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NBA PM: The Player Efficiency Rating Surprises

PER tends to identify the NBA’s stars, but there are surprises in the top 20 that warrant a deeper look.

Yannis Koutroupis

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Today, John Hollinger is most commonly referred to as the Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Western Conference leading Memphis Grizzlies. However, 20 years ago while serving as the editor for OregonLive.com, he developed a statistic called Player Efficiency Rating in an attempt to sum up a player’s value in a single statistic. PER, as it’s more commonly referred to, is a complex formula that takes into account the positive and negative statistics from a player while adjusting them based on minutes played and their team’s pace. It’s now one of the more commonly cited advanced statistics and something that every team, not just Hollinger’s Grizzlies, utilize when putting together a roster.

Advanced analytics have gradually become a bigger part of the NBA over the last several years. It’s a movement that looks like it’s only going to increase as more and more teams continue to buy into them and believe in their effectiveness.

Typically it is the league’s best players that have the best PER. The best career PER’s belong to Michael Jordan (27.91), LeBron James (27.79), Shaquille O’Neal (26.43), David Robinson (26.18), Wilt Chamberlain (26.13) and Chris Paul (25.59). While Hollinger is the first to admit that this isn’t the end-all, be-all to player evaluations, it is one of the most useful new developments in the era of advanced analytics. The league average for PER is 15, and in today’s NBA PM we’re going to take a look at some of the more surprising players whose PER ranks in the top 20. Currently, Anthony Davis has a PER of 37.11, which would go down as the highest single-season rating in league history. However, you have to look no further than the second spot for a surprise:

2) Brandon Wright – Dallas Mavericks (28.36)

Recently called the most efficient player in basketball by Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Wright certainly has the statistics to back it up. He currently has a true shooting percentage of .758, second only to Tyler Zeller, who we’ll talk more about shortly. Wright, as a strong defender who does some of the little things like hedging on pick-and-rolls and being a willing helper that aren’t taken into account by PER, is by far the biggest surprise in the top 20, but his astronomical shooting percentage has a lot to do with it. Wright is only averaging 3.8 rebounds a game and playing just 18.2 minutes a night, so his PER shouldn’t be used as a reason to start mentioning him as one of the league’s best or even the league’s most under-utilized players. As a six-year veteran, his chances of becoming a star are likely gone, but what his PER does show is that Wright has accepted the role head coach Rick Carlisle has asked him to play, and is thriving in it in a major way. His per-36 minute averages are impressive, but not worth noting because there’s reasons why he doesn’t play those kind of minutes (being foul prone and limited offensively, specifically). It’s highly unlikely if he were playing 36 minutes a night that those projections would hold true.

3) Marreese Speights – Golden State Warriors (27.66)

A lot of the things stated above in regards to Wright hold true for Speights as well. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr took over for Mark Jackson this summer and brought a more ball-movement oriented system with him rather than Jackson’s isolation-heavy offensive approach and Speights has been a major beneficiary from it. His averages of 9.8 points and 4.3 rebounds rank near the best in his career, and his PER greatly benefits from his 63 percent shooting from the field and 84 percent shooting from the field. With six years of experience, though, this should be viewed more as Speights excelling in the absolute ideal situation for himself rather than his arrival as a big-time player. Teams have given him the opportunity to play more minutes in the past and he simply hasn’t been consistent and effective enough to warrant a starter’s role. But, he can play in the league for another 10 years doing what he’s doing now for the Warriors if he keeps up this kind of efficiency.

10) Derrick Favors – Utah Jazz (24.47)

Now, at 23 years of age and an emerging centerpiece for the young Jazz, Favors’ success should be looked at as his official arrival as one of the league’s best players at his position. After an underwhelming start to his career where he was battling for minutes behind Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, Favors is now a leader of the Jazz and someone they look to carry them on a nightly basis. He’s putting up career-bests in shooting percentage (.589) and points (16.9), while averaging 1.5 blocks, 8.3 rebounds and 1.7 assists. Over the last three years, Favors has steadily progressed and shown marked improvement every season. The Jazz, who wisely signed him to a reasonable contract extension that he is proving to be more than worthy of so far prior to last season, hope that he still has another level he can take his game to, and there’s no reason to think that he’s close to his ceiling yet.

15) Tyler Zeller – Boston Celtics (23.20)

The move from Cleveland, where he became expendable during a very busy offseason for the Cavaliers, to Boston has proven to be a good one for Zeller so far. He played an extensive role for the Cavaliers during his rookie season, but saw his minutes nearly cut in half his as a sophomore. With Boston, he’s actually playing less than he did last year, but he has been far more effective in Brad Stevens’ system than Mike Brown’s. Zeller is connecting on a ridiculous 86.2 percent of his attempts from the field. Part of that is because he’s being very selective and only taking quality, close shots, but he’s also dishing out 1.3 assists, shooting 78.9 percent from the free throw line and grabbing nearly three rebounds a game during his 14.4 minutes a night. Even at 24 years of age, Zeller is probably more in the class of Speights and Wright than Favors, but he’s clearly establishing himself as an NBA-caliber player and developing some staying power, perhaps long-term with the Celtics.

20) Jimmy Butler – Chicago Bulls (22.70)

Right about now, the Chicago Bulls are probably kicking themselves that they didn’t lock Butler up to a less than max extension prior to the October 31 deadline because he’s currently playing his way into a max contract this offseason. Butler is putting up 21.3 points, 3.9 assists, 6.2 rebounds and 1.4 steals a game while playing 40 minutes a game for the championship contender Bulls. He’s one of the premier two-way shooting guards, who will likely get a deal similar to the one Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson got (four years, $70 million) prior to the same deadline. This is the first time in his career where Butler’s true value is reflected by his stat line, even though it doesn’t take into account his toughness and defensive versatility, the two things that got him in the league. However, Butler’s offensive game has improved enough to the point where you can look at his numbers and only take away one thing: he’s now a star.

Other Notables

A.J. Price (Indiana Pacers – 22.64 PER, 21st), Dennis Schroder (Atlanta Hawks – 22.64 PER, 23rd), Chris Kaman (Portland Trail Blazers – 21.29, 29th)

Bottom Five

Kyle Anderson (San Antonio Spurs), Austin Daye (San Antonio Spurs), Mike Miller (Cleveland Cavaliers), C.J. Miles (Indiana Pacers) and Kent Bazemore (Atlanta Hawks)

Yannis Koutroupis is Basketball Insiders' Managing Site Editor and Senior Writer. He has been covering the NBA and NCAA for seven years.

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NBA Daily: Are The Kings Destined For The Playoffs?

As the season starts up again after the All-Star Break, Jordan Hicks looks into the Sacramento Kings and what it will take for them to end their playoff drought.

Jordan Hicks

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Sacramento Kings fans should be incredibly happy regardless of how this season ends.

For the first time in what seems like forever they have a promising young team that is not only winning games, but maintaining a certain form of consistency doing so. With the foundation of youthful stars like De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Marvin Bagley III, how can Kings faithful not be hyper-optimistic?

The Kings are geared for success over the course of the next few years, but could their time come sooner than that? Do they actually have a shot at making the playoffs this season? The trade deadline acquisitions of Harrison Barnes and Alec Burks, two vets that can make an instant impact, make it seem like they believe their time is now.

Breaking things down, the question becomes – what actually needs to happen for the Kings to make the playoffs this season? The simple answer is to win games.

What have they been doing thus far to put more ticks in the W column? Shooting the three efficiently jumps out. They are currently fourth in the league in three-point percentage at 37.7 percent. While this number is oddly similar to last season’s percentage, they are shooting about seven more threes per game.

Sacramento is also playing incredibly quick basketball. They are second in the league in pace (the number of possessions per 48 minutes). Some could argue that this doesn’t always translate into a positive outcome, but for Sacramento it does. They are leading the NBA in fastbreak points at 21.7 points per game and are sixth in the league at points in the paint. Their defense is translating into offense as well, as they are second in the league at points off turnovers.

While their strengths are definitely elite, they clearly have weaknesses, too. They sit in 18th for both offensive and defensive rating, good for a -1.2 net rating. They are an abysmal 28th in free throw shooting.

Apart from Willie Cauley-Stein – who likely isn’t a major part of their future – they lack an elite rim protector. This leaves their defense prone to giving up more points in the paint. They are currently 26th in the league at opponent points in the paint. The lack of rim protection clearly correlates with their inability to grab defensive boards. They are tied for last in the league at opponent second-chance points.

One would assume that if the Kings simply tighten up their defensive focus that they would be able to close out strong and make the playoffs. They are currently ninth in the West, only one-and-a-half games behind the Clippers who just traded away their best player in Tobias Harris and two-and-a-half games behind the Spurs, who are somehow putting together a strong season despite losing Kawhi Leonard via trade and Dejounte Murray to injury.

As the season gets deeper, however, the Kings won’t be the only team tightening things up for a final playoff push. Every other team will likely be doing the same thing. While the Kings are just a small shot from the playoffs, both the Lakers and Timberwolves are nipping at their heels as well.

The Warriors, Nuggets and Thunder have done enough to separate themselves from the pack, to a degree at least. So that essentially leaves eight teams fighting for the remaining five slots. You can likely write off the Clippers, as they traded away their star player for future assets, and quite possibly the Timberwolves, as they may not have enough depth on their roster. This leaves the Kings and Lakers. If history has taught us anything, it’s that LeBron James likes to play in the postseason.

Sacramento has 24 games left to play this season. Their next two are at Oklahoma City and Minnesota. If they can somehow manage to squeak out one win in that stretch that will keep them above .500 and still fighting for a spot. After that stretch, 11 of their final 22 games are against teams projected to make the playoffs. Apart from two games against the Knicks, one against the Suns, and one against the Cavaliers, none of the remaining 11 games not against playoff teams will be “gimmes.”

Their final three are away against Utah, home against New Orleans and away against Portland. For sure they will be battling with two (and potentially three) of those teams for playoff positioning.

As far as the Lakers – who after their head-to-head win Thursday are a game behind Sacramento and two games out of the playoffs – their schedule isn’t much easier. 15 of their final 24 games are against projected playoff teams. That victory over Sacramento at Staples could actually end up being incredibly important for who makes the playoffs and who loses out.

Whether or not the Kings make the playoffs is anyone’s guess. If Fox and Hield play elite ball to close out the season, that will definitely increase their chances. Strong play from deadline acquisitions Burks and Barnes will also play a huge role in the Kings’ final push.

Like previously mentioned, Kings’ fans should be happy either way. This is the brightest the team’s future has been in well over a decade.

But the Kings likely won’t settle for “promising” or “up-and-coming.” They want success now, and making the playoffs will give them the reward that they’ve been working so hard for.

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How The NBA Became The Most Betting-Friendly League In American Sports

Basketball Insiders

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The NBA has become synonymous with betting conversations during the Adam Silver era, with the league frequently being at the forefront of those discussions. Compared to the other professional sports leagues in the United States, the NBA has not only appeared to be the most progressive with regard to the topic, but it has also looked like the league that is the most likely to get further involved in the industry.

Of course, the league has placed a focus on sports betting, given that they have a vested interest in the continued legalization of that. They have mentioned that they would like a cut of NBA wagers placed, with the industry’s growth in the United States being something that the league could see improving the bottom-line.

Whether or not the NBA gets a piece of the action from a financial perspective, it is still surprising to see a major professional sports league in the United States willing to entertain the conversation at all. By comparison, the NFL has been largely afraid to discuss sports betting, while Major League Baseball has banned its all-time leading hitter for life for gambling-related offenses.

And it isn’t as if the NBA is only interested in gambling in the context of betting on NBA games. The league has relationships in the daily fantasy sports industry as well, with visibility for brands in that space seen in NBA arenas as well. And the NBA-subsidized WNBA is also a part of this betting-friendly basketball landscape, most notably in the form of a team named after a casino.

The Connecticut Sun is that team, as they play in the home of a popular casino in their area. Both the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury play in a venue named after a casino as well. And it is the casino industry that the NBA may conceivably expand into as their relationships in the betting industry appear to be growing in both quality and quantity. With the growth of online casinos, it isn’t impossible to envision the NBA encouraging its fans to compare the best casino bonuses to increase its market share in this growing industry.

Of course, with the betting renaissance that is going on in the United States at this time, the league is making sure that everyone knows that its integrity is not to be questioned. The league has made clear that they are going to ramp up the enforcement of its betting policies, to make sure that players aren’t compromising the game’s integrity. That move by the league is a smart one, as it makes sure that fans know that there is no reason to question the sport even if the league embraces betting.

The NBA is seeing progress across the sport, from its on-court evolution that prioritizes ball movement and long-range shooting, to its off-court stances on betting. Unlike the other major American sports, that willingness to evolve is part of what has caused the popularity of the NBA to skyrocket in recent years.

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NBA Daily: Three-Point Champion is Just a Regular Joe

Joe Harris had his league-wide coming out at All-Star weekend when he shocked fans across the globe in upsetting three-point shootout favorite-Steph Curry.

Drew Maresca

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Joe Harris’ fortunes and those of the Brooklyn Nets appear to be traveling on the same trajectory. Harris’ personality and approach embody the softer side of the Brooklyn Nets’ team persona: he is loyal, hardworking and humble. And while Jared Dudley and DeMarre Carroll provide veteran leadership and Spencer Dinwiddie and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson offer personality, Harris provides a grounded approachability.

No one would blame him, though, if he develops a small ego. After all, Harris just received his formal introduction to the world, having won the NBA’s three-point championship last weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s hard to deny that his star is rising.

And yet, Harris seems unaware that his status is rising.

“To be honest, I am solid in my role. That’s what I’m about,” Harris told Basketball Insiders before the Nets’ January 25 game against the Knicks. “I’m pretty realistic with where I view myself as a player. And I have the self-awareness to realize that I’m not a star player in this league by any means. I mean, I’m good in my role and I’m trying to take that to another level and be as complete as I can in my niche role that I have.”

While Harris’ comments could be misinterpreted as a humble brag, they shouldn’t be. He is simply a hard-working player who perhaps doesn’t quite realize everything he adds to his team. But let’s be clear, Harris’ presence absolutely improves the Nets’ play.

Harris boasts the second-best three-point percentage in the NBA (.471) through the first four months of the season; he trails only Victor Olapido and J.J. Reddick for top three-point percentage of all 48 players who have at least 10 “clutch” attempts from long-range and he’s ranked tenth in points per clutch possession (1.379).

He helps space the floor for teammates D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie, who take advantage of his long-range acumen by attacking an often less congested pathway to the hoop — and drives account for 53.4 percent of the Nets’ points (third in the entire league).

It is no surprise then that the Nets are currently in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

“At the end of the day we’re just trying to go play good basketball.” Harris said. “The wins are a byproduct of that. It’s about staying locked into this process and how it’s gotten us here regardless of who is on the court.”

Harris’ dedication to the team and its process is becoming more unique each year as players hop from franchise to franchise more frequently than ever before. While Harris only joined the Nets in 2016, he was immediately seen as a key player by the Nets’ leadership, albeit one on a minimum deal – according to Kyle Wagner of the Daily News, Coach Kenny Atkinson saw a lot of Kyler Korver in his game and GM Sean Marks wanted him to study Danny Green.

And while Harris’ 2018-19 stats reflect similar production to the career highs of both of Korver and Green (13.2 points per game with an effective field goal percentage of .622 for Harris versus 14.4 points with an eFG% of .518 for Korver and 11.7 points with an eFG% of .566 for Green), at only 27 years old, he should only continue to improve.

A lot has changed in the two and a half seasons since Harris signed a free agent deal with the Nets, but one thing that hasn’t changed is his character.

“We had various deals that were shorter for more (money),” Harris said. “And some were longer and roughly the same, but this is where I wanted to be and I’m happy it ended up working out.”

Harris ultimately signed a two-year deal for approximately $16 million, which can be viewed as both cashing in, given where he was only two years ago (out of the league), and betting on himself, considering the short-term nature of the contract and his relative youth.

And what’s more, Harris will probably go down as a value signing for the Nets considering his versatility. After all, he is not merely a one-dimensional shooter. In fact, he is actually shooting slightly better than 60 percent on 3.2 attempts per game from the restricted area – which is better than All-Star teammate D’Angelo Russell (53 percent on 2.8 attempts). Further, Harris shoots a fair amount of his three-point attempts above the break, which is to say that he does not rely heavily on the shorter corner threes – which tend to be a more efficient means of scoring (1.16 vs. 1.05 points per possession league-wide from 1998-2018) as they are typically a spot where specialist players lurk awaiting an opening look.

The question is, how much more can we expect to see from Harris in the future? If you ask him, he’d probably undersell you on his ceiling and allude to steady progress that ultimately looks similar to what he’s done recently. But the only thing similar about Harris’ career production is that it has steadily improved – and that’s partially due to his process-oriented approach.

“We talked about it in the midst of the losing streak,” Harris said. “What are you going to change, what are you going to do (when you’re in a slump)? Not that we were going to do the exact same thing, but we felt like we were very process oriented. We felt like we were right there. Our whole thing was about being deliberate and doing it as consistently as possible.”

Harris sees the validity in repeating what works. And he’s figured that out, partially with the help of his teammates. Harris clearly values veteran input and team chemistry.

“You look at our team right now and we have really good veteran presences with Jared and DeMarre and Ed (Davis),” Harris said. “That’s the voice from the leadership standpoint. I’m learning from them just like DLo is. And all the other guys in the locker room are. They’re the guiding presence of what it is to be a professional and they keep everything even keel. They don’t go too low when things are tough, and they don’t let us get too high when things are going well.”

Harris is clearly a little uncomfortable taking credit for his team’s success, and he shies away from the spotlight a bit. He seems to prefer anonymity. But Harris should probably get used to the attention he’s received this season because it will only increase as his profile continues to rise as we enter the 2019 NBA Playoffs.

“He’s not just a shooter,” Atkinson told NBA.com last April. “He’s worked on his drive game, he’s worked on his finishing game. I think he’s worked on his defense. So just a complete player who fits how we want to play. He’s one of our most competitive players. Not a surprise watching, from the first day we had him, how locked in he was, how hungry he was. On top of it, he’s a top, top-ranked human being.”

So expect to see more of Joe Harris this April and beyond, but don’t be surprised by his humility. It’s one aspect about him that won’t change.

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