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Troy Daniels might just be the Suns’ most valuable floor-spacer this year

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By one advanced metric calculation, the Suns’ veteran guard has provided better spacing than just about anyone on the roster.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

All season long, it’s puzzled Suns fans why exactly Troy Daniels has played so much. The veteran guard is fifth on the team in minutes played, has started several games recently while Devin Booker recovers from a wrist injury, and looks to sabotage the tank any time he steps onto the floor.

On the other hand, coach Jay Triano has to put a viable NBA rotation together. Daniels is one of the only backcourt shooters on the team who can make spot-up attempts at a high rate, and while we cry for developmental strides from the Suns’ core youngsters, they need serviceable players around them to make their time on the court worthwhile. It’s a push-pull that any rebuilding team has to toy with, but especially as we near the end of the season, Daniels’ minutes load has seemed rather heavy.

Taking a cue from Nylon Calculus’ Nicholas Sciria, who over the summer attempted to quantify spacing for each team’s two most-played lineups, I did the same with the Suns’ eight most-used lineups. I also added one super fun group with Booker and Daniels on the court together, to illustrate Daniels’ (and Booker’s) impact even further.

The formula I borrowed from Sciria is simple: estimate 3-point rate and 3-point efficiency based on each player’s per-100 possession numbers to wring out the noisiness of shooting numbers in smaller sample sizes. I did this by adding the per-100 attempts and makes for each player in each lineup to find their shooting percentage, and then divided each lineup’s 3-point attempts per-100 by their overall field goal attempts per-100 to find their 3-point attempt rate (3PAr), or the number of 3-pointers they shoot for every field goal attempt.

Finally, I graded each rate compared to the other lineups by percentile, then averaged out the percentile numbers to rank each lineup in order by what Sciria called Spacing Rating. Because we are only dealing with nine lineups here, I did not put a percentage corresponding with each lineup like Sciria did, but they are arranged by quartile and the color demonstrates that. This chart perhaps shows what we could call Suns Spacing Ranking, rather than a rating.

A statistical representation of the spacing found in each of the Suns’ most used lineups this year.
Suns Spacing Ranking
Brendon Kleen

There are a few notable things left out of this scratchy formula, including year-to-year variance (especially considering this has been somewhat of a breakout season for both Daniels and Booker), changes in how open certain players are based on the personnel around them, and what Sciria calls “inside-out gravity” or the inward suck that rim-rollers such as De’Andre Jordan (or a prime Tyson Chandler) have.

However, the results are stark: Daniels is a part of each of the top three lineups by Spacing Rating and is not a part of a single one of the Suns’ eight other most played lineups.

The Daniels-Booker lineup up top only played 47 possessions together compared with the 104 played by the Daniels-House pairing, which almost entirely came during Booker’s injury absence over the holidays. Finally, the Daniels-Jackson pairing with Ulis at point played 124 possessions together this year, making it the most common lineup involving Daniels.

Here we see the negative impact of Ulis shown most strongly, though his inability to space the floor is also illustrated in the ranking given to the Suns’ most-used lineup this year, which is No. 6 on the list and features both Ulis and T.J. Warren, the two non-big members of the regular rotation who most inhibited the floor spacing for the Suns in this exercise.

One way to try and quantify the Suns’ performance with and without Daniels is to show that there is an 11.5 percent negative difference in how many of the team’s shots come from 2-point range when Daniels plays compared with when he is off the court. Additionally, Cleaning the Glass data shows that the Suns shoot less frequently and less accurately at the rim when Daniels is on the court.

The whole idea behind the term “spacing” is that a player’s presence on the perimeter provides more room on the interior for drivers and finishers to make shots, but on the other hand, the Suns are miserable at the rim as a team, and Daniel’ minutes mostly come with all-bench lineups, meaning the guys on the floor are likely even worse finishers than the starters.

Overall, it does look like the Suns benefit when Daniels and his 40 percent 3-point shooting are on the floor. His impact as a floor-spacer is difficult to pinpoint exactly, but at least by this calculation, he is the constant in some of the Suns’ best overall 3-point shooting lineups, even when he shares the court with a poor shooter like Tyler Ulis or Josh Jackson.

Maybe his playing time is more warranted than it seems considering his ability to handle big minutes without losing efficiency and taking attention away from the players around him.