For the second year, here's my season projection for the Western Conference, built on efficiency differentials -- a (very, very*) simple model taking a player's last three years of offensive efficiency differential (ORtg** minus league average offensive efficiency), blending that with a usage-efficiency curve, and then projecting a 2012-2013 offensive efficiency based on the player's estimated usage.
That offensive efficiency is then multiplied by the player's estimated possessions used. For both possessions used and usage, I built rotations for each team as best as I could based on past usages and my own guesses. There's also a basic development curve used to project players with less than three years' experience.
** ORtg (offensive rating) is Dean Oliver's estimate of points produced per 100 possessions.
On the defensive end, it's the same model as last year designed around Jeremias Engelmann's publicly available data on adjusted defensive plus/minus. The defensive model maps individual adjusted +/- onto a defensive points/100 possessions scale with adjustments made for the historical defensive track record of the team's coach as well as last year's defensive performance if team turnover was below a given threshold. Due to this, a good defender can be projected as a mediocre one in a poor system, and vice versa.
Ballpark estimates of where the NBA should stack up this season is the goal, and outside of the Clippers and Lakers, the model did a reasonable job of it a year ago. In the individual team boxes below, the first column refers to a player's projected offensive points/100 possessions above or below league average, the second refers to defensive points/100 possessions above or below league average, and the third ("+/-") is the total. Writeups are from me and Brian where noted.
From worst to best, the Western Conference:
Phoenix went with the full tank strategy in the off-season, trading or refusing to resign veterans Luis Scola, Jermaine O'Neal, Jared Dudley, and Marcin Gortat. What's left is a team long on youth and short on salary, with lots of flexibility for new GM Ryan McDonough.
For this season, it leaves the Suns as the worst team in the Western Conference on paper, and by a good margin. Dragic will be the main contributor on offense, as he has been in Phoenix, while his new backcourt partner, Eric Bledsoe, is likely to struggle in his new starting role.
Looking positively, Channing Frye should provide a boost this year coming back from injury, and the addition of Emeka Okafor means that Alex Len and his surgically repaired ankle won't have to put in starter's minutes at the center position.
Best Case: ~28 wins - Dragic, Frye, and Okafor combine to keep the Suns competitive most nights and Alex Len develops quickly as a rookie.
Worst Case: ~17 wins - McDonough deals Okafor's expiring contract for prospects and the Suns nab a top-three lottery spot.
The Kings made big moves in the off-season, making it clear that they're planning to build around DeMarcus Cousins as their cornerstone. In a huge sign-and-trade deal, the Kings sent Tyreke Evans to New Orleans in exchange for Greivis Vasquez, who will now man the point. They drafted Ben McLemore, who figures to play starter's minutes in a relatively crowded backcourt that also features offensive stalwarts Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Thornton. However, adding Vasquez and the rookie McLemore to an already defensively-challenged guard rotation should make Sacramento the worst defense in the West.
The addition of rookie head coach Mike Malone might mitigate some of those defensive concerns, however. As a heralded lead assistant at Golden State and New Orleans, he helped craft some excellent defenses and might be able to help the Kings' defense develop.
Unlike with Evans last year, the Kings decided to extend DeMarcus Cousins's contract in the offseason. With a new coaching regime, a stable contract situation, and new guards to hopefully learn to run a pick and roll with, it's possible that this is the year that Cousins begins to reach his fabled potential.
Best Case: ~37 wins - Ben McLemore develops along with a solid young backcourt, Mike Malone is able to fashion a defense in Sacramento, and Cousins meshes well with Greivis Vasqeuz.
Worst Case: ~25 wins - The backcourt functions as a group of ushers to opposing guards, DeMarcus fails to show improvement yet again, and Mike Malone is unable to keep the Kings from having the worst defense in the Western Conference.
Utah engaged in a full purge this summer, removing the stability that Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap provided. They sold off their free cap space to the Warriors in exchange for two first round picks and three second round picks over the next five years, adding the expiring contracts of Andris Biedrins and Richard Jefferson.
They're left with a team that isn't in the same league as the teams that are built to tank, but still has no chance of getting anywhere near a playoff spot. Michigan's March hero Trey Burke will be the starting point guard, but although he had an excellent college career, he has turned in woeful performances in Summer League and the preseason. Backup John Lucas III figures to be similarly terrible, albeit in less minutes, so the point guard position appears to be Utah's biggest hole.
On the upside, Gordon Hayward, Enis Kanter, and Derrick Favors figure to continue to improve. As they're all under 24, they form a solid young core for Utah to build around.
Best Case: ~39 wins - Trey Burke rediscovers his college form and Hayward and Favors have breakout years.
Worst Case: ~27 wins - The backcourt crashes and burns, with Burke, Lucas, and Burks all shooting terrible percentages from the field.
The post-Howard free agency laughingstock of the league, the Mavericks were forced to use their cap space to retool their backcourt, adding Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis. The new guards should be able to take some offensive pressure off Dirk in his dotage, with Calderon able to get into the lane and Ellis shooting a lot, albeit inefficiently. Returners Shawn Marion and Vince Carter will anchor the small forward position after OJ Mayo's departure, making the 3 one of Dallas's strongest positions.
In the post, things get a bit dicier. The additions of Sam Dalembert and DeJuan Blair down low were uninspiring, and in combination with Nowitzki, the frontcourt will likely be unable to pick up the backcourt's defensive slack. Although Marion should be able to guard the strongest perimeter threat, the rest of the starting lineup will be difficult to hide defensively.
With their offseason moves, the Mavericks have put themselves in an unenviable position. They've removed some of their precious financial flexibility, prevented themselves from tanking, and made it more difficult for them to acquire a star that can be slotted beside Nowitzki as he declines.
Best Case: ~42 wins - The new backcourt and Dirk combine to form a potent offense and Rick Carlisle works his defensive magic to make the unit passable.
Worst Case: ~ 35 wins - The defensive woes can't be overcome and Dirk heads into obvious decline while Monta Ellis chucks 20-footers wildly.
The Trail Blazers upgraded their roster through the cheapest and most underrated means: upgrading their bench. Gone are last year's scrubs, replaced by Mo Williams, Dorrell Wright, Earl Watson, and Thomas Robinson. Portland also received affordable center Robin Lopez in a three-way deal with New Orleans and Sacramento.
Much will depend on the progression of Damian Lillard - as an old rookie last year, he had a stellar performance, but his advanced age indicates that he's relatively close to his ceiling. Youngsters Meyers Leonard and Thomas Robinson will be counted on to come off the bench. Leonard had a promising rookie season, while Robinson has already bounced around the league and failed to get playing time.
The team's weakness is on defense. Starters Lillard, Matthews, and Batum are all questionable defenders, but Robin Lopez's addition alongside LaMarcus Aldridge should help mitigate the defensive concerns. Aldridge's defensive rebounding prowess might make up for Lopez's abysmal performance on the defensive glass, but the lack of other above-average defensive rebounders on the team makes that an area for concern.
Best Case: ~43 wins - Lopez and Aldridge anchor a close to league-average defense and Lillard takes the next step to stardom.
Worst Case: ~35 wins - Lillard and the other second-year players fail to progress, and the defensive woes overshadow the offense's excellence.
LOS ANGELES (10th)
Even in their advanced age, the Lakers remain a dangerous team when healthy. Much of the Laker's season depends on how much Kobe Bryant plays (the model projects around 60 games), but even without him, Nash and Gasol combine for a potent pick and roll combination. Adding a healthy Kobe Bryant into the mix makes the team fairly dangerous offensively.
After the offseason departure of Dwight Howard, the Lakers signed players around the minimum, planning on using this season as an opportunity to maintain financial flexibility heading into the next offseason and hoping to get lucky in the lottery. The players they signed were definitely off the scrap heap - Nick Young, Wesley Johnson, and Chris Kaman all project to have the most negative impact on the team.
The departure of Metta World Peace leaves the Lakers without a defensive stopper on the perimeter, and indeed, without anybody particularly good at defense at all. Their poor defensive projection as a team puts them right at .500 for the season.
Best Case: ~45 wins - Bryant does his usual medical magic, returning at full strength before Christmas, Gasol flourishes without Dwight, and the bench surprises.
Worst Case: ~30 wins - Kobe's achilles injury is worse than reported - he either doesn't return this year or is a shell of his former self, and the Lakers implode without him.
NEW ORLEANS (9th)
New Orleans completely remade the franchise in the offseason, rebranding the team, renovating the arena, and rejuvenating the roster. Dell Demps traded away Greivis Vasquez and Robin Lopez, who were affordable and mediocre, along with the 2013 and 2014 first-round picks. In return, Demps received Jrue Holliday and Tyreke Evans, forming a confused backcourt with Eric Gordon, Austin Rivers, Brian Roberts, and offseason signing Anthony Morrow.
Demps failed to address two of the Pelicans' most glaring weaknesses - center and small forward. Jason Smith and Greg Stiemsma, will be splitting time at the center position, but neither appears to be up to the task. Small forward will be manned by Al-Farouq Aminu, an excellent defender and rebounder but an offensive liability.
The bench, long a weakness in New Orleans, figures to be a source of strength, with both Ryan Anderson and Tyreke Evans coming off the bench for Monty Williams. If Monty can figure out how to take these disparate parts and craft close to a league-average defense, the Pelicans could very well make the playoffs.
Offensively, the Pelicans are hoping that Evans, Gordon, and Holliday, three guards that have been inefficient with high usage rates on bad teams, will be able to perform better with talented players surrounding them.
Best Case: ~49 wins - New Orleans finally avoids the injury bug, Anthony Davis has a breakout year, and the revamped backcourt causes the team to make huge leaps in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
Worst Case: ~36 wins - Gordon and Evans continue to miss lots of time, the guards play inefficient offense, and the defense fails to materialize without a dependable center.
Statistical projection systems have loved the Timberwolves (Kevin Pelton projected last year that the Wolves would have the best offense in the Western Conference), but Minnesota has been done in by injuries, mostly to Kevin Love. If Love can stay healthy, the Timberwolves should be in the thick of the playoff race.
Minnesota should certainly expect to see postseason basketball, since they shelled out a ton of money over the offseason. They gave sizable contracts to Kevin Marton, Corey Brewer, Chase Budinger, and Nikola Pekovic, all at market rate or higher. The addition of Martin should substantially improve the team's offense, providing an outside shooting presence that Minnesota desperately lacked last year. With Martin able to shoot from three and Rubio able to penetrate, Love and Pekovic will have more floor space to operate on offense.
Corey Brewer's signing is unlikely to improve the team substantially, and Shabazz Muhammad, their pick at the 14th spot in the draft, doesn't appear likely to pan out. And outside of Kevin Martin, the guard play looks to be a substantial negative for the team, with Ricky Rubio and J.J. Barea projected to produce even less than their rapidly-deteriorating reputations would suggest.
Best Case: ~50 wins - Kevin Love returns to his dominant form in his first full season in two years and the offense hums for Minnesota.
Worst Case: ~36 wins - The injury bug strikes again and the weak guard play drags down the whole unit.
Denver is a tough team to project this year. After winning 55 games with a fast and fun offense last year, the Nuggets had a total reboot in management in the offseason, getting a new GM and replacing George Karl with longtime assistant Brian Shaw.
The Nuggets let Andre Iguodala sign with the Warriors and Brian Shaw has spent the summer changing Denver's uptempo offense to one that's slow and methodical.
Though the system is tough to project, the players are just as hard. The Nuggets relied on Andre Miller down the stretch, but he's 37 now and liable to have a significant dropoff. JaVale McGee is a highly volatile player, and Danilo Gallinari is rehabbing a significant knee injury.
Best Case: ~50 wins - Shaw doesn't miss a beat, and the team takes to his direction with aplomb. Lawson and McGee finally become the duo they were meant to be.
Worst Case: ~37 wins - The new system fails, age catches up to the team's veterans, McGee and Wilson Chandler fail to hit their projections, and Denver tumbles out of the playoff hunt.
GOLDEN STATE (6th)
Two important questions accompany Golden State’s season in 2014. One’s the annual staple since the arrival of Stephen Curry – how healthy will they be? – and the other involves the departure of assistant coach Mike Malone to Sacramento.
Malone was the strategic architect of Golden State’s defense, Mark Jackson’s rah-rah sermons notwithstanding, and it’s worth mentioning that he designed a similar (and even more effective) defense while with New Orleans at his previous stop. That defense fell apart in a hurry when he left.
Fortunately, Jackson has a rather good standby with Malone gone; a healthy Andrew Bogut-Andre Iguodala pairing figures to be among the league’s very best defensive duos. Both players were at the league’s best at their respective positions – arguably the two most important defensive positions on the floor – as recently as two years ago.
Best Case: ~54 wins – This is a balanced, reasonably deep team that should, on any given night, be able to rely on offense or defense to pick up victories. Not too many past iterations of the Warriors or indeed current teams around the league can make that claim.
Worst Case: ~43 wins – Golden State’s no longer a turned Steph Curry ankle from a losing record though, needless to say, it’d be a huge shame nonetheless.
Anyone claiming to know what’s going to happen here likely lacks requisite knowledge of Houston’s new center, destroyer of worlds and, more recently, teams.
Howard’s defensive numbers stayed strong a year ago, but to many, he looked a different player, and it’s unclear what the extent of his lingering injury issues will be in 2014. His frontcourt mate, Omer Asik, seems an unlikely candidate to last a full season though if it were to somehow work with the rest of the team’s personnel, a Howard/Asik frontcourt could obviously be terrifying.
James Harden’s offensive projection is the real story here; at this stage, he’s a legitimate NBA superstar, and Howard’s presence is only going to make his nightly exertions easier.
Best Case: ~58 wins – The team gels immediately and either gets good return for Asik or incorporates him well into the roster.
Worst Case: ~43 wins - Well... we all watched last year.
Given a chance to step up in Oklahoma City’s absence, Memphis performed admirably in the 2013 playoffs. And while it’ll probably take another set of injuries to catapult them there again in the loaded Western Conference, the Grizzlies still project very strongly in 2014.
Marc Gasol’s clearly the team’s standout player, offensively excellent and defensively among the league’s top three. The core trio of Mike Conley, Tony Allen, and Zach Randolph return behind him, and the midseason and offseason additions of Ed Davis and Kosta Koufos to a bench that already had Jerryd Bayless and Quincy Pondexter were well measured.
As they’re currently constructed, Memphis is likely capped out of true title contention, but as they showed last season, they’ll be ready to step up if the opportunity arises.
Best Case: ~59 wins – Marc Gasol turns in another great season, and Dave Joerger picks up the defense where it left off.
Worst Case: ~51 wins – Tony Allen starts to show his age on the perimeter as he adjusts to a slightly new system, leaving the interior unable to effectively adapt.
SAN ANTONIO (3rd)
When will it end? Probably not this year.
It’s been Tony Parker’s team for a while, with Manu Ginobili fading fast and Tim Duncan staving off aging as best he can, but the brilliance of Gregg Popovich keeps San Antonio in contention for yet another 82+ game slog.
The Spurs have settled into a sort of happy medium between their devastatingly good defensive era of the early to mid-2000s and their breakneck offensive machine of a couple years ago. While they still skew faster at times and feature an efficient, fluid offense, they project to be a relatively balanced offense/defense side.
The stats aren’t particularly fond of offseason acquisitions Marco Belinelli or Corey Maggette, but critiquing Popovich in free agency has been a fool’s errand for more than a decade. The team’s also rather thin at point guard behind Parker and at center behind Splitter and Duncan, so injuries could hit rather hard.
Best Case: ~59 wins – For reasons of age, injury, and the fact that Popovich has navigated so many regular seasons, I can’t see San Antonio’s ceiling as too much higher than their projection. As always, the playoffs will be where they’re judged, though with the emergence of the Clippers and the re-emergence of Oklahoma City, the Duncan title era is most likely finished.
Worst Case: ~45 wins – If Parker or Duncan goes down for an extended period, the team’s in trouble obviously, and the fate of Manu Ginobili – hampered by injury last year and 37 at the end of this season – remains unclear.
L.A. CLIPPERS (2nd)
I was sorely mistaken on the Clippers’ defensive prospects in 2013; Los Angeles finished more than two full points per 100 possessions better than league average, a very nice and largely unexpected jump from the previous lockout shortened year. With new head coach Doc Rivers and the vast majority of last year’s roster on board, the defensive improvement could definitely be here to stay.
Los Angeles’ Western title hopes begin and end, of course, with Chris Paul. His possession usage is lower than during his New Orleans’ days, but his efficiency remains as absurd as ever. Paul’s projected +3.6 offense/defense efficiency differential comes in third in the league to only LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
Behind him, both Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan continue to mature on both sides of the ball. Griffin in particular appears to be in a sort of post-hype-(that-was-lived-up-to)-sleeper state, with the same analysts decrying his lack of sophomore improvement upon a stellar rookie campaign ostensibly incognizant of his marked progress since.
J.J. Redick will serve as a fine consolation prize for missing out on Arron Afflalo, and while Jamal Crawford can’t realistically be expected to repeat 2013’s efficiency showing, he’s more than proved that he slots in well in Chris Paul’s L.A. alley-oop festival.
Best Case: ~64 wins – Projecting 61 wins for the Clippers feels vaguely obscene and yet here we are.
Worst Case: ~54 wins – I think we all know what the real worst case here is, but failing that, between all the versatility, there’s a lot to love with this roster.
OKLAHOMA CITY (1st)
Rudely deprived of an opportunity to challenge Miami for the title in 2013, Oklahoma City should be back with a vengeance in 2014, especially upon Russell Westbrook’s return.
Oklahoma’s defense has made great strides forward in the past two years; in 2012, the team’s late game 5-man unit played lockdown D, and in 2013, that efficiency spread across the board with the team finishing 4th in the league. Statistically, the defense rests on the shoulders of Serge Ibaka and the oft-maligned Kendrick Perkins, an adjusted defensive plus/minus stalwart for eight straight years now.
Little else needs to be said at this point about Kevin Durant of course; his offense alone is enough to carry a team more than halfway to championship contention, and his defense has improved considerably since his early years. And while this is very much a 1-2 punch offensive team since the departure of James Harden, Ibaka brings positional versatility and efficiency on that end few can match.
The Clippers are likely more deep with more weapons at their disposal, but healthy, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Oklahoma City will be the class of the West.
Best Case: ~66 wins – Durant posts MVP caliber numbers, the team largely steers clear of injury, Jeremy Lamb develops as a sophomore, and Russell Westbrook returns quickly and at full strength.
Worst Case: ~52 wins – OKC’s baseline is a bit lower than it might otherwise be, simply because of the Westbrook risk factor. They’re a drastically different team without him, doubly so when you consider who the beneficiaries of his lost minutes would be.
It's worth noting that my Eastern Conference projections (which we'll post later in the week) bode absolutely terribly for their lower-tier teams, one of the primary drivers behind the anomalously high winning percentages I'm projecting for the West. In a typical year in recent history, the Western Conference has posted close to a 53% winning percentage; I'm projecting them at just a shade below 56% this year with at least five teams tanking for the lottery from opening day in the East.