21. Dallas Mavericks
Key Stat: +7.1 points per-100 possessions (Dirk Nowitzki and Nerlens Noel on-court)
Nerlens Noel spent virtually his entire 76ers career on the trade block, and everyone knew it. The Mavericks took advantage of Philly’s lack of leverage at last year’s trade deadline, nabbing the promising big man for Justin Anderson and second round pick. The Mavericks had to integrate Noel on the fly, and like with any mid-season addition, it was likely hard to do so seamlessly.
However, the numbers don’t really bear out that difficulty--the Mavs were good with Noel on the floor. More importantly, Noel gelled really well with Mavericks legend Dirk Nowitzki. Noel’s defensive versatility, made possible by his quickness and athleticism, allowed him to cover uniquely well for Nowitzki, who struggled mightily even before he was closing in on 40, on the defensive end. Meanwhile, Nowitzki spaced the floor on offense, allowing Noel to remain close to the hoop, where he’s at his most effective; they’re a natural pair. When the two giants shared the court, the Mavericks outscored opponents by 7.1 points per-100 possessions. The Spurs had the league’s 2nd-highest per-100 scoring margin in the NBA last season at +7.9 and the Rockets 3rd-highest at +5.4--the Mavericks were really good with Noel and Nowitzki out there together.
Dirk’s already begun his decline, and he will eventually cease to be productive, maybe as soon as this coming season, but if the Noel-Nowitzki front court is half as good as it was last year, the Mavericks will be comfortably better than a good number of teams.
20. New Orleans Pelicans
Key Stat: 65% of career minutes at positions other than small forward
As everyone knows, the Pelicans have great bigs. Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins are dynamic on both ends (at least Davis is), and realistically, no team in the entire NBA has the personnel to deal with New Orleans’ two behemoths. The Pelicans also have a really solid, though underappreciated, two-way point guard in Jrue Holiday. Unfortunately, this is where I stop saying nice things about the Pelicans. Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry recently said Dante Cunningham is likely to slot in as the team’s starting small forward.
The issue there is that Cunningham has played 65% of his career minutes at positions other than small forward. Additionally, Cunningham is a career 32.6% 3PT shooter. Last year, league average from three was 35.8%. And say the Pelicans wanted to play someone who’s logged the majority of his career minutes at small forward at some point, their best healthy option is either--this is not a joke--Darius Miller or Perry Jones. If you’ve heard of either of those guys, congratulations, you watch too much basketball (like me). If not, that’s probably because neither one has played a single NBA minute since 2015.
The Pelicans roster construction is as follows: five centers, seven guards, one Solomon Hill (likely out for the season), a Darius Miller, and a Perry Jones. I’m sure Pelicans GM Dell Demps is a nice guy, and he pulled off a heist in the Cousins trade, but how in the world is he still employed? I’m not trying to belabor the point, but their wing depth is comprised of Darius Miller and Perry Jones!
Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, while arguably ill-fitting, are both extremely good, and maybe they can do enough to drag the Pelicans to the playoffs. And maybe dragging the Pelicans to the playoffs is enough to keep Cousins in New Orleans. And maybe keeping Cousins in New Orleans is enough to keep Anthony Davis happy and a Pelican for the foreseeable future. But my god, their wing depth consists of Darius Miller and Perry Jones.
The Bottom of the East Playoffs Is a Mess:
19. Detroit Pistons
Key Stat: -2.3% Total Rebound % differential
In the eyes of many, Andre Drummond is among the best rebounders in the NBA. When Drummond was on the court in 2016-17, the Pistons collected 50.7% of all available rebounds, which would have been tied for 8th-most in the NBA last year. However, when Drummond went to the bench, the Pistons hauled in 53% of available rebounds, which would have been the 3rd-most. Granted, Drummond’s backups (and many of Detroit’s other contributors) were respectable rebounders, but one would not expect the Pistons to rebound better without the help of one of the league’s best rebounders.
And here’s where it gets concerning for the Pistons is: they did just about everything better without their franchise player on the floor. On offense, the Pistons were 1.7 points per-100 possessions better without Drummond on the floor. On defense, they were a staggering 10.3 points per-100 possessions better without Drummond--they would have been the best defense in the NBA with Drummond on the bench, but bottom-five with him on the court.
It’s certainly possible that Drummond merely had a down year. There’s also the mitigating factor that Pistons point guard Reggie Jackson was playing injured all year, but there is a slightly more concerning and equally plausible explanation: maybe Drummond simply isn’t good.
Detroit has a handful of nice players. Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley are forever underappreciated. Healthy Reggie Jackson is pretty decent. Stanley Johnson is still somewhat intriguing. Right now, though, this team is going only as far as Andre Drummond can take it--that’s the position coach/GM Stan Van Gundy has put himself in. If I were Van Gundy, I’d be mildly concerned that my team does everything better when it’s released from the burden of its best player.
18. Philadelphia 76ers
Key Stat: 102 DRTG
Plenty of guys can pour in points night after night. In fact, there were 33 players last year who put up at least 20 per night, which comprised 7.3% of the NBA’s rostered players. It’s a rare-ish feat, but there are enough volume scorers for every team to have one and then some. Last year, Joel Embiid was one of those rare-ish 33. What is truly rare, though, is a volume scorer who anchors a defense. Embiid, in 2016-17, posted a Defensive Rating, which estimates the number of points a player surrenders per-100 possessions, of 102. The only other players to match this level of excellence (20 PPG and 102 DRTG) on both ends were Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, and Kevin Durant--three of the eight (give or take) best players in the basketball. When on the court, Embiid is among the elite of the elite, and elite talent wins in basketball.
However, I’m going to throw in another “key stat” for Philadelphia: 31 games. That’s the number of games Embiid has played in his first three professional seasons. He’s an elite, franchise-altering talent, and if he’s even remotely healthy, the 76ers will be a lock to make the playoffs in the weak East, but how can you possibly have any confidence that Embiid is going to play?
Note: A limiting factor here was an inability to effectively sort and compare team DRTG by player. In most cases, I’d prefer to avoid player DRTG, because the individual version is unbelievably noisy, but realistically, it’s the only metric that you can use in searches like the one I had to conduct and the best way to properly convey Embiid’s all-around impact.
All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted