Perception is not always aligned with reality.
There’s no better argument for the lack of synchronization between the two than how some rumor mills and websites talk about impending free agency. The takes they fire off can be as brazen and reckless as they are devoid of context.
“Player X would make a great fit with Team A because he shot 35 percent from three.”
“Team B needs a point guard, so they should target Player Y because they have the cap space.”
The NBA scouting process is a bit more nuanced than a lightning round of Matchmaker. Professionals pour hours into watching film, digging into the data and analyzing if the player’s strengths align with the needs of the organization. Front offices rely heavily on their pro personnel scouts heading into free agency, leaning on basketball minds that are tasked with not only evaluating talent but helping determine fit with the team.
As public perception inflates, allow me to burst a few bubbles. There are a few players who, based on their raw numbers, the allure of their name power or the misguidance about relying on their advanced stats, may see their market price stand above their true value. And we’re not somehow faulting them for (potentially) getting paid. It’s a free market; they should take the money if it’s offered and never look back.
That said, don’t be surprised if these players land bigger deals and roles that don’t look so great in a year or so.
Derrick Rose (pg)
To all the Derrick Rose stans out there: We get it. The former MVP was robbed of his prime due to injuries, and he’s battled through a lot to maintain an NBA role. The guy even averaged 18 points per game on 48.2 percent shooting last season with the Minnesota Timberwolves, achieving what likely was his best season since the 2012 injury. It came while shooting 37 percent from three, by far the highest total of his career.
So why is Rose on a list like this after such a successful year?
Those shooting percentages are incredibly flawed. Rose was at 37 percent on the season, but the vast majority of that is due to an inflated first half of the season. Consider this: On December 31st, Rose was shooting a miraculous 49-106 (46.2 percent) and among the league leaders from behind the arc. He was the league’s highest-percentage shooter outside of eight feet in late December.
Those numbers took a turn for the worst by the start of 2019. Rose mustered a putrid 5-40 (12.5 percent) from downtown, including going 1-19 from February 1st onward.
Teams began going under ball screens against him again, and he would respond by line-driving some bricks off the rim:
Casual fans who only saw the blazing-hot start from Rose assume that he’s employable in an off-ball role. He struggled there mightly, and by the end of the season was thwarted once again by teams going under ball screens.
His wise inclination to stop shooting threes in the latter part of the season certainly helped preserve that reputation and his percentages: He took 3.3 treys a night in the 2018 months, and only 1.5 in February and March. He cut his attempts in half!
But think twice before you support your team signing Rose to a multi-year deal or discussing featuring him in an off-ball role.
Terry Rozier (PG) & Bobby Portis (f)
Terry Rozier and Bobby Portis fit in a similar category because both are players who have pieced together small stretches of highly impactful basketball. They are hoping that sample size will carry them to large contracts this summer and prominent starting roles.
For Portis, that stretch of meaningful basketball came after being shipped from the Chicago Bulls to the Washington Wizards at the trade deadline. A new man in the nation’s capital, he averaged 14.3 points, 8.6 rebounds and shot over 40 percent from three in his brief 28-game stint. Sounds nice, right?
Well, the Wizards were 10-18 in that span, losing ten of their final thirteen and seeing Portis’ plus-minus go with it. He was positive in all their wins, and negative in all their losses. His numbers were also the byproduct of some severe shot-hunting on a team dripping down the drain. Portis took more than six three-pointers in nine games with the Wizards—roughly a third of his appearances.
That is clearly not indicative of the role he’ll play on a playoff-caliber team.
Conversely, Rozier’s streak of games came more than a full year ago. When Boston Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving missed the entire 2018 postseason, Rozier stepped up admirably and received a great deal of praise for his play.
Starting all 19 games and playing 36.6 minutes a night, Rozier’s numbers were strong: 16.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 5.7 assists and only 1.2 turnovers with a respectable 34.7 percent shooting from deep. The Celtics went farther than most anticipated from an injury-depleted squad, and Rozier was a large reason for the surge.
But Scary Terry failed to materialize when relegated to a bench role upon Irving’s return in 2018-19. He sought more than his role, and Celtics president Danny Ainge ultimately failed to capitalize on Rozier’s high stock after his postseason outburst. His per-36 minute numbers this year actually aren’t as abysmal as the talking heads indicate: 14.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.4 turnovers and 35.3 percent shooting from three.
Nor are they that far off from 2018’s halcyon run, but neither are those numbers projecting confidence in him as a starter. 78 players had at least 14.2 points and 4.6 assists in their per-36 minute averages.
This comes from a guy who turned down an extension worth $12 million annually less than a year ago. It’s possible he finds the same value out there, but no team will feel as good about putting ink to pen as they would have 365 days prior.
Portis is reportedly seeking somewhere in the neighborhood of $16 million a year. That’s a lot of money for an inefficient frontcourt gunner with one season of above-averaging three-point shooting and still no clear defensive identity or position. He’s not a rim protector at a high level, nor is a team at their best when he is the 4.
Somebody will pay these guys, though both have restricted free agent rights, meaning the Celtics and Wizards could match the offer sheets. Perhaps a team drives up the price on those two, or perhaps there is someone out there willing to take the risk on two players with limited stints of impressive run.
They might look like steals down the line, but it’s a huge risk on such small sample sizes.
Kevon Looney (P)
Look, I love Kevon Looney. This is no indictment on how valuable he can be or whether I would want him on my team.
He was once the fourteenth-ranked player on my 2015 NBA Draft Big Board and a player I thought could have a profound inside-outside offensive impact. To say I’m not a fan of his would be a mischaracterization–especially after he played through a fractured collarbone in the NBA Finals.
But as a free agent target? Proceed with caution. His grit and defensive versatility should earn him an important role and make him a coveted role player, so long as those are where the expectations are set.
He’s also a great example of the danger of blindly relying on analytics. Looney shot 62.5 percent from the floor and was in the 94th percentile of offensive efficiency during the regular season. Those numbers skyrocketed in the playoffs up to 68.8 percent and the 97th percentile of efficiency. The dude only takes shots he can make and never turns it over.
Take your shovels and dig a bit deeper. Why is it Looney is so efficient on offense? There is a simple and largely responsible explanation: The gravity of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.
Big men routinely get wide open dunks, dump-down finishes and slips to the front of the basket thanks to the attention paid to the Golden State Warriors top two shooters. Looney is no exception, with all those uncontested layups at the rim:
A dive into where he gets his shot, available on his Synergy page, shows that nearly all his offense is created from the play design of others. Synergy estimates that 46.7 percent of his offense came from cuts, either roving free along the baseline or from slipping to the rim when setting a screen. Another 18.3 percent came from offensive rebounds. Another 10 percent was uncategorized, listed as “miscellaneous”, which are mostly turnovers on illegal screens.
It’s likely more than two-thirds of his impact was through screening and getting open due to his teammates.
I love Kevon Looney. I just hope nobody expects him to come into a situation and be who he is not. Let him be a multi-position defender and rebounder, a tough bench presence and a guy that finishes easy ones at the rim. Those guys are very valuable, but let’s not blow things out of proportion.
TJ McConnell (pg)
We all love underdogs. From gritty Pittsburgh native to Philadelphia 76ers point guard, TJ McConnell has long defied expectations and thrived on being bet against. For the first time this summer, some team will financially bet on him and lock him into a prominent role as point guard, either off the bench or in a watered-down starting role.
McConnell proved an adept table-setter through four seasons in Philadelphia. His 7.6 assists per 36 minutes is a high mark, particularly in the limited bench role he often served on a team with sub-optimal shooting.
McConnell fans likely want to see him out of Philly, where he’s seen his role significantly diminish over the past three years. But there’s a reason for his decline: He isn’t a versatile defender to be on the floor during crunch time. He played 19.3 minutes per night in the regular season and only 8.3 in the playoffs, but hat drop-off was similar a year before: 22.4 to 15.5.
Each season, McConnell gets run off the floor in a playoff series where teams can target him physically and continually. This postseason, he allowed an incredible 1.292 points per possession (PPP) as the primary defender. Players shot above 54 percent against him and really muscled him in the pick-and-roll.
It certainly doesn’t help that McConnell is a hesitant outside shooter on offense. He’s not poor, by percentage or by mechanics, but he’s the option that defenses would most like to become a scorer. Thus, his keen awareness of that fact and reticent nature can lead to it feeling like 5-on-4 at times.
Teams use free agency to make themselves more dynamic in April, May and June. McConnell is a good player on a roster the other months of the season, but there’s a lot of evidence to suggest his role in the postseason will always diminish. That doesn’t sound like the type of player who’s an effective core option for a championship contender or an up-and-coming roster’s spot-starter, does it?
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference, NBA.com stats or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of June 26, 2019.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.