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December 13, 2008
Prospectus Hoops List
December 12, 2008

by Bradford Doolittle

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The Lakers' two-week reign atop the Hoops List ended this week, in no small part due to Los Angeles' loss at Sacramento on Wednesday. However, the Cavaliers have reached No. 1 on their own merit. LeBron James and company sport the NBA's top offense, second-best defense and have moved comfortably ahead of LA and Boston in point differential. The Cavaliers have the league's only perfect home record (12-0) and while their strength of schedule is 25th in the league, the aggregate record of Cleveland's future opponents is under .500.

There is little doubt that Cleveland is one of the league's most-improved teams and a legitimate threat to the Celtics/Lakers Finals rematch that the execs at ABC have no doubt already penciled in. Cleveland GM Danny Ferry only tweaked the roster in the offseason, bringing in point guard Mo Williams and rookie backup big man J.J. Hickson. Nevertheless, Cleveland has gotten dramatically better with largely the same group of players that finished last season. Sometimes, teams--and players--just get better. Keeping with that theme, let's take a look at the most improved player on each team.

To identify that player on each squad, I looked at WP3K (wins produced per 3,000 minutes) for this season as compared to last, so we're talking per-minute improvement here. To qualify, a player has to have eaten up at least 30% of the available minutes at his position.

RANK (Last Week) Team (Power rating) [ WIN PACE / PYTHAGOREAN PACE / PRESEASON PROJECTION ]

(Statistics through Dec. 11)

1. (2) Cleveland Cavaliers (67.5) [ 70 / 71 / 44 ]
Rankings: NET: 1; OFF: 1; DEF: 2; PACE: 23

Most improved: Delonte West (2.37 improvement in WP3K) -- Pure point guards are a rare commodity in contemporary basketball. Even the best young lead guards like Chris Paul tend to be more ball dominator than ball distributor, even if their assist rates are high. Combo guards are plentiful, however, the kind like West, who are neither a one or a two but reside in some netherworld in between. Perhaps the best thing to do with these types is to pair them with another combo guard. The pairing of West and Mo Williams in the Cleveland backcourt has certainly worked well for the Cavs. West has become less of a passer and more of a scorer. In doing so, he is shooting the ball at a career-best 59.6 eFG% even while his assist rate is 7% below his career average.

2. (1) Los Angeles Lakers (64.2) [ 70 / 66 / 49 ]
Rankings: NET: 2; OFF: 2; DEF: 4; PACE: 3

Most improved: Pau Gasol (2.59) -- Pau actually reached this level of play pretty much at the same time he first pulled on a Laker uniform. In Memphis, Gasol would post usage rates in the 24-26% range and, by last year, the pounding seemed to have caught up with him. Playing alongside Kobe Bryant, Gasol can now riff off another star. His usage rate is down and his efficiency is back up to where it was during the salad days of the Hubie Brown Grizzlies.

3. (3) Boston Celtics (63.4) [ 74 / 67 / 63 ]
Rankings: NET: 3; OFF: 7; DEF: 1; PACE: 17

Most improved: Rajon Rondo (0.96) -- Pretty much everyone has caught onto Rondo's ascension by now. He's gotten better at every phase of the game and, at 22, is playing just as well as the trio of Hall of Famers he shares the parquet floor with in Boston. At the rate he's improving, you have to figure Rondo will be the block that Danny Ainge eventually builds around when the Big Three fade into old age.

4. (4) Portland Trail Blazers (58.7) [ 51 / 51 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 8; OFF: 3; DEF: 20; PACE: 30

Most improved: Sergio Rodriguez (3.73) -- By now, you'd have figured that Jarryd Bayless would have consigned Rodriguez to the end of the bench. Instead, Serg has become this year's Jose Calderon -- a dynamic-passing Spanish point guard screaming for a larger role. Rodriguez actually was playing at this level as a rookie before slipping last season. In his current form, he's one of the best per-minute assist men in the NBA.

5. (5) Denver Nuggets (54.2) [ 55 / 55 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 5; OFF: 12; DEF: 5; PACE: 5

Most improved: Carmelo Anthony (2.23) -- Because Anthony has struggled with his shot, most player rating systems actually have 'Melo regressing to the levels of his first two years in the league. NBAPET sees a dramatic uptick in Anthony's defensive prowess, a conclusion shared by observers of the Nuggets and confirmed by his opponent PER at 82games.com (12.3). Anthony is a big reason why Denver has risen to No. 5 in league defensive efficiency.

6. (8) Houston Rockets (51.4) [ 52 / 52 / 61 ]
Rankings: NET: 10; OFF: 19; DEF: 6; PACE: 25

Most improved: Ron Artest (0.79) -- Artest has not shot the ball well, to say the least. His 33.2% mark on two-point shots is shocking. Nevertheless, NBAPET thinks he's playing truly awesome defense. Part of that may be his new teammates, but his opponent PER at 82games is 9.8.

7. (6) New Orleans Hornets (51.3) [ 54 / 56 / 45 ]
Rankings: NET: 6; OFF: 4; DEF: 12; PACE: 29

Most improved: Chris Paul (0.91) -- Paul was a legit MVP candidate last year and his gotten even better. His turnovers are up a bit, but not enough to offset a 5.5% increase in assist rate and a true-shooting percentage (63.9%) that is off the charts.

8. (9) Dallas Mavericks (48.2) [ 46 / 48 / 51 ]
Rankings: NET: 11; OFF: 14; DEF: 9; PACE: 9

Most improved: Jose Barea (1.56) -- Avery Johnson never really grasped what he had in Barea, but Rick Carlisle has recognized what Barea can do. A solid point guard in his own right, Carlisle has paired Barea with Jason Kidd to give him another spot-up shooter. Barea has responded, shooting over 40 percent from behind the arc.

9. (10) Atlanta Hawks (46.4) [ 46 / 43 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 13; OFF: 11; DEF: 15; PACE: 24

Most improved: Mike Bibby (2.08) -- It feels like Bibby has been around forever, but he's still just 30 years old. So far, Bibby has posted a career-best eFG% (55.3), raising his overall metrics to the level they were at during his heyday with the great Kings teams earlier this decade. He and Joe Johnson have comprised one of the league's best backcourts in the first quarter of the season. Whether or not they remain so hinges on whether Bibby can continue to shoot the ball this well. I have my doubts.

10. (11) Orlando Magic (46.1) [ 63 / 55 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 4; OFF: 13; DEF: 3; PACE: 8

Most improved: Jameer Nelson (4.18) -- With the exception of his shooting, Nelson's game has always been consistent, an observation that could be made about many players. So far, Nelson is shooting the ball better than at any other time in his career. Like Bibby, I'm skeptical he can keep it up.

11. (12) Phoenix Suns (45.7) [ 46 / 41 / 49 ]
Rankings: NET: 14; OFF: 5; DEF: 22; PACE: 12

Most improved: Matt Barnes (2.45) -- A career 34.1 percent shooter on threes, Barnes is scorching the nets at a 42.6 percent clip from downtown this season. He's one of the few Phoenix players that have gotten better under Terry Porter. While it's uncertain whether he can keep up this level of efficiency, one point in Barnes' favor is that his shot selection is much better than it was in the anarchist offensive system used by Don Nelson.

12. (16) Utah Jazz (44.4) [ 51 / 53 / 50 ]
Rankings: NET: 7; OFF: 8; DEF: 7; PACE: 16

Most improved: Kyle Korver (0.87) -- Like Pau Gasol, Korver's real improvement came last season after he was traded. One of the league's best shooters, Korver is a perfect fit in Jerry Sloan's offense and may even be playing a little defense to boot.

13. (7) Detroit Pistons (42.4) [ 45 / 38 / 55 ]
Rankings: NET: 16; OFF: 15; DEF: 21; PACE: 27

Most improved: Kwame Brown (-0.49) -- Yes, that's right. Brown is Detroit's most-improved player by managing to not get a whole lot worse. That, more than anything, illustrates why the Pistons can't seem to win a game lately.

14. (17) Chicago Bulls (41.6) [ 39 / 34 / 43 ]
Rankings: NET: 17; OFF: 23; DEF: 11; PACE: 4

Most improved: Ben Gordon (3.99) -- Contract year.

15. (21) San Antonio Spurs (41.6) [ 50 / 37 / 55 ]
Rankings: NET: 9; OFF: 10; DEF: 10; PACE: 26

Most improved: Matt Bonner (2.97) -- Bonner is 25-of-49 on three-pointers and has an eFG% of 66.2 so far this season. Bonner has continued to start for Gregg Popovich even with the roster returning to health. He's got the fourth-best plus-minus rating on San Antonio this season. A perfect role player to go with the Spurs' core trio.

16. (14) Miami Heat (39.7) [ 46 / 45 / 35 ]
Rankings: NET: 12; OFF: 9; DEF: 13; PACE: 21

Most improved: Dwyane Wade (6.98) -- Wade has come all the way back to his pre-injury level and then some, making the MVP race a three-horse competition between him, LeBron, and CP3. Blocks, steals, rebounds, shooting the ball, running the offense -- you name it, and Wade has gotten better at it. I've written it before, but it bears repeating: no team is as dependent upon a single player as Miami is on Wade. And, yes, that includes Cleveland. No player has improved more over last season.

17. (13) Indiana Pacers (37.2) [ 27 / 33 / 41 ]
Rankings: NET: 20; OFF: 24; DEF: 14; PACE: 6

Most improved: Danny Granger (1.82) -- Granger has steadily improved throughout his four-year career and for the first time, he is playing at an All-Star level. His usage rate has gone up by more than five percent this year but it has hardly impacted Granger's efficiency -- a sure sign of an excellent player. He's doing more and more within the team context, as well, with an assist rate that has climbed over 14% -- excellent for a small forward.

18. (19) New Jersey Nets (37.2) [ 45 / 36 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 15; OFF: 6; DEF: 27; PACE: 18

Most improved: Devin Harris (1.31) -- Harris' scoring average has increased by nearly 10 points per game, so everybody and their dog thinks he's one of the NBA's breakout stars. They may be right, at least in terms of offense. Harris has upped his game by simply putting his head down and driving to the basket again and again. He's averaging nearly 11 free-throw attempts per game. I think getting schooled by that British guy on YouTube really lit a fire under his ass.

19. (15) Toronto Raptors (36.4) [ 35 / 27 / 42 ]
Rankings: NET: 22; OFF: 20; DEF: 23; PACE: 15

Most improved: Anthony Parker (1.09) -- I've never been the biggest fan of Parker's game. For one, I think he's overrated as a defender. He is one of the league's best three-point shooters, though, so he fits in with what Bryan Colangelo want to do with the Raptors' offense. Nevertheless, Parker's overall game is only better because it's not quite as bad.

20. (18) Milwaukee Bucks (35.7) [ 30 / 30 / 31 ]
Rankings: NET: 24; OFF: 25; DEF: 18; PACE: 11

Most improved: Michael Redd (2.76) -- The returns on Redd are early, as he's missed a bunch of time because of an injury and he just barely hit the 30% threshhold to qualify for this piece. So far under Scott Skiles, Redd looks like he's the exact same player on offense, which is a good thing. Whether or not he's a better defender is a matter for conjecture, but he's clearly benefited from Skiles' increased emphasis on the subject.

21. (20) Philadelphia 76ers (34.9) [ 33 / 37 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 18; OFF: 28; DEF: 8; PACE: 14

Most improved: Willie Green (1.21) -- Green has been overmatched as a starter in his career, but his performance jumped up this season when he began coming off the bench. But the Sixers struggled, and suddenly Green is back with the first unit in place of Thaddeus Young. Look for the old Green to be back directly.

22. (22) New York Knicks (34.7) [ 37 / 33 / 33 ]
Rankings: NET: 19; OFF: 18; DEF: 24; PACE: 1

Most improved: Quentin Richardson (4.81) -- Remember that old episode of the Simpsons, when Marge goes to a spa for a little getaway and the rest of the family falls to pieces? When she returns, Homer hurls himself at her feet and repeats over and over, "Never leave again!" That is what Q probably did the day he was reunited with Mike D'Antoni.

23. (24) Sacramento Kings (27.2) [ 22 / 30 / 39 ]
Rankings: NET: 29; OFF: 22; DEF: 30; PACE: 22

Most improved: John Salmons (1.49) -- Salmons is in that no-man's land. He leads the Kings in WP82 (6.7), which ranks 48th of 255 qualifying players in the league. Do you really want John Salmons to be your best player, no matter how underrated he may be? He's getting too good to take out of the lineup, but he's not really good enough to win with in such a featured role.

24. (25) Golden State Warriors (27.0) [ 26 / 29 / 35 ]
Rankings: NET: 25; OFF: 16; DEF: 28; PACE: 2

Most improved: CJ Watson (3.20) -- NBAPET rates Watson as Golden State's second-best per-minute player behind Anthony Morrow. Much of that rating is due to a sterling defensive line. 82games also rates Watson as the Warriors' best defender. For whatever reason, I don't quite buy it, but the next time I watch Golden State, I'll pay closer attention to what Watson is doing on the defensive end of the floor.

25. (23) Charlotte Bobcats (26.2) [ 24 / 28 / 38 ]
Rankings: NET: 23; OFF: 27; DEF: 16; PACE: 28

Most improved: Adam Morrison (1.91) -- I compared Morrison's numbers to his rookie season since he missed all of last season with an injury. That he's doing better than he did in that disastrous campaign qualifies as damning with faint praise. He's never going to be more than a one-dimensional player -- a scorer-- but he's not particularly efficient at that dimension. His three-point shooting is better and his long-term role will be as a designated long-distance bomber off the end of somebody's bench. You can make a living that way, but I don't think that's what Michael Jordan had in mind when Charlotte drafted Morrison with the third pick of the 2006 draft.

26. (28) Memphis Grizzlies (24.4) [ 26 / 26 / 19 ]
Rankings: NET: 21; OFF: 21; DEF: 19; PACE: 19

Most improved: Rudy Gay (5.19) -- Gay and O.J. Mayo make for an exciting one-two punch for Memphis. Gay's shooting is a little off from last season, but his defense is vastly improved.

27. (27) Washington Wizards (23.2) [ 16 / 26 / 32 ]
Rankings: NET: 26; OFF: 17; DEF: 29; PACE: 20

Most improved: Nick Young (1.98) -- Young is averaging almost 19 points per 40 minutes while playing almost half of the available minutes for Washington. I'm not sure what his ceiling is, but in this lost season, the Wizards owe it to their fans to find out. It'll be interesting to see how the acquisition of Javaris Crittendon impacts Young's court time. It SHOULD impact DeShawn Stevenson's.

28. (29) Los Angeles Clippers (20.2) [ 15 / 22 / 33 ]
Rankings: NET: 27; OFF: 29; DEF: 17; PACE: 10

Most improved: Zach Randolph (1.94) -- Randolph seems relaxed and happy to be back on the West coast. Because of his salary, too much time is spent poking holes in Randolph's game. Sure, those holes are there, but who can blame Randolph's agent for taking advantage of the dollars thrown his client's way? As it is, Randolph is an effective player if not over-exposed and if used in a balanced offense. Right now, it is unclear if the Clippers are the right team for his abilities. LA's shot distribution seems balanced, but that's just because they take turns going one-on-one.

29. (26) Minnesota Timberwolves (19.7) [ 15 / 23 / 26 ]
Rankings: NET: 28; OFF: 26; DEF: 26; PACE: 13

Most improved: Corey Brewer (2.85) -- Brewer's season is already over, a shame because it really looked like he was getting better.

30. (30) Oklahoma City Thunder (11.2) [ 7 / 15 / 23 ]
Rankings: NET: 30; OFF: 30; DEF: 25; PACE: 7

Most improved: Kevin Durant (6.61) -- Durant is vastly improved, even more so since new Thunder coach Scott Brooks began using him at the three spot. Durant has maintained a 28ish usage rate, but has increased his true-shooting percentage from 51.9 to 55.3. He's also a better defender against small forwards than he was against shooting guards.

Definitions:

Adjusted winning percentage (AWP) = ((home wins x 0.6)+(road wins x 1.4)) / (((home wins x 0.6)+(road wins x 1.4)) + ((home losses x .1.4)+(road losses x 0.6)))

Opponents winning percentage (OWP) = aggregate percentage of games won for each team's opponents, based on the number of times the team has faced that opponent.

Pythagorean winning percentage (PYTH) = uses the basketball-reference formula of Games x (Points scored^14) / ((Points scored^14) + (Points allowed^14))

Power rating = (((PYTH + AWP)/2)*(OWP/.500)) x 82

WP82 = wins produced per 82 games, adjusted for playing time

WP3K = wins produced per 3,000 minutes

RANKINGS: NET = net efficiency ratio; OFF - offensive efficiency; DEF - defensive efficiency; PACE: average possessions per game

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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