Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Jeremy Conlin's NBA Preview (Part I)

The NBA was gone for 149 Days. Then it came back. Now the season is starting on Sunday. This is about how I'm feeling right now:

As our friend and webmaster Tony said when the lockout ended, "Today is Christmas for me, the NBA lockout has ended. Games will begin December 25 which, ironically, will also be Christmas for me." So now I'm writing my first NBA column in 6 months. It feels quite strange.

Regardless, we have the NBA back, and I don't feel much like beating around the bush. We're starting with my predicted lottery teams today, and we'll get to the playoff teams later in the week. I've provided record predictions, as well as what those numbers would look like with an 82-game schedule. 

30. Charlotte (12-54) 
Translated to 82 Games: (15-67)

In the upset of the century so far, Charlotte didn't use their amnesty waiver on DeSagana Diop. At the very least, that means that they won't have to start Boris Diaw and Tyrus Thomas together. They will anyway, but they don't have to. 

Charlotte might have the worst offense in the league this year. When they traded Stephen Jackson for Corey Maggette, they gave up a moderately versatile playmaker and got back a black hole scorer in return. With Gerald Henderson playing next to him on the wing, all of the playmaking duties will fall on the point guard duo. This normally wouldn't be a complete disaster, but this year, Charlotte has their starting point guard (D.J. Augustin) playing in a contract year, while his backup (Kemba Walker) is a lottery pick (and possibly the best player in this past draft) who last season was the best player on the team that won the NCAA championship. I predict some friction there. And this is a team that was 26th in the league last season in Offensive Efficiency to begin with, and that includes 48 games with Gerald Wallace in the lineup. This year they're a mortal lock for last place.

29. Sacramento (16-50)
Translated to 82 Games: (20-62)

It seems a bit strange to pick Sacramento to regress this season, especially when they have a full season of Marcus Thornton, a healthy Tyreke Evans, and the addition of Jimmer Fredette (who I think has a chance to be the best player out of this year's draft). The reason I'm predicting regression is because Evans and Thornton only played 11 games together last season, and it was pretty ugly. In the seven games they played together in April to end the season, Evans averaged 17 points per game on 38% shooting from the floor, and Marcus Thornton scored 18 per game on 40% shooting, including 7-for-39 from three (good for an 18% clip). They don't have a natural point guard, any perimeter player than can really excel playing off the ball, or any big man that can consistently catch the ball when it's passed to them. Also, they're going to be atrocious defensively.

28. New Orleans (18-48)
Translated to 82 Games: (22-60)

They barely snuck into the playoffs last season, and then traded their best player for 60 cents on the dollar. Eric Gordon is a good player (but definitely not a great one), Chris Kaman died last year (they've been propping him up there Weekend At Bernie's style and nobody has noticed yet), and Al-Farouq Aminu can be a decent player as long as you don't ask him to do anything that involves dribbling or shooting. 

Their future looks pretty good, because they're going to have two lottery picks in a loaded draft, and two nice expiring contracts in Carl Landry and Kaman, but there's no way their in any position to compete for a playoff spot this season.

27. Toronto (19-47)
Translated to 82 Games: (24-58)   

They were 22-60 last season, spent their #5 pick on Jonas Valanciunas, who I think will end up being the best player from this draft, but will be staying in Europe this season. Other than that, basically brought back the same exact roster they had last season. DeMar DeRozan should improve, as should Ed Davis, but not enough to see a significant improvement in their record.

26. Utah Jazz (20-46) 
Translated to 82 Games: (25-57)

Utah with Deron Williams last season: 29-24
Utah without Deron Williams last season: 10-19

If we extrapolate that 10-19 number out to 66 games, we get a record of 23-43 (or, in turn, an 82-game record of 28-54). Yes, they added two pretty good lottery picks (Enes Kanter, who I think will end up being the best player from this draft, and Alec Burks), but the fact that Kanter plays the same position as three of Utah's four highest-paid players (Al Jefferson, Mehmet Okur, and Paul Millsap), as well as the prospect who was the centerpiece of the Deron Williams trade (Derrick Favors) leads me to believe that one or both of Jefferson or Millsap will be moved at the trade deadline, if not sooner. If that happens, that should regress them back towards the record that I've projected for them.

25. Cleveland (21-45) 
Translated to 82 Games: (26-56)

Let's just say the track record of teams starting two rookies coming out of a comically weak draft isn't that good. I like Irving, I REALLY like Thompson (I honestly think he'll be the best guy out of this draft), but they aren't good enough to be difference-makers this season. Antawn Jamison has a huge expiring contract, and they could trade Anderson Varejao somewhere and get decent value back, so they're a team to watch out for in the future, just not this year.

24. Phoenix (21-45) 
Translated to 82 Games: (26-56)

It's just starting to get awkward for Steve Nash. I want him to be able to play for a title, but I'm not sure that he'll be a relevant player for much longer after this season. He fell off a cliff after the All-Star break last season (FG% dropped from 52% to 40%), and with the compressed schedule this year, I can't imagine him being fresh enough to keep Phoenix in playoff contention.

23. Detroit (24-42) 
Translated to 82 Games: (30-52)

With Brandon Knight (who I think will be remembered as the best player of the 2011 draft) on board, Rodney Stuckey will finally move over to shooting guard (where he has belonged for the last four years, but better late than never), but they still have Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon cluttering up minutes when they aren't helping the team and eating up close to a third of the salary cap on their own. God forbid they use their amnesty clause on one of those guys to free up minutes for Austin Daye and Jonas Jerebko. 

22. Washington (26-40)  
Translated to 82 Games: (32-50)

John Wall should be better, JaVale McGee should be better, Nick Young should be better, Jordan Crawford should be better, yet I'm still not that optimistic. McGee really improved his foul rate, but unless he's flying in from the weakside to block a shot, he's just not a good enough defensive player to anchor a good defense, especially when Andray Blatche can't seem to defend the pick-and-roll to save his life. 

Offensively, they just aren't efficient enough to be competitive. Last season, they were 28th in offensive efficiency, 29th in true shooting percentage, and 29th in effective FG%. They have a decent amount of offensive talent, but its mostly perimeter players that dribble the air out of the ball and have terrible shot selection or big men that fall in love with 18-foot jump shots that they never make. They need Wall to make a massive leap, but I still have a feeling he's a year away (that mythical third year for NBA point guards).

21. Minnesota (27-39)
Translated to 82 Games: (33-49)

Rubio. He's finally here. I'm going to love watching him run pick-and-rolls with Kevin Love. It's almost beyond words. 

I still think they need to trade Beasley, which will allow Wes Johnson to play his natural position, and also free up more minutes for Derrick Williams, who is clearly the best player to come out of this year's draft. If they can deal Beasley for a natural shooting guard (the first, second, and third call I would make would be to New Jersey for Anthony Morrow), it will give them a pretty good team with a ton of upside, and a nucleus of Rubio, Williams, and Love is definitely something that can be built around.

20. Milwaukee (27-39)
Translated to 82 Games: (33-49)

The Bucks traded the draft rights to Jimmer Fredette, John Salmons, and Corey Maggette, and they got back Stephen Jackson, Beno Udrih, Shaun Livingston, and the draft rights to Tobias Harris. That's the type of trade that a team makes when they think they have a chance to compete in the playoffs. Newsflash, Milwaukee - you don't. Brandon Jennings is entering that 3rd year as a point guard, so in all likelihood he'll make a noticeable improvement, but improving his true shooting percentage from 49% to 53% isn't something that's going to push Milwaukee into the playoffs.

This team could be a bit interesting next season, because if Tobias Harris and Larry Sanders develop, that would allow them to use their amnesty waiver on Drew Gooden, which would give them a ton of cap space all of a sudden next summer. Obviously they aren’t in the running to sign any of the big-name free agents, but it will give them the flexibility to do one or two of the Sam Presti-trademarked “absorb a bad contract and pick up a first-round pick in the process” moves. Something to keep an eye on.

19. New Jersey (29-37)  
Translated to 82 Games: (36-46)

They went 4-8 with Deron Williams and 20-50 without him. Obviously a 12-game sample isn’t big enough to say really anything, but at the very least, they were a better team once he got there. In those 12 games he played in Jersey, he shot just 34.9% from the floor, a number that will obviously spike back towards the mean this season.

They remain in the running for Dwight Howard (although I’m dubious that Orlando would trade him during the season), but even if no deal gets done, a full season of Deron Williams should have the Nets at least in the playoff conversation for most of the season.

While I’m here, is anyone else completely perplexed as to why Orlando is enamored by Brook Lopez? Obviously part of the appeal of the New Jersey trade package is that Orlando could dump Hedo Turkoglu’s contract into the deal, but they’d be able to do that with any number of other teams. I really don’t see how Brook Lopez, a center who had a true shooting percentage of 54.9% (basically league average for a center) and grabbed a whopping 6.0 rebounds per game (2nd-worst among centers who played over 25 minutes per game). Wouldn’t they rather have Joakim Noah, or, in a pipe-dream scenario, Russell Westbrook? I’m just not seeing how Brook Lopez is their #1 choice.

18. Houston (32-34) 
Translated to 82 Games: (40-42)

On the bummer scale, missing out on Pau Gasol is right up there. They would have had to give up two pretty valuable pieces, but it would have left them with enough cap space to sign Nene. A team of Gasol, Nene, Kyle Lowry, Chase Budinger, Courtney Lee, and rookie Marcus Morris (who could be the best player to come out of this draft) would be good enough to make the playoffs in this Western Conference, especially when you consider that Chris Paul wouldn’t have ended up on the Clippers, so they wouldn’t be in the mix.

Instead, their left basically in the same spot they were in last year. They’re a really good offensive team, but a really bad defensive team, and I don’t see anything changing there, especially now that they’ve lost Chuck Hayes. Their only chance to make the playoffs is if Hasheem Thabeet somehow morphs into Dikembe Mutombo 2.0, and if that happens, I’ll eat my keyboard.

17. Golden State (33-33)
Translated to 82 Games: (41-41)

I’ve mentioned it twice already, but it bears repeating. Point guards make crazy leaps in their third season. Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook, Gary Payton, and Steve Nash (in his 3rd season as a starter) all made leaps of at least three points in Player Efficiency Rating (PER). In the case of Paul, Westbrook and Nash, the jump was over six points.

If we predict a similar leap for Stephen Curry, we would be looking at a PER in the 22.5-24.5 range, which would make him comparable to the seasons that Rose, Westbrook, and Paul had last year, and above guys like Rondo, Nash, and Williams. Now, he’s still light years behind just about all of those guys defensively, but in terms of offensive production on a per-minute, per-possession basis, he would be in the same class.

If David Lee can return to the form he had in New York, Golden State could make a decent run at the playoffs. Last year, Lee had a gruesome elbow injury that saw him miss two weeks and threw him for a loop for close to a month after that. He never totally looked like himself until after the All-Star break, but by that point it seemed like everyone else on the team was banged up, including Curry, who was dealing with a nasty ankle sprain for most of the season.

Now, it was reported Tuesday night that Curry re-injured that same ankle in Golden State’s last exhibition game, and it remains to be seen how severe it is, but if it’s manageable, Curry should have a breakout season, and Klay Thompson should give them size in the backcourt for the first time since Jason Richardson was still in town.

That’s all for the lottery teams. Keep an eye out for the playoff teams sometime on Thursday.

1 comment :

CSmith said...

Klay Thompson is likely the best player to come out of the draft, but you don't even mention it.