[This is part three of my +6 series. Here's part one and here's part two.]
One of the best aspects of analyzing teams by efficiency differentials is the ability to map individual contributions contextually to the whole. For example: a team that's "+5" on offense is really a team that's comprised of a bunch of individuals that add up to that number. There was probably some guy that was a +1, maybe a slacker or two that came in at -0.5, perhaps an overachieving star-type with a +3.
So what follows is my projection for the Western Conference, built on efficiency differentials. For offense, I built 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.
*Again: emphasis on the simple. And on the very. This column is meant more to give a brief overview of what the league might look like this season. For actual scientific stuff, Basketball Prospectus is obviously the move.
** ORtg (offensive rating) is Dean Oliver's estimate of points produced per 100 possessions.
While I find weighing ORtg with usage to be a generally pretty decent overall offensive statistic (I'm not a fan of catch-all statistics really), its defensive complement, DRtg, is basically worthless. So on the defensive end, I used a model designed around Jeremias Engelmann's outstanding and publicly available data on adjusted defensive plus/minus. To me, adjusted defensive +/- does a better job of accounting for defensive cross-matching than anything else out there.
My defensive model maps the 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.
And so again, nothing too crazy. Ballpark estimates of where the NBA should stack up this season is my goal, and I think my models do a decent enough job of that. And so off we go. 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.
From worst to best, the Western Conference:
In the wake of Steve Nash's departure, Phoenix opted to avoid the tanking route empirically preferred by teams losing stars. They snapped up Luis Scola in an amnesty auction, reacquired point guard Goran Dragic, picked up forward Michael Beasley from the Wolves, and drafted UNC's Kendall Marshall in hopes of replacing Nash immediately.
It's unclear whether any of those moves will allow them to make a dent in the Western Conference unfortunately. Scola's production fell off hugely last season, and Beasley's long ranked among the NBA's least efficient players.
On the plus side, Marcin Gortat deserved legitimate All-Star consideration in 2012 and should be the team's best performer once again. Dragic too was an excellent pickup, and along with Jared Dudley and Gortat, combines to form a sort of "mini-big 3" at least on offense. But there's just too much middling talent surrounding those three guys. The loss of Channing Frye for the season was also a tough blow.
Phoenix will put a decently competitive product on the floor most nights, but it won't be enough this season. The arrival of James Harden in Houston could very well slide the Suns into the Western cellar.
Best Case: ~35 wins - Scola rediscovers his previous form, Marshall transitions into a plus rookie backup for Dragic, and Beasley's shot creation allows everyone else to slot neatly into roles they prefer.
Worst Case: ~25 wins - Scola's decline continues, and the rest of the roster plays the way it generally has in the past.
The Kings lucked into Thomas Robinson, projected by many analysts as a top 2 or top 3 pick in the 2012 draft. It's unclear just how much he'll be able to contribute as a rookie, but he figures to be a fantastic complement to DeMarcus Cousins if he's allowed to develop.
For this season at least, the Kings will go as far as Cousins takes them. A year ago, he showed tremendous improvement on the offensive side of the ball and although regularized adjusted plus/minus rates him harshly, the defensive potential with Cousins is similarly obvious.
It's also a big year for Tyreke Evans, with the Kings opting not to extend him. Evans is yet to live up to the expectations he established during his rookie campaign, and with an increasingly crowded backcourt around him, it's an open question whether it happens this season.
One of those backcourt players is the excellent Isaiah Thomas, who figures to be Sacramento's most efficient offensive player this season. Depending on the overall possession distribution, he's poised to continue his remarkable rise.
Outside of those bright spots, Sacramento will probably be poor defensively once again (though the addition of James Johnson is intriguing) and won't do enough offensively to offset it.
Best Case: ~37 wins - A speculative jostle with the 8th seed hopefuls, fueled by a strong campaign from DeMarcus Cousins. If Evans can rebound and if Robinson can attack the glass and bring the hard-nosed play he showed at Kansas, it's certainly plausible.
Worst Case: ~25 wins - Evans goes up in smoke, Cousins butts heads with management, and the backcourt chucks ill-adivsed 20 foot jumpers amidst the chaos.
For Portland, this is more reload than rebuild; the presence of LaMarcus Aldridge, Nic Batum, and Wes Matthews far supersedes what most teams that picked in the draft's top 6 currently have on roster.
The Blazers finished at a -0.7 efficiency differential a year ago, doing reasonably well on offense and struggling on D (Nicolas Batum's very poor adjusted plus/minus numbers should be noted). This year, the team's offense projects to be a little bit worse. A full season without Gerald Wallace forces minutes for less experienced, less talented replacements. It's a similar story at shooting guard; even though Jamal Crawford was decidedly inefficient in his play, many of the primary recipients of his vacated minutes figure to be worse.
Of course, Portland's still very close to returning to the playoff race next season. If Damian Lillard (projected conservatively here) and Meyers Leonard (projected poorly on offense here, in line with rookie bigs with his collegiate numbers) can prove to be regular rotation guys, the Blazers once again have a strong starting five to roll with. And if Lillard turns out to be more than just a solid starter, so much the better.
Best Case: ~38 wins - Aldridge turns in another All-Star campaign, Lillard runs the offense effectively, and Meyers Leonard shows us that this draft's bigs didn't start and end with Davis and Drummond.
Worst Case: ~31 wins - It feels relatively unlikely that Portland crashes and burns this. For those that would have liked to see a more conventional rebuild around the younger guys, and not Batum, Matthews, and Aldridge, that's probably not a good thing, but for those that simply want to watch solid, not terrible basketball, Portland will deliver.
The post-Howard trade laughingstock of the league, the Rockets struck powerfully over the weekend, finally turning its abundance of trade chips into a star. Gone are Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb; in James Harden, Daryl Morey has his go-to scorer of the future.
During the 2012 season, Harden posted the largest offensive efficiency differential (points produced per 100 possessions above the league average mark) in the NBA in over 20 years for players with usage rates of at least 20%. Now the question is whether he can maintain that sort of ridiculous efficiency with a significantly increased workload. Jeremy Lin is no Russell Westbrook and Chandler Parson is no Kevin Durant. Nonetheless, Parsons is still an intriguing piece for the future, as is the newly acquired Omer Asik.
With the trade, the Rockets leap out of their projected position in the West cellar. A run at the playoffs is still highly improbable, but they'll be able to establish their identity for upcoming seasons. What was slated to be a dire offensive group now becomes simply a bad one with the addition of Harden.
Meanwhile, Asik's strong defensive plus/minus will anchor the D. Terrence Jones projects to develop into a strong defensive complement to Asik as well. As of now, Houston lacks a legitimate perimeter stopper, but the overall defensive potential here is excellent.
Best Case: ~37 wins - Harden turns in an All-Star campaign, Asik excels outside of Tom Thibodeau's system, and Jeremy Lin proves that New York was no fluke.
Worst Case: ~ 32 wins - Harden struggles initially with the transition to primary scorer (although he's probably too good for it to be a long term concern), Lin's mediocre preseason extends into the regular season, and Asik proves less effective without Joakim Noah or Taj Gibson at his side.
NEW ORLEANS (11th)
Two primary factors will shape the Hornets' season - how good Anthony Davis is as a rookie and the health of Eric Gordon's knee. Chris Paul turned in arguably the NBA's best rookie season since Tim Duncan in 2005, and New Orleans is hopeful that Davis can repeat the feat for them. Early returns are promising.
Less promising is Gordon's health status; he doesn't seem to have recovered fully from knee surgery at the end of last season, and New Orleans simply doesn't have a lot of options in his absence. Austin Rivers has already struggled, and his college statistical profile is far and away the worst of any 2012 lottery pick. Xavier Henry seems to have fallen out of the rotation, Roger Mason Jr. is too old to consistently contribute, and Monty Williams may be forced to look at guys like Darius Miller and Brian Roberts to fill minutes at the off guard.
Healthy, the Hornets project surprisingly well. Ryan Anderson was one of the league's most productive players a year ago, and Monty Williams should be able to build at least a league average defense around Anthony Davis.
Best Case: ~39 wins - The statistical projection here really reflects the best case scenario; it's hard to see New Orleans exceeding .500 unless Anthony Davis proves to be a legitimate star as a rookie.
Worst Case: ~25 wins - The floor is pretty low. If Gordon misses a lot of time (the projection above has him playing in about 60% of games this year), things could get ugly.
GOLDEN STATE (10th)
The hiring of Mark Jackson last year signified a shift to a new, defensive style of play, and Golden State doubled down on the transition by moving Monta Ellis to Milwaukee for defensive stalwart Andrew Bogut.
In 2012-2013, this could be a very deep team. Two former Hornets starters, Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry, and a high lottery pick, Harrison Barnes, could all come off the bench. Ultimately, it will all come down to the health of Bogut and Stephen Curry.
The offensive projection for Bogut is particularly dire due to his sharp decline after his 2010 injury. If he's healthy, he'll outperform it comfortably. Klay Thompson's another player that could surpass expectations; in 2011, he produced around 4 points per 100 possessions below league average, but his 41% three point shot, plus free throw shooting, and decent passing ability probably point to significant improvement.
I'm not sold on the overall defense though. The team lost a plus perimeter defender in Dorell Wright, and as good as Bogut has been historically, David Lee has been almost equally as terrible by adjusted defensive plus/minus. That said, they'll be significantly better than last year's -4.5 defense.
Best Case: ~43 wins - Bogut reverts to '09 form, covers for Lee's defensive shortcomings, Klay Thompson keeps shooting the lights out, and Steph Curry avoids turning another ankle. The starters staying healthy is a double coup for the Warriors in that it allows them to actually take advantage of the solid bench they've assembled.
Worst Case: ~30 wins - Injuries, injuries, and more injuries. Hopefully it doesn't happen, but for a team this reliant on two guys (Bogut and Curry), losing either one would be rough.
The last time Dallas won fewer than 50 games in a season? 1999-2000. That's an impressive, extended period of excellence, and unsurprisingly, it coincides with the tenure of Dirk Nowitzki. With Dirk now hurting and the roster in a serious state of flux, Rick Carlisle will have a tough enough job steering this team into the playoffs, let alone winning 50 one more time.
The "loss" of Deron Williams obviously stings, but there's no question Dallas added some talent in the offseason. Elton Brand, probably the league's most underrated defender in 2012, came cheap via amnesty. Darren Collison's career progression has stalled since a fine rookie season, but he's a more than capable floor general. O.J. Mayo is also a person.
Dallas will probably be fine on the defensive end, especially considering that the Brand-Chris Kaman-Dirk-Marion frontcourt rates very, very strongly by adjusted defensive plus/minus. The backcourt is more of a defensive question mark (Carlisle might miss Jason Kidd's ability to defend off guards), but this frontcourt is strong enough to cover for it. Offense is where the bigger issues come in.
Last season, Dallas finished as a -1.2 on offense, and that was with a full year of Dirk. Chris Kaman and O.J. Mayo are highly inefficient offensive players, and if they prove to be the primary recipients of possessions ceded by an injured Dirk, Dallas is in trouble.
Best Case: ~46 wins - There's no question this is still a playoffs caliber roster. The only reason Dirk's projected impact is somewhat muted is the time he's slated to miss. If he's back quickly, the Mavericks should be able to stay afloat offensively. The bigger questions are about the future; is this a stopgap roster? If so, what players and free agents is it a bridge to? Historically, and somewhat contrary to popular opinion, bigger name players have been averse to signing with the Mavs.
Worst Case: ~35 wins - Dirk misses a lot more time than people are expecting now. Outside of Carlisle's ability to design a solid defensive gameplan, this is a very one-dimensional team.
The Jazz narrowly missed the 2012 Western postseason,* and the hope is that the young Enes Kanter - Derrick Favors - Gordon Hayward - Alec Burks core has grown enough to complement Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson and push the team forward in 2013.
*This is a thing that is not true, heh.
It's clear that Millsap's far and away the best player the Jazz have, and he may be the most underrated offensive player in the NBA. Where he fits long term is less certain, but Utah will need another strong campaign from him to contend for a top-8 seed.
Utah was a +2.2 offensively a year ago, a figure they should at least match this season. Players like Favors, Hayward, Burks, a physically tremendously improved Kanter, and new additions Marvin and Mo Williams will give Jefferson and Millsap a slightly increased margin for error.
Defense is what projects to hold Utah back once again. Al Jefferson grades out very poorly by most defensive measures (including adjusted defensive plus/minus, used here), and it's debatable whether a good or even average defensive team can feature him in the middle.
Favors projects to be a significant improvement in the post defensively, but Utah's still caught in the middle between committing 100% to their young core and relying on longer term fixtures.
Best Case: ~45 wins - Another first round appearance is certainly within reach if Ty Corbin can improve the defense.
Worst Case: ~40 wins - Last year, Utah won 36 of 66 games, which translates to 45 wins over an 82 game season. Outside of poor health, it's tough to see this team dipping too far below that mark. The future is bright.
Utah could be in the playoffs just two years after losing their star; for Minnesota, 2012-2013 would represent year number six. The good news is that even with all the injury issues, they should get in comfortably.
That starts and ends, of course, with Kevin Love. He's a legitimate superstar, one of the six best offensive players in the entire league, and even after his absence is factored in, his overall season impact will be massive.
The Wolves surround him with plus offensive talent in most every direction. Nikola Pekovic was a revelation in 2012, Luke Ridnour will be more than capable in Ricky Rubio's absence, and Chase Budinger was an excellent replacement in a position that had been an absolute black hole. Minnesota also looked internationally for talent this summer, bringing Andrei Kirilenko back stateside and plucking Alexei Shved from CSKA Moscow.
The Wolves will improve this year as much due to their new talent as dumping possession hogging, low efficiency players. This projects to flat out be one of the West's very best offensive groups.
Best Case: ~48 wins - The ceiling for Minnesota was really a low 50s win team, but injuries changed that. It's worth noting that any projection system that extrapolates an efficiency statistic like ORtg (like this one does) will underrate Ricky Rubio. If his shot has improved over the offseason, the Wolves will be that much better.
Worst Case: ~41 wins - In the worst case scenario, Love's absence causes the team to stumble out of the gate, and by season's end, they're fighting an invigorated Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas and similarly youthful team in Utah for the 8th seed.
Memphis' 2012 season ended in heartbreak as the Clippers used a stunning Game 1 comeback to fuel a series victory. Nonetheless, we learned a lot about the Grizzlies last year. Primarily: they're really, really fun to watch on defense.
Memphis finished at a +2.8 defensive differential, good for 7th in the league. They should be right around that mark again this season. Offensively, a full season of Zach Randolph should help quite a bit. Memphis is the first team on this list that could maybe, maybe be a contender if things break just right.
The summer acquisition of Jerryd Bayless was a smart, relatively unpublicized move. Bayless quietly turned in an excellent season for Toronto last year (+5.4 offensive efficiency on nearly 25% usage), and he should contribute some very valuable minutes backing up both Mike Conley and Tony Allen.
Best Case: ~54 wins - Memphis is probably just as much a "title contender" as the Clippers are, though the latter is mentioned in that context about twice as frequently. To me, the biggest deciding factor is Rudy Gay. He performed below league average efficiency-wise a year ago, but was a plus contributor as recently as 2011. We know the defense is going to be good, but his offense could make this a mid-50 win team. Maybe.
Worst Case: ~48 wins - Even the floor is pretty high. The Grizzlies are a very balanced team, and that's both in terms of offense and defense as well as the possession distribution offensively. They already showed last season that they can weather the absence of a major offensive contributor.
L.A. CLIPPERS (5th)
The Clippers are the easiest Western Conference team to statistically project this season. And that's not a good thing.
We knew exactly what they were a year ago: a very solid offensive team (+3.9 on that end, 4th in the league) that played alternately middling to atrocious on defense (-1.1 on the season). Not one move they made this summer addressed that fundamental problem.
Out went Mo Williams; in came Jamal Crawford, who has a pretty, pretty crossover but who also hasn't exceeded the league average efficiency mark since 2010. Willie Green is basically the definition of a replacement level player. Matt Barnes was a decent enough pickup, but he's overrated as a defender at this stage of his career.
Lamar Odom's essentially the one new wild card, and as noted in the latest Basketball Prospectus, almost nobody in the history of basketball has recovered from the type of production drop-off he suffered through last season. Extenuating circumstances? Sure. But again, most everyone that's ever dropped off like that has been embroiled in some weird circumstances.
The Clippers will be an excellent offensive team again. Blake Griffin's fantastic. Getting Chauncey Billups back from injury is great. DeAndre Jordan took a lot of heat for not developing last year, but he was still excellent on the offensive glass and around the hoop. And Chris Paul is still surreal as ever, the second best offensive player in the sport.
Once again though, none of that was the problem last season. Defense was. And it will be again.
Best Case: ~54 wins - Depending on the matchup, the Clippers are a good bet to win another first round series. They're simply not in the class of the Spurs, Thunder, or (probably) Lakers though.
Worst Case: ~46 wins - I still think the best long term result for the Clippers comes about through the firing of Vinny del Negro. He's not nearly the terrible coach many make him out to be. But in the absence of transcendent defensive players (Eric Bledsoe's the only significantly plus player defensively), a top-end defensive coaching scheme is a necessity. del Negro simply hasn't provided anything close to that.
It's fantastically appropriate that the long term replacement for Carmelo Anthony somehow turned out to be the anti-Carmelo, Andre Iguodala.
George Karl's Nuggets have historically been offensive juggernauts, and that will likely be the case once again. Iguodala brings tremendous defense and is clearly superior as a creator to Arron Afflalo. But Afflalo also played a critical role in the offense, spacing the floor and dropping threes at a +40% rate.
Iguodala won't play nearly the same role, but when he is asked to perform tasks that overlap with Afflalo's old position, he'll be significantly less efficient. Last year's 39% three point rate is in no way reflective of his career percentages, and he'll almost certainly regress. The question then becomes whether the tradeoff of an additional creator vs. the efficient shots that were being adequately created by others (primarily Lawson and Miller) is worth it.
By defensive plus/minus, the swap was a no-brainer. Denver routinely performed better defensively with Afflalo off the floor while Iguodala's defensive plus/minus numbers have been excellent. This is certainly a case where the numbers could be lying, but even by the eye test, I much prefer Iguodala as a defender.
Denver should be an improved group, on the outer fringes of title contention
Best Case: ~55 wins - The number of really, really strong offensive players on this team is almost startling. If Kenneth Faried/JaVale McGee can anchor a defense behind Iguodala the way Elton Brand did in Philadelphia, the ceiling is high. Unfortunately (and obviously), neither of those guys is anywhere near the defender Brand is.
Worst Case: ~46 wins - Ultimately, Denver should be a comfortable playoff team ahead of the likes of Utah and Dallas.
OKLAHOMA CITY (3rd)
The Thunder had done it all - drafted intelligently, made brilliant personnel decisions, built a locker room full of guys that complemented each other perfectly. They made the Finals out of a loaded Western Conference after years of patience and mediocrity. And then, one fine October night, for reasons of finance, flexibility, locker room tension, or all of the above, they dumped their third most productive player.
Kevin Martin is now a Thunder, and he's a very solid complementary offensive piece. He shoots, he gets to the line a ton, and he rarely turns over. He's also nowhere near the player James Harden is. Between Jeremy Lamb and the future picks, this is quite possibly a great long term move by Oklahoma City but for 2013, I don't think there's any question they got worse.
You can scroll back up to the Houston section to see Harden's projection, but suffice it to say: he was awesome last year and he's probably going to be awesome again this year. With Harden, I had OKC winning the Western Conference; without him, they move back down to the level of San Antonio and the Lakers.
Outside of the big trade, the Thunder will largely be the team they were last year -- offensively very strong and defensively competent. Both Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka grade out very well by defensive plus/minus, and in 2012, the Thunder's 5 man unit in crunch time was the best 5-man group in the NBA defensively.
The Thunder will still be title contenders, but they'll have a much tougher time making the Finals again without James Harden on board.
Best Case: ~57 wins - Kevin Martin acclimates immediately, OKC beats out S.A. and L.A. for the top seed, and returns to the Finals.
Worst Case: ~51 wins - The Harden move -- one that the team could easily have waited till next summer to execute since a max Harden extension wouldn't have kicked in till next year -- haunts the Thunder as the Spurs beat them to home court advantage and knock them out of the playoffs.
L.A. LAKERS (2nd)
If the Clippers are the easiest Western team to project, the Lakers are its toughest.
Statistically? They could underwhelm a bit. The offensive production outside of the big 4 is virtually nonexistent (though Jodie Meeks was a great pickup). If the Lakers expect to get anything of value out of Antawn Jamison, they're going to be sorely disappointed.
And while Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace could be a great defensive one-two, there's not a tremendous amount of defensive talent around the duo, with the already poor Steve Nash now entering old age and the generally mediocre Kobe Bryant continuing to receive defensive plaudits for no reason beyond his reputation.
But no team has the ability to outperform statistical projections like these Lakers do. This is the best foursome of players in the NBA, and if Dwight Howard is back to full health, he's one of the three best players in the league.
Analysts often talk about players that "make their teammates better." It's largely a nebulous phrase, but there is some merit to it. There are some players that consistently raise the efficiencies of their teammates in addition to performing at high individual levels themselves. In Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, the Lakers acquired two of the prime exponents of the phenomenon. They're players that can entirely transform offensive and defensive systems.
Best Case: ~60 wins - Howard and World Peace terrorize offenses, Gasol and Bryant slot neatly into secondary roles in the defense, Steve Nash is handed the keys to the new Princeton offense, and everyone stays healthy.
Worst Case: ~51 wins - Kobe insists on being the man offensively, Dwight Howard starts privately complaining about a lack of touches by mid-February, and, as always, Lakers fans decide Pau Gasol's the guy that should be blamed.
SAN ANTONIO (1st)
Many have been quick to congratulate the Lakers as the big winners of the James Harden deal, but San Antonio was at least equally so. The Thunder dumped them ignominiously out of the playoffs in 2012, and the Spurs would be more than happy to return the favor to a voluntarily diminished Thunder squad.
By now, everyone's come to grips with the fact that the Spurs are a dynamic offensive team that frequently struggles to contain good offenses, or the antithesis of the Popovich teams that dominated the 2000's. That speaks to how tremendous a coach Popovich is. He's been absolutely dominant now at two entirely different styles of basketball with hardly a year's worth of transition between the two.
Tim Duncan continues to decline, but he's still a strong defender. Behind him, Tiago Splitter has quietly begun to live up to the lofty expectations set many years ago. Kawhi Leonard was a revelation in 2012, complementing the evergreen Manu Ginobili and resurgent Tony Parker in the backcourt. Tack on extremely solid role players in Matt Bonner, Danny Green, and DeJuan Blair, and this Spurs team is going to be a very tough out. Again.
The Lakers may have won the preseason battle for superiority in the eyes of the public, but as with basically every elite Western team of the last decade, they'll need to go through San Antonio to make it a reality.
Best Case: ~60 wins - Another conference topping performance, another trip to the Western Conference Finals.
Worst Case: ~50 wins - The Spurs have repeatedly thwarted old age in recent years, but a serious decline or injury for Duncan and Ginobili is a real possibility. The Spurs' youth is very decent, but ultimately, it's their old big 3 that will be tasked with repeating the success of 2012.
Lots and lots of credit/thanks to Basketball Prospectus, Jeremias Engelmann's +/- data, Aaron McGuire's Gothic Ginobili, Canis Hoopus, EvanZ's The City Blog, J.R.'s Smooths Hoops, and probably a few others I've missed for helping me develop team rotations and offensive/defensive models. Also thanks to Yucca Man below for pointing out a pretty terrible mistake on my part.