Friday, October 26, 2012

The NBA's Average Teams

In Part I, we hit the NBA's worst teams. In Part II, we hit the NBA's overrated teams. Here in Part III, we'll hit the average riff-raff that either (1) won't matter much until the playoffs roll around, or (2) won't matter at all. Let's start with these guys:

Chicago Bulls

2012 Record: 50-16
2012 Prorated Record: 62-20
2012 Scoring Margin: 8.18
2012 Pythagorean Record: 51-15
2012 Pythagorean Prorated: 63-19

Expected Rotation: Kirk Hinrich, Rip Hamilton, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah (starters); Taj Gibson, Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Nazr Mohammed, Vladimir Radmanovic, Jimmy Butler, Marquis Teague (bench); Derrick Rose (injured)

Okay, yeah, the Bulls went 18-9 without Derrick Rose last season. If you extend that out over a full season, they’d go 55-27. But considering Rose got injured in April, and we’ve seen players return from similar injuries in 9-10 months, Rose could be back and playing at around 85-90% of his usual capacity by the All-Star break. So if we factor that in, Chicago should win close to 60 games and grab the top seed in the East again, right?

Well, no.

Chicago kept themselves afloat with depth and defense last year, and that strength has largely been neutralized though their offseason game of musical chairs. When they let Omer Asik and Ronnie Brewer walk in free agency and made no real effort to replace them, it was almost a tacit admission that the Bulls front office either (1) had no idea what made their team good in the first place, or (2) didn’t care. Asik only played 930 minutes last season, but Chicago sported a defensive efficiency of 93.6 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor, and one of 101.1 points per 100 possessions when he wasn’t. This 7.5-point improvement was competitive with other defensive aces around the league like Dwight Howard (-6.8) and Tim Duncan (-6.2).

Who did Chicago replace him with? Nazr Mohammed, who got buried on Oklahoma City’s bench last season in favor of small-ball lineups.

Ronnie Brewer, meanwhile, didn’t have quite the same tangible impact on Chicago’s defense, but he was still among the better wing defenders in the league. His replacement? Marco Belinelli, who probably the weakest link for a league-average New Orleans defense last season.

Now, I have to concede that it’s possible that the biggest reason Chicago’s 2nd-unit defense is so good is because Taj Gibson is prominently involved. Gibson is long, mobile, and incredibly disruptive, and for all we know, it was him making Asik and Brewer look good. There’s even a decent argument to be made that he’s been Chicago’s most valuable defender over the last two seasons.

That being said, however, Asik and Brewer are still undoubtedly two plus defenders that weren’t replaced. C.J. Watson was an average defender that was replaced by a poor one (Nate Robinson). Kyle Korver, an elite shooter and underrated passer, was replaced by Vladimir Radmanovic, a serviceable shooter and dreadful passer.

Deng, Boozer, Noah, and Thibodeau should keep Chicago afloat until Rose gets back, and from there, they could very well wreak havoc in the playoffs, but they need to get there, first.

Prediction: 41-41, 8th in Eastern Conference

Milwaukee Bucks

2012 Record: 31-35
2012 Prorated Record: 39-43
2012 Scoring Margin: 0.27
2012 Pythagorean Record: 34-32
2012 Pythagorean Prorated: 42-40

Expected Rotation: Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, Mike Dunleavy, Ersan Ilyasova, Samuel Dalembert (starters); Drew Gooden, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Tobias Harris, Ekpe Udoh, Larry Sanders, Doron Lamb, Beno Udrih (bench)

If the NBA Finals participants were decided by how many power forwards each team had on their roster, Houston would represent the West, and Milwaukee would definitely represent the East. Ilyasova, Gooden, Mbah a Moute, Harris, Udoh, Sanders, and John Henson are all on the fifteen man roster, and that’s before we even get to Samuel Dalembert and Joel Pryzbilla. That’s nine of their 15 roster spots taken up by power forwards and centers.

As a result – a grand total of one traditional shooting guard and one traditional small forward on the roster. They’ve got Doron Lamb and Mike Dunleavy, and that’s really it. Obviously, Monta Ellis will start at the two, so matching up against teams with elite scorers on the wing is going to be an adventure. Most likely, they’ll put Mbah a Moute at small forward for stretches, but that puts a serious strain on their offense, as asking him to make a shot outside of 10 feet is akin to asking your grandmother to harvest weapons-grade plutonium. It won’t end well.

Offensively, this team should be pretty strong. Jennings and Ellis are underrated distributors – they don’t generate a ton of assists, but the ones they do are mostly either dunks or threes. They can each play a pick-and-pop game with Ersan Ilyasova, who had a strong year last year, although his three-point shooting may have been a bit of a fluke. Gooden and Dunleavy each had strong seasons last year, and Lamb, while limited overall, should provide some three point shooting.

Defensively? Oof. It’s hard to imagine a backcourt worse defensively than Jennings and Ellis (although somewhere, Ramon Sessions and Ben Gordon are looking at each other and saying “Challenge Accepted.”), and unless Ekpe Udoh is on the floor, their bigs are going to constantly be a step slow in rotation. Larry Sanders is a shotblocking machine, but he suffers from JaVale McGee-itis in that he tries to block so many shots that the majority of the time he ends up just putting himself out of position. If he can become more disciplined, he could cover up a lot of mistakes, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.

Prediction: 38-44, 9th in Eastern Conference

Utah Jazz

2012 Record: 36-30
2012 Prorated Record: 45-37
2012 Scoring Margin: 0.62
2012 Pythagorean Record: 34-32
2012 Pythagorean Prorated: 42-40

Expected Rotation: Mo Williams, Gordon Hayward, Marvin Williams, Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson (starters); Derrick Favors, Alec Burks, Enes Kanter, Randy Foye, Jamaal Tinsley, Earl Watson, Jeremy Evans (bench)

Utah bucked a serious statistical trend to somehow become an efficient offense last season. They finished sixth in the league in offensive efficiency despite ranking in the bottom third of the league in both threes attempted and three-point percentage. The only other teams that did both of those things were Memphis, New Orleans, and Charlotte, and those three teams finished 19th, 28th, and 30th, respectively, in offensive efficiency. As a result, they finished ninth in the league in overall FG%, but just 18th in the league in eFG% (which weighs threes accordingly).

So how did they do it? By excelling in just about every other aspect of offensive play. Statistician Dean Oliver identified what he calls “The Four Factors” of offense, which are made up by shooting, turnovers, offensive rebounding, and free throws. Utah, while finishing just 18th in shooting (eFG%), came in ranked tied for fifth in turnovers, turning the ball over on just 13.0% of their possessions, ranked second in offensive rebounds (rebounding 30.2% of their own misses), and ranked sixth in free throws (a FTA/FGA rate of .227).

The funny thing about the free throw rate is that Utah didn’t have any one player with a particularly high rate of drawing fouls like some of the other teams at the top of the rankings did. Oklahoma City have Durant, Westbrook, and Harden, each of whom average over six free throw attempts per 36 minutes. Miami has their own big three, who each topped five free throw attempts per 36 minutes. Utah, on the other hand, saw their leading scorer (Al Jefferson) average just 3.1 free throw attempts per 36 minutes. Other top players like Millsap, Harris, and Hayward, were all under five. But in aggregate, they got to the line at an impressive clip.

This season, the good trends should continue. Jefferson, Millsap, Favors, and Kanter are still around to crash the boards and draw fouls. Where they made an upgrade was shooting. Last year the Jazz started Devin Harris at point guard, while C.J. Miles and Raja Bell split time at the two. Those three players combined to shoot 157-450 from three, just 34.9%. This year, those shots are being replaced by Mo Williams and Marvin Williams, who will play small forward with Gordon Hayward moving to shooting guard. Last year, the two Williams’ combined to shoot 151-388 from three, good for 38.9%. If they up their rate of shooting to match last year’s trio, they’ll make 175 threes instead of 157. That 54-point increase, generally speaking, is worth two and a half wins over the course of the season. Two and a half extra wins, just on the three-point shooting of two players.

In other words, the Utah offense should be even better.

Prediction: 46-36, 6th in Western Conference

Memphis Grizzlies

2012 Record: 41-25
2012 Prorated Record: 51-31
2012 Scoring Margin: 2.02
2012 Pythagorean Record: 38-28
2012 Pythagorean Prorated: 47-35

Expected Rotation: Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol (starters); Mareesse Speights, Jerryd Bayless, Darrell Arthur, Quincy Pondexter, Tony Wroten, Wayne Ellington, Hamed Haddadi (bench)

I’m a bit dubious about the future of this Memphis team going forward. Let’s just say that the track record of 31-year old forwards recovering from MCL tears isn’t a particularly strong one. Compounding the issue is that Randolph is owed more than $50 Million over the next three seasons, which leaves them perilously close to the luxury tax line. They’ll probably have to go over it if they want to re-sign Tony Allen.

What does that mean for this season? Someone might be on the move. We already saw the first inkling of this when they let O.J. Mayo walk away without really replacing him (unless you want to count Wayne Ellington and Tony Wroten, which I don’t). If anyone is going to be on the block, it’s either going to be Rudy Gay or Zach Randolph, and regardless of which one it is, it’s going to hurt.

Now, it would be foolish to assume that one of those guys will be traded mid-season and dock a few wins from their prediction, much in the same way that it would be foolish to predict Miami to finish around .500 because you have a hunch that LeBron is going to miss two months with a sprained knee. But that being said, I still don’t have a great feeling about this Memphis team, regardless of possible player movement.

They were the equivalent of a 51-win team last year, but they out-performed their Pythagorean Win Expectation (based on scoring margin, a more accurate predictor of future success than straight won-loss record) by a fair amount. They were really only the equivalent of a 47-win team. They did this with an exceptionally strong starting unit, but a dreadful bench. O.J. Mayo was just about the only guy keeping that bench afloat (if you can even call it that), so it should be even worse this season. If Randolph can’t recover from his knee injury, and the starting unit sees a dip as well, Memphis could conceivably tumble all the way out of the playoffs.

I don’t see it going quite that poorly for the Grizzlies, but they seem like playoff fodder to me.

Prediction: 44-38, 7th in Western Conference

Detroit Pistons

2012 Record: 23-43
2012 Prorated Record: 29-53
2012 Scoring Margin: -4.79
2012 Pythagorean Record: 22-44
2012 Pythagorean Prorated: 27-55

Expected Rotation: Brandon Knight, Rodney Stuckey, Tayshaun Prince, Jonas Jerebko, Greg Monroe (starters); Andre Drummond, Will Bynum, Corey Maggette, Austin Daye, Jason Maxiell, Kim English, Charlie Villanueva (bench)

If Andre Drummond plays the entire regular season at the same level that he’s been playing in the preseason, the prediction at the end of this section might be 15 wins too low. The rap on him coming into the draft was that it was never clear how much he actually cared about basketball when he was in college, but he’s had some pretty spectacular moments in the preseason that are making me think that he might actually be the real deal.

If he is? Watch out. He’d allow Greg Monroe to play power forward and avoid some of the strength mis-matches he was forced into last year, and with Monroe’s underrated passing, they’d have the makings of a deadly hi-lo game.

Where they need to improve is on the perimeter. Rodney Stuckey finally got a chance to play shooting guard full-time, but Brandon Knight had a hit-or-miss rookie season (although his 38% shooting on threes is pretty encouraging), Tayshaun Prince looks like he seriously lost a step or four, and Austin Daye just seems to be a lost cause at this point.

They have a few nice pieces to build around as they dig themselves out of the hole they were put in by the Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva contracts (although they had to give up a 1st-round pick to dump Ben Gordon on Charlotte), but for right now, they aren’t anything more than just another bad team.

Prediction: 33-49, 11th in Eastern Conference

Toronto Raptors

2012 Record: 23-43
2012 Prorated Record: 29-53
2012 Scoring Margin: -3.30
2012 Pythagorean Record: 25-41
2012 Pythagorean Prorated: 31-51

Expected Rotation: Kyle Lowry, Landry Fields, DeMar DeRozan, Andrea Bargnani, Jonas Valanciunas (starters); Jose Calderon, Amir Johnson, Terrence Ross, Ed Davis, Linas Kleiza, Dominic McGuire, John Lucas (bench)

This looks like an intriguing team until you realize that the players involved just aren’t very good.

Well, I should clarify. Kyle Lowry is a pretty good all-around player, and Andrea Bargnani is a decent scorer, but outside of those two guys, there really isn’t much to write home about. DeMar DeRozan is really good at running and jumping, but not so good at things like dribbling, shooting, passing, and otherwise playing basketball, and Landry Fields’ shooting numbers took a nose dive off the Verrazano Bridge on his way out of New York.

Former Dallas assistant Dwayne Casey really turned around their defense last year, going from dead last in 2011 to 14th in 2012, with no real roster turnover to speak of. Jonas Valanciunas should provide them an immediate upgrade at center over Aaron Gray, although the loss of James Johnson on the wing could hurt them – the data on suggests that he was one of their best defensive players a season ago. Also, Kyle Lowry developed a perplexing indifference to defense last season in Houston, so if that continues, there could be some gaps in screen-roll coverage when you consider that Toronto’s other bigs are a rookie and Andrea Bargnani.

If they get a full season out of Bargnani, his production coupled with Kyle Lowry could push Toronto towards league-average respectability on offense. Ultimately, however, I think their lack of floor spacing will hurt them, and their defense won’t be quite good enough to carry them into the playoffs.

Prediction: 35-47, 10th in Eastern Conference

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