Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The NBA's Worst Teams

We have 6 days until the NBA season. Let’s dive right in.

As always, the standard format of making NBA predictions is boring for me. I don’t want to just run through the teams one conference at a time. Last year I broke it into two groups, one for lottery teams and one for playoff teams. This year I’m going even narrower. I’ve divided the league up into five groups, with six teams each – The Worst Teams, The Teams That Aren’t As Good As You Think They Are, The Boring Teams, The Teams That Are Better Than You Think They Are, and The Best Teams.

(For those of you wondering, yes, this is a near-direct rip-off of the format Bill Barnwell used to preview the NFL season for Grantland last season. I liked his idea so I decided to borrow it. It’s an homage, not plagiarism. Thank you for asking.)

For each team, I’ve posted their record, average scoring margin, and Pythagorean Win Expectation from last season (PWE is an estimation of how many wins a team “should” have had, based on their scoring margin, which is historically a better judge of team quality than straight won-loss record. If you have a problem with this, take it up with Daryl Morey, not me). I’ve also prorated each team’s record and PWE to an 82-game schedule, so it’s easier to draw conclusions for the upcoming season.

Here, in Part I, we’ll tackle the six teams most likely to end up in the lottery. Let’s start with these poor saps:

Charlotte Bobcats

2012 Record: 7-59
2012 Prorated Record: 9-73
2012 Scoring Margin: -13.91
2012 Pythagorean Record: 7-59
2012 Pythagorean Prorated: 9-73

Expected Rotation: Ramon Sessions, Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bismack Biyombo, Brendan Haywood (starters); Ben Gordon, Kemba Walker, Tyrus Thomas, Byron Mullens, Reggie Williams, Jeffery Taylor, DeSagana Diop (bench)

The Bobcats set an NBA record for futility last year, winning just 10.6% of their games. Their prorated 82-game won-lost record is actually 8.7-73.3, so a fair case of rounding is the only thing keeping them out of the uncontested cellar of historic ineptitude.

That being said, the only direction for them to go is up, but let’s face it, the Bobcats are still going to suck. Like, comically bad.

Charlotte had some roster turnover, but there really isn’t much strong evidence that their new guys are better than the ones they had last season. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist might turn into a fine player at some point down the road, but the reality is that he’s not a player that is going to make significant contributions right away. He’s a spectacular athlete with a high motor, which is great, but he’s not particularly good at things like dribbling, shooting, or passing. If you’re looking for someone to run in straight lines, rebound, and occasionally dunk, then he’s your man. Otherwise, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

They swapped Corey Maggette, who took bad shots, but drew a lot of fouls, for Ben Gordon, who takes bad shots and doesn’t draw fouls. They swapped out D.J. Augustin for Ramon Sessions, which as far as I can tell, is the most lateral movement since Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen platooned on “Full House.” They lost Derrick Brown, who was actually their 2nd-most productive player on a per-play basis last year, and they brought in Jeffery Taylor, a rookie that can make threes and rebound, so long as there isn’t anyone within 10 feet of him.

It really can’t be overstated how terrible the Bobcats were offensively last year. They were dead last in offensive efficiency at 95.2 points per 100 possessions. The next-worst team was Toronto, at 100.8. The gap between Charlotte and Toronto (5.8 points per 100 possessions) was equivalent to the gap between Toronto and Miami, who finished 8th in the league at 106.6. Charlotte wasn’t just terrible offensively, they were weapons-grade terrible.

There is some improvement to be had – Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo should both improve on their rookie seasons, Gerald Henderson has shown some improvement over his first three years in the league, and Brendan Haywood should offer at least a slight upgrade over Boris Diaw’s neck fat. Other than that, however, there isn’t much to write home about. Charlotte should secure the most lottery ping-pong balls with relative ease.

Prediction: 13-69, 15th in Eastern Conference 

Orlando Magic

2012 Record: 37-29
2012 Prorated Record: 46-36
2012 Scoring Margin: 0.79
2012 Pythagorean Record: 35-31
2012 Prorated Pythagorean: 43-39

Expected Rotation: Jameer Nelson, Arron Afflalo, Hedo Turkoglu, Glen Davis, Gustavo Ayon (starters); J.J. Redick, Al Harrington, Nikola Vucevic, Josh McRoberts, Maurice Harkless, Andrew Nicholson, Ish Smith (bench)

You might as well throw out all of the numbers you see above, considering they were all based on a context that no longer exists. Dwight Howard no longer acts as a black hole in the middle of the floor, sucking up defensive attention and giving shooters open looks and slashers easy routes to the rim in an offense orchestrated by Stan Van Gundy. Instead, Orlando will be relying on Jameer Nelson, Arron Afflalo, and Hedo Turkoglu to create shots in an offense orchestrated by Jacque Vaughn, who has never coached an NBA team before.

Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem with the aforementioned Dwight Howard black hole, but Dwight Howard’s shoes are being filled by Glen Davis and Gustavo Ayon. Both are perfectly serviceable players (Ayon especially, and the fact that he’s making about $12.50 an hour doesn’t hurt, either), but neither of them are going to force defenses to make radical adjustments.

They also lost Ryan Anderson, a criminally underrated player that I profiled for HoopSpeak last week, and didn’t really replace him. Anderson was arguably Orlando’s most valuable offensive player last season, with the Magic seeing nearly a 14-point drop per 100 possessions when he left the game. His ability to space the floor was integral to everything Orlando did offensively last season, and while rookie Andrew Nicholson seems to be cut from a similar “stretch forward” mold, there’s no way he’s going to duplicate the kind of season Anderson had last year.

Defensively, they’ll be a train wreck also. They completely fell apart without Howard last season, and Indiana did basically everything short of locking them in the back room with The Gimp during their Round 1 series last year, rebounding over 30% of their own misses on the offensive glass.

Howard and Anderson are players that are nearly impossible to replace even if you’re actively trying to replace them, but Orlando was happy to just dump them and acquire any assets they could in return. It’s a decent strategy long-term, which is obviously what they’re looking at, but there are going to be some ugly losses this season.

Prediction: 19-63, 14th in Eastern Conference

Sacramento Kings

2012 Record: 22-44
2012 Prorated Record: 27-55
2012 Scoring Margin: -5.68
2012 Pythagorean Record: 21-45
2012 Prorated Pythagorean: 26-56

Expected Rotation: Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Thornton, Tyreke Evans, Jason Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins (starters); Thomas Robinson, Aaron Brooks, John Salmons, Travis Outlaw, Chuck Hayes, Francisco Garcia, Jimmer Fredette (bench)

I was almost willing to buy into a little bit of the “Sacramento won’t be an utter embarrassment this year!” hype until I started hearing that they were thinking of experimenting with Thomas Robinson at small forward. At that point I was out.

Look, I get it. The Kings have a plethora of young talent, but there just isn’t much evidence that they have any idea how to develop said talent. Tyreke Evans had a strong rookie season, but he’s regressed in every aspect of the game since then, save for offensive rebounding, and his improvement there is negligible. Marcus Thornton gave them volume scoring in the 27 games after being traded in 2011, then regressed across the board in 2012. DeMarcus Cousins saw a big improvement in his sophomore season, especially on the offensive glass and in his ability to limit turnovers, but he’s still an abysmal defensive player and one of the least efficient scorers in the league at his position.

Isaiah Thomas was a nice find at the end of the 2nd round last year, and his presence allows Tyreke Evans to play off the ball (which should have happened three years ago, but we’ll leave that aside for now), but they still don’t have enough dynamism to be a good offensive team. Their floor spacing is poor (26th in 3PT% in 2011, unlikely to improve much), and Thomas and Evans are the only guys that can consistently create shots. Cousins doesn’t score efficiently, and Robinson is likely to have problems getting his shot off against longer defenders.

Defensively, they aren’t much better. Cousins still has a sky-high foul rate, and the rest of their roster ranges from undersized (Thomas, Thornton, Hayes, Brooks) to appalling (Evans, Salmons). The historically bad Bobcats were the only thing separating the Kings from last place in the league in defensive efficiency.

If the infatuation with playing Robinson on the wing is short lived, and Evans can regain his rookie form, the Kings might claw their way to respectability. I just don’t see it.

Prediction: 22-60, 15th in Western Conference

Phoenix Suns

2012 Record: 33-33
2012 Prorated Record: 41-41
2012 Scoring Margin -0.24
2012 Pythagorean Record: 32-34
2012 Pythagorean Prorated: 40-42

Expected Rotation: Goran Dragic, Wesley Johnson, Michael Beasley, Luis Scola, Marcin Gortat (starters); Jared Dudley, Shannon Brown, Sebastian Telfair, Markieff Morris, Kendall Marshall, Jermaine O’Neal (bench)

The Suns played 1200 minutes last season without Steve Nash in the game. In those minutes, they were outscored by roughly seven points per 100 possessions. Over the course of a full season, that’s the equivalent of a team that would likely lose 58-60 games.

In other words, Steve Nash is really, really valuable. This season, the Suns are going to find out exactly how valuable, now that Nash is playing a few hundred miles west for the Lakers.

The cupboard isn’t completely empty – the Suns still have some decent talent with Dragic and Gortat, but their overall lack of depth is going to cause them major problems. Losing Channing Frye for the season will certainly hurt them, as it will force Markieff Morris into a larger role, and he was a major defensive liability when he played the 4 last year.

They brought in Luis Scola through an amnesty auction after Houston waived him, but he turns 32 on opening night, and the precedent for aging undersized forwards isn’t great (see: Johnson, Larry).

Bringing in Dragic to replace Nash was a pretty good move, as he’s a high screen-roll point guard that’s familiar with Alvin Gentry’s system thanks to his time in Phoenix prior to his layover in Houston (he was particularly good in the 2010 postseason, including a 17-minute, 26-point outburst in Round 2 against San Antonio). They also brought Michael Beasley on board, which gives them another scorer on the wing, but as we learned with Carmelo Anthony and Mike D’Antoni in New York, it’s pretty difficult to fit an isolation scorer into an offense predicated on ball and player movement. It looks like a good addition in a vacuum, but in practice it might not provide much of a net value.

They’re still going to be pretty awful defensively, and if Nash’s departure sets them back offensively as much as I suspect it will, Phoenix is going to have a rough season.

Prediction: 25-57, 14th in Western Conference

Houston Rockets

2012 Record: 34-32
2012 Prorated Record: 42-40
2012 Scoring Margin: 0.23
2012 Pythagorean Record: 34-32
2012 Pythagorean Prorated: 42-40

Expected Rotation: Jeremy Lin, Kevin Martin, Chandler Parsons, Patrick Patterson, Omer Asik (starters); Terrence Jones, Marcus Morris, Jeremy Lamb, Royce White, Donatas Motiejunas, Carlos Delfino, Shaun Livingston (bench)

Ladies and Gentleman, your 2012 rookies and free agents!

Look up and down this roster and count how many of these players were on the team last year.

If you’re too lazy, I’ll just tell you – it’s four. They’re replacing 67% of their active roster from last season, the highest percentage of roster turnover in the league this year. They lost Kyle Lowry, Goran Dragic, Chase Buddinger, Luis Scola, Samuel Dalembert, Courtney Lee, Marcus Camby, and Jordan Hill, each of whom played at least 450 minutes last season.

In other words, there isn’t much we can learn from looking at last season’s team, considering the overwhelming majority of that team is gone. That makes this exercise rather Seussical (perhaps even more so than when we looked at Phoenix or Orlando), because pretty much everything is going to be based on speculation (as opposed to being able to look at the data for when Steve Nash was off the floor in Phoenix or Dwight Howard was off the floor in Orlando).

The basic idea for this year’s Houston team is the same as the guy that plays 5 hands of blackjack at $20 each instead of one hand for $100. They’re just trying to get as many bets as they can out there, and hopefully some of them will cash in. Will Jeremy Lin be able to sustain his level of play over a full season? Will Omer Asik be as valuable defensively as a starter as he was as a bench player? Will Terrence Jones, Jeremy Lamb, Royce White, and Donatas Motiejunas be able to contribute right away? Will Chandler Parsons and Marcus Morris be able to improve on their rookie seasons? These are all questions that nobody really knows the answer to, and they all have major bearings on the success Houston may or may not have this season.

Chances are, Lin and Asik will regress (not dramatically so, but a noticeable amount), and the youngsters won’t be quite ready to make game-changing impacts. They’re set up nicely for the future, and they’ll be a fun team to watch (teams with a lot of young talent usually are), but don’t expect them to win too many games this season.

Prediction: 27-55, 13th in Western Conference

Cleveland Cavaliers 

2012 Record: 21-45
2012 Prorated Record: 26-56
2012 Scoring Margin: -7.20
2012 Pythagorean Record: 17-49
2012 Pythagorean Prorated: 21-61

Expected Rotation: Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Alonzo Gee, Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao (starters); C.J. Miles, Tyler Zeller, Omri Casspi, Jon Leuer, Donald Sloan, Samardo Samuels, Daniel Gibson (bench)

I was a bit conflicted when it came time to try to predict a record for Cleveland’s season. On one hand, Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao will be healthy, Tristan Thompson should see some improvement (hopefully he learns to catch the ball this year), and Dion Waiters will (hopefully) give them a scoring punch on the wing. On the other hand, they they out-performed their Pythagorean win expectation by a full four wins, which was the 2nd-highest in the league (only the Lakers were “luckier” than Cleveland last season).

It’s fairly uncommon to see NBA teams finish that far above or below their Pythagorean expectation, because the season is long enough that fluky occurrences get lost in the shuffle of a large sample size. It’s much more common in the NFL, where you’ll see a team like the 15-1 Packers have an expected won-loss record of 12-4 (a 19% improvement). In the NBA, that would be like a team out-performing their expected won-loss record by 15 wins.

So if we operate under the assumption that Cleveland was a 21-win quality team last season (based on their prorated Pythagorean record), not a 26-win quality team (based on their prorated standard record), we’re able to make more accurate predictions about their season.

In all likelihood, Cleveland will see some improvement from last year. They lost Antawn Jamison, but he really didn’t give them anything that can’t be replaced. Well, technically speaking, his vomit-inducing defense will be next to impossible to replace, but that would operate under the assumption that one would want to replace such defense.

Irving and Thompson will make a leap, a healthy Varejao will cover up some defensive deficiencies (most notably Irving’s – he makes Steve Nash look like a cross between Gary Payton and Ray Lewis), but it won’t be enough to keep them out of the lottery.

Prediction: 28-54, 13th in Eastern Conference

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