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How Much Does Chandler Parsons Improve the Mavericks?

Apr 30, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets forward Chandler Parsons (25) shoots the ball during the second quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers in game five of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Sports

As part of a splashy offseason that saw them re-sign legend Dirk Nowitzki and bring back his 2011 title running mate, Tyson Chandler, in a trade with New York, the Dallas Mavericks received a somewhat unexpected boon with the Rockets’ decision not to match their three-year offer sheet to restricted small forward Chandler Parsons. Contentiousness in Houston over the move and its aftermath aside, the Mavs have to be thrilled to bring in another strong complementary piece for Dirk; one who, given his range and diversity of skills, will keep Dallas among the league’s elite offenses despite a reasonable amount of turnover to the supporting cast.

Though of course their overall games and areas of contribution are different, Parsons will be expected to fill, and well exceed, the void left by veterans Vince Carter and the likely-departing Shawn Marion. Both had evolved into integral glue guys for Dallas, complements alongside Dirk and Monta Ellis capable of guarding multiple positions and contributing everywhere. And though Marion, in particular, was likely overpriced last year, those two combined still earned over $2 million less than Parsons will in the upcoming year. Will Parsons, entering his fourth year in the league, be able to make enough impact to justify the move? And more importantly, will he be worth the near-max number Dallas has invested in him?

Using numbers from last season, defensive comparisons between the three yield mostly a wash. Marion certainly has the strongest defensive pedigree of the three, but at 35 last year he was far from his peak in this regard, and the Mavs were actually over four points-per-100 better defensively when he sat down. Parsons sported a three-point negative discrepancy of his own for Houston, but contrasting the levels of responsibility here are difficult given vastly different personnel. Carter was the only one of the three who saw his team get worse defensively when he hit the bench, but he started zero games all season and therefore saw more time against bench-heavy units, and also had the benefit of playing far more minutes than Marion alongside Jae Crowder, easily Dallas’ best overall defender last year by the numbers.

Parsons certainly isn’t anything special defensively, often a slow, lumbering presence who has trouble with quick 3′s on the perimeter and even more trouble with any strong post player (he allowed a terrifying 47.4 percent on shots out of finished post sets last season, per mySynergySports). He’s bad at navigating screens and often lazy recovering from them, and the Mavs may have to pair him with Crowder often to keep him from having to guard top opposing wings too frequently. But the addition of Tyson Chandler at the rim should improve the overall defensive culture, and the largest element in Parsons’ favor is his age; he’s over a decade younger than either Marion or Carter, and even if he never reaches average at his position defensively, he’ll remain a physically able body over the life of his contract where such a circumstance was far from guaranteed with both the other two.

Where things get interesting is on the offensive end. Dallas will again be an offensive juggernaut, with Dirk as the fulcrum and a plethora of shooters along with Ellis and his cutting prowess. Parsons may be slightly overrated as a three-point “gunner”, but he shot 37 percent last year on a ton of attempts (over six a night) and will wreak havoc on defenses while sharing the court with Nowitzki. He shot 43.8 percent on all spot-up attempts, per Synergy, and used almost 30 percent of his finished possessions on such plays. He’s clearly comfortable in that role, a big positive for the Mavs given how often he’ll fill it in their scheme. But are his numbers as a complementary shooter that much better than the two wings he’ll be “replacing”?

It’s not too close with Marion, as seen in the chart above, but Carter’s shooting prowess was honestly very similar to Parsons’ in several areas. He was a more accurate long-range shooter on more attempts while on the court, and wasn’t far off as a general spot-up shooter. Further, Carter shot more free-throws on a per-minute basis and was nearly eight percent better than Parsons from the line. A caveat about personnel, both teammates and opponents, is again necessary here; Carter faced more bench-heavy units, played within a more team-friendly and ball-movement-oriented offense, and likely received slightly more cushion from defenses given his advanced age and Parsons’ burgeoning reputation as a distance threat. Nonetheless, through this scope alone it might seem like Dallas was overpaying for Parsons when Carter’s new deal in Memphis will carry a cap hit over $10 million per year less.

But where Parsons separated himself was within the rest of his offensive game, which is more varied than some give him credit for. He has solid court vision and smarts, with his assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.07 ranking him eighth of 161 rotation forwards last year, per NBA.com (to be fair, Carter was not far off at 1.96, also placing him in the top 15). Perhaps most unappreciated, though, is his work in the little “in-between” spots outside the Restricted Area. His shot chart, provided as always by Nylon Calculus hero/genius Austin Clemens, illustrates this well:

 

Of 72 forwards attempting at least 75 shots last year from the “In the Paint (Non-RA)” area on NBA.com, he sported the seventh-best percentage. He did so partially by incorporating an effective floater into his game, one he’s comfortable using over length, as well as an accompanying rim fallaway repertoire that keeps defending bigs wary of over-committing:

Neither of the other two, particularly Carter, has an off-the-bounce game like the younger, springier Parsons. A bit of a snapshot here (admittedly an imperfect one, but still relevant): Parsons shot 55.7 percent on all attempts within 14 feet, per NBA.com, while Carter converted just 45.4 percent on barely over half the number of attempts. Vince still has a highlight-reel dunk in him from time to time, but his percentage in the Restricted Area (50.9) is badly inferior to Parsons’ own (59.8). They may be similar as distance threats, and Carter may even hold a slight advantage through a certain lens, but Parsons’ superiority off the bounce and as he approaches the basket separates him significantly from the other two.

Overall, the fit isn’t perfect – Parsons won’t change things much defensively, and one could argue that his offensive production compared to the combined output of Carter and Marion wasn’t convincing enough for such a raise. But Dallas will be banking on Parsons younger legs and more varied offensive game, and will be hoping a change of scenery will allow him to at least hold his own defensively with Tyson Chandler behind him directing traffic. Even if the latter ends up being a stretch, keep the Mavs on your list of League Pass must-watches – this team will remain a constant headache for defenses, and could even force its way into the contender discussion in a stacked West with another renaissance year from Dirk and a return to Finals form from Chandler. A team that never seems to need a rebuild has shown us why once again this offseason, and they’ll again be a joy to watch this upcoming season.

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett (@Ben_Dowsett) is a general sports fanatic and jack-of-all trades analytics nerd. He also writes for ESPN TrueHoop affiliate Salt City Hoops and Beacon Reader, and enjoys the sound of his own voice even more than his own writing — he can also be found on the airwaves in Salt Lake City on ESPN Radio AM 700. If you don’t think Alec Burks is an All Star, the two of you likely won’t have much to talk about.

  • Henauder Titzhoff

    Very nice analysis … one thing forgotten is that Carter and Marion will be replaced by two players, not one. Parsons and Aminu together will earn about what Marion and Carter earned and the two will easily replace the defense lost while shaving about 30 years off the Mavs average age. Last season the Mavs looked old and tired in the fourth quarter and lost a lot of big leads as a result.

    • Ben Dowsett

      Thanks for the comment, this indeed true but, as is frequently the case, it’s just not something I had room for. Aminu just isn’t the sort of impact player these other three are, and though he’ll have a role with Dallas (likely limited by his shooting issues), it would have convoluted the piece to include that. Have to stick to the direction of the piece, can’t always include every peripheral bit of context, would bore you guys to tears.

  • Tim Adems

    Not a bad article. The only thing that gives me pause is that when you present stats that seem contradictory to the idea that “Parsons is an upgrade over Carter/Marion” you feel the need to try and rationalize against them without using stats. For instance, “Carter faced more bench heavy units” (implying that would make it harder to score and easier to defend) or “Carter likely received more of a cushion from defenses.” Aren’t there synergy numbers that show how players perform under varying degrees of defensive pressure? I’m fairly sure I saw some synergy stats that could help prove/disprove that Carter was more open than Parsons.

    What makes these (non-stat) caveats more problematic is you don’t use them in many ways that go against the idea that “Parsons is an upgrade over Carter/Marion”. For example, Marion’s defensive numbers were poor last season, but you don’t take into account the fact that his role on defense was far more diverse than Parsons. Marion had to guard 1s-4s on defense due to the defensive struggles of Calderon, Monta, and Dirk. Conversely, Parsons was playing with two of the best defensive players in the league in Patrick Beverly and Dwight Howard. Isn’t if fair to say that could fudge Parson’s defensive numbers?

    Note: I recognize that this article isn’t out to prove that Parsons is an upgrade but merely to see the areas that he could be of use for the Mavs.

    Before reading this I figured that Parsons would help upgrade the Mavs but after reading this I’m less sure. However, they got Aminu who might be one of the most underrated defensive players in the league to back-up Parsons, which can only help.

    • Ben Dowsett

      Tim, thanks for the comment. The type of Synergy numbers you’re referring to exist (if not through Synergy then through a place like Vantage), but are not available to me or really any public media, as they are part of the proprietary package these sites sell to teams and scouts for amounts of money media outlets cannot fathom paying. I certainly wish I had detailed contest numbers, but I do not.

      After I mentioned that defensive numbers available painted the difference between them as mostly a wash, I was simply using some of the general context that led me to this conclusion. I very specifically noted the sorts of differences in personnel that you’re referring to. Quantifying these elements down to the finest detail is difficult given the info available, and in this case was not the main purpose of the piece, but I wanted to to contextualize that side of the ball to the best of my abilities using a short(ish) space and some general themes – I can’t always detail every element of my thought process, but rest assured I don’t write those sorts of more general statements (ones that may lack specific quantification) without having done my research first.

      • Tim Adems

        I see where you are coming from and appreciate having well considered basketball material to read. It’s unfortunate that Synergy/Vantage are keeping these incredibly juicy mines of information to themselves (and the very rich). I recently saw something that showed Lebron James was a better shooter on contested jump shots than open ones last season. Can you imagine? How weird is that? It’s also incredibly amusing to see how different players operate at different spots on the floor or which players do best in PnR coverage and post-ups. I love those bits of game specific data but unfortunately I don’t have access to it. I can only pray that the NBA buys some of this data and makes it available to fans. There are so many action/system related questions I have about basketball and we could all stand to learn a lot.

        That being said, the shot charts and some of the resources you guys have created using readily available data have been a joy. I listened to Levy talk about making Nyloncalculus into a place that can act as a source for fans to get insight into the data movement.

        • Ben Dowsett

          Having super detailed info like that would be amazing, but I can also understand where they’re coming from in keeping it proprietary – part of the inherent value that allows them to charge the amounts they do is the fact that such info is indeed private and unable to just be viewed by any random person, therefore more beneficial to teams.

          I guess I’m slightly remiss in stating that NO contested/uncontested data exists – NBA.com does host SportVU box score data for individual games, which contains “contested” and “uncontested” shot numbers. Darryl Blackport of Nylon Calculus (with compiling help from Krishna Narsu, they’re both wizards) scraped and compiled this data into season-long totals; I can’t give you direct access to them, but can tell you that league percentage for contested is actually higher than uncontested. This is because SportVU is only using distance thresholds (defender 4 feet or less from shooter) to track this stat, and excluding fast breaks, it’s nearly a guarantee that any layup/dunk/close to basket shot will have a defender within 4 feet, even if the shot is wide open in reality. LeBron is a perfect example – he shot 65% on contested last year but just 47.7% on uncontested, likely due to the vast majority of his attempts being closer to the hoop where, even if he’s dunking the ball, there’s likely a defender within 4 feet of him. As a result, contested numbers in this vein are actually somewhat unreliable, as separating true “contests” from just having a guy within 4 feet who may or may not be actually challenging the shot is impossible with the publicly available data we have. Uncontested are less noisy for now, as they’ll almost always indicate either fast break dunks/layups or open jumpers. This is where it’d be awesome to have more detailed stuff like the 5 tiers of contesting Vantage uses, but we’ll take what we can get for now.