It didn’t even take until the halfway point of the 2021-22 season for the NBA to set a new record. With the omicron variant ravaging the country and hundreds of players missing time due to health and safety protocols, the league adjusted its 10-day “hardship exception” rules and opened the door for a fleet of replacement players. Already, 576 players have appeared in a game this season, besting the previous high by 36 and counting.
“We are sitting in the moment where it’s the greatest time in NBA history to not be an NBA player and get into the NBA,” said scout Sam Meyerkopf.
Some of those additions are old NBA friends making unexpected returns: Joe Johnson and Mario Chalmers after three years out of the league, Isaiah Thomas with two teams, Greg Monroe in surprisingly successful bench minutes in Minnesota. Others are relatively anonymous, with no previous NBA experience: 58 undrafted rookies have already made their debuts this season, just two away from the record of 60 set in 2017-18.
Every source who spoke for this piece lamented the reason for the influx of new players. But they also acknowledged the life-changing potential for those receiving the call. A G League player would earn more money from 10 days on an NBA salary than he would in an entire G League season, for example—and the rewards could be even greater for those who impress in their 10-day stints.
“This is an opportunity. There’s kind of like, ‘You know what, I’ve got a chance to maybe carve out an NBA roster spot for myself,’” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said this week about players signed to hardship deals. “Certainly they want to prove that they belong and can stay.”
Yet how is this group of call-ups actually performing? Individually, most of the replacements have played fewer than 50 minutes—not nearly enough to draw broad conclusions. As an entire group, however, they have combined for 259 games and 3,459 total minutes, which is more than a sufficient sample size to analyze.
As the recent rise of undrafted players demonstrates, the potential NBA talent pool is deeper than ever. “There’s enough talent in basketball for more teams than we have now,” one personnel executive said. During the past month, much of that excess has found its way into the league—and mostly looked like it belongs.
In sports analysis, the “replacement player” is both a fundamental building block and a hypothetical conceit. When Kevin Durant has to miss a game due to rest, injury, or COVID protocols, the Nets don’t play four on five—they replace Durant’s 37 minutes and 21 shot attempts per game by distributing the opportunities to other players. So the question of Durant’s value is not how productive he is full stop, but how productive he is relative to what his replacements would produce in his stead.
Defining and measuring that idea is tricky, though. The concept of a replacement player began in the 1990s in baseball, when sabermetrician Keith Woolner defined it as “a virtually no-cost replacement to get plugged into a lineup in a time of need.” But how productive are those no-cost replacements imagined to be? Some modern basketball statistics use players on two-way deals and/or minimum free agent contracts as proxies for “replacement” value. Yet never before has the league featured so many actual replacement players at once.
“It’s funny, the definition of ‘replacement level’ is something we talk about, and I think we’ve always just had this assumption that this is kind of the level any guy off the street would be,” a senior front office member said. “This is a great test of that assumption.”
Findings from these players’ first few weeks are fairly encouraging. Collectively, hardship signees have averaged 10.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.9 assists per 36 minutes. In terms of productivity, usage, and efficiency, they’ve basically played like Bruce Brown—who happens to be a valuable member of a title contender’s rotation.
Offensive Performance in 2021-22
|Statistic||Bruce Brown||Collective Hardship Signees|
|Statistic||Bruce Brown||Collective Hardship Signees|
The replacements’ most glaring deficiency is shooting: They’ve made just 29.3 percent of their collective 3-pointers and exhibit poor efficiency for players with such low usage rates.
But they don’t look extraordinarily out of place next to the best players in the world. Replacement players’ PER, weighted by minutes played, is 9.7—not a good score, given that 15 is average, but in the range of many well-known NBA players: Jae Crowder, Duncan Robinson, and Matisse Thybulle are all at 10.2 this season; Jalen Green and Davis Bertans are at 10.1; Joe Harris, Kevin Porter Jr., and Payton Pritchard are at 9.8; and players like Robert Covington, Talen Horton-Tucker, and Killian Hayes all rate below the hardship group, to say nothing of the many back-of-the-bench players who do as well.
Overall, the hardship signees fall below the theoretical “replacement level” in various advanced stats, but not by an outrageous amount. For instance, FiveThirtyEight’s model assumes that a replacement player will be 2.75 points below average, per 100 possessions, and worth zero WAR. Thus far, players on hardship exceptions have been 3.26 points below, weighted by minutes played, which translates to negative-0.91 WAR—not too far off from zero in a reasonably large sample. And many notable NBA figures rate worse than that this season, according to FiveThirtyEight:
- Cade Cunningham (negative-3.3 points per 100 possessions)
- Russell Westbrook (negative-3.5)
- De’Aaron Fox (negative-3.9)
- Talen Horton-Tucker (negative-5.0)
- Julius Randle (negative-5.6)
Moreover, a number of hardship signees have been positive contributors when on the court: The top 50 replacements in minutes played have been worth positive WAR, collectively, while the players who have made the briefest appearances drag down the overall group.
Most-Used Hardship Signees
|Derrick Walton Jr.||Pistons||108||+0.28|
Leading the way is Davon Reed, now on his third consecutive 10-day deal in Denver and demonstrating the clearest example of how a replacement player can stake his claim for a real roster spot. As a former second-round pick, the 26-year-old wing played just 31 anodyne games for the Suns and Pacers, then spent two seasons away from the NBA while toiling in the G League and Taiwan. But he’s back now and boasting the best on/off defensive figure in the league, per Cleaning the Glass: The Nuggets allow 20.7 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, while forcing way more turnovers and limiting offensive rebounds.
“He looks like he belongs,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said recently. “Davon Reed is an NBA player.”
All of these numbers deserve a grain of salt, of course. This is not a perfect test of replacement value, and if anything, these players’ collective statistics to date probably understate their actual NBA potential.
The full list of players signed to hardship deals probably doesn’t represent the cream of the replacement crop, for instance, because of the urgency required to sign players to hardship deals. The personnel executive said that his team put together a list of its top “emergency” targets at every position—and that within 36 hours, around 80 percent of those players were gone.
As the targets shifted from best available to just available, the executive said, “You had to sacrifice a little bit on really finding the perfect fit because you just needed someone in uniform who was healthy and ready to play and in game shape.” What was once a carefully curated list of potential targets has therefore expanded to include “anybody and everybody who is healthy and can play at anything close to a professional level.”
Multiple executives mentioned geography as a factor completely unrelated to playing ability that nevertheless played a major role in hardship decisions. “With a lot of these guys, a challenge is actually flying them to the appropriate location, so if a guy’s nearby, that helps,” the senior front office member said. It’s no coincidence that the Mavericks, in need of a player for a recent game in Sacramento, signed the veteran point guard Thomas, who was in Seattle at the time.
And even once they are signed, players with hardship deals are not acting as normal replacements. Instead, they are thrust into uniquely challenging circumstances that might not allow them to showcase their full talents. “They’re coming into a situation that’s difficult for them as well as us,” a visibly dispirited Nate McMillan said after a blowout loss in Chicago at the end of December, when his Hawks had just three regular rotation players available.
Not only are the replacement players new to a team, but the threat of COVID means fewer possibilities for practicing and usage of only the most basic offensive sets. “There are times where we’re having to put four or five guys out there that don’t know our system,” McMillan said.
Teams are mostly using lineups in which one replacement plays alongside four regular starters—but the games can get ugly when teamwide outbreaks force the reverse scenario, with four replacements and just one regular. For stretches in that game against Chicago, Atlanta surrounded star Trae Young with Malcolm Hill, Chaundee Brown Jr., Cameron Oliver, and either Lance Stephenson or Wes Iwundu—none of whom had ever played with Young before Christmas.
“I came to shootaround today not knowing most of my teammates,” Young said. “It’s like starting over. It’s like we’re in preseason, playing preseason basketball, not having any type of chemistry, not knowing where each other’s going to be.”
The same problem appears on defense, where a lack of experience means just as much discontinuity. “Obviously guys are not used to certain calls defensively, so it’s the same thing,” Hawks center Clint Capela said. “Some automatism that I have with other guys, I don’t have with them. Their reactions are not right.”
So it’s important to separate the contextual challenges from the replacement players themselves—and not let the former sour opinion of the latter. “That is an issue, just in terms of chemistry and clunkiness and the playbooks have to be shrunk,” the personnel executive said of the frequent roster changes during the past month. “But in terms of pure talent? No, I don’t think there was a major issue. I don’t think teams lost that much.”
Overall quality of play hasn’t dropped off much, either; the leaguewide offensive rating actually increased in December. While scoring efficiency usually rises as a season progresses, roster interruptions did not interfere with this typical trend.
That doesn’t mean many hardship players will remain in rotations for the rest of this season. Every team would prefer not to have to use them at all, as those who have suffered the most injuries and illnesses have mostly underperformed expectations, whereas the Warriors, Suns, and Jazz all rank among the league’s best and healthiest teams. The Warriors have signed only one player, Quinndary Weatherspoon, to a hardship exception, while the Jazz haven’t needed a single one.
And while the hardship signees receive universal praise for their effort and competitiveness, and while many present inspiring personal stories, sometimes they just don’t have the talent to match. “On the aggregate, they’re showing they’re like a 12th, 13th man on an NBA team,” the senior front office member said. “They’re good enough that if you throw them out there, they don’t embarrass you, but most of these guys, there’s a reason they’re not on guaranteed contracts in the NBA.”
But most is not all, and for some players, this brief opportunity could jump-start or rejuvenate an NBA career. Reed looks like a keeper in Denver. Former no. 8 pick Stanley Johnson suddenly became a crucial starter for the Lakers, and Kyle Guy is already a valuable backup for the Heat. Orlando’s Hassani Gravett looks like a capable NBA point guard—quite the step up for someone with zero previous NBA experience, who was playing in the Macedonian league last season.
“There were teams in Germany I was trying to convince to sign Gravett for I don’t know, $60-70,000, and they couldn’t really pull the trigger,” said Meyerkopf, a scout who helps European teams find American imports. “And now he’s starting NBA games.”
Some of the most-hyped signees for casual fans haven’t made an impact: Both Joe Johnson and C.J. Miles played in just one game (for two minutes) with Boston, and Chalmers hasn’t yet appeared in a Miami game. But there isn’t any correlation between previous NBA career length and performance in a hardship spot, in either direction. Some veterans, like Monroe in Minnesota and Brandon Knight in Dallas, have played well in limited action.
Ultimately, the performance of all these extra players confirms the idea that among NBA or near-NBA players, the talent drop-off is steep near the top of the pecking order but much flatter farther down. The gap between an MVP candidate and the 300th-best player in the country is a lot larger than the gap between the 300th-best and 600th-best players.
“In any of those situations, the environment and the context probably matters more than whatever minor difference there is in talent level between two guys,” the senior front office member said—which means that as long as the hardship contracts last, all the players bunched together will continue to receive chances to shine on the NBA stage.
Jamahl Mosley knows that better than most: His Magic have devoted 694 minutes to hardship players, by far the most in the league. Yet while the instability has caused copious problems in the standings for the team with the league’s worst record, it also comes with the opportunity to unearth potential NBA gems.
“The most impressive thing is their professionalism, just being able to step right in,” Mosley said before a loss to Chicago this week. “I think it’s a great opportunity for these guys: to get exposure, to be evaluated on what they’re capable of doing.”
Statistics through Monday’s games.