Nylon Calculus: Offseason movement and offensive styles

Right through the end of August, the NBA offseason has been loaded with the movement of All-Stars and top-tier talents. Questions of team fit are all hypothetical until full rosters are actually set and teams take the floor, but I thought it might be fun to look at some of the biggest moves through the lens of offensive style charts — highlighting places where players may need to adapt to their new teams and vice versa.

To refresh, these charts are not meant to evaluate whether an offense is good or bad. They are designed to help illustrate how teams go about the goal of trying to put the ball in the basket. Each team’s offense is evaluated on four stylistic spectrums.

Ball movement is measured with the average touch time for each team, from the NBA’s player tracking statistics. A lower average touch time means the ball is moving from player to player more quickly.

Player movement is measured with a combination different NBA.com tracking statistics, and works out to average distance traveled per 24 seconds of offensive possession.

Pace is measured with the average length of an offensive possession from Inpredictable, a more accurate representation of how quickly a team is working than traditional pace.

Shot selection continues to be the trickiest measure. For now we are using the simplistic MoreyBall percentage — the percentage of a team’s true shooting opportunities that came at the rim, from the free throw line, or on a 3-pointer. It’s a generalized measure but in a single number captures something about which areas of the floor each team is focused on attacking.

On the graphs below you’ll see a line for each team’s offense. As the line moves away from the center of the graph on each axis you’re seeing more of that stylistic trait. For example, shot selection shows a (hypothetically) more efficient shot selection the further you are from center.

Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder’s offense was slightly less efficient than the Pacers’ last season, although they were fairly close in where they ranked against the rest of the league. There were some significant differences in offensive style between the two teams as well — with the Thunder utilizing less ball movement but far more pace, player movement, and generically high-value shots in their shot selection.

Although George led the Pacers in usage rate last season, he trailed Jeff Teague by a significant margin in time of possession and several of the Pacers’ other wings and backcourt players in average touch length. The point being. George is accustomed to working as a finisher — as a spot-up threat, in transition, and working off quick cuts and curls in the middle of the floor. None of the stylistic differences between the two offenses are likely to impact his production or role. His individual shot selection may bring more of the mid-range game into the Thunder’s offense but he’s likely to thrive moving off the ball and may even help Oklahoma City up the pace.

Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves

Butler has had the benefit of moving to a much better offense, but also one that features some fairly significant stylistic differences. Given the nature of the changes Minnesota made this offseason, it seems likely that the team will play with a similar pace and shot selection to last season — Butler may slightly increase the team’s MoreyBall percentage with his ability to get to the free throw line, but that could be cancelled out by the decrease in 3-point frequency from Zach LaVine to him.

Obviously, Chicago used a lot more player and ball movement last season. Ideally, Minnesota would see an increase in both areas to try and maximize the skill set of this roster. With Butler replacing LaVine, the Timberwolves may see a decline in their ability to stretch the floor with shooting. Butler and Wiggins can’t simply stand around the perimeter and offer the same threat to the defense as LaVine could so getting the ball moving from player to player, and more movement for Butler and Wiggins into and through the middle of the floor could help compensate.

Paul Millsap to the Denver Nuggets

The Hawks’ offense was not particularly effective last season but they played with a style that strongly reflects the idealized version of the modern offense — high quality shots, lots of pace, lots of movement. The talent level is much higher in Denver, both with Nikola Jokic in the middle and the supporting cast around him.

Millsap should fit like a glove.

Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets

It was a talking point pretty much as soon as this trade was reported but Chris Paul joining the Rockets’ is going to require some major assimilation. Paul is likely to single-handedly pull Houston’s shot selection towards the middle of our chart (read: the middle of the floor) — 46 percent of his shot attempts last season came in the mid-range.

While it would seem like Paul and James Harden are similar players, the challenge is more than just figuring out how to stagger their minutes or make each player comfortable playing off the ball while the other initiates the offense. Playing off-the-ball in Houston is going to require a lot more movement than Paul is probably used to from the Clippers. In addition, his brilliance in manipulating half-court defenses has been mostly a chess match — just one or two pieces moving at a time as Paul exploits an open seam. Houston’s offense, at least last season, featured a lot more moving parts, which presents a challenge for both opposing defenders and, perhaps, for Paul.

Lastly, and importantly, Houston has played at a much faster pace than Paul is used to. It remains to be seen how this affects his productivity and his minutes and physical health.

Gordon Hayward to the Boston Celtics

There are some fairly significant different between the Jazz and Celtics’ offenses from last year but the addition of Hayward to this new context would seem to be beneficial to both him and Boston. The Jazz played a fairly plodding halfcourt game last season, relying on pick-and-roll chemistry between George Hill/Hayward and Rudy Gobert, or the ability of Hayward/Hill to break down the defense and create an open shot on the perimeter.

Hayward’s shot creation ability will be helpful to Boston in the halfcourt particularly in late game situations. However, he’s athletic enough to be successful in transition and his shooting and smart off-ball game should thrive in a more movement-based system like the one Boston runs.

The Isaiah Thomas – Kyrie Irving trade

As of right now, this trade is still in the hypothetical category as the Cavaliers angle for additional compensation because of Thomas’ hip injury. Assuming it still goes through, we have a very interesting scenario to watch with Kyrie and Isaiah swapping roles in offenses that bear some important differences.

On paper, with their individual shot creation abilities, Kyrie and Isaiah are very similar players and, assuming health, there’s every reason to think that each could be successful in the role the other played last season. However, we can see that while Cleveland and Boston employed a similar pace and shot selection last season, the ways in which they went about things in the halfcourt were very different. Boston relied on movement and collaboration to a much larger degree, while Cleveland leaned heavily on the one-on-one skills of Kyrie and LeBron James. Again, each player should theoretically be able to thrive in the other’s role, but it will be interesting to see if the two offenses move closer to each other in terms of style, accommodating the subtle differences in tendency, comfort zone and experience for each player.

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