Season Previews: Southeast Division

Atlanta Hawks

2012-13 Record: 44-38; 2012-13 Pythagorean Win-Loss Record: 42-40; 2013-14 Vegas Season Win Total: 40

Betting Advice: Take the over. For me, this is one of the easier over bets. The Hawks lost Josh Smith, but replaced him with Paul Milsap, who might be the league’s most underrated player. The team should finally be able to have an above average offense without Smith jacking up mid-range jumpers and while his defensive ability will be missed Milsap isn’t a slouch in that department either. Al Horford is also a legitimate star and if the team can get solid production from Jeff Teague and Lou Williams (when he returns) this team should get about 46 wins.

Charlotte Bobcats

2012-13 Record: 21-61; 2012-13 Pythagorean Win-Loss Record: 17-65; 2013-14 Vegas Season Win Total: 27.5

Betting Advice: Take the under. The Bobcats were bad last year, but according to their point differential they should have been even worse. They went 30-52 against the spread last year despite being spotted about 7.5 points a game. Al Jefferson’s contract is a steep price to pay for the chance at minimal improvement, but I suppose the team had to start somewhere. He will undoubtedly help on offense, but his pick-and-roll defense is terrible and will somewhat negate whatever he brings to the table on offense. The rest of the team is a collection of decent bench players that have been forced into an NBA starting line-up. Give me the under.

Miami Heat

2012-13 Record: 66-16; 2012-13 Pythagorean Win-Loss Record: 62-20; 2013-14 Vegas Season Win Total: 60

Betting Advice: Stay away. Over the last two years Miami has been able to practically name its own win total in the regular season. If motivated and barring significant injuries, I have no doubt this year’s Heat team, with a full season of Chris Anderson along with anything they can get from Greg Oden, could eclipse their 60 win Vegas season total. It honestly comes down to how many minutes Norris Cole and Michael Beasley are given (hint: the fewer the better). These two players are so terrible that they’re the biggest factor when it comes to trying to handicap Heat games. If the team decides to rest their stars more than in the past during the regular season, Cole and Beasley might see fairly significant minutes. There has yet to be any indication Miami wants to coast through the regular season though. Dwyane Wade is supposedly healthier, Chris Bosh looks sharp, and LeBron is still the game’s best player by a significant margin. After seeing how important home court was for them in the playoffs, maybe they put together a run similar to last year. But with all the extra mileage from three straight Finals appearances (along with Olympic games), their focus may waver more than in recent years. They certainly weren’t always keyed in on defense last season, but managed to turn it on when necessary and crank out wins. That should still be a viable enough tactic this year but the switch may not always flip as easily after three long off-seasons. I prefer not to have to guess.

Orlando Magic

2012-13 Record: 20-62; 2012-13 Pythagorean Win-Loss Record: 22-60; 2013-14 Vegas Season Win Total: 24.5

Betting Advice: Take the over. This team is similar to the Utah Jazz: they have rebounded remarkably well after trading away a superstar player and now have a nice core to build around. The Magic are doing exactly what they should by letting their young players get lots of run for a promising head coach. Like the Jazz, I think Orlando will surprise some people this year. Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris are very talented prospects and Aaron Afflalo and Glen Davis (pre-injury) turned in solid seasons last year. Number two overall pick Victor Oladipo should also help the team out.

Washington Wizards

2012-13 Record: 29-53; 2012-13 Pythagorean Win-Loss Record: 33-49; 2013-14 Vegas Season Win Total: 42

Betting Advice: Take the under. I actually like some of what the Wizards have done recently. John Wall and Brad Beal make for a really promising backcourt and Nene is a great player when healthy. The problem is their terrible GM and league-worst coach have really capped their potential. All of their draft picks beyond Wall and Beal have been abysmal and have left them very thin in terms of depth. And  I will never trust Randy Wittman to lead a team to the playoffs. Let me know if there’s a coaching change. Otherwise I’m off the Wizards’ playoff bandwagon.

Season Previews: The Southwest Division

Dallas Mavericks

2012-13 Record: 41-41; 2012-13 Pythagorean Win-Loss Record: 39-43; 2013-14 Vegas Season Win Total: 44

Betting Advice: Cautiously take the over. The good news is the Mavericks should have a competent point guard and defensive center this year in addition to a healthier Dirk Nowitzki. That alone should make the team a candidate for significant improvement. The bad news is the team signed Monta Ellis, which will likely hurt them. At the price tag, it may seem like Ellis is a worthwhile gamble. The problem is he’s already 27 years old and has played for two teams and five coaches in his eight years in the league. There’s just not much upside left. And even if elite head coach Rick Carlisle can coax Ellis into giving up his long two’s there’s still the matter of improving his defense, attitude, and getting him to pass more. This keeps the over from being a strong recommendation. Fortunately though, the win total is only three higher than what the team managed to amass last year without Dirk for a big chunk of the season and actually starting Derek Fisher at point guard for a stretch. The bar is not exactly high.

Houston Rockets

2012-13 Record: 45-37; 2012-13 Pythagorean Win-Loss Record: 50-32; 2013-14 Vegas Season Win Total: 44

Betting Advice: Take the over. I wrote a lengthy piece on how difficult Houston is to model earlier this off-season.  Although their point differential suggests they fit the profile of a 50 win team last year, that should probably be taken with a grain of salt due to wildly variant point totals. Still, Dwight Howard will have a huge impact on both ends for the team and should steady their performances a little bit more. 55 wins seems like a completely reasonable expectation, particularly with all their key players still peaking.

Memphis Grizzlies

2012-13 Record: 56-26; 2012-13 Pythagorean Win-Loss Record: 54-28; 2013-14 Vegas Season Win Total: 49

Betting Advice: Take the over. There’s nothing sexy about the Grizzlies, but I’m not sure why Vegas expects their win total to drop by seven games this year. The team clearly performed better after trading Rudy Gay and they will be without him all year. They have a new coach who is unproven, but Lionel Hollins wasn’t exactly a great tactician, often costing his team by forcing them to hold the ball and slow the pace (fortunately they should be speedier this year- be sure to keep an eye on their over/unders early). Mike Conley continues to be one of the leagues most underrated stars and Marc Gasol is an elite center in his prime. The team may move on from Zach Randolph, but I’m confident they’ll maintain a strong regular season record regardless.

New Orleans Pelicans

2012-13 Record: 27-55; 2012-13 Pythagorean Win-Loss Record: 30-52; 2013-14 Vegas Season Win Total: 40

Betting Advice: Take the under. It’s a good thing Anthony Davis is still on his rookie deal, because the Pelicans really overpaid for their trio of guards. Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, and Eric Gordon are all exceptionally underrated players who have yet to live up to the potential they showed earlier in their careers. Holiday is good, but he’s an undersized point guard who isn’t overly efficient in a league currently experiencing a renaissance at the position. Evans has yet to outperform his rookie season, a pretty clear red flag. Many pre-maturely anointed Gordon as an elite two-way shooting guard but since his slew of injuries we haven’t seen him develop into that player. It could still happen, sure, but for now his max deal is one of the worst contracts in the NBA. I love Davis and sixth man Ryan Anderson, but with the team relying on the three players mentioned above and one of the worst coaches in the league (Monty Williams, who doesn’t seem to have any awareness of corner three shots on either end) this team is not going to make the playoffs despite opening up their wallets.

San Antonio Spurs

2012-13 Record: 58-24; 2012-13 Pythagorean Win-Loss Record: 58-24; 2013-14 Vegas Season Win Total: 55.5

Betting Advice: Stay away. I’m not one to bet against the Spurs, but they’re eventually going to show decline even with Khwai Leonard firmly entrenched as the star of the team’s next era. This might be the year they regress to “merely” a 50-win playoff team. Manu Ginobili has been declining rapidly the last two seasons and a trip to the Finals may really affect Tim Duncan during the regular season either by forcing him to miss games, play limited minutes, or just taking away some of the polish to his game. You’re getting some regression built into their Vegas season total, but I don’t see much value.

Season Previews: The Central Division

Chicago Bulls

2012-13 Record: 45-37; 2012-13 Pythagorean Win-Loss Record: 42-40; 2013-14 Vegas Season Win Total: 56.5

Betting Advice: Take the over. Before seeing Derrick Rose’s return in the pre-season I would have probably recommended staying away, but with Rose looking to still be in MVP-form and a full year of Jimmy Butler starting at the two (he started only 20 games last year), their 45 game win total from last year is going to be shattered. Tom Thibodeau is making a run at unseating Gregg Popovich as the best coach in the league if he can at least try to scale back his starters’ minutes. Their defense is so consistently solid (I still slightly prefer it to the Pacers’ D) they can grind out regular season wins even without getting great offensive performances from their stars. They’ve had the best regular season record every year that Thibs and Rose have been together and although that might change this year, they should be able to hit 57 wins.

Cleveland Cavaliers

2012-13 Record: 31-51; 2012-13 Pythagorean Win-Loss Record: 34-48; 2013-14 Vegas Season Win Total: 40.5

Betting Advice: Take the under. Cleveland is not doing a very good job of taking advantage of their opportunities. They’ve had four top five picks since LeBron James left them and three of them have been extremely questionable. The lone clear draft success the team has had is taking Kyrie Irving number one. With a star player on a rookie contract the Cavs should be using their savings to pair him with a second-tier player in their prime before Kyrie’s inevitable max extension. A solid move would have been to sign Paul Milsap to a huge deal (you can afford to overpay when Irving is making so far below his market value) or trade for Luol Deng to give the team another legitimate scoring threat. Instead, Cleveland spent their savings on Jarrett Jack and Earl Clark and decided to rent Andrew Bynum for a year or two. Jack is an excellent back-up point guard, but he’s on the wrong side of the age curve and benefitted from shooting a fairly remarkable percentage on long two’s last year that is unlikely to repeat. Earl Clark showed he can be a nice role player but he’s no more than that.  Bynum is obviously the more interesting addition, but I don’t see him playing more than 40 games this year. So although Anderson Varejao should be healthier and most of the team’s returning players figure to improve, I don’t think this team bolstered its roster as much as most others believe. I’m also starting to think Irving is getting a tad too much hype. To find out if someone thinks he’s a top ten player, just ask them if they value defense. He also has yet to show he can stay healthy for a full season. I should also mention the team oddly chose to bring back Mike Brown as their head coach, who is not particularly good. This team is still an underdog to reach the playoffs.

Detroit Pistons

2012-13 Record: 29-53; 2012-13 Pythagorean Win-Loss Record: 29-53; 2013-14 Vegas Season Win Total: 41

Betting Advice: Cautiously take the over. Like everyone else, I have my concerns about spacing with a Josh Smith-Greg Monroe-Andre Drummond frontline. But they’ve clearly improved their roster from last year. Brandon Jennings is an upgrade over Brandon Knight, especially as a distributor. They’ve brought in some shooters and a veteran point guard in Chauncy Billups. They made the big move to sign Josh Smith. Then there’s the overlooked point that they’re practically adding another player by having Andre Drummond healthy and starting (former coach Lawrence Frank refused to give him the minutes he deserved). I’m not a big Monroe fan, but he might end up getting traded for a wing and if not I still believe they will figure out a way to give Smith plenty of run at the four. Jennings and Smith have their flaws but I believe a change of scenery will be good for both of them and they will manage to carry the Pistons into the playoffs.

Indiana Pacers

2012-13 Record: 49-32; 2012-13 Pythagorean Win-Loss Record: 52-29; 2013-14 Vegas Season Win Total: 53.5

Betting Advice: Stay away. The Pacers didn’t have quite the coming out party the Golden State Warriors did in the playoffs, but they definitely generated some buzz. This year their season total has been set at a relatively optimistic 53.5 wins, due at least in part to an upgraded bench. Honestly, I’m not a big fan of their offseason moves. Luis Scola and CJ Watson are not good players, but then again they’re replacing even worse players (Tyler Hansbrough and DJ Augustin). The danger is if Scola takes on a major role and gets significantly more minutes than Psycho T in an order to save wear on David West. Danny Granger might also return at some point this year, but I’m hesitant he’ll be able to contribute in a meaningful way given his chronic injuries and new role with the team.

The reason I’m not taking the under then is because I expect lots of development from the team’s two young stars. It’s well documented that Paul George is on his way to being a two-way star, but Roy Hibbert’s name gets lost at times behind George and fellow defensive center Marc Gasol. Hibbert probably should have won Defensive Player of the Year and greatly improved his conditioning last year. More importantly, he also showed flashes of an offensive game to finish out the year (his offense was terrible the first half of the season). This became especially apparent the final month of the regular season. In his first 62 games, Hibbert only scored 20 or more points twice. In his last 17 regular season games, he did so seven times, and then in six of his 19 playoff games. During the span of March 13 through April 13, the Pacers scored 1.128 points per possession with him on the floor but only .981 points per possession without him. If this is more than a fluke, Indiana will be very dangerous during both the regular season and the playoffs. I still put them behind the Bulls and Heat, but they’re certainly title contenders if Hibbert can be just an above average offensive player. 53.5 wins just seems a bit too high to bet the over given their still-weak bench.

Milwaukee Bucks

2012-13 Record: 38-44; 2012-13 Pythagorean Win-Loss Record: 37-45; 2013-14 Vegas Season Win Total: 28.5

Betting Advice: Take the over. The Bucks had a lot of change over the summer, but they remain a fringe playoff team in NBA purgatory. After winning 38 games last year and keeping their talent level relatively the same, their season win total is set fairly inexplicably at 28.5. Larry Sanders is a great defensive centerpiece (who I’d much rather have than someone like DeMarcus Cousins) and just losing Monta Ellis makes the team better, let alone replacing him with a solid offensive player in O.J. Mayo. They also made a solid coaching hire by snagging Larry Drew (and a few of his former Hawks players). I don’t know how Brandon Knight fits in with this group, but his shooting can’t hurt as long as they don’t have him playing point too often. This organization is doing a horrible job of setting themselves up to be contenders in the future, but they’re going to have playoff potential  this year and should easily surpass 30 wins.

Season Previews: The Phoenix Suns and Two Point Guard Systems

Phoenix Suns

In the next couple of weeks leading up to the start of the NBA’s regular season, I’ll be posting season previews for each team along with my view on their Vegas season win totals. I wouldn’t recommend betting on season totals if you’re trying to make serious money (you have to fade injuries, trades, etc. and your money will be tied up for months), but it’s a helpful baseline for the general expectations for a team. If you’re looking for more specific projections, Andrew Johnson has a nice post on his blog Counting the Baskets that gives out multiple projections for each team based on a variety of different metrics. Here’s my preview of the Phoenix Suns:

2012-13 Record: 25-57; 2012-13 Pythagorean Win-Loss Record: 23-59; 2013-14 Vegas Season Win Total: 21

Performing the role of the Philadelphia 76ers for the Western Conference this year will be the Phoenix Suns. Their bright new GM Ryan McDonough has made it no secret this team doesn’t care much about winning this year. They’ve already stocked up on 2014 first-round picks, having snatched four in exchange for veterans like Luis Scola and most recently Marcin Gortat that they didn’t have much use for anyway. But Phoenix shouldn’t be quite as bad as Philly, and probably has more compelling young talent thanks to the offseason acquisition of Eric Bledsoe from the Clippers. The Bledsoe hype got a little out of control last year. Despite his great defensive ability and athleticism, he’s got a completely broken shooting form and appeared winded at times during his brief stint as LA’s starting point guard when Chris Paul was injured last year. Still, the potential is there, and he seems a much safer investment than say, Jrue Holiday. Another interesting aspect for the 2013-14 Suns is that they’ll be starting Bledsoe alongside another point guard, the underrated scorer Goran Dragic. Dragic will likely be relegated to playing off-ball whenever Bledsoe is on the court, which should open up some nice catch-and-shoot potential for his game. And having two above average ball handlers will make the pick-and-roll game a lot more effective for a team that figures to struggle due to lack of polished bigs (though rookie Alex Len is a very intriguing prospect). The bigger question is how the pairing will work together on defense. Bledsoe was great at pressuring ball handlers last year, but if he’s stuck guarding shooting guards (which given his length compared to Dragic’s, he may have to), he’s liable to fall asleep and loose them off-ball. That doesn’t bode well for a team who is already going to be hurting on the defensive end given the deficiencies of the Morris twins and Len on that side of the court. This team may end up being the worst defensive team in the league.

Just for fun, here’s some info on the five teams that used a two point guard line-up the most and the team’s performance with the duo on the court compared to overall, from NBA Wowy:

Duo Possessions Together Offensive PPP (Overall) Defensive PPP (Overall) AST Rate (Overall) D-Reb Rate (Overall)
Steph Curry and Jarrett Jack (GSW) 3, 715 1.113 (1.065) 1.074 (1.057) 24.8 (23.5) 73.4 (75.5)
Jason Kidd and Raymond Felton (NYK) 2,473 1.113 (1.102) 1.062 (1.058) 20.6 (21) 76.3 (74.9)
Ricky Rubio and Luke Ridnour (MIN) 2,357 1.027 (1.032) 1.057 (1.058) 24.7 (24.1) 72.1 (73.9)
Ty Lawson and Andre Miller (DEN) 1,931 1.131 (1.107) 1.082 (1.06) 22.4 (25.3) 71.1 (71.9)
Mike Conley and Jerryd Bayless (MEM) 1,563 1.118 (1.053) 1.054 (1.013) 24 (23.3) 75 (74.8)

 

At a glance, it looks like (as to be expected) having two point guards on the floor gives offenses a shot in the arm with the extra ball handling, passing, and speed but also costs them a bit on defense. For those wondering, Paul and Bledsoe only shared the court for a total of 426 possessions together last year, not enough to gather any definite conclusions. However, with just Bledsoe on the court the Clippers were much better defensively (allowing just .998 PPP)- but this should be taken with a grain of salt as Bledose was often playing against other bench units, not tasked with stopping starters.

Betting Advice: Stay away. When totals are this low, I tend to just stay away. Sure, the Suns are going to be very bad and be inclined to experiment with line-ups and give young guys experience more than try to actually win games, but an over win total could be achieved almost by accident. The team also waived Michael Beasley, which is an important thing to note, since playing him significant minutes likely cost the team a few wins last year and they’ll improve without him wasting possessions with bad shots and poor defense. It’s also not out of the realm of possibilities that they trade Dragic, or really anyone besides Bledsoe or Lin for more draft picks/ prospects, which could further obscure the actual total.

Season Previews: The LA Lakers vs. Advanced Statistics

In the next couple of weeks leading up to the start of the NBA’s regular season, I’ll be posting season previews for each team along with my view on their Vegas season win totals. I wouldn’t recommend betting on season totals if you’re trying to make serious money (you have to fade injuries, trades, etc. and your money will be tied up for months), but it’s a helpful baseline for the general expectations for a team. If you’re looking for more specific projections, Andrew Johnson has a nice post on his blog Counting the Baskets that gives out multiple projections for each team based on a variety of different metrics. Here’s my preview of the Los Angeles Lakers:

2012-13 Record: 45-37; 2012-13 Pythagorean Win-Loss Record: 44-38; 2013-14 Vegas Season Win Total: 33.5

The 2013 LA Lakers are an anachronistic team. They have two bloated contracts given to stars past their primes (Pau Gasol’s salary is higher than LeBron’s, Kobe Bryant’s is $10 million higher). They’ve mortgaged all their draft picks for veterans that can contribute immediately (Steve Nash who was mercifully dealt from Phoenix last year). They have a coach that could care less about the Thibodeaian method of limiting corner three’s and lay-up attempts. They even have a front office that seems to despise analytics (they’re the only team without representatives at SSAC, they didn’t invest in Sports VU, and they don’t seem to have many quants on staff). But that’s not going to work anymore. The Lakers can no longer blatantly ignore the salary cap, nor can they acquire any players via sign-and-trade. And first round picks are more valuable than ever, as rookie contracts are often the best way to get excess value.  Nowhere is this more evident than the team’s offseason “haul.” A year after acquiring Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, here’s who the Lakers managed to add to the team this year, along with their RAPM info:

Player O RAPM D RAPM Overall RAPM
Chris Kaman (-2.5) 1.4 (-1.1)
Nick Young (-0.7) (-2.3) (-3.0)
Xavier Henry (-3.5) (-1.4) (-4.9)
Wesley Johnson (-3.3) (-1.7) (-5.0)
Robert Sacre (-1.3) (-1.4) (-2.7)
Jordan Farmar* 1.6 (-4.3) (-2.7)
Shawne Williams* (-1.3) (-2.0) (-3.4)

*= numbers from the 2011-12 season (out of the league last year)

If I was forced to roll those players out on a nightly basis, I wouldn’t like analytics either. Henry and Johnson shouldn’t be in the league anymore. They’ve had four years of time in the NBA and haven’t shown anything (plus Johnson was already 23 when drafted… Kahn). Farmar and Williams actually weren’t in the league last year. Is now a good time to mention how good Dwight Howard has looked with Houston? Even Metta World Peace will be missed for what’s left of his defensive ability.

I have serious reservations about Steve Nash’s health. D’antoni has already said they plan on limiting minutes, and there have been some reports that he’s still dealing with some injury issues. Obviously, Kobe will be out for a while with his Achilles injury and there’s no real way to know how effective he will be upon his return given his age and NBA mileage. The only player I am remotely excited by on this team is Pau Gasol. I believe he will have a bounce back year and play much better as a center in D’antoni’s system (which has now had an offseason to be properly implemented). Unfortunately, this may actually be the worst NBA team Gasol has ever played on, and if things don’t click between him and the head coach this year he could be shipped out.

Betting Advice: Take the under. Obviously I’m advocating a serious under bet here. I don’t think Bryant will be back soon, but even if he is this team is still missing the playoffs. Last year wasn’t the low point for the Lakers, things are getting even worse. My real hope is next year they keep Nick Young and Bryant, sign Carmelo Anthony, trade for Rudy Gay, hire Lionel Hollins as coach and set the foundation for the biggest affront to advanced statistics the sport of basketball has ever seen.

 

 

Season Previews: The Pacific Divison

In the next couple of weeks leading up to the start of the NBA’s regular season, I’ll be posting season previews for each team along with my view on their Vegas season win totals. I wouldn’t recommend betting on season totals if you’re trying to make serious money (you have to fade injuries, trades, etc. and your money will be tied up for months), but it’s a helpful baseline for the general expectations for a team. If you’re looking for more specific projections, Andrew Johnson has a nice post on his blog Counting the Baskets that gives out multiple projections for each team based on a variety of different metrics. I’ve decided that to cover all the teams by the season opener, I’m going to feature two teams from each division by giving them full-length previews and then do one post with quick previews for the remaining three teams in the division. I’ll try and focus the longer previews on the teams that have had the most turnover. This is my third three team preview, looking at the upcoming seasons for at the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, and Sacramento Kings:

Golden State Warriors

2012-13 Record: 47-35; 2012-13 Pythagorean Win-Loss Record: 44-38; 2013-14 Vegas Season Win Total: 49.5

Betting Advice: Take the under. Many expect teams that were injury-ridden one year to be healthier the next, but few assume the opposite (that particularly healthy teams will suffer injuries). Although Golden State was without Andrew Bogut for nearly 50 games and lost Brandon Rush in the second game of the season, the rest of their roster stayed very healthy. If Steph Curry was an injury risk coming into last year, why isn’t he this year? Was he incorrectly labeled as an injury risk or was it simply randomness that he didn’t get injured last year? Either way, I don’t think he’s any less likely to suffer an ankle injury this season than he was last season. It’s also unwise to expect more than half a season of games from the recently-extended Bogut, and his back-up Jermaine O’Neal is almost just as brittle. For the Warriors to hit the over on their win total, they’ll need another full season from Curry and Bogut to play in more games than he did last year. It’s also important to note that their 2012-13 win total outperformed their point differential, and in a better Western conference it may be difficult to add too many games to their total. I’m also concerned about the loss of their assistant coach Mike Malone and how it may impact their defense. There is plenty to like about this team though. Andre Iguodala is a huge addition even with the loss of Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry (you always give up two good players to get a great one) and Harrison Barnes seems like a budding star despite a slow start last year. I’ve also surprisingly bought into Mark Jackson’s coaching ability. If Bogut plays close to 65 games, this team could achieve a win total in the mid-fifties, but otherwise I think this is a team plagued by recency bias that fans should temper their expectations for.

Los Angeles Clippers

2012-13 Record: 56-26; 2012-13 Pythagorean Win-Loss Record: 59-23; 2013-14 Vegas Season Win Total: 57

Betting Advice: Take the over. Vegas has set the Clippers over/under at 57, second only to the Miami Heat, yet I still think this is a conservative number. I haven’t talked about schedules much in my season previews, but the Clips have one so easy that it’s difficult to ignore. They play 25 games in which they are rested and their opponent is on the second game of a back-to-back, the most in league history and far more than any other team this season (LA’s other team plays only seven). They also get to play a total of twelve games against the Suns, Kings, and Lakers, all of whom should be terrible. Their offense should be elite this year with the addition of head coach Doc Rivers and the vastly underrated Alvin Gentry helping run the offense. New team members J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley will feast off curls and off-ball screens and Chris Paul will have more weapons than ever before. They had the league’s best bench last year and it should be even better this season. They’re especially rich in the number of ball-handlers they have available to them, which should help them play at a high pace and attack before defenses are set. The team’s additions combined with their schedule should make a one game improvement over last year’s record (that should have been higher based on point differential by the way) fairly easy. The only worry for this team is finding a solid third big for the rotation and fixing Blake Griffin and Deandre Jordan’s abysmal free throw percentages. But I don’t see those flaws coming back to bite them until they get into the post-season, making the regular season total a clear “over” bet.

Sacramento Kings

2012-13 Record: 28-54; 2012-13 Pythagorean Win-Loss Record: 28-54; 2013-14 Vegas Season Win Total: 31.5

Betting Advice: Cautiously take the over. I still have no idea what the Kings are trying to accomplish with their personnel moves. It seems some teams still haven’t realized it’s not a good idea to build a team around a center who can’t play defense. DeMarcus Cousins and Brook Lopez are being paid similarly to Roy Hibbert and Marc Gasol, and it’s no coincidence the latter are key components on teams that made the conference finals last year (on a smaller scale Nikola Pekovic and Tiago Splitter can be compared). Who would you rather have? Now factor in DMC’s poor conditioning, excessive personal and technical foul trouble (some of which is undeserved), and horrible attitude. The only real reason I’m somewhat advocating an “over” here is Mike Malone, who should be a great coach replacing a terrible one. There are a few smaller changes I also like that help the decision: the departure of Evans, adding a solid distributor in Greivis Vasquez, and the mercurial rookie Ben McLemore (whose growth hopefully won’t be stunted by Cousins). This team is improving; I just still question the long-term vision at work here.

 

 

Season Previews: The Toronto Raptors at a Turning Point

In the next couple of weeks leading up to the start of the NBA’s regular season, I’ll be posting season previews for each team along with my view on their Vegas season win totals. I wouldn’t recommend betting on season totals if you’re trying to make serious money (you have to fade injuries, trades, etc. and your money will be tied up for months), but it’s a helpful baseline for the general expectations for a team. If you’re looking for more specific projections, Andrew Johnson has a nice post on his blog Counting the Baskets that gives out multiple projections for each team based on a variety of different metrics. Here’s my preview of the Toronto Raptors:

2012-13 Record: 34-48; 2012-13 Pythagorean Win-Loss Record: 37-45; 2012-14 Vegas Season Win Total: 36.5

Maybe I’m going to go down with the ship here, but I still have confidence in the Raptors. I think Dwane Casey is a good coach. Kyle Lowry has shown in the past that he’s an elite defensive point guard that can score, facilitate, and rebound. Amir Johnson has always been a favorite of the analytics community. And Jonas Valanciunas looks to have a ton of potential as an offensive center. But this Raptors team definitely has a Jekyll and Hyde quality to it. Rudy Gay and Demar Derozan are not good basketball players (at least in terms of how they choose to use their skill sets), yet they both figure to have high usage rates and get a majority of the team’s shot attempts. That’s hard to overcome. And although Toronto majorly upgraded their front office with the hire of Masai Ujiri, as more teams start to employ Moneyball-type GM’s, inefficient players with big contracts like Gay and Derozan get harder to move. That’s not to say it’s impossible, as long as New York and Brooklyn are around to spend without concern.

It’s very bizarre to me that, according to Zach Lowe, the Raptors are one of the most analytically-driven teams in the league based on their work with Sports VU. Sure, it’s great that they have quants trying to gain an edge on the rest of the NBA, but the work doesn’t appear to be making an impact on the court. There is a breakdown somewhere. Either the quants aren’t being listened to by the rest of the team’s front office, they aren’t getting through to the coaching staff, the coaching staff isn’t communicating the data to the players, or the quants just aren’t doing a very good job. I have no idea which of these is most likely. Perhaps as more and more data is collected and parsed, the influence will begin to show. But for now, the organization seems to be in the middle of an identity crisis similar to what Memphis went through last year before totally embracing analytics by hiring John Hollinger, trading Gay, and not renewing Lionel Hollins contract. This is a defining year for the Raptors. Either they struggle and fire Casey and move on from Lowry after the season or they thrive and embrace advanced statistics and do whatever they need to do to move Gay and/or Derozan either this season or next.

Still, assuming Toronto isn’t able to make any major changes, the team should improve this year. Casey has another year to try and implement his defense, almost all the team’s major players are still getting better or are in their primes, and the team should probably be a little healthier this season. And if you missed the Knicks preview, losing Bargnani will only help this team.

Betting Advice: Take the over. Based on their point differential, the Raptors should have won about 37 games last year. The team was doing fairly well until hit by injuries late and then having to try and incorporate Rudy Gay into their offense on the fly. In taking the over, you’re basically betting that the Raptors aren’t worse than they were last year. I see no real evidence to support a win total below the high 30’s. And if Ujiri can find a way to move Gay or Derozan (for anything really) this team could make a play for a win total in the mid-40’s.

Season Previews: The New York Knicks and the Cost of Maintaining Mediocrity

In the next couple of weeks leading up to the start of the NBA’s regular season, I’ll be posting season previews for each team along with my view on their Vegas season win totals. I wouldn’t recommend betting on season totals if you’re trying to make serious money (you have to fade injuries, trades, etc. and your money will be tied up for months), but it’s a helpful baseline for the general expectations for a team. If you’re looking for more specific projections, Andrew Johnson has a nice post on his blog Counting the Baskets that gives out multiple projections for each team based on a variety of different metrics. Here’s my mercifully-brief preview of the New York Knicks:

2012-13 Record: 54-28; 2012-13 Pythagorean Win-Loss Record: 53-29; 2012-14 Vegas Season Win Total: 49.5

Let’s pretend you’re a member of the Knicks front office. Looking at the four players and their stats listed below, who would you rather have?

  eFG% 3P% TRB% PER O RAPM D RAPM RAPM
Player A 42.2 36.4 8.6 7.6 -3.5 -1.4 -4.9
Player B 44.4 30.9 7.6 11.2 -0.4 -2 -2.4
Player C 58.7 43.3 5.4 11.3 1.3 -3 -1.7
Player D 57.3 44.2 8.2 11.8 0.5 -1.1 -0.6

 

Player D is the pretty clear favorite from these blind resumes, with Player C coming in second and Player B and A a distant third and fourth.

You may have guessed that Player B is Andrea Bargnani, the Knicks key off-season acquisition. Player A is Xavier Henry, Player D is Matt Bonner, and Player C is none other than Steve Novak, who the Knicks included in the trade for Bargs. Is Novak a better player? Probably. But that’s not really the point, because New York gave up Novak, Marcus Camby, and a first round pick for the right to pay Bargnani more than three times what they were paying Novak. Worse still, the former number one pick from Italy is slated to take on a major role with the team and will probably push Carmello Anthony back to the small forward slot where he has historically been less effective than playing as a small-ball four. That’s a lot to sacrifice for a big man billed as a shooter who doesn’t rebound, defend, or shoot well. This sums up the Knicks personnel management pretty well.

Don’t worry though, the Knicks also managed to snag Metta World Peace after he was amnestied by the Lakers. What could go wrong with a Raymond Felton, J.R. Smith, and Metta World Peace backcourt? The only real hope the Knicks have of remaining as good as they were last year is if Tyson Chandler can stay healthier. Chandler, not Melo, is this team’s best player and without him they will be a train wreck defensively and in the rebounding department. But Chandler has always had injury issues and is already beginning the downward slope of his career.

Betting Advice: Take the under. At the start of last season, the Knicks were setting historic marks in terms of hitting three’s and limiting turnovers. Jason Kidd was providing veteran leadership, Melo was playing at the four and seemed to be a willing passer, and Smith seemed to be playing with a little more self-control. Over the course of the year, they came back down to Earth (although they did end up attempting the most three’s ever in a single season). After starting out 21-8, the team went 23-20 to finish the year. Now Kidd is gone (maybe not a huge loss given his abysmal shooting to close out the year, but he clearly had an influence in terms of ball movement), Bargnani and World Peace are the team’s key free agent acquisitions, Smith is suspended for the first five games of the year, and the top of the Eastern conference has dramatically improved. I’m going to say the Knicks perform more like the barely over .500 team they were to finish the year than the 21-8 team they started out as. Their win total will likely fall south of 46 and although most have them penciled in as the five seed in the East, I could easily see the Hawks overtaking them in the standings.

Season Previews: The Atlantic Division

In the next couple of weeks leading up to the start of the NBA’s regular season, I’ll be posting season previews for each team along with my view on their Vegas season win totals. I wouldn’t recommend betting on season totals if you’re trying to make serious money (you have to fade injuries, trades, etc. and your money will be tied up for months), but it’s a helpful baseline for the general expectations for a team. If you’re looking for more specific projections, Andrew Johnson has a nice post on his blog Counting the Baskets that gives out multiple projections for each team based on a variety of different metrics. I’ve decided that to cover all the teams by the season opener, I’m going to feature two teams from each division by giving them full-length previews and then do one post with quick previews for the remaining three teams in the division. I’ll try and focus the longer previews on the teams that have had the most turnover. This is my second three team preview, looking at the upcoming seasons for at the Atlantic Division’s Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, and Philadelphia 76ers:

Boston Celtics

2012-13 Record: 41-40; 2012-13 Pythagorean Win-Loss Record: 40-41; 2013-14 Vegas Season Win Total: 27.5

Betting Advice: Stay Away. There’s too much uncertainty surrounding this year’s Celtics team to be able to make an informed bet on their season win total. Their star player Rajon Rondo is out indefinitely, the roster is full of unproven players, they have an aggressive general manager in Danny Ainge who won’t be afraid to trade anyone, and they have a new head coach (Butler’s Brad Stevens) with no NBA experience. I would expect to see a lot of different line-up until the team stumbles on something that works. Due to a lack of other options, Jeff Green could be in position for a monster statistical year. It will also be interesting to watch how Stevens adapts to the NBA. His college teams played at a notoriously slow pace and he called out nearly every play on offense. That will probably change in his first year pro and I suspect he will do well, but there might be some value in betting the under on Celtics games early in the year.

Brooklyn Nets

2012-13 Record: 49-33; 2012-13 Pythagorean Win-Loss Record: 46-36; 2013-14 Vegas Season Win Total: 52.5

Betting Advice: Cautiously take the under. I like the Brooklyn Nets quite a bit. Unlike the previous Miami or Boston “super teams,” this Nets squad is loaded with depth and veterans that all have clear roles. In the playoffs they will be very dangerous. My reasoning behind slightly favoring the under on their season total (although I would only make the bet if you’re really feeling risky) is that I’m not sure how much emphasis Brooklyn will place on the regular season. Jason Kidd is a rookie head coach who will basically be co-running the team with Lawrence Frank and may have some growing pains. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce will likely get games off (or at least have their minutes reduced) and the team probably acknowledges that it will be hard to end up with a better record than Chicago and Miami. I also still have reservations about Brook Lopez’s defensive ability (even if KG is flanking him) and anticipate pretty noticeable declines in Pierce’s and Deron Williams’ games. Of course, they play in a very easy division and have the aforementioned depth to help with their age, so hitting the 53 win marks doesn’t seem too outlandish.

Philadelphia 76ers

2012-13 Record: 34-48; 2012-13 Pythagorean Win-Loss Record: 31-51; 2012-14 Vegas Season Win Total: 16.5

Betting Advice: Stay away. The bar isn’t exactly sat very high for the league’s most blatantly tanking team. Seventeen wins could be had almost by accident and most of the computer projections I’ve seen for the Sixers have their win total much higher. The problem with those projections is that they can’t account for players filling bigger roles, don’t know the team isn’t necessarily trying to win this year, and just generally don’t have teams getting an overly high or low number of wins. Thad Young is a legitimately great player that should have a good year as he’s once again allowed to shoot three’s, but I’m not excited about anyone else on this roster. Rookie point Michael Carter-Williams should lead the league in turnovers and all rookies in minutes, Jason Richardson is banged up and in decline, Spencer Hawes is a below average center who can’t defend, and Evan Turner is likely already on the trading block if Philadelphia’s front office is as analytics-friendly as we think. I don’t see the Sixers competing for the worst ever regular season record, but I also can’t advocate betting they win 17 or more.

Season Previews: The Utah Jazz and Addition by Subtraction

In the next couple of weeks leading up to the start of the NBA’s regular season, I’ll be posting season previews for each team along with my view on their Vegas season win totals. I wouldn’t recommend betting on season totals if you’re trying to make serious money (you have to fade injuries, trades, etc. and your money will be tied up for months), but it’s a helpful baseline for the general expectations for a team. If you’re looking for more specific projections, Andrew Johnson has a nice post on his blog Counting the Baskets that gives out multiple projections for each team based on a variety of different metrics. Here’s an extensive preview for the Utah Jazz:

Utah Jazz

2012-13 Record: 43-39; 2012-13 Pythagorean Win-Loss Record: 41-41; 2013-14 Vegas Season Win Total: 25 (was 27.5 prior to Burke injury)

Over the summer, the Utah Jazz passed the torch from their veteran starters to their young and promising bench players. It’s a move that would usually signal tanking, but this team is still going to be plenty competitive. With the notable exception of Paul Millsap, all of Utah’s starters were outplayed by their respective subs last year. Randy Foye, Mo Williams, and Al Jefferson are all terrible defensively. Foye has always been one of the worst rebounders in the league while Williams has never been a very good playmaker for a point guard. Meanwhile, Gordon Hayward is a spectacular offensive player who contributed rebounds and great passing, Derrick Favors is an elite defensive big despite his youth, and Enes Kanter and Alec Burks showed flashes of talent all year. Jefferson and Millsap leave huge holes to fill on offense and the team’s bench isn’t going to wow anyone, but it would be foolish to expect this team to plummet to the bottom of the Western conference.

Here’s a table comparing the RAPM of Utah’s starters from last year to the RAPM of their new core:

Old Core RAPM O RAPM D RAPM New Core RAPM O RAPM D RAPM
Al Jefferson 1.2 0.8 0.4 Enes Kanter -0.6 -1 0.3
Paul Millsap 5.4 2 3.4 Derrick Favors 1.9 -1.3 3.1
Randy Foye -3 -0.8 -2.2 Alec Burks -1.6 0.4 -2.2
Mo Williams -2.8 0 -2.7 Gordon Hayward 1.7 2.5 -0.8

And here’s a table of what Hayward, Favors, and Kanter were able to do on the court last year without Milsap and Jefferson (via NBA Wowy):

Players POSS PPP Opp PPP
Overall 7,509 1.07 1.071
Hayward w/o Jefferson, Millsap 1,028 1.075 1.008
Hayward w/ Favors, Kanter 774 1.037 .998
Favors w/ Kanter 1,335 1.049 1.023

You can see some evidence from the two tables that while the offense might take a hit, the team’s defense might actually improve. Now let’s look at the new starters individually:

Trey Burke: I don’t watch extensive college tape, so I don’t have much of an opinion on whether or not Burke is closer an all-star caliber point guard or a high-level back-up. In all likelihood, 20-year old Trey Burke is in for a rough year whether or not he is the point guard of the future for the Jazz. As soon as he gets back from his finger injury, he will be a starter and should be given the keys to the offense. The temptation is there, but it would be a mistake to compare Burke to Damian Lillard, an older point guard who came into the league last year after four years of college experience and stepped into a situation with an all-star forward to help shoulder the offensive burden. Without a lot of established offensive threats around him, it wouldn’t be a stretch to envision a scenario where Burke records over 200 turnovers, shoots under 42% from the field, and is a turnstile on defense. Russell Westbrook, Brandon Jennings, John Wall, and Jonny Flynn all came into the league at age 20 or younger, immediately started for bad teams, and met the above criteria. Hickory-High projects Trey Burke’s RAPM to come in around a -1.7, which sounds about right for a rookie dealing with the steep learning curve that is the NBA (only the top two picks came in on the positive side of things).  Fortunately, that’s still significantly better than Mo Williams’ RAPM from last season.

What Burke will bring to the table upon his return is a skill-set the Jazz have lacked in a point guard since dealing Deron Williams: he can make plays for others, get penetration, and run the pick-and-roll very well. Last year, Utah was dead last in drives to the rim and relied on a UCLA “flex” style offense. That should change this year with the slow footed, jump shooting Williams being replaced by the quicker Burke. Pick-and-rolls will become more common without the go-to post threats of Jefferson and Millsap. As a result, the ball movement should also increase. The Jazz’s offense slumped with Mo Williams on the floor last year because he was not a good distributor, but this study from Vantage Sports suggests Burke was the best distributor in college last year, and more drives means more collapsing by defenses, opening up outside shots for Hayward and Burks. This in turn should help boost the team’s three-point attempts.

The Jazz are in a bit of a bind with Burke out. On the one hand, the team isn’t trying to contend for the playoffs and there’s no point in investing too much in acquiring another point guard if Burke is going to be returning as the starter in a month or two. The team could also use Burke’s absence as an excuse to experiment with different line-ups and find out if Hayward or Burks can be more than part-time playmakers. On the other, the team is extremely thin at the point guard position and has plenty of assets to try and grab a veteran to fill-in and then move to the bench.

Burks: Alec Burks is good at driving to the rim and shooting the three, but as Zach Lowe points out, he has been too much of a black hole on offense. It remains to be seen if he is a willing/ good enough passer to be any more than a “break-in-case of emergency” ball-handler. With Burke out, Burks may see some starts at point guard, in which case we’d quickly find out. I am not overly optimistic on Burks playmaking abilities, and think he’s the most likely of the team’s new “core four” to end up with another team in the next few years.

Hayward: A lot of offensive focus is being placed on Hayward, the Jazz’s best player on that end of the floor. Hayward is obviously not an ideal number one scoring option. His strengths are scoring off spot-ups and cuts to the rim, both of which result from off-ball movement. It’s one thing to have Hayward lead the team in shot attempts, but if the ball gets put in his hands too often and tries to turn him into a shot creator, it won’t work out well. Unfortunately, with Burke out for the beginning of the season and the lack of a solid back-up point guard, there may not be any better options unless the Jazz acquire a point guard through a trade or free agency. As Andy Liu suggests in his Utah Jazz preview, Hayward will likely be tasked with the same role Kevin Durant was thrust into without Russell Westbrook. But even Durant, a more talented (though similar) player, struggled to carry his team alone.

Favors: Of the team’s new starters, Derrick Favors is the one with the most upside, which is a good thing since he is replacing the NBA’s most underrated star in Paul Millsap. Favors is raw offensively, but he could become a post-up threat. Currently his biggest value is his elite offensive rebounding and shot blocking.  On defense, he is much closer to Millsap’s level and has the potential to surpass him on that end of the floor as early as this year. He can handle physical power forwards with ease, but struggles whenever he is tasked with chasing a stretch four around the court. This is an area where Favors can improve, given the issue is more conditioning himself to stay with them on the perimeter instead of gravitating back toward the paint. He will also need to improve his poor foul rate if he expects to see more than 32 or so minutes of court time a night.

Kanter: Utah’s center Enes Kanter has continued to bulk up and work on his offensive repertoire since coming into the league as a very raw prospect. Last year, the center was actually a solid mid-range shooter, hitting 40.7% of his 162 shots from that area (a higher percentage than Milsap and Hayward). It’s not exactly high enough to warrant him shooting from there a ton, but it makes him dangerous enough to help with the team’s spacing. Kanter may never become a great post defender, but for his experience level I think he’s already more than adequate. Plus, Favors’ defensive versatility should allow the team to have them switch defensive assignments if Kanter is getting abused.

The Coach: There’s one aspect of the Utah Jazz that has gone unmentioned so far: their head coach. Ty Corbin came under fire a lot last year for not giving more minutes to the team’s younger players. But ownership clearly wanted to chase a playoff spot, and Corbin likely figured sticking with the veteran players gave them the best chance to win games. A strong argument could be made that pairing Millsap and Jamal Tinsley with Burks, Hayward, and Kanter would have offered valuable experience while giving the team a better chance to win anyway, but the desire to preserve team chemistry by not disrupting the veteran hierarchy is understandable. Either way, this problem has effectively solved itself over the offseason.  The veterans are gone, and the young kids will be given all the minutes they can possibly handle without having to constantly look over their shoulders in fear of being replaced by someone on the bench.  Line-up management is Corbin’s biggest weakness, but this year the optimal rotation is clear. Another plus for the Jazz coach is that he finally started limiting opponent’s corner three attempts instead of leaving shooters wide open (now he just needs to get his own team more looks from those areas on the court). Corbin still has plenty to improve on, but it will be difficult for him to cost the team as many wins as he did last year.

Betting Advice: Take the over. The Jazz over was one of my favorite season total bets until Burke’s injury. I still think the over is a great value, but I’m a little worried how Hayward and Burks will adjust to being thrust into roles they likely aren’t suited for. Burke would have allowed Hayward and Burks to play off the ball and get open shots. But when he returns and gets some experience under his belt though, this team should be dangerous. The turnovers should increase and the offense will suffer plenty of dry spells, but I’d expect the defense, ball movement, rebounding, and three point attempts to all improve from last year. I see this team challenging for a win total somewhere around 35.