I wrote a few words for B/R on how the NBA can make tanking obsolete, with ease. Click here to read it.
I wrote a few words for B/R on how the NBA can make tanking obsolete, with ease. Click here to read it.
I have a new article up on B/R about Andrew Wiggins, and why we should stop trusting high school scouting reports when it comes to NBA superstar potential. I will admit I swooned over Wiggins like everybody else last August -there was so much positive hype surrounding his potential I just kind of assumed Wiggins would inevitably be the #1 prospect in the 2014 NBA Draft.
I was wrong, and I don't plan on making assumptions like that about high school players again, especially if they are guards or swingmen. If you want to have some perverse fun, check out RSCI's ranking of the best high school prospects every year since 1998, via DraftExpress.
I have something new up on B/R about how great Joel Embiid is as a prospect. Equally interesting is how this draft is shaping up once we get through the much publicized cream of the crop.
There are no "sure things" in this draft after Embiid - which isn't a criticism, but obviously needs to be acknowledged. As great as Jabari Parker has often looked his freshman year, his passing and defensive numbers have only been adequate, and there is a chance that his physical superiority will not be an overriding positive factor for him as a pro. I still think Parker will be a wonderful NBA player, but there is a chance he will only be good, and never great.
The same goes for Andrew Wiggins, even more so. There is nothing statistically that screams "star" when you look at Wiggins' numbers. I expect him to be an excellent NBA player, but would hardly be surprised if he stumbles, despite his exceptional physical skills.
Things get murkier outside the top 3. Everybody seems to think Dante Exum will be great - but there is relatively little to judge him by. That makes him an obvious risk, albeit a risk probably worth taking once the aforementioned players are off the board. Meanwhile, Marcus Smart has had an up and down sophomore year - but he still reminds me enough of Chauncey Billups to be taken early.
After those five top guys, this draft starts getting fun and very unclear. It is difficult to peg who the next five or ten best prospects are - it seems quite likely that a few future All-Stars will drop in a draft class like this one. The ten million dollar question, obviously, is who are those players? It's very difficult to say, but the incomparable Ed Weiland recently highlighted some excellent candidates. Players like Delon Wright, Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams seem like prime options to be late first round/second round steals.
There apparently is a lot of talent in this draft. It will be interesting to see how much of it ends up coming from the very top, and how much flows down to the rest of the first and second round. Right now, I have no idea - and that's an exciting thing.
The 2014 NBA Draft was supposed to be one for the ages - and it still may be - but the perception of the upcoming draft has shifted over the past month. Andrew Wiggins is no longer considered the surefire #1 pick, and his somewhat passive play has raised concerns about his long-term potential. Jabari Parker played incredibly well the first six weeks of the season, but lately his production has slipped. Joel Embiid has emerged as another strong candidate to be picked first, but he often gets in foul trouble, which means he sees limited minutes on the floor.
What does all of this mean? Only that the 2014 NBA Draft will maybe stop having quite as much hyperbole swirling around it. But the truth of the matter is that this draft still looks great.
It was rather surreal to see Wiggins, Parker and Julius Randle tear up college basketball the first few weeks of the season, but it was only sensible to expect that those moments would not last all year long. Especially when discussing young freshman prospects, what we see in college is usually only a partial glimpse of what the best prospects will become.
Wiggins has not been a dominant force for Kansas, but that doesn't mean he will fail to become a great NBA player. Not all top freshman prospects are as dominant as Carmelo Anthony or Kevin Durant were. And even if no superstars come out of this draft, it hardly means it will be a bad draft class.
The 1999 NBA Draft produced nine All-Stars and was a great draft, yet no one player became a perennial first team All-NBA player. Similarly, the 2001 Draft produced eight All-Stars, with its best players probably being Pau Gasol and Tony Parker. You don't need top-tier superstars in a draft for it to be excellent.
The point is that the 2014 NBA Draft will probably be very good - it has many auspicious signs - and we shouldn't let uneven play from the top freshman prospects shake our perception of it too much. Freshman are inherently uneven performers, and there will be many freshman prospects in the upcoming draft.
There is another equally compelling reason to be just as excited about the 2014 Draft now as there was two months ago: Embiid looks like the best pure center prospect since Greg Oden in 2007. This is a huge deal, and is not being discussed enough.
Embiid is truly a great prospect, and any disappointment about Wiggins should be dispelled by the wonderful surprise that Embiid has been as a player. If anything, between Embiid and Parker's exceptional starts, the top of this draft looks more promising than at the beginning of the season.
I feel like stepping back for a minute, always a good thing to do at this part of the NBA season, and talk about PER. John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Rating has been an accepted "catch-all" stat for long enough that I feel like we have forgotten how important a stat it actually is.
In short, there is no singular stat that captures how good a player is better than PER. Despite its shortcomings, PER is still vitally important when analyzing a player. Ignoring its monumental importance is one of the easiest ways of making bad roster decisions.
Obviously, you want to have guys on your team with high PERs. Almost always you want to ride the three or four players on your team with the best PERs, if they are capable of playing large roles. The success of a team is based mainly on this, and should not be forgotten.
There are always exceptions, but a player with a PER above 25 is better than a player whose PER hovers around 20 (if they play approximately the same amount of minutes per game.) And that player with a PER around 20 is almost always better than any player whose PER is below 17. This may seem like common sense, but we forget it too often, get too fixated on certain lineups, +/- stats, floor spacing stats, etc. These stats are great, but in general they just point to the truth that PER makes abundantly clear in the first place:
Get three players on your team who play 30+ minutes a night and have PERs of at least 18, hopefully higher. You should be very good.
Last year there were only twenty players who played at least 2,000 minutes and had a PER above 20, according to Basketball-Reference. The year before there was sixteen, and the year before that there were twenty seven. The number of superior NBA players is limited, and there is no way around this.
Players improve and regress, but PER tells us more about a player's value than anything else. It's an objective analysis that usually is very accurate. Short sample sizes and obvious athletic dominance cannot tell us nearly as much about a player as PER can. Nor can defensive and spacings stats. It is always worth remembering this.
When judging a player, the first thing to look at is his PER. Then look at another accurate "catch-all" stat, like Wins Shares Per 48 Minutes, to make sure it ranks the player's value similarly. If it does not, adjust your thinking accordingly. Often "simple" advanced stats like PER, as well as WS/48, are the only things worth really looking at if we want to understand the big picture of the NBA, and see the whole forest instead of only a few trees. Deeper analysis often leads nowhere, although we wish it could. Sometimes the more we know only makes us more easily confused with what is truly important.
A few November observations from a season that has gotten off to a pretty humdrum start, until it grew more depressing in the last few days:
- Derrick Rose's injury is a real downer, obviously. Rose is still young, so there is a chance he bounces back strong, but obviously the long-term outlook in Chicago just got much bleaker. That said, don't totally discount the idea of seeing a healthy, very productive Derrick Rose sometime in early 2015.
- I still don't think the Pacers will get through Miami, despite the great start. Paul George has really elevated his game so far this year, proving he deserved that big extension. But while Indiana looks great now, in the end I don't see this team winning a title. The offense, despite George's improvements, is still not on an elite level. Indiana is a team that no one wants to play, but at the same time they will have extreme difficulty winning four rounds of NBA playoff basketball.
- Brooklyn's horrible start is surprising, but given the injuries and age of its players should not come as a shock. The Nets might bounce back and be a team no one wants to play in May, or they could end up with less than 35 wins. Age and injuries are merciless.
- Portland's fast start is a fluke; they will cool down sooner or later. Meanwhile, San Antonio is killing everyone, and we just expect it at this point. The Spurs' system of success is the best in the league, and probably by a wide margin.
- News of Kobe Bryant's two year, $48.5 million extension seemed somewhat inevitable. While the Lakers are probably overpaying Bryant, it was a move which seemed destined to happen, given the circumstances. It is also worth remembering that Micheal Jordan was still damn good when he came back with Washington in his late thirties - realistically similar production is what the Lakers should hope for with Bryant. But that's a big gamble.
- The much maligned rookie class of 2013 has lived down to its reputation so far. Michael Carter-Williams has been phenomenal, and everyone else not so much. It's early, though. That said, Anthony Bennett appears to be a terrible first overall selection. We criticized Cleveland's choice in June, and it looks like an even poorer decision now.
I already went over the contenders, and I think Miami will be the champ again. If Miami does not three-peat I think Oklahoma City is the team most likely to replace them as champions. Here are my predicted regular season records for each team:
Miami Heat 57-25
Chicago Bulls 56-26
Brooklyn Nets 55-27
Indiana Pacers 51-31
New York Knicks 47-35
Detroit Pistons 42-40
Atlanta Hawks 41-41
Cleveland Cavaliers 40-42
Washington Wizards 38-44
Milwaukee Bucks 37-45
Toronto Raptors 33-49
Orlando Magic 28-54
Charlotte Bobcats 27-55
Boston Celtics 24-58
Philadephia 76ers 19-63
Los Angeles Clippers 58-24
Oklahoma City Thunder 55-27
San Antonio Spurs 55-27
Houston Rockets 54-28
Memphis Grizzlies 50-32
Golden State Warriors 47-35
Denver Nuggets 44-38
Minnesota Timberwolves 43-39
Los Angeles Lakers 41-41
Dallas Mavericks 40-42
New Orleans Hornets 37-45
Portland Trailblazers 36-46
Sacramento Kings 33-49
Utah Jazz 25-57
Phoenix Suns 21-61
I find myself agreeing with what a lot of the smart NBA prognosticators are saying about the upcoming season: There are going to be many very good teams, perhaps more than normal, and at the end of the day Miami still has to be considered the favorite to win the NBA Finals for the third straight year.
Yet, at the same time, I think many of us may be overemphasizing Miami as the favorite. As Zach Lowe pointed out recently, Miami always has been "on the precipice" of postseason failure the last three seasons. It took an absolutely amazing effort from LeBron James to carry them out of the depths last season, sprinkled in with some luck. Such individual dominance alone is difficult to sustain year after year in the postseason, even for somebody as profoundly great as James. If Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are as relatively ineffective in postseason play again this year, the Heat are really going to be in trouble. Let's briefly view the other main contenders besides Miami:
Oklahoma City: The Thunder have lost Russell Westbrook for the beginning of the season, setting off the panic button in some circles, but such fears are unwarranted. Westbrook should return healthy, and Kevin Durant is so great that any missteps the Thunder have should be minor. They might not have the best record in the West this year, but then again they might. Durant is entering his prime, and the offensive inefficiencies this team has will probably be masked by Durant's transcendence, particularly in the regular season.
The Clippers: Los Angeles retooled around Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and it has people like Danny Ainge thinking they will win 65+ games. If Paul and Griffin are completely healthy, that number is not unrealistic, and Paul will probably win MVP. Los Angeles is banking on its two stars to bring the team to a new level this year, and the off-season imports - Doc Rivers, Jared Dudley, J.J. Redick etc. - were expressly brought in with this in mind. Paul has always been underrated - this is maybe the best normal sized point guard ever - and 2014 could be the year that it all clicks for him and his team.
San Antonio: The Spurs, at the end of the day, blew it last year. They know this, and given the age of the team, it seems unlikely they can somehow bounce back and win it all this year. But San Antonio's system is superior to anybody else in the league, and this team is too well-coached to be discounted as a serious contender.
Chicago: By next Spring I expect Derrick Rose to be as great as ever, and the Bulls brutally effective style of play should serve them well in the postseason. The question is whether they will be able to generate enough offense around Rose to take down Miami, but this is a team no one will want to play in the postseason.
Houston: The Rockets are harder to predict than these other teams because of the enormous addition of Dwight Howard, and in the very least they should be well above average. If things fall into place - if the defense can be almost as good as the offense - the Rockets will be in a prime position to beat anyone.
Brooklyn: Like the Rockets, the Nets are difficult to project because of the major off-season additions of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. The potential upside of this team is high - essentially a more offensively talented version of recent Celtics' teams - but injuries and age could easily take that away. I expect Brooklyn to be very solid, but it will be tough for them to make it through four playoff rounds with their health intact.
That is six real challengers to Miami in my opinion. I did not include Memphis or Indiana - two damn good teams - because ultimately I doubt they have the offensive starpower to go all the way. Regardless of the exact number, the league seems full of top-tier squads this season. So Miami will have their hands full if they want to three-peat. It looks to be a competitive year in the NBA.
A few players from the NBA Draft class of 2010 have signed max extensions recently. As I mention frequently, the timing of such deals is often perplexing.
Rookie scale max extensions are usually given earlier than warranted. John Wall, Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins have now all been extended, even though it is hard to understand the urgency from their teams' point of view to dole out such huge contracts before it is necessary.
The fear a team like Washington, Indiana or Sacramento must have is that their young star player will become alienated if not offered an extension a full season before they could hit restricted free agency. That seems to be overly pessimistic thinking to me, as most players are not great enough to use such leverage as a serious negotiating tactic.
If Wall, George or Cousins were dissatisfied with a lack of an extension before the start of the '13-14 regular season, they would still be bound to their current team when free agency hits in the Summer of 2014. They would become restricted free agents, and therefore their current franchises should not view them as assets that could potentially be "lost" next Summer. Any deal can be matched; any restricted player can be kept if so desired.
In my opinion a team should be able to explain to a player this fact. Waiting to extend a restricted player is not a personal offense, but just smart business that helps reduce risk. The player can be upset, but they really shouldn't be if anyone explains the situation to them clearly.
This is especially true with the players who were just extended. Wall is not Derrick Rose at the same point in his career, and Cousins is not Blake Griffin. Rose and Griffin's early max extensions at least made some sense because they were already superstars, but the same case cannot yet be made for Wall, George or Cousins.
It is also worth mentioning that Milwaukee's timing in extending Larry Sanders with a 4 year, $44 million contract is a totally different situation, and an understandable move by the Bucks. Sanders' deal hypothetically saves the Bucks money in the future because they will not have to commit a max extension to Sanders next Summer. Oklahoma City did the same thing with Serge Ibaka last year, and this is the whole point of signing such players early - to save money long-term on their contracts. It's certainly not the case with the three recent big extensions:
-Paul George became Indiana's designated player by signing a five year extension worth at least $80 million, and maybe more if he hits escalator clauses. George is obviously a superb player, particularly defensively, but the Pacers are probably being delusional if they think he can become a dominant superstar and perennial All-NBA player. George's PER topped off at a career high 16.8 last season, a number that will need to significantly improve if George is going to live up to making massive money over the next half decade. In the very least Indiana should have waited until next year to give George such a lavish contract.
-DeMarcus Cousins did not become Sacramento's designated player, but he did snag himself a 4 year max extension in the $60 million range. I have always loved Cousins' talent, but he has been an absolute space case in his first three seasons in the league. Apparently the new Kings' ownership believes enough in Cousins to extend him now instead of later, but again the timing is baffling. If Cousins has another chemistry flameout with his team, he might become untradeable because of his new contract. I would have waited as long as possible before committing so much money on a loose cannon. Let Cousins show he deserves it before you give it to him.
-I wrote about John Wall in April, and don't have much more to add. The timing and the designated player status of his new 5 year, $80+ million deal were perplexing, but in step with the Wizards' dysfunctional management style. Wall is a potentially great player who may end up being only good, and he has legitimate injury concerns. Committing a five year max extension before he has one single healthy All-Star season strikes me as erroneous.
We have already heard so much hullabaloo about the 2014 NBA Draft, even though it's a long 10 months away. Andrew Wiggins is the most touted high school wing prospect since LeBron James, and the rest of the draft class is expected to be loaded with future All-Stars. Given the explosion of internet coverage the last few years, we are bound to see an incredible amount of news and opinions concerning the top prospects, and probably a frightening amount of hyperbole.
All this is well and good, but I can't help but feel that we are going to be hearing too much blather about this draft, and not enough facts. The truth of the matter is that it is very hard to know how good a draft class will be, and that there are few guarantees.
That is not to say that I think this draft, or Wiggins, will disappoint us. It is just that people sometimes put too much of a label on something - in this case the extolled 2014 NBA Draft - and then are not patient enough to let it play out.
Most future stars are not immediately great right out of the gate. Superior prospects that turn into great NBA players usually take a few years to develop, and that transitional process can often be painful for a team. Teams like the 76ers, Suns, Magic, Bobcats and Celtics are currently going through obvious rebuilding processes, where they are trying to develop through talented youth. The developmental progress of such teams might look very ugly - and may cost coaches and executives their jobs, even if they are doing the right thing.
Often prospects who we think will be great end up being only good, and sometimes we undervalue a prospect who turns out to be an All-Star. Development is a tricky and uncertain thing, and if we are banking too much on a particular draft class to "save" a franchise, then in the very least we need to be patient. And we should fully understand that our expectations might be misguided.
Which brings us back to Wiggins. When a high school prospect is as highly regarded as Wiggins has been, he is almost certain to be good. Although the college basketball season is not even close to starting, Wiggins very likely will be the #1 pick in next year's draft. That is high praise for a wing prospect.
If Wiggins turns into a superstar, becoming a perennial first team All-NBA player, then it is unlikely another player in the 2014 Draft will join him in this elite stratosphere. That is not a bad thing, and at the same time it is worth noting that it is rare for two of the absolute best players in the league to be drafted in the same year. The one recent exception is the 2003 Draft, which the class of 2014 seems likely to be annoyingly compared to for the foreseeable future.
Let's look at the 9 best NBA players drafted from 1995 through 2007. These are the true "franchise-changing" players that Wiggins someday hopes to join:
1995: Kevin Garnett (drafted 5th)
1996: Kobe Bryant (13th)
1997: Tim Duncan (1st)
1998: Dirk Nowitzki (9th)
2003: LeBron James (1st) & Dwyane Wade (5th)
2004: Dwight Howard (1st)
2005: Chris Paul (4th)
2007: Kevin Durant (2nd)
This is an interesting list, and in my mind nicely simplifies things for us. The first 6 players have all been the best player on championship teams, and perennial top 5 players. Howard for a long stretch was the most dominant center in the league, and still might be. Chris Paul is maybe the best normal sized point guard ever. And Durant is clearly one of the best players of the last 15 years.
The point, simply, is that lightning does not usually strike twice in a draft class, and often it does not strike at all when it comes to drafting the best of the best. A draft class can be full of stars - like in 1999 when 9 future All-Stars were drafted - and still have no perennial superstars. That's obviously not a problem, but to hang too much hope on one "normal" star prospect developing and transforming a franchise is a little too risky for me.
Drafting well is the most important thing an executive can do to make his team better, but you usually need a few good drafts to truly turn a franchise around. So while the class of 2014 sounds great, let's not get too jacked about what it could mean for a franchise, and instead let the process develop organically. Even superstars - like Garnett, Duncan, Bryant, Nowitzki, James and Wade - needed a lot of help before they could become champions. This is doubly true for great players who are not quite on that elite level. Yes, there are probably at least a few tremendous players in this upcoming draft, but finding them and developing them successfully will take both time and luck.