — played a single minute for Portland. But the continuity rankings take all of last season’s minutes into account, and a lot of last season’s minutes were played by guys who the Blazers said goodbye to before the season was over. Robert Covington, Norman Powell, CJ McCollum and Larry Nance Jr. combined to play almost 5,000 minutes for Portland before being sent away by February.
The Blazers also have two available free agents — Ben McLemore and CJ Elleby — who played more than 1,000 minutes last season. And so Portland sits at the bottom of the rankings, with only 49% of last season’s minutes currently set to return.
Of course, if the Brooklyn Nets (currently at just 51%) trade a star or two, they would fall below Portland.
Here are the continuity rankings as they stand on Monday morning:
% of 2021-22 regular-season minutes currently set to return
|Rank||Team||21-22 Min.||*Ret. Players||Ret. Min.||%Ret.M|
* Players who are currently under contract or have agreed to re-sign.
At the top are the Toronto Raptors, who are set to bring back all 12 guys who played at least 450 minutes for them last season. Ten of those 12 were under contract, and they’ve re-signed Chris Boucher and Thaddeus Young.
For the third straight year, the Lakers are near the bottom of the continuity rankings. But they haven’t (yet) made a trade, and only one player from their end-of-season roster — Malik Monk — has signed elsewhere.
Instead, the Lakers have eight guys who played for them last season who are still available free agents. Those eight guys played a total of almost 6,000 minutes for L.A. in 2021-22. That’s easily the highest total among still-available free agents for any team, and it doesn’t take into account the 462 minutes played by Trevor Ariza, who the Lakers waived three days before the season ended.
Most 2021-22 minutes played by still-available free agents who were on the roster at season’s end
1. L.A. Lakers: 5,971 (Anthony, Bradley, Howard, Ellington, Bazemore, Augustin, Jones, McClung)
2. Charlotte: 3,586 (Bridges, Harrell, Thomas, Lewis)
3. Denver: 3,271 (Rivers, Campazzo, Cousins, Howard)
4. Portland: 3,130 (McLemore, Elleby, Blevins, Hughes)
5. Phoenix: 2,665 (Ayton, Payton, Wainright, Lundberg)
Injuries to LeBron James and Anthony Davis kept the Lakers out of the playoffs last season, and Russell Westbrook was clearly a poor fit. But the lack of interest in the team’s free agents is further evidence that the supporting cast was also a big problem.
Some of those eight Lakers free agents did provide them with perimeter shooting. L.A. finished the season with six of the 139 players who shot better than the league average (35.4%) on at least 100 3-point attempts last season.
One of those six, Monk, is gone. Four — D.J. Augustin, Avery Bradley, Wayne Ellington and Carmelo Anthony — are free agents. And none of the five vets the team has added in free agency qualify (Troy Brown Jr. shot 35.3%). So that leaves LeBron James (35.9%) as the only Laker who shot the league average or better on at least 100 3-point attempts last season. They’ve gone from six shooters (tied for fifth most in the league) to just one (fewest).
As rosters stand on Monday morning, the Lakers are the only team with just one of those 139 players. And only one other team — the Denver Nuggets — has fewer than three.
The LA Clippers are at the top of the list, having retained all eight of their players who shot better than the league average on at least 100 3-point attempts. They’re also getting back Kawhi Leonard, who has shot no worse than 37.1% from beyond the arc in each of his last five full seasons.
Second are the Philadelphia 76ers, who have six players who shot better than the league average on at least 100 3-point attempts last season, having lost Danny Green (one of five on their end-of-season roster), but added Danuel House (37.6%), De’Anthony Melton (37.4%) and P.J. Tucker (41.5%). They’re followed by the Hawks (who had a league-leading nine to end the season), Charlotte, Miami and Milwaukee, who have six each.
The Clippers didn’t have the playmaking to go with the shooting and ranked 25th offensively last season. But, as you’d expect, there was still a decent correlation between offensive efficiency and the number of better-than-average 3-point shooters. That’s promising for the Sixers, who ranked 11th offensively last season (and have ranked in the top 10 just once in the last 32 years).
All those Clippers shooters have a new point guard in John Wall, who should be a pretty good fit with LA. Among players who’ve played at least 300 games over the last 10 years, only James (3.22) has averaged more assists on 3-pointers per game than Wall (3.18).
The Clippers’ shooters should also benefit from having two more playmakers (Leonard and Wall) in the rotation. Among 95 players with at least 75 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts and at least 75 pull-up 3-point attempts last season, Terance Mann (41.3% vs. 26.9%), Norman Powell (45.4% vs. 35.2%) and Paul George (41.1% vs. 32.5%) had the third, 16th and 23rd biggest differentials between their catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage and their pull-up 3-point percentage.
Malcolm Brogdon has averaged only 1.7 assists on 3-pointers over his six seasons, but the Celtics’ new point guard should help them with what was a big issue in the last two rounds of the playoffs, when they committed 16.8 turnovers per 100 possessions (worse than the worst rate for any team in the regular season).
Brogdon had the 10th lowest turnover rate (8.6 per 100 possessions) among 49 players with a usage rate of 24% or higher last season. He also had the lowest turnover rate on drives (4.2 per 100) among 42 players who averaged at least 10 drives per game.
Last season was the first time in eight years that the Timberwolves had a better-than-average defense. But, while they ranked 13th defensively overall (111.0 points allowed per 100 possessions), they were in the bottom 10 against the league’s top 10 offenses (115.7).
The Wolves’ defense mostly got by on forcing turnovers, and it wasn’t very strong inside. Minnesota was one of two teams — Detroit was the other — that ranked in the bottom five in both opponent free throw rate (29th) and defensive rebounding percentage (28th). And if you just count road games (to mitigate shot-charting inconsistencies), the Wolves ranked last in opponent field goal percentage in the restricted area (69.4%).
Now the Wolves have Rudy Gobert, who’s probably the best foundation for a good defense over the course of 82 regular-season games. The playoffs and (regular season) games against elite offenses can be a different story, but if you have Gobert on the floor and in drop coverage, you’re going to defend most teams very well.
This past season, the Jazz allowed 25.7 restricted area points per 48 minutes with Gobert on the floor, compared to 34.2 per 48 with him off the floor. That differential (8.6 points per 48 minutes) was more than five times greater than that of Joel Embiid (33.4 on vs. 35.0 off). The Wolves, meanwhile, allowed 36.2 restricted-area points per 48 minutes with Karl-Anthony Towns on the floor last season.
Towns played almost all of his minutes at the five, logging just 83 regular season minutes (and zero playoff minutes) alongside Naz Reid. Jarred Vanderbilt (sent to Utah in the trade) played more inside offensively when the two were on the floor together, but defensively, Towns mostly guarded opposing centers. Now, teamed with Gobert, he’ll be asked to defend more on the perimeter, which could be a huge challenge.
The playoffs are much different than the regular season, but the biggest reason the Wolves haven’t won a playoff series in 18 years is that they’ve only made the playoffs twice in that stretch and were the 7 or 8 seed both times. A much stronger regular-season defense would lead to more wins, a higher seed, and a better chance of advancing beyond the first round.
The Wolves aren’t the Northwest Division team that needed the most help defensively. Once again, that honor belongs to the Blazers, who have ranked in the bottom four in defensive efficiency in each of the last three seasons. (No other team has ranked in the bottom 10 defensively in each of the last three seasons). And the Blazers have seemingly addressed that problem, adding two impact defenders, one (Jerami Grant) via trade and another (Gary Payton II) via free agency.
Grant has length that the Blazers don’t have otherwise, and he ranks as one of best isolation defenders of the last few years. He’s allowed just 0.77 points per direct isolation over the last three seasons. That’s the fourth-best mark among 197 players who’ve defended at least 200 direct isolations over that time, according to Second Spectrum tracking.
Payton’s iso numbers (in a smaller sample size) aren’t quite that good, but they’re solid. And among 375 players who played at least 500 minutes last season, Payton ranked second (behind Matisse Thybulle) with 5.2 deflections per 36 minutes.
But it will be interesting to see how things work offensively between Trae Young and Murray, who ranked third (8.7 minutes per game) and seventh (7.4), respectively, in time of possession last season. The only other teams with two players who ranked in the top 25 in time of possession are the Lakers (Russell Westbrook ranked 10th and LeBron James ranked 14th) and the Sixers (James Harden ranked second and Tyrese Maxey ranked 21st). Maxey averaged just 4.3 minutes of possession after Harden joined the Sixers after the All-Star break, having averaged 6.6 minutes of possession prior to that.
9. Inverted in Denver
We’re all anticipating the returns of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. in Denver. But we should also look forward to inverted pick-and-rolls where 6-foot-4 Bruce Brown sets screens for 6-foot-11 Nikola Jokic. According to Second Spectrum tracking, Jokic used more than three times as many ball screens (325) as any other center last season, and no guard set more ball-screens than Brown (414).
The 1.10 points per chance that they scored when the Nuggets set a ball screen for Jokic was the highest mark among 155 players who used at least 300 total ball screens.
The hold-up with restricted free agent Deandre Ayton likely has to do with Kevin Durant, and Ayton could certainly still return to the Suns if a deal with Brooklyn doesn’t materialize. Phoenix has lost one of his backups (JaVale McGee) in free agency, and Ayton is obviously more skilled than anybody who’d replace him in the starting lineup.
But the Suns have retained Bismack Biyombo, they should be getting Dario Saric back after he missed all of last season, and they traded for another center (Jock Landale) last week. And they didn’t have many problems when Ayton wasn’t on the floor last season.
In fact, the Suns were twice as good in 568 total minutes with Chris Paul and Devin Booker on the floor without Ayton (plus-16.7 points per 100 possessions) than they were in 835 minutes with Paul, Booker and Ayton all on the floor together (plus-8.0). In the regular season, they were 46-12 (.793) in games that Ayton played and 18-6 (.750) in games he didn’t.
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