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October 28, 2008
NBA Season Preview 2008-09
Southwest Division

by Kevin Pelton


1. Houston Rockets (Projected Record: 55-27)
Offensive Rating: 111.7 (11th)
Defensive Rating: 105.1 (1st)

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
Rafer Alston3.60.48412. Adams
Tracy McGrady5.50.52019. Stackhouse
Ron Artest6.80.55915. Corbin
Luis Scola3.90.50411. Green
Yao Ming10.70.62619. Ilgauskas
Shane Battier1.20.4418. Udoka
Carl Landry4.80.5967. Geiger
Brent Barry1.00.4903. Curry
Chuck Hayes0.70.4541. Rambis
Aaron Brooks0.70.4584. Hudson
Luther Head0.80.4654. Harris
Joey Dorsey1.60.5032.13.70.2( R )

Is this the year for the Houston Rockets? With the addition of Ron Artest, the only thing standing in their way besides the inevitable health questions seems to be the Los Angeles Lakers, the only team that rates ahead of the Rockets. Houston is projected to have the best defense in the league--hardly a surprise--as well as an improved offense that could crack the league's top 10 in Offensive Rating after finishing 17th a year ago.

The Rockets' depth is enviable. I've projected 12 players in their rotation, and all of them are solidly above replacement level without even giving full credit to the defensive ability of players like Shane Battier and Chuck Hayes. Already, Houston was able to survive--and even thrive--without Yao Ming a year ago. Now, Artest gives them another player capable of creating his own offense should the Rockets be without McGrady. Ultimately, Houston's success or failure will probably depend in large part upon health, a wild card SCHOENE simply isn't equipped to predict. For now, the Rockets have done everything they can to build a championship team.


  • While Artest is a very good addition for Houston, SCHOENE is somewhat pessimistic about his development, with 13 percent of his comparable players collapsing the following season. Buyer beware when he hits free agency in a year.
  • Somewhat surprisingly, the only projected weakness of the Rockets' defense is rebounding. Houston was seventh in the league in defensive rebounding a year ago, though Dikembe Mutombo is a loss on the glass (of course, Mutombo could rejoin the Rockets at some point this season, but I can't project that). I didn't realize Artest was such a weak defensive rebounder at this stage of his career. On the other hand, they are projected to be one of three NBA teams with an offensive rebound percentage of better than 30 percent.
  • Joey Dorsey looks like the latest solid Houston second-round pick in the frontcourt. The next step for Daryl Morey and company is converting these value picks into other assets via trade. The Rockets' depth is such that a two-for-one trade could make a lot of sense, with Luther Head as another candidate for a deal.

2. New Orleans Hornets (Projected Record: 49-33)
Offensive Rating: 112.2 (8th)
Defensive Rating: 108.6 (13th)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Chris Paul22.60.80821.63.711.5---Isiah Thomas
Morris Peterson-1.40.3757. Scott
Peja Stojakovic0.70.43014. Piatkowski
David West7.30.54420. Coleman
Tyson Chandler7.30.54911.910.91.00.310.030.00Dale Davis
James Posey1.10.4458. McCloud
Julian Wright2.60.5265. Lewis
Devin Brown0.10.4195. Grunfeld
Melvin Ely-1.30.3413. Rooks
Mike James-1.60.3143. Long
Hilton Armstrong-0.40.3872. Petersen
Rasual Butler-1.00.3302. Bowen
Ryan Bowen-0.20.3971. Augmon

Subjectively, I felt the New Orleans Hornets were the second-best team in the Western Conference a year ago. SCHOENE is not particularly bullish on their chances of maintaining that lofty status this year despite the addition of James Posey. With the exception of Chris Paul, every key player for the Hornets is projected to decline. Last year, Tyson Chandler, Peja Stojakovic and David West combined for 21.0 Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP). This season, we have them projected to drop off to 15.2 combined WARP. That would be enough to drop New Orleans into the second tier of contenders in the Western Conference.

Above and beyond the individual projections, there is another factor working against the Hornets. The Plexiglass Principle (like so many things, first coined by Bill James in the study of baseball) indicates that teams that make a big jump from one year to the next tend to give some of it back the following season.

Before we go getting all doom and gloom, there's still plenty of reasons to recommend New Orleans. In Paul, the Hornets have a perennial MVP candidate at the point, while West and Chandler are effective sidekicks. The addition of Posey's defensive ability isn't really captured in the numbers, while Julian Wright figures to take a step forward in his sophomore season. In a deep Western Conference, however, all of that might not quite be enough this season.


  • The projection system is particularly unkind to Stojakovic, who is anticipated to drop near replacement level. Many other shooting specialists like Stojakovic have gone from go-to scorers to role players in their early 30s, and his usage is projected to go down nearly four percent. That's accompanied by a projected massive six percent worsening in his turnover rate.

  • At 21, Wright is still so young that it is difficult to find good comparable players. The early indications are very positive, however. His three closest comps are Rashard Lewis, Travis Outlaw and Gerald Wallace. Lewis and Wallace both emerged as starters the following season, while Outlaw is still establishing himself.
  • As I mentioned in the introduction to SCHOENE, Paul's projection is simply a repeat of his 2007-08 statistics because only one player (Isiah Thomas) scores a similarity of greater than 80. Paul was three standard deviations better than league average in per-minute win percentage a year ago; the lone point guard who had been at least two standard deviations better at the same age before Paul was Magic Johnson, who produced similar results with a different style. (The difference in the two players' heights also drives down their similarity.)
  • Something I had never noticed before going over the projections was that the Hornets rarely get to the free-throw line. Their ratio of free throws to field-goal attempts was 29th in the league last year and is projected to rank second from the bottom again this year. Neither Paul nor West gets to the line very much for a star player; Chandler is the only starter who shoots more than an average number of free throws per possession used.

3. Dallas Mavericks (Projected Record: 47-35)
Offensive Rating: 110.5 (13th)
Defensive Rating: 107.5 (9th)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Jason Kidd9.80.59810. Jackson
Jason Terry3.10.47815. Jackson
Josh Howard4.70.50419. Wilkes
Dirk Nowitzki9.20.57922. Kemp
Erick Dampier4.30.5325. Johnson
Brandon Bass1.90.4758. King
Jerry Stackhouse-0.50.4029. Aguirre
DeSagana Diop2.30.5022. James
Jose Juan Barea-0.40.3924. House
Antoine Wright-0.90.3582. Higgins
Devean George-1.20.3161. Sanders
Shawne Williams0.60.4584. Jones
Gerald Green-0.40.3592. Dehere

When the Golden State Warriors shocked the Dallas Mavericks and the world with their first-round upset in the 2007 Playoffs, what we did not know at the time was that the Mavericks' best chance at winning a championship had already come and gone. Dallas has made some bold moves to try to shake things up since then, first dealing for Jason Kidd and then replacing Avery Johnson as head coach with Rick Carlisle, but none of that seems likely to close the gap that has opened up between the Mavericks and the elite teams in the West.

As I explored previously, coaching changes generally don't seem to help successful teams get to the proverbial "next level"; the roster has been the more dominant factor. There, Dallas left the core intact while making a few tweaks to the bench, most notably bringing back center DeSagana Diop (part of the Kidd trade) as a free agent. The Mavericks' depth is nowhere near where it was when the team advanced to the NBA Finals in 2006 or during the impressive 2006-07 regular season. Last year, the Dallas bench outside of sixth man Brandon Bass was rated a combined 8.4 wins below replacement. This season, we have that projected to improve to essentially replacement level. That improvement will help, but not enough to offset the declines elsewhere as key players begin to age. While SCHOENE likes Dallas to make the playoffs, it doesn't project serious contention.


  • This season looks like it could be the beginning of the decline for Dirk Nowitzki. Similar players at the same age saw their per-minute performance drop off 8.9 percent the following season, which is the fourth-largest projected decline in the league. Tom Chambers (Nowitzki's second-best comp after the more incongruous Shawn Kemp) is a good example, going from 27.2 points per game to 19.9 at the same age while his efficiency took a tumble as well.

    While Josh Howard is closer to his prime at 28, he too is projected to fall off considerably. Given his recent off-court distractions, this offseason might have been the best time for Dallas to deal Howard.

  • One of my favorite John Hollinger concepts is the notion of the "second draft," when players who come into the league at young ages and struggle to initially find their way change teams at bargain prices. Last year's second-draft steal was Bass, who emerged as a productive sixth man after playing sparingly during his first two seasons with the Hornets. It seems like the Mavericks might be attempting to replicate that find by going after guys like Gerald Green and Shawne Williams who are young enough to turn their careers around. Statistically, Williams looks like the better bet, as Green was wildly unproductive last year in Minnesota. Youth and athleticism are about all Green has going for him at this point.
  • Another young reclamation project is Antoine Wright, acquired from New Jersey along with Kidd. It appears Wright will likely open the season as Dallas' starter alongside Kidd in the backcourt. Count me as dubious. Wright has had a solid preseason, though in large part because of the kind of fluky shooting I've warned about--60 percent from three-point range. Over the course of his career, Wright simply hasn't been efficient enough as a shooter to be valuable.
  • Newcomer James Singleton has no projection because he spent last season overseas. I still like his chances of contributing. While Singleton was with the L.A. Clippers the previous two years, he was consistently a productive player in limited minutes, never seeming to earn the trust of Mike Dunleavy and having a tough time finding a role as a tweener.

4. San Antonio Spurs (Projected Record: 41-41)
Offensive Rating: 107.9 (23rd)
Defensive Rating: 107.4 (8th)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Tony Parker7.20.55718. Marbury
Manu Ginobili9.10.69218. Pippen
Bruce Bowen-5.70.2874. Robinson
Tim Duncan15.00.69919.410. Ewing
Fabricio Oberto2.10.4834. Thorpe
Michael Finley-2.10.3547. Ellis
Kurt Thomas2.70.5045. Coleman
Roger Mason0.20.4238. Lenard
Matt Bonner-0.90.3754. Schoene
George Hill1.00.4595.22.11.6( R )
Ime Udoka1.00.4476. Carr
Jacque Vaughn-1.10.3292. Anderson

Surprise! SCHOENE thinks that this is the year the San Antonio Spurs finally show their age, rating them as having no better than one-in-three odds of even making the postseason. In part, this didn't really come as a surprise to me. The system tends to favor offensive teams over defensive ones because there is more regression to the mean at the defensive end. Beyond that, the Spurs don't block very many shots, which hurts them in our defensive projections. I'll be stunned if San Antonio actually finishes eighth in the league in Defensive Rating after placing third a year ago.

Looking beyond that, there are certainly some troubling indicators for the Spurs going into this season, the injury to Manu Ginobili being foremost amongst them. Ginobili is projected to miss 21 games following ankle surgery, which translates into a loss of 3.6 WARP. That's without even taking into account how much San Antonio has struggled to score without Ginobili. In Ginobili's absence, who else on the roster besides Tim Duncan and Tony Parker will be creating shots? Rookie point guard George Hill might be more capable than anyone else, and he figures to play only spot minutes. While the Spurs have won with defense, they've been able to score as well. A 23rd ranking in Offensive Rating would be far and away San Antonio's worst offensive performance of the Duncan era; it was just two years ago that the Spurs had the league's fifth-best offense.

Ultimately, I don't anticipate that the Spurs ultimately will miss the playoffs. It does make sense that Ginobili's absence will force San Antonio to fight just to get there, however, and take enough out of the Spurs that a postseason run like last year's seems unlikely.


  • Michael Finley's numbers are strange. While a majority of his comparable players improved the following season, the distribution was skewed enough (his odds of collapsing are very high) that overall his rating is still projected to go down. The Spurs would be wise to favor younger Roger Mason and Ime Udoka over Finley. It doesn't look like that's going to happen.
  • The Spurs are another team that goes to the line less frequently than you would imagine. They were 24th in the league in free throws per field-goal attempt a year ago, and with Ginobili missing extended time, that's projected to go down to 28th this season.
  • It seems wrong that a player whose best comp is Russ Schoene himself (a claim only Matt Bonner can make) comes out so poorly by these numbers.

5. Memphis Grizzlies (Projected Record: 21-61)
Offensive Rating: 104.6 (28th)
Defensive Rating: 112.6 (25th)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Mike Conley1.80.45712. Telfair
O.J. Mayo-2.70.36213.93.93.1( R )
Rudy Gay6.60.52921. Nowitzki
Darko Milicic0.90.4378. Benjamin
Marc Gasol4.50.5307.46.02.3( R )
Hakim Warrick1.90.46411. Henderson
Kyle Lowry4.50.5668. Brown
Javaris Crittenton0.30.4316. Pavlovic
Darrell Arthur-0.40.3933.72.40.3( R )
Marko Jaric0.70.4622. Ehlo
Antoine Walker0.50.4444. Short
Greg Buckner-0.40.3631. Wingate
Quinton Ross-1.10.3482. Mercer

Things may have to get worse before they get better for the Memphis Grizzlies, or at least more or less stay the same. SCHOENE projects the Grizzlies to be the league's worst team, including one run of the simulator I'm using to generate records that had them winning just 10 games. In the short term, it's hard to find reasons for optimism in Memphis. Adding O.J. Mayo in the draft cost the Grizzlies valuable starter Mike Miller, and Mayo doesn't project as an instant contributor (at least in terms of wins). Memphis' 2-6 preseason record is another poor sign.

There are encouraging developments for the Grizzlies' future. With Miller gone, the entire starting lineup and most of the rotation is made up of young players who could potentially be part of the next competitive Memphis team. Newcomer Marc Gasol translates as an instant contributor who will help replace his brother Pau after the two were traded for each other last season. The Grizzlies have depth in terms of potential; one of this season's most important challenges will be settling position battles between the young point guards (Mike Conley vs. Kyle Lowry vs. Javaris Crittenton, with Conley fairly set as the starter but the backup spot very much up for grabs) and in the frontcourt (where Gasol, Darko Milicic, Hakim Warrick and Darrell Arthur are all contending for minutes).


  • Gasol (and fellow Spanish rookie Rudy Fernandez) spent last year in the ULEB EuroCup rather than the more prominent Euroleague, so I had to go about translating their stats from a small group of 12 players that have gone back and forth while playing at least 250 NBA minutes in the season before or after playing for the EuroCup. Gasol's translated numbers seem reasonable. I was definitely surprised to find out he came out nearly as good a passer as his brother, as the younger Gasol's reputation is as more of a power player. Overall, he looks like a very nice piece for the Grizzlies going forward.
  • Subjectively, I had Conley pegged as a breakout candidate in his second season. The projection system did not agree, with a paltry 55 percent of Conley's most similar players improving the next year. It is difficult coming up with a good projection for Conley because so few point guards enter the NBA so young, and most of them tend to be score-first players. Telfair and Shaun Livingston are the only pass-first point guards amongst Conley's 10 best comps.
  • On the other hand, Kyle Lowry gets the full benefit of the improvement of young point guards. His projected 9.5 percent improvement is best amongst players within shouting distance of league average. Surprisingly, Lowry's top 10 comps include four All-Stars (Kenny Anderson, Terrell Brandon, Kevin Johnson and Tony Parker).
  • Gay's comps are a strange mix. For some reason, he scores as similar to several perimeter-shooting big men, a group including Nowitzki, Charlie Villanueva and Antoine Walker. Overall, it's a solid group; six of the 10 most similar players made an All-Star Game, and Luol Deng still has time to make it seven.
  • Memphis only projects as above average in one of the Four Factors on offense or defense, that being forcing turnovers.

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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2008-10-28 - NBA Season Preview 2008-09: Southwest Divisi...
2008-10-28 - NBA Season Preview 2008-09: Southeast Divisi...
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