From Bob Gross to Steve Kerr to Robert Horry to Trevor Ariza to J.J. Barea, role players emerge almost every season to have a major impact in the playoffs. Last season, it was Barea's ability to waterbug around the Heat defense that helped the Mavericks to their first NBA crown. For today's Projection versus Production, we're going to look at three players that could turn up as key factors in determining which team is going to take the next title. As always, we'll focus on one overachiever, on underachiever and one guy that is doing what he's supposed to do. These players could all play important strategic roles in the challenges their clubs will face over the next two months.
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 abbreviated NBA season.
BETTER THAN WE THOUGHT
C/PF: Nick Collison, Thunder
Projected WARP: -1.2; Current WARP: -1.1
You might look at those numbers and think that Collison has been slightly less worse than we projected and come to the conclusion that he's still pretty bad. A good stat guy will tell you that numbers don't tell the whole story sometimes -- it's the more dogmatic of the type that get into trouble -- and no player in the NBA does more for his team in ways that aren't captured by box score statistics than Collison. When we develop a metric that properly values the contributions of players like Collison and Bruce Bowen, then we will really be getting somewhere.
Collison ranks fourth on the Thunder in raw plus-minus among players that have been with Oklahoma City all season. (So far, Oklahoma City has been terrific with Derek Fisher on the court, but we're not counting him here.) While the Thunder has been a bit better defensively when Collison sits, that's more a statement about the units he plays on than him. MySynergySports.com has him in the league's top 100 defensively in points allowed per possession and because of his willingness to step in front of penetrating guards, he ranks among the elite against the pick-and-roll. He doesn't provide the basket-protecting presence of fellow big men Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, but he's a terrific complementary asset for Scott Brooks to deploy.
Even though Collison rarely shoots -- his usage rate is a miniscule 9.8 percent -- the Thunder has been seven points per 100 possessions better offensively with Collison on the floor. Everything gets better: the assist rate rises, the turnovers drop and the true shooting percentage is nearly four percent better. The Thunder plays at a slower pace, or a playoff pace if you will, when Collison is on the court. If the young Thunder breaks through to win the championship, it will be as much due to the dirty work provided by Collison and Fisher as it will be the dynamic production of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
WORSE THAN WE THOUGHT
SF/SG: Shane Battier, Heat
Projected WARP: 3.2; Current WARP: 2.4
Battier has long been a plus-minus superstar, earning him a well-deserved reputation as one of the league's most-valuable role players. Not only has he fallen short production-wise according to WARP, but his raw plus-minus ranks just seventh on the Heat. Part of that is inevitable -- when Battier plays, he's usually on the court in place of either Dwayne Wade or LeBron James. It would be tough for him to keep up with the impact of those guys.
However, it's troubling that his points allowed per possession, as tracked by MySynergySports.com, has slipped to 281st in the league. Teams actually isolate Battier fairly often now, something that used to be risky when Battier ranked among the league's best perimeter defenders. Miami will be counting on Battier to step up the defensive play in the postseason, when the Heat will face premier role players in the East such as Carmelo Anthony, Paul Pierce and Luol Deng. Once upon a time, Battier would probably even draw opposing point guards for stretches, like Derrick Rose, but that may no longer be an option.
Not only has Battier's defensive metrics slipped, but he has never shot the ball worse. His true shooting percentage has dipped below 50 percent for the first time in his career. Battier once was an ultimate X-factor in the NBA, but he hasn't been that this season. Because he is often on the court down the stretch of tight games, the Heat will be banking that Battier will step up his game.
WHO WE THOUGHT HE WAS
C: Tiago Splitter, Spurs
Projected WARP:4.2; Current WARP: 3.9
Only Denver and Chicago have relied on its role players more than San Antonio this season, but of course that is nothing new for Gregg Popovich's organization. Splitter's minutes have been slipping of late, but he remains very important to what the Spurs do. Over his last 20 games, Splitters usage rate has increased to more than 20 percent, but his true shooting percentage remains well over 60 percent. Players that can do more without losing efficiency are tremendously valuable.
In terms of plus-minus, Splitter doesn't have as much of an impact as fellow role-playing big man Matt Bonner, but the two work in tandem to give Popovich the ability to load up in the paint or spread the floor as the situation dictates. In Splitter's case, not only does San Antonio's proficiency in the painted area increase with him on the floor, but his ability to collapse the defense opens up the corners. The Spurs shoot 46 percent on corner threes with Splitter on the floor. Overall, San Antonio's true shooting percentage increases by 4.4 percent when Splitter plays.
Splitter's defensive impact is more muted, but the Spurs hold steady on that end when he's on the court. Teams like to isolate him, but he's held his own in those situations, ranking 62nd in the league according to MySynergySports.com. The Lakers could be looming in the second round for the Spurs and Splitter is going to be a key to making Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol work when Tim Duncan is off the floor, though Popovich might opt to play them together a bit more often against the twin towers of L.A.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
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