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Understanding the rationale of trading Ayton for Nurkic, Allen, Little, and Johnson through analytics

The math says this was ultimately the right move.

Phoenix Suns v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

This week’s trade of DeAndre Ayton and Toumani Camara for Jusuf Nurkic, Grayson Allen, Nassir Little, and Keon Johnson brought howls of protest from Phoenix Suns fans and clucking of tongues from NBA commentators like Charles Barkley and Kendrick Perkins. However, I haven’t seen any analysis of this trade using outcome-based statistics that try to measure on-court impact. Sure, Ayton is immensely talented, but his focus drifted in and out and he was frequently in Monty Williams’ doghouse. I wanted to try and answer: how valuable was he? Did he deserve the benchings he got? What was his actual on-court value compared to the guys he was traded for?

A lot of stats that try to quantify player value are subject to variation based on who they were designed by, what the creators of these methods believe is important, and who players are on the court with. Thus, there is quite a bit of variance between measures of player value. However, there’s value in finding ways to reach a consensus opinion; there’s a mathematical phenomenon wherein the average of estimates is usually better than any one estimate, colloquially referred to as “the wisdom of the crowd”.

I took the LEBRON, RAPTOR, Real Plus Minus (RPM), Estimated Plus Minus (EPM), Luck Adjusted Regularized Adjusted Plus Minus, LEBRON Box, and Box Plus Minus 2.0 for 414 players, converted them to percentiles, weighted them based on correlation with minutes per game played (a qualitative judgement by the coach of how valuable a player is), averaged them, and converted them to percentiles as well. I don’t have a fancy name for the statistic I developed, but it is my best attempt to answer the question of what the on-court value of the players in the deal were last year.

The answer surprised me.

Deandre Ayton graded out as being in the 64th percentile in terms of on-court/off-court value (i.e., he adds more value than 64% of the other players in the league). That’s pretty good, but not max player good. To put this in context, this puts him 148 out of 414, the 42nd best center in the league, right between Mo Bamba and Jonas Valanciunas. And before you say this is “just my stat”, no, it’s actually a blend of seven other people’s stats, and represents a consensus opinion of both stats and coaches’ inputs into who gets minutes.

This supports the observation that Ayton’s disinterest, seeming lack of effort, and mental lapses all affected the team. It also supports why Monty Williams eventually went with Landale (who clocked in at the 68th percentile). Sure, Ayton was talented, but whatever hang ups he had were ensuring that that talent didn’t translate into team success on the court. It should be noted that a lot of these statistics aim to capture the “little things”: defensive positioning, team defense, setting good screens, timely passes, being at the right place on the court at the right time, hustling for loose balls, blocking out even if you’re not the one that gets the rebound, etc… These were all areas where Ayton seemed to have hurt the team both when watching the game, and in the advanced stats.

So, what of the value of the players the Suns got back? The TL;DR is: they got back two guys who had a bigger positive impact on the court last year, and two guys who are marginal even in the G-League. Jusuf Nurkic, who has also been criticized for his moodiness and focus, still clocked in at the 80th percentile. He ranked 83rd overall and 23rd at his position, between Alperen Sengun and Nikola Vucevic. Not only is his on-court impact better, but he costs half as much in salary. In terms of describing what they got: they went from a guy whose impact was commensurate with a 7th or 8th man, in exchange for a guy who’s about average for a starter.

Next up is Grayson Allen, a 6’4” 198-pound shooting guard. He clocks in at the 74th percentile and 107th overall. His ranking puts him between borderline starter and sixth man. His regular box score stats are pedestrian, but defense and being an “irritant” (I’m trying to avoid using obscenities when describing him that are superlatives for “unpleasant”) are his calling card: he ranked in the 86th percentile in terms of defensive impact. As a near-elite defender at the 2-spot who’s a 40% three-point shooter, he matches Okogie’s strengths, and addresses his biggest weakness. It’s easy to see Allen being the first guy off the bench to give either Beal or Booker a breather, and he seems likely to be the 6th man who plays back-up to both and nets 25 minutes per night.

Which brings us to Nassir Little and Keon Johnson. Both rank near the bottom of the league in terms of on court value. Little ranks 392nd out of 414 evaluated, and Johnson was 403rd out of 414. Either would be the lowest rated player on the roster. John Gambodoro has stated that he expects Johnson to be waived. Little represents over $6.3 million in dead cap space every year for the next four years. His only value is if the Suns need a warm body and some cap filler for a future trade. In the meantime, hopefully he can be a good practice player and not cause internal problems while racking up DNP/CDs.

These statistics don’t evaluate fit with the team, but there’s reason to be hopeful with Nurkic (if he stays healthy) and Allen. Both will have a clearly defined role from day one (starting center and sixth man behind Booker and Beal, respectively). Nurkic is actually a good team defender (92nd percentile on defensive impact), passes very well for a big man, and is a legitimate 3-point threat. The areas where Nurkic is worse than Ayton are potentially mitigable: he’s not as efficient a scorer (they don’t need more scoring), and he’s not as mobile (but he makes up for it with better overall positioning, defensive IQ, and effort). The idea of the Suns being able to consistently play “5-out” with Nurkic on the court brings a new wrinkle to an already supercharged offense, with three offensive superstars and two shooters. Allen will be able to help cover the defensive deficiencies of Beal and Booker, while keeping defenses more honest than Okogie could.

The biggest argument against this trade is based on Ayton’s potential, and not on the player who actually took the court last year. The Suns are “all in” on a championship this season, and apparently leadership wasn’t willing to gamble that Ayton would get motivated and play up to his contract. It’s possible that he explodes in Portland and his ratings jump significantly. But, in terms of comparing the 2022-2023 performances of who went out and who came back, the Suns won the trade.

The Suns only “lose” this if Ayton suddenly jumps from being a 64th percentile player, to being somewhere around an 85th percentile player (i.e., what you’d expect out of someone making $32 million). But, even if he does make the leap in Portland, it doesn’t mean he would have done it if he stayed in Phoenix. The reason this feels like a loss is because Ayton’s potential and talent that he hasn’t fully tapped into.

If Ayton doesn’t step up his game, he represents a significant salary cap hit for whomever ends up with him, and a drag on their ability to further build their roster. With Allen and Little, the Suns retain a significant ability to make further moves to bolster the roster.

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