Projecting the NBA using xWARP: Sacramento Kings

The Sacramento Kings let their former rookie of the year, Tyreke Evans, leave in free agency. Despite losing Evans, though, the Kings had a pretty good offseason. How can I say that? Well, first, and most important, Sacramento got to keep its Kings, which was no sure thing. The threat of the team being stolen away from Sacramento and moved to, say, Seattle- who know a thing or twelve about stolen teams- was very, very real, so this offseason was a success if for no other reason than that the Kings remain Sacramento’s.

In addition, the Kings made some sneaky good moves. First, they were able to turn Evans’s departure into a sign and trade to land a quite useful player in point guard Greivis Vasquez. Then, the Kings were able to land a serviceable replacement for Evans’s wing slot by trading two second round picks for Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Luc Richard is a disruptive defensive presence who struggled to convert inside last year, after a career of being pretty good at it. On the plus side, Mbah a Moute appears to have added some range to his arsenal as he hit 35%, right around league average, on his three point attempts, while firing one deep shot per 40 minutes. Previously, Mbah a Moute had been very reluctant to even try to shoot from outside, and seemingly for good reason, as he rarely made those shots when he did take them. All in all, Luc Richard is a pretty average wing, which is a pretty nice get for the relatively piddling price of two second round picks. The Kings must hope Mbah a Moute can return to the relatively strong finisher inside he has generally been, while retaining some of that added range to space the floor around center Demarcus Cousins. If he can do that, he might be even better than average, given how much he helps on the defensive end.

Finally, the Kings drafted Ben McLemore, who many scouts thought might be the best player in this year’s draft. I wasn’t as high on McLemore, simply because he didn’t do much statistically at Kansas that screamed dominant player, but he also wasn’t asked to do a whole lot and his own tendency to float was not sufficiently reined in by the Jayhawks’ coaching staff, so it’s tough to say just how good he will end up as a pro. In new coach Mike Malone, the Kings appear to have gotten a leader who will challenge McLemore to be the best version of himself on the court. McLemore will certainly be an interesting player to watch this season, to see which side of him wins out between his undeniable talent and his natural passivity on the court.

What do the numbers have to tell us about this year’s Kings squad?

After adjusting for the projected league context, the Kings’ projected Net Rating is -3.45, which would make them a 32 win team. That’s not great, but considering the Kings won just 28 games last year and lost a player of Tyreke Evans’s talent, it would be impressive for the Kings to improve their record by 4 wins. Most of the heavy lifting will be done, according to xRAPM, by Boogie Cousins. He has far and away the highest projected xRAPM at +2.3 and he projects to play a fairly high number of minutes.

It’s at this point that something about xRAPM as a stat should be pointed out- xRAPM uses boxscore stat based priors, but it also includes a prior for height on the defensive end, in order to increase predictive accuracy leaguewide. In general, this is a good thing to do, as big men tend to be much more important to team defense, so it’s unsurprising that adding a prior that grants big men proportionally more credit for positive offensive outcomes increases predictive accuracy. The problem occurs with big men who are decidedly bad defenders, so they get credit they don’t deserve. Boogie Cousins is just one such big man. Boogie is actually a double whammy of a problem for xRAPM. Cousins grabs a lot of defensive boxscore stats (read: defensive rebounds and blocked shots) and he’s very tall, as a result xRAPM thinks he’s a good defender– but he so, so isn’t. This almost certainly causes Cousins individually to be very overrated, but fortunately for the overall accuracy of the projections, the Kings return almost entirely the same roster with the exception of the previously mentioned Evans. If it were the case that Cousins was receiving defensive credit in xRAPM that Evans rightly deserved, it’s a very positive sign for the Kings that they acquired another strong wing defender, Mbah a Moute, to replace Evans in the rotation.

Jason Thompson returns as the starting 4 man alongside Cousins and should contribute well, too. It’s also possible that Thompson is a better defender than he’s been given credit for by xRAPM, due to playing with Cousins. But, because Thompson will be around again to play with Cousins, that shouldn’t effect the overall picture much. Finally, Former Mr. Irrelevant, the confusingly named Isaiah Thomas projects to be slightly above average. Thomas is a wonderful offensive dynamo, running as expert a pick and roll as you’ll find in the NBA. The averageness comes from his weakness on the defensive end. Most of Thomas’s defensive problems can be fairly attributed to his small stature. Thomas is simply too physically limited, both due to his height and his short wingspan, to help much on defense. He’s a good and useful player, though, and it’s a testament to his work ethic and skill that he has been able to make himself into a better player than the Kings’ lottery pick of Thomas’s draft class, Jimmer Fredette. Fredette’s also a pretty solid offensive player, but his defense makes Isaiah Thomas look like prime Gary Payton. Fredette is one of the absolute worst defensive players in the league. If he can get somewhere closer to average, he could really help the Kings, but these projections don’t see that happening. Ben McLemore projects to be an above replacement, but below average player, which is pretty average for a rookie, but if it happens that way, would surely represent a disappointment for the Kings. It is unsurprising, though, that a statistical projection would look harshly at McLemore’s only season at Kansas as he simply didn’t stand out.

The Kings have an interesting future with a new owner, a new face of the franchise, and a new, energetic head coach. This season is just the beginning of that future and there should be plenty of fun to be had, whether it’s the pure joy of watching little Isaiah Thomas run that pick and roll to perfection or the pure hilarity of watching Demarcus Cousins “try” to defend the opponent’s pick and roll. After facing an existential threat to their team, Kings fans have plenty to which to look forward.

Projecting the NBA using xWARP: Charlotte Bobcats

The Charlotte Bobcats got a bit better this offseason when they signed Al Jefferson. Big Al is no worldbeater, but he’s an above average player who commands a double team pretty much anytime he touches the ball on his beloved left block. He’s a good offensive player who struggles defensively due to his relative lack of lateral quickness. He blocks a lot of shots and grabs a lot of defensive rebounds, so he helps from time to time, but overall he hurts his teams defensively with his, frankly, woeful help defense. Modern NBA defenses simply require so much intelligent, agile help from the men manning the middle, and Al, despite his best efforts and his self-awareness about his defensive flaws, just can’t get things right on that end. All in all, though, Jefferson is a player worth having, especially for a team as bad as the Bobcats were last year and have been since they became a franchise. Charlotte also drafted Cody Zeller, a player who I liked a lot prior to this year’s draft and continue to like.

How much, based on the numbers, should we expect the Bobcats to improve with Big Al and Zeller on the roster?

After adjusting for the projected league-wide context, the Bobcats projected Net Rating is -3.44, which translates to approximately 32 wins. Thirty-two wins is not a season to write home about, but it would represent an 11 win improvement over last year’s Charlotte squad and 11 extra wins is something worth smiling over. Charlotte won’t be good, but they’ll be better.

There’s another way in which they could be even better and that’s if they simply don’t play Ben Gordon, who projects to be absolutely terrible next season after several seasons of being awful. If GM Rich Cho is able to find a taker for Gordon’s hefty expiring contract and the team is able to simply play Ramon Sessions, Gerald Henderson, or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist more minutes, they could even climb as high as 36–38 wins. For the long-term health of the franchise, though, shooting for a few extra wins at the cost of reduced lottery odds in the mythical 2014 draft seems unwise. It will be interesting to see which way Charlotte decides to go. Given that they have already chosen to try to get better by signing Jefferson, that might indicate they will go all in on winning as many games as they can. It would be hard to fault them for wanting to win as many games as they can, given how bad they have been the last two years, but if they can resist the urge to squeak out 4 or 5 extra wins, they might be rewarded in the draft lottery.

Charlotte has a near handful of projected above average players, namely: Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bismack Biyombo, and Al Jefferson. Cody Zeller also projects to be nearly average as a rookie, according to the Hickory-High rookie projections, which is really pretty great for a rookie. There are no stars on this club, which is the primary reason they won’t win a lot of games, but there’s a lot of slightly above, slightly below, and right at average talent. It’s a team that will probably look great some nights, when Kemba’s hitting his jumpers, Jefferson’s working at the peak of his post powers, and Kidd-Gilchrist is slashing and dunking and hounding the opponent’s best wing, and there will be other nights where they can’t throw it into the ocean and their spacing issues come home to roost. They’ll be better, though, and that’s not nothing. Enjoy the ride this year, Charlotte; maybe that franchise savior is just around the corner in next year’s draft and, hey, now he might actually have a decent supporting cast to join.

Projecting the NBA using xWARP: Utah Jazz

The Utah Jazz won 43 games last year, which — in a stacked Western Conference — got them the privilege of finishing 9th, missing out on the playoffs, and placed them in the no man’s land of the late lottery. This offseason, the Jazz allowed their best player, along with another of their better ones to leave for nothing in return. I’m speaking, of course, about Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, respectively. Millsap went to Atlanta where he figures to make it back to the playoffs. Jefferson, bizarrely, was able to grab more years and money per year than Millsap, despite Millsap’s overall superiority. Jefferson, though, will have to accept not making the playoffs this year, and the strong possibility that he won’t see the postseason at all in the 3 years he’s now signed to play for Charlotte. The Jazz weren’t interested in committing the sums of money needed to retain either player, especially when the ceiling of that team was the Western Conference playoff bubble.

Utah also, understandably, wanted to use this year as an opportunity to find out exactly what they have in their young big men Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, whose minutes were limited playing behind Millsap and Jefferson. The Jazz also declined to use their cap space to sign any free agents, instead opting to acquire assets to rent their cap space to the Golden State Warriors. The result is that the Jazz should be a fair bit worse on the court this year but have a clear plan for escaping their current state of non-contention. The plan is clearly to develop their young talent and acquire assets and then use that talent and those assets to form a group worth betting on. In the meantime, though, just how bad should we expect the Jazz to be- by the numbers?

After adjusting for next year’s projected league context, the Jazz’s projected Net Rating is -3.05. Such a projected Net Rating would make them, roughly, a 33 win team. It should come as no surprise, but Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, and, rising star on the wing Gordon Hayward figure to do most of the heavy lifting for next year’s Jazz. Alec Burks figures to be a slightly below average, but well above replacement option at guard, but it remains to be seen whether Tyrone Corbin plays him the minutes he deserves. I’ve projected Burks to get less minutes than his relative talent on the team would suggest is optimal, but Coach Corbin has generally not played him as much as he deserves, surely much to the consternation of Utah faithful.

I’ve also projected rookie point guard Trey Burke to play quite a few minutes, as I suspect that the use of a lottery pick to draft him and the Jazz’s complete organizational lack of incentive or desire to win games this season make betting on Burke to play a lot of minutes a good idea. Burke figures to be solid for a rookie, with a projected -1.7 xRAPM, he should be solidly above replacement level. As a starting point guard, this year’s iteration of Burke will likely leave something to be desired, but this is a year for learning on the job and I expect Trey will eventually be a pretty good player.

The Jazz will be bad this year, but they should be a fun watch, especially for hoop heads who enjoy watching guys as they progress from prospect to their fully-formed, best selves. The Jazz feature players in various states of development, but most of them are closer to the prospect end of that particular spectrum. That reality will lead to some inevitably ugly basketball, but the talent level that Favors, Kanter, Hayward, Burke, and Burks possess should lead to some genuinely fun basketball at times. For now, those fun moments and the knowledge of the plan in place will have to be enough for Jazz fans.

3 Quick Observations from the Chicago-Indiana Preseason Game a/k/a “The Return”

  • Derrick Rose is BACK. He looks just as fast as ever and if he’s to be believed, his leaping ability has risen to new heights. His shooting touch hasn’t quite returned yet, as he went 0 for 7 outside of the area 5 feet from the basket, but he was 5 of 6 inside and he was just blowing by everyone on the floor. As a Bulls fan, I’m very, very excited about this. I figured he would be the same old Derrick after taking his time with his recovery, but it was nice to see that optimism rewarded in a big way.
  • Taj Gibson looks like an absolute monster. Nick Friedell of ESPNChicago.com reported that Gibson had gained 15 pounds of muscle to bulk up to 240 pounds and Gibson looked every bit of that. On top of that, Taj looked more confident in his post moves, as he made his decisions more quickly, without hesitation, to great effect. His jumper was also WET. He seemingly couldn’t miss on the midrange jumpers that he’s traditionally been merely average on. Now, it’s obviously one game in the preseason, so it’s both a small sample and a meaningless game, but if this Taj is the one the Bulls get over 82 games and the playoffs- watch out. Oh, Taj also did this (spoiler: it was awesome):
  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0TGp2K_8veU
  • Luol Deng is officially on #contractyear watch. Deng took 16 shots in just 25 minutes of floor time to go with an additional 8 free throw attempts. Not only did he get a lot of shots up, but he also looked Derrick Rose off on a potential alley oop lob that would have blown the roof off the arena, despite it being a home game for Indiana. I really, really hope this isn’t a sign of selfish things to come for Lu. If it is, I’ll be the first one aboard the trade Deng train- especially since I think there’s just no way the Bulls re-sign him this offseason.

Projecting the NBA using xWARP: Philadelphia 76ers

Projecting the 2013–14 Sixers is a nightmare. The Philadelphia squad looks, quite clearly, to be tanking the season. Nearly all of the players on their roster are being thrown into roles for which they are terribly ill-suited. Thaddeus Young: Best player on an NBA team? James Anderson: anything more than on an off-the-bench guard? Michael Carter-Williams: starting point-guard in the NBA? These are not questions that any of these players should be asked to answer, but the Sixers aren’t trying to win and here we are.

The trouble is, when projecting future performance in xRAPM, most players tend to occupy similar roles from year to year and thus it’s much more likely that their rating by xRAPM- or any flavor of adjusted-plus minus, for that matter- will look pretty close to the prior year, but when you ask players to do radically more than they have traditionally been asked to do, then their overall impact is very likely to suffer. As a result of this, I would take the win projection that Nathan Walker’s numbers with my minutes estimates produce (shown below) with a giant helping- like a dried up ocean’s worth- of salt. Additionally, the Sixers weird roster construction inevitably throws off what would be more accurate wins projections for the rest of the league. As a result, at the end of all my projections, I will probably write a post with my own subjective- but informed by the stats — guesses as to where teams will come out in terms of records next year. In any event, what do the (probably very wrong) numbers look like?

After adjusting for the wider league context, the Sixers’ projected Net Rating is -3.22, rather than the -2.11 shown above. A -3.22 Net Rating results in a projected 32 win team. Frankly, I would be shocked if the Sixers were able to win even half that many games. It seems that Vegas agrees with my subjective assessment, as the Over/Under for this year’s Philly squad is set at 16.5 wins.

The reason the Sixers rate out so well in this analysis is that they have a team full of guys that in their prior, less demanding roles were fully capable of being replacement level or above. These Sixers have very few players who would have projected as sub-replacement level, had they stayed in their prior roles, and their rookies, Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel- both of whom will likely be expected to play heavy minutes — actually project to be near average level players. Oh, and Thad Young, as it turns out, is pretty darn good, though certainly not someone you’d want as your best player. It’s worth watching whether xRAPM’s relative love for this Sixers team is as off as Vegas, the rest of the basketball-watching world, and I, subjectively, think it is. I’ll also be watching to see if the Sixers trade Thaddeus Young, in order to go with the full-on, totally unabashed tank.

Projecting the NBA using xWARP: Portland Trailblazers

The Portland Trailblazers got better this summer. They added a solid defensive center to pair with LaMarcus Aldridge, in Robin Lopez. They snagged a talented, if unproductive, young big man to back up Aldridge, in Thomas Robinson and they grabbed solid swingman Dorell Wright. Finally, they drafted C.J. McCollum and signed Mo Williams- because they want to have ALL of the small combo guardy point guards. Basically, the Blazers improved their bench, which was terrible, to the point where it is downright serviceable now. How good should we expect the Blazers to be next year, then, based on the Walker numbers and my minutes estimates?

Portland’s projected Net Rating, adjusted for context, is -1.39, which would make them a 37 win team. This projection would place them at 11th in the Western Conference, though the difference between Portland’s projected 37 wins and the 42 projected wins of the 7th and 8th rated teams is marginal, so Portland’s improved bench has put them firmly on the Western conference’s playoff bubble. It will be interesting to see whether they can make it in to the postseason, and whether merely qualifying for late April play will be enough to satisfy LaMarcus Aldridge’s allegedly professed desire to play for a better team.

Speaking of Aldridge, he projects, unsurprisingly, to be the Blazers’ best player, by far. Dame Lillard should continue to be quite solid as a second year player. C.J. McCollum, Mo Williams, and Thomas Robinson — mentioned earlier — all project to be replacement level or worse, although they will still be an improvement over last year’s downright terrible bench crew. Robin Lopez should be very helpful. I’ve projected him for only 1900 minutes, but really, the Blazers ought to play him more. He’s much better than any other option they have at center. It’s a possibility that playing a 7 footer too many minutes could be dangerous for health reasons- just ask Joakim Noah’s busted up feet — but Lopez played over 2100 minutes last year with no problems. He could certainly stand to play a few more minutes per game over the 26 minutes a night he played last season. I’d recommend that he play 30 minutes a night. It might only change their projection by one win over the course of the 82 game season, but given that these Blazers are right on the bubble of the playoffs, one extra win could be hugely important.

The Blazers also have to hope that the talent that made Thomas Robinson a top 5 draft pick shows out next year and his projected xRAPM of -2.3 is an underestimate of what he’ll produce for Portland next year. Portland’s probably not the best bet to make the playoffs next year, but there’s reason for hope and maybe that’s enough. What do you think, Blazers fans?

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Projecting the NBA using xWARP: Milwaukee Bucks

The Milwaukee Bucks are, frankly, an oddly constructed team. They have too many centers with similar skill sets and the talent to demand minutes and too few answers on the wing. They also made a series of strange decisions in the offseason. This summer, the Bucks swapped Monta Ellis for OJ Mayo in free agency- a downgrade, however slight- and traded Brandon Jennings for Brandon Knight- a larger drop in talent. In addition, the Bucks went out and gave Zaza Pachulia a sizeable contract, despite the fact that they had several perfectly capable backup centers behind franchise center, Larry Sanders, including Ekpe Udoh and Gustavo Ayon. As a result of that contract, Ayon was let go and the Atlanta Hawks jumped at the opportunity to grab a player of similar impact to Zaza for a much cheaper price. It was a really strange move, in a summer full of them. The Bucks also added another volume per minute shot taker in Gary Neal, though his overall impact has traditionally been lacking. They also lost Mike Dunleavy Jr. and J.J. Redick in free agency to the greener pastures of Chicago and Los Angeles, respectively- though in the case of Redick they were at least able to turn it into a sign and trade and get a couple of second round picks. The Bucks also, weirdly, traded a helpful wing stopper on a cheapo contract, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, to Sacramento for a couple second round picks. Where do the numbers, courtesy of Nathan Walker and my own minutes projections, say the Bucks’ confusing offseason has left them?

After adjusting for the wider league context, the Bucks’ team Net Rating per game is -3, which translates to a roughly 33 win team. The Bucks and their management, perpetually chasing that 8th seed, will no doubt be disappointed if they only win 33 games this year. On the plus side, if they do land in the lottery, this season would provide them an opportunity to find an actual difference maker in the vaunted 2014 draft who could, when paired with Larry Sanders’s dynamite defense, propel them out of the muck of the Eastern Conference’s playoff-lottery bubble.

As far as potential bright spots go for this likely lottery club, the Bucks will get another year of Sanders blocking or intimidating everyone who dares enter the lane against him and rookie Nate Wolters should be a pretty solid rookie, per minute, according the the Hickory High projections. If the Bucks play Wolters more minutes than I’ve projected for him, they may be helped a bit, as he looks to be more likely to help matters than, say, Gary Neal. In addition, Ersan Ilyasova is awesome and more people show know that. Three point shooting bigs who can also rebound well are very rare indeed. Three point shooting bigs who can rebound well AND look just like James Franco? Well, there’s only one of those and that’s our man Ersan. Enjoy and appreciate him, you guys.

Three Players Ready To Make A Huge Jump With Increased Minutes

The following is a sponsored post from Fanduel.com.

With just five players on the court at all times for each team, perhaps the toughest thing to predict will be how a player will handle a huge increase in minutes. As the 2013–2014 season approaches, both fans of specific teams and fantasy basketball owners are trying to determine who might be ready to turn the corner. According to statistics, new teammates and a better opportunity, here are three players ready to make a leap.

Andre Drummond

No one has ever doubted that Andre Drummond is one of the most gifted basketball talents to come along in quite some time, but there were some intangible question marks surrounding the rookie last season. Fantasy basketball owners were scared off by his perceptions about his work ethic, his toughness and his lack of a shooting touch. He still can’t make free throws, but his value in limited action last season was superb. If the Pistons really want to make the playoffs, Drummond will have to play more than 20 minutes a game. If he can keep up his 21.6 PER with more minutes, it could be a great sophomore season for the big man.

Jimmy Butler

Butler is the perfect example of the new age 3 and D type of player ever NBA team is looking for. He can knock down the 3-point shot (especially from the corner), and he is an excellent defender at multiple positions. He and Luol Deng can be matchup nightmares for opposing teams, especially as they play together more often in 2013–2014. Year two he made a pretty big leap, but now that he will likely start the majority of the games this season, he could be ready to fully emerge as a true talent.

Eric Bledsoe

Most people have already counted out the Phoenix Suns this season, and on paper, they appear to just not have enough talent for the playoffs. However, one bright spot for them heading into the season is their new point guard Eric Bledsoe. After being stuck in the shadows of Chris Paul in Los Angeles, the athletic point guard gets a chance to play some major minutes for a rebuilding club. He is coming off an extremely efficient season, despite hovering around just 20 minutes a game. Expect outstanding offensive and defensive numbers out of him in fantasy basketball this season.

Projecting the NBA using xWARP: Denver Nuggets

The Denver Nuggets had a no good, very bad offseason. They lost their very talented GM and fired their very good coach. They lost their best wing defender, and arguably their best overall player, to the team that ousted them from the postseason. They lost a couple other helpful players like Kosta Koufos and Corey Brewer. They added a number of players who simply shouldn’t be expected to be very helpful- like Randy Foye, Darell Arthur, and to a lesser extent, J.J. Hickson. How does it all add up?

After adjusting for the league-wide context (subtracting 1.112 from the .15 net rating shown above), the Nuggets total Net Rating is roughly -.96. That translates to a 38 win squad. Given that they have the strongest homecourt advantage in the league and the schedule they actually will play, the Nuggs project to be a 40 win team. Regardless of whether the first or the latter number proves to be more correct, the Nuggets appear to be in line for a staggering fall from their 57 win record of last year. The takeaway is that losing Andre Iguodala, Kosta Koufos, and Corey Brewer and replacing them with much worse players is going to really hurt the Nuggets this year. It should not shock anyone at all to see them fall all the way out of the playoffs. Hopefully for Denver’s fans they have a plan going forward to right the ship that’s seemingly lost its way.

Image from Keith Allison via Flickr.

Projecting the NBA using xWARP: Toronto Raptors

The Toronto Raptors had a great offseason. First, and probably most important for the longterm, they hired Masai Ujiri as their new GM. Ujiri has developed quite a reputation for being one of the league’s finest executives. As is often the case with what seem like great GMs, though, he’s made a lot his hay thus far by duping the New York Knicks into dumb trades.

First, the Knicks gave up a whole host of useful players- Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Wilson Chandler, and Timofey Mosgov –and a 2014 first round pick all to get Carmelo a few months earlier than they could have gotten him in free agency. That was all our man Masai.

Then, in the Raptors second great move of this summer, in his first few days as the new man at the wheel in T-Dot, Ujiri unloaded Andrea Bargnani’s albatross of a contract and convinced the Knicks to include a first round pick and a couple of second rounders with deadeye shooter Steve Novak and Marcus Camby’s contract, all for the right to be the team that eats the remainder of Bargnani’s turd sandwich of a contract. Gotta hand it to Masai, he knows which teams to call when it’s fleecing time. Usually, that means the Knicks- and Knick fans thought this would end when Isaiah was fired. Ha! What’s the result of all the Raptors maneuvering, according the Walker xRAPM projections and my minutes allocation and context adjustment?

Pretty good, Raps fans. Pretty, pretty good. The Raptors project to be just very slightly better than the new-look Pistons, but they both project to win 39 games- after adjusting the win totals so that they properly sum to 1230 leaguewide or, more accurately, so that total xRAPM sums to 0, as it must by definition. The Raps and Pistons project to finish 7th and 8th, respectively, in the East. Right on their heels should be Cleveland and Washington- though I projected Washington prior to the news of Emeka Okafor’s indefinite absence due to a neck injury, so maybe they’ll be out of the running, as he was one of their stronger expected xRAPM contributors. Looking at the injuries Washington has already suffered and the relatively injury prone Cleveland roster, I’d say that if I had to bet on it things, the Raptors and Pistons seem to be by far the best bets of these 4 teams to snag those last two playoff spots.

How do the Raptors look to get it done? Well, they’ve got a strong starting five lead by the unheralded, but dynamic xRAPM combo of Amir Johnson and Kyle Lowry, who both project to be very, very good players. Rudy Gay projects to be slightly above average, as ever. Jonas Valanciunas projects to improve significantly, getting him close to average level xRAPM, at a very young age — which bodes well for his future. Landry Fields is also around, looking likely to be very average overall and remaining laughably overpaid for that very average play. I hope he’s sending a portion of those checks to a charity of Steve Nash’s choosing. DeMar DeRozan will help and he’ll excite with his flashy play, but he still projects to be a bit below average and he’ll probably never live up to his own rather large contract. It’ll be interesting to see if Masai Ujiri attempts to move either of those last two. Even if Ujiri makes no moves, though, this current Raptors roster has a very good chance at playing games in late April. Rejoice, Raptors fans!

Image via wikimedia commons.