Nylon Calculus: Reviewing the NBA trade deadline with an eye on recent trends

What do the NBA’s trade deadline deals tell us about the recent trends of bigger ball-handlers and smaller rim-protectors?

Thursday’s NBA trade deadline delivered a frenzy of intriguing deals surrounded by all of the attendant eyeball emojis and Woj bombs that we have come to expect from this most unpredictable time of year. There were some surprises, with several big-named players switching teams and some teams changing course in unexpected directions. We can find a method in all that front-office madness by examining recent league-wide trends in the ways that teams are deploying players of various heights in new roles and positions.

One important development over the past few seasons has been an increasing variety among the league’s ball handlers. Once upon a time, the point guard was the smallest guy on the court but today the role is filled by players of all shapes and sizes. Point forwards like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons, and LeBron James have changed the rules governing who can take care of the ball.

This year, there are a dozen players 6-foot-5 or taller who have been a team leader in time of ball possession. During the 2013-14 season, the ball was in the hands of a player 6-foot-4 or shorter 51 percent of the time, whereas players 6-foot-5 to 6-foot-9 handled it for only 35 percent of the game. Over the past seven seasons, however, that gap has closed.

In addition to looking at a player’s height we can also describe his position by the opponents he guards. For example, using the NBA matchup data — curated by Krishna Narsu (@knarsu3) and organized here by Andrew Patton (@anpatt7) and Patrick Miller (@AnalyticKilldIt) — 11 of the 12 tall ball handlers in the table above were unlikely to guard the other team’s point guard. Around the league during the 2013-14 season, 45 percent of the ball possession was done by somebody who covered point guards (i.e., the smallest opponent on the court). Over the past seven years, more of the ball-handling duties have been given to players who mark somebody other than the point guard.

This league-wide trend towards larger ball handlers might help explain the fate of the diminutive point guard and erstwhile Washington Wizard, Isaiah Thomas.

The Wiz helped facilitate a last-minute three-way trade with the Clippers and Knicks for an opportunity to replace Thomas with the larger Jerome Robinson, who is 6-foot-4. The move is also likely to put the ball in the hands of shooting guard Bradley Beal more often. After Thomas is waived by the Clippers his long-term prospects in the league will be uncertain.

Another big influence on player trade value recently has been the emphasis on 3-point shooting. There is increasing pressure to find big players who can stretch the floor and shoot 3s. As a result, the fraction of 3-pointers attempted by bigs league-wide (i.e., by those players who guard power forwards and centers) has nearly doubled from 18 percent in 2013-14 to 34 percent this season.

The search for taller shooters led to a spike in the proportion of 3-pointers attempted by players 6-foot-10 or taller from nine percent in 2013-14 to 15 percent in 2016-17. Now here’s the really interesting part — over the last three seasons, that trend has slowed and, now, reversed. This year only 12 percent of the league’s 3-pointers have been taken by stretch bigs, 6-foot-10 or taller.

Obviously floor spacing is just as critical to NBA teams this year as it was last year, but front offices are looking to find it in new places. That’s why Marcus Morris was one of the most sought after trade targets at the deadline. Morris is shooting 44 percent from deep on more than 6 attempts per game. And — while he’s only 6-foot-8 — he typically guards the second-tallest opposing player (i.e., the “power forward”). With the whole league getting smaller, stretch bigs don’t really need to be all that big anymore.

In general, over the past seven seasons, teams have been hiring fewer and fewer big men. In 2013-14 over a quarter of the league (28 percent) was 6-foot-10 or taller, but this season the proportion of big men was down to just 19 percent. For a 15-man roster that’s the equivalent of going from 4.1 big men per team down to 2.9 each.

So who’s left to protect the rim?

To find the remaining rim protectors, we can look at stats for the number of field-goal attempts defended within six feet. It turns out, the players who are defending these shots near the rim are still the ones who are guarding the power forwards and centers. Over the past seven seasons, 60 percent of these short shots were defended by players who tend to guard the tallest or second-tallest opponent on the court and 40 percent were defended by players who tend to guard the three smaller players. These proportions have remained pretty consistent over this time.

However, rim protectors are definitely getting smaller. In the 2014-15 season, nearly half (46 percent) of the shots from inside six feet were defended by players 6-foot-10 or taller, but this year only 34 percent of these shots were defended by true bigs.

Houston recognized this trend — they noticed that teams have been getting more of their rim protection from smaller players — and they seem to have altogether abandoned the idea of using a traditional center in the starting lineup.

Clint Capela was shipped off to Atlanta and 6-foot-7 Robert Covington is starting at “center” now. The Rockets decision to embrace small ball like no other team in history is a bit of a shock, but it didn’t come completely out of nowhere. And it could work! Houston already passed its first test by standing up to the gigantic Lakers on Thursday, coming away with a 10-point victory.