8. Minnesota Timberwolves
Key Stat: 61.8% True Shooting %
Karl-Anthony Towns is an absolute monster. In 2016-17, he posted a TS% of 61.8%, which is absolutely ludicrous given the volume he produced. The only players last season to match or exceed both Towns’ efficiency (TS%) and volume (PPG) were Isaiah Thomas, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant, each of whom made either the All-NBA First or Second Team. Here’s the thing, though. Thomas was 27, James 32, Curry 28, and Durant 28. Towns was just 21 last year--it was his second season. The list of players in NBA history to match or exceed 25 PPG and 61.8% in a season either by age 21 or within their first two seasons: Karl-Anthony Towns.
No one, in the 70-year history of the NBA, has ever been as good of a scorer as Towns at his age or experience level. Kevin Durant, one of the greatest scorers in NBA history, didn’t hit these marks until he was 24, his sixth season. Michael Jordan, the greatest to ever lace ‘em up, never achieved this intersection of volume and efficiency. Having established how obscenely good Towns is, it’s hot take time, and I’ve got a couple.
First: Towns has a legitimate shot to break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s career scoring record. Seriously. He got started young enough and is talented enough to do it. His combination of efficiency, volume, and youth is something the league has never seen before. Towns was one of the five best scorers in the NBA in his second season. Who was the last player you could say that about? You’d probably have to go all the way back to Shaq, y’know one of the 10 or so greatest basketball players ever.
Second hot take: Karl-Anthony Towns will win at least one Most Valuable Player Award in his career, and the first could come as soon as 2017-18. And that, ultimately, is why I’m so high on the Timberwolves. I love Jimmy Butler--he was one of the 10 best players in the NBA last year. But Butler is not the transcendent superstar that carries you to a championship; Towns is.
There are still kinks in Towns’ game. He needs to figure out defense, which is not something that should be glossed over, especially for a big, but he has the frame, athleticism, and intelligence necessary to be an elite defender; I’m confident he’ll get there someday. In the meantime, though, Towns will continue to be unprecedented in the scoring department--watch out, Kareem, you’ve only got a 34,823 point cushion.
7. Washington Wizards
Key Stat: 1,347 minutes
In 2016-17, the NBA’s most used 5 man lineup wasn’t Golden State’s death lineup, nor was it one of Houston’s “bombs away” running and gunning groups, nor was it the top-heavy Clippers’ starting unit. The Washington Wizards starting lineup played a remarkable 1,347 minutes together. The lineup that played the 2nd-most minutes together, Minnesota’s starters, played just 880 minutes together.
Washington relied beyond heavily on its starting five, with good reason. The lineup produced a outscored opponents by 8.1 points per-100 possessions, which was 4th-best among all groups of five to log at least 300 minutes together. All of this should be extremely encouraging for Washington fans, seeing as the Wizards are returning all five starters, and none of them, save Marcin Gortat, is any risk to begin his decline. Given the continuity and track record of Washington’s starters, it’s reasonable to expect that they’ll rank amongst the very best starting units again in 2017-18.
There is, of course, a reason why they find themselves 7th rather than 3rd or 4th, though. The importance of depth often gets underplayed in the NBA, especially with respect to the postseason. I’m certainly guilty of overvaluing top-end talent at times, evidenced by my decision to simply highlight individual players in a great deal of these previews. Depth isn’t going to carry you to a championship, but anyone who watched last year’s Celtics vs. Wizards Eastern Conference Semifinals bout knows that a team must attain a certain depth baseline if it wants to seriously compete. The Wizards starters absolutely massacred the Celtics in that series, but the bench...it was hard to watch. Brandon Jennings, Ian Mahinmi, Bojan Bogdanovic; it was ugly. Heading into 2017-18, the Wizards have probably improved their bench a little through the additions of Mike Scott, Tim Frazier, Jodie Meeks, and a hopeful return to health from Ian Mahinmi, but man, that bench is still rough.
Expect the Wizards to be excellent again next year. Much like the Raptors, they’ll have a shot at capturing the East’s top seed, and if everything broke right, I wouldn’t be dumbfounded seeing them in the Finals. But more likely than not, the 2017-18 Wizards will be one of the league’s few teams to have its ceiling significantly lowered by the bottom half of its roster.
Note: All above stats from NBA.com
6. Boston Celtics
Key Stat(s): 2016-17 Per-100 Possession:
Player A: 33.4 PTS, 5.3 AST, 8.2 TRB
Player B: 33.0 PTS, 4.7 AST, 9.2 TRB
Paul George is generally regarded as a game-changing superstar. Most NBA enthusiasts would argue that he is among (or close to) the 10 best basketball players in the world. This summer, when George was traded to Oklahoma City in a salary dump, Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge was (somewhat justifiably) roasted by the media and fans alike. Ainge, famous for hoarding assets in preparation for a star shaking lose, failed to act when one finally did, and George didn’t even go for the equivalent of any of Ainge’s prized premium assets. Ainge had a great deal of egg on his face. Thankfully for Celtics fans (yours truly included), Ainge salvaged the summer a few days later by reeling in the big fish of free agency, Gordon Hayward.
Conventional wisdom says that Ainge hit on Plan B rather than A, but care to take a guess as to which of the above players is Hayward and which is George? Okay, you have your guess? Do me a favor and decide which of the remarkably similar stat lines is better in advance, too. Got it? Good, Player A is Hayward, B is George, and ultimately--this is splitting hairs--A’s stat line is slightly better than B’s. Now, a few questions should naturally arise, and I’ll try to address all of them. First of all, why the heck use per-100 stats?
While it seems like an awfully esoteric choice, there is legitimate reason for choosing per-100 stats over per-game or per-minute. In 2016-17, Hayward’s Jazz played at the NBA’s slowest pace, meaning that they played the fewest number of possessions per-game in the entire NBA. Naturally, therefore, Hayward’s counting stats are artificially lower, because in an equal number of minutes, he had fewer opportunities to compile stats than players on every other team. Using per-100 stats standardizes the pace for everyone, allowing us to eliminate the variable of quantity of opportunities per-game/minute.
But George must have been more efficient. That’ll explain the similar counting stats. Nope, Hayward posted an outstanding 59.5% TS%, while George put up an excellent, yet inferior, 58.7%.
This is obvious. You’re not accounting for George’s elite defense. George has the reputation of being one of the league’s premier wing defenders, but as often happens, his defensive contributions have waned as he’s taken on a more significant role in the offense. There is a dearth of quality individual defensive impact quantifiers available to the public. I am not a fan of ESPN’s Real Plus Minus, nor am I a fan of the sub-stat Defensive Real Plus Minus, but I’m limited in what I have to work with, and DRPM is the only stat I know of that accounts for and tries to remove the impacts of teammates and opponents on individual defense. Anyway, Hayward actually graded out ahead of George in DRPM with a mark of -0.08 to -0.09 for George. Essentially, the difference between the two on defense is negligible.
What about age or experience? Both George and Hayward were 26 and in their 7th seasons last year.
Gordon Hayward’s good--we get it--but what’s the point, chief? I understand why Hayward’s flown under the radar. He played in Utah, and he only made his first appearance in the playoffs (since his second season) in 2016-17. But Hayward is one of the best offensive players in basketball. He can score proficiently in literally every possibly play type and is capable as a primary ball-handler and facilitator. His game is so complete, and given how many fundamentally flawed players there are out there, watching Hayward is just an absolute joy. Hayward is the best player on the Celtics and closest thing the team has to a superstar, and while Kyrie Irving has been and will be the story when it comes to Boston, Hayward will be the one most deserving of recognition, and as usual, he probably won’t get it.
5. San Antonio Spurs
Key Stat: 103.5 DRTG
There are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and the San Antonio Spurs being the best defensive team in the NBA. Each of the last two years, the Spurs have had the NBA’s lowest team DRTG, checking in at 103.5 in 2016-17, which is incredible for a couple reasons. Over the last two years, the Spurs have had an incredible amount of roster turnover, and integrating so many new faces into a complicated defensive scheme with an apparent lack of hiccups is remarkable.
But an even greater testament to the unparalleled wizardry of Gregg Popovich comes into focus when you examine the Spurs roster. The 2016-17 Spurs were almost entirely devoid of positive defensive basketball players. Of course, they had Kawhi Leonard. Danny Green and Dewayne Dedmon are excellent defenders as well, but virtually everyone else on the roster was a massive negative as an individual defender. Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, David Lee, Kyle Anderson, the list goes on. All of the aforementioned guys are either old, slow, unathletic, or some combination of the three. Yet, you give Gregg Popovich the makings of the worst defense in the league, and of course, he turns it into the best.
With all due respect to Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson, Pop is the greatest basketball coach in history--give him this year’s Kentucky roster, and I’d be hesitant to bet the under on 50 wins. Likewise, I will never bet against a Popovich-led Spurs team (in the regular season). The Spurs have won at least 50 games--yes, including during the 66-game 2011-12 season--every single year since 1998-99, a 50-game season, during which, Pop’s Spurs, somewhat shockingly, didn’t go undefeated. That streak will extend another year in 2017-18.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
Key Stat: 41.8% 3PT% on catch-and-shoots
Carmelo Anthony and Paul George have very little in common. Sure, both were traded to Oklahoma City this offseason, but that’s essentially where the similarities end. George is lanky, three times a member of the All-Defense Teams. Anthony is stout, renowned for his unwillingness to defend. George is a sharpshooter and facilitator, Anthony a physical bully who uses craft to get buckets, not dish them out. Although, the two forwards do share one other characteristic: both shot exactly 41.8% on catch-and-shoot threes in 2016-17, per NBA.com.
Cool coincidence aside, Anthony and George have both demonstrated themselves to be elite off-ball shooters, which is significant given Oklahoma City’s franchise player. Russell Westbrook’s MO is no secret; his specialty is hurtling into the lane with reckless abandon, using his transcendent explosiveness either to finish, draw a foul, or dish to a shooter. The 2016-17 Thunder’s problem was that the shooters Westbrook was dishing to were far from ideal. In attempts from three, the Thunders non-Westbrook leaders were Victor Oladipo, Alex Abrines, and Andre Roberson. Their percentages on catch-and-shoot threes? 36.9%, 40.7%, and 24.7% respectively, per NBA.com.
In 2016-17, the Thunder had a middling offense, placing 16th in the NBA with an ORTG of 108.3. This coming season, Westbrook will no longer be driving and dishing to the likes of Victor Oladipo and Andre Roberson, but Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. The Thunder offense will be magnitudes better than last year, while the defense will remain quite strong, which will allow the Thunder to again assume the elite status they lost when Kevin Durant left for Golden State.
3. Houston Rockets
Key Stat: 0.462 3-point attempt rate
In recent years, efficiency, pace, and space have become the NBA’s most popular buzzwords. Ushered in largely by the unprecedented success of the Golden State Warriors, we’ve ostensibly entered an era of extreme reliance on the three ball. However, this revolution has been largely overstated. Yes, it’s true that league-wide attempts from three have been steadily increasing every year for five years now, but the landscape has not changed in the way that it’s often portrayed. Teams like the Warriors and Cavaliers, that rely heavily on the three, have not been constantly upping their 3 Point Attempt Rates (3PAr), which measures percentage of field goal attempts from three, but rather we’ve seen the floor for attempts from three steadily rising. It’s simply no longer viable for a team to not attempt a sizeable portion of its field goals from deep, but for the most part, it’s not as if the teams that already shoot a lot of threes are radically increasing their attempts from distance each year.
That is, except for the Rockets. In 2016-17, the Rockets 3PAr was a staggering 0.462, up from (already league-leading) 0.370 in 2015-16. The Rockets take the “bombs away” approach to an entirely different level. The Cavaliers, the NBA’s 2nd-most prolific team from deep, sported a 3PAr of just 0.399. The Rockets’ insane 3PAr translated to 3,306 3PA, the most in NBA history...by 527.
Here’s the Rockets’ dirty little secret, though: they’re not particularly good at three-point shooting. In 2016-17, the Rockets posted a 3P% of 35.7%, good for 15th in the NBA; league average from three was 35.8%.
I’m going to do a small amount of math here, but I promise it will be both simple and brief, so bear with me. In 2016-17, the NBA’s league average 2P% was 50.3%. Let’s imagine a game in which each team take 100 shots, which is a fair amount more than normal, but it’ll make the math really simple. The teams are perfectly evenly matched. In fact, they’re both exactly league average teams. Team A decides to take all of its shots from two, hits at 50.3%, and scores 101 points. Meanwhile, Team B shoots all of its shots from three, hitting at 35.8%, and scores 107 points.
The three-point shot is fundamentally more valuable than the two. That much is obvious, but the three is not proportionally more difficult, which creates an opportunity for smart teams. Provided you can attain a certain baseline (hovering around league average), you can create a massive advantage for yourself simply by shooting a ridiculous number of threes. Keep in mind, it is essential that a team converts at about league average or better, because if not, it’s the 2016-17 Nets, a team that shot from deep like crazy, but hit at the league’s 5th-worst rate of 33.8%.
Rockets GM Daryl Morey is smart, as is Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni. They’ve both acknowledged the math above, but more importantly, they’ve implemented it. The Rockets run, and they gun, and provided they can simply be average, they’ll once again math their way to an elite offense.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
Key Stat: 115.9 VORP
The Cavaliers had a bizarre offseason, and I’m not even talking about the blockbuster deal that sent All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving to Boston. The Cavs made four additions in free agency: Jose Calderon, Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Dwyane Wade. You can often tell a lot about a team’s philosophy and values based on players they add to the fringes of their roster. The Jazz, for example, demonstrated their emphasis on defensive versatility through the signings of Jonas Jerebko and Thabo Sefolosha. So, what do the Cavs’ additions have in common--what do the Cavs value? Names.
Calderon, Rose, Green, and Wade are all high profile. They’re past their primes and ill-fitting to Cleveland’s style of play. To be fair, Cleveland does not have a lot to work with financially, and to be clear, I’m not criticizing the value of Cleveland’s signings. Rose, Green, and Wade are all bargains at the veteran’s minimum salary, but context is important. The last thing Cleveland needed was ball-pounding non-shooters, which is exactly what they went out and got. Instead of low-usage, high-efficiency bench options, Cleveland now has an abundance of high-ego, low-substance former stars. Rose and Wade will undoubtedly siphon off minutes and touches from far better players in Isaiah Thomas, Kevin Love, Jae Crowder, and JR Smith simply because of their names. That slavishness to reputation is going to really hurt the Cavs.
But, of course, none of this matters. There are nowhere near enough superlatives to adequately convey the greatness of LeBron James. Here’s one little nugget, though: LeBron’s career VORP of 115.9 is the highest ever. VORP is a counting stat, much like points or rebounds, meaning that LeBron has amassed the most in history despite still being in the prime of his career.
James is a game-changing force like no other. For seven consecutive seasons, LeBron James, regardless of teammates, regardless of opponents, and regardless of the team name on his chest, has played and dominated in the NBA Finals. Presumably, that streak will eventually come to an end, but not in 2017-18. LeBron has shown no signs whatsoever of slowing down, and the Eastern Conference experienced an incredible exodus of talent this offseason. I’m not saying that the Cavs should be penciled into the 2018 Finals, because they are genuinely vulnerable, but how could you possibly feel comfortable betting against LeBron James?
We All Know How this Ends:
1. Golden State Warriors
Key Stat: 62 games played
In his first year with the Warriors, Kevin Durant missed almost a quarter of the regular season. For any team not based in Oakland, California, that would be a crippling loss. Durant is the only player in the world not named LeBron James who can even somewhat legitimately claim to be the planet’s best basketball player. Durant is an absolute freak. He’s over seven feet tall and the best scorer of his generation--maybe ever--and if he set his mind to it, there’s not a doubt in my mind that he could win a Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Durant’s place in history, his status among the greatest to ever play the game, is underappreciated by most (probably because his career has fallen within the LeBron era). Durant, in the 2017 NBA Finals, played some of the best basketball that’s ever been played. He put up 35.2 PPG, 8.2 RPG, and 5.4 APG on a downright comical 69.8% TS%. Throughout his career, Durant has continually done the unprecedented, particularly as a scorer. He is the only player in NBA history with a career PPG average of at least 27 and a TS% of at least 60%. Durant has achieved an intersection of volume and efficiency that no man before him ever has.
Given the above, it’s easy to understand why the Warriors struggled without Durant and ultimately underperformed in 2016-17. Welp. When it comes to the Warriors, you have to recalibrate normal. No team, in the entirety of the NBA’s illustrious history, has had remotely as much talent as the Warriors. Therefore, when the Warriors are without one of the greatest players in basketball history for a quarter of the season, they limp all the way to 67 wins. Of the NBA’s 30 franchises, 23 have never won 67 games. Without their best player for a quarter of the season, the Warriors had what would have been the best season in franchise history for over three quarters of the NBA’s teams.
Call them unfair, accuse them of ruining basketball, and lament that, barring actual supernatural intervention, your team will not top the Warriors, but don’t question their greatness. Don’t be that former player that says your mediocre team would have beaten them. Don’t be that fan living in the past, waxing poetic about the Bad Boys Pistons or Showtime Lakers. Most of all, though, don’t be bitter. Recognize that the Warriors are the pinnacle of basketball; this is as good as it gets for a long, long time, so enjoy it.
All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted