The Most Volatile NBA Teams in 2013-14
In predicting a team’s season-long performance, four key variables create, well, variance. Young players can prove difficult to project due to the vagaries of improvement. While it is proper to expect young players to better the previous year’s performance to some degree, to what extent should this be predicted? The sheer fact that these players have not done it before makes it hard to forecast that they will ascend to a new level, yet at the same time it is difficult to ignore the general trend that young players improve.
The opposite applies to older players. While they often have an established level of performance, the general trend is for older players to decline, if not just lose their abilities entirely. And what of quality veterans who stumbled the year before? It could be a sign that they could regess somewhat back to their career norms, or simply the beginning of the end of a long career.
Often dovetailing with the question of aging is health. Will players with injury histories stay healthy? And will those players return to their previous level of performance if they play? Teams with health questions are inherently unpredictable.
Nevertheless, forecasters generally seem to be quite optimistic regarding these variables. Young players are enthusiastically forecast to break out, while veterans are considered good until they have unequivocally proven that they are not. Meanwhile, health is often considered the default state in all but the least optimistic cases.
The fourth variable is even less understood: coaching. Quite frankly, nobody knows how to evaluate new coaches with anything aside from anecdotal evidence at this point. The best evidence one can point to is the performance of the coach’s prior teams, or the teams for which he was an assistant. But as a general proposition, coaching is inherently unpredictable until he establishes an NBA track record as the head man.
Case in point: nobody thought anything of the greatest coaches in NBA history until they were hired for their first job. Pat Riley was an interim replacement for Paul Westhead in 1981-82, and immediately led the Los Angeles Lakers to a championship. Phil Jackson was more known for his Maverick 1970s image than coaching acumen when he rose to the Chicago Bulls’ head job in 1989-90. Gregg Popovich was almost totally unknown when he became the San Antonio Spurs’ head man. Tom Thibodeau, despite being a universally respected assistant for years, still waited all of those years to get his first job with the Bulls. In fact, two years before his hiring, the Bulls eschewed him to hire Vinny Del Negro. Yet new coaches matter immensely, especially on defense where coaching makes far more impact. And even in cases where the coach has had prior NBA positions, separating his coaching from the abilities of his players in that locale is quite difficult as well.
So which teams have the highest variance between ceiling and floor in 2013-14? These three teams fit the criteria.
Golden State Warriors
One look at last year’s playoff results shows the Warriors’ potential. They added a near All-Star quality wing in Andre Iguodala to a team that nearly took the San Antonio Spurs to the brink last year. Stephen Curry, Andrew Bogut, Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson all shined in that series and in the previous upset of Iguodala’s 57-win Denver Nuggets team in the first round. The Warriors also return a slimmed-down David Lee to that playoff group after he missed nearly all of the playoffs with a torn hip flexor.
This group screams high-ceiling. But, the Warriors’ playoff performance is not necessarily the baseline from which to expect further improvement this year; they were a 44-win team (by point differential) during the regular season. It is universally accepted that Barnes and Thompson will improve. But Thompson was actually worse offensively than his rookie year, and logged only a 10.1 PER in a postseason that most remember only for his two 30-point outbursts.* Barnes, meanwhile, was well below the league average himself as a rookie. Even if he improves at the normal rate for second-year players, that would peg him much more average starter than star this year. While it is certainly possible that these two could take giant leaps and push the Warriors into the offensive stratosphere, they could also simply repeat their middling performances from a year ago.
*It should be noted that Thompson was valuable for drawing the attention of the opponent’s best perimeter defender in both series, leaving Curry more room to operate. He also did well defensively against opposing point guards in the playoffs.
The other key Warriors variable is health, in particular the ankles of Curry and Andrew Bogut. Tweaks of their ankles ultimately prevented the Warriors from pulling the upset of the Spurs; before Curry injured his in Game 3, the Warriors had outplayed the Spurs for the series. Curry’s ankle problems are especially worrisome given their nature. His ankle sprains do not appear to be the sort of hard luck plays experienced by others, where an unlucky step or landing on another player’s foot causes the injury. Instead, Curry seems to suffer his injuries when his body is entirely under his control.
The fact that these injuries appear to be of his own (unintentional) making seem to indicate a lack of proprioception. One would think these injuries are more likely to recur than “freak” injuries caused by direct contact with other players.
Meanwhile, Bogut is perhaps the Warriors’ most important player. He is their only plus interior defender who is capable of playing major minutes, although Iguodala will surely help on that end as well. The Warriors’ defense effectively shut down two fantastic offensive teams in last year’s playoffs in large part due to Bogut’s effort. When he left the floor, most notably during the Spurs’ epic Game 1 comeback, the Warriors’ defense regressed. It is that defense that will determine whether the Warriors are true contenders this year. Bogut has been exceedingly positive about his health during training camp after struggling back from microfracture ankle surgery and missing more than half the season in 2012-13, and comments from head coach Mark Jackson indicate he is much-improved from last year.
Finally, the Warriors face some defensive questions on the bench. While the lauded Jackson returns, assistant Mike Malone left to coach the Sacramento Kings. The former lead assistant was widely credited with orchestrating the Warriors’ defensive improvement, and Jackson will need to prove he can consolidate the gains on that end sans Malone.
If Curry and Bogut are healthy, Barnes and Thompson improve and the defense lives up to its 2013 playoffs potential, the Warriors could win the West. But those variables could just as easily cripple the Warriors, rendering them a fringe playoff team.
The Cavaliers really only know what they are getting at two positions. One is point guard, where Kyrie Irving is already an All-Star and looks to move into the NBA’s top ten players this year – to do so, he’ll have to improve markedly on defense, make a higher percentage at the rim and avoid missing significant time as he did his first two seasons. The other is small forward, where near replacement-level players like Alonzo Gee, C.J. Miles and Earl Clark will battle for the starting job.
Dion Waiters is coming off of an eye of the beholder rookie season, one which could augur that he will shoot the Cavs out of games, evolve into a higher percentage but lower usage shooter, get benched for his awful defense or somewhere in between.
Meanwhile at power forward, Tristan Thompson is still young enough to improve significantly this year, while number one overall draft pick Anthony Bennett is a total wild card.*
*His 2-12 preseason opener was not a great start, although it is of course only one game as he tries to play himself back into shape after shoulder surgery.
In the frontcourt, Andrew Bynum was signed to a two-year, $24 million contract, but only $6 million of that contract is guaranteed if he is cut by January 7. That is looking increasingly likely, as Bynum has not yet been cleared to practice and we have heard nothing about him even engaging in basketball activities. But it must be remembered that in his last healthy season, Bynum was the league’s best post-up player while blocking four percent of opposing shots.
Fellow big man Anderson Varejao is also making his return from a pulmonary embolism, a comeback which may prove difficult. While Varejao looked solid in the preseason opener, he has missed a huge number of games over the last few years due to more traditional maladies as well. But if healthy, he provides outstanding rebounding and help defense.
The health of those two players will in large part determine what kind of improvements head coach Mike Brown can make in the team’s defense. The Cavs have rated worse than 25th in points allowed per possession all three years since LeBron James left town, and Irving, Waiters and the rookie Bennett are very unlikely to be plus defenders. This season will be another fascinating data point on the question of how much coaching can improve defense, as Brown has almost always presided over quality defenses. Most expect his presence to lift the defense compared to the departed Byron Scott, but the question is how much?
With Brown coaching Varejao and Bynum, along with quality defenders at the three, the Cavs could vault into the top half of the league in defense. That kind of showing could put them as high as the five seed in the East if the New York Knicks falter. But if Varejao and Bynum miss significant time and Brown cannot get the youngsters to perform on D, the Cavs could still miss the playoffs entirely.
The Wizards are another team in the Eastern Conference scrum between the sixth and 11th seeds, along with the aforementioned Cavaliers and the Toronto Raptors, Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks. After John Wall returned to form last year, the Wizards were the best of that group. The team also rated a shocking fifth in defense last year, per Basketball-Reference.com. The defensive performance was largely due to the efforts of big men Nene and Emeka Okafor. When they shared the floor last year, Washington gave up only 99.5 points per 100 possessions, per nbawowy.com. But Okafor is now out indefinitely with a herniated disk in his neck, and is not even with the team during training camp as he rehabilitates in New York. It certainly does not sound like he will be returning anytime soon, and his absence has exposed Washington’s Achilles heel of frontcourt depth. They have been starting Jan Vesely in the preseason.
For his part, Nene is returning from focusing exclusively on rehab during the offseason. The Brazilian is dealing with foot and knee pain as he tries to get back in shape and usually misses time each year with nagging injuries. Meanwhile, second-year shooting guard Bradley Beal rehabbed all summer from a season-ending stress fracture in his fibula, and also struggled last year with sprains to both ankles, a lower back contusion and a sprained wrist. He has pronounced himself 100 percent, but will have to prove his durability this season.
At small forward, Martell Webster signed a new four-year contract for the full mid-level exception over the summer and is coming off his best (and healthiest) campaign. Yet he too has struggled with injuries in past year, a major reason our Mark Deeks rated his contract one of the worst of the offseason. The third overall pick Otto Porter, deemed a safe pick by most pundits, struggled mightily before his summer league ended with a hamstring injury. He could prove a solid starter or a complete non-factor this year. Even Wall missed almost half of last year with his own knee injury, during which the Wizards were a moribund 5-28.
But with Wall in the lineup, the Wizards were 24-25. When both Wall and Beal played, they were 16-9. If Okafor, Beal, Webster, Nene and Wall can play most of the season and Porter proves competent, Washington could challenge for even the fifth seed. Alas, injuries threaten to consign the Wizards to the lottery once again as well.
Nate’s Notes: Derrick Rose’s Return
While this post was originally to concern Derrick Rose’s return to the court, there is not a ton that hasn’t already been said. In his first two preseason games, Rose showed his “x button” quickness that is unmatched in the league, while he claims that his vertical has actually increased to 42 inches. Although he has struggled a bit to finish at the rim and has not yet shown the same playmaking he provided pre-injury, it is reasonable to expect those skills to return. There seems to be universal agreement that he showed enough explosion to make it very likely he’ll regain superstar status. Indeed, after Rose’s first preseason game the Bulls’ odds to win the NBA championship jumped to 8-1, tied for second-highest with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Much was made of the fact that Rose worked extensively on his outside shot while injured. Indeed, for a lot of his rehab this was about all he could work on. The term “outside shot” rather than jump shot, was purposely chosen. The one three-pointer Rose has attempted so far was a set shot, markedly different from the jumper he previously uncorked behind the arc. Rose used to jump as high as he could on his threes. The set shot, much like Chris Paul’s, should enable Rose to be more accurate from deep due to the fact that there will now be less variability and moving parts in his shot. However, he may suffer from a slower release and be able to get less threes off overall. Perhaps he will stick with the jumper when shooting off the dribble—after all we are dealing with a sample size of one here.