As we gear up for the playoffs - the "real" NBA season - I think once again of the same old question: what did the regular season really teach us about who the best teams are? Before the '13-'14 regular season began, I figured it was likely that Miami would win the Eastern Conference Finals, and probably be the slight favorite to win the Finals.I figured out west that OKC was probably the slight favorite to win the Western Conference Finals, but that the Clippers, Spurs and maybe even Houston would be serious contenders as well.And that still looks to be the case. Despite showing us many small details, the '13-'14 regular season clarified nothing as to who truly the best teams are. The playoffs will show us the truth. It should be fun to watch.
Joel Embiid’s back injury is obviously a concern, but nonetheless I have been surprised that many 2014 NBA mock drafts now have Andrew Wiggins and/or Jabari Parker being drafted ahead of Embiid.
This is a blatant overreaction to an injury we know little about.
Yes, any type of back injury is serious, but Matt McCarthy did a good job putting Embiid’s injury in context and pointing out that just because past big men have seen back injuries hamper their careers does not mean the same thing is destined to happen to Embiid.
Andre Drummond recovered nicely from a similar back issue last year, and nobody seems overly concerned about his NBA future. Embiid probably has an even higher upside than Drummond, and that means he should be the first pick in June - unless a legitimate red flag is raised by NBA doctors. Hopefully this does not happen.
The current Embiid situation, of course, brings back images of Nerlens Noel falling all the way down to the sixth pick in the 2013 Draft. At the time, frankly, most of us were so shocked to see Noel drop that far that we just kind of acknowledged the insanity of it and quickly moved on. But Noel’s fall to 6th – when he should have been taken 1st - was truly stunning.
Noel’s momentous drop looks more horrible today than it did on draft night – even though Noel still has not played a game. The players taken before Noel, with the exception of Victor Oladipo, are worse than we thought.
Meanwhile, despite his injury, Noel still is probably going to be an excellent NBA player. We will give Orlando a pass – for now - but the other four teams that bypassed Noel at the top of the 2013 Draft clearly made drafting mistakes. Let’s look at the players, besides Oladipo, that were embarrassingly taken ahead of Noel:
-Anthony Bennett has been bombarded endlessly for his futile rookie season, and the criticism is warranted. Number one picks cannot have a single digit PER. It’s inexcusable. Bennett certainly may become a useful NBA player, but when you are drafted that high you need to turn into a star. Otherwise you are a bust. Barring an unprecedented turnaround in production, Bennett is a bust.
-Many people, including myself, were high on Otto Porter before the draft. I thought he would make an All-Star game or two. And while I firmly believed the Wizards should have selected Noel at #3, I at least saw where Washington was coming from when they took Porter.
But Porter’s rookie season has been a disaster. He was injured at the start of the season, and when he returned Randy Wittman never gave him consistent playing time. Wittman is a lousy coach, and certainly should have played Porter much more than he has, but nonetheless Porter has looked overmatched when he has been on the floor. His PER is lower than Bennett’s. He might bounce back next year if he gets more playing time, but it’s highly doubtful he will ever make an All-Star game appearance.
-Charlotte drafting Cody Zeller at #4 over Noel seemed like a cruel joke when it happened, and it still does. Zeller is not bad, but he will probably never be very good, either. His talent level is significantly inferior to Noel’s. This was an inexcusable pick by the Bobcats.
-The same thing can be said about Phoenix’s selection of Alex Len at #5 over Noel. I’m sorry, but you cannot give Ryan McDonough executive of the year when he decides to select Len over Noel. Len also has a single digit PER, and if you are wondering why I am stressing PER so much it’s because it is the most important stat to gauge a rookie player’s future chances at stardom.
So Nerlens Noel, still likely to be a future NBA All-Star, was passed over five times. Four of the players picked before him appear to be on their to bustdom. And New Orleans, the team that drafted Noel sixth, immediately traded him and a future first rounder for Jrue Holiday in the misguided hopes of making the playoffs (that was another absolutely terrible move.)
The top of the 2013 NBA Draft proved once again that most NBA front offices know nothing special about drafting. Nerlens Noel never - never - should have fallen out of the top three. His drop to 6th was part of some of the craziest, and most incompetent, drafting in recent history.
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.