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October 21, 2008
NBA Season Preview 2008-09
Central Division

by Kevin Pelton

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1. Detroit Pistons (Projected Record: 55-27)
Offensive Rating: 111.7 (11th)
Defensive Rating: 106.1 (4th)

Projected Rotation

(WARP is projected Wins Above Replacement Player, while Win % is projected per-minute rating. Imp/Break/Dec measure the percentage of comparable players who improved, broke out or declined dramatically during the following season. For more explanation, see my introduction to the SCHOENE projection system.)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Chauncey Billups12.7.67016.62.56.3.33.00.09Kevin Johnson
Richard Hamilton4.2.49816.23.34.0.25.04.07Paul Westphal
Tayshaun Prince3.7.48713.24.83.4.30.03.04Harvey Grant
Amir Johnson6.6.6255.86.3.9.42.08.08Darko Milicic
Rasheed Wallace5.9.54211.86.31.7.19.00.03Robert Horry
Rodney Stuckey3.3.50711.12.83.8.73.19.00Don Collins
Antonio McDyess2.2.4747.06.71.0.29.03.03Kurt Thomas
Jason Maxiell4.1.5358.35.2.7.38.00.09Kelvin Cato
Arron Afflalo.0.4155.72.61.2.63.15.04Jud Buechler
Walter Herrmann.8.4585.12.3.7.59.08.05Matt Bullard
Kwame Brown.2.4312.32.2.6.50.10.04Eric Mobley

Detroit is an interesting team to run through the projection system, because there is a stark contrast between SCHOENE's optimism about the Pistons' youngsters and its general pessimism about Detroit's veterans. Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace in particular are projected to decline, yet Detroit still comes out as an elite team thanks to the emergence of the younger group of players. In fact, the Pistons project ever so slightly ahead of Boston in the Eastern Conference, though this result has much to do with the fact that the Celtics' biggest strength (defending opponent shots) doesn't come through the system particularly well.

There are legitimate concerns about an untested head coach, still just a few years removed from his playing days, leading such a talented group--even a coach as highly regarded as a prospect as Michael Curry. While my recent study showed changing coaches with an already-successful team didn't often help them take the next step, most have been able to avoid a drop-off, and the Pistons have won under several different coaches. Joe Dumars has helped Curry out with a talented roster with a new set of players emerging to improve the bench and fill in any gaps. Look for the Pistons to be in the mix to win the East once again.

Notes:

  • SCHOENE loves Rodney Stuckey despite some middling efficiency numbers last year during the regular season. His top-ten comps include players like Kevin Johnson and Terrell Brandon. Look for Stuckey to build on his successful playoff run as Detroit's third guard.
  • Wallace's relatively low projected rating was a surprise to me despite his age. Subjectively, my sense is that players with Wallace's broad skill set age much more gracefully than their more one-dimensional peers.
  • Amir Johnson is a challenge for a projection system because he played so few minutes a year ago and could play a large role this season (I have him projected to 20 minutes a night). Not only will Johnson be facing much more difficult opposition, he'll have to change his game knowing he will be on the floor longer, which will mean fewer fouls but also fewer steals and blocks. SCHOENE cannot entirely pick up on this, at least not at this point.
  • One of the historical strengths of Flip Saunders teams has been extraordinarily low turnover rates. The Pistons are projected to tie for the second-lowest rate in the league. We'll see how much of that is the coach and how much is the players.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers (Projected Record: 48-34)
Offensive Rating: 110.6 (12th)
Defensive Rating: 107.5 (10th)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Maurice Williams6.5.53916.83.46.2.49.05.02Mike Bibby
Delonte West1.3.4508.43.13.7.65.08.06Sam Cassell
LeBron James23.3.79030.07.57.8.74.00.00Chris Webber
Ben Wallace3.2.4973.96.41.2.31.00.08John Hot Rod Williams
Zydrunas Ilgauskas5.0.52312.28.41.4.14.00.14Robert Parish
Daniel Gibson-0.4.4068.72.02.3.79.11.07Hersey Hawkins
Anderson Varejao.8.4395.76.91.0.53.08.03Jeff Foster
Wally Szczerbiak-0.6.3969.32.41.2.42.10.08Junior Bridgeman
J.J. Hickson.5.4473.82.5.4( R )
Sasha Pavlovic-2.8.3216.52.31.6.71.24.03David Wingate
Darnell Jackson.5.4542.61.9.3( R )
Lorenzen Wright-1.3.256.51.1.1.59.24.12LaSalle Thompson

Let there be no doubt: This is the most talented team the Cavaliers have put around LeBron James, particularly at the offensive end of the floor. The biggest reason is the addition of Maurice Williams at the point. Playing alongside James, Williams will have to make an adjustment to having the ball in his hands less frequently; he has the shooting ability to remain valuable off the ball. With Williams and a full season of Delonte West and Wally Szczerbiak, I have Cleveland improving from 20th in the NBA offensively all the way up to 12th.

There is a trade-off, inevitably, and the Cavaliers' defense does not look as stout as in years past despite the addition of a second shot-blocker in Ben Wallace. On the perimeter, Williams, Daniel Gibson and Szczerbiak can be liabilities defensively. The extent to which Cleveland's help defenders and Mike Brown's scheme can mitigate their shortcomings will determine whether the Cavaliers can upset Boston and/or Detroit and return to the Finals with a more legitimate chance of winning it all.

Notes:

  • James is projected to improve his assists, which subjectively makes sense with more scorers around him. At 7.8 assists per game, he is projected to rank seventh in the league. We're edging closer to James flirting with a 30/8/8-type season, though a faster pace is probably the only way he's going to get there.
  • Chris Webber as a comp? I don't see it either, though James is tough as a comparison because he is so unique as a player.
  • Gibson's numbers tend to come out worse than I would expect watching him play or even going on his shooting efficiency. The problem is that Gibson is statistically one-dimensional and my system reduces even that value because most of his shots tend to come off of assists. I really like the idea of Hersey Hawkins--an undersized shooting specialist with quick hands--as a comparison for Gibson.
  • West is younger than I realized, still just 25 going into his fifth NBA season. Based on that, SCHOENE is optimistic about his chances of improving. That's without even knowing West played much better in Cleveland than in Seattle, where he never quite fit.

3. Indiana Pacers (Projected Record: 37-45)
Offensive Rating: 109.1 (21st)
Defensive Rating: 110.4 (20th)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
T.J. Ford8.5.59917.92.88.9.26.03.06Kenny Anderson
Mike Dunleavy4.4.49518.15.13.6.40.00.02Jalen Rose
Danny Granger4.3.49119.56.42.1.42.04.06Rashard Lewis
Troy Murphy3.8.50411.97.32.3.36.00.02Mehmet Okur
Jeff Foster4.9.5426.38.41.8.36.00.04Michael Cage
Jarrett Jack1.2.44610.52.84.1.56.10.04Bimbo Coles
Rasho Nesterovic2.0.4818.04.91.3.36.02.14Tom Owens
Brandon Rush-1.4.3686.02.91.3( R )
Roy Hibbert1.8.5125.12.8.9( R )
Marquis Daniels-0.3.3934.01.4.9.40.12.08Bonzi Wells
Travis Diener-0.2.4003.2.91.8.45.06.08Steve Blake
Austin Croshere-0.1.4031.61.2.3.46.00.15Jim Jackson

Subjectively, I like the Pacers as a potential playoff team in the East. Why doesn't SCHOENE agree? It forecasts drop-offs for Indiana's top two players a year ago, Mike Dunleavy and Danny Granger. In the case of Dunleavy, coming off of a breakout 2007-08 campaign, that makes sense. For Granger to slip at age 25 is far more dubious. The projections also might be unduly pessimistic about a Pacers defense that ranked 15th a year ago. If you think that Indiana is a .500 team, that is entirely realistic.

Notes:

  • Given the chance to start and play heavy minutes at the point, T.J. Ford could be in for a big season. His rate numbers are similar to what he posted two years ago in Toronto, but now his minutes per game should be slightly higher (I projected 32) without Jose Calderon as a backup, while the Pacers play faster than Ford did with the Raptors.
  • If Roy Hibbert is as good as the numbers say he is (and the reviews from preseason, as he's averaging 9.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.2 blocks, have been positive), Indiana has a very deep rotation at center. I'm a Rasho Nesterovic fan, but he could get lost in this group and a trade might be best unless the Pacers think Jeff Foster can play alongside the more traditional centers on a regular basis.
  • I like Austin Croshere's ability to stretch the floor, but things might be getting a little out of hand when Jim Jackson shows up as his best comp.

4. Chicago Bulls (Projected Record: 32-50)
Offensive Rating: 106.1 (27th)
Defensive Rating: 109.2 (14th)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Derrick Rose.8.4339.13.54.1( R )
Kirk Hinrich2.8.47710.93.15.4.47.05.07Winston Garland
Luol Deng5.3.51916.86.22.8.63.07.02Mike Brooks
Tyrus Thomas5.0.5479.86.52.0.63.07.04Stromile Swift
Drew Gooden.9.43510.48.11.2.38.02.11Lorenzen Wright
Ben Gordon2.7.47316.73.03.1.51.07.07Allan Houston
Andres Nocioni-1.3.38211.34.01.2.46.04.04Tim Thomas
Joakim Noah4.6.5496.75.61.3.32.07.14Bill Garnett
Larry Hughes.4.4297.82.42.0.52.09.07Bill Hanzlik
Aaron Gray1.3.4974.02.7.8.43.13.15Brian Skinner
Thabo Sefolosha.5.4463.21.7.9.61.08.03Mark Davis

Last week at the APBRmetrics forum for statistical analysis, a poll asked which team was the most challenging in terms of predictions. My vote went to the Bulls, because there is no way to really account for what went so disastrously wrong last season. Was it a distraction to have Luol Deng and Ben Gordon turn down contract extensions? Did the team tune out Jim Boylan after Scott Skiles' departure? How much was the tension between the younger players and the team's veterans a factor? I don't know, and for the most part those aren't questions that can be answered by computers.

Derrick Rose is also something of a wild card. Certainly, his numbers don't look like those of a No. 1 pick or a can't-miss star. Point guards definitely tend to struggle as rookies (Chris Paul being the exception that proves the rule), though Rose will be helped by the NBA's hand-checking restrictions. Overall, it's unlikely the Bulls will be very good on offense. However, they were 20th in Offensive Rating two years ago and still won 49 games (with a better point differential) thanks to a lights-out defense. Can Vinny Del Negro return that style to a Bulls team that, with the exception of a shot-blocking anchor at center, has all the pieces defensively? Good question.

Notes:

  • Deng is young enough that SCHOENE projects a bounceback for him this season. Kirk Hinrich, at 27, is not getting that same benefit of the doubt.
  • As much as I've tried to resist the comparison because I believe he's a much better defensive player, comparing Tyrus Thomas to Stromile Swift just feels right, doesn't it?
  • Larry Hughes wasn't as bad as I thought he was last season, though there's no reason for him to play 29 minutes per game this season, as he did last year after being traded to Chicago.

5. Milwaukee Bucks (Projected Record: 23-59)
Offensive Rating: 106.9 (26th)
Defensive Rating: 114.3 (29th)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Luke Ridnour.3.4248.62.15.3.57.12.00Phil Ford
Michael Redd3.5.47920.34.53.3.39.02.04Richard Hamilton
Richard Jefferson4.7.49421.14.23.1.38.00.05Tony Campbell
Charlie Villanueva-0.4.40611.87.61.2.53.11.08Troy Murphy
Andrew Bogut7.1.54613.59.82.7.44.02.09Brian Grant
Malik Allen-1.3.3473.32.3.5.43.08.12Greg Foster
Charlie Bell-0.6.3904.41.72.0.46.08.06Anthony Johnson
Joe Alexander-1.2.3766.53.31.4( R )
Ramon Sessions6.6.6266.52.86.2.72.16.00Ennis Whatley
Francisco Elson-1.8.3012.62.4.3.67.19.11Andrew Lang
Tyronn Lue-1.1.3483.6.81.1.44.00.12Doug Overton
Dan Gadzuric.2.4272.62.8.2.34.09.06Jake Voskuhl

Since taking over the Bucks last spring, John Hammond has overhauled the roster, adding a pair of new starters in Luke Ridnour and Richard Jefferson, changing coaches to Scott Skiles and adding some veterans on the bench as well as rookie Joe Alexander. SCHOENE looks at all this and predicts...24 wins, a two-game drop-off from a year ago.

OK, that's not fair. SCHOENE isn't looking at everything. Specifically, there's no way to factor in coaching changes objectively, and the biggest reason for optimism in Milwaukee is that despite a distinct lack of defensive talent and the fact that the Bucks have been horrible defensively for this entire decade, there is no way Scott Skiles is coaching the NBA's second-worst defensive team. He'll get much more out of this team. Enough to make the Bucks competitive? Doubtful. In that vein, it's troubling that so many of Milwaukee's additions are veterans who aren't going to be a part of the next good Bucks team. Being competitive isn't enough, and right now I'm not sure Milwaukee is moving towards being good.

Notes:

  • Ramon Sessions. Ramon Sessions? Ramon Sessions! I thought something was wrong when I saw he ranked in the league's top 20 in projected assists, until I realized he was even higher a year ago at 7.5 assists per game. I knew Sessions had been brilliant after coming up from the D-League last March and April, including a 24-assist game. The Bucks responded by trading for Luke Ridnour and signing Tyronn Lue. The Luke Ridnour Reclamation Project (an excellent band name, I'm told by Dave Barry) is a pretty good gamble; Ridnour desperately needed a change of scenery and a fresh start. However, if Lue plays over Sessions, that's a pretty good sign things are not going in the right direction in Milwaukee. As for the numbers themselves, SCHOENE usually regresses extreme numbers to the mean. Yet Sessions is actually projected to have a higher assist rate! In fact, his projected assist rate is second in the league behind Chris Paul, ahead of Steve Nash and the other usual suspects. I've got my eye on this kid.
  • One way the Bucks could improve on offense is to get a better three-point percentage out of Michael Redd. When he was a specialist coming off the bench, Redd once was the NBA's all-time leader in three-point percentage (as soon as he had enough attempts to qualify). Since becoming a go-to player, Redd's three-point percentages have plummeted, though they've naturally been inconsistent, with good years in 2005-06 and 2006-07 and poor years in 2003-04, 2004-05 and last season. He's not projected to bounce back, but it's entirely possible he shoots more like 38.0 percent from downtown, which would mean 24 points, just like that. That's nearly a win over the course of the season.
  • Between Redd and Jefferson, Milwaukee is one of four teams in the league projected to have a pair of 20-point scorers.

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

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