Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The NBA's Best Teams

For those of you just joining us, you missed Part I, Part II, and Part III last week, and while Part IV was supposed to be yesterday, Hurricane Sandy intervened and left me without power, without internet access, and with a hole in my roof. Part IV covers the NBA’s underrated teams, and this, Part V, covers the NBA’s six best teams. We’ll go in reverse order, counting down to #1.

Denver Nuggets

2012 Record: 38-28
2012 Prorated Record: 47-35
2012 Scoring Margin: 2.88
2012 Pythagorean Record: 39-27
2012 Pythagorean Prorated: 48-34

Expected Rotation: Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Kosta Koufos (starters); JaVale McGee, Wilson Chandler, Andre Miller, Jordan Hamilton, Anthony Randolph, Corey Brewer, Timofey Mozgov (bench)

This team is a stat geek’s wet dream. They lack a central star, instead relying on as many as 11 players who could finish with a PER above the league average of 15.0. The only players that are expected to play significant minutes but fail to reach that plateau are probably Corey Brewer and Timofey Mozgov, who make up for it by being plus defenders.

The common misconception with this team is that because they lack a central star, they must not have a great offense. Or, for a slightly more intelligent viewer, the common misconception is that they only appear to have a good offense (led the league in scoring last season) because they play at such a fast pace (2nd-fastest in the league last season). The reality is that they have one of the most explosive offenses in the league, regardless of how fast they’re playing.

Denver finished 3rd in the league in offensive efficiency, trailing only San Antonio and Oklahoma City. They finished 2nd in the league in field goal percentage, behind only the Spurs. They led the league in total assists, and were tied for 2nd in the league in the percentage of baskets that were assisted. They also led the league in free throw attempts, and finished 3rd in foul rate. Yes, they played at a breakneck pace, but they weren’t just hoisting shots willy-nilly. They got good shots, leading the league in points in the paint and in overall 2-point FG%.

Now, they’ve added Andre Iguodala, one of the more deadly open-court players in the league, and also probably the best perimeter defender in the league that isn’t named LeBron. One of Denver’s biggest liabilities last year was their defense on the wing – Arron Afflalo signed a big contract and promptly stopped caring about stopping the other team. With Iguodala on board, they should be greatly improved.

They did lose Al Harrington in the trade, who helped a great deal by spacing the floor in small-ball lineups, but I would expect that his departure signals increased playing time at power forward for Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler. Gallinari was particularly effective at power forward last season – he played almost 400 minutes there, and Denver was +13.7 per 48 minutes when he did.

If Iguodala’s presence (and the continuing development of JaVale McGee) can improve Denver’s defense to above league average, the offense should be able to carry them the rest of the way. Their depth should provide immensely valuable in the regular season, although not as much in the playoffs when most teams start playing their starters 40+ minutes. They’ll be among the best teams in the regular season, and they match up fairly well with every team in the west other than really the Lakers, so if they can avoid that matchup, they could make a surprise appearance in the Western Finals, or even beyond.

Prediction: 54-28, 4th in Western Conference

Boston Celtics

2012 Record: 39-27
2012 Prorated Record: 48-34
2012 Scoring Margin: 2.52
2012 Pythagorean Record: 39-27
2012 Pythagorean Prorated: 48-34

Expected Rotation: Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, Paul Pierce, Brandon Bass, Kevin Garnett (starters); Jason Terry, Jeff Green, Courtney Lee, Jared Sullinger, Leandro Barbosa, Chris Wilcox, Darko Milicic (bench)

Wait just a minute. Are you trying to tell me that the Celtics have (gulp) depth? You mean they aren’t going to be throwing out guys like Mickael Pietrus, Keyon Dooling, Ryan Hollins, Marquis Daniels, and Von Wafer? Wow, this is incredible.

Make no mistake about it, Boston is going to have a bench that legitimately impacts games in positive ways. Jason Terry was born to be a 6th man, and Courtney Lee and Jeff Green could probably start for half the teams in the league. If Jared Sullinger is as good as he appears to be from how he played in the preseason, Boston will go 9-deep with serious talent.

Even better is that the pieces actually fit. Avery Bradley gives them a second defensive ace in the backcourt, and he’s a vastly improved three-point shooter, especially from the right corner. Courtney Lee is also a three-point marksman, and shot 49% on corner threes last season, the second-highest mark in the league among players with at least 80 attempts (Terry finished ninth at 44%). This shooting should improve an anemic Boston offense from a year ago.

Last year, the Celtics were one of the better three-point shooting teams in the league, finishing seventh at 36.7%. However, they attempted the seventh-fewest threes in the league, and as a result, they saw their weighted FG% drop well below their standard FG% - they were fifth in FG% at 46.0, just 10th in eFG% at 49.6. The other thing holding them back was their comically low offensive rebound rate. They rebounded just 19.7% of their own misses, which wasn’t just the worst in the league, it was the worst rate in league history. In fact, over the last three seasons, Boston has posted three of the lowest 11 offensive rebound rates in league annals. When Boston shot the ball, they did it very effectively. But their inability to create second shots, as well as a propensity to commit turnovers (sixth-highest turnover rate) resulted in Boston finishing dead last in Shots per 100 possessions, at just 92.3. The next-worst team, Oklahoma City at 94.4, was just about as close to league average (96.6) as they were to Boston.

In other words, Boston needs to be extremely efficient with the shots they get in order to avoid tumbling into Charlotte-level ineptitude on offense. With Lee and Terry on board, they should certainly be able to do that, and their lockdown defense should carry them the rest of the way. Miami is still the prohibitive favorite in the East, but Boston still can’t be written off.

Prediction: 55-27, 2nd in Eastern Conference

Oklahoma City Thunder

2012 Record: 47-19
2012 Prorated Record: 58-24
2012 Scoring Margin: 6.12
2012 Pythagorean Record: 46-20
2012 Pythagorean Prorated: 58-24

Expected Rotation: Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins (starters); Kevin Martin, Nick Collison, Perry Jones, Jeremy Lamb, Eric Maynor, Reggie Jackson, Hasheem Thabeet (bench)

Mind = Blown.

Never in a million years did I think Oklahoma City would trade James Harden this quickly. When I looked at the situation, I only saw two possible outcomes:

(1) Bite the bullet, give Harden the max, amnesty Perkins after the season,
(2) Play out the season, go for the title, and sign-and-trade him this summer.

It wasn’t the trade that surprised me; it was the timing of it. By trading Harden for an expiring contract, a rookie, and draft considerations, the Thunder are essentially offering a tacit admission that they’d rather build for the future than win a title right now. This might not seem that unusual, there are plenty of teams that are more concerned with the future than the present. The difference is that none of those teams are capable of winning a title THIS SEASON. It’s a genuinely perplexing move.

From a pure basketball standpoint, in the short term, it’s a slight step back. Martin is one of the more underrated players in the league, and he’s a very good scorer. As recently as 2011, he scored more points per-minute than any other shooting guard in the league – yes, that includes Kobe and Wade. However, he’s a significant downgrade defensively and a significant downgrade as a player that can be the primary ballhandler and distributor for the second unit. Jeremy Lamb will likely play some this season as a fourth wing player, but don’t expect a lot.

Going forward, the package looks pretty strong. Lamb seems to be the heir apparent to take over Thabo Sefolosha’s spot at shooting guard – he has the potential to be a great defensive player as well as a great shooter, with a much higher offensive ceiling than Sefolosha. They also get a pick from Toronto (which Houston obtained in the Kyle Lowry trade), which is reverse-protected, meaning Oklahoma City will get it only if it lands in the lottery. The underrated part of the package is Charlotte’s 2nd-round pick in the upcoming draft, which is all but guaranteed to be the 31st or 32nd pick. The key here is that 2nd-round picks come without guaranteed contracts, so the Thunder get a first-round value for significantly less cost.

All in all, I have to say that the Thunder lowered the ceiling of their 2013 season. They shouldn’t see that much of a drop-off in the regular season, as Durant and Westbrook should still be great, and Kevin Martin could see a bounce-back season now that he’s healthy and out of Kevin McHale’s offense (which didn’t suit his skill set at all). If Lamb and Perry Jones make immediate contributions, even better.

I think the trade will hurt them in the postseason, however. The NBA playoffs are about running with your horses until you can’t run anymore, and Martin just isn’t as good a player as Harden is. I normally try to avoid over-simplifying complex situations as much as possible, but in this case, it really just might be that simple. The drop from Harden to Martin lowers the ceiling for their season. They aren’t title contenders this year.

Prediction: 55-27, 3rd in Western Conference

Los Angeles Lakers

2012 Record: 41-25
2012 Prorated Record: 51-31
2012 Scoring Margin: 1.42
2012 Pythagorean Record: 36-30
2012 Pythagorean Prorated: 45-37

Expected Rotation: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard (starters); Antawn Jamison, Jodie Meeks, Jordan Hill, Steve Blake, Devin Ebanks, Chris Duhon, Earl Clark (bench)

I’m really fascinated to see how the hell the Lakers are going to make this work. They’re loaded with talent, but the pieces don’t totally fit.

Do Steve Nash and Dwight Howard fit together? Yes. I would pay to watch them run high screen-rolls until the cows come home. Do Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol fit together? Yes. I would pay to watch them cut off each other in the post until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. But can you run a high screen-roll while posting a guy up and having someone else dive to the basket? Not really.

The Lakers are going to run a Princeton offense, installed by assistant coach Eddie Jordan, who ran the offense with the Wizards during the Gilbert Arenas/Caron Butler/Antawn Jamison days. It’s certainly an interesting system, and probably the only one that can integrate all of the various things that Los Angeles wants to do offensively. However, at the end of the day, there are still a lot of inconsistencies.

In Kobe and Nash, they have two perimeter players that are used to having the ball in their hands all the time. Nash wants to go to the top of the floor and run screen-roll, Kobe wants to isolate at the elbow. When one has the ball, the other is going to be relegated to a spot-up shooter on the weak side, largely neutralizing their best skill (creating a shot off the dribble). Furthermore, the Princeton offense is highly reliant on ball movement and player movement. If the Lakers want to isolate Kobe on the wing, they’re going to have to break the offensive motion to do it.

Another problem is a lack of shooting. Yes, Nash is lights-out from three, and yes, Jodie Meeks was a smart signing, but other than that, who do they have? Steve Blake and Metta World Peace each shot under 34% from three last year, Devin Ebanks is 2-for-14 from three in his career, and Antawn Jamison hasn’t been above the league average from three since George W. was president. It will be interesting to see how well Nash and Howard adjust from being in offenses with impeccable shooting and spacing to one without. And if there are offensive problems, I have serious doubts that Mike Brown is the guy to correct them.

That being said, the Lakers are still going to be a great team. On a random Tuesday night against Portland, these offensive hiccups will barely be noticeable. Their overwhelming talent will carry them. My best guess for this Lakers’ season is something along the lines of the 2011 Heat. They’ll have some growing pains to start the season before righting the ship. When the playoffs roll around, they’ll run train over their own conference before being out-coached and out-executed in the Finals.

Prediction: 56-26, 2nd in Western Conference, Western Conference Champions

San Antonio Spurs

2012 Record: 50-16
2012 Prorated Record: 62-20
2012 Scoring Margin: 7.17
2012 Pythagorean Record: 48-18
2012 Pythagorean Prorated: 60-22

Expected Rotation: Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw (starters), Manu Ginobili, Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal, Matt Bonner, Stephen Jackson, Derrick Brown, Patty Mills (bench)

It seems that every year, people write of the Spurs for being too old, and every year, they re-tool and find themselves at the top of the standings.

The interesting thing about the Spurs of the last two years is how they’ve re-invented themselves as an offensive juggernaut. In the 2010 playoffs, the Suns absolutely throttled them with a spread pick-and-roll attack, a variation of the classic Mike D’Antoni offense. It became apparently by about halftime of Game 2 that there was no possible scenario in which San Antonio could win the series. So what did they do in the offseason? They stole Phoenix’s blueprint and re-worked it to fit their roster. As a result, they went from playing the 20th-fastest pace, with the 9th-most efficient offense in 2010, to playing the 14th-fastest pace with the 2nd-most efficient offense in 2011, to playing the 7th-fastest pace with the #1 offense in the league in 2012.

What used to be a team built on top-heavy talent and team defense is now built on depth and flawless execution of offense. Their second unit is among the best in the league, led by Ginobili and his insane +/- numbers (+10.0, +13.1 on offense), and they have an emerging star in Kawhi Leonard that could be the guy to carry the Spurs in the post-big three era.

It’s doubtful that the Spurs will slip much, if at all in the regular season. As Duncan and Ginobili slow down, they’ll just lean more on Leonard, Tiago Splitter, and the rest of their young guys. The problems will only really arise in the playoffs, where Splitter won’t be dominating Antawn Jamison and Jordan Hill, he’ll be going up against Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard playing increased minutes.

But until then, the Spurs are still the team that won 20 straight games last season and were on a 48-7 run until Oklahoma City remembered that Durant and Westbrook could just play 45 minutes each. That 48-7 record translates to a 71-win season over 82 games. They won’t be quite that good, but they’re still the class of the West.

Prediction: 59-23, 1st in Western Conference

Miami Heat

2012 Record: 46-20
2012 Prorated Record: 57-25
2012 Scoring Margin: 5.98
2012 Pythagorean Record: 47-19
2012 Pythagorean Prorated: 58-24

Expected Rotation: Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, Shane Battier, LeBron James, Chris Bosh (starters); Ray Allen, Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem, Norris Cole, Rashard Lewis, James Jones, Joel Anthony (bench)

Were you expecting someone else?

It really looks like Miami is going to adopt the LeBron-Bosh combo at power forward and center on a full-time basis, which should have every other team checking their shorts for skid marks. The Heat were effectively unguardable with LeBron at power forward during the playoffs last year, culminating in a ridiculous display in Game 5 of the Finals where Miami scored an obscene 121 points in 96 possessions.

So how is Miami moving forward with this plan? By abandoning even the slightest appearance of traditionalism, entering the season without a single traditional center on the active roster. The closest thing they have to a center is Dexter Pittman, but he’s likely to be inactive for the overwhelming majority of the season.

Instead, they’re surrounding their big three with shooters, bringing in Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, and Josh Harrellson. Allen is the known commodity, he’ll see more wide-open looks than he knows what to do with, and as long as his ankles hold up, he’ll make them at an alarming clip. Lewis is coming off by far the worst season of his career, which saw his 3PT% tumble all the way down to 23.9%, but it’s possible that Lewis simply checked out last season on a young, immature Washington team going nowhere, and will be able to contribute to a winning team this year. Harrellson is perhaps the most interesting, because he’s a decent shooter (33.9 3PT% last year), but he’s also an underrated rebounder, grabbing 9.6 boards per 36 minutes last year with the Knicks. If he can rebound and space the floor, he’ll get playing time.

With all these shooters, Miami is going to be able to run out lineups that at first glance look purely ridiculous. Can you imagine a lineup of Chalmers, Allen, Wade, Miller, and LeBron? With LeBron effectively playing point center? Because I can. LeBron has evolved into the NBA’s version of MacGyver. His ability to defend five positions coupled with his insanely diverse offensive skill set effective render positional distinctions irrelevant. All he needs is a shooter or two and someone to run a high screen with. Other than that, you can fill in the rest of the lineup with anyone from Earl Boykins to Hamed Haddadi and you wouldn’t really be able to tell the difference.

As far as I’m concerned the MVP is LeBron’s to lose (it’s honestly insulting to try to make an argument for anyone in the league being more valuable) and the title is Miami’s to lose. Yes, the Lakers have size, but they really don’t have an answer for LeBron at power forward. Who’s going to guard him on the perimeter, Pau Gasol? Please. Miami’s spread offense would likely cause problems for the Lakers secretly slow defense.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The season starts tonight, and Miami is rearing to go.

Prediction: 63-19, 1st in Eastern Conference, NBA Champions

Updated Standings Predictions:

1. Miami - [63-19]
2. Boston - [55-27]
3. Indiana - [53-29]
4. Atlanta - [51-31]
5. Philadelphia - [48-34]
6. Brooklyn - [48-34]
7. New York - [46-36]
8. Chicago - [40-42]
9. Milwaukee - [37-45]
10. Toronto - [35-47]
11. Washington - [34-48]
12. Detroit - [33-59]
13. Cleveland - [28-54]
14. Orlando - [18-64]
15. Charlotte - [13-69]

1. San Antonio - [59-23]
2. LA Lakers - [56-26]
3. Oklahoma City - [55-27]
4. Denver - [54-28]
5. LA Clippers - [50-32]
6. Utah - [46-36]
7. Memphis - [44-38]
8. Golden State - [42-40]
9. Minnesota - [39-43]
10. Dallas - [38-44]
11. Houston - [36-46]
12. New Orleans - [35-47]
13. Portland - [29-53]
14. Phoenix - [23-59]
15. Sacramento - [22-60]

No comments :