Swapping Troy Brown Jr. for Daniel Gafford was a clear win for Tommy Sheppard and the Washington Wizards. Brown had shown some promise in his second season but backslid horrifically the following season.
Brown bounced back to the “useful reserve” level last season with the Chicago Bulls and will now try to resurrect his career with Lebron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. Gafford meanwhile immediately played the best basketball of his career, which he topped last season.
It was never entirely clear why the Bulls dumped Gafford other than the well-worn “fell out of favor” trope. After a not-bad rookie season (PPA: 75), Gafford saw his playing time cut from 14.2 to 12.4 minutes per game in Chicago, even though his production had improved.
His performance upticked even more when he got to Washington, though perhaps not in some of the ways fans seem to think. For example, fans often refer to him as an impactful and positive defender. But, even in that first season, in both his 408 minutes with the team in 2020-21, and the 1,444-minutes last season, the team was worse defensively with him on the floor.
Both seasons combined, the Wizards allowed 117.1 points per 100 possessions with Gafford on the floor and 113.3 with him on the bench. Without him, they’ve been about the level of the league’s 20th ranked defense. With him? Dead last.
The forgoing doesn’t mean he’s a poor defender. He is a good shot blocker, and opponent two-point percentage has been lower when he’s out there (50.7% on; 53.2% off). But there are also reasons to ask questions about his ability to translate spring-loaded legs and Go-Go-Gadget arms into consistently stopping the other team from scoring.
Last season, the issues leapt off the screen: three-point shooting went up (probably not primarily because of him), defensive rebounding dropped (at least in part because of him — getting defensive boards is a key big man responsibility), and opponents got to the FT line more frequently (among the team’s rotation players, Gafford was the most foul prone at 5.8 per 100 team possessions).
So, even with some defensive issues, why does Gafford still rate solidly above average? Two things: elite finishing (69.5% on twos and 83.4% at-rim last season) and outstanding offensive rebounding (5.3 per 100 possessions — the same number as Cleveland’s Jarrett Allen).
In other words, he does an excellent job extending possessions and finishing them.
Back to defense for just a moment — Gafford rates right around league average in the defense part of my PPA metric. Usually when there’s a mismatch between on/off stats and the defense part of PPA, the on/off stats begin moving towards PPA. Also, plus/minus pioneer Dan Rosenbaum, who’s worked for several NBA teams, including the Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks and Detroit Pistons, published a study some years ago that found young players often produced worse on/off metrics than their box score stats predict, but that the difference disappeared with experience.
Here’s a look at some of the stats I use when evaluating players (box score stats are per 100 team possessions, unless otherwise noted):
- PPA (in PPA, average is 100 and higher is better): 139
- Offensive rating (points produced per 100 individual possessions): 135 (+17 relative to league average)
- Usage: 17.3% (average is 20.0%)
- Points: 23.3
- Rebounds: 14.0
- Assists: 2.3
- Steals: 1.0
- Blocks: 3.4
- Turnovers: 2.2
- Fouls: 5.8
- Free throw attempts: 5.3
- efg: 69.3%
- 2pt%: 69.5%
- 3pt%: 00.0% (0-1 last season)
- FT%: 69.9%
For those unfamiliar, my Statistical Doppelgänger Machine works by comparing a player’s performance across 14 different categories that include age, playing time, pace-neutral box score stats and scores from my PPA metric. All that’s rolled up into a single score that (in theory) provides a list of NBA players since 1977-78 with similar production at a similar age.
- Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks, 2016-17, age 22 — As a youngster, Noel was productive when he managed to stay healthy. This comp season was his best on a per-possession basis (152 PPA). Gafford probably isn’t quite as good as a truly healthy Noel, but Gafford also is way more likely to BE healthy.
- Robin Lopez, Phoenix Suns, 2009-10, age 21 — Lopez was never the athlete Gafford is, but their production was quite similar. This was Lopez’s second season, and he managed a 130 PPA in just 51 games. The following seasons were both below average, but then he went on something of a tear — a 140-plus PPA in each of the next four seasons, which came to a halt after his age 27 season with the New York Knicks. Lopez’s last average or better season was with the Chicago Bulls at age 30. Naturally, he came to the Wizards at age 32.
- Montrezl Harrell, Houston Rockets, 2016-17, age 23 — Harrell’s undersized, but the athleticism and motor are comparable, as are the inside offensive game and offensive rebounding. One key difference: I think Gafford is an average defender with the makings of a good one; Harrell was/is a poor defender who didn’t have the size to make a positive impact on that end.
- Richaun Holmes, Philadelphia 76ers, 2016-17, age 23 — Another undersized but athletic big man who scored efficiently inside and hit the offensive glass. Holmes’ best season so far was a 139 PPA in 2019-20 for the Sacramento Kings.
- Jarrett Allen, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2017-18, age 19 — Allen had the best season of his career last year — a 178 PPA that landed him in the All-Star game. This comp is probably a bit of fool’s gold, though because this version of Allen was a rookie teenager, who still managed a 127 PPA and a 119 offensive rating. The production was similar to Gafford last season, but Gafford was a 23-year-old in his third year.
- Marquese Chriss, Golden State Warriors, 2019-20, age 22 — Like Allen’s comp, this one is a bit of fool’s gold, but in a different way. Let me ‘splain. Chriss has now appeared in six different NBA seasons. In five of them, he’s been at or near replacement level. The one exception: this comp season with the Warriors, when he inexplicably made shots and grabbed rebounds.
- Tyler Zeller, Boston Celtics, 2014-15, age 25 — Another Chriss-like comp, at least sorta. After a couple lackluster seasons with Cleveland, Zeller went to Boston and was excellent as a starter and off the bench — 120 offensive rating on 19.4% usage and 4.2 offensive boards per 100 team possessions. His production cratered the following two seasons. He was decent in limited playing time in 2017-18 but was finished as an NBA player at age 30.
- Ivica Zubac, Los Angeles Clippers, 2020-21, age 23 — Zubac has his limitations, but he’s a solidly above average starting center who plays an important role for the Clippers.
- Brendan Haywood, Washington Wizards, 2003-04, age 24 — I wouldn’t have picked Haywood as a comp based on having watched them play because Haywood was slow, awkward and didn’t leap well, while Gafford plays above the rim. But the offensive rebounding and shot-blocking similarities are there. Key differences (aside from the athleticism) — Haywood was a more impactful defender while Gafford is a better at-rim finisher and defensive rebounder.
- Gheorge Muresan, Washington Bullets, 1994-95, age 23 — Muresan had none of Gafford’s athleticism, but he probably didn’t need it at 7-6. This was his first of three consecutive average or better seasons (all of them 70+ games) for the Bullets. Then he hurt his ankle making that stupid movie with Billy Crystal, and his basketball career was effectively over.
Overall, these comps are pretty good — especially for Washington’s backup center. For the most part, these are productive big men who contributed with inside scoring, offensive rebounding and (in some cases) better than average defense.
Who’s next through the Statistical Doppelgänger Machine?
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