Previewing the 2014-15 season with Adam Mares

My worst Kirby photoshop yet.

My worst Kirby photoshop yet.

With real basketball and cool things like televised games on the horizon, I exchanged a few e-mails with Adam Mares on what we’re most looking forward to this upcoming year. Adam is the creator of the NBA PhD program on Reddit, writes for Analytics Game, and in my opinion is underfollowed on Twitter. You can reach him there at @Adam_Mares.

Below is what he and I had to say about this upcoming season over the span of a few days:

Adam Mares (October 14, 2:17 PM):

Hey Matt! The NBA season is almost here! That means we don’t have to replace Kirby’s head with Carlos Boozer or Ty Lawson’s head with Peyton Manning. I mean, we still will, of course, we just won’t have to. We can start to watch and talk about actual basketball. And there is so much to look forward to this season. Like, hundreds of thousands of things that I am excited about.

I’ll get the obvious one out of the way first. Lebron is back in Cleveland! And he brought some friends with him too. It’s almost impossible for this Cavs team to disappoint, at least when it comes to entertainment. They’ve got the best basketball player on the planet, the most unique power forward in the game, a point guard with a ridiculous handle and the potential to be one of the game’s best, and enough outside shooting to fill a 3-point contest for all-star weekend. And yet I’m most excited about David Blatt. I’ve allowed myself to become convinced that he is a basketball messiah, sent to Cleveland to create the world’s greatest offense. And I say that having only seen a few press conferences, a couple of clips of his former teams in Europe, and some nice reviews from former players.

Blatt is like the hot foreign exchange student that shows up one day in your class. The one who has that thick accent and weird clothes, and yet somehow after seeing her you are convinced that you’ll never fall for an American girl again. They all pale in comparison to her and her glowing blonde hair and the way she says “mercy” after she sneezes. That’s David Blatt! He might just be another guy, but I’m convinced he’s the one!

Matt Femrite (October 14, 3:25 PM):

First off, I might’ve attended the wrong high school and college because there was no female Blatt that I know of. Then again, I may or may not have napped my way through those years. Cavs fans would’ve been wise to do the same the last four seasons, and Blatt (along with, you know, LeBron and everyone else acquired this off-season) is like that fresh cup of coffee or three to get back up and going again.

IT’S ONLY PRE-SEASON, BUT Cleveland’s offense looks like it will end up as the most efficient in the league, and it’s been super fun to watch so far with Blatt deserving a lot of credit. The weave in particular and the off-ball movement produces spacing that’s just unfair. Kevin Love‘s going to have more than a few nights like against the Heat where he quietly scores 25, and we’ll have the 12th straight year wondering if LeBron will flirt with a triple double because of all the open looks this offense will create. There’s a lot of lineups that produce a ton of spacing, and sometimes defense just doesn’t matter when Cleveland could snap a 10-2 run in a minute.

Back to Blatt, though. Seems fair to put him near the top of the Coach of the Year candidates. That award has some, well, interesting names receiving it over the last 15 or so years. Quite a few have been awarded after a surge in wins which Blatt is going to qualify for, but Stan Van Gundy (Detroit), Monty Williams (New Orleans), and Mike Budenholzer (Atlanta) are a few who could be in the running as well. Is Blatt your pre-season pick?

And I’ll lob (or outlet pass?! Or both, like a full-court alley-oop?!?!?!) another question to you: With Kevin Durant about to miss a good chunk of time, is LeBron the #1 and #2 MVP candidate or do you see anybody taking the #2 slot up to the New Year?

Adam (October 14, 4:31 PM):

Lebron has been my #1 MVP pick every year since about 2008 and I think the odds are strongly in his favor for this season, but I actually think his usage will go down this year even if his impact is as big as ever. He’ll also get some competition from Blake Griffin, the three-point specialist. I think people, myself included, tend to think of Blake as a finished product when really he’s 25! This will likely be the first year of his prime. It’s entirely possible that Blake makes a leap this year not just as a shooter, but as an all-around player. Durant could also be in the mix, especially if the Thunder struggle without him and his return helps bring them back to the top of the Western Conference. People’s memories are short and if he returns on Christmas most people won’t even remember that he missed games by the time votes are due in April.

And what about the Unibrow? This promises to be a big season for him since his learning curve has been ridiculously steep. The Pelicans probably won’t make the playoffs in the loaded West, but how are teams going to score against Davis and Omer Asik? Anthony Davis reminds me of sci-fi movies when a robot slowly gains consciousness to the point where they can no longer be controlled. Or that movie Lawnmower Man! Anthony Davis is basically a basketball lawnmower man. Every game he is better than the last. Davis started last season as the 33rd ranked player on ESPN’s player rank. He finished last season as the fifth or sixth best player in the league. Where will he rank by the end of this season?

Matt (October 14, 6:09 PM):

Fair point on Durant. Game totals will impact voting for awards and All-NBA teams, but memories are indeed short and if anybody was going to win MVP on less than 70 games for the first time since Bill Walton in 1978, it would be Durant. It’s a steep hill to climb, having to surpass a few big names, two you mentioned in the Brow and Griffin, but also possibly splitting votes with Russell Westbrook. Voting history over the last 20 seasons, via Basketball-Reference, suggests Durant could place in the top 3 if he ends up playing around 60 games.

For the Brow and his age, history suggests a tough obstacle to climb into the top 5. 2006 LeBron, 1994 Shaquille O’Neal, 2010 Durant, and 1998 Tim Duncan are the only players to place in the top 5 voting and be 21 years or younger, which is where Davis is currently at. He’s just as freaky as each of those players, but making the playoffs like the rest of those guys would help a ton.

Regardless, it feels like this is the year Davis starts to terrify people for betting against him and the Pelicans. Like, Zach Lowe just took Serge Ibaka over him for Defensive Player of the Year? What does Pierre think of this? I also give it two months before Davis’ basketball-reference page looks like this:

borw

Adam (October 15, 12:09 PM):

Ha! I love it, although I doubt Lawnmower Man catches on. The brow is just too solid of nickname to be replaced. I think Ibaka as DPOY is as good a bet as any although there are plenty of challengers. Davis is certainly a contender for the award along with… Dwight Howard. The Rockets have become a punchline for the league, especially James Harden and his matador defense. They’re going to need 2009 Dwight back if they plan on being in the conversation this season and that means dominant on both sides, especially defensively.

Speaking of defense, how about the new look Charlotte Hornets? I am fully aboard the Steve Clifford bandwagon, I’m running for president of the Steve Clifford fan club, I’ve even ordered my Steve Clifford tiger beat pinups. Okay, maybe not that far but I am a believer. Have you seen the way his players talk bout him? And on top of that, in one year he turned Charlotte from the worst defensive-rated team in the league to the fifth best. Look at guys who had career years for them last year. Al Jefferson, Josh McRoberts, even Kemba Walker improved greatly as the season went on, averaging 5.4 assists in December, 6.3 in January, 7.3 in February, 7.5 in March and 8.5 in April. And now you add Lance to the mix? A guy that grew up competing against Kemba in NYC? I’ve got a feeling I’ll be watching a LOT of Hornets games this year on league pass. I know there are sexier picks out there, but I’m going with the Hornets as my pick for league pass team of the year!

Matt (October 15, 3:54 PM):

Charlotte’s new court gives them a few extra wins, no? I’m just glad the Bobcats are gone. It was mostly a forgettable 10 years and last season looked like it was going to fit in with the first nine, but yeah, it’s remarkable what Clifford has done with that defense.

We could see some really ugly scoring out East. The Bobcats, Magic, Pacers, 76ers, Celtics, and Bucks… I mean, 7 of the 9 worst offenses last season came out East. I’d like to see how they play against a team like Cleveland, just from how well Charlotte would defend the Cavs’ fast break and such. Are there any matchups you’d really want to see, no matter how weird? Let’s stick to regular season games for now since everyone’s going to play everyone at some point or another.

Adam (October 15, 5:49 PM):

There are soooooo many match ups I want to see! Cavs vs Bulls will be the ultimate Offense vs. Defense matchup. Cavs vs. Wizards has rivalries at every position — Kyrie/Wall, Dion/Beal, Lebron/Pierce, Varajao/Nene. Any matchup between ATL, CHA, TOR, BKN, and WAS will be fun since I think they will all be neck and neck in the standings. How about GSW vs NYK? Will the garden give Steve Kerr an earful for leaving Phil at the alter? In Texas, I love that Cuban and Morey are beefing. I fully support a front office beef. I wish there were more. I want a Steve Ballmer/Paul Allen feud.

how

vs. Utah

Then there’s the Lakers and their rivalry with logic and progress. Seriously, I am pretty neutral when it comes to all things Lakers but I have to admit that I am kind of looking forward to seeing just how bad this team will be. It’s not just the age or lack of talent on D, it’s what they seem to want to represent: A return to some idealized version of old school basketball. I hope we see more nights where the Lakers stick to their guns and shoot 70 mid range jumpers and go 0-3 from behind the arc. Nothing will demonstrate more perfectly just how much the game has changed.

Then there are the rookie matchups. We’re gonna get Wiggins vs. Parker, Smart vs. Exum, Randle vs. Noel. Nurkic in Denver is looking like a rebounding machine. This rookie class is going to be a story in and of itself. Which of the rooks are you most excited to see and who do you think finishes with the ROY?

Matt (October 15, 7:15 PM):

Totally agree with why the Lakers should continue what they’re doing. They’re going to be something of a time machine, possibly surpassing the KG-led Wolves as the least “Moreyball” squad since shots have been tracked on NBA.com. FUN TIMES.

Jabari Parker should be the favorite for Rookie of the Year, and looking at Bovada’s Sportsbook he’s the clear leader with Andrew Wiggins, Nerlens Noel, Julius Randle, and Doug McDermott (!!!) rounding out the top 5. I’m most looking forward to Wiggins, though, partly because he’s on the local Timberwolves but with Zach Lavine and Ricky Rubio he should also ease the rebuilding process. Orlando’s rookies Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton have a lot of intrigue, too.

Like you said, there are quite a few fun rookie matchups, and it’s going to be a fun storyline both early on and hopefully during the last 20 games or so when the season can get stale.

Just for the heck of it since awards keep popping up, who do you have for each?

Adam (October 16, 2:33 PM):

I’ll stick with Lebron at MVP; it’s the only real choice. I’m really tempted to go with Wiggins for ROY. A LOT of people I really respect are down on Wiggins but I love his game and think he’ll have a more immediate impact than most. Clifford at COY for all of the reasons I already mentioned. I’ll go with Taj Gibson as 6th man of the year. This award typically goes to high volume scorers like Crawford but I think Taj is in a great spot now with Pau taking over the starting 4 duties. I think he’ll be more useful and more efficient behind Pau and will even get to play the 4 alongside Pau in some lineups. Also, the Bulls will be good and they need an award to show for it.

I think Steven Adams wins most improved. This might finally be the year Brooks realizes that the Thunder are better without Perkins on the court and I love what I’ve seen out of Adams. He fits that roster perfectly. Defensive player of the year award will be a tricky one. I could see Dwight stealing this one if Houston can become a better defensive team, which I suspect they will replacing Parsons with Ariza. I could be waaaaaay off on this one but I think Dwight has one of his best seasons ever this year and that starts with his defensive impact. Executive of the year will go to Lebron James. How can it not? He created a super team in a city that used to be free agency poison. The league will hand it over to David Griffin but we know who really deserves it.

Are you seeing what I’m seeing?  And lastly, who do you see bringing home the title?

Matt (October 16 4:25 PM):

MVP: LeBron James, but I can see Jon Leuer giving him a run.

ROY: Jabari Parker. I just see him as getting the most bulk stats and he has nobody to split votes with unlike, say, the Orlando Magic with Payton and Gordon.

Most Improved: Anthony Bennett should be the favorite for this, but it’s such a weird award. Like, Kobe could be in the running. Adams is a fun pick, maybe Reggie Jackson too. Is it bad if I don’t know?

[Throws dart at board.]

Cole Aldrich?

COY: Clifford’s a fun pick, but he may have missed his chance as this award is usually given to teams with big improvements in regular season win total. I’ll lean on Blatt.

6th man: Taj Gibson is a nice pick. Probably should’ve won it last year. I’ve wanted to modify who qualifies for this award, but that’s a post for another time.

DPOY: I’ll go with the Brow because I don’t want to upset Pierre.

GM: Heh, LeBron is a solid choice. This award will go to somebody in Cleveland.

As for which team survives the gauntlet that is the playoffs, I like the Spurs to repeat. It’s so close, but I like whoever gets that 1-seed out West. It’s a disaster to fall to #3 which OKC, another decent choice to title, might be placed.

It’s just so hard for a new trio to win it all, and while I always thought the ’08 Celtics were going to win a championship, them winning it all looks more impressive each day. The ’11 Heat ran over teams on the way to their first Finals appearance, but even they fell short in the end. For Cleveland this year, sure, the players will probably be disappointed if they don’t title, but to me that’s more than okay. If we learned anything from the SSOS Suns or the early-2000s Kings it’s that teams with great, super-fun offenses have lasting power.

What about you?!

Adam (October 16, 10:43 PM):

I have absolutely no reason to pick against the Spurs. They perfected basketball last year. Their finals performance was a work of art. They made a team that featured one of the best 10 players of all time look like a J.V. And yet, my gut tells me it won’t be them this year. My gut is telling me that Lebron and the Heat made it to the finals in Year One with Carlos Arroyo running point! Lebron learned the hardest lesson of his life that season, and I think he’ll take those lessons with him into this season. There are so many questions surrounding that team, but I take Lebron at his word this time around, that he’s ready to accept the challenge.

My head tells me there are a half dozen teams that could give the Cavs trouble. Chicago, San Antonio, OKC, the Clippers. But my gut tells me this will be Lebron’s season. My gut and my head are usually in sync but on this one I have to pick a side. I think we get a pantheon year out of Lebron.

It’s something of a transition period in the league. It’ll be a fast, short one. The Heatles era is over. The Pacers era might be over, at least the one we’ve come to know over the last few years. The David Stern era is over. As is the Donald Sterling era. The Spurs era might never truly be over, but it’s entirely possible that the dynasty is coming to a close. Kobe’s era is also a flicker. KG and Paul Pierce are on their last legs. Steve Nash, Vince Carter, and perhaps even Dirk Nowitzki are all writing their final chapter. But new, bright and exciting chapters are being written. One in Cleveland. Another in New Orleans. Another, in a sense, in Clipperland. And in Minnesota, Boston, Milwaukee, and so many other cities the new book is being written. This will indeed be a season of new beginnings.

Matt (October 17, 2:18 AM):

Could a contender please sacrifice 10 projected wins and trade for Kevin Garnett already? Is there a bizarro trade Cleveland can pull off to get him there? Regardless of what happens, I’m going to soak in the final days of his career and potentially the last from so many other stars of the late-90s, early-2000s. They’re my childhood and last major rooting interests around the league. That’s not to say the players of this era are dull or anything. They’re absolutely not and this is a golden age for basketball, but my fandom with most players, much like my rooting interest in the Timberwolves, comes and goes.

I very much agree that this season brings new beginnings and the excitement it could provide down the road will make for some great discussions, but right now the careers winding down mean a little more to me. The league is going to continue to soar when they’re gone, but like those before them we shouldn’t forget who helped pave the way. The nostalgic side of me sees this season as one of endings.

Non-conference standings and point differential since 1951

During the middle of last season, I started a weekly series devoted to non-conference games. Way back then, the 2014 West was on track for the highest winning percentage against the East over the last 18 years. They eventually fell just short of that mark, but recorded the highest point-differential against the East and vice versa. Those stats since 1997 are according to NBA.com, but there were still 46 years of non-conference matchups to uncover. Which conference in which year really had the highest winning percentage against the other? What about point differential? That’s what this post takes care of.

Below is a table allowing for sorting and filtering over the last 60+ years. 1951 to 1996 were from Basketball-Reference. After that I’ll look at the best years in winning percentage and point differential.

From 1951 to 1970, the conferences were called divisions and for good reason: There were as few as eight teams. The East was often the best over those 20 years of non-conference battles, and their peak was 1960. The Syracuse Nationals and Philadelphia Warriors improved by 10+ wins, the latter team with a rookie Wilt Chamberlain, but there was also the 59-16 Boston Celtics with Bill Russell. Out West, the St. Louis Hawks were the only team to finish over .500, 46-29, while the other three were a combined 74-151. The 1960 East still have the highest winning percentage ever in non-conference play at 70.83, 7.5 percent better than the 2004 West’s mark of 63.33, but they also own the highest point differential of +5.87, about a full point higher than the second-highest that came from the 1972 West.

More on those runner-ups in a bit. From 1951 to 1970, though, it seems fair to put an asterisk next to that era’s non-conference stats because of how small the NBA was. For that reason and visual purposes, I left them out of some charts.

As for 2004, the East was mostly a two-team race between the eventual champion Detroit Pistons and the conference finalist Indiana Pacers. In the West, the Lakers may have been the favorite, but there were arguably four other teams that, with a little luck, could’ve made the Finals instead. For the highest point differential, the 1972 West outdoes 2014 by a decent amount. Among other reasons for the West’s success 42 years ago, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks were in their second season placed in the conference. Six of their nine teams recorded over 47 wins that year while the East had just two of their eight do the same in Boston and New York.

Below is a chart of point differential since 1971 with some notes:

west pd since 1971

(click to enlarge)

Back to the table, though: I included ‘PD%’, which stands for point differential percentage. This was an attempt to adjust for pace over the years since the average in 1972 was 112.0 and last season it was 93.9. Maybe winning 125-115 looks less impressive than 105-95, maybe it doesn’t. When it comes to the top point differential, though, we can see if dividing West points by East points changes anything:

west pd and percentage since 1971 pdeahaiohaso;dhf

‘PD%’ doesn’t change too much of the top 10. It does lower the separation between the 1972 and 2014 West while some recent, slow-paced years with a dominant conference move up the ranks, but the charts over the last 40 years look pretty identical. They both indicate East was better during the ’80s and, when some guy named Michael Jordan wasn’t in retirement, the ’90s also. Since then, the East has struggled for a variety of reasons, one being sloppy roster management.

That looks to have changed somewhat, and sooner or later some of the West’s powerhouses will rebuild while the East will crank out more consistent winners. We’ll see how much LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Bosh all staying in the East helped the conference in both the short and long run.

Next Monday I’ll bounce off this post and take a look at non-conference records of the past using not just point differential, but some stats I’ve yet to use in this series. (Edit: Maybe not next Monday…but the next Monday after that, and also the Friday that week…!)

Stabs at Westgate SuperBook’s 2014-15 over/unders

With the Westgate SuperBook posting their season win totals Tuesday, I made some predictions based off their numbers. Not too much thought was put into these, but there were still some snap-over/unders like the Lakers and Hawks and some win totals that, if I were actually making bets, would stay far away from like the Nets’ and Knicks’.

See what you think:

What are your over-unders?

Dream Team #3 within the salary cap, Part 2–Bench

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This is part 2 of my dream team series and now my most pointless off-season post. That is, until the next post is published, and then the one after that, and…(for part 1, click here)

It’s a two-part series dedicated to the bi-annual construction of a team that doesn’t even exist (you can view past ridiculous squads here and here). I try to mix talent with cap-friendliness since I can’t go over the salary cap for any reason. This year, that limit is $63.065 million. All contracts are fair game, save for rookie deals. From there, I try to make the best roster to my limited abilities. This post covers the reserves. Below is a quick look at the starters I selected. You can find more regarding them in part 1:

The starters combined for $49,397,823 which left $13,667,177 for the last seven players. That’s an average cap hit of $1,952,453 for each slot. Not great, not terrible. We can still splurge on a player who’s on a good, $5-9 million contract, and fill the rest of the bench with minimum deals.

So let’s get started. As a reminder, all cap hits are according to Spotrac.com. Shot charts are from Nylon Calculus.

#6: Goran Dragic, Phoenix Suns

  • Cap hit: $7,500,000

dragic 2014

I was lost on who to select. It felt mandatory to take Greg Monroe because of his qualifying offer, but I’m not sure a small ball center was best. Kyle Korver was another tempting player and I love his game, but he felt redundant with Dirk and Curry, Channing Frye would’ve made for some fun combos as a stretch-5, Wesley Matthews would’ve started but the extra few million impacted the options for this slot, and a few others were intriguing. For the sixth man I felt like I mashed buttons, clicked and prayed.

I settled with Goran Dragic. Mike Conley was another guard considered but, well, I don’t know.

Two words to describe Dragic, though, are electrifying and fearless, challenging behemoths at the rim even LeBron would shy from. Check out a couple of these moves against the Pacers:

Imagine the pick-and-roll with either Nowitzki or LeBron after being so good with Channing Frye. Dragic is also one of the best shooters in both pull-up and catch-and-shoot situations. Just look at his shot chart overall. It’s so nice and balanced. He finished 2014 with a true shooting percentage over 60%, a rarity for a 20+ points per game guard with above-average usage.

Is that all coming back in 2015? The threes concern me the most. In 2012 and 2013, Dragic shot a combined 32.6% off 478 three-point attempts, and the spike in 2014 was aided by a higher dose of attempts from the corners. Only 18 guards, 6’4″ or smaller, have finished two seasons shooting 40% from 3 with a usage rate over 20%, so that doesn’t help, but plenty of great point guards have cleared those arbitrary benchmarks only once. It’s not terrible to decline to, like, 37%.

As you can see, though, I’m still talking myself out of this selection, and it’s weird that Dragic is coming off the freakin’ bench. It’s possible he’d in crunch time lineups. In part 1, I projected how many points the starters would score per 100 possessions, but let’s see what could happen if we plug in Dragic.

dragic lineups1dragic lineups2

As explained in part 1, a study by Eli Witus years ago showed that a lineups’ offensive rating increases by .25 points/100 possessions when it has to decrease it’s usage 1%, and vice versa. Depending on the 5-man unit featuring Dragic, it made for projected ratings of 126.5 and 124.6. Both ratings are higher than the 122.9 points/100 possessions for the starting lineup.

Using Neil Paine’s model that combines not just Witus’ but Dean Oliver‘s work, let’s see how these lineups perform when adjusting for all the high-usage players (again, for further explanation, check out part 1). Here’s what they look like when shifting usage proportionally:

projected1 projected2

And now optimizing for the best projected points per 100 possessions:

optimized1 optimized2

Not quite the results expected from Witus’ study alone, but still 120+ points per 100, so, that’s okay. Danny Green’s offensive rating means he disappears when fiddling with usage, and hurts the bottom line of these units. I didn’t project numbers for any other 5-man combos.

Player #7: Shawn Marion, Cleveland Cavaliers

  • Cap hit: $915,243

marion 2014

I may or may not be depressed Marion is 36 years old. It makes this something of a gamble even on a minimum contract. I’m using a roster spot on him, after all.

Al-Farouq Aminu was available and offers rebounding, but on my imaginary team I’d rather take the guy proven to also make a corner 3 and fit in right away. Maybe that’s why Cleveland went with Marion too. Should his defense slide, that’s an issue, but this roster doesn’t need him to turn back the clock.

Player #8: Patrick Beverley, Houston Rockets

  • Cap hit: $915,243

bevs 2014

A bit weird to select both Dragic and Beverley, but I’m not too confident Beverley can hound point guards for 31 minutes like last season, so he’s going to be turbo-charged for like 20, or something. He’ll be a pest off the bench during the season, playoffs, and even the pre-season. Remember this?

Like Green and LeBron, he’s a one-man wrecking crew versus fast breaks.

I’m not the biggest fan of the Houston Rockets, but Beverley alone makes them watchable. Below are two places, either games or eras, where I wish we’d see him play:

  • The ‘90s. Beverley may not be the tallest, strongest, or greatest point guard, but can you imagine him playing defense with the freedom defenders once had?
  • All-star games. If voted in, I could see Beverley sucking the the fun out of next year’s festivities.

Offensively, Beverley is all right. Low-usage, high-efficiency, league-average 3PT%, and below-average finishing but the mid-50% around the rim isn’t terrible. His defense certainly propels him into a rotation.

Player #9: Troy Daniels, Houston Rockets

  • Cap hit: $816,482

daniels 2014

Like Beverley, Daniels is a role player who should make the Rockets entertaining. I look forward to seeing what kind of looks Harden gives him with two seconds left on the shot clock.

Undrafted with only five NBA games (shot chart is from the D-League), Daniels is still a solid candidate to become one of the best shooters. In the D-League, he attempted 12.5 threes PER GAME and made 40% of them. Even the ‘meh’ areas in his chart look good. When he and Curry are on the floor, either on my fake team or against each other in real life, threes will be hoisted and fire will be made.

My backcourt is crowded. Finding minutes for Daniels will be tricky. Now to forwards and rim protectors:

Player #10: Cole Aldrich, New York Knicks

  • Cap hit: $915,243

Cole  Aldrich 2014

I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I’ll admit Aldrich wasn’t so terrible as a backup for the Knicks.

When looking at per-36 numbers, Aldrich cracks the top 20 in Seth Partnow’s rim protection stats. He also grabs defensive rebounds like crazy, snatching 33.8% of all missed field goals while on the floor, and he blocked 4.8 shots per 100 possessions all while not looking like the hack he was in previous seasons with Oklahoma City, Houston, and Sacramento. He finished 2014 with a PER of 19.1.

The problem is that he’s rarely played, only logging 1,033 minutes over four seasons. In 2014, a good load of it was in garbage time versus fringe-rotation players. 60% of his 330 total minutes came in the fourth quarter and 70% while up or behind by double-digits, per NBA.com. Hopefully the Knicks take a closer look at what they might have in Aldrich, but if he wants to converse with Jose Calderon about human ham, that’s fine too. I selected another potential rim protector in case that happens.

Player #11: Ed Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

  • Cap hit: $981,084

ed davis 2014

The Lakers and their pull when it comes to minimum deals continues, as Davis is a nice third big deserving of a larger check. Hopefully he doesn’t get buried behind Carlos Boozer, Jordan Hill, and Julius Randle. The Lakers’ frontline is quite crowded.

Like Aldrich, Davis was a lottery pick in the 2010 Draft and probably expected to be a larger contributor by now, but let’s not confuse the two. He has a career sample size 5x as large and just barely missed 1,000 minutes with an OREB% and DREB% of 10 and 20, respectively. He’s long and rangy, an active defender, though with more important minutes under his belt he doesn’t hold up well in the same rim protection stats as Aldrich. His build also means he gets pushed around, but it also helps him move well for someone in that 6’10”-6’11″ish range.

Playing Davis with LeBron, Beverley, and either Lopez or Marion would be interesting defensively.

Player #12: Jon Leuer-Durant-Chamberlain-Jordan***, Memphis Grizzlies

Cap hit: $967,500

Leuer 2014

Saving the best for last, Leuer is the greatest player I’ve ever seen. He’s Memphis’ Kevin Durant, only better. Unfortunately, Leuer took only 49 threes last season, and defensively he doesn’t look too hot in a few all-in-one metrics. Hopefully he’ll be more consistent next year. Up to this point he’s played just 123 games and 1,384 minutes. Leuer needs to stop screwing around and take over the league already.

***This was a lame attempt to get Jon Leuer a nickname on Basketball-Reference.

So there’s my 12-man squad. Below is a similar stat summary as in part 1, but with all the players. Click to enlarge because holy hell that looks blurry.

team overlay

Among other things, this is an efficient scoring bunch. Those that take more than a few mid-range shots (Curry, Nowitzki, LeBron) are either good to great at them. Also, look at Daniels’ secondary percentage. It’s from the D-League, sure, but that would flirt with the best marks in NBA history.

As for defensive metrics, they don’t look too bad for this team. It’s kind of embarrassing where Leuer ranks among the league, though, and all of my backup bigs are hacky. Walking fouls, literally.

Below is a breakdown of player salaries and how close I came to the cap:

team salary

The total salary of my roster left me with over $650,000. I spent $100,000 on a lifetime supply of waffles and used the rest to sign a 13th man. Like Leuer, the player I chose is a legend in the making:

Player #13: Sim Bhullar, Sacramento Kings

  • Cap hit: $507,336
embiid chart

Projected shot chart

This team would rule planet earth.

Honorable mentions:

Center: Pau Gasol, Omer Asik, and Channing Frye.

Power Forward: Nick Collison, Amir Johnson, Ryan Anderson, Greg Monroe, and Jeff Adrien.

Small Forward: Richard Jefferson, Paul Pierce, Kyle Korver, and Vince Carter. 

Shooting Guard: Arron Afflalo, Leandro Barbosa, Francisco Garcia, Alan Anderson, Wes Matthews, and Jamal Crawford.

Point Guard: Jose Calderon, C.J. Watson, Pablo Prigioni, Mike Conley, Jameer Nelson, and Qualifying Offer Eric Bledsoe

And any others who flew over my head.

Dream Team #3 within the salary cap, Part 1–Starters

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Let there be no cap or CBA (CDA?) on your dreams.

The deadest part of the off-season is here, but soon there will be #MuscleWatch, training camp hype, hopefully the disappearance of rankings, and eventually buzz around pre-season performances. We’re almost to the 2014-15 season, and good lord it can’t come fast enough.

There’s still enough time to write posts that are pointless like this one, about a team that doesn’t even exist: My dream team within the salary cap. It’s a series I started last pre-season with a revised squad over the all-star break. This year I’m not patient, posting a month earlier than last year, but all major contracts are signed save for Eric Bledoe’s. His would actually alter the roster if he took a $3.7 million qualifying offer. It’s disappointing that, despite writing at a slothful pace, there’s little chance any Bledsoe news will explode before part 1 of this series is published. (Edit: I was sort of wrong.)

But yes, there are not one but two posts for this team. Part 1 covers the starters, part 2 the reserves. The guidelines for selecting this team are fairly simple. Make a 12-man squad without exceeding the 2014-15 salary cap of $63.065 million. Rookie deals are off-limits, but I don’t feel the same about minimum deals or exceptions since I can’t go over the cap in any way.

Some notes before I rattle off my starters. I’ll expand on these later:

  • I don’t think this is the best roster I could put together, mostly because of my math skills and overall intelligence of the players in my made-up, cap-friendly player pool. I give the team a B+.
  • Only one of LeBron James and Kevin Durant made the team. I WILL TRY TO EXPLAIN THIS.
  • Cap hits were via Spotrac.com. Many of their contracts match Basketball-Reference’s, though they are up to date with recent signings across the league. Don’t worry, B/Ref. I still love you.
  • I’ve never went back and forth with so many players. A few slots were chosen at the last second.

On to naming the starters, each with a Nylon Calculus shot chart. Austin Clemens for off-season MVP!

Center: Robin Lopez, Portland Trail Blazers

  • Cap hit: $6,124,728

Lopex 2014

Timofey Mozgov was the center for the longest time, even in some projected lineup stats until I caved with Robin Lopez. Mozgov was $1.5 million cheaper, cracked the top 35 in Seth Partnow’s rim protection stats, and held up in a few all-in-one metrics. He was also productive as last season came to a close, averaging 14 points and nine rebounds in 27 minutes over the final 16 games. There were also flashes of becoming a stretch 5. Well, sort of. Regardless, Mozgov should be the Nuggets’ starting center rather than JaVale McGee or the out-of-position J.J. Hickson.

But I went with Lopez, on the team a second straight time. Here’s a video of him kicking some ass:

He doesn’t have the silky smooth 3-pointer Mozgov possesses, but he’s one of the very best rim protectors and holds up better in the same all-in-one metrics. He also used only 14% of possessions last season while on the floor, often with one of the most potent starting lineups in the league. Sure, Lopez will make an awkward hook shot, maybe swish a mid-range jumper or make teams pay for fouling him with a free throw percentage surpassing 80, but for the most part he’ll bang with opponents, protect the rim, and get boards. He actually led the league in contested rebound% and would be a terror on the offensive glass if his defender sags off him and helps against any of the high-usage players I chose.

Lopez can also log more playing time than Mozgov, finishing last season just over 30 minutes per, and he’s durable, missing only two games the last three years. Mozgov has yet play the same major minutes over a full season, but 2014-15 could be a year when he clears those benchmarks.

Power Forward: Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks

  • Cap hit: $7,974,482

Nowitzki 2014

In 2014, Nowitzki recorded a career-high in eFG% and a 3-point rate not seen since teaming with Steve Nash. With a pay cut that will last through possibly 2017, he might be in this series for a while.

The higher 3-point rate makes sense when Nowitzki is 36 years old, and combined with a declining free throw rate he’s a glorified role player on this squad. He can still create and his assisted field goal rate on made two-pointers (50%) resembled what we saw during his prime. The shot chart is fire overall and Nowitzki’s mid-range game generated about the same efficiency as a league-average three-pointer:

ian2

Maybe Nowitzki would be like 2011-14 Chris Bosh, but the holes he can drill in a defense just off the ball would open a ton of room for younger, springier players I selected.

Defensively, it’s possible Nowitzki could be hidden thanks to another forward I chose, one with height and strength to play the ‘4’ in doses, but this squad was made to outscore than lock down. It looks like both Lopez and Nowitzki would hang back in pick and roll coverage.

Small Forward/Utility – LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

  • Cap hit: $20,644,400

leBron 2014

I still can’t believe I can type LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers.

If I had to, I’d fit both James and Durant on this team, but together they take up $40/63 million in available cap space and, while it’s tempting to go top-heavy with this roster, a LeBron-Durant-Nowitzki/Curry trio with nine minimum contracts isn’t as fun a roster to write about as one with depth. We don’t yet know who the injury bug will bite anyway. In the all star break-related post, I might go with a huge 3, but this off-season brought nice, still-healthy bargains.

This wasn’t an easy choice. Durant was about $1.5 million cheaper, and that million or two saved for each slot adds up. He has more range, should be a better defender next season, and can carry a higher scoring load with less long-term effects. He might also improve on his assist rate, and, who knows, he may play more power forward and add a clever post move. Durant may very well repeat as MVP.

I wondered if he was the best fit with all the other shooting I plucked. To get the juiciest looks at the basket, somebody needs to consistently bend the defense and LeBron can do just that, able to get to any spot. Durant isn’t at that level partly thanks to a slimmer build. Pesky defenders take advantage of that. It looks like LeBron will be bit slimmer this season, though, so we’ll see how that impacts him.

LeBron is as positionless as it gets, and if not for the slip in defense is as perfect a player as could be, but his defense has slipped. We’re probably at the slight downturn of his career, and if this team was made for five years versus one, I’d flip-flop my choice for small forward. Regardless, this is LeBron’s third straight appearance here, and if it’s in his diet he should celebrate with a ham sandwich.

Shooting Guard – Danny Green, San Antonio Spurs

  • Cap hit: $4,025,000

Danny  Green 2014

Green is third to repeat here, on the first team before replaced by the ~$900K salary of P.J. Tucker.

He is by some metrics the best 3-and-D shooting guard in the league. Here is one via Tom Haberstroh:

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3-and-D players are an essential piece to any winning team, but especially one with three high-usage players who aren’t elite defenders for long periods of time. Green would take on the toughest defensive assignments, though it wouldn’t exactly be ideal to have him chasing point guards.

With both Green and LeBron, that’s a fantastic fast break defense with the chase-down block for LeBron and Green consistently anticipating angles below the rim to bottle up the strongest of players. Even his flybys tend to happen at the perfect moment. Below is a video showing some of this:

Some on/off fast break stats for Green are pretty interesting. Opponents scored 1.1 less points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor and two less points after all turnovers, per NBA.com. The difference in the former stat would’ve bumped the Spurs from 11th in the league to the top five while the latter would take them from eighth to behind only the Hornets who were in a league of their own.

It’s also worth noting Green has never fouled out in his short career, and the five-foulers are nearly as rare. Some of this is helped by minute totals, but the Spurs organization should also get credit.

Now to Green’s offense. According to Basketball-Reference, 75% of his shots came within three feet or beyond the arc where he shot 69.8% and 41.5%, respectively. He’s a limited scorer, though, an adventure when dribbling despite a solid pull-up shooter, and only shot 35.8% from the corners. That corner 3P% might be an outlier when the past two seasons were 45.1% and 43.3%, respectively, and ~36% is fine anyway. Sometimes that and ~55% around the rim is criticized too harshly.

Despite Green’s limits offensively, he has a history of explosive performances in high-pressure games. Hopefully someday my point guard gets a really deep postseason run so we can say the same for him.

Point Guard – Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

  • Cap hit: $10,629,213

stephen curry 2014

Many of the best shooters need a teammate to bend the defense before being fed an attempt, and what better teammate to do that for Curry than LeBron? But Curry can do it by himself, something similar to what Ian Levy wrote about recently. Curry not only demands attention off the ball, but defenses shift to his movements on the dribble as well. He can get shots off anywhere with the smallest of spaces to work with, either with some crazy dribble combinations or off the catch.

Curry’s flamethrowing makes him a one-man offense for stretches, his heat waves sometimes more like…tsunamis? He’s somehow taken over 1,200 threes the last two seasons and made 44%. For this team, he could carry bench units, playing off the ball when alongside LeBron, but it would be something of a waste to not unlock his on-ball shooting in stretchy, starter-heavy lineups.

How good could Curry be alongside, say, Nowitzki? We could look at his shooting alongside a stretchy forward like Draymond Green instead of David Lee. With Green on the floor, Curry shot 50% from three compared to 38.6% with Lee, according to nbawowy.com, and hoisted 11.9 threes per 100 possessions with Green compared to 9.5 with Lee. Overall, his usage increased from 26.2 to 31.4. This isn’t meant to blame Lee’s limitations for Curry’s drop in those stats, but stretch and space matters for all positions.

With all the scoring in this lineup, Curry would still take a backseat some of the time. Not the worst thing in the world since he, like Durant, is on the slimmer side with some of the same problems with pesky defenders, and he can be turnover prone. In particular, he sticks out quite badly in this passing chart I made a while back. Regardless, he’s only 26, and it’s not at all bold to claim he’s the best shooter alive. Soon he might also be the best point guard in the league.

Some Stats

So this is how the starters stack up in a variety of numbers (click to enlarge):

starters overlay

Every player played for very successful offenses last season, minus Curry. There’s a mix in usage, some are slashers and others high in assisted shot %, and most hold up well in all-in-one metrics. It also looks like my starters will never commit a foul.

Obviously most stats would change, for better or for worse, if these players were together. Most obvious might be Basketball-Reference’s usage rates since, together, this unit would have to top out at 100%. That would actually help the projected offensive efficiency. Right now, without tinkering with the usage, the points per 100 possessions balance out to a whopping 118.6, 6.5 more than the 1st-place Clippers last season. That number would only improve as the lineup is forced to use less possessions, according to a couple notable people.

Some time ago, Eli Witus found the following related to lineups and usage, among other super interesting things in his study: “In general, for every 1% that a lineup has to increase its usage, it’s efficiency decreases by 0.25 points per 100 possessions, and vice versa.” It’s a bit harder and probably pointless to project a lineup of five guys who weren’t teammates last year, but under Witus’ study this lineup go from scoring 118.6 points/100 possessions to 122.9. We can tack on an extra point or two with amount of three-point shooting provided from four of the five players.

A couple years later, Neil Paine created a simple lineup efficiency model that combined Eli’s and Dean Oliver’s findings, the latter super intelligent guy making a distinction between low-usage, mid-usage, and high-usage players. Adjusting Paine’s model to 2014’s league-average offense, we get the following tradeoffs in offensive rating for increasing or decreasing each of my starters’ usage rates by 1%:

usage type

 

 

 

 

So I tinkered with the players to find their offensive ratings if their usage rates were anywhere from 10 to 40%. As usual, click to enlarge:

graph22112

With the low-usage, Lopez and Green dive harder than the big 3, but Lopez’ offensive rating gives him a head start. Nowitzki and Curry are neck and neck while James, as expected, is in good shape.

So we can use that info while tinkering with the lineup’s usage rate to see if we can reach the projected 122.9 points/100 possessions. The first adjustment is what would happen if we proportionally shifted every player’s percentages to a total of 100%:

proportioned starters

 

 

 

 

 

Not bad, and somewhat close to the previous projection of 122.9, but keep in mind the usage rates of Lopez and Green. What if each player was at 20%?

20 everyoen

 

 

 

 

 

The offense still improves from the 118.6 we started with. You can tinker quite a bit until the offense falls off the rails:

more rologreen rologreen

The best scoring projection involved Danny Green getting the shaft, thanks to his lower offensive rating last season, and Lopez’ usage actually increasing from 2014’s total:

optimized

That comes pretty close to what Witus’ study would suggest this lineup would score, but I can’t see those usage rates actually happening for a bunch of reasons. It would involve Green passing up what’s probably a few juicy looks from the arc, specifically from the corners since he’s the least versatile shooter, and those shots need to be taken. Who knows, though. Maybe he just never commits a turnover. As for the other players, it’s probably not ideal for LeBron to use over 27% of possessions and Dirk about 25% for an entire season.

So those projections might’ve been iffy, but the starters are a decent blend of players. Lopez and Green are already two of the best low-usage complimentary players out there, both providing some nice defense in the process. As for the trio, Curry and Nowitzki’s skill sets allow for a seamless transition into second and third options while LeBron, despite in his 12th season already, should be just fine.

The rest of the roster will be explained in part 2.

Honorable mentions (some players made the reserves, most didn’t):

Centers: Timofey Mozgov, Channing Frye, Omer Asik, Serge Ibaka, Al Horford, Tim Duncan, not Andrea Bargnani, Pau Gasol, and Boris Diaw.

Power Forwards: Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, not Amar’e Stoudemire, Greg Monroe, Kevin Garnett, Amir Johnson, Ryan Anderson, Paul Millsap, and Boris Diaw.

Small Forwards: Kevin Durant, not Gerald Wallace, Paul Pierce, Kyle Korver, and Boris Diaw.

Shooting Guards: Wesley Matthews, not Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Arron Afflalo, and Boris Diaw.

Point Guards: Goran Dragic, not Deron Williams, Mike Conley, the unsigned Eric Bledsoe, and Boris Diaw.

And all other players that are cap-friendly (or not) who flew over my head.

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