Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The NBA's Underrated Teams

Needless to say, the James Harden trade threw a huge monkey wrench into my projections. It’s going to bump Houston significantly higher, OKC a bit lower (but not outrageously so), and a few other teams at the bottom of the league might drop by one or two wins (because what used to be wins against Houston might not be anymore). I’ll post updated, post-trade records for every team in the league at the end of Part V.

I’ll tackle the trade from Oklahoma City’s angle in their section, and I’ll get to Houston probably next week once the games start and I have a better idea of he’s adapting to his new digs.

For right now? We’re tackling a few underrated teams. Again, keep in mind that this is based on the perception of the team, not specifically the quality. I included teams like the Knicks, Nets, and Clippers in the “overrated” section of the preview, but that doesn’t mean that they’re inferior to all of the teams that I’m breaking down here. For instance, all three of those teams are better than this one:

Washington Wizards

2012 Record: 20-46
2012 Prorated Record: 25-57
2012 Scoring Margin: -4.80
2012 Pythagorean Record: 22-44
2012 Pythagorean Prorated: 27-55

Expected Rotation: John Wall, Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza, Nene, Emeka Okafor (starters); Jordan Crawford, Jan Vesely, Trevor Booker, Kevin Seraphin, A.J. Price, Chris Singleton, Martell Webster (bench)

I was a lot more excited for Washington’s season before 40% of their starting lineup and their two best players decided that the month before the season was the best time to suffer injuries that don’t have definitive timetables for return.

John Wall’s knee is certainly the one that’s more worrisome. While the team claims to be targeting a return near the end of November, as of two weeks ago, he told the Washington Post that he still can’t run or jump, and the only things he has been able to practice are free throw shooting and stand-still dribbling.

The offshoot of this is that this now represents the second-straight training camp and preseason that he’s missed (he obviously missed last year due to the lockout). For a young point guard on a team featuring a fair deal of roster turnover, this could really hinder his development.

Nene’s injury is a bit more confusing. In the same report from the Washington Post (from October 19), there was no timetable for his return to action with an inflamed foot caused by plantar fasciitis. However, the team is hoping that he’ll be ready for the season opener on Halloween against Cleveland. So, is there a timetable or not? My head hurts.

Regardless, if Wall and Nene are back healthy, this should be a sneaky-good team, especially in the East. They’ve ditched most of the young, immature riff-raff (Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee, Nick Young) and old, checked-out veterans (Rashard Lewis, Maurice Evans) of seasons past and replaced them with legitimate NBA players. Ariza, Nene, and Okafor presents a half-decent frontcourt that can actually defend and rebound, so Washington should improve on their 21st ranked defensive efficiency and 25th-ranked defensive rebound rate from a year ago.

Also, Wall is entering what is often a huge leap year for point guards, the third season. Chris Paul and Deron Williams saw huge leaps in their third year in 2008; Chris Paul almost won the MVP. Derrick Rose one-upped them, taking home the trophy in his third year in 2011. Rajon Rondo (2009), Russell Westbrook (2011), Ty Lawson (2012), and Brandon Jennings (2012) also all saw noticeable improvements in their third seasons.

Obviously, it’s not an exact science – some point guards don’t see much improvement during their third year (recent example: Jrue Holiday), but if Wall counts himself among the lucky, he should have a strong season. Not strong enough to get Washington into the playoffs, but strong enough to pull them out of the cellar of the East.

Prediction: 34-48, 11th in Eastern Conference

Atlanta Hawks

2012 Record: 40-26
2012 Prorated Record: 50-32
2012 Scoring Margin: 3.44
2012 Pythagorean Record: 41-25
2012 Pythagorean Prorated: 51-31

Expected Rotation: Jeff Teague, Anthony Morrow, Kyle Korver, Josh Smith, Al Horford (starters); Lou Williams, Devin Harris, Zaza Pachulia, Ivan Johnson, DeShawn Stevenson, John Jenkins (bench)

So, they traded Joe Johnson, so clearly they aren’t going to be very good this year, right?

Actually, wrong.

The dirty little secret about Joe Johnson is that he’s really not that spectacular. He’s a high-usage player (uses 25% of his teams possessions when he’s on the floor, top 7% in the league), but his efficiency isn’t overly efficient (a PER of 18.4 last year, 16.4 in 2011). Don’t get me wrong, he’s a good player and one of the league’s better shooting guards, but he’s nowhere near the franchise superstar that he’s paid like and is sometimes made out to be. Over the last few seasons, he’s been Atlanta’s third-best player behind Al Horford and Josh Smith.

The knock on Johnson is that he’s not an efficient scorer. Last season was the first time since 2007 that he finished with a true shooting percentage above league average. Since 2008, his TS% has clocked in at 53.5%. The two players that will be replacing most of his minutes on the wings, Anthony Morrow and Kyle Korver, clocked in at 57.2% and 58.6%, respectively, over the same time frame.

Another player that Atlanta brought in is Lou Williams. Williams doesn’t score more efficiently than Johnson does (53.4 TS% since 2008), but he commits far fewer turnovers. Williams turned the ball over on just 7.2% of his possessions last season, which was 7th-best in the league last year, compared to Johnson’s 10.3% (which I must concede is a good figure, but Williams was truly elite in this respect – it’s a bit like comparing Marcin Gortat, a perfectly capable center, to Andrew Bynum).

In other words, many of the possessions that were used by Johnson will now be used more efficiently. Many of Johnson’s long twos will turn into threes for Morrow or Korver, or Jeff Teague attacking the basket. Many of the shots he created for others will now instead be created by Lou Williams, who generated more assists and committed fewer turnovers on a per-minute basis last season.

And this is all before we get to the part where Atlanta will have their best player healthy. Al Horford played in just 11 games last season before suffering a torn pectoral and missing the rest of the regular season. The return of Horford and the more efficient distribution of shots and possessions should keep Atlanta in line with where they were last season.

Prediction: 51-31, 4th in Eastern Conference

Golden State Warriors

2012 Record: 23-43
2012 Prorated Record: 29-53
2012 Scoring Margin: -3.41
2012 Pythagorean Record: 25-41
2012 Pythagorean Prorated: 31-51

Expected Rotation: Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, David Lee, Andrew Bogut (starters); Jarrett Jack, Brandon Rush, Carl Landry, Richard Jefferson, Andris Biedrins, Draymond Green, Festus Ezeli (bench)

Okay, here’s how this is going to work – one of these years, Stephen Curry, Andrew Bogut, and David Lee are all going to be healthy and play 70+ games at 90% effectiveness or better. It’s going to happen. Just trust me. And when it is, I’m going to make sure I’m going to have picked them to do well.

While we’re on the subject – Stephen Curry’s ankle problems are probably my biggest current source of NBA depression. It’s not like he’s a player like Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook where their game is built on explosive athleticism, so any hiccup to an ankle or knee can be a full-blown crisis. Curry only needs to be able to run up and down the court without collapsing in a heap, and his ankle can’t even give him that.

However, there are reasons to be optimistic. He rolled his ankle in the preseason, but the word coming out of Golden State is that his ensuing shelving was purely precautionary and that he’ll be 100% for the start of the season.

If he is? Golden State could have an incredibly dynamic offense. Curry and Klay Thompson are both elite three-point marksmen, David Lee and Carl Landry are both effective pick-and-pop forwards, and Harrison Barnes, Brandon Rush, and Richard Jefferson give them size and shooting at small forward. They can even play Jarrett Jack and Curry together, move Curry off the ball, and let him run around baseline screens until the defense passes out.

Their defense hinges on Bogut getting healthy and staying healthy. If he can do those things, he makes them a top-15 defense by himself. Curry and Lee are mostly hopeless defensively, but Thompson, Barnes, Rush, and Jefferson all have great size for their respective positions and have the potential to be plus defenders.

If everything falls into place for Golden State, the playoffs are certainly attainable. It may be crazy, but goddammit, one of these years it’s going to happen. Hell, even Sam Bowie was healthy for a few seasons.

Prediction: 42-40, 8th in Western Conference

New Orleans Hornets

2012 Record: 21-45
2012 Prorated Record: 26-56
2012 Scoring Margin: -3.76
2012 Pythagorean Record: 24-42
2012 Pythagorean Prorated: 30-52

Expected Rotation: Greivis Vasquez, Eric Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Anthony Davis, Robin Lopez (starters); Ryan Anderson, Austin Rivers, Jason Smith, Hakim Warrick, Xavier Henry, Roger Mason, Darius Miller (bench)

It looks like New Orleans is going to go with Robin Lopez in the starting lineup next to Anthony Davis, while Ryan Anderson will play a 6th-man type role. This is probably a good idea overall, as it will keep Davis out of strength mis-matches against bigger centers, but I would still expect to see Davis and Anderson be the primary frontcourt combo.

If the preseason is any indication, Ryan Anderson hasn’t all of a sudden forgotten how to play basketball now that Dwight Howard isn’t standing next to him. He’s made 22 of his 51 three-point attempts (43.1%), and he’s looked comfortable next to Anthony Davis. With Eric Gordon returning to the lineup following missing the preseason with a knee injury, Anderson should have and screen-roll partner to create easy opportunities for him.

Anthony Davis appears to be the real deal. Of course, people who were expecting him to walk in and immediately be a Kevin Garnett-type defensive player are going to be a bit disappointed, but he’s going to have an immediate impact on that end of the floor. His length, quick feet, and leaping ability almost render positioning irrelevant. He could get completely lost in a rotation and get beat, but if he realizes it quickly enough, it might not even matter. His only weaknesses is his slim frame, which will cause matchup problems with some of the bigger teams in the conference (both LA teams, Memphis, and San Antonio if they play Duncan and Splitter together come to mind). Otherwise, he’s a can’t-miss talent.

Austin Rivers, on the other hand, is more of a work-in-progress. His point guard instincts aren’t quite there yet, and he has a mindset more like Russell Westbrook. The problem is, he lacks the athleticism that Westbrook has that allows him to attack the basket and finish through contact. Unless he learns to pick his spots, he’s going to learn quickly that denial is not just a river in Egypt.

With Davis, Gordon, Anderson, and Rivers, New Orleans appears to have a decent core group to build around over the next few years. This year, the core is going to lack experience, and the surrounding players are going to lack talent, so the playoffs aren’t quite in the picture. But they’re going to surprise a few people with how close they get.

Prediction: 35-47, 11th in Western Conference

Indiana Pacers

2012 Record: 42-24
2012 Prorated Record: 52-30
2012 Scoring Margin: 3.30
2012 Pythagorean Record: 41-25
2012 Pythagorean Prorated: 51-31

Expected Rotation: George Hill, Paul George, Danny Granger, David West, Roy Hibbert (starters); Gerald Green, D.J. Augustin, Tyler Hansbrough, Ian Mahinmi, Sam Young, Sundiata Gaines, Miles Plumlee (bench)

Once George Hill was inserted into the starting lineup, this team became pretty incredible. They went 8-2 over the last 10 games of the regular season, with the only losses coming in overtime against a Sixers team that was fighting for a playoff spot, and a 5-point loss against the #1 seed Bulls. Even including those losses, they had a scoring margin of +7.4 during that 10-game stretch. Over the course of a full season, that’s the equivalent of a 60-win season.

It was the starting lineup in particular that dominated. Hill, George, Granger, West, and Hibbert played 229 minutes together during this stretch, and in those minutes, they out-scored opponents by 72 points. That’s +15.1 points per 48 minutes, which would be the equivalent of roughly a 75-win season.

Are the Pacers going to win 75 games? Obviously not. Are they even going to win 60? Again, no. But they’re going to be a very good team. The only thing that could really trip them up is a bout with the injury bug. They were remarkably healthy last season, with their top nine players missing just a combined 34 games last season, and 16 of those were from George Hill. If Danny Granger’s health reverts back to its 2008-2010 level, when he missed 15+ games in back-to-back seasons, Indiana will see a dip.

Their biggest weakness last season was their bench. If you look at the on/off numbers for individual players, that becomes quite apparent. Their starters all have strong numbers (+11.7 for Granger, +4.5 for Hibbert, +7.3 for George, +5.5 for West), while their bench was rather embarrassing (-7.6 for Hansbrough, -7.1 for Lou Amundson, -11.0 for Dahntay Jones). Darren Collison and George Hill, who each spent time as a starter and a bench player, posted mostly neutral numbers.

Their bench should be much better this year – Ian Mahinmi is a clear upgrade over Amundson, Gerald Green dominated the D-League and then followed that up with a productive stint in New Jersey last year – he’ll be a clear upgrade over Jones. They also brought in D.J. Augustin to replace the departed Darren Collison (and by that I mean he’s not on the team anymore, not dead), and there shouldn’t be much of a drop-off there.

With an improved bench and a full season with Hill in the starting lineup, Indiana should find themselves close to the top of the Eastern Conference once again.

Prediction: 53-29, 3rd in Eastern Conference

Minnesota Timberwolves

2012 Record: 26-40
2012 Prorated Record: 32-50
2012 Scoring Margin: -2.20
2012 Pythagorean Record: 28-38
2012 Pythagorean Prorated: 35-47

Expected Rotation: Ricky Rubio, Brandon Roy, Andrei Kirilenko, Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic (starters); Derrick Williams, Chase Budinger, Luke Ridnour, J.J. Barea, Alexy Shved, Greg Steimsma, Dante Cunningham (bench)

Minnesota could have easily made the playoffs last year with a healthy roster. They started the season 21-19 and were on an 8-3 run before Rubio and Pekovic went down with injuries and limped to a 5-21 finish (including an ugly 1-13 stretch to end the season).

When I was first starting my projections, I was expecting to put Minnesota in the playoffs this year, but Rubio’s ACL injury progressed slower than expected (he won’t be back until mid-December) and Love broke his hand (he’s also likely out until December). Now they’re forced to scrape the bottom of the barrel for the first six weeks of the season.

That being said, they did improve their biggest weakness from a year ago, which was their failure to find any production from their wing spots. Wesley Johnson was among the worst starters in the league last year, and Martell Webster, Wayne Ellington, and Michael Beasley didn’t fare much better. This year, the Wolves brought in a few reclamation projects, coaxing Brandon Roy out of retirement and inviting Andrei Kirilenko back to the NBA after he lay waste to the Russian VBL last year with CSKA Moscow. They also dealt for Chase Budinger and signed Alexy Shved, another Russian import. All four of these guys (with the possible exception of Roy – he’s still a bit up in the air) should be better than anyone they played at the two or the three last year.

If Derrick Williams can make a leap forward, they could tread water long enough that when Love and Rubio come back, they’re ready for a playoff push. Ultimately, however, I think they fall just short.

Prediction: 39-43, 9th in Western Conference

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