What typically happens when NBA free agency turns a role player into a go-to guy for a new team?
One of the challenges as front offices around the league prepare for the opening of free agency (Thursday, 6 p.m. ET) is determining how a player might respond to an expanded role. That’s particularly urgent this year for teams evaluating Dallas Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson, who has thrived playing off All-NBA teammate Luka Doncic but will likely be asked to carry a heavier offensive load if he signs elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent.
Although Brunson is the most prominent example of a player who could move into a larger role, he isn’t the only one. If Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton changes teams, either via a sign-and-trade deal or the Suns deciding not to match a max offer sheet to him, the restricted free agent also could increase his offensive responsibility alongside lesser offensive talents than Suns guards Devin Booker and Chris Paul.
To better understand how to project Ayton and Brunson, let’s take a look back at the recent history of similar free agents and how they’ve performed with their new teams.
What the past decade of free agency reveals
To find a comparison group, I looked back at the past 10 years of free agents who met the following criteria:
Changed teams in free agency
Age 28 or younger (Brunson is 25; Ayton is 23) and played at least 1,500 minutes the season before free agency
Increased usage rate with new team by at least 4.5%
This scenario isn’t necessarily common. Just these six players over that span qualified.
Jerami Grant saw the most dramatic change in his role, going from a 3-and-D wing with the Denver Nuggets (starting as they reached the 2020 Western Conference finals) to the leading scorer for the Detroit Pistons.
Don’t blame Grant for Detroit’s lottery finishes the past two years. He proved capable of maintaining near-average efficiency, increasing his value to the point where the Pistons got a first-round pick when they traded Grant to the Portland Trail Blazers last week entering the final season of that contract.
As the fourth option for the 73-9 Golden State Warriors, Harrison Barnes had the smallest role in his previous stop. He struggled under the pressure of creating his own offense with Dallas, scoring with below-average efficiency over two-plus seasons before the Mavericks traded him to the Sacramento Kings for little in return. Barnes has enjoyed his best seasons in Sacramento at usage rates more similar to his rates with Golden State.
It’s hard to think of Dion Waiters as a role player, but he finished plays at a below-average rate alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Playing on a one-year deal for the Miami Heat, Waiters managed to improve his efficiency in a larger role. The transformation proved short-lived, and Waiters was waived before he could finish his next contract with Miami.
Playing behind Kyrie Irving with the Boston Celtics, Terry Rozier was frustrated with his role. The Charlotte Hornets gave him a starting job and increased his touches and shots. Rozier also managed to improve his efficiency in the larger role, and that has proved more lasting. He has become an above-average offensive player as a starting guard.
Like Waiters, Tyreke Evans was returning to a larger role he’d enjoyed earlier in his career. Evans had a 26% usage rate while winning Rookie of the Year honors before the Kings added DeMarcus Cousins as a go-to guy. Evans’ efficiency slumped with the New Orleans Pelicans. It wasn’t until his next contract, with the Memphis Grizzlies, that Evans was able to combine volume with efficiency.
Lastly, Malcolm Brogdon has gone from super-efficient role player with the Milwaukee Bucks to more of a volume scorer for the Indiana Pacers, dramatically increasing his playmaking responsibilities at the same time. That has left Brogdon as a valuable starter. Like Grant, he could command a first-round pick in return if the Pacers trade him now after signing a two-year extension last fall.
The above group produced three clear hits (Brogdon, Grant and Rozier), two misses (Barnes and Evans) and mixed results for Waiters. There’s no clear difference between the successful role increases in terms of age, usage rate change or team success. That forces us to evaluate going forward on a case-by-case basis.
How Brunson starred without Doncic
Of this year’s two top candidates, I think Brunson is easier to evaluate in a larger role because he delivers when Doncic rests and he becomes the Mavericks’ go-to guy. Last season, Brunson played 1,208 minutes without Luka, per NBA Advanced Stats, boosting his usage rate from 17% of the team’s plays with Doncic to 27% without him while maintaining an average .565 true shooting percentage.
Toss in Brunson’s 7.4 assists per 36 minutes with Luka on the bench — more than double his average with Luka on the floor — and there wasn’t really a good comp for that level of production in the NBA last season. CJ McCollum (28% usage, .553 TS%) probably came closest, though McCollum averaged just 5.3 assists per 36 minutes.
In the 17 games Doncic missed last season, Brunson was particularly strong. He averaged 20.4 points and 7.5 assists as Dallas went 8-9 without the team’s star. And Brunson was even better with Luka on the bench in the playoffs, ramping up his usage to his incredible 34% with .559 TS%.
Certainly, Brunson benefited from the shooting the Mavericks put around him. A majority of his minutes in the regular season came with four capable 3-point shooters spacing the floor, a luxury Brunson won’t enjoy if he signs with the spacing-challenged New York Knicks. Still, evidence suggests Brunson’s game will translate into a larger role.
A different usage pattern for Ayton
In Ayton’s case, like that of Evans and Waiters, a larger role would be something of a return for him. Ayton posted a 24% usage rate in 2019-20 before seeing that decline to 18% in 2020-21 and 21% last season. Predictably, Ayton has been far more efficient with those lower usage rates. His TS% jumped from .568 in 2019-20 to .653 the following season.
It’s tempting to credit that entirely to the addition of Paul, but intriguingly, Ayton’s usage rates and efficiency have been almost identical with and without Paul over the past two regular seasons. He shot slightly better last season with Paul on the bench.
Paul’s arrival did help push Ayton toward focusing on finishing out of the pick-and-roll as opposed to creating his own offense in different ways. Per Second Spectrum tracking, Ayton’s rate of on-ball picks per 100 possessions increased from 42.7 in 2019-20 to 55.0 the following campaign and 64.0 last season — fifth highest among players who set at least 1,000 such picks. Of that same group, Ayton’s on-ball screens produced the most points per chance.
As a result, the big question for Ayton — if he changes teams — is whether he gets paired with other capable pick-and-roll ball handlers who can take advantage of his ability to finish above the rim or pop for midrange jumpers.