Hits & Misses: Evaluating Regular Season Predictions

nba crystal ball

The crystal ball deceived us.  As it turns out, our preseason predictions fell something short of Nostradamus-like.  Then again, we’re in good company.   No one saw Toronto coming, and while it was fairly easy to identify most the teams that would make the playoffs out west, projecting their seeding was far from simple. Here’s how we did:

Eastern Conference Standings

Projected vs. (Actual)

1. Chicago  (Miami)

2. Miami (Indiana)

3. Indiana (Chicago)

4. Brooklyn (Toronto)

5. Cleveland (Washington)

6. Detroit (Brooklyn)

7. NY (Charlotte)

8. Washington (Atlanta)

Biggest Misses:  So maybe we overreacted a bit to the offseason acquisitions of the Cavs and Pistons.  Cleveland finds itself in nearly the dire straits it inhabited following Lebron’s exodus.  To stretch the definition of the word understatement, Bynum didn’t pan out. Nor did the signings of Jarret Jack and Earl Clark.  Everyone’s favorite to take the next step, Kyrie Irving instead regressed significantly.   If that’s not enough, the combo of Irving and Waiters proved that they can’t coexist, and Luol Deng aged 5 years during his flight from Chicago to Cleveland.   Oh, yeah, and the #1 overall pick, Anthony Bennett, evokes memories of Kwame Brown, except Kwame was a better post defender.

As for Detroit, Dumars’s epic cold streak continued, as his signings of Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings yielded results eerily similar to his earlier mistakes, Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva.  At least they have Andre Drummond.   Finally, we failed to foresee Toronto’s ascendance, as well as the career year Kyle Lowry delivered to drive it.

Biggest Hits: We correctly predicted the top three seeds, albeit in a different order. We won’t over celebrate: Indy and Miami were gimmes. Beyond that, we were probably higher than most on Washington, which exceeded expectations, and after an alarming start, the Nets nearly gave us a bullseye.

Western Conference Standings

Projected vs. (Actual)

1. LAC (San Antonio)

2. Golden State (OKC)

3. OKC (LAC)

4. Houston (Houston)

5. New Orleans (Portland)

6. San Antonio (Golden State)

7.  LAL (Memphis)

8. Blazers (Dallas)

Biggest Misses: Where do we start?  That Lakers pick looks awful, but given the unprecedented rash of injuries that kept most of its best players, and all of its point guards off the court for a majority of the season, it’s hard to know what might’ve been.  Conversely, there are few, if any good excuses for underrating San Antonio.  I still have my doubts that they’ll make it to the WCF, but the Spurs are a regular season wrecking crew.  It’s as though Popovich has them auto pilot.  They’re immune to their best players’ absence, lack anyone worth of an All-NBA selection, and yet, no team has been more consistently effective.

It’s hard to say if that snub is more or less egregious than the tremendous overrating of the Pelicans.  Losing Holiday and Anderson for much or most of the season didn’t help matters, but it’s hard to argue that this was a playoff team even with everyone healthy.  Those errors aside, we won’t lose too much sleep about the rest of our WC predictions.  It’s tight at the top, bottom, and in the middle, so much so that just a few games mark the gap between almost every seed.

Biggest Hits:  Bullseye on Houston, and a pat on the back for picking the Blazers to make the playoffs when few others did.

Mock Draft 2.0

Since our last Mock Draft, UConn emerged from the field of 64 to claim the national championship. This adds more fodder to the notion that parity is on the rise in college basketball (UConn was a #7 seed, and Kentucky and #8 seed).  More relevantly for our purposes, the NBA draft die is now cast until the combine and workouts provide new material to evaluate.

Tournament performances often significantly impact teams’ perceptions – perhaps even unduly so.  It’s at least questionable whether that’ll happen this year. A few players ended on a high note.  Shabazz Napier, Aaron Gordon, Ronde Hollis-Jefferson, Gary Harris, T.J. Warren, and the Harrison boys  all helped themselves to varying degrees. Wiggins and Parker were abjectly awful, while McDermott, Ennis, Grant, and Hood weren’t much better.

In the wake of those developments, our board remains largely in tact.  No one broke into what I would characterize as the “Elite 3″ prospects in this year’s draft (Wiggins, Parker, Embiid), and perhaps only Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis played his way out of the top 10.  While lacking a true shake-up, several players now appear capable of delivering just that should their momentum hold.

bucks1. Andrew Wiggins. Scary bad tournament.  It wasn’t an off game — we could write that off.  It was the reemergence of Wiggins’ downarrowpassivity that has many questioning whether he has any alpha in his makeup.  Sure, it was easy to see that Kansas lacked the sort of playmaker who could help put Wiggins in position to dominate, but there were too many times when he looked more comfortable moving the ball around the perimeter or lingering behind the line than aggressively inserting himself into the action. Can a killer instinct be taught?  That’s the pivotal question for Milwaukee. Had Parker dominated or Embiid put his health issues to rest, Wiggins likely would no longer hold the top spot. Right now, he remains #1 by default.

76ers2. Jabari Parker.  Serious questions have begun to emerge about Parker’s ability to defend in the NBA.  If Parker downarrowdoesn’t show up to workouts in better shape, with improved lateral agility, he begins to look at lot more like Glenn Robinson than a franchise player.

magic3.  Joel Embiid.  At this stage, no one has any clue where Embiid will go.  If he gets a clean bill of health, he could be back on top.  If concernsdownarrow continue to grow, his stock could tumble.   Too many good players remain on the board to risk Greg Oden 2.0 here.  If doubts merely linger, however, and produce diverging opinions, someone will take him no later than 3.  His ceiling simply is too high.

celtics4.  Aaron Gordon.  No question, Shabaaz is the tournament’s darling.  But no top-level prospect emerged from the tournament with more momentum than Gordon.  Doubts about his position that came up so often a few months ago have been replaced by the arrow_upsentiment that he’s such a good athlete as to make the argument over his fit at the 3 or the 4 relatively meaningless.  Gordon looks more and more like Shawn Marion.  And that’s a damn good thing.  Right now, star potential separates him from Parker and Wiggins. Should one of those two fall farther and/or Gordon can show an improved shooting stroke, don’t be surprised if he hasn’t reached his ceiling here just yet.

Everything but a point guard is on Boston’s shopping list.  And if Ainge moves Rondo, he’ll enter the draft looking for one of those too.  In that case, Exum and Smart become intriguing options at #4 too. But if Rondo stays, Ainge would be hard pressed to find a better running mate than Gordon, who also provides the versatility every GM could use to rebuild a roster.

jazz5. Marcus Smart.  Despite his team’s woes, Smart played his ass off in the tournament.  He’s a tough, furious competitor who arrow_uppossesses the highest floor of any player in the draft.  No, he’s probably not going to be Rose or Westbrook.  But even if he never improves his shot, it’s hard to envision him becoming anything less than a top 15 floor general and an imposing, impactful defensive force in the backcourt.

Is Exum potentially a better fit next to Burke?  Ya, he does. If the early rumblings are any indication, however, Exum is more likely to be playing in Australia than Salt Lake City next season.

lakerslogo6. LAL Dante Exum.  We know he’s hired Kobe’s agent.  And we know that in certain circles, it’s thought that he has a short list 074079-rounded-glossy-black-icon-alphanumeric-equal-signof teams that could entice him to leave Australia.  To my recollection, Steve Francis was the last player to force his way to a desired draft destination.  We may find out if the league has changed.

Randle and Vonleh merit mention here too. If either demonstrates upside roughly comparable to Exum’s, LA’s need for bigs might be more compelling than Exum’s intrigue.

kings7. Noah Vonleh. Who is Noah Vonleh?  The more I attempt to answer that question (at least in terms of an NBA prospect), the arrow_upmore I like what I see.  Vonleh flew under the radar on a sub-par Indiana squad this season.  He shouldn’t have.  Equip a 6’11, well-developed frame with NBA level atheleticism, reliable perimeter shooting, prolific rebounding, and disruptive defense, and you have Noah Vonleh.  What he lacks in post-polish relative to Randle, he makes up with a balanced floor game that seems well-suited to prevailing dynamics in the NBA.   Like Gordon’s, Vonleh’s rise might not end here.

pistons8. Gary Harris.  He’s a 6’4″ elite athlete with a money (if streaky) quick release from long range, and a dogged defender to boot.  What’s arrow_upnot to like?  Are we sure that Harris isn’t a better prospect than Bradley Beal?  Compare their college stats, and you’ll see comparable production.  Given the structure of its roster, Detroit all-but must take a guard with this pick.

Depending on how they feel about Jennings moving forward, Ennis carries a certain appeal here too.  It’d be great to pick up a floor leader.  With pedestrian athleticism and a still developing frame, however, it’s hard to feel confident that Ennis can be that guy.

To some extent, need trumps talent here. Julius Randle’s almost universally regarded as the better prospect. But with Drummond, Monroe, and Smith already squabbling over minutes, adding Randle is out of the question. Detroit needs shooting, and Harris has few, if any, legitimate question marks.   That makes him the pick here.

cavs9. Julius Randle.  Randle’s a tremendous player.  Next to Smart, he’s as close as it gets a sure thing in this draft.  You know what you’re getting:  Randle has an NBA ready physique and a post game that promises to make him one of the league’s most downarroweffective scorers in the paint from day one. His scoring explosions, however, tapered off as the season progressed.  It’s only fair to note that triple teams played a significant role in his diminished output.  Nonetheless, Randle consistently struggled to get the shot he wanted against long, athletic defenders.  Since there are quite a few of those in the NBA, that’s a bad omen.  But it’s not a fatal flaw.

Charles Barkely is quick to admit that he struggled most against the likes of Kevin McHale and Kevin Garnett, the long arms of whom even his considerable heft couldn’t prevent from bothering his shot. Of course, Barkely had a prolific career in spite of those struggles.  That’s not to say Randle’s going to be Chuck, but it is to point out that almost every NBA player has his Kryptonite.

Forced into a comparison, Randle seems destined for a career arc like that of Carlos Boozer, which really isn’t half bad.  Athletically, Randle falls somewhere between the ground bound Boozer/David West variety and the freakish David Lee/Blake Griffin brand of power forward.  That makes his ceiling higher than those of the former two, but unless he entirely transforms his approach to defense, Randle’s unlikely to become much more than a millennial man’s Boozer.  And that’s mostly why he slips — NBA GMs love upside. Randle’s more or less of a known quantity, which makes it harder for a lottery GM to fall in love with the idea of selecting him.

As for Randle to Cleveland, it’s tough to argue that he’d be a great fit on a roster with Tristian Thompson and Anthony Bennett.  But, at #9, it’s even more difficult to find a player who makes more sense.   Don’t be surprised if Cleveland moves this pick, perhaps in a package with Dion Waiters.

sixers10. Montrezz Harrell. Dude’s a beast.  Why he’s fluttered somewhere between the late teens and twenties on most draft boards arrow_upcontinues to elude me.  Sure, ideally he’d be 6’10″/250 instead of  6’8″/235.  Repeatedly, however, we’ve seen that guys his size – especially those with long arms, like Harrell’s – prove that prototypical size is just that – a prototype, not a prerequisite for success.  Blake Griffin, Paul Milsap, Antawn Jamison, Elton Brand, Larry Johnson, and even Karl Malone – in addition to the names referenced above – all are/were highly productive post players.  There’s no reason Harrell follow the blueprint they’ve left for him.

Philly gets a gifted scorer at the four who won’t need to be a formidable rim protector next to Nerlens Noel.  Sixers fans would have to feel pretty good about the young front court of Noel, Harrell, and Parker.

nugs11. P.J. Hairston. The D-League’s poster-child continues to build momentum as the draft approaches.  What a tremendous story arrow_upof redemption. It’s almost unthinkable that a guy, who by many estimates possesses the talent of a top 5 pick, could more or less be written off due to issues off the court, and then scrap and claw his way back to the lottery.  We’re pulling for ya, P.J., and not just because the compelling narrative — kid’s the most lethal perimeter scorer in this draft not named Jabari.

Denver’s been burned before by questionable character guys (see, e.g., J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin, Birdman, and now Javale McGee and his outsized contract combine with nagging rumors about the Manimal’s mental makeup to give the Nuggets what may well be the league’s most combustible frontcourt).  So maybe Denver passes on P.J. in favor of one of several more or less comparable perimeter talents still on the board.  They shouldn’t.   The Nuggets roster’s long on mediocre wings, none of which have the potential to become an all-star.   Hairston has that kind of upside, and at #11, few, if any others possess.

magic12. Tyler Ennis.  After landing Embiid, Magic fans will be clamoring for a natural point guard.  As the self-dubbed resident expert on all things Cuse, I’m not quite sure what to tell you about Ennis.  Before downarrowthe season, I’d heard about a talented point with good size who the Orange would rely upon to orchestrate Boeheim’s attack.  During the first two or three games, I wondered what all the buzz had been about.  Ennis had none of the qualities that jump off the screen. His middling athleticism, average shooting, sound fundamentals, and Duncan-like stoic demeanor weren’t quick to make Cuse fans forget about MCW.

He grew on me.  The more I watched, the more I saw the nation’s most poised freshman, always in control, steadily guiding Cuse to a 25-0 start and the #1 ranking.  With each passing game, it seemed that his confidence – and mine in him – grew.  Even if it wasn’t Sportscenter material, he got to the basket at will, and displayed a deft touch to finish over bigs lurking near the rim. Suddenly, he was ice-cold clutch too – his mid-court heave to sink Pitt just the most notorious example of his lethal, late game daggers.

When the Orange began to collapse in February, many of the same questions about Ennis resurfaced.  It wasn’t so much that he catalyzed Cuse’s demise, but rather that he proved incapable of preventing it.  On a team that struggled to score, Ennis too often languished on the perimeter, settling for jump shots or moving the ball without an evident purpose.  He became error prone on defense, and while it’s difficult to gauge an individual’s effectiveness on defense in Syracuse’s zone, it’s safe to say that he will not be a plus, let alone a lock-down defender at the next level.

Those concerns only grew during the tournament.  When Ennis’s shot betrayed him, he seemed content to coast on offense rather than force his way to the rim.  And once it struck him that his team needed his penetration, Ennis couldn’t always deliver.  In several instances, he appeared to lack the strength necessary to finish through contact.

So where does all of this leave us heading into the draft? If I’m a GM, I’m not convinced that Ennis is anything more than a young Steve Blake or a latter day Howard Eisley, i.e., a career backup who can play 12 years in the league and become a valuable contributor to a winning team.  In the lottery, you’d hope for better.

Maybe Ennis is a starting point guard in the NBA.  But finding a comp. is no simple task. The uberathletes are out (so long Russ, Rose, Wall, Rondo, Lillard, and Bledsoe).  So too are the speed-deamons (Ty Lawson, Monta Ellis, Isaiah Thomas, and a younger Tony Parker) transcendent passers (CP3 and Rubio), prolific scorers (Curry, Kyrie, Dragic, Jennings, and Kemba), and big-bodied floor generals (Kyle Lowry, Deron Williams, Jrue Holiday, George Hill.)

Scour the league for Ennis’s predecessor, and you’ll find that his best case scenario lies somewhere between Kirk Hinrich and Mike Conley.  Of course, I could be wrong.  Maybe Ennis develops a bit of Dragic’s creativity, Paul’s feistiness, and a dangerous jumpshot.   I just wouldn’t bet on it.

twolves13. Zach Lavine.  The Wolves need instant impact.  They need more backcourt production, and reliable shooting to offset Rubio’s arrow_upincreasingly horrific stroke.  So why not take Nick Stauskas or Doug McDermmott here?   Each wields an advanced offensive repetoire, and both are dangerous enough from outside to fully occupy a defender.  And critically, those guys are ready to play tomorrow.

Thing is, Minny needs a game changer to keep Kevin Love in the Twin Cities.   Stauskus and McDermott may be nice pieces, but they’re not that.       Hence, the Wolves may be willing to roll the dice on a player whose upside is matched by no more than five players in this draft.  Lavine’s an electric athlete with the size to play both guard spots, and has shown glimpses of a sweet shooting stroke that seems likely to improve. He’s the sort of talent that changes minds, and even with other pressing needs, transforming Love’s perception of the team’s future has to come first.

griz14.  Jerami Grant.  In Memphis, it’s time to move on from Zach Randolph.  He’s on the decline, and we’ve seen where a team 074079-rounded-glossy-black-icon-alphanumeric-equal-signled by Z-Bo and Gasol ends up: the Grizzlies always come up a bit short.   Memphis would do well to snag Grant here.  The son of Harvey and nephew of Horace is just the sort of specimen you’d expect with that lineage.  A long 6’10″, Grant has the explosion and body control to rival the league’s best 3s.  If he didn’t shoot like a raw 5, he’d have been long gone by now.

Try to mold him into a 3 and you’ll be disappointed.  Think he’s the next prolific stretch-4?  Better have a backup plan. On the right team, however, Grant could be devastating.  And Memphis is an ideal home.  Gasol’s incomparable post-passing and deep range would empower Grant, allowing him to do what he does best – slash to the rim, crash the offensive board’s, cover large swaths of the court, and harass defenders with arms that just don’t end.

hawks15.  James Young. A 6’8″, bouncy wing who can fill it up from all over the court and make the spectacular finish at the rim: arrow_upyou know of anyone on the Hawks roster who fits that description?  Neither do we.  Oh, and he’s an improving shooter from range too.   At #15, it doesn’t get much better.

bulls074079-rounded-glossy-black-icon-alphanumeric-equal-sign16. Clint Capella.  With time rapidly eating away at the albatross that is Carlos Boozer’s contract,the time is ripe to draft his replacement.  That’s not to say Capella’s game remotely resembles his predecessor’s.   At 6’10, 219, he’s taller, longer, and more explosive, albeit perhaps 15 pounds too thin to avoid getting pushed around on the block.  Knowing they pick at #19 too, Chicago can afford to roll the dice on the draft’s mystery man from Switzerland.

suns17. Nick Stauskas.  A luxury pick for Phoenix, Stauskas is ready to step in and step up what is already a high octane offense. arrow_upWith Dragic and Bledsoe creating havoc all over the floor, the Michigan phenom is poised to see plenty of good looks to show off his elite distance shooting.  An underrated ball-handler, Stauskas could develop into an ideal 6th man.

celtics18. Willie Cauley Stein.  It’s boom or bust for Danny at this point.  And if he hits with this pick, the dividends will be 074079-rounded-glossy-black-icon-alphanumeric-equal-signconsiderable.  Cauley-Stein oozes potential, with an athletic 7′ foot frame that appears well suited to carry at least 30 more pounds to take him from a toothpick at 220 to an imposing 250. If that were the whole story, he wouldn’t be available at #18.  Kentucky’s giant produced very little, and never really looked like a man amongst boys.

bulls19.  Doug McDermott. McBuckets falls victim to the four year curse: stick around that long, and you become a known entity,downarrow which most GMs avoid like the plague.  While Doug’s unlikely to fill it up like he did in college, he’s still the draft’s best shooter and a creative scorer.   He’s a rich man’s Kyle Korver, and that makes him a perfect candidate to join the Bulls, which have yet to fill the former Bulls marksmen’s shoes.

raptorsarrow_up20. Rondae Hollis Jefferson.  Here’s one vote for ditching the Hollis to make our lives simpler.  Jefferson just might be the bestathlete in this class.  We’re not totally sure how that’ll translate, but it’s certainly never a bad thing.

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mavs21. Rodney Hood.  Once considered a lottery lock, Hood’s now thought to be somewhat of a one trick pony. To compound theproblem, his trick – long range shooting – faltered as the season progressed.   Nonetheless, don’t be surprised if workouts move this stellar athlete back up on the draft board.

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griz22. Cleanthony Early. There’s good reason for optimism in Memphis, as the Grizzlies add some much needed perimeter punch inthe form of the crafty wing from Wichita.

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jazz23. K.J. McDaniels.  With a roster stocked with young talent, the Jazz take a flier on a wing whose considerable upside is just beginning to garner attention.

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Bobcats24. T.J. Warren. He may struggle defensively, but at this point in the draft. every prospect has his flaws. Warren can score in bunches, and will make an immediate impact off the bench in Charlotte.

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rockets25. Kyle Anderson. UCLA’s skilled power forward generated a lot of buzz as he propelled the Bruins to a strong showing in the tournament.  He’s not much a defender, but that’ll matter less next to Dwight Howard.

downarrowsuns26. Dario Saric. Flush with young talent, expect Phoenix to jump at the chance to stash a premier talent overseas for a year or two.

074079-rounded-glossy-black-icon-alphanumeric-equal-sign

miami

27. Adrienne Paine.  Miami has to be thrilled to see this bruiser fall into its lap here. He’d fit nicely next to Bosh, and immediately upgrade Miami’s cast of castoff bigs.

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clips

28. Patrick Young.  The Clips are desperate for a capable third big man, and Young fits the bill.

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thunder29.  Shabazz Napier.  With Reggie Jackson potentially packing his bags this summer, OKC could use to bolster its backcourt with the tournament darling.

spurs

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30. SA Jarnell Stokes.  Tim Duncan isn’t getting any younger, and the Spurs have to be disappointed after signing Splitter to a lucrative deal last summer.  Stokes’s motor will be a welcome addition to SA’s aging front court.

 

 

The Week in Headlines

As always, these are actual headlines from actual websites…

midget headline

Bette Midler, is that you?  “Golden State Hits Rare Air On Wings of Curry.”Also under consideration for bold treatment: where is this restaurant?

We would’ve inquired about Mathew McConaughey. Marshall Inquires with D’Antoni.”  I seriously thought this was about Kendall Marshall asking about his playing time. What a gem.  Christmas came early this year, Lakers fans.

Um, it’s not the iPhone 6. Collins Heard Negative Feedback From Player. Did the player respond to a survey Collins passed out before the game?

Writing for toddlers. Buck center out for season with face injury.” It’s okay to tell us that Sanders has a fractured orbital bone.

What did he really find? Butler finds ‘rhythm’ to lift OKC past Denver.”  This headline makes total sense until you notice that “rhythm” is in quotes.  It’s like in high-school when you needed $10 from your parents to buy “soda.” We got you Caron. “Rhythm.” Uh-huh…

Does a guy that big really need dynamite? Report: Shaq being investigated for TNT assault.”

Insufficient Apologies:

He’s been busy. Cousins apologizes to announcer for ’12 incident.”  Alternatively, a less than scrupulous eye might legitimately infer that there were a dozen incidents.  Hey, it’s Boogie.

What about his draft picks? Jordan Apologizes to Player Over Shoe.”  ICYMI: See all Jordan’s picks – and who he passed over – here.

Adventures in Grammatical Subtleties:

Who won? Mathews, Lillard, propel Blazers vs. Wizards.”

A noble cause. Howard Sits vs. Wolves for Ankle Problem.” 

At least he has company. “Mark Jackson Under Fire with Warriors?”

One game, two stories:

Well, that’s one way to put it.  Bulls suffocate scuffling George, Pacers in win.”

Climate change debate infiltrates NBA.Bulls Deny Pacers Division Title.”

Questions no one is asking:  

No.  Are the Knicks as Good as Current Run Indicates?”

Okay, so the R&B thing has me curious.Kings’ Cousins releasing R&B Album?

From the Captain Obvious Files:

It’ll do that.Ex-NBA player Quinton Ross: erroneous death report made for ‘tough day’.”

Can I get an Amen?Kobe on L.A.: We need to figure this thing out.”  Good to see all of those business classes he’s been attending are paying off.

The Myth of Charlotte’s Misfortune

“The Charlotte Construction Co.: Bit by bit, the Bobcats, um, Hornets are building themselves into a team of the future,” reads the headline of Grantland’s Zach Lowe’s most recent column.

Always an interesting read, Lowe concludes that despite having suffered from a lack of good lottery fortune, Jordan’s Hornets have assembled a roster that merits applause.  While I can agree with neither the observation nor the conclusion, it’s the victimization of Charlotte that presents the more vexing analysis.

Let’s reexamine the Hornets’ draft fortunes.

  • 2006: With the third pick, Jordan infamously selected Gonzaga’s mustached scoring machine, Adam Morrison. Even in a notoriously mustache-adam-morrisonweak draft, Rajon Rondo, Kyle Lowry, and Brandon Roy headline a list of no fewer than 10 markedly superior players selected later.  (That list features Paul Milsap too. Given his selection in the latter half of the 2nd round, it’s hard to single out Jordan for this oversight.)
  • 2007: With the 8th pick, Jordan chose his Tar Heels’ Brandon Wright over Joakim Noah.  Ouch.  Also passed over? Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes, and Aaron Affalo, with Marc Gasol filling Milsap’s “hindsight’s 20/20” role.
  • 2008:  I’m beginning to sense a pattern, as Jordan selected D.J Augustin with the 9th pick, leaving Roy Hibbert, Brook Lopez, Serge Ibaka, Nic Batum, George Hill, Nikolas Pekovic, and DeAndre Jordan (no relation) on the board.
  • 2009: At #12, Jordan picked Gerald Henderson, who’s been okay.  Missed opportunities most prominently feature Jrue Holiday and Ty Lawson.
  • 2010: No pick.
  • 2011: To make up for the drought of 2010, Jordan picked Kemba Walker with the 9th selection, and Tobias Harris 19th. In his best performance since closing out the Jazz in 1996, Jordan managed to diminish his draft haul by swapping Harris for Bismack Biyombo. To add insult to injury, the Manimal, Reggie Jackson, and Jimmy Butler each were taken after the 19th pick.
  • 2012: I want to believe in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, whom Jordan selected with the #2 pick. And I’m not giving up hope yet. Beyond elite athletic gifts and flashes of stopper potential, MKG has done little to inspire such faith. I suppose this is to say that I’m not willing to add this pick to the list of Jordan’s complete whiffs, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to argue that MKG isn’t a bust on some level, especially upon considering the superior performances of Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, and Andre Drummond.
  • 2013: If MKG deserves he benefit of the doubt, Cody Zeller, merits only the doubt.  After struggling against long, athletic defenders in college, Jordan’s #4 pick consistently has provided evidence that his struggles were no aberration (not that there was any reason to suspect that they were in the first place.)  Take your pick: Carter-Williams, Trey Burke, and the even the trade value of Nerlens Noel – if not the player himself – headline a long list of better choices.

From this sample, we know that it isn’t just bad luck that’s kept Charlotte down.  Trouble is, I’m not so sure that luck played any role at all. To support his assertion that bad luck has kept Charlotte down, Lowe calls attention to the fact that despite having the worst record, Charlotte missed out on the #1 pick (Anthony Davis) in 2012. The NBA’s lottery system gives the team with the worst record a 25% chance to get the #1 pick (see table below).  In three out of four drafts, Charlotte doesn’t get the #1 pick.  Not drafting first isn’t bad luck.  It’s the expected outcome.

lottery%

Nor did Charlotte suffer from bad luck in Jordan’s previous six drafts.

  • 2006: Relative Lottery Odds (3rd); Outcome (3rd)
  • 2007: Relative Lottery Odds (8th); Outcome (8th)
  • 2008: Relative Lottery Odds (8th); Outcome (9th)
  • 2009: Relative Lottery Odds (12th); Outcome (12th)
  • 2011: Relative Lottery Odds (8th); Outcome (9th)
  • 2012: Relative Lottery Odds (1st); Outcome (2nd)
  • 2013: Relative Lottery Odds (2nd); Outcome (4th)

Only in 2008 and 2013 did Charlotte suffer slightly from poor luck.  Neither instance was especially consequential, as Charlotte lost the opportunity to select Joel Alexander in 2008, and Anthony Bennett, Victor Oladipo, or Otto Porter last year.  With Jordan’s track record, can we really be confident that he’d have taken Oladipo? More realistically, Charlotte dodged two bullets, only to be struck by a third. Its fate is a function of probability, not bad luck.

Mock Draft 1.0 — LottoProjector Update

Before we kick off Mock Draft season, take a quick look at how we project the lottery to shake out,  based on updates on our LottoProjector. In case you missed it, here’s an explanation of how the LottoProjector works.

lottoprojector

So that’s the draft order we’ll use as a basis for Mock Draft 1.0.  Let’s get to the picks.

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(1) Andrew Wiggins.  As they so often do, lofty expectations disappointed.   Scouts and pundits alike showered the Canadian sensation with a degree of praise last afforded to  Harrison Barnes.  (Remember when he was the next Kobe?).  Whereas Barnes crumbled beneath the weight of expectations, Wiggins merely failed to live up to them.  Big difference.

After showing flashes of dominance one game, he’d plod through the next, drifting from perplexed to timid.  By  midseason the chattering classes had issued a verdict: Wiggins was just another tantalizing prospect who couldn’t live up to the hype.  He wasn’t a bust, but he didn’t have it either.  Having heard rumors of the impending arrival of a new Ferrari, no words were necessary to capture the palpable sense of dissapointment when a BMW rolled up instead.

Indeed, Wiggins teammate Joel Embid rather quickly usurped his position as the world’s consensus best prospect.  For Wiggins, the comeback from disappointment didn’t start all at once.  Buzz followed his 19 rebound performance against Iowa State, dissipated in his fruitless 3 point effort against Oklahoma State, then ebbed again in the wake of back-to-back 27 and 29 point games during a stretch when he began to flash a legit post game. No, this would not be Harrison Barnes 2.0.  We judged him too soon.

41 points, 8 rebounds, 4 blocks,  and 5 steals.  That’ll get your attention.  Wiggins exploded last week against West Virginia.  Coinciding with Embid’s injury, Wiggins’ headline grabbing performances were enough to swing the scales back in his favor.  Now?  Scouts once non-plussed by a struggling prospect now deliver glowing assessments of a smooth, yet outlandishly explosive 6’8″ wing whose scoring prowess overshadows a disruptive defensive presence.   Eyes refreshed, they see a star in the making, and the number one pick.

If Lebron’s a Ferrari, Wiggins doesn’t have that makeup.  As much as I’d like to casually step into the BMW the valet just brought around the corner, this comparison requires a superior sports car.  Maybe Wiggins is a Maserati — a post Toronto pre-Houston Tracy McGrady, three years ahead of TMac’s learning curve.

For Milwaukee, this shouldn’t be terribly difficult.  Embid could be a game changer.  If we were setting ceiling’s, Embid’s size makes his higher than any other prospect in the draft.  But he’s a volatile prospect — it’s frightening that we can’t totally dismiss the notion that Embid’s floor is Hasheem Thabeet.   Somehow, envisioning him in a Bucks jersey makes that floor appear increasingly possible.  Milwaukee can’t afford to miss.  Moreover, it needs star power — it will find none through free agency.  Wiggins has superstar talent, enough of which he’s displayed to prefer his slightly lower, vastly less volatile ceiling.

76ers(2) Jabari Parker.  He just fits.  Unless Embid or Exum can convince the brass that he’s the sort of transcendent prospect whom you build around, and ask questions later, the mismatched rosters created by drafting either makes Parker the clear-cut choice.  That’s not to diminish Parker.  Early season dominance led to expectations not unlike those faced by Wiggins. When Parker proved to be something other than Carmelo 2.0, we sighed.  Not him too.  Albeit in less dramatic fashion, Parker’s rebuilt his value too.  He adjusted to the triple teams, finding ways to unleash an offensive arsenal that lends credence to those Melo comparisons.  As rumors persist that Parker’s still not in NBA shape (injuries disrupted his summer training regimen), there’s reason to believe that Parker’s just scratching the surface.

magic(3) Joel Embiid. Many suspect that Orlando’s focused on adding a perimeter star, which naturally leads them to project Exum over Embiid here. I’m skeptical.   Sure they have some useful big men.  None has star or DPOY potential.   Embiid has both.  Analysts run for the hills upon hearing questions about a 7’2″ prospect’s back.  And that’s not without reason.  The ruined to truncated careers of  Oden, Bynum, and Ming, substantiate those concerns.  Let’s remember, LA and Houston each would still choose Bynum or Ming even with the benefit of hindsight.  Durant’s known talent, coupled with Oden’s suspect injury history at Ohio St. make Portland’s selection more dubious.  Even then, almost to a man, analysts concluded that Portland had made the right choice.  At some point, the potential reward of a dominate 7 footer outweighs the risk.  Guy’s who can do this don’t grow on trees.

A few minutes into that video, it becomes clear that we’re not talking about taking a chance on a prospect as raw as, say, Andrew Bynum was coming out of high-school.  Embiid freakish length and athleticism will immediately cause havoc around the rim.  And given that basketball remains somewhat of a new endeavor for Embiid, flashes of polish on offense suggest an upward trajectory.  Unless Magic GM Rob Henigan genuinely believes that Exum or Smart will make first or second all-nba teams,  Nikola Vucevic is no excuse to pass on the chance to select an historic big man.

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(4) Dante Exum.  The draft’s man of mystery, Exum unquestionably benefits from alack of scrutiny while scouts pick apart college players’ games.  But he can’t hide forever.  Without much film against top flight competition, workouts will have disproportionate impact on Exum’s stock.  He’ll need to prove that he’s the Penny style athlete that we occasionally see in a youtube clip.  Should he deliver anything much less than that, his stock will be in for a precipitous decline.

LA faces what may be dueling imperatives with this pick.  Reopen Kobe’s championship window (to the extent possible) and select a building block for the next generation Lakers.  These objectives are reconcilable.  Perhaps Wiggins or Embiid, for instance, accomplish both. To add another layer of complexity, the Lakers lack of direction means that the player might also need to fit D’Antoni’s system (or that of the new coach), replace Pau Gasol, and/or otherwise both blend in and excel on a roster that largely remains to be composed.  Tie goes to the guy who shares Kobe’s agent.

celtics(5) Julius Randle.  The draft’s forgotten man, Randle’s flown well under the radar after triple and even quadruple teams poured cold water on his white-hot start to the season.  Randle’s has the best post game in this class, and it’s not particularly close.  At this point, that low post devestation seems to have been largely offset by legitimate questions about his ability to finish over size and effort on defense, and stupid questions about his “steal rate.”

He’s a better athlete than Carlos Boozer, rebounds like Paul Milsap, and far more skilled than David West.  Yet, he lacks the midrange touch displayed by all of those three, and has shown neither  Milsap’s motor nor West’s toughness. Randle’s a very good athlete, but doesn’t possess the above the rime explosiveness of Blake Griffin or a latter day Amare.  Look for traits shared by all of  those NBA comparisons, however, and some trends begin to emerge.  All are legitimate power forwards, and tremendous rebounders.  None will be mistaken for a first team all defense, Charles Oakley/Ben Wallace type (West deserves some mention as mostly a + defensively).  And each can be more (Griffin/Amare/25 yr. old Boozer) or less (West, 30 something Boozer) of an offensive centerpiece.  In some form, this is very likely what you’ll get from Randle.   That’s not bad.  Not bad at all.

jazz(6)  Aaron Gordon. Extra-terrestrial athlete, long, committed defender, admirable motor, strong rebounder, and still more rough than diamond offensively.  That’s Gordon in a nutshell.  This was once Shawn Marion’s profile.  It was also Joel Alexander’s.  Marion seems like a more realistic comp than Alexander, but we can’t overlook the fact that we’ve seen this type of player profile many times before.  Sometimes it works out, and Gordon does indeed to be the creme of the crop.  More often, the offense never materializes, and these guys become a run of the mill, wing athlete that teams cycle through like laundry.

If you’re the Jazz, Gordon brings a new element to a talented cast of upstarts.  Adding size and explosion at the wing, Gordon’s a great compliment to Hayward and Burke, equally capable of guarding Hayward’s man and finishing Burke’s lobs.  But Utah better be damn sure about Trey Burke.  If they’re not, or if they’ve overrated him, the next two guys could make them live to regret this pick.

kings(7) Marcus Smart.  Sacramento should be praying that the chips fall like this.  Smart’s the leader they need.  A guy confident enough to confront Boogie, and then to make damn sure the offense goes through the talented big man.  Oh, and, he’s also pretty good.

pistons(8) Pistons.  Tyler Ennis. If Ennis is still on the board, Detroit has a dilemma on its hands.  It sorely needs a sweet shooting 3 (McDermott and Hood fit the bill), but can’t be sold that Jennings can be a point guard on an upper-echolon team after witnessing the dysfunction on offense all season. Ennis is more Kyrie than John Wall.  Even then, while he has the size to rival both guys, he’s discernibly less explosive than Kyrie (although Kyrie didn’t display that attribute in his abbreviated college career).

That’s the knock.  Everything else is there.  He’s poised, clutch (see below), selfless, and does a little bit of everything on offense.  Workouts loom large for what has to be a record, second Canadian lottery pick.

cavs(9) Doug McDermott.  Like Utah, Cleveland should rejoice if the board shakes out this way.  That gaping hole at the 3 wasn’t filled by Deng, who’s looked abjectly miserable since arriving mid-season.   At least he’s a free agent.    If Cleveland’s going to stay with the Irving/Waiters backcourt, the third guy on the perimeter has to be a knock-down shooter.   By all accounts, few, if any better shooters have come through the draft in the past 10 years.

sixers*(10) Gary Harris. Philly could go in any number of directions here.  With Parker on board, they boast elite talent at the 1, 3, and 5.  If they turn to the four, Noah Vonleh and Jerami Grant offer tremendous talent with distinct skillsets.  Grant, in particular, has the type of swiss-army knife game to add value to any roster.  But I think they shore up the backcourt with a prospect at the 2 who would go in the top five of most drafts.  That’s Gary Harris, an electric two-way guard, who could learn to live with MCW’s ball dominance.

*via New Orleans

nugs*(11) Rodney Hood.  Denver would have to be tempted by Grant and Vonleh here, but neither is so good as to warrant looking past their log-jam up front.   Hood’s an elite, 6’8″ athlete with a sweet shot.   Denver has no one like him.  Ty Lawson won’t be disappointed.

*via New York

magic*(12) Magic.  P.J. Hairston. With Embiid on board, Orlando turns in a surprising pick to bolster it’s perimeter scoring.  Hairston, the once tantalizing Tar Heel turned D-League phenom, provides serious firepower from the 2 or 3.  See for yourself.

*via Denver

Meet LottoProjector 1.0

nba-draft-lottery3

With roughly a quarter of the season remaining, the playoff picture has begun to settle. So too have the bottom-feeders begun to emerge.  Perhaps owing to what many projected to be a stellar draft class, the sure fire lottery teams have received an unusual degree of attention.  Indeed, “tanking” has become a household concept, permeating amateur blogs and the Sloan conference alike.

A once largely tepid, or even simmering concern about the incentive to lose has reached a boil.   On the heals of trades that sent Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner packing for very near 10 cents on the dollar, the Sixers have been singled out as the most egregious offender of the unwritten rule that basketball teams must at least try to win.  Of course, Philly’s hardly blazing a trail in uncharted territory.  The life of the powerful incentive to lose coincides with the existence of the draft lottery system.  Its newfound notoriety results not from shifting incentives, but from heightened rationality engendered by the proliferation of analytics, and, more generally, smarter management personnel.

As long as the draft system rewards losing with increased expected lottery value, in most instances, rational teams without a legitimate chance to at least make (and arguably succeed in) the playoffs should prefer to lose.  That’s no revelation.  But with increasing frequency, teams are dispensing with the thinly veiled guise of “trying.”  It says here that this is no cause for alarm — instead of spoon feeding their fans sugar coated absurdities, teams are trusting that fans have become sufficiently sophisticated to handle the truth.   If the league, or particular teams are offended by that candor, well, the answer isn’t likely to be found in charades.  Change the incentives, not the etiquette of responses thereto.

Diatribe concluded, as an unabashed Lakers fan, I’ll admit that I’ve been carefully analyzing their odds of scoring a premium lottery pick.  In that analysis, I found Strength of Schedule to be a woefully inadequate predictor, and developed a new tool to project the lottery standings, “LottoProjector,” exhibited in the table below.  Here’s how it works:

  1. Start with wins to date.
  2. Divide each team’s remaining games amongst one of three categories: (i) vs. Lower Tier teams (“LT”), i.e., those included in the table, (ii) vs. Elite teams, which we’ve defined as Miami, Indiana, OKC, San Antonio, Houston, and the Clippers, or (iii) vs. the Field, which includes all non-LT and non-Elite teams.
  3. Assign a win probability to each category.  
    • For games against Elite teams,, this is simple, as LT teams are unlikely to prevail under any conditions.  We’ve assigned a 5% win probability to this category. (Note: ordinarily, that percentage would be higher — perhaps as high as 15%. Pairing the enhanced incentive for LT teams to lose with the extra motivation for Elite teams to optimize playoff seeding, however, significantly reduces the probability that an LT team will win these matchups.)
    • It’s likewise relatively easy to project a reasonably accurate probability of LT teams winning against the field, which we’ve pegged at 20%, a number that represents Philly’s current winning %.  Given the above stated late season incentives, we feel that this percentage is an reasonable estimate.
    • For games against fellow LT teams, the calculus becomes more complex.  With roughly commensurate incentives at play, factors like home-court and back to back (“B2B”) become more influential.   Thus we’ve assigned a 65% win probability for home games against LT teams (reduced to 52% for B2B games), and a 35% win probability for road games (reduced to 28% for B2B games).

Lottery

It is by no means perfect — it is an estimate after all.   Off the top of my head, I see several flaws that could be adjusted with further analysis, but are somewhat difficult to entirely cure:

  • Playing the Detroit Pistons obviously is not the same as playing the Milwaukee Bucks.  Some of the LT teams are worse than others.  Trouble is, this varies greatly from night to night, and that variation is likely to become more pronounced as the lottery picture becomes clearer.  That is to say, Cleveland looks great for two games, but once missing the playoffs becomes a statistical reality, performance is bound to change.
  • LT teams are more likely to win at home than on the road against both Elite teams and the Field.  Lottery Projector takes this into consideration.  For instance, an LT team likely has something closer to a 30% chance of winning versus the Field at home, but only a 10% chance on the road.  We spit the difference.  Obviously, this skews the metric a bit for teams that play a disproportionate number of games home or away.
  • In an attempt to secure an optimal playoff opponent, we’re likely to see some “tanking” by playoff teams in their last five games or so.  At this point Lottery Projector does not, and cannot take this effect into account.

Conclusions:  It would take a minor miracle for Milwaukee and Philadelphia to fail to secure the #1 and #2 spots.  The Magic are quite likely to be right behind them at #3, while the Lakers and Celtics appear poised for a photo-finish to determine #4 and #5, as do the Kings and Jazz for #6 and #7.  Conversely, #8-11 remain quite fluid. And finally, the Nuggets appear to be a lock to finish #12 (the bright side is that they own the Knicks’ pick too).

Sloan Sports Analytics Conference 2014: First Impressions of The Hot Hand Effect

I can’t totally explain why, but Dennis Scott (aka “3D”!) is the first name that came to mind upon considering the “Hot Hand Effect.”  It’s a case in point for this piece by Andrew Bocskocsky, John Ezekowitz, and Carolyn Stein, that has basketball stat geeks (myself included) quite literally atwitter.  More often than not, advanced metrics have been perceived – fairly or otherwise – to challenge, or even contradict what our eyes tell us about basketball.   That makes this analysis especially fascinating.  It confirms that players do indeed run hot and cold.  That is, when we hear an announcer exclaim, “He’s on fire,” (flashback to NBA Jam circa 1993), the statistics might well back it up.

Here’s the abstract, and a photo from the presentation:

The vast literature on the Hot Hand Fallacy in basketball rests on the assumption that shot selection is independent of player-perceived hot or coldness. In this paper, we challenge this assumption using a novel dataset of over 83,000 shots from the 2012-2013 National Basketball Association (NBA) season, combined with optical tracking data of both the players and the ball. We create a comprehensive model of shot difficulty using relevant initial shot conditions, and use it to show that players who have exceeded their expectation over recent shots shoot from significantly further away, face tighter defense, are more likely to take their team’s next shot, and take more difficult shots. We then turn to the Hot Hand itself and show that players who are outperforming will continue to do so, conditional on the difficulty of their present shot. Our estimates of the Hot Hand effect range from 1.2 to 2.4 percentage points in increased likelihood of making a shot.”

hot hand

The research begs at least as many questions as it answers – particularly with regard to the conditions under which a player is considered to have been “guarded more closely,” or to have taken a “more difficult shot” –  but nonetheless is laudable both in terms of ambition and the quality of analysis.   In other words, I like it a lot.  More to come from the SSAC 2014…

No Risk No Reward: Unsolicited Advice to the Contenders

At this point, it would constitute an upset of tremendous proportion were one of the Heat, Thunder, and Pacers not to bring home the O’Brien trophy in June.  If it isn’t broken…Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it: stay the course, and don’t risk upsetting the apple cart by tweaking a good thing at the margins.  Where others see risk, I see opportunity.  This is the time to strike.  These three teams are so closely matched, and sufficiently distanced from the pack that a bold move in the next three days could decide the title.

lebron durant george

1. Miami.  Who would admonish the reigning two-time champs to mess with a formula that’s led them to three straight Finals?  I would, for one.  Yes, Miami’s the champ until proven otherwise.  Yes, Lebron looks as formidable as ever.  Yes, these guys have been there before, and know how to get there again.   And yes, they are more vulnerable than at any point in the past three seasons.

Mike Miller’s gone.  And Battier, Allen, and Haslem aren’t merely showing their age, they’re raising serious questions about their ability to make the game-changing performances this season each has delivered in the past.   Battier simply is no longer an elite defender, and might not even be a good one anymore.  That means his value is directly tied to his ability to hit wide-open corner threes.  During some stretches, he seems up to the task.  During others, he’s proven that drouts can endure for months in the NBA.   Haslem’s heart is still there, but the always undersized four’s waning athleticism has relegated him to a bit performer, capable of delivering hard foul, but unable to grab pivotal rebounds.   Allen’s shooting makes his age a relatively lesser issue.  His greatly restricted lateral movement, however, makes him ill-equipped to guard anyone, let alone his own position, and thus as near an equivalent to a designated hitter as the league has seen for some time.

Borrowing from Jalen, the “flashes of Flash” we’ve seen from Wade are both encouraging and cause for concern.   With regard to the former, when Wade’s been on the court, he’s been much better than last season.   If that Wade shows up against Indy and in the Finals, this analysis may be for naught.   To elaborate on the latter, Wade’s needed a lot of time off.  Time that he won’t get in the playoffs.   If, like last season, he can’t be a legitimate 2 option when the games matter most, the Heat will need something, someone else to make up for the declining performance of its role players, not to mention the improvement of OKC and Indy.

Here’s the move: Miami sends its 1st round pick and the expiring deals of Rashard Lewis, James Jones, and Toney Douglas to the Lakers for Jordan Hill and Jodie Meeks.  While it’s tough to stomach parting with a first rounder in a deep draft, Hill and Meeks are worth it.  Hill is the precisely the aggressive offensive rebounding force that Miami needs.  He doesn’t need the ball, is a plus defender, and a capable mid range shooter.  In essence, he’s 2006 Udonis Haslem.  Given the Lakers abysmal record, Meeks stellar season has flown under the radar.  With a cat-quick release, he’s been lights-out from three, shooting at a 45% clip from beyond the arc.   And he’s not a one-trick pony, having improved considerably both getting to the basket and finishing once he’s there.   A strong athlete and a willing defender, Meeks would be a considerable upgrade on and alternative to Ray Allen when Miami can’t find somewhere to hide him on defense.

2.  OKC.  Westbrook’s iffy knee is about all there is not to like about the Thunder’s trajectory this season.  Presti couldn’t have hoped for better contributions from Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, and Steven Adams, each of whom is just scratching the surface of his potential.  Moreover, it’s clear that Durant learned from his playoff failures a season ago, and has responded with superior play-making ability and a fiery resolve that he’d yet to demonstrate.  If Russ is healthy, they’re the favorites.  They can cement that status by swinging this deal for Thaddeus Young.

The Sixers might insist that Jeremy Lamb replace Jones and Roberson to compliment OKC’s first rounder, but either package returns the sort of young wing talent that it needs to rebuild around MCW and Nerlens Noel.  They won’t get a lottery pick for Young, whose $8.5 million salary runs for a year after Perkins’ deal expires.

OKC’s motivation is obvious: the very thought of Young running on the wing with KD, Russ, and Jackson sends shivers down opposing GMs spines.

If Presti still needs redemption for letting Harden slip away, this is it.  KD and Russ are ready to win now.  This move sends a message that OKC is all in.

3. Indiana.  This group has the look.  They’ve had their trials against Lebron and co., and know what it takes to beat them.  Despite a bit of regression to the mean from Paul George after his white-hot start this season, he’s proven to be a top ten player.  Couple his ascendance with Lance Stephenson’s breakout campaign, and you can see why Indian’s optimistic that it has the goods to get by Miami without making a move.

So close to reaching its goal, Indiana would be wise to shore up its backcourt playmaking, which suffers without Stephenson on the court.  A sixth man who can score in bunches and create off the dribble would be the ideal final piece to the puzzle.  Alec Burks is their guy.

Again, nobody wants to move first round picks, but at 28-30, this pick is highly unlikely to contribute at a high level in the next season or two, if ever.   Utah’s stockpiling assets, and has been reluctant to commit to any of its pieces beyond Derek Favors long-term.   Turning a guy poised to hit restricted free agency in a year into a first round pick thus carries some obvious appeal to Utah.   And Burcs is just the sort of scorer and athlete that Indiana needs.  Capable of playing at the one, two, and three, Burcs would be an intriguing addition to Indiana’s versatile core.  You have to think Vogle gets more from him than Ty Corbin.  Finally,  Burcs is Lance insurance.  If (gulp) Lance gets a contract to big for Indiana to swallow, Burcs has the type of talent that would help to offset his loss, and keep Indiana’s window open.

By The Numbers: History’s Most Egregious All-Star Snub

"But why?" asks Davis.  I don't know AD, I just don't know.

“But why?” asks Davis.  Wish I knew buddy. 

Forgive the fans.  Many of whose votes for All-Star starters are motivated more by homerism, player reputation, and preference for style over substance.   But the coaches (who fill out the seven remaining roster spots)?   Their decision that Anthony Davis isn’t one of the 12 best players in the west boggles the mind.  And I’m no Pelicans fan.  Strictly by the numbers, AD’s exclusion is the most egregious snub in the history of the All-Star game.

No player with a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 26.0 or higher has ever been excluded.  Davis’s current PER of 26.67 ranks fifth in the entire league, just shy of Chris Paul’s and Kevin Love’s ratings.  Only Lebron and Durant are markedly superior from a statistical perspective.

The coaches’ omissions of Brook Lopez in 2013, and Kevin Love in 2011 provide he only example of somewhat analogous injustices. Then sporting a 25.03 PER, after having been passed over initially, the league ultimately selected Lopez as a replacement for the injured Rajon Rondo. Apart from roughly commensurate PERs, Davis and Lopez have little in common.  Already among the game’s best defenders, metrics fail to capture AD’s impact on the court.  Conversely, Lopez’s PER is vulnerable to criticism on the basis of his subpar defense.

Love is the more apt comparison. Now a household name and consensus top 10 player, Kevin Love was almost as effective in 2011.  While leading the league in rebounding at the All-Star break, Love’s 25.41 PER rated fifth in the league, just Davis’s now does.   But upon adding to his slightly lower PER, Love’s vastly inferior defense  – even worse then, Love remains a net minus on that end of the floor – and his team’s absolutely abysmal performance, even his exclusion appears reasonable stacked up against AD’s snub.

Getting back to the rock solid case for Davis, it’s not merely that he’s unquestionably one of the 24 best players in world, let alone the league.  And to point out that he’s one of the 12 best players in the west fails to capture the absurdity of snubbing AD.   One of the ten best players in the entire league will be watching the game from home.  That should not happen.

Of course, it’s easy to identify guys having great seasons who could’ve made it.  When speaking of guys who should’ve made it, however, fairness requires identifying who should be replaced.

Who deserved it less?  Starting with guys at his position, Davis has substantially outperformed bigger names like Blake Griffin, Dirk, and Dwight.  From there, we move from the low hanging fruit.  Recognizing his minimal contributions in an injury ravaged season, Kobe’s went so far as to admonish voters to look elsewhere.   As a name du jour, Damian Lillard’s a less obvious candidate for replacement, but dig a little deeper and you’ll see a guy (whom I love, by the way) sporting a 18 PER (almost a full 10 points below Davis) who brings next to nothing defensively.

From there, the decisions become more difficult.   That said, Davis over Tony Parker still seems clear cut.  Parker’s advocates wield only the Spurs stellar record as a significant factor in the Frenchman’s favor.   But the Spurs are a machine.  Their success can hardly be attributed to a single, albeit significant part.  Parker also plays fewer minutes than Davis with inferior impact.  And again, while Parker’s not an abysmal defender, he’s probably a bit shy of league average.  Compare that to Davis’s tremendous impact on defense, and the argument for snubbing Parker in favor of Davis makes what is a difficult decision also the only logical one.

Cases could be made for Davis over Harden and Curry.   And while I’d be more or less comfortable with Davis replacing either, each is directly responsible for the his team’s substantially superior record.

In sum then, we have six guys who Davis has outperformed to a discernable degree, and two more roughly equally deserving.   In that light, Davis’s exclusion isn’t merely a snub, it’s an historical slap in the face with statistics to back it up.

 ***

Yeah, that expression's not helping.

Yeah, that expression’s not helping.

To a lesser degree, the coach’s omission of DeMarcus Cousins also merits discussion. Many of the same arguments for Davis apply with slightly lesser force to Boogie. His stats are only marginally less impressive, and his team’s record just a bit worse.  Indeed his 26.67 PER ranks sixth in the league, and provides powerful support for the argument that he, too should’ve filled one of those seven spots.

Cousins runs into trouble with his reputation as, well, how can I put this lightly, insane?  He’s a bad teammate, and a coach’s worst nightmare.  To compound that effect, his reputation took a big hit league wide based on his disturbingly volatile presence at the last Team USA camp in front of the universally well-regarded Coach K and Jim Boeheim, among others. Still, Cousins has been too good not to make it.

As much as I respect Dirk, it’s not as though the Mavs are setting the league on fire.   They’re headed precisely nowhere, and can’t overlook the wide individual performance gap on the basis that Dirk’s helped drive Dallas to mediocrity.   So there’s one name.

Despite Lillard’s critical contributions to Portland’s surprisingly stellar play, Aldridge is the Blazer’s centerpiece.  In a close case, I’d give Lillard the nod over Cousins based on the impact of his contributions.  Like Davis, however, Lillard’s matchup with Boogie doesn’t leave us splitting hairs.  Cousins hasn’t been putting up stats on a bad team, he’s dominating the league with little help from a dismal supporting cast in Sacramento. Boogie gets the nod.

Lost in Translation: Why Haven’t the NFL’s Prevailing Strategies Found Success in the NBA?

Kaepernick-Wilson

Sunday’s Slaughter provided conclusive evidence in support of a position that had been gathering momentum all-season long.  Save those whose vision was blurred by Manning’s tantalizing season (mind you, this was no small number), believing that Denver’s offensive juggernaut could disprove the fundamental rule that defense wins championships in the NFL – the savvier school of thought knew all too well that the Super Bowl was decided by roughly 10 inches.  That is, the distance by which Kaepernick’s potentially game winning throw to Crabtree came up short..  Even before then, Seattle and San Francisco stood apart from the rest of the league.   Several distractions cast a fog over that reality, among them the star power of Brady, Manning, and Brees, the inescapable suspicion that Belicheck always has another card to play, the fortuitous return of Aaron Rodgers to host a playoff game on the frozen tundra,  the untested ceiling of Cam and Riverboat Ron, legitimate questions about the Niners receiving corps and the Seahawks entire cast on offense not named Marshawn Lynch.

By halftime, however, we saw all of those distractions for exactly what they were: decoys from the fundamental dynamic of the 2013-2014 season.   It was always about the Niners and Seahawks.

Last year Russell Wilson played for $544,868.  Colin Kaepernick earned just $607,922.  This year, Wilson’s cap number was a little lower, while Kaepernick’s a tick higher.  Those bargains have enabled the Niners and Seahawks to spend heavily elsewhere, allotting precious cap space to defenses, offensive lines, and skill positions loaded with blue and red chippers.  After the latest NFL collective bargaining agreement reversed the trend of ever increasing rookie contracts, players like Wilson and Kaepernick are now the NFL’s most valuable commodity.  Yes, more valuable than Brady, Manning, and Rogers, each of who may be a superior quarterback, but would you rather have Rogers and the Packers porous defense or Kaepernick and the Niners vaunted D?  In today’s NFL, elite, cheap rookie labor is king.

Whether it’s Percy Harvin, Anquan Boldin, Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, or Anthony Davis, these are players whom Seattle and San Francisco seemingly should not have been able to sign, acquire, or extend without cutting back elsewhere on the roster.  Yet, each team did so with impunity.  Add Harvin, keep Rice.  Extend Davis, and still have enough left over for Mike Iupati’s extension later this year.  Keep Willis and Bowman, Thomas and Sherman.  You get the point.  The NFC West behemoths dominated the league by leveraging their advantage of cheap, elite level talent at the game’s most important position.

So I hypothesized that this strategy would – if it had not already – become a staple of roster building strategies throughout the NBA.  Snag stars capable of delivering championship level performances while still on their rookie contracts, and use the copious remaining cap space to surround them with the best talent they’ll player with for the rest of their careers.   To say the least, that hasn’t happened.   I spoke of inklings that perhaps Cleveland would pursue such a course, surrounding Kyrie Irving and its bevy of cheap young talent with vets like Bynum and Jack.   I suggested that New Orleans appeared to be charting much the same path, adding expensive perimeter talent to flank its burgeoning superstar, Anthony Davis.   To a lesser degree, parallels could be drawn to Washington and Golden State too.

In no instance has it produced the results each team’s management must have had in mind.  At this juncture, it’s more observation than insight: I’m not sure why this strategy produced such success in the NFL, and so very little in the NBA.   So I’m turning to a lifeline.  Fellow NBA enthusiasts, this a call for your input: I’ll post the best three rationales I receive by Monday.

Value or Vanity? Advanced Metrics Show All-Star/Salary Correlation

allstar

Since the NBA implemented online voting to select All-Star Game starters, 10 of the game’s 24 selections have been decided by a process charitably depicted as somewhat unfair.   In reaching more fans, the NBA naturally reached less sophisticated fans.  Voting became more about home town (or country) pride and player reputation than single season performance.  Fans’ 2010 selection of a washed-up Allen Iverson is a case in point.  But it’s not just the fans.  It’s the league, the coaches, and the players too.

The league’s steadfast refusal to adjust roster composition rules to reflect the game’s evolution has given us the priceless, unintentionally comedic performances of Chris Kaman and Mehmet Okur awkwardly lumbering up the court for 2 minutes as token centers.  It is no wonder then that coaches have become reluctant to corral a decent effort from their troops.  And add to the voting troubles a mutually reinforcing trend towards lackadaisical effort – particularly on defense – more or less evident in games dating back to the mid 90s, and what you have is a game of no particular consequence.  It decides neither the best conference nor the best player.  In such a meaningless game, no coach wants to  his star(s) playing big minutes.  And despite the incentive to exhaust stars from competing teams, no coach in history has dared to try as much.  Collectively, those factors have combined to reduce not only the significance of the game itself, but the cache once attached to being chosen to play in it.

Lebron might want to send Kobe an extra copy of the “no-defense” memo.

Not so fast, suggests this article.  Maybe after overrating the credential for decades, we’ve begun to underestimate its significance.  Drawing on advanced metrics, ESPN Insider’s Kevin Pelton delivers a thorough analysis concluding that all-star selections are predictive of free-agent salaries.  In the case of Lance Stephenson, he projects the difference between the performing at the glitzy weekend and sitting at home to be worth roughly $4.5 million:

Using the last five years’ worth of free agency, I attempted to predict first-year salary (adjusted for increases or decreases in future years) as a function of their stats the previous season. Seven factors ended up having a statistically significant relationship with salary: my wins above replacement metric, minutes per game, points per game, height (a positive), age (a negative), whether the player was a restricted free agent (surprisingly, restricted free agents made more than expected based on their stats) and whether the player was an All-Star the previous season. Together, they explain more than 70 percent of the variation in player salaries.

Because these factors match up better with the square root of salary — that is, salary grows exponentially with improvement in these factors more than it does on a consistent, linear basis — it’s difficult to put an exact dollar value on an All-Star appearance. But when Stephenson’s current stats are plugged in (projected to a full season), the model suggests his value would be about $8 million on the open market. If he makes the All-Star team, however, that figure jumps all the way to $12.4 million.”

Impressive work, to say the least.  Nonetheless, I find it difficult to believe that such an arbitrary difference would factor so heavily in the valuation of  a player by a market composed of increasingly rational decision makers.  Pelton’s model demonstrates that over a larger sample, all-star selections correlate with higher salaries.  Thus, it produces this rule: an all-star appearance increases a player’s expected salary.  Before applying it rigidly, however, consider whether we might be confusing cause with effect.  Even accounting for biased ballots and diminishing prestige, the All-Star game never excludes more than 3 of the league’s top 15 players (even that would be an anomaly.)  Naturally, the best players tend to earn the highest salaries — not because they’re all stars, but because they’re expected to deliver elite level performance over the duration of their contracts.

Expected performance level is the predominant factor in player salaries.  All Star appearances are a by-product of that performance, both unnecessary and insufficient to gauge its contours.  In a given year, salary expectations would be influenced by a 24 player subgroup of the top 35ish players in terms of expected performance.  Naturally then, that subgroup will tend to exhibit higher salaries than a cross-section of players outside of it, which could include a maximum of 11 from the league’s best 35 players.  This does not mean that all-star status increases player value.  Rather, because it largely overlaps with high expected performance, it strongly suggests that a player merits top level compensation.

A Winning Strategy to Overcome Indecision: Solving What Ails the Lakers

© LA Times/Mike Bresnahan

Even before Kobe’s knee injury and the rapidly approaching comical injuries resulting in a revolving door backcourt rotation, consensus held that the Lakers had painted themselves into a corner.  With Kobe’s extension, we were led to believe, LA was left to pursue one item from a menu of more or less unpalatable options.  Max out Carmelo and surround two aging gunslingers with D-league talent.  Extend Pau and watch the Laker duo age gracefully in pursuit of an eight seed.  Preserve cap space and cross your fingers that the cavalry, in the form of Westbrook and/or Kevin Love, arrive to save LA several years from now.  Of course, Kobe’s rusty form and subsequent injury did nothing to discourage those projections.

Admittedly, those championship parades feel far more distant than 2010.  But I can’t agree with these shrilly, dire analyses.  Largely built upon unwarranted assumptions wrapped in faulty reasoning wrapped in groundless predictions, the doom and gloom casts a fog concealing both the biggest threat to the Kobe era and the considerable upside for the Lakers should they overcome it. The Lakers’ problem is not Kobe’s extension.  Nor is evidence remotely close to sufficient to conclude that his performance will decline to the degree that it will become one.  And the deduction that LA is no longer a free agent magnet simply does not follow from Dwight’s departure.  The paralysis of indecision is the Lakers true nemesis.  For Lakers fans, the good news is that the troublesome degree of uncertainty can be reduced rather easily.  The bad news is that the decision-makers have shown little inclination to to do so.

Sacrificing Certainty for Flexibility

“I don’t know where we’re going to be six weeks from now and certainly we’re going through a very rough time right now, but we’re going to monitor the team closely and look for opportunities to help the team either in the short run or the long term.” – Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak.

The dance that began with Dwight persists today.  Without his long-term commitment LA could not, or more accurately, would not pursue any particular result with the vigor required to achieve it.  Hedging against being spurned by the big man, LA was reluctant to move Gasol.  With that ship having sailed, and the Achilles torn, the Lakers’ trajectory became no clearer.  A steadfast resolve to avoid commitments beyond this season signaled intent to rebuild.  LA suggested just the opposite by adding to Kobe, Nash, Blake, Meeks, Hill and Gasol productive veterans (Chris Kaman, Nick Young, and Jordan Farmar) and talented, if disappointing youth (Wes Johnson and Xavier Henry).

From any perspective but that of those with access to the master plan (assuming there is one), it would appear that the Lakers wanted to have their cake and eat it too.  LA preserved both its cap space and its punchers chance to make noise in the West in the event that Kobe and Nash returned to form. And this is understandable. You try telling Kobe that after months of intense recovery, he’ll be spending his 18th season toiling amidst the league’s bottom dwellers. But in the NBA, to waver in commitment to any one mission is to play with fire.

It should be no surprise then, that the Lakers are getting scorched.  With and without the Mamba, Blake and Farmar managed the reigns well enough to ensure that the upstart trio of Young, Meeks, and Henry scored often enough to make the impressive contributions of Hill, Johnson, and Sacre just enough to offset a mostly lackluster campaign from Gasol.  And give credit where it’s due: with more pieces that fit-in, and commit-to his offense, D’Antoni’s system looks surprisingly credible.  For all of those promising developments, the Lakers remained on the periphery in the West, with the consolation that the East’s third seed would be within reach.  Injuries to Farmar and Henry have made those seem like the good ‘ol days, as LA has fell farther and farther away from the playoffs.

Succinctly put, the Lakers are in no man’s land.  But they’ve maintained their treasured flexibility.

Flexibility facilitates acquiring assets.  It is not an asset in and of itself.  So while the Lakers backup claims to agility by straddling the line of relevance, the savvier among fans have been left to alternate between rooting for a surprisingly lovable cast and finding satisfaction in its failures.  The salient question becomes, are Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak doing the same thing?  I cannot say.

If they are inclined in a particular direction, this season has been a miserable failure.  Pau Gasol’s on-again-off-again availability is a microcosm of the alternating direction of LA’s season.  For all the respect he deserves, so too is Nash’s will he or won’t he (to be clear, let’s hope he wont) rehabilitation.  Maybe it’s all been a preamble or an experiment, the end of which will reveal the road ahead.

One thing is certain: if LA was waiting for some sort of sign, a guiding light to emerge in the distance, we’ve seen it.  Forgive them for resisting Kobe’s first misfortune, but not his second.   Injuries to all three of its point guards aren’t a flickering light, they’re a damn lighthouse.

For all of my conviction about the optimal decisions then, it may indeed be curious that I wouldn’t fault LA for pursuing just the opposite course. (Such a course both merits and needs its own post, which is forthcoming later this week.) The only truly bad outcome is achieved by failing to make any decision at all.

The Optimal Path Forward

At 10-24, LA stands six games out of the playoffs, and possesses the 10th best odds of landing the top pick in the lottery.  Mt. Everest six games is not (it feels like LA should be no less than ten games out), but things are likely to get worse before they get better with tough opponents and a long-road trip beckoning prior to the arrival of backcourt reinforcements.  A realistic record of 3-7 in the next 10 games likely would push LA past the brink of recovery.

The flirtation with Cleveland about swapping Pau for Bynum suggests sobriety is gaining momentum at Lakers’ headquarters, and these next ten games should be a splash of cold water to Kupchak’s face.  It just ain’t happening this year.

It’s one thing to recognize it, and another to do something about it.  Five steps comprise the optimal course for the Lakers.

First, move Pau to a contender.  We know they tried.  And without knowing precisely what they sought from Cleveland, I won’t criticize them for seeking an asset in addition to cap relief.   LA gets cap relief (but no shelter from the repeater’s tax) by doing nothing.  Cleveland needed to kick in something.  Of course that didn’t make sense for a team with struggles of its own.

LA needs to focus on contenders, for whom Pau could tip the competitive balance this spring, and thus place a higher value on his services than also-rans like the Cavs.  Just don’t tell that to Tom Haberstroh who suggests that the Lakers trade Pau for a 2nd round pick.  (Gee golly Tom, you really think we could?)  No, neither Kevin Love nor a lottery pick are on the table.  That doesn’t mean that OKC wouldn’t consider this deal that beats the hell out of a 2nd round pick: (Some variation of Pau for Perkins, Thefalosha, and a #1 pick).

And I’d bet good money that Indiana’s not hanging up the phone when Mitch makes this offer of Pau and Meeks for Granger, Scola, and Indiana’s 1st rounder.  Not only would Gasol mark a major upgrade over Mahinmi and Scola, imagine what Frank Vogel could do defensively with two 7 footers around the basket.  No one is inclined to part with a first in this draft, but that sentiment has to change if we’re talking about becoming the title favorite. (I’d suggest this move does just that for the Pacers.)  That same logic applies to the San Antonio, where I’d expect Pau to thrive amidst all the quick reads and ball-sharing, who could package a first rounder with the no longer effective Ginobili, Boris Diaw, and Matt Bonner (all three would be prime candidates for buy-outs.)

Second, move Jordan Hill.  To where, it matters not so much here.  Hill’s a favorite of Lakers fans, but two compelling reasons justify moving him:  (1) He has a $7 million cap-hold this offseason, and (2) Mike D’Antoni doesn’t like him.  The first is a fact.  The second is subjective, but after withering under D’Antoni in New York and seeing his minutes come and go this season, I feel confident about the second too.  Unless LA hires a coach who will play Hill, there’s no way he merits restricting that amount of cap space this summer.  LA could reduce that hold by signing him to, let’s say, a more reasonable $4 million/year deal.  But if you’re Jordan Hill, why would you sign up for more bench time when you could easily get that deal elsewhere?

Given his strong play when he’s seen steady minutes, Hill undoubtedly has value around the league.  LA needs to cash in on it.  He’d fit well in Miami, which needs a rebounder with the athleticism and jump-shot to play its style of defense and offense, respectively.  Maybe Miami refuses this deal including the expiring deals of Rashard Lewis and James Jones, plus its #1 pick (which almost certainly will fall between 27 and 30).  But maybe not.  Things aren’t clicking for Minnesota’s frontcourt rotation – could Alexy Schved or Dieng be had?  Check in across town with the Clips, who are desperate for some front line help.   OKC, Portland, and San Antonio could also use an infusion of energy at the 4.   Dangle him out there, and I think LA comes away with either a very late 1st rounder, an early 2nd, or a decent young player without the problematic cap hold that Hill has.

Third, decide who’s staying and move those who are not.  LA can fill in the mid to back end of its roster next season with several guys on expiring deals who’ve either exceeded expectations or at least proven worthy of minutes this season.  That group includes Nick Young, Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry, Wes Johnson, Jordan Farmar, Steve Blake, and Chris Kaman (perhaps even add Kendall Marshall to that list).  The downside to especially strong showings by Young, Meeks, Johnson, and Henry is that LA probably couldn’t, and almost certainly won’t keep all four with Kobe due to return at the wing.   The same logic applies to its three point guards, albeit to a lesser extent.

Make no mistake; these guys are crucial components to rebuild the Lakers.   Except for Blake, each has a cap hold right (or in Young’s case, and option) near $1 million.  That allows LA to use its cap space to acquire higher level players before resigning these guys to more lucrative contracts via Bird rights.  I’d rate the importance of retaining these players in this descending order:

(1)  Wes Johnson.  His stats don’t warrant the top spot, but it’s too hard to find young, talented players with his length, athleticism, and defensive mindset who don’t need the ball to compliment Kobe.

(2)  Nick Young.  His ability to create his own shot gives him a slight edge as a bench scorer over Meeks.

(3)  Xavier Henry.  Just scratching the surface of his potential, I’d hate to see this two way player realize it elsewhere.

(4)  Jordan Farmar.  Creates, shoots from distance, and defends at average to a little above average levels.  Those guys don’t grow on trees.

(5)  Jodie Meeks.  I’m thinking Meeks is the casualty, despite a career year and his outstanding fit in D’Antoni’s scheme.  Could come down to $$$ between him and Young.

(6)  Steve Blake. Unless he’s willing to take a home town discount for say $3 million/yr., his health has been too unreliable to make him worth what his production this season would seem to merit.  A cumbersome cap number of $7.6 million means LA could be forced to relinquish his Bird rights if he doesn’t take such a discount almost immediately after free-agency opens.

(7)  Chris Kaman.  He’s looked serviceable in limited minutes, but can’t be considered part of the future.

Ideally, LA could choose any three of the four wings on that list.   If it’s Wes, Young, and Henry, all the better.  Some other combination won’t have earth moving consequences.   What’s important is that LA gauge both who it wants to resign and who it can resign.  Then, the rest, each of who have varying degrees of value, need to be moved.   Again, we’re not talking about swinging a deal for Utah’s 1st rounder or even a guy like Harrison Barnes.   Rather, until and unless someone gets desperate, or LA strikes a lopsided deal, we’re probably looking at 2nd round picks.  And again, LA needs to target teams that are a player or two away (or at least those who believe this to be the case.)

Indiana and Memphis both need another scorer on the perimeter.  Could LA interest them in Young or Meeks — and in Indian’s case, perhaps even in combination with Jordan Hill?   Then, we just might be looking at a very late 1st rounder.  Golden State and Minnesota would stand to improve from the presence of a healthy Steve Blake.  And there’s certainly no harm in finding out what exactly is the asking price for Dion Waiters.

A couple of deft moves would both bring back modest assets, and more importantly diminish LA’s performance this season. Which brings us to the next step.

Fourth, embrace the downward spiral.  Call it tanking, Riggin’ for Wiggins, Sorry for Jabari, Scandal for Randle, or Bleed for Emblid. (Thanks to Jalen for letting me borrow those.)  Call it pitiful.  Point out that it violates the spirit of the game.

The rules are what they are.  Teams must play within them, not within those that they wish existed.   So until the NBA does something to diminish the powerful incentive to avoid the middle, it’s irrational for a team like the Lakers that has zero chance to contend to strive for those 5-10 extra wins that will decrease the count of their Ping-Pong balls.

At present, nine teams have more Ping-Pong balls than LA.  Of them, it’s not hard to envision Detroit, Cleveland, and New York (whose pick goes to Denver) eclipsing LA in the standings based on the teams’ current trajectories.   That puts LA at #7.  That’s not a bad place to be with scouts generally in agreement that at least seven players – Wiggins, Parker, Randle, Emblid, Smart, Exum, and Gordon – have all-star potential.  Yet, I’d feel better if I could get somewhere between 1 and 4 both to get the better player and to protect against a diluted talent pool should some prospects elect to stay in school.   Only Milwaukee appears out of reach at seven games behind LA.  Philly, Utah, and Orlando boast superior talent, but will nonetheless very likely be formidable opponents in the race to the bottom.  That leaves Sacramento and Boston, the latter who now appear poised to max out in the loss column, and the former who seem less wed to the idea of another trip to the top of the lottery.

Parker-Randle-Wiggins

Realistically then, by moving Pau, Hill, and perhaps two more rotational players, and letting Kobe bide his time recovering, depending on how the lottery shakes out, LA stands to land a top 5ish pick.   Flank Kobe with Marcus Smart or Dante Exum.  Pass the torch to Wiggins or Parker. Snag Randle to play the Amare role for D’Antoni next season.  Let Emblid add to the lore of Laker big men.    In any event, it is no novel notion that LA’s future begins to look a whole lot brighter with a budding star on a rookie scale contract.

Fifth, spread the wealth.   Many an analyst espouse the wholly unsubstantiated, conventional wisdom that LA will either strike out or shackle itself with Carmelo and nothings else.  Events may conspire to make Carmelo part of the Lakers solution – I certainly wouldn’t write it off.   But to characterize the Lakers’ plight as Carmelo or bust is about three bridges too far for this writer.

For one, it requires indulging the assumption that Kobe’s extension will hamstring the Lakers ability to add multiple talents.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you about the ensuing rant:

Color me a contrarian.  I’m good with Kobe’s extension.   Sure, as a Laker fan, I would’ve preferred to see Kobe take a bit less.  Candidly, however, any rationale Lakers fan should prefer to see Kobe take a deal for the vet’s minimum, leaving an extra $22 to fill out the roster around him.  That line of thinking extends to any star player on any team in any sport: If the goal is to win a championship, signing premier talent on the cheap is the best way to assure it.

It follows that any star player who cares only about championships should sign for the minimum salary to optimize his odds of winning.  If that’s what Lebron wants, he should join the Pacers for the minimum and make his promise of “…Not 4, Not 5, Not 6” titles a realistic prospect.  In so much as it might be selfish to take $23.5, it’s equally so for Lakers fans (and ownership) to ask for a tremendous discount.

I would have preferred an extension that paid him $18 million per season.   Asking for a deeper discount than that for a still great player whose global draw remains unmatched simply is unrealistic.   What we’re bickering about then, is a difference somewhere near $5 million.   That’s not nothing.  But it also doesn’t transform a great deal into the franchise-crippling contract its bee portrayed to be.  Take a closer look at the Lakers’ cap situation, and you’ll see why.

Let’s start from the top.  Next summer, the salary cap is projected to be at roughly $63.5 million.   Kobe’s cap number next year will be $23.5 million.  That leaves $40 million.  Nash is somewhat of a variable quantity.  If he doesn’t play this year, he could pursue a medical retirement, the terms of which would require payment of his full salary, but count zero of it for cap purposes. Even without that windfall, LA has the “stretch” provision available which allows it to spread Nash’s cap number next year across the following two seasons, netting a reduction from $9 million to $3 million next year.  That leaves LA with $37 million.

Not to be forgotten, Robert Sacre’s $900,000 must be subtracted.  From that realistic number of $36 million, it remains to deduct cap holds.  Here’s the cap holds for LA’s remaining players: (Note: generally, the cap hold for each of 12 roster spots is the greater of $500,000 or a specific player’s cap-hold.  The rules for calculating cap holds are complex, and can vary significantly from player to player.  To see how I’ve reached these figures, see Larry Coon’s discussion on cap holds here. And a big thanks to Eric Pincus at the LA Times for helping me with the rules’ intricacies.)

Pau Gasol: $20.2; Steve Blake: $7.6; Jordan Hill: $6.6; Chris Kaman: $3.8; Jodie Meeks: $2; Nick Young: $1; Ryan Kelly: $1

(Wesley Johnson, Jordan Farmar, Xavier Henry, Kendall Marshall): $900,000

Pau’s not coming back at that number (or perhaps any number).  Blake and Hill each will either agree to a more reasonable figure on the eve of free-agency, or see their rights relinquished.  I assume the latter.  Ditto for Kaman.  Since Young has an option, his cap hold remains low, even if he’s unlikely to exercise it.

And let’s assume that LA keeps the rights to four players from the group of Meeks, Kelly, Johnson, Farmar, Henry, and Marshall.   That’s roughly $4 million, from which must be subtracted the minimum roster spot holds of $500,000 per player, or $2 million.  LA is now $33 million under the cap .  To complete accounting for cap holds, suppose LA picks between 3 and 8 in the draft.  That pick carries an average cap hold of roughly $3 million.  Now, with Kobe, Sacre, Young, lottery pick X, and retained players A, B, C, and D, the Lakers have eight players, and four roster spots that collectively amount to a $2 million cap hold.

After all of these transactions, the Lakers have more than $28 million left over to spend on free agents.  Hence, Kobe’s contract hardly leaves LA in dire straights.  Rant concluded.

With $28 million in its war chest, it is true that LA could afford just one max player.  Carmelo, for instance, could command $24 million.  Given the reigns, I’d prefer to divide that $28 million amongst three impact players.  Here’s who I have in mind.

#1 (With a Bullet): Lance Stephenson.  Indiana’s bumping up against the tax even after shaving off the $14 million salary of Danny Granger who’s sure to be elsewhere.  Lance has played himself into the 8 figure conversation — would the small market Pacers go deep in to the tax to pay him market value?  I’m not so sure.  Avoiding a heavy tax bill would mean moving another big contract.  The downside of Larry Legend’s shrewd signings is that all of his players who command big money – David West, George Hill, Roy Hibbert, and Paul George – are also critical to the team’s success.  Entering this season, perhaps Lance returns at a slight discount of $6 million for his mentor (Larry Bird).   It’s harder to see him walking away from – or the Pacers matching – a Godfather offer in the neighborhood of $12-$14 million from the Lakers.

New York Knicks v Indiana Pacers - Game Six

#2 Reggie Jackson.   This scenario repeats the strategy of poaching a capped out, small-market team’s emerging talent.   OKC’s maxed out with Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka, not to mention the Perkins albatross.  Even if they could afford to pay Jackson, they might be better off investing that money at a position that Westbrook doesn’t play for 40 minutes a night.   An offer of $7-9 million lands the defensive ace and uber-athlete LA needs at point guard.  To those less well acquainted with Jackson’s game, allow me to introduce you:

#3 Gordon Hayward.  Slotting Hayward third results more from his attainability than his desirability.  As a restricted free agent, teams pursue him with some peril in the form of tied up cap space.  Having doled out big money to Favors and with a likely high draft pick, Enes Kanter, and Trey Burke more or less entrenched as part of its core, it’s unclear how far Utah’s willing to go to keep Hayward.   Plus, Boston’s rumored to be enamored with the guy, and will have the space to make a big time offer, not to mention the allure of playing for his college coach, Brad Stephens.  Based on pure speculation, I predict that it’ll take $15 to pry him away from Salt Lake City.

#4 Evan Turner.  Philly’s tearing down the house and rebuilding around a core of MCW, Noel, and its two 1st rounders next year, one of whom is nearly certain to be a blue-chip prospect.  I doubt that a big pay day for Turner fits in to those plans. One reason for caution here: Turner’s on  horrible team, keeps the ball a lot, and thus may have inflated stats that could lead to an inflated contract. At $7-8 million, he’s worth the risk.  Any more than that could be cause for regret.

#5 Kyle Lowry.  In the process of turning in a career season, Lowry’s price no doubt has increased substantially.  And it’s not totally clear what the Raptors are doing.  We know they love the big guy, like Terrence Ross, overpaid an improving DeMarr Derozan, and not much else.   If they’re rebuilding, Lowry’s gettable.  If they think they have something, continuity might make Lowry more valuable to Toronto than the rest of the league.  If they can’t bring Jackson into the fold, pull the trigger on Lowry at $7 million per, but no more.

#6 Big Man X.  Unless Joel Emblid or Randle falls into the Lakers’ lap, they’ll need to replace the presumed to be departing Pau, Hill, and Kaman.  Spencer Hawes and Marcin Gortat head the list of free agent big men, while guys like Channing Frye, Andre Blatche, Emeka Okafor, Ekepe Udoh, and Dante Cunningham fill out a something less than stellar class.  Depending on how the chips fall with its top five targets, LA could either land one of the two big fish or be scraping the bottom of the barrel.

#7 Fillers.   Lakers fans wouldn’t mind a Trevor Ariza reunion, and Rodney Stuckey, Darren Collison, and Aminu likewise present desirable targets for the middle of the roster.

The impact of $28 million wisely spent is nothing to sneeze at.  In an optimal scenario LA’s 2014-2015 roster looks like this :

PG: Reggie Jackson ($8 million), Jordan Farmar, Kendall Marshall

SG: Lance Stephenson ($13 million), Nick Young, Xavier Henry

SF: Kobe Bryant ($23.5 million), Wes Johnson

PF: Julius Randle ($3 million), Dante Cunningham ($2.5 million) Ryan Kelly

C: Spencer Hawes ($7 million), Robert Sacre

(*Note: players without a salary figure carry roughly a $1 million cap hold.  We’re not assuming that each resigns for that amount — because it owns their Bird rights, LA can exceed the cap to bring them back on more lucrative deals.)

Of course, it’s more likely than not that LA will draft someone other than Randle, whom most project to be a top five pick.  Correspondingly, the optimal roster fluctuates depending on who the Lakers draft (e.g., Marcus Smart means no Reggie Jackson, Joel Emblid means no Spencer Hawes, etc.).  But the possibilities created by those shifting pieces still harbor great upside.  Keep it to yourselves Lakers fans, and LA just might take the league by surprise.

Kevin Love’s Superstar Moment

I knew Kevin Love was really good.  But I’d always doubted his ability to take over a game offensively with anything other than a 3-point barrage.  Those doubts were due in large part to my perceptions – real or imagined – that he had a limited post game and struggled against both superior athleticism and length. Griffin’s no defensive ace, but gave a legitimate effort that proved insufficient to slow Love’s impressive array of post moves.  And Love routinely beat DeAndre Jordan on the boards.

Love was good enough last night to render meaningless the fact that the Wolves lost in OT.   In wasn’t just his dominance, it was the way he dominated that left me firmly convinced that Love is a top 10 player.  Watch for yourself, it’s well worthwhile.

Oh, and btw, the highlights don’t show it, but Blake had a hell of a game too.  Fun rivalry emerging there.

Revisiting Peak Performance Level

Just beyond the 1/4 mark into the 2013-2014 season, let’s take a look at the players who stand poised to hit PPL for the first time, repeat the achievement, or drop from the ranks of the game’s elite.   For those who inexplicably missed the threshold column, take a quick read here, and consider the basic framework of PPL:

Peak Performance Level Requirements:  At least 65 games, 35 mpg., and a PER of 22.00.

Last Year’s List: Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, James Harden (*If we round up, Wade and Westbrook make it too. Parker and CP3 came up a little short on the minutes, while Brook Lopez, Tim Duncan, and Amare played considerably too little to qualify.  Kyrie, Steph, Blake and Anthony Davis just missed the PER threshold.)

This Year’s 1/4 Mark Qualifiers

Stalwarts:

Lebron, KD, Carmelo and Harden have thus far turned in quite similar performances to keep them among the game’s most impactful players.  There are no caveats with Lebron and KD, whereas the Knicks dismal record and Harden’s inexplicable lackadaisical effort on D mark asterisks next to each of their names subject to removal as the games play out.

Let's pretend that Harden is Kobe and plays defense.

Let’s pretend that Harden is Kobe and plays defense.

Newcomers:

Kevin Love, Paul George, Steph Curry, and LeMarcus Aldridge not only qualify, but appear to have staying power.  Each, with varying degrees ofimpact, has discernibly improved his game.  Most notably, Paul George is proving that last year’s conference finals were a harbinger of great things to come rather than a well-timed hot streak.   To give credit where credit is due, he clearly made good use of the summer and has vaulted himself squarely within the league’s top five players, a clear-cut second to only Lebron. (If you’re feeling generous, you could also credit this writer for ranking him #10 - as opposed to #13 or #25, as ESPN and SI rated him, respectively – even if that now feels a bit low.)

Good enough to get his own picture.

Good enough to get his own picture.

Less surprising, but hardly less stellar, Kevin Love’s performance merits inclusion in the MVP conversation, so long as its not an altogether serious conversation.  After a summer of turmoil, Aldridge looks reborn surrounded by a much improved supporting cast on a quasi-legitimate contender in Portland. (I love this Blazers team, but I need a larger sample to legitimize what’s been a great start.)  Lastly, Curry’s continued where he left off before injuring his ankle  (again) in the San Antonio series.  Keep those wrapped up Steph, because I can’t see anything but the 65 game requirement keeping him off this year’s list of the elite.

It almost feels wrong to exclude  Anthony Davis from the list.  Before injury, he looked like a sure fire top 10 player, closer to the top than the bottom of that list.  He’s a tick short on the minutes, which I’d have bet he’d have made up, but missed are now more likely to cause AD to fall just short for a second straight season. By the way, if we’re drafting franchise cornerstones for the next ten years, doesn’t he have to be on top?  This feels like another column unto itself, but here’s my best guess for how the first 10 picks of that hypothetical draft would play out (assuming college players are available):

(1) Anthony Davis, (2) Lebron - Still, (3) Paul George, (4) Kevin Durant (5) James Harden (6) Russel Westbrook (7) Jabari Parker, (8) Andre Drummond, (9) Andrew Wiggins, (10) John Wall.

I don’t feel especially confident about #4-#10, and obviously, there’s no way to measure the list’s accuracy.  One thing’s for sure, it ain’t easy to crack. Which brings me to our next just missed guys in Andre Drummond and DeMarcus Cousins.  With another 2 mpg., Drummond’s on the list.  He’s putting up some downright frightening numbers on a team that lacks an established playmaker to get him the ball in optimal position.   At just 30 mpg., Cousins is further away.  Foul trouble’s a factor, but there’s no other reason he shouldn’t be playing 35-38 mpg.

A few point guards our on the precipice of PPL too.   Any discussion of the NBA’s best is incomplete without mentioning Chris Paul.  And for all intents and purposes, he’s there at 34.9 mpg, which suggests that Doc Rivers will play him enough to qualify this year.   Surprisingly, Ty Lawson’s nearly as close at 34.6 mpg.   Let’s see if he keeps that up.  Conversely, John Wall plays often enough, but not quite well enough.  With a PER of 20.90, don’t be surprised to see him crack the list by season’s end.

Stock Down

Kobe Bryant’s the only player from last year’s list not to qualify this year.  And the games 19 games he missed ensure that no matter his performance through the larger part of the season, he’ll be sure to miss the cut.   Frankly, I suspect that even had he returned earlier, he’d have come up shy of the 35 mpg. mark (although with D’Antoni at the helm, that’s no given).   What’ll be more interesting to discern is whether Kobe can sharpen his game sufficiently to reach the 22.00 PER mark again.   That’d be a helluva feet — one that I certainly wouldn’t bet the house on, but would hardly feel comfortable betting against.

"What's PPL?"

“What’s PPL?”

Among those who did not crack last year’s list, Tony, Timmy, Wade and Westbrook have slipped the most.  Returning from injury, Westbrook boast’s the best chance to reverse his fortunes.  While Wade looks rejuvenated when he plays, he’s now on the Popovich Plan, which generally extinguishes any hopes of hitting PPL.

Time to Trade Carmelo

Here's to new beginnings?

Third time’s a charm?

The ship is sinking in New York.  I hate to break it to Knicks fans, but you’re absolutely not getting Rondo for Shumpert (might as well ask for Boston’s #1 pick while you’re at it). After him, NY has Hardaway Jr. as a very modest asset, and an injured Tyson Chandler whose value hasn’t been this low for 3 years.   Analyze the Knicks roster further, and you’ll find precisely zero assets not named Carmelo.

I recognize that it’d be a bitter pill to swallow.  It’d be less bitter, however, than the taste of seeing Melo walk for nothing with no cap room to sign his replacement.  Not the first to suggest it, I just might be the most confident in this prediction: if he’s not traded, Carmelo’s headed to the Lakers.  As dire as the straights appear to be in Lakerdom these days, their talent is roughly commensurate to New York’s, without Kobe Bryant, not to mention the other free agent(s) that are sure to be drawn to the bright lights of LA. (No, not Lebron…Think more along the lines of Lance Stephenson, whom the Pacers very well may not be able to afford.)

Carmelo’s latest fuming about the team not playing hard only reinforces the likelihood that he’s leaving – which, I’ll emphasize, stems primarily from the fact that he sees little talent around him in NY and essentially no means to acquire it in the near future.  And he’s no brash youngster any more. I suspect Carmelo recognizes that he’s not winning without a talent near or above his own.  Enter Kobe calling this summer, with whom Melo has long been tight, armed with a compelling argument to flank him in his quest for a 6th ring during what he’s dubbed the “Last Chapter.”  On the other line is Tyson Chandler…Is this a risk the Knicks would be wise to take?

Before you indulge your reluctance to part with the guy who was supposed to save basketball in NY, consider what I believe to be three realistic deals for Melo that would pave the way to sustainable success in NY with young talent, salary relief, and an increased probability of landing oa game changing talents in the 2015 Draft (Denver gets the Knick’s 1st rounder this year).

Trade #1: Melo To Chicago

If nothing else, perhaps Butler inspires Bosh to join him in NY

 Perhaps Butler inspires Bosh to join him in NY

  • New York gets: Carlos Boozer (2 yrs., $15.3 million) Jimmy Butler (2 yrs. $1.1 million), and Tony Snell (4 yrs., $1.4 million),
  • Chicago gets: Carmelo Anthony (1 yr. *ETO, $21.3 million)

Jimmy Butler’s not a bad consolation prize, especially on that contract. The price of he and Snell is the right to pay Boozer for an extra year — perhaps NY insists on substituting Deng’s expiring deal for Boozer.  Chicago, meanwhile, vaults to the top of the East with a well-balanced trio of Rose, Melo, and Noah.

Trade #2: Melo To Cleveland

Why is Tyler Zeller so happy?

Why is Tyler Zeller so happy?

  • New York Gets: Dion Waiters (3 yrs. $3.8 million), Anthony Bennett (4 yrs., $5.3 million), & Anderson Varajeo (2 yrs., $9 million).
  • Cleveland Gets: Carmelo Anthony (1 yr. *ETO, $21.3 million) & Iman Shumpert (2 yrs. $1.7 million)

Given the state of discord in Cleveland these days, my guess is that NY could get Waiters and any one of Bennett, Tristian Thompson, and Tyler Zeller.  If I’m the Cavs, I try to keep Thompson.  And that might work better for NY too, who could use the Bennet’s superior potential (I know, he’s looked awful) with Melo gone.

Trade #3: Melo to Detroit

Didn't see this play, but I'll go out on a limb and say he gets by Amare

 I’ll go out on a limb and say he gets by Amare

  • New York Gets: Greg Monroe (1 yr., $4 million), Charlie Villaneueva (1 yr. $8.5 million), and Rodney Stuckey (1 yr. $9 million).
  • Detroit Gets: Carmelo Anthony (1 yr. *ETO, $21.3 million), Ray Felton (3 yrs., $3.6 million).

Sure, if you’re NY, you’d love to get Drummond.  I don’t think that’s happening.  The Knicks should be satisfied with Monroe, easily one of the game’s top 10 young big men, if not top 10 overall.  Detroit becomes very interesting, both for good and for bad.   I’m not sure who’s passing in a lineup featuring Jennings, KCP, Melo, J. Smoove, and Drummond.  Yet, the ceiling’s pretty damn high for that group.

Each of these deals has its upshots for New York: Chicago offers a building block in Jimmy Butler, a nice prospect in Snell, and perhaps most importantly, a collective ensemble with Boozer that will make the Knicks the worst next year (which I’m assuming is preferable.); Cleveland gives you two chances to strike gold in Waiters, who played at Cuse, and the still alluring potential of the hugely disappointing Anthony Bennett; and Detroit offers a legitimate cornerstone in Greg Monroe as well as the immediate salary relief that would come from letting Melo walk.

Of the three, if I’m James Dolan (with whom I’d gladly swap places mental defects and all), I narrowly prefer the Detroit deal.  Given the salary considerations, that might seem a more obvious choice than it should be: even getting Melo off the books, NY still has the albatross contract of Amare and the less appealing by the day $11 million and $14 million due to Bargnani and Chandler, respectively, for two more years.  Hence, short of the essentially impossible feat of moving three of the four for expirings, the Knicks won’t be under the cap next summer anyway.  With Dolan’s deep pockets, having the salary of, say, Carlos Boozer come off the books at the same time isn’t such a bad option.

Nonetheless,  Monroe’s the prize.  He’s damn near $0.85 cents on the dollar, and has far more good years remaining than Melo.   Unless both Waiters and Bennett perform at or near their potential, that’s the best long term talent New York can hope to get.

For Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit, the rationale is obvious.  Each seeks to win now, as evidenced by their offseason transactions.  I’d take that Chicago team over Miami and Indiana, while Cleveland and Detroit would go from disappointments to not-so dark horse contenders over night.

 

One Season, One Goal, 30 Players. Part 2 of 2. Championship Cornerstones & Transcendent Talents

After a quick recap of the ground rules and inspiration for these ratings, we’ll unveil the game’s best 15 players.

The firestorm Kevin Durant set in motion by suggesting that Harden had eclipsed Wade overshadowed an otherwise mostly well-done list by the guys at SI.  Similarly, ESPN’s headline grabbing appraisal of Kobe to be the league’s 25th best player diverted attention from largely sound ratings to catalyze skepticism as to whether the world-wide leader’s panel expects the man they call “Vino” to play only after consuming two bottles of vino this season.

We’re equally amused Kobe.

Of course, the composition of these rankings bears many of the same names in similar places as the other two.  More intriguingly, several wild divergences in those player evaluations (e.g., ESPN has John Wall at 21, while SI ranked him 40th) are likewise evident in our list.  Despite the similarities, these ratings are different, and not just because they lack the polished graphics accompanying the big guys’ lists.  We’ll give you the criteria up front, and leave the wisdom of its application for you to decide.   Here are the metrics:

      • This is a list of the league’s “best” players.   Since “best” is subjective, we’ve employed this mechanism to define it:

Assume that today, all 30 teams participate in a draft that includes every player on a 1 year contract .  Teams have only the knowledge available today about expected player performance (i.e., injuries to Kobe, Westbrook, and Rondo diminish their ratings to the extent expected to result in decreased production.)  Make the further assumption that each team’s only objective is to maximize its odds of winning the title this year.

What we did not consider is equally important:

      • It’s not a trade value column.  Relative salaries and upside simply do not count.
      • It’s not a lifetime achievement award.  NBA historians will undoubtedly conclude that Tim Duncan is a Top 10 player of all time.  And Kobe Bryant does indeed have 5 more rings than Kevin Durant.  For our purposes, experience matters only to the extent that it can be expected to enhance a player’s contributions this year.

Applying those criteria, the following list represents our analysis of the in order in which savvy NBA GMs would select the game’s best players.

***

 Part II: “Championship Cornerstones & Transcendent Talents”

1.  Lebron James (ESPN: #1; SI: #1): Can’t imagine that there’s anything controversial about this.   Leaving his place among the game’s greats for another time, Lebron’s the NBA’s clear-cut alpha dog today.  His game has reached the rare air breathed only by Shaq, Duncan, and Kobe in recent history.  Like their games, we needn’t appraise the individual components of Lebron. His absolute dominance requires no special analysis.

Given his transcendence, not even a Lebron hater can deny him the place he’s earned here.  Of Lebron, I would ask only that he make us feel better about doing so.  Quit this routine.  Seriously, watch the whole two minutes — Lebron’s flopping is worse than I’d even imagined.  No one cares that it can be effective.  Leave it to Battier or Birdman.  It’s unbecoming of LeBron’s status.   Sell the contact at the rim, but don’t sell-out your dignity with that garbage.

lebron flop

Even if they’re not exactly nipping at his heals, there is reason for Lebron’s would be rivals to continue their pursuit.  I’m still not convinced that Lebron’s a killer, although I’m equally uncertain whether he’ll need to be one.   And his resurgence against the Spurs seems to have reduced to meaningless, if not entirely forgotten the return of his deer-in-the-headlights act in the collective consciences of NBA analysts.   That enigma – Lebron’s inexplicable failures of confidence and spontaneous inability to navigate defenses that dare him to shoot – occurs far too often for a player of his caliber.  It remains his biggest (only?) vulnerability, and leaves the door to #1 only slightly ajar for…

2.  Kevin Durant (ESPN: #2; SI: #2).  He’s stuck in second.  And we’ve heard just how much he hates that.  Second is lonely place to be right now: the gap between Durant and everyone else is at least as wide as the space he seeks to close to catch Lebron.  Much like Lebron, his prolific talents require little elaboration: he’s Larry Bird, if Larry had been three inches taller and possessed all-world athleticism to compliment a less than charismatic, quietly angry personality.  (Is Durant the strong-silent type, or an emerging passive-aggressive malcontent?  I’m not totally sure.)

The problem for Durant?  The distance between him and the rest of the field results more from the muddled state of the pack behind him than anything he’s done to earn the separation.   He had the chance to make his case when Russ went down last year.  Let’s just say it wasn’t a convincing performance.

A truly transcendent talent should blow up a series against a team like Memphis without Russ.  KD couldn’t do it.  True, his supporting cast contributed little to the cause.  But even without Westbrook, that’s not an abysmal team along the lines of say, the 2006 Lakers that Kobe nearly carried past a Suns team vastly superior to the Grizz KD faced.   At worst, OKC should have been an elite defensive team that could be sufficiently propped up on offense by a scorer of Durant’s reputed ilk.  The problem was and is, Durant can’t seem to impose his will on the game the same way guys like Jordan, Lebron, Kobe, Wade, and even Westbrook and Rose have or do.  Largely, that strikes me as the result of inexperience in a playmaking (as opposed to shot making) role.  Can he learn how?  I’m not so sure.  Six weeks without Russ gives him ample opportunity to answer the question.

Russell-Westbrook-fired-up3.  Russel Westbrook (ESPN: #5; SI: #5). Absence makes the heart grow fonder.  Such was the case as OKC went out with a murmur sans the straw that stirs its drink.   Russ is indeed the engine that drives the Thunder.  More aggressive and passionate than Durant, his energy is contagious.  Of course, Russ isn’t just a hustle guy.  He’s the game’s best athlete not named Lebron.  This means he gets to the basket at will, and displays precisely zero reluctance to do so.  Featuring an underrated midrange game he’s developed over the past several seasons, we’re beginning to see shades of early millennium Kobe in his game.  If Westbrook can smooth his rough edges on offense, and harness his intensity to become the lock-down defender he should be, perhaps he creates some space from the crowded field of contenders for this #3 spot.

Choosing from a pack that features Derek Rose, Chris Paul, Harden, Curry, Dwight, and Kobe, this is the most difficult selection.  A spot that should belong to Derek Rose, uncertainty about his performance after a year away from the game prevents him from claiming it.   A spot that could belong to Chris Paul escapes him in the wake of mounting playoff losses in spite of the sufficient talent that has surrounded him.   A spot that might one day belong to Harden should he thrive under the pressure that Dwight brought to town. Curry’s ankles and Kobe’s Achilles are too risky with healthier options available.  Once entrenched between #2 and #4, I can’t imagine selecting Howard until he again exhibits the athleticism, motivation, and sanity that characterized his youth.

By default then, it’s Westbrook.   True, he has his own injury concerns.  But this is not a pattern, nor is it sufficiently serious to materially downgrade his stock in an 82 game season.   For now, Russ’s demonstrated ability to change games when it matters vault him ever so slightly past Rose and Paul.

4.  Derek Rose  (ESPN: #9 ; SI: #12 ).  Some may justifiably bristle at the sight of Rose so near the top of this list on the heels of his perplexing decision to sit out the playoffs last year.  And I too have my doubts about his once untouchable resolve.   So why are a few preseason performances enough to overcome those questions?  First, Rose reminded us that he and Westbrook are the only players who can harness their athleticism to the same degree as Lebron.  He simply is more dynamic than anyone below him on this list.   Second, Rose is a winner – or at least he thinks he is, which is half the battle.  This distinguishes him from Harden, Curry, Howard, and, at least for now, Irving.  It didn’t take long for interviews to surface featuring Rose explaining that Miami has his title.   I like that, even if it is debased from reality.   He’s not trying to be friends with Lebron.  He wants to push him off of the mountain top.   Third, Rose hasn’t hit is ceiling just yet, and is just now entering a two year window in which we can expect him to do so.  From athlete, to athlete with range, to athlete with range and a creative in-between game, Rose’s history of development indicates that there more is more to come.  Lock down defender and dead-eye shooter remain attributes he has yet to realize.  At #4, I’m projecting him to add one, but not both to his repertoire this season.

5.  Chris Paul  (ESPN #3, SI #3  ).  CP3 remains atop the list of pure point guards after having distanced himself from the likes of Deron Williams and Rondo in recent seasons.  No one is feistier, a feature that makes Paul the disruptive force on defense that belies his easurables. While his competitive drive often manifests in the sort of facial expressions and waddle that strongly indicate more than a bit of a Napolean complex, that same furor makes Paul a natural alpha dog, a role he’s embraced going back to New Orleans.   His leadership translates to the court, where Paul’s easily the game’s best floor general, managing shot selection and the clock to great effect.  Of course, Paul’s more than an offensive maestro.  He shoots at a superior clip from range, and uses his elite ball skills to create efficient opportunities for himself.  CP3’s clutch performances cast suspicion on his typical exclusion from the closer conversation.  Make the case for Kobe and Carmelo, but give me Paul in the last two minutes.  He’s that good.

chris-paul-rubs-paul-gasols-head

A top 3 lock as recently as last season, Paul’s descent is the direct result of compounding postseasons debacles that are no longer beyond reproach.   Indeed, the annual flameouts now appear to be the rule rather than the exception.  Yet, Paul’s inability to carry his team to playoff success has flown under the radar for a variety of reasons.  In 2011, he killed the Lakers, and looked very much like the best player in the game, not just the series, while doing so.  That the Hornets ultimately lost in 6 could not be laid a his doorstep.  He was carrying a squad of incompetents, or so the story goes.  Take a closer look.  That team’s best lineup featured Paul, Jarret Jack, Trevor Ariza, David West, and Emeka Okafor.  It had Carl Landry, Jared Bayless, and Marcus Thornton coming off the bench.  The cupboard was not bare.  This is not to knock Paul’s exceptional performance in that series.  It is to say that the composition of his supporting cast does little to nothing to absolve him of responsibility for coming up short.

But that was the Lakers.  Even on the precipice of a momentous decline, Gasol, Bynum, and Bryant were a handful, especially without the benefit of home court advantage.  Let’s discard it as an anomaly for the moment.   Enter the 2012 Clippers.  Paul, Caron Butler, and Blake Griffin were most often flanked by some combination of Eric Bledsoe, Mo Williams, Nick Young, Randy Foye, DeAndre Jordan, Kenyon Martin, and Reggie Evans.   Not bad.  That is considerably more talent than surrounded, say, Durant last postseason, Lebron in Cleveland, Dirk on Dallas’s title team, or Dwight in Orlando.  None of those teams featured a legitimate #2 option like Blake.  Each would’ve been drastically improved by swapping the aforementioned nine players for the cast surrounding its superstar.  And yet, three of those teams went to the finals, while OKC stumbled precisely where the 2012 Clippers did, hitting a wall in route to a second round exit.

Then there’s last year.  Swap Jamal Crawford for Mo Williams, Matt Barnes for Young, Odom and Turiaf for Martin and Evans,  and a much improved 2013 Bledsoe for the 2012 model, and what you have is a very similar, if not slightly improved supporting cast.   Yet, the result was worse.  Memphis bounced Paul’s Clips in the first round.

This isn’t good.  A guy who’s been called the best point guard since Isaiah Thomas should do better.  In his 9th season, the excuses are piling up faster than the playoff wins: his knees flared up at an inopportune time, New Orleans was dysfunctional, Billups was hurt, Blake was hurt, and Vinny Del Negro was, well, Vinny Del Negro.  At some point, Paul needs to demonstrate that he can take over a high-level playoff series simply because he’s that much better than everyone else on the court.  If he can’t do that now, you have to begin to wonder if he ever will.

6.  James Harden (ESPN #4, SI #11). In some ways, Harden’s built his reputation as a top tier player on his lack of a track record.  That is, it seems that Harden benefits from the assumption that since he’s displayed fewer flaws than many of his contemporaries, he doesn’t have any.  (This comports with widespread rationalization of his 2012 Finals disappearing act as merely a youthful stumbling block.) A better distributor than Westbrook, superior shooter to Rose, more versatile than Curry, and much younger than Bryant or Wade, in the eyes of many a beholder, Harden has nowhere to go but up.

True enough on all counts.  Grabbing the spotlight last season, Harden showed that he’s easily the best 2-guard to enter the league since Wade.  As the man in Houston, he unleashed an impressive offensive repertoire, though it became clear that his status as a slight plus defender was directly tied to his role as a third wheel offensively.   The spotlight’s about to get a whole lot brighter.  Just like things aren’t as much fun in OKC these days, raised expectations in Houston are bound to create a less exuberant environment.   And that’ll lead us to scrutinize Harden more closely.   Is he committed to winning?  Does he show up in the big moments?  Can he take his game to the next level?  These are all questions that haven’t yet been asked.  Rest assured that the honeymoon period is over.

7.  Steph Curry (ESPN#6 SI#15).   The frightening display he put on against Denver and San Antonio last spring had everyone rethinking Curry’s ceiling.  No, this was not Reggie Miller in a smaller, less abrasive package.  Nor was it a more fragile Ray Allen.  Curry’s ability to create his own shot from anywhere on the court meant that the comparisons to the game’s best shooters were no longer warranted.  He’s more than that.  When his ankles allow him to be, that is.

That’s really the only question mark left for Steph.  If he can address it successfully, it’s hard to envision anything stopping his continued ascension on this list.  If not, however, Curry can’t be the guy on any team.  True contenders can’t proceed in suspended terror as to when the floor is going to give out beneath them.

8.  Kobe Bryant (ESPN: #25; SI #9).  I’m not going to make the thorough, extensive case that Kobe deserves here.  It requires indulging too many silly arguments forwarded principally by those who, for one reason or another, prefer to see the Mamba on the decline.

Some come from those whose minds have been made up.  They don’t like Kobe, as a player more than as a person. (Henry Abbott, we’re talking about you.)  His game never squared with the unselfish brand of basketball and more embracing brand of leadership that they revere.  Give them Tim Duncan.  He makes them feel better.  As the miles increase on Kobe’s odometer, they detect blood in the water.  They relish the opportunity to pick apart his game to validate long-held opinions they’ve concealed just beneath the stubborn surface of the reality of Kobe’s performance.  That began some time ago.  Kobe’s torn Achilles merely accelerated the pace at which the sharks are closing in for the kill.

Others trade in probabilities.  That is, they unscrupulously employ every new metric to conclude that the odds favor Kobe’s demise.  In a sense, they’re right.  Every year, elite level performance becomes less likely for Kobe.  Eventually, the house wins; no doubt, this will be offered as evidence of these metrics’ predictive power.  Trouble is, Kobe’s long since distanced himself from the data used to project his precipitous decline.   By all means, those numbers suggest that it should’ve occurred 200 some games ago.  There are no data points for a 35 year old shooting guard who entered the league as a teenager and played heavy minutes in dozens of playoff series and seven finals before averaging 40 minutes a game in his 17th season.  When the house eventually wins, the untold story will be that it happened only after many years of losing.

Still more are simply content to grab the headlines.  Whatever motivates the absurdity that Roy Hibbert is a better player than Kobe lacks substance.  The formula for these rankings demands something that ESPN’s do not.  Bet your title hopes on Roy Hibbert instead of Kobe.  Cast your lot with Chris Bosh, understanding that LeBron and Wade are off the table.  Put your faith in John Wall to win a playoff series.   Bet that Chauncey Billups is a sound model for Bryant’s return to the court, and please do invest heavily in Kevin Love’s ability to stay healthier.   Best of luck in your endeavors.

Rant behind me, I can now admit that there are of course legitimate questions about Kobe’s ability to rejoin the ranks of the truly elite.  To my eye, Kobe first lost a step athletically in 2009, before he went on to win two consecutive titles.  It goes without saying then that 2013 Kobe couldn’t do everything that 2006 Kobe could do before the Achilles.   That included carrying an offense and checking the opponent’s best perimeter player (from 1 to 3).  It meant that Kobe no longer changed every facet of the game through the sheer force of his athletic superiority, like Lebron, Durant, Rose, and Westrbook now do.  It meant that the baskets came harder, albeit just as efficiently and frequently as ever.

Ask him to be 2006 Kobe, and you’ll be disappointed.  (Right Mike D’Antoni?).  Instead, ask him to be the offensive focal point without being it’s only shot creator.  Ask him to realize that his no longer transcendent physical gifts demand increased engagement in a defense that has a system.  Ask him to bring back the suffocating defense he displayed on Lebron, Kyrie, and Brandon Jennings only in critical spurts.  And ask him to play the last six minutes like he always has, with the benefit of having only played 25-30 before then.  Make the appropriate requests of him – like Pop has of Duncan and Doc did of KG – and perhaps only LeBron and Durant remain beyond of 2013 Kobe’s reach.

The catch is, we can’t be certain that we’re getting last spring’s Kobe this year.  If we do, Kobe can get to #3.  To the extent that we don’t, his #8 ranking is vulnerable, just not #25 vulnerable.   Having encouraged the naysayers to back a different horse, I’m betting on Kobe.  #prayforthebear

9.  Dwight Howard. (ESPN #7, SI #7).  For Dwight this is either too high or too low.  It is nonetheless here that his considerable upside outweighs nagging dwightquestions about his health, seriousness about winning, and, well, his intelligence.

In Dwight’s case, success requires showing that last year was mostly a fluke, that he hadn’t really recovered from back surgery for much of the year, and, well, that he wasn’t really trying by the time that he had.  In short, Dwight needs to prove that the guy from the 2009 Finals remains very much alive.   If he can’t flash that sort of athleticism again, Houston has a problem.  Dwight’s 6’9”, and his impersonation of a post-game won’t age well.  The latter part of his career becomes akin to a rich man’s Ben Wallace, whose last several years were a testament to the limits on 6’9” centers whose explosiveness deserts them.  In that case, forget the top ten.  Dwight belongs with Hibbert, Noah, and Horford, valuable big men who can anchor a defense, but lack the ability to dominate a game.  But if he can rejuvenate his career, he becomes a man without a rival.  He cruises through inferior big men and leaves us all wondering what the hell we were thinking to have rated him anywhere outside the top five.

10.  Paul George. (ESPN #13, SI #25  There’s really no perfect place for a player like George whose stock is so very fluid.   On the one hand, he finished last season 84th in PER.   On the other, only Lebron and Duncan looked better in the playoffs.

We know that he’s 6’9”, has a sweet stroke from 3, and that unlike so many of his peers, he employs his considerable athletic gifts to great effect on defense.  Yet it is not that package alone that inspires this ranking.  Rather, George’s salient attribute that emerged in those playoffs convinces me that he belongs here:  he has some dog in him.   Like Westbrook, Rose, and Paul, George isn’t awestruck by Lebron.  He thinks he can get him.  Like I said, that’s half the battle.  It’s not only an advantage on the court, but a driver of development off of it.  So while George’s game requires significant refinement, there’s reason to believe that he’ll reach his tremendous potential.

11.  Kyrie Irving (ESPN #8, SI #20).  Kyrie’s the consensus next man up in the golden age of point guards.  He’s the unusual case of a player without a single elite skill propelled by stellar skills across the board.  He’s a great athlete but not of the Lebron-Westrbook-Rose order.  He’s a floor general, but not of the Chris Paul ilk.  Kyrie’s place here owes to the balance of his game.  If there’s a hole, I’m not seeing it.

A great handle coupled with an superior first step get him to the basket at will, and create enough space to fire a shot that’s second to just a few from most anywhere on the court. Dynamic in the fourth quarter, what remains for Kyrie is to put it all together in games that matter.  Still, he’s shown enough in games that don’t to merit a top ten spot in these rankings.

12.  Dirk Nowitzki  (ESPN #13 SI #26)  Tim Duncan (ESPN #16, SI #6).  They’ve still got it, even if the “it” they’ve got isn’t what it once was.  Always worthy competitors, although not ever really rivals, their paths have become intertwined over the past three years.  Having emerged unscathed from the 2011 playoffs with the Finals MVP and title in hand, Dirk disappeared.  It almost feels like he retired.  And maybe he should have.   The past several years and dozen or so Cuban decisions certainly haven’t been kind to him.  He’s past his prime.  Carmelo and Durant remind us of the explosive offensive arsenal Dirk once wielded more frequently.  So I could understand those who would demote Dirk.

dirk-summitt

But I think there’s still something there.  After Carmelo and Durant, no one creates more high percentage shots for himself.   And Dirk’s proven leadership more than offsets the advantages of Carmelo’s youth given his demonstrated inability to lead.

A more powerful case is made by one Tim Duncan: in their generation, isn’t Duncan the better choice, especially coming off of his best season in 5 years?  Prime to prime, it’s no contest.  Duncan wins out.  It’s easy to forget that we’ve not seen Duncan’s prime for at least 5 years.  His incredible playoff performance might have worked amnesia on many an analyst, one postseason doesn’t render meaningless a five-year track record that’s far from elite.  Nor does it necessarily translate going forward.  (Ask Dirk about his experience following a capstone season.)

Over the past four seasons, Duncan’s averaged less than 30 minutes a game.   However revered he became last June, in 2011, he wasn’t considered among the best 12 players in the Western Conference.  This was no mistake.  He averaged 13 points and 8 rebounds that year.  Yet, the same crowd who would have us believe that the undefeated force of gravity warrants Kobe’s downgrade in the wake of 5 consistent elite level years now invites us to ignore the far better grounded probability that Duncan’s resurgence at 35 was more outlier than trend.  Perplexing indeed.

This really is not a knock on Duncan.  Mostly, you know what you’re getting with him this year: he’s a lock for about 17 points, 9 rebounds, and a blocked shot in the somewhere between 25-29 minutes he’ll play in roughly 60 games.  If that were the end of it, he wouldn’t make this list at all.  Duncan’s also the pillar of the San Antonio culture that’s proved both remarkably agile and resilient.  Guys like Danny Green, Gary Neal, and even Kawhi Leonard wouldn’t perform at the same level without him.  And when the games begin to matter, Duncan still possesses an elite gear that few can match.

What part of that production are we not getting from Dirk?  He plays 3 to 5 more minutes every game, scores more points more efficiently, and due to the matchups he creates, is a superior offensive focal point.   No question, Duncan has a slight edge in rebounding and a wide advantage defensively (however smaller than it once was.)  Like Duncan, Dirk can still raise his game opportunistically, and remains at the heart of everything his team does.  So the distinction isn’t clear cut.

We do have one opportunity to compare apples to apples.  Scrutinize each player’s most recent playoff run and it’s  hard not to come away giving the slight edge to Dirk.   The pride of Germany did what Duncan could not (however close he came).   He slayed the giant, and did so with a much higher degree of difficulty.  First,where Dirk swept the two time champion Lakers at full strength, Duncan orchestrated the Spurs route of a Lakers squad missing not just Kobe, but 6 of its best 8 players, including both of its point guards (Kobe, Nash, Metta, Blake, Joran Hill, and Jodie Meeks missed all or most of the series).  Huge advantage Dirk.   Second, where Duncan’s Spurs dispatched a dangerous young Warriors squad in impressive fashion (even though Curry’s  ankle issues helped more than a little), Dirk’s Mavs struggled with a mediocre Portland team depending on the heroics of Brandon Roy playing on one knee.  Advantage Duncan.   Third, where Dirk withstood a lethal barrage from the no longer too young trio in OKC,  Duncan’s Spurs had the good fortune to avoid the Thunder after Memphis sent them packing sans Westbrook.  With all due respect to the bruising Grizzlies, a team featuring zero prolific scorers simply does not compare to the Thunder at full tilt.   Decided advantage Dirk again.   Fourth, we all know what happened in those finals.   No one choked.  Most came away with more respect for Duncan after narrowly losing a series he should’ve won.   Fact is he did not,  and Dirk did, in decisive fashion nonetheless.

Fifth, as the unquestioned alpha dog in Dallas, Dirk carried a supporting cast inferior to the talent Duncan led to the finals.  Chandler was the perfect compliment to Dirk, but Kidd and Marion barely resembled their former selves by 2011.  For all of Terry’s brash successes that season, he can’t be mentioned in the same breath with Tony Parker.   Conversely, whether Duncan or Tony drove the Spurs reemergence remains subject to debate.  While I can’t agree, many already hold out Kawhi Leonard as an all-star level player.    Add dead-eye Danny Green to the equation, and it’s clear that Duncan had more help.   Taken together,  this means that Dirk accomplished what Duncan could not all the while facing a considerably higher degree of difficulty.

But what have you done for me lately Dirk?   I can’t fault Dirk for Cuban’s bizarre non-effort to defend Dallas’s title.  Still, it’s been more than two years since we’ve seen Dirk perform at a high level on the big stage, while Duncan did so last summer.  While that helps Duncan’s case, is it crazy to think that Dirk’s extended offseasons leave him in a better position to produce this year?   I think not.  And I give Dirk a slight edge based on my admittedly speculative assessment that he has a little more left in the tank.

14.  Tony Parker  (ESPN #12 , SI #4).  Long of the opinion that Duncan, not Parker deserved the lion’s share of the credit for the Spurs enduring success, Parker began to change my mind last season.  Much like it was impossible to be certain whether Kobe had eclipsed Shaq in 2003, definitive evidence of Parker’s rise above Duncan is unlikely to emerge.  Unlike Kobe, absent unforeseen circumstances, Parker’s career path is such that he won’t have a good chance to prove that he can do it without Timmy.

I don’t subscribe to the opinion held by at least some that Parker deserves MVP consideration every season (at his own position, Rose, Westbrook, and Paul are clearly better).  But to watch the array of shots he created for himself and his teammates against Miami before succumbing to an ankle (and thus becoming vulnerable to Lebron’s three-steps back defense) was to at least understand the rational underpinning that perception.   Years of Pop, Duncan, and Manu have sharpened the once erratic Parker.  Nothing shakes him anymore, and he’s still young enough to maintain an unmatched ability to get-to and finish-in the paint.

Parker is indeed to regular season MVP for the Spurs.  He’s carried them when Manu and Tim could not for the past three to five seasons.  But he’s to really take the reigns from Duncan.   He too misses a lot of games, having averaged 65 games over the past four seasons, and his slightly superior offensive production of 18 points and 7 assists during that same period is insufficient to close the gap that remains between them as a result of his status as a net-negative defender. Perhaps this is the year the Spurs genuinely become Tony’s team.  Perhaps not.  In either event, Parker’s earned his spot among the league’s top 15 players.

15.  Dwayne Wade (ESPN #18, SI #8).  Like D12, for Wade, this is either too high or too low.  Of course, as little as three years ago Wade, you could make a good dwyane-wade-kneescase for Wade at or near the top of such list.  Proving that he still belongs among the game’s elite requires means following the Jordan and Kobe blueprint for aging two guards.  To date, Wade’s failed miserably to do so.  Never the shot maker that Kobe is, and lacking Jordan’s refined post-game (not to mention 2 critical inches), Wade hasn’t found a way to impact the game the way he once did.   Add to the degree of difficulty significant knee concerns, and learning to play off ball with Lebron, and what you have is a recipe for the guy we saw last year in the playoffs.  That guy wasn’t a top 25 player, let alone top ten.   So Wade’s at a crossroads.  Because I can’t recall a player of his caliber falling so far, so fast, I’m betting that Wade finds a way to make it work.

One Season, One Goal, 30 Players. Part I of 2: Building Blocks

The firestorm Kevin Durant set in motion by suggesting that Harden had eclipsed Wade overshadowed an otherwise mostly well-done list by the guys at SI.  Similarly, ESPN’s headline grabbing appraisal of Kobe to be the league’s 25th best player diverted attention from largely sound ratings to catalyze skepticism as to whether the world-wide leader’s panel expects the man they call “Vino” to play only after consuming two bottles of vino this season.

We're equally amused Kobe

We’re equally amused Kobe

Of course, the composition of these rankings bears many of the same names in similar places as the other two.  More intriguingly, several wild divergences in those player evaluations (e.g., ESPN has John Wall at 21, while SI ranked him 40th) are likewise evident in our list.  Despite the similarities, these ratings are different, and not just because they lack the polished graphics accompanying the big guys’ lists.  We’ll give you the criteria up front, and leave the wisdom of its application for you to decide.   Here are the metrics:

      • This is a list of the league’s “best” players.   Since “best” is subjective, we’ve employed this mechanism to define it:

Assume that today, all 30 teams participate in a draft that includes every player on a 1 year contract .  Teams have only the knowledge available today about expected player performance (i.e., injuries to Kobe, Westbrook, and Rondo diminish their ratings to the extent expected to result in decreased production.)  Make the further assumption that each team’s only objective is to maximize its odds of winning the title this year.

What we did not consider is equally important:

      • It’s not a trade value column.  Relative salaries and upside simply do not count.
      • It’s not a lifetime achievement award.  NBA historians will undoubtedly conclude that Tim Duncan is a Top 10 player of all time.  And Kobe Bryant does indeed have 5 more rings than Kevin Durant.  For our purposes, experience matters only to the extent that it can be expected to enhance a player’s contributions this year.

Applying those criteria, the following list represents our analysis of the in order in which savvy NBA GMs would select the game’s best players.

***

Part I: “Building Blocks & Game Changers” (#16-30)

16.  Carmelo Anthony (ESPN #15, SI #10). With the talent to emerge victorious from a head to head matchup against anyone in the league, landing at #16 is certainly more disappointment than accomplishment for Carmelo.  Only Durant, whose superior accuracy gives him the slightest of edges, can score like Carmelo.  He’s as imposing in the post as he is terrifying from the three point line. And he reaches his greatest heights with the game on the line.  So dynamic a scorer, Carmelo is a franchise building block despite subpar performance in nearly every other facet of the game.

Poor defensive effort, ill-advised shot selection, and inferior court vision have hampered his development.   Equally poor defenders (Dirk, Nash, and Parker come to mind) and chuckers (Kobe, Westbrook) alike have enjoyed greater success.  The reason? I don’t think Carmelo can be a leader.  He’s certainly not a natural one.  But that’s not necessary.  For every born leader like CP3, Kidd, and Duncan, there are at least ten like Kobe, Dirk, and Nash, who had to learn to how to become one.  To be fair, he’s not enjoyed the best circumstances to hone those skills.  Melo spent his formative years adding to the count of knuckleheads around him (Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith, Birdman) on a talented Nuggets team.   He arrived in New York to meet two more in Amare and Mike D’Antoni on an ill-conceived  Knicks roster.  Even taking all of that into consideration, Carmelo enters is 12th season without having exhibited so much as a hint of leadership.

So don’t bet on Carmelo to lead your team to a title.  He won’t do it.  But I’d be cautious about discounting his ability to win one.   Carmelo can absolutely be the focal point of a championship offense with the right pieces around him.  And it’s not so hard to envision how that might unfold.  Consider the case of Paul Pierce.  A better defender, inferior scorer, and once considered almost equally difficult to play with, the arrival of KG  dramatically altered Pierce’s trajectory.  KG changed the culture, but Pierce was Boston’s best player in 2008. Would he ever have won a title as a featured cornerstone like Duncan and Kobe?  I doubt it.   And I’d put Carmelo in that same category.

17.  Anthony Davis (ESPN #33,  SI #41).  18. Marc Gasol (ESPN #10, SI #14)Potential vs. Production 1.0.  Two different sides of the samecoin: Davis’s seemingly limitless potential is counterweighted by Gasol’s entrenched high-level production.  I’ll take Davis – and I’m clearly out on a limb in doing so.

Not yet having demonstrated the ability to consistently change the game on defense, Gasol is the preferred defensive anchor, a status made tenuous only by the unbelievable length of Davis’s arms.  At some point those arms are bound to become a menace to his opponents.  On offense, both possess the range to stretch defenses, Gasol’s shot more consistent, Davis’s comfort zone extending several feet further out all the way to the three point line.  Gasol’s uncanny court vision and elite decision making at the 5 offset the young fella’s markedly superior finishing abilities.

You think he ever flies coach?

You think he ever flies coach?

Gasol’s much tougher.  Davis is a far superior athlete.   In a close call, the nod goes to Davis based on a plainly uncommon expectation about the degree of improvement we will see from Davis this season.   I expect considerable development offensively from him, spurred both by acclimation to the speed of the game and the Pelis acquisition of a high-level facilitator in Holiday.  More importantly, I expect rapid progression on defense as Davis learns to disrupt plays all over the floor with length that you just can’t teach.

19.5 Blake Griffin (ESPN #14 , SI #19 ) & Kevin Love (ESPN #11 , SI #13 ). Both are top-shelf rebounders (Love in particular).  Each utilizes rare skills to scores at a prolific rate.  Love shoots 3s.  Griffin draws on his hyper-explosiveness to launch assaults at the basket.  And both appear to have significant unrealized potential.   Then again…

Neither has won anything.  Neither plays defense.  And each carries a distinct question mark.  (Love’s lofty rankings from SI and ESPN fly in the face of those realities.) For Blake, it’s his attitude.  For Love, it’s his health.   Each appears interested in a change of scenery.  You can see the CP3 fatigue in Blake’s body language, and Love appears poised to join a rather large cadre of players who simply would rather not call the frozen tundra of Minnesota home.

He can't throw those amazing outlet passes with a broken hand.

He can’t throw those amazing outlet passes with a broken hand.

My best guess is that one makes it.  Either Blake or Love will realize his considerable talents with his current team or elsewhere.  In doing so, he likely rises up to the top ten of these rankings.   As for the other, something will either derail or hold still his development.  Perhaps it’s another knee injury to Blake or more lost seasons for Love.  Or maybe he’s just not a winner, and spends his career making fantasy owners happy in route to 40 wins a year.  Candidly, I have no sense for who faces which fate.  Gun to my head?  I say Blake finally “gets it” and becomes a high-level second banana for a contender, while Love battles injuries throughout his career before making meaningful contributions as a third to fifth wheel for a powerhouse.   Your guess is as good as mine.

21.  Deron Williams (ESPN #20, SI #24  ).  22.  Rajon Rondo (ESPN #27 , SI #26).  Each has much to prove.  These two malcontents need to show that they can be the best player on a championship level team.   For Rondo, due to injury and the Celtic’s current rebuilding endeavors, it won’t happen this year.  Stay tuned once he has a top-flight talent from the 2014 draft and a couple of free agents around him.

For Deron, it’s his last chance.  Far removed from Utah, where his impressive playoff performances against Houston and LA left me convinced that he was then, and would remain a top 10 player in the league, and inspired many comparisons to Chris Paul (some even favorable).  After last year’s flame-out against a depleted Bulls squad, I’ve never been more skeptical that he’ll regain his Salt Lake City form.  So what happened?   I’m not totally sure.   Forced to guess, I’d say that the rapid decline of Boozer and Okur spelled the end of DWill’s investment in the Jazz.  Disinterested, I suspect that his skills atrophied before he arrived in Brooklyn.   Then in his 8th season, perhaps it wasn’t so easy to flip the switch.  Or perhaps he recognized that Brooklyn too lacked the talent to launch a legitimate championship campaign.   Whatever the case, DWill’s shown his top form on fleetingly few occasions. With the arrival of KG and Pierce, no excuses remain.  Your move DWill.

23. DeMarcus Cousins (ESPN #42 , SI #53).  Upside doesn’t when championships.  If it did, Cousins might very well round out the top five here.  Hell, he might crack the top 15 here simply by checking the crazy at home this year.  Of course he’s yet to that, and his brand of crazy has spared no one – not teammates, not his coach, not Team USA – save opponents banking on it grounding his emergence as the league’s best center.

And make no mistake, his skills and size left unfettered by his combustible mental state would indeed make him second to no big man today.

Coincidentally, his coaches often want to assist his efforts to choke himself.

Coincidentally, his coaches often want to assist his efforts to choke himself.

Cousins has legit center size and post moves, can shoot out to the three point line, threads passes like a point guard, and has the handle of a man ten inches shorter.  How much of his troubles can be ascribed to the general dysfunction in Sacramento is tough to say.  No player could benefit more from a change of scenery.  Perhaps a new regime in Sacramento will accomplish that without sending Cousins packing.  If and when Cousins gets it, the league has its next great big man. Even with his heavy baggage, it boggles the mind that SI found 52 players it prefers.  Nic Batum and Andrei Kirilenko stand out as especially egregious among no fewer than ten baffling preferences.  I would speculate that we’d have to agree to disagree as to the appropriate weight of Cousins troubles, and perhaps SI’s criteria differs sufficiently to warrant its evaluation.  But it says here that you won’t find 23 guys, let alone 52, who give you a better chance to bring home the hardware this season.

24. John Wall (ESPN #21, SI #40).  Like his former Kentucky teammate, Wall’s development rate has been something less than optimal.   With DeMarcus, that was to be expected to some extent.  In Wall’s case, however, expectations were higher after the immediate impact made by young guards like Paul, Williams, Rose, Westbrook, and Curry.  There is thus a corresponding sense of disappointment in Wall’s failure to meet those expectations.

A fair assessment recognizes that Wall’s been pretty good.   His speed (especially with the ball) has been at least as spectacular as advertised.  He’s also racked up a strong assist rate while playing with something less than Team USA grade talent.  His detractors also have reasonable criticisms.  Wall doesn’t create his own shot or get to the basket as easily as his college tape and crazy physical gifts suggested he would.  Speaking of shooting, he’s shown few signs of improvement on an erratic jump shot.   Then, there are the turnovers, and the drifting on defense, each of which might fairly be chalked up to the once inevitable learning curve for point guards.

The influx of NBA ready guards flattened that curve.  An examination of three-year averages for several star point guards drafted before that dynamic took hold suggests that patience is an especially valuable virtue for the Wiz.

    • Mark Price (14ppg., 6 ast.)
    • Gary Payton (10ppg., 6 ast.)
    • Steve Nash (7ppg., 4 ast.)
    • Chauncey Billups (11.5 ppg., 3.5 ast.)
    • Tony Parker (12.5 ppg., 5ast.)
    • Rajon Rondo (10ppg., 5.5 ast.)

By comparison, Wall’s 17 points and 8 assists three year averages don’t look so bad, even considering the extent to which he’s been featured on an abysmal team.  Beyond the stats, the point is that a fair amount of great point guards took a few years to impact the game on the level we remember.  Nothing about Wall’s game suggest that he can’t progress in much the same fashion.

Apparently his choice in wireless providers is static too.

Apparently his choice in wireless providers is static too.

25.  Damian Lillard (ESPN #30, SI: #47).  26.  LaMarcus Aldridge (ESPN #17 , SI: #18).  Potential vs. Production 2.0.  Lillard is terrifying.  Aldridge is static.   Statically very good, mind you, but static nonetheless.  If LaMarcus has improved in any respect during that last four years, that’d be news to me.  So despite the fact that you could find many worse frontcourt pillars, I believe that we have sufficient evidence to conclude that Aldridge will not lead your team anywhere especially desirable.

Lillard’s just the opposite.  Admittedly, I’ve watched just 7 or 8 entire games in which he’s played.  In those five games, I saw nothing to dissuade anyone from believing that Lillard’s poised to join Rose, Westbrook, and Curry, as the next great combo guard.  From such a small sample – the one season not the five games – I can’t confidently vault him now to where his considerable potential may lead him.   For now, Lillard’s speed, shooting, creativity, and fearlessness in are especially valuable in a league gravitating towards that skill-set, and make him the game’s best Blazer.  Things are looking up in Portland.

27. Joakim Noah (ESPN #23, SI #21). 28. Al Horford (ESPN #19,  SI #22). 29.  Pau Gasol (ESPN #29,  SI #36:). Three distinct styles result in three highly similar values.  Noah’s all defense, energy, and team.  Horford brings more offense and muscle.   Gasol compensates for his deteriorating (never stellar) defense with the game’s best post game and uncommon passing prowess from a 7 footer.  At one time, inclusion with the Florida boys would’ve been an insult to Gasol, who was a top-10 stalwart for four years or so.  Age, injuries, and the lack of explosiveness that follow have steadily eroded his impact.  Not so long ago, Pau’s versatility enabled him  to seamlessly mesh with any frontcourt partner, from those with skill-sets as divergent as Lamar Odom’s and Andrew Bynum’s.  Now, Pau requires a narrow fit.  He needs to play the 5, but can’t protect the basket on his own.   His range stretches to the three point line, but he’s marginalized unless paired with a big man who can keep defenses honest while he manipulates the post.  He passes like a point guard, but can’t keep up with most 4s. His  teammates love him, but he lacks the toughness and edge to deter opponents from taking cheap shots on them.  So he needs an athletic, shot-blocking 4 with deep range and the grit to be the team’s enforcer.   Not many of those guys out there.  That rare combination inspires the selection of the guy just ahead of him on this list.

Horford would be a household name if he hadn’t been mired in Atlanta’s mediocrity loop for his entire career.  A better athlete than his gets credit for, Al’s game features an effective inside-outside combination reminiscent of Duncan’s.   That he’s also a plus defender raises questions as to why he’s not higher on this list, as he was on ESPN’s NBA Rank.  In a word: impact. Surround Al with a middling supporting cast and you’ll get middling results. Horford’s not driving your team through tough playoff opponents.   Noah just might.  Yes, he needs a player of Rose’s caliber to get there (no doubt, a swap Rose for J. Smoove  adds a few notches to Horford’s belt).  But watch the Bulls closely, and you’ll see that it’s Noah, not Rose, who the team feeds on for energy.  Noah’s defense justifiably demands the spotlight, but he’s also the most skilled passing big man not named Gasol. You couldn’t go wrong with any one of these three.  Compelled to grab one, Noah’s ability to productively translate his intensity gives him the edge.

30.  Mike Conley (ESPN #32, SI #39).  Fifteen years ago, Conley would have had several all-star games and a shoe commercial.  Today, WestbrookRosePaulKyrieRondoDwillWallCurryParker have relegated him to the NBA’s cast of not quite good enough mini-stars unknown to the casual fan.  The closer you look at Memphis’s roster, however, the more apparent it becomes that Conley’s deserving of more credit – if not fame – than he gets.

Jared Bayless offers his condolences about the lack of a shoe contract for Conley.

Jared Bayless offers his condolences about the lack of a shoe contract for Conley.

The Grizz employ no other competent shot creator.  From 1-3, the lineup features zero gifted scorers.  Blessed as he is to play with an offensive savant like Gasol and a go to post scorer in Randolph, beyond that, the cupboard’s not exactly teeming with talent in Memphis these days.   But Conley gets the most from them, and continues to add to a game that already boasts a dangerous three point shot, great handle, and superior finishing ability.   As much as he’s underappreciated on offense, it’s his stellar defense on opposing points that separate him from the pack of guards nipping at his heals.

To those guys, and the rest of the crew who just missed the cut – Holiday, Lawson, Bosh, Hibbert, David West and Josh Smith among them –  I offer a tip of the hat, my condolences, and a ray of hope: maybe next year fellas.

*Revised Western Conference Preview: 2013-2014 Projected Standings

western conference

*UPDATE:  We’ve revised our Western Conference forecast to account for the breaking news regarding Russel Westbrook’s knee surgery.  

We’re getting close.  Not but a week or two away from preseason games, NBA fans will soon get a much needed fix after the annual late summer lull in NBA news.  Before we see any games, it’s time to forecast their ultimate outcome.

Similar posts about projecting next year’s standings have been wildly disparate.  Some are huge on Indiana, while others expect more from Brooklyn and Chicago.  That holds in the Western Conference too.  Most have heard – perhaps from the mamba’s twitter account – that  ESPN has projected the Lakers  to finish 12th.   Other pundits, still not predicting great things from the purple and gold, nonetheless suspect that removing the D12 distraction is likely to lead to better chemistry and slightly improved results.

Here’s my take on a loaded (again) Western Conference:

Western Conference

1. Los Angeles Clippers.  The Clippers’ offseason moves played mostly to rave reviews.   A championship coach and an influx of dead-eye shooters who also happen to be mature veterans certainly provide ample support for such acclaim.  So color me contrarian for coming very close to dropping the Clips to #4.  clips

I like Reddick, and expect even better form Jared Dudley.  But that return for a blossoming, if overrated young point guard who happened to be the team’s best athlete (yes, better than Blake) and best perimeter defender gives me cause for concern.  Essentially, the Clips have maximized the expected minimum performance level with that move.  That is, they’ve shaved off considerable, but uncertain upside to get the peace of mind that flows from knowing exactly what Reddick and Dudley will bring to the table.

Of course, there’s a timing element here too:  CP3’s not getting younger, and I firmly believe that we’ve already seen his best basketball.  Bledsoe’s development might never have synched with Paul’s window.  So here’s what we have:

Starters: (1) Paul, (2) Reddick, (3) Barnes, (4) Blake, and (5) Jordan

Bench:  Guards (Darren Collison, Jamal Crawford, Willie Green), Wings (Jared Dudley, Reggie Bullock) Bigs (Byron Mullens, Ryan Hollins).

That’s a tremendous backcourt.  In particular, I’d look for Collison to rebound under Paul’s mentoring.  But we’re putting a lot of stock into Blake and DeAndre’s development, because the guys behind them, shockingly, are even worse defenders.   I simply cannot foresee that group providing sufficient defense in the playoffs to get the Clips past the Thunder.

2. Golden State Warriors. I like this team.  Curry gets all the press, but Klay Thompson began to flash signs that he’s nearly as valuable to warriorsthe Warriors’ plan of attack.  Add to those two Harrison Barnes, and the Warriors obviously have great upside.   Last year’s playoff performance raised expectations, but so too did it increase the moxie of a young squad that needed experience on a big stage.  I think the Warriors had the Spurs, and would’ve beaten them had Curry’s ankle not given out.

Make no mistake, Golden State will miss Jarret Jack’s leadership and Carl Landry’s bench production (adding Toney Douglass will ease the sting), but the Warrior wagon remains hitched to the flimsy ankles of Stephen Curry.   If they hold up, the addition of Igoudala makes the Warriors a legitimate contender.   If they don’t, a first round playoff exit is in the cards.

3.  OKC.  The Thunder happens to be my title favorite this year.  That remains the case even in the wake of today’s news that Westbrook will miss the first 4-6 weeks of the season.   But don’t think for a minute that missing Russ for roughly 1/5 of the season won’t have a serious impact on the standings.  While some might color this an overreaction, it underscores just how closely matched I perceive the West’s top four – and to a lesser extent, top six – teams to be.   So much so, in fact, that I considered dropping OKC below Houston too.  thunder

Why all the concern?  I suspect that it will take about 60 games to win the West again this year.  The Clippers, Warriors, and Rockets are each capable of doing that with a little luck.  While the Thunder should be marginally better equipped to handle Westbrook’s absence after getting a much needed wake up call last season, it simply cannot compensate for losing one of the league’s top five players for any significant period of time.  This is no insult to OKC — imagine the Heat without Lebron, or the Clips sans Paul.  If Westbrook misses, let’s call it 18 games, I’d expect the Thunder to win about 11, rather than roughly 14 of those games.  Those three games are significant, especially when coupled with the possibility that Russ may experience some lingering affects.  Furthermore, it’s going to take some time to get the Thunder firing on all cylinders when he returns.   All in, I think this costs OKC no less than 6 games, which is enough to tip the scales in favor of the Clips and Warriors.

Like I said, however, I’m not expecting long term consequences from this development.  The Thunder are sufficiently playoff tested  that I’m confident that it can win a series or two on the road.  I’m given pause only by Durant’s wilting on the big stage during the playoffs, which should have been his opportunity to showcase that he, not Russ, is the engine that drives the Thunder.   I’m not so sure that’s the case anymore.   It’d be unrealistic to expect Durant to carry that depleted squad to a title, but the fashion in which he failed to do so is disconcerting.  He must add new dimensions to his game that allows an offense to run more smoothly through him, as opposed to concluding with his admittedly money jumpers.  The finals loss appeared to have lit a fire beneath him, yet I’d still like to see Durant exhibit a more fearless determination on a regular basis.

Westbrook is the remedy to all of those issues.  A consummate lighting rod for criticism, we finally had a chance to see just how different the Thunder look without Russ.   He is the team’s most important player, allowing for the likelihood that he’s not its best.   The Thunder draws its personality from Russ, not Kevin.  He’s the dominant personality, the ruthless competitor, and the more unstoppable offensive force when he’s flowing.  Sure, Durant’s a superior, more polished offensive option, but Durant can be bottled up from time to time.  (See Exhibit A, OKC vs. Memphis series).   Westbrook can’t.  You simply are not staying in front of him.   That ability’s often been overshadowed by his erratic play, however, Westbrook reaches heights that few players can match.

With Durant’s trigger finger getting itchy after last year’s disappointment, and the bounce-back I expect from Westbrook, the Thunder need little else to merit inclusion in any conversation about contenders.   Fortunately for OKC, it has quite a lot else going, all of which seems to have been discounted this summer.

First, there’s Serge Ibaka.   At this point, we know more or less who Ibaka is.  For those who expected him to become both a smothering post defender and a potent offensive force, the reality is likely disappointing.   Get past those lofty expectations for a moment, and what remains is a top five athlete at the 4, perhaps the league’s best weak side shot blocker, a strong finisher around the rim, and a reliable jump shot with range that grows every season.   And by all accounts, Ibaka’s a great teammate and a wanna-be tough guy.  So there’s that too (here’s to hoping Stephen Jackson does not, in fact, “get up in his mouth,” which was a terrifying and completely believable threat.)

Then, there’s Reggie Jackson, who’s on the cusp of becoming a vexing problem for defenses trying to contain both he and Westbrook, who’s a just slightly more remarkable athlete.  Add to that expected improvement from Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones, and the Thunder could boast its most athletic line-up since it swapped Green for Perkins.   I’m not high on Steven Adams, but between Collison, Perkins, and Ibaka, the Thunder have more than enough to slow down most front-lines.

All things considered, the Thunder sport the playoff pedigree, regular season prowess, and enough players primed for improvement to make it the West’s clear cut favorite.

4.  Houston.   Landing a top-15 player in consecutive off-seasons is no simple feat.  And it’s not as though Houston acquired a couple of mismatched stars.  Harden and Howard aren’t exactly Carmelo and Kevin Love, for instance.  So shouldn’t Houston rate considerably higher than fourth here?  Rockets

The West, as always, is loaded.   So that’s part of it.  Dwight and Harden simply are not better than Durant and Westbrook.   One could make a fair case that they’re roughly on par with the Paul-Griffin combo, but Houston’s supporting cast is markedly inferior to that of the Clips.  And largely, that’s the problem for Houston: behind Dwight and Harden, the cupboard’s barer than it should be for a team that had acquired so many assets over the past several years, and relinquished practically none of them to sign Dwight.

Chandler Parson’s a nice piece between Houston’s two cornerstones.   His reputation now has become detached from his performance to a perplexing degree, but that doesn’t strip him of his status as on of the better “3 and D” guys in the league.  But then it gets dicey.   Jeremy Lin?  He’s a turnover prone non-shooter, a minus defender, and almost entirely ineffective when he’s not running the pick and roll.   That’s a problem if you’re playing with Dwight Howard.  Before Rockets fans assail me with a barrage of metrics about Dwight’s effectiveness on such plays, I’d ask you to watch a few D12 highlights from last year.   If Dwight ends up with the ball anywhere near the free throw line, odds are that he’ll (1) mishandle the pass; (2) look completely lost after catching the pass and proceed to treat the roll as an ill-fated post-up opportunity; or (3) have the ball stripped while he attempts to either post or gather himself for a shot.

So when you read that Dwight was more effective on pick and rolls than in post ups last year, remember this: it’s all relative.   Dwight’s post game is awful.  It starts with him dribbling with his head down, then proceeds to one of three outcomes: (1) he gets stripped — a lot, get used to it; (2) he launches an impressive explosion from one side of the key to the other, which results in either an offensive foul, a line drive hook shot that goes in roughly 45% of the time, or Dwight at the free throw line; (3) Dwight at the free throw line.

Those couple of paragraphs probably qualify me as a Dwight hater.   That’s only partially true.  I’m an unabashed Lakers guy, so no, I didn’t appreciate Dwight’s generally dour disposition throughout the season.   More objectively, he has major hiccups in his offensive game that don’t seem to be improving, and in some facets, even appear to be worsening as time goes on.   Yet, I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that Dwight’s done, that it was a risky signing, or that his back injury will relegate him to something less than the league’s best center of the past seven years or so.  I watched a lot of Dwight last year, and noticed considerable athletic improvement as the season progressed.  When he’s locked in, Dwight remains the game’s best interior defender, equally formidable locking guys up in the post as he is swatting shots from all angles.  Even when he’s not engaged, he’s the best rebounder in the league, and generates enough points from put backs and alley-oops to remain valuable offensively.   This is a long way of saying that Dwight’s not the problem.

Jeremy Lin is.  As are Aaron Brooks, Francisco Garcia (if he plays more than 10 minutes a game), Omri Caaspi, and Marcus Camby.   There’s just not much there there.  Which brings me to my final point: if Morey can turn Omer Asik (who absolutely cannot play with Howard) into either multiple quality players, or one above average starter,  the picture will begin to look much different.  I have no trouble envisioning Houston finishing second in that circumstance.  Yes, the Rockets will ultimately go only so far as Howard and Harden take them, but especially in the regular season, the supporting cast plays a pivotal role in positioning those types of guys to achieve in the first place.

5. New Orleans.   Here’s the riskiest pick on the list.  What we have from here on down is six teams for three spots, so something – some team – has to give.  It’s also the point at which the San Antonio murmuring becomes all-encompassing: how could I downgrade so quickly a team that by all means should’ve won the title last year?  pelicans

Make what you will of this.  I excluded San Antonio from a list of six contenders last year.   I was fed up with the: “and you just can’t forget about San Antonio” bullshit spewed by analysts everywhere, every year.  After suffering multiple defeats with a nearly geriatric roster, you could forget about San Antonio.  Still picking bits of crow from my teeth, I don’t mind saying that the Spurs were incredibly fortunate to face the Lakers without a single backcourt player anyone had heard of (Kobe, Nash, Blake, and even Meeks missed all or major portions of the series), and Golden State without David Lee and with a hobbled Stephen Curry.  That caught up to them when the Spurs likely would’ve prevailed had Parker not suffered an underrated injury in the Finals.  So I’ll go ahead and make the perplexing argument that despite earning the status of “team closest to winning the title without actually winning it,” the Spurs were in fact one of the weaker Western Conference champion’s of the past decade.  More about that later…Let’s get to the Pelicans.

It all hinges on Anthony Davis.  Last year wasn’t about his weak supporting cast, but his underwhelming performance.  Davis disappeared all too often, yet somehow still finished with a PER of 21.3.  If he becomes the more dominant presence that most predicted, it’s hard to argue that the Pelicans won’t be much improved.  For all of the grieving about Grevious Vasquez (had to do it),  Holiday’s a huge upgrade, and a potential top-ten point guard, which is a greater compliment than it might seem, considering that the list looks something like this: (1) Westbrook, (2) Paul, (3) Rose (4) Curry, (5) Irving, (6) Parker, (7) Rondo, (8) D-Will, (9) Lillard, (10) Wall.  That leaves Holiday sparring with the likes of Jennings, Rubio, Hill, Lawson, and Calderon (no, not seriously Mavs fans) to displace the latter two as well as D-Will and Parker as they decline over the next several years.

Then, there’s the league’s most forgotten budding star in Eric Gordon.  True, his once tantalizing trajectory has taken a turn in the wrong direction.   But it’s equally true that he remains rather easily in the mix of top-five shooting guards, and hasn’t really been healthy or engaged for two years (which is of course part of the knock on him.)  Add Tyreke Evans, who I continue to believe will shine outside the dysfunction of Sacramento, and you have one hell of a backcourt.

I didn’t like losing Sideshow Bob, er, Robin Lopez, and expect a considerable fall off from his performance last season to a Steimsa and Withey tag team.  Not to be forgotten, however, NO still features Ryan Anderson’s sharp-shooting, and he’ll diminish the opportunity for the aforementioned duo to screw things up.  Ready for contention?  Probably not just yet.

6.  San Antonio.  I like Kawhi Leonard, and everything he stands for (whatever that is).  I really do.  And you couldn’t find a better Spur system spursplayer than Danny Green.  But I don’t like that Tony Parker’s always injured, Manu Ginobili is DONE, and Tim Duncan probably can’t play more than 28 minutes a night.   Reasonable minds could disagree about Tiago Splitter, but if he’s our point of contention, what does that say about that team? What’s the upside here?  There’s precious little, and that’s the crux of it.  Kawhi can improve, Green can’t (which isn’t an insult; he was that good last year), and the balance of the roster is vastly more likely to regress than improve.  That leaves the Spurs at the status quo at best, and that won’t be enough.  Since I don’t think the Spurs were that good last year, the margin for error is slim, if not entirely non-existent.  I’m writing them off again, at my own peril.

7.  LA Lakers.   By losing Dwight Howard, LA’s seen the floor crumble beneath it.   There really is no telling how bad it could get this year.  I suspect few would be truly shocked if Bryant couldn’t carry on his repaired Achilles another injury ravaged supporting cast led by Nash and LakersGasol, and the Lakers packed it in for the season to finish amongst the worst teams in the league.

It’s not just the floor, however, that’s in a fluid state.  The Lakers’ ceiling remains unquantifiable.  Thanks to an influx of perimeter talent, LA’s addressed its most glaring weakness from seasons past.   For what they lack in reliable output, Wes Johnson, Nick Young, Jordan Farmar, and perhaps even Shawne Williams or Xavier Henry make up some of the difference in untapped potential.   It’s not crazy to think that Johnson could become Ariza, that Farmar could be 2009 Farmar, and that Nick Young could be the best bench scoring option they’ve had in at least five seasons (which remarkably says very little about Nick Young).  If any of those things happen, LA will be better than most people think.  If two of them happen, LA’s making the playoffs.

Is it really that hard to picture Kobe returning to some version of Kobe, for Pau to thrive playing his natural position, or for Nash to improve upon a horrid performance?  I tend to think that each is more likely than not, if far from certain to occur.  All of this is too say that LA’s upside is as fluid as its downside.   I won’t follow Metta’s bold predictions, but I will say this: LA has reason for hope, which means that the rest of the west still has something to fear.

8.  Portland.  I get the arguments for Denver, Dallas.  I really do.  Perhaps I’m overestimating the fall off from Igoudala, and undervaluing Dallas’s offseason acquisitions.  The more shocking omission?  Memphis.  Tough to keep out the bruising frontcourt of Randolph and Gasol. blazers Signs began to emerge last season, however, that Randolph’s on the decline.  I’m projecting that trend to continue.  History has shown us that when Z-bo’s not playing well, he’s not behaving well either.   After that, as much as I appreciate Conley’s continued emergence as a top tenish point guard, there’s not much else to get excited about on the Memphis roster.   I think this is the year it comes apart.  Finally, I want to believe that the Wolves can string together a healthy season.   But I hate what Denver and Dallas did this offseason, and believe that Portland can at least match Minnesota in talent and is far more likely to stay on the court this seasons.  So that’s it.  Portland’s my pick here.

Unless the Aldridge rumors prove to be more than just that, expected improvement from Damian Lillard after a stellar rookie campaign pushes them past the other eight-seed contenders.   C.J. McCollum should add another dynamic dimension to the backcourt, and the acquisitions of Thomas Robinson, Mo Williams, Dorrell Right, and Robin Lopez represent several of the summer’s best bargains.   Assuming that Batum and Mathews deliver solid, if unspectacular campaigns, Portland has its strongest cast in since it prematurely lost Brandon Roy.

A Blueprint For Winning The NBA Championship: Part II “The NBA’s Trophy Rule”

Part II: The NBA’s Trophy Rule: You must have a Superstar

The stars must align for a team to win the NBA Championship.  The right players, the right coach, the requisite health, and a bit of good fortune all must come together within the same window.  Hence, the presence of a bona fide NBA superstar is not alone sufficient to bring home the hardware.  But, the presence or lack thereof should determine a team’s strategy.

‹›¤This is because just one condition is sufficient to ensure that a team cannot win the NBA championship: The lack of a bona fide superstar all but guarantees that a team will fail.  Since 1980, Lebron, Dirk, Kobe, Garnett, Duncan, Wade, Shaq, Jordan, Olajuwon, Isaiah, Magic, Bird, and Moses have combined to win 33 of 34 NBA Finals.  That’s precisely 13 players who account for 97% of the titles during the NBA’s modern era.  Superstars win titles, period.

Of course they’ve had help.  Kareem, McHale, Parrish, Scottie, Pierce, Robinson, Parker, Drexler, Gasol, Dr. J and others had more than a little to do with the title(s) won by their respective teams.  Indeed each one of those 32 championship teams except the 2011 Dallas Mavericks arguably both possessed and needed at least one complimentary superstar.

There is one glaring exception to the rule.  The 2004 Detroit Pistons won with top players including Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace, Rip Hamilton, and Ben Wallace, each of who historically rates at least several notches below the likes of Shaq, Magic, Jordan, Duncan, Kobe and Bird.  Does that unusual title team blow a hole through the trophy rule?  I’m not so sure.  Here’s why:

Those most familiar with Rasheed’s career know that he often flashed the potential to be the game’s best power forward.  During several playoff runs with the Blazers, he – not Shaq, not Kobe – often looked like the Western Conference’s most unguardable player.  On his best nights, his post game rivaled Duncan’s, his passing Webber’s, and his defense Garnett’s.  He never achieved the consistency displayed by any of those three, but during the golden age of power forwards, Rasheed factored significantly in the conversation.  And in 2004, Larry Brown got Rasheed Wallace to buy in.  All of this is a long way of saying that I believe, in 2004, Rasheed Wallace just might have been a superstar, even though he didn’t remain one for long, and even though he would unquestionably rank at the bottom of any list of his ring winning superstar peers.

Suppose that I’m wrong.  Suppose that he wasn’t a superstar.  Suppose that the 2004 Pistons broke the mold, and teams could emulate its unconventional success.  Based on the sample period, teams of that caliber could be expected to win 3% of NBA titles.  This is not a model that merits replication.  Success demands that teams strategize to acquire what 97% of the results dictate is in fact required.

To win, a team must build around a superstar.

The lopsided percentages indicate that I’m not exactly the first one to hatch this plan.  Everyone already wants these players.  No GM would decline to start with a centerpiece like Lebron or Durant if he could.  The problem then, is not so much a failure to recognize the optimal course, but a series of misperceptions about the terrain itself.

Fundamentally, these misperceptions result from impatience and optimism, occasionally featuring a dose of nostalgia.  At some level, teams understand that only superstars win titles.  But when it comes to the NBA’s trophy rule, teams tend to succumb either to the belief that they can defy it, or erroneously conclude that they’ve satisfied it.

Impatience.  Deterred by the seemingly long odds of landing a superstar, teams over-estimate the likelihood of winning without one.  That is, since it is more likely than not that a team will not have a superstar at any given time, discouraged and impulsive teams try to win with more readily available talent.  Take Memphis, for instance.  Gasol, Randolph, and Conley are nice pieces, but each is markedly inferior to the NBA’s very best talent.  Yet, Memphis continues to field a would-be contender around these three guys.  To some extent, this is understandable.  There is only one Lebron, and Shaq’s don’t grow on trees.

By taking that step, however, teams stack the deck against themselves.  Consider this: The odds of possessing a superstar at any given time are generally a little better than 1 in 4 (more on how I calculated those odds later).  Now compare that to the odds of winning without one (3 in 100), and the prudence of patience immediately becomes apparent.

Irrational Optimism. More often, teams mistakenly conclude that they’ve satisfied the trophy rule.  Teams consistently overvalue their own talent.  These teams see untapped potential where others see a defined ceiling.  They see one more run where others see the start of a slow, but irreversible decline.  Whatever their perspective, too many teams believe that they have the player(s) necessary to win the title.

At one end of the spectrum, there’s the low-hanging fruit.  Al Horford cannot be the best player on the best team.  Neither can Ty Lawson (or is it Kenneth Faried?).  I can’t imagine those are controversial opinions, although their implications just might be.  Bear with me, I’ll get there.

At the other end lie the closer calls.  LaMarcus Aldridge is not a superstar, nor is Kevin Love. Those assertions might get some push-back, but even the most ardent fans recognize that these guys more closely resemble the exception (Rasheed) than the rule (Kobe).   Where it gets tricky, however, is making the call that these players cannot take the last step to become superstars.  But the call must be made, and the line drawn.  At some point, these players are who they are.  Aldridge is 28.  Love has a bit more cushion at 25.  Yet, if either were likely to enter the ranks of superstardom, we’d likely have seen more evidence to date.

Still tougher is breaking the news to Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Dirk Nowitzki all of who either were or could have been the guy on the team for the vast majority of their careers. Duncan’s a particularly difficult case, given his championship pedigree and the Spurs consistent, inconspicuous excellence.  And his omission is made doubly difficult by his nothing short of amazing performance in last year’s Finals.  Playing 28 minutes a night, however, it’s hard to argue that he can carry a team to a title.   I think the truth is that Duncan still is a superstar in small doses, just like Garnett and Dirk.   Perhaps the same will be true of a post-Achilles rupture Kobe Bryant.  For the Spurs, however, Duncan’s status may have less significance, since Tony Parker lurks right around the superstar margins, crossing in and stepping out from season to season, and occasionally, even within the same season.

Stepping back to projecting those players who are not yet there, but flash signs of getting there, we find what is likely the most pivotal evaluation that a team makes. Will John Wall (or Bradley Beal), Paul George, Greg Monroe, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, and Kyrie Irving vault ahead of their peers and into the pantheon of the game’s truly elite players?   If the answer is yes, then the iron is hot, and a team should strategize accordingly.  If it is less certain, however, building around that player is likely to cost years in mediocre performance, unadvisable contracts, and a significant delay in acquiring the cornerstones that the team needs to legitimately contend.

This all begs more questions than it answers.  Most prominently, of course, who are the players who can be the guy on a title team?   Stay tuned for Part III.

A Blueprint For Winning The NBA Championship: Part I

Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel

Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel

 

Here’s the first post in a series that I’ll complete before the start of the regular season.  Essentially, what we’re doing here is borrowing some basic game theory and microeconomic concepts and applying them to the NBA.    Through the prism of a game featuring repeat play, the goal here is to articulate a coherent strategy for teams in today’s NBA.   As always, thoughts and suggestions are very much appreciated.

Part I. Introducing the Game.

The game’s objective is well known and straightforward:  win the championship.  This simple truth belies the game’s complexity.  A labyrinth of rules and incentives both restrict and encourage certain types of behavior by the game’s players (i.e., its 30 teams).  Still more nuance results from the fact that the game is also – perhaps even foremost – a business.  This means that there is a second objective – make money, and lots of it.

Fortunately, these objectives are generally complimentary, not mutually exclusive.  By winning, a player increases its odds of making money.  The converse, though perhaps less obvious, is also true: by making money, a player increases its odds of winning.

Nearly all of the rules of the game are designed to level the playing field.  Those rules now have teeth, thanks to the newish collective bargaining agreement.  Like the game’s objectives, these rules fall into two categories: competitive rules, and financial rules.

Competitive rules punish winning and reward losing principally through the game’s redistribution mechanism, better known as the draft lottery.  Financial rules punish spending and reward saving through several redistributive mechanisms, the most prominent of which is the now crushing consequences of the luxury tax.  And like the game’s objectives, these categories are interdependent.  Financial rules promote competition by discouraging spending beyond a common threshold (offering benefits to those who comply, e.g., only teams under the salary cap may bid for amnestied players), and competitive rules promote financial parity, insofar as better players and better play can be expected to bring increased revenue.

Underlying these rules is the rationale that parity, at least to some degree, is necessary to foster the best basketball product.  (A valid argument can be made that all 30 teams need not, and indeed should not be roughly equal to promote the best product.  The NCAA perhaps best exemplifies such a top-heavy model, with no competitive redistribution mechanisms.  Conversely, the hard cap of the NFL exemplifies a league in which nearly any team can win from year to year.)  In pursuit of that rationale, for better or for worse, these rules all attempt to draw the game’s outliers back into middle of the pack.

Enter the vortex of the middle.  It is only by resisting this middling effect that teams can succeed.  Accepting that premise means just two results should drive strategy for NBA teams:  win big, or lose big.  The pursuit of anything else is a waste of time.  It will result in a loop of mediocrity.  Middling teams receive middling draft picks, are likely to have middling cap space to sign middling free agents, and, well, you get the point.

This is not to say that a team must never find itself in the middle of NBA’s standings.  Depending on the circumstances and strategic variations, a pass through the middle class might be both an inevitable and logical stepping-stone.  It is to emphatically state that, once there, to combat the gravitational effect of the middle, a team must constantly be on a dramatic trajectory towards the top or the bottom.  It is not enough to build or nip around the margins.  A team’s trajectory must be its obsession.  It must be manifest in its decision-making.  From signings, to trades, to playing time, a team must either plan to win, or plan to lose.

The crucial decision facing a team thus becomes whether it should try to win big, or lose big.  Since winning correlates with making money, it’s safe to assume that all else being equal, teams would prefer to win.  So powerful is that preference that many teams have been blinded by it.  Indeed, when deciding its trajectory, a healthy majority of the league charts the wrong course.  Among this group, too many teams attempt to win big, when their focus should be just the opposite.

Removing the blinders, a level-headed assessment of any team’s roster yields a clear choice.  For each team, the decision to win or lose can be distilled to one simple question: do we have one the fleetingly few players capable of leading a team to an NBA Championship?

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