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October 22, 2008
NBA Season Preview 2008-09
Pacific Division

by Kevin Pelton

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1. Los Angeles Lakers (Projected Record: 62-20)
Offensive Rating: 116.8 (1)
Defensive Rating: 106.3 (5)

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
Derek Fisher1.30.44511.92.12.90.500.060.06David Wesley
Kobe Bryant14.20.65226.45.65.30.320.000.00Vince Carter
Trevor Ariza4.00.5597.23.61.70.500.080.04Renaldo Balkman
Pau Gasol9.60.60417.07.73.20.330.000.05Kevin McHale
Andrew Bynum11.80.72512.79.72.00.500.000.00Dwight Howard
Lamar Odom6.90.55611.48.63.20.380.020.07Brad Miller
Jordan Farmar4.70.54510.92.53.30.730.050.00Delonte West
Sasha Vujacic0.80.4458.22.01.10.460.110.06Wesley Person
Luke Walton0.70.4396.13.22.40.440.030.07Jim Jackson
Vladimir Radmanovic0.30.4266.02.41.50.400.030.09Eric Piatkowski
Josh Powell0.10.4331.31.10.20.640.160.04Cedrick Hordges
Chris Mihm-0.30.3741.31.10.20.640.230.05Mark McNamara
DJ Mbenga-0.10.4051.10.90.10.620.100.10Calvin Booth

In SCHOENE's eyes, there are the Los Angeles Lakers and then there is everyone else. The Lakers project as far and away the league's most dominant team. In the 1,000 runs of the simulation I've used to generate records (more on this next week), they made the playoffs every time and won the Pacific Division 990 times. I certainly acknowledge what can't be projected about the Lakers, specifically how Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum will fit together in the frontcourt (as well as Bynum's recovery from knee surgery that cost him the second half of his breakout 2007-08 season). Even with these caveats, the consensus is clear: the Lakers are the favorites to take the next step after last year's NBA Finals loss and win a title.

Notes:

  • The Lakers are the only elite offensive team to project to improve next season, which is probably a testament to the combination of SCHOENE's regressing extreme teams to the mean for everyone else and a full season of Bynum and Gasol in the specific case of the Lakers.
  • Marvel at the Lakers' depth. I would be comfortable starting any of their top 10 players. The only positions at which the Lakers do not have the versatility to go at least three deep are center (where Josh Powell is undersized, and DJ Mbenga and Chris Mihm are stopgaps at best) and point guard (where Sun Yue is still far away from contributing).
  • The projections like Jordan Farmar to take another solid stride forward. Farmar gets lost at times because the Lakers have so many good players (the exception being when his shot mysteriously deserted him during the middle part of the postseason). That should not happen. He's more than ready to step in, when Derek Fisher shows his age, and be a solid starter at the point. Everybody talks about drafting Bynum and dealing for Gasol, but picks like Farmar (drafted late in the first round) are also a big part of why Mitch Kupchak has emerged as one of the NBA's shrewdest GMs.
  • Of Dean Oliver's Four Factors of Basketball Success, the Lakers project to be league average or better on all four on offense and three of the four on defense. The lone exception is forcing turnovers, where the Lakers project to force them on 12.6 percent of possessions versus a league average of 12.8 percent. Only Detroit can match that all-around excellence.

2. Golden State Warriors (Projected Record: 48-34)
Offensive Rating: 114.4 (2nd)
Defensive Rating: 111.0 (22nd)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Monta Ellis5.80.57820.84.84.10.710.020.00Willie Anderson
Stephen Jackson3.70.48117.94.43.80.300.050.11Jalen Rose
Corey Maggette7.00.54222.76.02.80.300.000.10Tony Campbell
Al Harrington2.30.46812.95.81.80.270.000.02Eric Piatkowski
Andris Biedrins9.80.64111.110.01.30.580.040.04Buck Williams
Kelenna Azubuike2.00.4798.23.91.00.510.120.02Chris Mills
Ronny Turiaf3.40.5376.73.71.70.430.040.08Kurt Nimphius
Brandan Wright3.80.5776.14.00.50.580.000.05Jermaine O'Neal
Marcus Williams2.30.5186.822.70.660.220.06Steve Colter
C.J. Watson0.10.4204.81.41.50.670.110.06Milt Palacio
DeMarcus Nelson-0.10.4091.70.80.5( R )
Marco Belinelli-1.10.3494.20.60.70.820.450.05Casey Jacobsen
Anthony Randolph-0.40.3711.71.10.2( R )
Richard Hendrix1.90.5693.32.30.4( R )

I read recently someone quoting Bill James as having an 80/20 theory for rating systems: 80 percent of the ratings should generally conform to your expectations (making it close enough to pass the so-called "laugh test") while about 20 percent should be surprising (so the system tells you something besides what you already know or believe). The Golden State Warriors fall into SCHOENE's 20 percent. I did not expect that, having lost their best player to free agency and seen their young star cost himself the first two months of the season by getting into a moped accident, the Warriors would come out as an improved team.

What is SCHOENE seeing that we've missed subjectively? Well, there are a couple of reasons to discount the projection. We haven't taken into account the value of Davis' passing. The projection says that there will be no penalty whatsoever for replacing Baron Davis with Corey Maggette and moving Monta Ellis to the point. That's not realistic. Second, Golden State is clearly a much stronger offensive team than a defensive one, and the way the system operates tends to favor offense-biased teams because defensive projections tend to have less variation at the extremes.

All that said, there might be something here. Maggette was a far more efficient offensive player than Davis was last season with a higher usage rate. As great as he was and is, Davis has never been an efficient shooter. The Warriors should be able to replace their losses on the wings (Matt Barnes and Mickaël Pietrus) without too much difficulty, while the post rotation should be improved with the addition of Ronny Turiaf and the development of Brandan Wright. Do I see Golden State competing for home-court advantage? No. Can I see the Warriors making the playoffs? Absolutely.

Notes:

  • This section required a quick rewrite when on Tuesday Don Nelson declared that undrafted rookie DeMarcus Nelson is, at the moment, his starter at the point, with Marcus Williams running third string behind Nelson and C.J. Watson. SCHOENE is actually quite fond of Williams if he can get accustomed to Nelson's system. As for Nelson, his translated numbers were better than I realized, though he's not exactly the true point guard Golden State could use. I'm dubious about his chances of staying in the rotation.
  • Wright illustrates the difficulty of using the "breakout" projection in basketball. If he gets the minutes (an open question), Wright is a major breakout candidate, which is why he appeared on my Diamond Rating list last week. Yet not one of his comps "broke out" simply because they were too good as a group previously. It's unlikely Wright's per-minute rating will improve that much; it's his WARP that figures to shoot up. Marco Belinelli, on the other hand, almost has to see his per-minute rating get better if he plays substantial time.
  • Andris Biedrins to Buck Williams is certainly not a comparison I ever would have made between two players of very different heights if somewhat similar results. Note that the similarity (95.7) is not especially high.
  • Worth noting: The projection system doesn't put assists in the team context the way it does many other stats. Still, Golden State's projected rate of assists per field goal made (.49) is the lowest in the league and would be an outlier. Nobody in the league assisted on less than half of made field goals last year.

3. Phoenix Suns (Projected Record: 46-36)
Offensive Rating: 113.0 (6th)
Defensive Rating: 11.5 (23rd)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Steve Nash9.90.60014.83.510.50.200.000.00Mark Jackson
Raja Bell-2.10.37611.53.72.20.450.070.00Wesley Person
Grant Hill2.90.48011.54.52.90.130.000.06Mario Elie
Amaré Stoudemire17.60.74425.79.31.50.640.000.00Tim Duncan
Shaquille O'Neal2.70.48212.38.11.30.290.000.14Artis Gilmore
Leandro Barbosa4.20.50516.13.03.00.510.040.06Byron Scott
Boris Diaw1.10.4409.24.43.80.650.080.05John Salmons
Matt Barnes0.60.4337.65.72.20.330.020.05Rodney Rogers
Robin Lopez-0.50.3954.63.10.4( R )
Sean Singletary-0.30.3761.80.50.8( R )

The era of the Phoenix Suns as an elite offensive team appears to have come and gone, and SCHOENE believes that would be true even if Mike D'Antoni were still at the helm. Coaching changes aren't explicitly factored into our analysis, yet Phoenix's Offensive Rating is still projected to drop to sixth in the league. What we don't project is a corresponding improvement on the defensive end of the floor, something which remains a possibility under new head coach Terry Porter.

The biggest issue, figuratively and literally, is Shaquille O'Neal. Granting that SCHOENE struggles with unique players like O'Neal, all of his best comps were long done as star players with the possible exception of Hakeem Olajuwon's strong 2000-01 season. Shawn Marion is projected to be worth seven more wins than O'Neal will be worth this upcoming season. Maybe a bounceback is in the cards. I don't see it, and neither do the numbers. Without Marion, the Suns have just an aging Steve Nash and Amaré Stoudemire as stars. Lack of depth remains an issue beyond the solid top eight, meaning injuries could be disastrous. All things considered, this looks like the end of the run for Phoenix as far as contending for a championship is concerned.

Notes:

  • Despite all the negativity, the Suns are still projected to lead the NBA in effective field-goal percentage. It's just that they need to be way ahead of everyone else to overcome their inability to get to the free-throw line and poor offensive rebounding. Also, their turnover rate projects to get significantly worse, in no small part because of O'Neal.
  • Stoudemire should be in for an excellent season. Even without considering how O'Neal opened up the paint for him last year, Stoudemire is projected to finish third in the NBA in WARP.
  • I don't have a projection for Goran Dragic and have largely put Sean Singletary in the role of backup point guard that will likely be claimed by Dragic. John Hollinger has noted that Dragic's Euroleague numbers were not particularly impressive, so this may not matter much.

4. L.A. Clippers (Projected Record: 35-47)
Offensive Rating: 103.5 (28th)
Defensive Rating: 105.5 (2nd)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Baron Davis9.90.57918.94.17.10.260.000.06Derek Harper
Cuttino Mobley-1.60.3809.82.72.20.390.060.06Randy Smith
Al Thornton0.50.42516.05.71.70.710.230.02Willie Burton
Marcus Camby10.10.6057.410.73.00.170.000.08Dikembe Mutombo
Chris Kaman8.70.57915.711.51.90.490.000.05Dikembe Mutombo
Tim Thomas-0.20.4109.84.02.20.440.080.06Sean Elliott
Ricky Davis-0.40.4037.72.32.00.460.020.00Blue Edwards
Eric Gordon-2.00.3528.51.51.4( R )
Jason Hart-0.50.3832.60.81.40.580.120.04Randy Brown
Brian Skinner0.40.4422.52.60.20.320.040.12Wayne Cooper
DeAndre Jordan-0.30.3651.21.00.1( R )
Steve Novak0.20.4442.00.50.1---Wesley Person

The Los Angeles Clippers are the yang to the Golden State Warriors' yin. Davis went from Golden State to L.A., Maggette from the Clippers to the Warriors, and they helped push their new teams to respective extremes. Golden State is probably a little overprojected; L.A. is probably a little underprojected. The Warriors are all offense; the Clippers are all defense.

Yes, L.A. figures to be the most extreme team in the league, struggling to score at one end and playing stingy defense at the other. If SCHOENE is to be believed, get ready for a lot of 92-88 scores, Clippers fans. As I mentioned in the introduction to the projection system, this largely has to do with the pairing of Marcus Camby and Chris Kaman, two shot-blockers so good that both have Dikembe Mutombo as their top comp (yet in very different ways). While they won't block shots at the historical rate SCHOENE projects, the Clippers should lead the league. Davis is also a very good defender. L.A. should be much improved at that end of the floor, even if second in the league is a stretch. Offensively, things shouldn't be quite that bad, though the Clippers have put together a startling number of inefficient scorers. I think the Clippers can hang in the playoff race; advancing once there will be a tall order.

Notes:

  • The bench does not project to be a strength for the Clippers. While nobody is really bad, with the possible exception of Eric Gordon, nor does L.A. bring anyone off the bench who rates considerably above replacement level. Injuries to one of the three star players (Davis, Camby and Kaman) could be disastrous, which means it was good news when Davis found out Monday he does not need surgery on his injured finger.
  • Despite what was generally considered a fine rookie season, Al Thornton did not come out particularly well in my numbers because he was too dependent on two-pointers on offense and statistically a very poor defender (an assessment I think scouts would confirm). He projects as improving fairly dramatically this season, but still only getting slightly above replacement level.
  • The Clippers are unique in that their starting power forward who's normally a center (Camby) might be a better passer than any of their wing players. I might give Ricky Davis the nod over Camby, but it's close. He is second in assists per game.
  • Impressively, despite all the projected blocks, the Clippers figure to send opponents to the line less frequently than league average. Camby and Kaman project to rate first and fifth, respectively, in blocks per foul.
  • Despite the big frontcourt and their excellent defensive rebounding (second-best in the NBA), the Clippers are actually projected as below average in terms offensive rebounding. Camby spending so much time on the perimeter probably has much to do with this.
  • A friend passed along that Steve Novak has attempted all 18 of his shots in the preseason from three-point range. Nice work.

5. Sacramento Kings (Projected Record: 33-49)
Offensive Rating: 109.5 (15th)
Defensive Rating: 112.1 (25th)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Beno Udrih2.60.46614.43.74.70.650.060.02Sam Vincent
Kevin Martin10.30.60124.34.72.40.440.020.07Cuttino Mobley
John Salmons1.80.44913.94.92.80.400.020.08Johnny Newman
Mikki Moore-0.50.4048.05.91.00.370.000.10Fabricio Oberto
Brad Miller7.10.58211.07.53.00.310.000.06Charles Oakley
Francisco Garcia3.40.49413.23.61.80.440.040.09Michael Cooper
Jason Thompson0.60.4523.32.40.7( R )
Bobby Jackson0.00.4163.71.41.00.390.090.26Byron Scott
Spencer Hawes2.40.4888.85.81.50.710.100.00Jermaine O'Neal
Quincy Douby-0.10.4114.31.00.70.720.320.02James Robinson
Donté Greene-0.40.3681.70.80.3( R )
Shelden Williams0.90.4713.42.70.30.590.110.07Brian Skinner

The Sacramento Kings will likely take a slight step backwards this season, but in the wake of the Ron Artest trade the team has a clear direction. The rebuild is officially on, though with an All-Star-caliber shooting guard in Kevin Martin and some other solid pieces, the Kings are probably not going to be one of the league's absolute worst teams. This year, the goal is not so much measured in terms of wins as developing Spencer Hawes and Jason Thompson and continuing to sort through pieces to figure out who will be part of the next great Sacramento team.

Notes:

  • Recently at Sactown Royalty, the great Tom Ziller noted an issue with Hollinger's projections in terms of how they treated Martin's usage rate, projecting it to go down despite the fact that he is now the go-to guy after the Artest trade. In theory, SCHOENE should account for this, although in practice I must admit it doesn't make a huge difference in this specific case. Without an adjustment, I would have Martin's share of the Sacramento offense going down from 26.3 percent to 25.7 percent based on similar players. The adjustment brings him all the way back to...26.3 percent. While Artest used plenty of possessions (25.5 percent last season), other players are expected to increase their usage to make up the difference.
  • Before anyone gets too excited about Jermaine O'Neal scoring as Hawes' best comp, it's worth noting Johan Petro is second on the list. There aren't a lot of 20-year-old seven-footers to choose.
  • The projections are very pessimistic on Bobby Jackson's chances of being a productive player this season. Based on that and what I've seen of Bobby Brown, the rookie Bobby is probably the better choice as the backup to Beno Udrih.
  • The Kings don't exactly have any strong point defensively. They're projected to be below average in each of the defensive Four Factors. Milwaukee is the only other team so uniformly poor on D.

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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