From points to steals to three-point percentage, basketball actions are inextricably linked to the statistics recording them. Some stats, like WAR (wins above replacement) go even further, as they attempt to quantify all of a player’s contributions to their team with a single figure. Data journalism site FiveThirtyEight combines WAR with in-house algorithms to not only calculate past production, but to project future performance. With the Pelicans 2019-20 roster rounding into shape, we will be diving deep into this data to provide an analytical perspective on the players we expect to see most. Parts 2 and 3 will revolve around defensive production and projected placement in the coming season’s standings, but this, Part 1 of our By The Numbers series, will focus on the past and expected future value of the current roster.
WAR’s presence in 21st-century sports has been felt mostly by the baseball world, but that does not mean its utility in basketball is any less worthy of attention. For those unfamiliar with how the stat works, it is a calculation of how many wins a player was worth to their team relative to a replacement-level player. A replacement-level player has precisely 0 WAR, so players with a WAR below zero are that many wins worse than replacement level, and those with a WAR above zero are worth that much more.
After 65 games for the New York Knicks and Dallas Mavericks last season, Tim Hardaway Jr.’s WAR came out to 0.0, exactly replacement level. James Harden’s 17.1 WAR was the best in basketball, and Kevin Knox’s -7.3 WAR was the worst. In a vacuum, this means that if Hardaway Jr. were to have taken over Harden’s role with the Rockets, Houston would have finished with about 17 less wins, and had he taken all of Knox’s minutes in New York, the Knicks would have been roughly 7 wins better. It is also important to note that a player with a negative WAR would still be worth playing if their total was higher than the alternative option, and the inverse would be true of a positive WAR player who was worse off than another teammate at the same position.
That brings us to the business at hand. The Pelicans roster was trimmed down to the mandatory 15 players with yesterday's waiver of Christian Wood, and while there is still time for more moves to be made, this project will operate under the assumption that these 15 will be around when the season begins (Nicolo Melli, the newly-acquired Italian forward, remains unlisted at FiveThirtyEight and is excluded as a result.)
For starters, let’s take a look at last season for each of the prospective Pelicans:
Pelicans WAR Totals (2018-19 Season)
A familiar face in Jrue Holiday tops the list, which should come to no one’s surprise. His 8.1 WAR even surpassed Anthony Davis’ 7.6, though the amount of games Davis missed last season definitely hindered his chance to surpass his lead guard. A high usage rate and positive contributions on both ends of the court bodes well for any player, and Holiday was no exception in that respect. He is one, though, in the top five of this list; no other player there has donned a Pelicans jersey just yet.
Neither Derrick Favors nor JJ Redick — remember Pels fans: Derrick has two r’s and Redick has one d, and we will remember these things by the end of the season — bore as much responsibility as Holiday, but both were valuable cogs for teams that won a combined 101 games in the regular season. In a decade that has been dominated by “superteams” with multiple maximum salary contracts, the rostering of players in the $15-20 million per year range has often felt more like a desperate concession than a proactive strategy, but these two veterans continue to deliver production worthy of those big bucks.
Josh Hart, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram (who ranks eighth on this list) were embroiled in the tumultuous affair that was the 2018-19 edition of Los Angeles Lakers basketball, which did not bode well for anyone involved, but it was a particularly rough year for L.A.’s former young core. Eighty combined games missed and 166 inconsistent games played between the three will forever share distinction with the contracts of Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as circumstances that prevented LeBron James from playing in the postseason for the first time since 2005. That isn’t great! The irony is that, despite this, they would have still had a positive impact as members of the Pelicans rotation. None of E’Twaun Moore, Solomon Hill, Ian Clark or Tim Frazier were above replacement level last season, and they combined for an uninspiring -2.6 WAR.
The silver lining for this young trio and their new team is that despite the shortcomings of last season, the projections for the coming one predict greener pastures ahead:
2019-20 Pelicans WAR Projections
|Player||2018-19 WAR||Projected WAR Change||Projected 2019-20 WAR|
|Player||2018-19 WAR||Projected WAR Change||Projected 2019-20 WAR|
Hart’s -0.1 is the only negative net difference of the three, but 2 WAR is still a great place for a former 30th pick in the draft to be. The projections believe his offensive production will bounce back a bit after a shaky sophomore season shooting the ball, but that improvement is juxtaposed by a slight regression from what was an impressive season on the defensive end.
It should come as no surprise that the 24-year-old Hart has already found some stability, which often evades the league’s youngest players. He’s still young, of course, but four years at Villanova helped him tailor a skill set that he could carry directly onto the big stage, which he has done successfully by all means. The only downside of stability of this kind is that it inherently limits the potential for growth. Ball’s ceiling has been a bit more shrouded than Hart’s, but at just 21-years-old and already about as productive, he appears to be on a steeper trajectory that with the potential to match the expectations that come with being a second overall pick. An increase in 3.2 WAR in a single season would be significant; it’s just 0.1 less than D’Angelo Russell’s total value from his breakout 2018-19, for instance, and he just locked up a nice chunk of change. A total of 4.6 WAR is not quite indicative of an all-star player, but at a salary of just over $8.7 million, he projects to be an incredible value for his team.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Frank Jackson. A scorer who had a lot of trouble scoring throughout his rookie season, Jackson did himself no favors in the WAR department last season and actually cost the Pelicans 2.4 wins. Though rookies occasionally exceed expectations and rise high above replacement level (Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons sported respective WARs of 6.5 and 6.1 during their Rookie of the Year race, for example), the learning curve of the league leaves the baseline quite low: even the potentially transcendent Zion Williamson projects to be worth just 1.7 WAR in his first season.
To fall as low as Jackson did is cause for concern for those who had outsized expectations for the former Duke Blue Devil. Some players, like Ingram, who was worth -4.4 wins in his rookie season, have been able to recalibrate their productivity, and a projected 1.2 WAR increase for Jackson this season would be in the step in the right direction. It would be a tall task to be equally as bad, but Jackson will likely have to show some significant signs of life on either end to warrant playing time over the other members of what is shaping up to be a deep backcourt.
Jackson aside, good value is a theme for this Pelicans roster as a whole. For the first time in a long time, there does not appear to be a bad contract in sight. Holiday’s $26 million salary is the only figure north of $20 million for now, and he figures to be well worth it for this season and the following two.
Ball, Favors, Hart and Zion Williamson project to round out the top five Pelicans, and they happen to rank fifth, second, eleventh and fourth in salary, with Favors being the only one in line for double-digit millions. That four-player group is expected to produce about 11.7 WAR for roughly $38 million, or about $3.25 million per 1 WAR. For comparison’s sake, five active players — Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, James Harden and Kevin Durant — made at least $38 million in 2018-19 (we’ll exclude John Wall for the sake of the exercise), combining for a salary of $193.6 million and a total WAR of 49, which boils down to $3.95 million per 1 WAR. The league’s top talent has long produced well above even their top-tier pay grade, so that this supporting cast of Pelicans even sniffs that dollar value is a sign of sound roster construction.
The expected drop in Redick’s production is the steepest on the team (-2.7), but 1.5 WAR from a 35-year-old is still quite good, especially on a reasonable short-term deal. Drops in the expected WAR of older players is less about regressing from a better-than-expected performance than it is about the general arc of a career. After a decade or so in the league, a player is more likely to decline than to uncover some untapped potential, especially if they continue to occupy supporting roles, like Redick and Favors (-2.6) figure to do in the immediate future (though, at just 27 years old, Favors theoretically still has time to evolve).
Holiday is also pegged for a decline (-1), but of the veterans on the roster, he could be best positioned for one of those unlikely breakouts. As a guest on “The Woj Pod,” hosted by ESPN’s NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski, David Griffin, the Pelicans’ executive vice president of basketball operations, gave voice to the notion that in a new role, the longest-tenured player on the roster could find another gear:
“When we brought Steve Nash back to Phoenix, and gave him a $66 million deal at the time, everybody said we were crazy, and that he would never live up to that number, etc,, and he ended up being two-time MVP because the team was built to really maximize all of his gifts. We put the right pieces around him. Systematically, the right pieces were around him. We feel like Jrue Holiday can take a jump similar to that if the right pieces are around him...”
Holiday’s New Orleans tenure began with the intent for him to become the perfect complement to an alpha-to-be in Davis. There are a number of reasons why that plan never quite came to fruition, but as long as Davis was on the team, it couldn’t be any other way. After the January trade request signaled the end of that New Orleans basketball era, Holiday was handed the reigns to a team for the first time since he was 22-years-young on a Philadelphia 76ers squad on the precipice of an unprecedented rebuild. Griffin has made it clear that in the present, this is Holiday’s team. It’s a variable that is hard to quantify, but one that could prove to be the most valuable of all for this young team.
All of these WAR figures are simply the ends of FiveThirtyEight’s projections, not the means. That designation falls to the site’s primary NBA algorithm, the Career-Arc Regression Model Estimator with Local Optimization, otherwise known as CARMELO. The WAR projections for the 2019-20 season represent the tip of the iceberg in term’s of the model’s scale; it aims to forecast a player’s entire career based on past players with similar skill sets and career arcs, much like Baseball Prospectus’ acclaimed PECOTA system (which, uncoincidentally, was also a product of FiveThirtyEight founder and CARMELO creator Nate Silver).
It is important to note that the projections of this system are not framed as guarantees. The front-facing figures are pulled from the middle of a “confidence interval” that represents a wider range of likely outcomes. Here are Jrue Holiday’s projections:
The black dots above each season (‘19 represents the 2018-19 season) are the official WAR projection for that year. The gray area both above and below these dots cover the middle 80 percent of likely outcomes, ranging from the tenth percentile at the bottom to the 90th percentile at the top. In the context of Holiday’s coming season, Jrue’s most likely WAR total is 7.1, and totals that deviate from the dot in either direction are less and less likely until the ends of the gray area. Ultimately, he has equal ten percent chances of topping the peak of his range (somewhere between 11 and 12 WAR, an MVP-caliber season) and falling below the bottom (a 2 to 3 WAR season, a sever underachievement at his salary). For a more comprehensive rundown, check out FiveThirtyEight’s introduction of the system from 2015 and the most recent update from 2018.
One of the most intriguing outputs CARMELO offers is the projected five-year value of a player. The dollar value of each WAR was referenced earlier regarding the efficient contracts of the Pelicans’ supporting cast, but these numbers are a lot more fun. With no regard for the current contract of a player, they predict how valuable a player will be to their team over the course of five seasons. Take a look at how the Pelicans are predicted to fare:
2019-20 Pelicans Future Value Projections
|Player||Projected 5-Year Value||Average Value Per Season|
|Player||Projected 5-Year Value||Average Value Per Season|
Behold, your quarter-of-a-billion-dollar man, Lonzo Ball!
No single-season WAR projection surpasses 7.3 through 2024, and the bottom of his confidence interval rubs right against zero for each of those seasons, but CARMELO sets sky-high ceilings at the top that signal the potential for future MVP consideration. The range of possible outcomes for Ball is among the largest in the league, a volatility that seems to fit his unique game, but even in the event he winds up right in the middle of those peaks and valleys, he would be productive enough to warrant a big payday or two in a lengthy NBA career.
Whatever nerves CARMELO has about a rookie ascent to stardom for Williamson become fodder by Year 2, when potential 10+ WAR campaigns enter the fray for the foreseeable future. Some cause for concern about the size of Holiday’s latest contract was understandable at the time, but his last two seasons have put him on a path that expects high-caliber production perhaps even after his contract ends in 2022. For the limited roles Kenrich Williams and Darius Miller are expected to play, even they squeak out reasonable projections.
Plenty have voiced a preference for Brandon Ingram over Ball in the last two years, but CARMELO is not among them. That is not to say that the former is a disaster: an average annual value north of $17 million is no small feat. However, it is not quite at the level of a max contract-worthy player, which he could hope to be by next season. Ingram could certainly go up a level and change his future for the better, as he has already done to go from potential bust to reasonable rotation player, but he still has a lot to prove on both ends of the court to warrant that kind of money.
Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker are pleasant surprises at $11.3 million and $9.8 million. Where rookies were selected in the draft factors into the equation, and the eighth and 17th selections are not generally expected to perform above replacement level right away, if ever. Both players do project to be a tick below replacement level as rookies, but figure to carve out legitimate roles for themselves in the seasons to follow. Their five-year dollar value projections rank 11th and 13th respectively when compared with the rest of the draft’s first round, which feels about right.
Feel free to peruse the above tables and post any of your thoughts below. I will also be happy to answer any questions you may have about the data. The past few months have done plenty to get Pelicans fans excited for the coming season. By all accounts, CARMELO has done the same. Stay tuned to The Bird Writes for Part 2 of the By The Numbers series, which will focus specifically on the defensive aspects of FiveThirtyEight’s projections.