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March 6, 2012
Projection vs. Production
Candidates for Regression

by Bradford Doolittle

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There is more to looking back at projections than just figuring out where you were right and wrong. Statistical projections help us set baselines for a reasonable expectation of player and team performance. When you check in on those forecasts in profectus, you're able to spot the kind of overachievers and underachievers that are the usual subjects of Projections vs. Production. At the same time, you can look for certain markers that suggest whether or not a player is likely to maintain his new level of performance.

Given a large enough sample, you can almost bank on a "return to normalcy" in certain categories. For example, you'll find players that are shooting outrageously high (or low) percentages from 3-point range. As those players keep shooting, they will tend to move towards their career accuracy in that category, bringing their overall performance closer to their projection. We're going to look at three players today from this perspective. Two can expect their performances to normalize over the season's final weeks, one for the better, and the other for the worse. Finally, we'll identify one player performing at an unforeseen level of play who is likely to maintain his new standard.

Our projection system SCHOENE forecasts a full suite of our favorite metrics, but the bottom-line number to watch for is WARP (Wins Above Replacement), which measures how many more wins a player adds to his team's total than a freely available guy plucked off the scrap heap. While no single number can capture everything that happens in an interdynamic team sport like hoops, WARP points you in the right direction. When you see a WARP number that surprises you -- and remember, we know when to be surprised because we've predicted all these WARP scores -- the next step is to ask why. All the WARP numbers you see in this article have been prorated to 82 games, just to give the results an air of normalcy in this decidedly abnormal NBA season.

HEADED FOR A FALL?

PF: Ryan Anderson, Orlando
Projected WARP: 9.8; Current WARP: 16.7

We've been clamoring for Anderson to get more playing time for a couple of years now and his improved numbers this season are partially explained by his increase from 22 to 31 minutes per night -- but only partially. Anderson, still just 23 years old, has matured physically, allowing him to become more than just spot-up big man. He's become a beast on the offensive boards, draws more fouls and has held up better defensively. These are improvements that you'd expect Anderson to maintain. In fact, if Dwight Howard is traded, look for a spike in Anderson's defensive rebound rate.

Still, while we had Anderson pegged as a very good player (9.8 WARP), the 16.7 prorated WARP he's on pace for places him fifth in the league. As good as Anderson is, he's not at that level. His numbers are in part propped up by his 43.4 percentage from 3-point range, which currently ranks just outside of the top 10 in the league. Anderson is an excellent long-range shooter, but ordinarily you'd expect that figure to move towards his career mark of 39.3 percent. That said, Anderson has been remarkably consistent this season, so you never know. But if Orlando trades Howard, Anderson's number of clean looks is going to be drastically reduced.

The other area in which Anderson has really picked up his game is in the turnover department. He's sliced his percentage of miscues in each of his four seasons and now sports a rate (five percent) bettered in the league only by standstill shooters Matt Bonner and Jodie Meeks. Anderson has slashed his turnovers by more than seven percent since entering the NBA. Is that sustainable? Probably not. After committing just 10 turnovers in 20 games through the end of January, Anderson has coughed the ball up 16 times in 17 games since, which is still pretty darned stingy but closer to reality. His excellent turnover rate stems partly because he rarely tries to make plays off the dribble, as evidenced by the fact that 98 of his 99 successful 3-pointers this season have come off assists. However, this has always been the case for Anderson and his turnover rate has never been this low.

It's unlikely that Anderson will be able to remain as uber-efficient as he has been so far this season. He hasn't endured a single shooting slump and on an Orlando team short of playmakers, you'd have to think he's eventually going to pass through a phase of assertiveness that will lead to more turnovers. Still, Anderson isn't going to give back the 6.9 WARP by which he's out-producing his projection. He may regress some, but he's still going to be awfully good.

LIKELY TO BOUNCE BACK?

PF: Lamar Odom, Dallas
Projected WARP: 7.6; Current WARP: -0.7

It was appropriate that Odom very nearly logged time in the D-League over the weekend, because his performance this season has given the Mavericks about what they could get by plucking any number of solid contributors from that circuit. As has been widely scrutinized, Odom has been brutal since going to Dallas. It hasn't been one area that has held the 13-year veteran back -- it's been just about all of them. He's shot the ball terribly (.407 effective field-goal percentage) and fallen off in athletic/effort categories like offensive rebounding and shot-blocking. Even his turnover rate, which is a career best, deserves a wag of the finger because it's another indicator of just how passive Odom has become.

Odom may not get back to the full level of productivity he enjoyed with the Lakers. He's been out of shape all season and it's going to be hard for him to get where he needs to be physically without the kind of full, dedicated offseason program that he obviously didn't follow during the lockout. We also don't fully know how much of his decline is due to a poor fit between his skills and the offensive system run by Rick Carlisle. The triangle offense Odom thrived in for the Lakers was a perfect match for his skills, particularly his ability to make plays via the pass. With Dallas, Odom is shooting the ball more often, but his assist rate is down, as are his turnovers. He's being used differently than he was by Los Angeles.

Despite all of this, it's almost a certainty that if Odom puts in the work, he'll at least improve his awful shooting percentages. He's got just a partially-guaranteed contract for next season, so you'd expect the light to come on in terms of effort. Even it doesn't, he should start to hit more 3s. Odom has never been a long-range ace, but the 26.4 percent he's hit behind the arc is 5.5 percent worse than his career mark and nearly 12 percent less than he hit last season. Even if Odom is content to stand around and take long jumpers, his numbers will likely improve from where they've been so far.

SHOULD MAINTAIN NEW LEVEL

C: Nikola Pekovic, Minnesota
Projected WARP: -0.5; Current WARP: 5.9

Pekovic has emerged as a low-block monster for the Timberwolves, upping his averages per 40 minutes to 20.4 points and 11.9 rebounds while shooting 57 percent from the field. His 18 percent offensive rebound rate leads the NBA, exceeding that even of teammate Kevin Love. Last season, Pekovic had 16.2 points per 40 to go with 8.7 rebounds and 52 percent shooting. Solid numbers, but nothing that necessarily foreshadowed Pekovic's rise over the last few weeks. SCHOENE certainly didn't seem him coming.

Still, there are a few reasons why Pekovic can be expected to maintain his new level of play. When you look at his increase in per-minute numbers, it's not out of line with the improvement you find from several second-year players each season. When you're shopping around for a player ready to break out, a list of players coming off their rookie seasons is a good place to start. Because of his background in Europe, Pekovic was older than the typical rookie last year. But that also means that at 26, he's quickly entered an age range that is a common career peak for big men.

Also, Pekovic's field-goal percentage, while extreme, is partially explained by improved shot selection. As a rookie, he was prone to taking shots from the tough 3-9 foot range, but has curbed that tendency this time around in favor of shots closer to the rim. According to HoopData.com, last year he got 6.8 shots per 40 minutes at the rim; this year it's up to 11.1. His improved success at the basket (64.2 percent up to 66.5) is hardly startling. He's just learned what he can do at the NBA level and applied it on the court. Look for Pekovic to keeping doing what he's been doing.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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