25. Atlanta Hawks
Key Stat: 5.1 VORP (combined Dwight Howard and Paul Millsap)
Paul Millsap is an outstanding basketball player. That’s probably obvious to many reading this, but unheralded coming out of college and underappreciated when he achieved stardom in Atlanta, it’s always worth recognizing how good Millsap is at basketball, even in his decline. Last year, Millsap posted 2.7 VORP, good for 34th in the NBA and tops among the Hawks.
And while much maligned, Dwight Howard was still a very solid on-court presence for the Hawks. Advanced metrics, unfortunately, do not account for the knuckleheaded behavior in the locker room that ostensibly motivated Atlanta to take on salary simply to be rid of Howard. Howard is certainly no longer the dominant force he was in Orlando, but his elite rebounding and interior defense and efficient low-volume scoring propelled Howard to a very respectable 2.4 VORP (42nd in the NBA).
Howard and Millsap combined for 5.1 VORP in 2016-17; the rest of the Hawks combined for 3.2. With Howard in Charlotte and Millsap in Denver, it’s safe to say the Hawks will be taking a major step back from the playoff team they were last year.
24. Los Angeles Lakers
Key Stat: two players above 55% True Shooting %
Of the Lakers non-rookies heading into 2017-18, all but two (Brook Lopez and Larry Nance) failed to reach the threshold of 55% TS%, which is the league average. Of the Lakers 17 rostered players by the time the season starts, 15 will be either coming off seasons in which they were below average shooters or rookies.
In the current NBA climate, we do tend to fetishize shooting and efficiency to an extent, but the Lakers are a team that is genuinely committed to pace and space. After targeting Luke Walton last offseason to install a Warriors-style system and christening Lonzo Ball, the eccentric floor general who transformed UCLA, as the franchise’s savior, the Lakers have chosen a direction which is commendable. However, it is abundantly clear that the Lakers, despite significant additions this offseason, do not yet have the personnel to execute management’s vision.
Tier: Refusing to Tank, But Definitely Should:
23. Sacramento Kings
Key Stat: 22.8% AST%
In 2016-17, George Hill posted a 22.8% AST%, meaning that he assisted 22.8% of his teammate’s field goals when he was on the court. Of all NBA guards who totaled at least 500 minutes, Hill’s mark ranked 47th, embarrassingly low for a player who logged 100% of his minutes at the point guard position. However, Hill logged 80.9% of his minutes alongside at least one of Gordon Hayward or Joe Ingles. Hayward and Ingles posted AST% of 18.2% and 17.2% respectively, which placed them 11th and 14th among all forwards to total at least 500 minutes.
While an extremely low AST% for a point guard would typically be a red flag, Hill’s AST% was low by design, as he played alongside two of the league’s best creating wings. While he’ll no longer be playing alongside creating wings in Sacramento, Hill will be expected to continue working both on- and off-ball, as Sacramento invested the 5th overall pick in ball-dominant point guard De’Aaron Fox.
The rare versatility that Hill demonstrated in Utah will allow him to seamlessly switch between various roles with the Kings, regardless of whether he’s partnered in the backcourt with Fox or more of an off-ball player in sophomore guard Buddy Hield. Not only will Hill’s malleability offer an environment conducive to the growth of both Fox and Hield simultaneously, but his on-court contributions could allow the Kings to take a small step forward from last year.
22. Indiana Pacers
Key Stat: 5.9% BLK% (Myles Turner)
The impact of a dominant big man on team defense is beyond immense. Last season, four players logged at least 2,000 minutes and registered a BLK% (% of opponent 2PTA blocked while on the floor) of at least 5%. The minutes threshold is high--maybe unreasonably so--but I’m looking for players who truly anchored defenses, and all the players under the 2,000 minute were purely rotational players, none of which topped Kyle O’Quinn’s 1,229 minutes.
The four defensive stalwarts were Rudy Gobert, Myles Turner, Anthony Davis, and Hassan Whiteside. Their BLK%, in order, were 6.4%, 5.9%, 5.1%, and 5.0%. So, these four rim-protectors amassed enormous minute and block totals, but more importantly, they lead great defenses. Gobert’s Jazz placed 3rd in Defensive Rating (DRTG), Whiteside’s Heat 5th, Davis’ Pelicans 10th, and Turner’s Pacers...16th. Turner was an absolute menace, but his team was below average.
Defensive bigs are important, but they cannot correct for every misstep made by their teammates, and the Pacers very possibly had the NBA’s worst defensive guard rotation in Monta Ellis, Jeff Teague, CJ Miles, Aaron Brooks, and Rodney Stuckey. DRTG is a very noisy statistic on an individual level, but none of the Pacers rotation guards had a DRTG below 110 (a team DRTG of 110 would’ve placed 21st in the NBA). That’s a mind-boggling lack of defensive competence.
Well, all of those guards are gone, and the Pacers have brought in Victor Oladipo, who, despite his numerous faults, is a pretty decent defensive player. Oladipo ranked 6th among shooting guards in ESPN’s proprietary Defensive Real Plus Minus, which attempts to measure defensive impact of an individual player irrespective of his teammates and opponents. And while you might contend that the (defensive) addition of Oladipo is offset by the loss of Paul George, I’d point out that by DRPM George has fallen off significantly on the defensive end, placing 42nd among small forwards.
The Pacers will no longer suffer from some of the worst defensive guard play in the NBA in 2017-18. Meanwhile, Turner will still be manning the middle, so it’s reasonable to expect that the Pacers defense will be pretty good, possibly even very good. And if the Pacers are good on one end of the court, they’ll have an insurmountable advantage over the over the garbage heap at the bottom of the East.
All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted