Projecting the NBA using xWARP: New Orleans Pelicans

The New Orleans Pelicans were a nice little team this past year- complete with promise, some solid young role players and a neophyte, likely franchise altering big man in the fold. They looked like a team that would add a top 6 selection to pair with their star, Anthony Davis, and later have another likely lottery pick in the much ballyhooed 2014 draft. That would have been one way to go. Many think it was the right way to go. It’s not the way the Pellies (I got you, Zach Lowe!) decided to go, though. Instead, they opted to cash their chips in now and bet on a player in Jrue Holiday who is no doubt talented, but may not be worth the price New Orleans paid to grab him.

The draft rights to Nerlens Noel, whom many observers believed to be the draft’s most talented and promising player, along with their selection in the 2014 draft seems like quite a high price for a very good player who is not in the elite tier of his position. On the other hand, the Pelicans got someone everyone knows is a good player, and there’s some value in that.

In addition, the Pelicans nabbed Tyreke Evans from Sacramento. Evans famously is one of very few players to ever average 20 pts, 5 assists, and 5 rebounds as a rookie. There are all sorts of problems with relying on counting stats per game, but anytime you’ve accomplished something only LeBron James, Michael Jordan, and Oscar Robinson ever did- you’re in good company. The problem for Evans is what came after all that promise in his first season. He was, basically, worse the next two years, before finally reaching roughly the same level of performance as his rookie year, last year. The Pelicans are betting that he’s finally got things figured out and he’s set to take off in new surroundings. If he does, his roughly $11 million annual salary will seem like a bargain on a similar level to that of Celtics point man Rajon Rondo and maybe to a lesser extent, Stephen Curry’s absolute steal of a deal. In order for Evans to reach that point, though, he will have to keep up or surpass his offensive contributions of the past and improve significantly from his, frankly, below-average to bad defense.

There’s hope for these Pellies, though, to play in the playoffs. I have them projected as the ninth best team in the West for next year, but the playoff bubble is also subject to the vagaries of injuries, luck, and teams and / or players surprisingly outperforming their expected level of performance. This is a squad that could easily squeak into next year’s playoffs out West. So how do the projections say they will likely get there?

Note: These numbers have to be adjusted for the context of the entire league average, which projected to be roughly +1.11 per team. That’s impossible; average must xRAPM leaguewide must, by definition, sum to 0, so adjusting the Pelicans down to -.69 from their previously unadjusted expected point differential of .42, we get a team expected to win roughly 39 games. That’s about as bubbly as bubbly gets for playoff hopes.

According to Nathan Walker’s numbers Pelicans look to get things done with a team deep with slightly to nicely above average players in the starting lineup, lead by Davis, Ryan Anderson, and Holiday. Tyreke Evans also projects to be above average but not as far above it as you’d like from a guy making the salary he’s slated to make and certainly not as much as those gaudy counting stats from his rookie year would suggest is his potential impact.

The Pelicans also need a relatively healthy year from Eric Gordon, which they project to get here. Gordon’s no world-beater but he’s above average, which is much more than can be said for the sub-replacement contributors behind him in the guard rotation- Austin Rivers and Anthony Morrow. If New Orleans is to really compete for that bottom rung of the playoff ladder, a healthy Gordon is probably a necessity. Here’s hoping he can finally stay on the floor and show more of the talent that made him the centerpiece of the Chris Paul trade for New Orleans.

Image from Keith Allison via Flickr.

Projecting the NBA using xWARP: Minnesota Timberwolves

The Minnesota Timberwolves haven’t made the playoffs in nine seasons. They’ve likely had the talent to make it over the last two years, but bad luck with injuries to their two most important players, Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, have, unfortunately, blown those hopes to hell. Love and Rubio have combined to play just 171 games of 296 games the two of them, together, could have possibly played over the last two years. Next year, as it always does, provides another opportunity for the ‘Wolves to crack the playoffs for the first time in ten seasons. What do the numbers suggest Minnesota fans can likely expect?

This ‘Wolves squad has 45 win talent, without context. On the other hand, the numbers, as I ran them initially, gave each team, on average, 1.11 points over the required sum of 0 total net points across the league- given that basketball is a zero sum game. Every player making a positive contribution comes, in +/- and thus xRAPM, at the expense of another player or set of players being debited for those positive contributions coming against them. As a result, you can adjust the strength of each team simply by subtracting out those 1.12 points from their total Contribution per Game. When it doing this with the Timberwolves, it makes them a +.31 team. Plugging in to the simple MOV to wins equation (2.7*MOV+41 = Wins), the Timberwolves project as a 42 win team. This jives with their projection in the big schedule spreadsheet, as a 42 win team, when factoring in their strength, the strength of their opponents, and their home court advantage.

Kevin Love

How does Minnesota get there? Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio carry most of the weight, as any even casual Timberwolves observer would expect. Their health is, obviously, of paramount importance for the ‘Wolves to reach their postseason goal. Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin, Chase Budinger, Corey Brewer, and Derrick Williams are the lesser lights ranging from slightly above average to slightly below, though, they’re all solidly above replacement and so they should all be helping. Also of note, Shabazz Muhammad projects to be pretty okay as a rookie, by the Hickory High rookie projections, and as a result, he’s an above replacement contributor by these numbers.

For my part, I’ll be rooting for the ‘Wolves. Their fans have dealt with the disappointment of David Kahn’s draft record, the tantalizing frustration of waiting for Ricky Rubio to come over from Spain, and the scuttling of the last two promising seasons due to Love’s recurring injuries and Rubio’s torn ACL. The players, Love especially, must be just as frustrated, if not more so. This is a team that, health permitting, should compete for the right to test themselves against the Thunder or the Rockets or the Clippers in the first round of next seasons’ playoffs. Hopefully the Timberwolves will finally be playing come late April.

Images via wikimedia commons.

Projected Wins Adjusted to Match the NBA’s Zero Sum Reality

I mentioned before that my initial run through of the projected wins for each team overestimated wins, due to the xRAPM projections combined with my minutes projections projecting league average xRAPM to be +1.11 per game, which is impossible. The average total xRAPM per team across the league must, by definition, equal zero. Any team’s positive xRAPM- because it is a plus-minus statistic- comes at the expense of its opponents’ xRAPM, so across the 30 teams, things must sum to 0. In order to account for this, I adjusted the net rating of each team to reflect the +1.11 initial average and reset the league average to 0. This also results in team wins summing properly to the 1230 available in any given year. Below is a chart with the adjusted net ratings and win totals. After that, those win totals are placed into the context of each conference, so you can see which teams project to be in the playoffs.

Projected Eastern Conference Standings

1. Miami — 57–25

2. Brooklyn — 55–27

3. Chicago — 53–29

4. Indiana — 49–33

5. New York — 44–38

6. Atlanta — 43–39

7. Toronto — 39–43

8. Detroit — 39–43

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

9. Cleveland — 38–44

10. Washington — 36–46

11. Milwaukee — 33–49

12. Philadelphia — 32–50

13. Charlotte — 32–50

14. Boston — 27–55

15. Orlando — 25–57

__________________________________

Projected Western Conference Standings

1. Oklahoma City — 57–25

2. Houston — 56–26

3. Los Angeles Clippers — 53–29

4. Memphis — 51–31

5. Spurs — 50–32

6. Golden State — 47–35

7. Minnesota — 42–40

8. Dallas — 42–40

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

9. New Orleans — 39–43

10. Denver — 38–44

11. Portland — 37–45

12. Utah — 33–49

13. Sacramento — 32–50

14. Los Angeles Lakers — 28–54

15. Phoenix — 26–56

__________________________________

I think these results pass the smell test, with the notable exception of Philadelphia inexplicably projecting to win 32 games. Let me know what you think. I’ll be continuing to post team breakdowns, with the unadjusted numbers (all of my graphics showing the numbers are already done and it would be a pain to redo them all), though I’ll be sure to make note of the need to adjust the numbers to account for the +1.11 average in those future posts.

Image from Keith Allison via Flickr.

Projecting the NBA using xWARP: Dallas Mavericks

The Dallas Mavericks missed the playoffs for the first time in a dozen years last year. Last year’s roster was constructed using something of a holding pattern while the Mavs waited for the big fish in the 2012–13 free agent class, namely Dwight Howard and, to a lesser extent, Chris Paul. Team owner Mark Cuban loaded the roster with 1 year contracts for players with whom the team was more than willing to part, which is just what they did at the start of free agency. Unfortunately for the Mavericks, Chris Paul stayed home in Los Angeles and Dwight Howard took his act, along with his considerable talents, to Houston. At that point, the Mavericks had a choice between another year of 1 year contracts and pursuing a marquee free agent in the 2014 class- the year a certain guy wearing #6 in Miami hits the open market, again- or signing the best players with whom they could fill their roster.

After asking the face of the franchise, Dirk Nowitzki, for his patience for one year, the Mavericks opted not to ask him for further patience as he reaches the twilight of his career. Good for the Mavericks. They’ve built a team that should compete for one of the West’s final two playoff slots and Dirk Nowitzki deserves to be playing meaningful basketball come late April 2014. Plus, Nowitzki is good enough, even at this late stage of his career, that with a little bit of help he’s capable of carrying a team to a playoff series win. Good on Dallas management and owner Mark Cuban for giving him the chance to do just that. So just how much help has Dirk been given and what, exactly, do the numbers say we should roughly expect?

The Mavericks have the talent of a 45 win team, roughly. After plugging their projected relative strength in versus their opponents’ and accounting for home court advantage, my big spreadsheet predicted them to win 42 games, on average. The Western Conference, man. Most of the Mavs’ projected contributions come, unsurprisingly, from Dirk. Mavs management, though, has done an incredible job of getting players who project to be at least at or above replacement level. There are no other stars paired with Dirk, but this is a deep team with two very helpful scoring wings- Vince Carter and the, somewhat unfairly, much maligned Monta Ellis- surrounding the big German. They also added a point guard, in Calderon, who can actually get Dirk the ball in his favorite spots and knock down the open looks Dirk creates, unlike last year’s hot mess at the lead guard spot.

It’s a roster that fits together well; so well, in fact, that given head coach Rick Carlisle’s usual brilliance, this squad could easily out perform that 45 win talent. The Chicago Bulls have made a habit these last few years out of pairing teams that fit well with a brilliant coach to outperform the talent of the squad. I wouldn’t be shocked to see these Mavs run a similar formula, only instead of dominating on defense like the Bulls, this Dallas squad could put together some truly elite offensive stuff, provided Carlisle can rein in Monta Ellis’s worst instincts- a burning desire to shoot off-balance, off-the-dribble 20-footers, mostly.

Image from chrishimself via Flickr.

Projecting the NBA using xWARP: Washington Wizards

I’ve addressed the biggest problem with the xWARP projections by doing my exhaustive look at each team’s schedule using probability to project an expected number of wins. As a result, all of the projected wins data is already out there for you to look through, but I enjoy writing about each team and, I think, people like to read these looks at each team through Nathan Walker’s projected xRAPM. Plus, in writing about each team’s makeup, it’ll be more apparent how I arrived at the relative predicted strength of each team. This was represented as “Net Rating” in the big spreadsheet, but on the team posts, its the summation of Contribution per Game (“Cont. / Gm.” in the charts). I still think this is a useful exercise, so I’m going to continue doing it. Today, I’ll be taking a look at a team many people have pegged for an Eastern Conference playoff spot, the Washington Wizards.

The Wizards look pretty much as expected, at first blush. They’ve got a Net Rating or Total Cont. / Gm. of -.88 which makes them roughly a 39 win team, all else equal. All else is, however, not equal. It never is in the NBA. Strength of schedule does matter somewhat, especially for teams on the cusp of a playoff spot. The Wizards projected win total using the log5 method with the net ratings of their opponents projects them to win only 37 games. 2 wins may not seem like a lot, but, again, it matters a great deal for teams jockeying for those final couple playoff spots in each Conference.

John Wall projects to be quite good, by the projected xRAPM numbers, basically repeating his performance from last year, only with more minutes played. If Wall can actually make a leap ahead of his performance last year, the Wizards will more firmly entrench themselves as a playoff team. Two of Washington’s more important players, Nene and Emeka Okafor, both project to either regress and/or decline, with Nene having the bigger expected dropoff. These declines somewhat offset the expected increase in minutes for Wall, and here we are. The Wizards may find themselves on the outside looking in on the playoffs, again.

Subjectively, my initial thought was that Bradley Beal will prove to be much better than his projected xRAPM suggests, and with Wall’s potential for improvement, this 37 win projection may prove much too low. Beal is so young and the talent is so clearly there that it’s hard to believe he won’t be a better than league average player next year by xRAPM. On the other hand, Beal’s xRAPM last year was -2.0, owing mostly to subpar defense, so a -.7 total xRAPM would represent a pretty large improvement, on its own. Maybe Nathan Walker’s on to something with his numbers. In any event, the statistical projection game is fraught with caveats galore, so as always, take these pieces for what they are: a fun exercise in educated guessing at what next year’s season holds.

Image from Keith Allison via Flickr

An Exhaustive Probabilistic Look at Every Team’s NBA schedule

Following up on my last post, I decided to leap ahead a bit and use the projected season level team point differentials and home court advantage numbers from Evan Zamir — which show that not all home court advantages are made equal — in order to predict the probabilities of a team winning each game on its schedule, based on the strength of the opponent and whether the game was home or away. The above spreadsheet is the result of all that work. The column marked “Log5 W%” represents the probability a team will win a given game, using the log5 method. The column marked “Pyth W%” is the same, only using the projected point differential-marked “Game MOV” in the spreadsheet- in order to use the Pythagorean formula to determine the probability of a win in that game.

Caveats, of course, abound. The minutes projections that I made could be wrong, skewing the projected strength of each team. The xRAPM projections from Nathan Walker and the rookie projections from Hickory High will be imperfect- they are just projections, afterall. In addition, teams may play better or worse for a stretch than their season level strength might indicate- for example, the Lakers will likely be much worse in the early part of their schedule when they are likely to be without Kobe, despite all of his tireless work to get back in time for the start of the season. Kobe is Kobe, but Kobe is also human and a torn achilles is one of the toughest injuries from which to return that exists. So take these numbers with the large dose of salt that they deserve. But, you know, have fun with them.

Sidenote: the Sixers will almost certainly not win 33 games or anywhere close to that many- I’m not sure what to do about that. The issue, I think, is that xRAPM basically measures impact on the court- but within the role that the player played- and can’t really account for changing roles. A lot of players on Philadelphia’s roster are going to be thrust into roles for which they are simply ill-equipped, whether due to inexperience or lack of talent, and therefore, I’d be shocked if you saw them perform at the level they are projected to perform by the numbers. This includes their new rookies, Nerlens Noel and Michael Carter Williams, who both project to be solid rookies, according to the Hickory High regression. Those projections are based on a regression of past performers and I think it’s pretty fair to say that the average rookie in the time frame during which the regression covered simply did not have anywhere near the level of free reign- and therefore on-court responsibility — that Noel and MCW will have this coming season.

Image from aidanmorgan via Flickr.

Addressing a problem with the xWARP projections

In calculating the xWARP projections I’ve been doing, I noticed a worrying problem. The total number of wins projected for each team appeared to be roughly 7% too high. There are only 1230 games, and thus, 1230 wins available for the 30 teams in the NBA to win. In doing my xWARP projections, I had just been posting the win totals as I did each team.

Last night, I finally got around to running the numbers on all of the remaining teams I’d yet to post and summed up team wins for the whole league. Unfortunately, total team wins summed to roughly 1318 wins, which is obviously way too many. There are a number of ways to deal with this problem. The lazy, easy way would be to simply multiply the win totals of each team by 1230/1318 or roughly .933. The top teams then have 55 projected wins and the bottom dwellers would be in the mid to high 20s in wins. This solves the problem, but it doesn’t seem that consistent with reality, so I’ve decided to go another way.

I’ve hinted at wanting to do this before, but my current plan is to go through each and every game on the schedule and utilizing the projected MOV for each team (in the spreadsheets it’s the total Contribution / Game) plus Evan Zamir’s ridge regression work on homecourt advantage, I plan to figure out the win probabilities of each of the 1230 regular season games and then use those probabilities to determine total team win totals. I will then post the updated results. I will be updating the posts that already exist to reflect changes in team win totals after this is all done, and I will also do a master post with the full league projections.

I’m bummed out that the math didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped, but I’m excited to go through the schedule in such detail. The other good thing is that doing things this way acts as a built in strength of schedule adjustment for teams with more or less difficult schedules. Thanks for reading and for your patience while I work out the kinks of all this.

Image from gammaman via Flickr.

Projecting the NBA using xWARP: Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavs had a very interesting offseason. They surprised many when they used their first overall pick on Canadian forward Anthony Bennett. After that, they made a couple of interesting signings. First, they made a priority of snagging veteran combo guard, and sixth man of the year candidate last year, Jarrett Jack. Later, they grabbed swingman Earl Clark from the Lakers, for reasons that remain unclear, save for the possibility that Mike Brown just liked Earl Clark a whole lot in the five games he got to coach him in Los Angeles, though you certainly wouldn’t guess that judging by the number of minutes Brown played Clark. Whatever the reason for the deal, Earl Clark is just not very good at NBA level basketball, so the Cavs signing him for 2 years, $9 million doesn’t make much sense. It’s not a killer deal, in that it has very little effect on the Cavs cap sheet going forward, but there had to be better options to give $4.5 million per annum than Earl Clark. After that strange signing, Cleveland made a very calculated bet on Andrew Bynum’s balky knees, due to his game-tilting impact when he’s able to remain on the floor. I’ve argued before that it was a smart bet. Let’s see how the Cavs project for next year after their offseason moves.

At 41 projected wins, the Cavs look to be firmly within the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. One thing to consider, though, is that these projections are schedule independent, thus far, and therefore, don’t account for the fact that the Cavs will be playing in the very strong Eastern Conference Central Division. The Central features legitimate contenders in the Pacers and Bulls, along with three other teams, including Cleveland, who should all be in the mix for a spot at the bottom of the Eastern conference playoffs. As a result, things might prove a bit more difficult for Cleveland than, say, the Wizards, who really only have the Heat and Hawks to worry about within their division, with what should be easier games against the lowly Bobcats and the rebuilding Magic. In a tight playoff race, those few easy games could be difference makers.

The Cavs signing of Bynum, based on this projection, looks very solid, as in 1500 minutes, he projects to produce 6.08 wins above replacement by xRAPM (xWARP). Nathan Walker’s projection for Bynum’s xRAPM performance is +3.4, which represents a relatively gentle drop off from his +3.9 in his last season (2011–12). That number may prove too optimistic, but I don’t think it’s totally unrealistic either.

One more thing of note with respect to this Cavs team. Their “best” player by conventional wisdom and the eye test is decidedly not their best player when viewing things through the xRAPM lens. Kyrie Irving is a good player by xRAPM, but he is not the superstar he is labeled by other metrics. This is basically entirely because of his defensive performance, which is, to put it nicely, very poor. Last year, Kyrie was a +2.96 on offense, while giving most of it back by putting up a very bad -2.04 on defense, for an overall xRAPM of +.92. On the bright side, many point guards struggle with defense and then improve as they gain experience and learn their responsibilities. Kyrie projects to improve in overall xRAPM to +1.7 and even that may be underestimating things if Mike Brown can impart all of the defensive expertise inside that head of his.

Dan Gilbert stated at the draft lottery that he wanted to avoid another trip to that most hopeful and depressing night on the NBA calendar, and it appears his front office has done enough to get the job done — provided Andrew Bynum, Andy Varejao, and Kyrie Irving stay reasonably healthy, admittedly a dodgy proposition.

Image from edrost88 via Flickr

Projecting the NBA using xWARP: Detroit Pistons

This offseason, the Pistons upgraded. They also seemingly ignored fit and spacing, which might hamper them reaching their maximum offensive potential. Ultimately, though, they decided that’s less important than simple improvement. This was a team destined for another lottery appearance without major talent upgrades. In adding Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, the Pistons have greatly improved their overall base of talent. So what sort of return can Detroit fans expect on that upgraded roster?

The addition of Josh Smith was, frankly, huge for the Pistons. Despite his possibly troublesome fit with the existing Pistons front court of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, Josh Smith is a difference making player. He’s one of those rare players in the NBA: a positive contributor on both ends, even with his troublesome propensity for long jumpers. Smith’s projected xRAPM, according to Nathan Walker’s numbers, is a +3.4, which may be a tad optimistic, given those fit issues. On the other hand, it’s also possible that Smith, Drummond, and Monroe will simply share all of the big man minutes and Michael Curry won’t ask J-Smoove to play on the wing, where his worst impulses are more likely to get the better of him. For Pistons fans, that has to be the hope.

Brandon Jennings should improve a lot over last year’s (-2.5) lackluster campaign and return to something more closely approaching his previous career tendency of hovering around the league average of +0 xRAPM. Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond both still look to be great contributors. The rest of the Pistons roster is pretty unremarkable. It’s a supporting cast of nearly all above replacement, but below average players. That big man trio, though, is enough to account for nearly 27 projected wins above replacement, which gets you most of the way to the 42 wins these Pistons project to win, given that a team of all replacement players would, on average, win about 7 games out of 82. I wrote at the time that it happened that I couldn’t figure out why the Pistons signed Josh Smith, but now it seems perfectly obvious: to be a better, more talented team, this year. Good on Joe Dumars for building a team worth watching and that should finally see his Pistons playing meaningful games again in April.

Image from Gameface-Photos via Flickr.

Projecting the NBA using xWARP: Golden State Warriors

After a great, exciting regular season and post-season run the Golden State Warriors’ front office decided not to rest on its laurels. This offseason, they made a big move to dump bloated contracts plus a couple future first round draft picks to the Jazz in order to free up the cap space necessary to sign versatile swingman Andre Iguodala. Will that move be enough to propel the Warriors towards the top of the Western Conference?

It appears not. The Warriors project to be better than their 47 win record of last year, clocking in at a projected 50 wins here. Three wins of improvement is actually underselling the Warriors projected improvement a bit. Last year, the Warriors had the point differential or margin of victory of a 44 win team. So really a 50 win projection for these Warriors represents a 6 win improvement in quality over the team they were last year. That sounds about right for a team adding a player of Iguodala’s quality, while already being a good team to start.

There are a couple of reasons the Warriors don’t project to shoot up the Western Conference ranks, aside from their overachieving last year relative to their point differential. David Lee and Stephen Curry both project to regress a bit from their numbers last year, according to Nathan Walker’s projected xRAPM numbers. Steph’s projected to clock in at +3.9, compared with a +4.2 last year, whereas Lee is projected to produce just a +.7 compared to his much better +1.4 of last year. This is becoming a bit of a theme for teams that had their best players play very well last year, and it should be. Statistically speaking, it’s more likely than not that a player coming off a career season (or even a very good one relative to their prior performance) will take a small step back towards the mean of their previous career performance than it is that they will produce the same numbers or better.

Additionally, the Warriors lost Jarrett Jack from last year’s squad and have replaced his spot in the rotation with… Toney Douglas? Douglas projects to be an above replacement contributor, to be sure, but he doesn’t project to be as helpful as Jack was. Jack’s xRAPM last year was -.7, whereas Douglas projects to be worse at -1.1. The loss of Jack, expected regression to the mean for the duo of Lee and Curry, added to the fact that this was a club closer to a 44 win team last year than a 47 win team, all conspire to make it seem likely that the Warriors will disappoint the lofty expectations that have arrived with adding Iguodala to a team that already had a nice playoff run last year. On the other hand, 50 wins is certainly nothing to feel shame over and Stephen Curry could always go nova again in the playoffs and lay waste to teams that appear better on paper, so take heart in that Dubs fans.

Image from Keith Allison via Flickr.