Projecting the NBA using xWARP: Atlanta Hawks

In all of the shuffling around of the offseason, the Hawks quietly made one of the best moves of the entire free agency period. After losing Josh Smith to the Detroit Pistons, the Hawks went out and signed a superior, albeit less dynamic, player for a much shorter, cheaper contract than the one the Pistons gave to the enigmatic Smith. Yes, I’m talking about Paul Millsap and his two year, $19 million deal. Millsap has been an advanced stats wunderkind for years, and last year was no exception. He posted an exceptional +5.4 xRAPM, good for 7th in the entire league and far outstripping Josh Smith’s also very good +3.4 xRAPM. So yeah, the Hawks made out pretty well, if you believe at all in the value of xRAPM.

After the Bucks stupidly overpaid ($5.2 million a year for three years???) for former Hawks big man Zaza Pachulia, who is, in terms of overall impact, a very similar player to Gustavo Ayon, whom the Bucks were forced to waive, the Hawks capitalized on this foolishness and claimed Ayon, a solid rotation big man, off waivers for the relatively piddling salary of $1.5 million a year.

The Hawks then let the market dictate Jeff Teague’s price and matched his restricted free agent offer sheet that he had signed with those same Bucks, rather than bidding against themselves and overpaying the young point guard. Basically, all summer long, the Hawks got value. So after all that how do the Hawks shape up for next year?

The Hawks look like a very solid, mid-level playoff team. 46 wins represents a slight improvement over their 44 win season last year.

A few things to note: Paul Millsap and Al Horford project to regress back towards their previous levels of performance a bit, as is the case with basically all players in the league who had better than their career average xRAPM last year under Nathan Walker’s numbers. Second, I had no way of projecting rookie point guard Dennis Schroeder’s performance for next year, as he was an international player and therefore Hickory-High had no projection for him. I read about him and scouts’ opinions of him and a fair amount of people view him at the outset of his career to be much like Darren Collison. So for the sake of simplicity I projected him to have the same xRAPM as Collison had in his rookie year in 2009–10. As far as minutes go, it’s harder to project minutes for rookies who look to play a fair amount, given that they don’t have previous seasons worth of data to make educated guesses using. What I did for Schroeder, then, was to look at his role, and try to give a reasonable guess for how many minutes he’ll play. For the record, after watching him play in Summer League, I think Schroeder will actually be better than Collison, even as a rookie. I’m not the only one, Schroeder views himself as a player similar to Rajon Rondo, as do others. For these projections, though, I figured I would err on the side of caution and assume that Schroeder won’t be as productive as Rondo. Finally, similar to the problem with Schroeder, I had no way to predict performance from the Hawks newly signed international big man, Pero Antic. So, I went to in-the-game.org, a Euroleague stats site, and looked at Antic’s similarity scores and tried to find any NBA players on the list. The best match for Antic currently in the NBA is the Nets Mirza Teletovic. So, I used Teletovic’s projected xRAPM as a stand in for Antic. Now, given that I had projected Antic to play so few minutes, his performance level is basically irrelevant for looking at the Hawks total wins.

The Hawks under this projection are in the same positional slot as the ESPN Forecast had them, just behind the Knicks, but they project to be a team that wins more games than the merely 40 for which the ESPN voters pegged them. Now, maybe that changes once I have to account for strength of schedule and the fact that overall team wins must sum to 1230. We’ll see, but I would guess the Hawks are at least a .500 team next year.

Image from valdezign via Flickr.

Projecting the NBA using xWARP: Memphis Grizzlies

Unlike yesterday when looking at the Knicks, today’s post looks at a team that actually has a chance at winning a championship, the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies have a tough road to a title, given how stacked the top of the Western Conference is but they have the talent to make a run. Last year, Memphis won 56 games in the stacked West, and this offseason, they added Mike Miller and his three point shooting to the mix, a much needed skill for a team that often struggles to find efficient offense. So what do Nathan Walker’s projected xRAPM numbers and my minutes projections suggest that the Grizzlies will do next year?

Memphis projects to win 54 games via this method. Why, given that they won 56 games last year and added a solid player, with a needed skill in Miller, do they project to win fewer games? Well, regression to the mean mostly. Mike Conley was absolutely incredible last year as a two way performer by xRAPM, posting a +3.05 on offense and a +2.04 on defense. This leap forward for Conley last season was well above anything he had previously done, and statistically speaking, it’s likely that he regresses a bit to something closer to his prior levels of performance. Marc Gasol projects to regress a bit, too, from his +6 xRAPM to a still excellent +5 next year. Zach Randolph figures to suffer a bit of age related decline. Ed Davis should improve, though, and that should mitigate some of the expected drop in Z-Bo’s productivity. All in all, Memphis projects to be a very tough team yet again next year and they could easily emerge from the Western Conference to compete in the Finals.

One thing to note is that the Grizzlies could potentially be much better or worse than this projection depending on how good a coach Dave Joerger turns out to be and whether he’s able to make better use of the team’s talents than Lionel Hollins did. If Joerger were able to maximize the talents of his players and minimize their flaws, their per minute productivity (as measured by xRAPM) could see an overall boost. I think Hollins is a fine coach, but Joerger has been truly excellent in his previous head coaching stints (he’s one of the most successful minor league basketball coaches ever), so there’s some possibility that Joerger could help the Grizzlies reach new heights. On the other hand, Joerger is a rookie at the NBA head coaching level and his education at this level could leave the Grizzlies a bit short of their potential. Given his prior success, I’d bet on Joerger to do well, but only time will tell.

Image from seandavis via Flickr.

Projecting the NBA Using xWARP: New York Knicks

The Knicks are not contenders. Let’s get that out of the way to start. This core group of players won 54 games last year, but they did so on the strength of two runs of, frankly, unsustainable three point shooting as a team. According to NBAWOWY, in the first 23 games of the season, in which the Knicks went 18–5, New York shot 41% from deep on 29.4 attempts per game. Later in the year, the Knicks got similarly hot from long distance, shooting 40.6% from three on 28.2 attempts per game. For the season, the Knicks were 37.6% from three on 28.9 attempts per game. So, in games outside of those first 23 and the last 18, the Knicks shot a mediocre 34.4%. For the Knicks to have shot that well as a team, for that long during those runs is frankly remarkable, but it’s pretty unlikely to happen again. It’s especially unlikely to happen again next year, as the Knicks will be without their best three point shooter from last year, Steve Novak, and will have Andrea Bargnani’s below average three point stroke in his stead.

Additionally, Jason Kidd retired and will now be coaching the Nets across town. Beno Udrih is a solid replacement, but he’s no Jason Kidd. Even at 39 years old, Kidd was a +1.4 in xRAPM, on the strength of his very strong defensive contributions at the point guard position. Udrih is solidly above replacement level, but projects as just a -1.6 by xRAPM for next year in Nathan Walker’s numbers. Finally, many of the most important Knicks project to regress a bit. Tyson Chandler projects to have a big step back from last year, owing both to his age and expected regression to the mean. Chandler was better last year than he has traditionally been by xRAPM, clocking in at +5.3, when he is usually in the mid +4 range. Carmelo Anthony projects at +1.7 xRAPM, down from +2.3 this past season- again likely the result of regression to Carmelo’s historical mean level of performance. Pablo Prigioni is also quite old and is thus projected to decline from last year’s solid performance to something more average. Adding it all up, with the minutes projections, we get:

The Knicks project to win 47 games next year, down from 54 this past year. This is right in line with the ESPN Forecast of 48 wins for the Knicks. In fact, a lot of the projections so far seem to line up fairly well with the ESPN Forecasts, which have proven to be pretty accurate over the years. That makes me feel more confident about this exercise. One item of note: in both the East and West, my projections are higher on the teams ESPN has projected to place 4th in their conference. I have the Nets and Rockets both placing second in the East and West, respectively. It’s probably the case that the ESPN Forecast voters were factoring in some amount of an adjustment period for both these two teams, as they have both undergone a fair bit of roster turnover, which can cause teams that look great on paper to fail to live up to wins expectations sometimes. It will be interesting to see if it turns out that these xRAPM projections overrated these teams or if the ESPN voters were sleeping on them. I can’t wait to find out. Next up: the Memphis Grizzlies.

Image from Keith Allison via Flickr.

Re-doing work already done, with better results

I mentioned in my last post that I would be re-doing my projections for the 8 teams that I had already done with new, better numbers courtesy of Nathan Walker. The other day, Nathan posted his projected xRAPM numbers for just about every player in the league (save for the incoming rookies, for whom I will still be using the Hickory-High projected numbers). Now that I have the numbers from Nathan, I have gone ahead and re-done the projections on the previous 8 teams I had finished working on and posted about. The numbers don’t change too much, although, it’s notable that Miami is now tops in the East, with the Thunder and Rockets duking it out atop the West. Here are the projected wins totals for the 4 teams I had done out East:

Heat: 59 wins

Nets: 57 wins

Bulls:* 56 wins

Pacers: 52 wins

And for the 4 teams I had completed in the West:

Thunder: 59 wins

Rockets: 59 wins

Clippers: 56 wins

Spurs: 53 wins

Each team’s name contains a link where you can see the projected xRAPM and minutes for each player, so you can make whatever quibbles you might have with those. I feel these win totals seem like better bets as far as getting things right from a big picture perspective, because they don’t have the wildly optimistic 60+ win projections for anyone. Now that I have all the numbers I need, I will be continuing the projections. Tomorrow: the New York Knicks.

* For the Bulls, Derrick Rose did not have a projected xRAPM from Nathan, owing to his absence for the entire season last year, so I just used his xRAPM from his last season played (11–12) of +4.3. That may prove too optimistic and if that’s the case, you can discount the Bulls accordingly.

Image from koalazymonkey via Flickr.

New Projection Recipe

My work projecting the NBA using xRAPM has lead to some interesting conversations with readers and other interested NBA fans. It also lead to further discussion with Nathan Walker over of The Basketball Distribution, who was the person who inspired me to start doing these projections in the first place. Through an e-mail exchange, he provided me with a method, using the age and prior year xRAPM of the player in question, which projects xRAPM for the next year very well. The R² is .74. Given that this method seems much more scientific and how startlingly good the results are at predicting future performance based on such simple inputs, I will be re-running my projections for the 8 teams that I’ve already done and then continuing on using the method Nathan provided going forward. The minutes projections will still be done using the Kupfer method described previously here. I plan to try to bang out the remainder of the projections within the next few weeks and then adjust based on strength of schedule and HCA at the end of the process and right before the season gets underway to try and have the best possible projections for you. Basically, we’ve got a brand new recipe and it’s time to get cookin’.

Oh and go follow Nathan on Twitter, since he’s awesome and helped me do a better job than what I was doing.

Image from Timsnell via Flickr

Projecting the NBA using xWARP: Houston Rockets

That bit I wrote yesterday about the Los Angeles Clippers and Brooklyn Nets having the best offseasons of the summer? Yeah, scratch that one. That was a glaring oversight on my part, because clearly no team in the league had a better offseason than the Houston Rockets, who, after years of tireless searching, finally landed President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey’s version of Ahab’s White Whale: a top 5 player in the league. That player, Dwight Howard, can be nauseating at times with his desire to play the crack-up, the clown, the immature teen who’s actually a late 20’s man, but the talent and production have never been a question. Howard had jokes all through his time in Orlando, and yet, he was always worthy of consideration as an MVP candidate as he came into his own.

In 2010–11, Howard reached the peak of his powers, leading the league in xRAPM (yes, even ahead of LeBron James); this just two years after Howard dragged this rather rag-tag bunch to the NBA Finals, going through James’ Cavs to do it. That season, which saw Howard working as a top 5 player by xRAPM (and most other metrics you might want to look at), was just the beginning of Howard’s dominance in Orlando, as he finished in the top 2 every year from then on, even including his injured and distracted final run in 2011–12 with the Magic. That last season in Florida, disappointing as it was, paled in comparison to the depths of disappointment Howard’s turn as a Los Angeles Laker inspired. Howard came back from his back surgery too quickly. He became frustrated over trying to fit in with Mike D’Antoni’s offense. He fell off, and to the eyes of many, he stopped trying as hard. For my own part, I believe he was limited mostly by injury and the lack of floor spacing the Lakers supporting cast had on offer to open up lanes for him to roll to the basket off of pick and rolls. He also, stubbornly, insisted on getting touches in the post, despite his dominance as a rolling finisher and his relatively pedestrian skills on the block. He was also clearly unhappy, as he bristled beneath Kobe Bryant’s unflinching iron fist and joyless assassin’s mentality. Even with all of those issues facing him, Dwight was in the league’s top 6 players by xRAPM, coming in with a still very impressive +5.54.

And now? Dwight gets to have fun again. He’ll have his new buddy Chandler Parsons with whom to goof and clown. Morey has made sure that the floor with remain spaced for Howard with bargain priced shooters filling out the wings. Oh, and Dwight will also get to play with James Harden: the league’s best shooting guard, even at his tender age of just 23, and one of the very best pick and roll triggermen in the game. This was the formula for Dwight’s dominance in Orlando, only Harden is so much better than anyone Howard was tasked with playing with in Orlando that it’s scary to wonder just how good these Rockets can be.

So what do the numbers say? The first projection I ran used Dwight’s performance last year as the baseline. By that measure, the Rockets appear to be a 55 win team.

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A playoff team, probably worthy of a round of homecourt advantage, even in the stacked Western Conference and a team that could contend for a title, even with a less-than-what-he-once-was Dwight. But what if Superman returns? What if Dwight is really, really back (as I suspect he will be: I think he just needed to get healthy)? Well, then the Rockets start to look a bit like world-beaters.

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62 wins, with a healthy, Orlando-level Dwight. This is the stuff of Rockets fans’ dreams. It’s not inconceivable, and it might not even be all that unlikely. Fans were right to criticize Howard’s relative lack of effort last year, but moving forward, there’s a lot of reason to believe the effort will return (as will, unfortunately, the terrible jokes), the fit is better, and Howard should be a year healthier. Add it all up, and I think that Superman returns for Houston this year. Maybe Dwight will even get his wish to “be epic.”

Image via flickr user Keith Allison

Update: This post from Brett Koremenos over at Grantland makes the point that the Rockets could potentially play Asik alongside Howard for extended minutes. I only projected Asik to play 15 minutes a night as a result of Dwight’s arrival, but if you bump Asik’s projected minutes up to 25 minutes a game, the Rockets become a 59 win team with last year’s version of Dwight and a 65 (!) win team with the Orlando version of Dwight. I doubt they reach quite that high, if only because Dwight and Asik together on offense would put them in less than optimal roles (spacing issues being the primary problem) which would have a negative effect on their respective offensive xRAPMs. On the other hand, the two of them on defense together would be seemingly almost impossible to score on in the paint.

Projecting the NBA using xWARP: San Antonio Spurs

The San Antonio Spurs will not be going away next year. They will be towards the top of the heap in the Western Conference. Tony Parker’s excellence, Kawhi Leonard’s emergence, and Tim Duncan’s seeming lack of senescence ensure that. For the rest of the league that just saw the Spurs come within a miracle Ray Allen corner three of winning the title, this should be quite scary indeed. But just how good will the Spurs be next year?

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In 2013–14, by xRAPM, combined with my interpretation of Jeremias Engelmann’s adjusted-plus minus aging curve and minutes projections courtesy of the Kupfer method, the Spurs project as a 55 win team. That’s a drop off of 3 games and that’s significant, but there’s reason to doubt its accuracy. This projection expects Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili to both decline quite a bit. The Big Fundamental, though, looked basically like the same guy he’s always been this year all the way through the playoffs. The mind reels at his ability to continue to slug it out with Father Time to a draw. Duncan’s the exception and not the rule, though, and if Manu’s playoff run is any indication, he may decline even more than this projection suggests, which may counteract Timmy’s refusal to surrender to age. The regular season’s not the end game for the Spurs, though, just as it wasn’t this year. They will rest their core guys (as these minutes projections suggest) and they will be fresher than just about any other team come playoff time- and have no doubt, the Spurs will be back in the postseason this year. Once they get there, I expect Tony Parker to keep the ball humming to the right spots, Duncan to continue locking down the paint, and Kawhi Leonard to grab seemingly every rebound within 15 feet of him. The Spurs will contend, again. It’s over when they say it’s over.

Heisenberg

Featured image via flickr user Keith Allison

Projecting the NBA using xWARP: Los Angeles Clippers

So, the Clippers. What an offseason, huh? The Clippers had arguably the best offseason in the league this year, save what Brooklyn was able to cook up 3,000 miles away on the opposite coast. To recap: they were able to acquire two capable wing players (Jared Dudley, J.J. Redick) in exchange for a player (Eric Bledsoe) who, despite his massive potential and above average production, simply didn’t figure to play enough to justify what he’ll need to be paid, because of the top 3 player in the NBA playing in front of him (that’s Chris Paul, you guys). They replaced that potential with the less talented, but still capable Darren Collison, the once and future CP3 understudy. They retained Matt Barnes and drafted another 3 and D wing in Reggie Bullock. They’re flush with those types between Redick, Dudley, and now Bullock. Maybe too much so. But, on the plus side, they acquired Doc Rivers to manage all those wings and fix a rotation that works, for the relatively piddling price of a late first round pick. Oh, Byron Mullens is along for the ride, too, but he’s not very good at much besides taking and missing a lot of jump shots while simultaneously being tall. So, really, who cares about Byron? What do the numbers have to say about what we can expect from the Clippers after their offseason to remember?

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57 wins. That’s improvement over this year’s 56 wins, but not much. Why don’t the Clippers look better? Well, they lost Eric Bledsoe who, as it turns out, was a +1.61 player in xRAPM and played 1500+ minutes for them last year. Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick had lower xRAPMs than Bledsoe, as did Darren Collison. Additionally, the Clips lost Lamar Odom who was a +.82 xRAPM and replaced his 1600+ minutes with the terrible Byron Mullens and a combination of wings who will likely be worse than Odom was last year, at least by xRAPM. Plus, Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes project to decline relatively significantly, while Blake Griffin somewhat offsets that with a pretty significant improvement, as he climbs towards his peak years. Subjectively, this prediction seems like it could be a bit low, as the Clips had the MOV of a 59 win team and most NBA heads had them improving this offseason. Plus, Doc Rivers is in a different class as a coach than Vinny Del Negro. But I present the numbers here for you, dear reader, to ponder over.

Sidenote: At the end of all this projectin’ I will try (if I have time) to incorporate the schedules of the teams, the strength in projected MOV of each team, and the value of home court advantage for each team (as determined by Evan Z over at The City) in order to come up with the most accurate predictions that I can. Also, you should check out the ESPN NBA Forecasts, as they are going up over the next few days. Lots of smart people’s thoughts aggregated together = wisdom of crowds = awesome analysis.

Image via flickr user Keith Allison

Projecting the NBA using xWARP: Oklahoma City Thunder

The Oklahoma City Thunder were, arguably, the league’s best team last year in the regular season. They did not have the best record, as Miami finished the year with 66 wins to OKC’s 60, but the Thunder played a much tougher strength of schedule and actually underachieved relative to their margin of victory (MOV) by about 4 games. As I mentioned in my post projecting Miami for next year, the Heat actually significantly overachieved relative to their expected wins based on their MOV and also faced the league’s easiest schedule. Unfortunately for the Thunder, in their first round series against the Rockets, they lost Russell Westbrook for the rest of the season with a torn meniscus suffered on this (dangerous) play by Patrick Beverly:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LkYevpkhZYc

The Thunder managed to win that series without Westbrook, their second best player and a top 10 player in the league. They were stopped in the second round by the Grit & Grind Memphis Grizzlies. Kevin Durant simply had to do too much against one of the league’s very best defenses and, despite a heroic effort, he came up just a bit short.

This offseason, the Thunder lost Kevin Martin (+.33 xRAPM) to free agency and really did not replace him. They signed Ryan Gomes, who was not in the league last year and was hurt a lot and just not very good in 2011–12 the last time he played. They also drafted Steven Adams and Andre Roberson. RAPM projections really do not like Adams and I don’t have any sense of how good Roberson will be, but given his status as a second rounder, betting on him to help or play many minutes on a team contending for a title is a very iffy proposition. In fact, in my minutes projections, the two new Thunder rookies are not set to play at all.

One young player I do expect to play quite a few minutes, if only out of necessity, is Jeremy Lamb. The ostensible centerpiece of the James Harden trade, Lamb will need to take on some of the minutes covered by the departing Martin. He projects to improve over his very poor performance by xRAPM next year. He’s still sub-replacement level by these projections, but he needs to be developed and he shouldn’t be so bad that he can’t be out on the court. It’s likely returning guard Reggie Jackson will also see an increase in minutes as he backs up Russell Westbrook and plays alongside him in spots, again to mitigate some of the loss of Martin. Neither Lamb nor Jackson projects to be near the overall contributor that Martin was last year and as a result the Thunder will take a step back in overall quality. Last year the Thunder played like a 64 win team against a more difficult than league average schedule. Next year, they project like this:

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The Thunder figure not to fall off too much, as they project here as a 60–61 win team*, assuming a league average schedule. Why won’t they fall off? Well, Serge Ibaka, Russell Westbrook, and Kevin Durant are just 24, 25, and 25 years old respectively. They all project to improve. Those improvements alone help a great deal with the loss of Martin. But the Thunder, in all likelihood, probably won’t be quite as good as they were last year. They may win just as many games, or more, than they did last year, depending on their strength of schedule, but again, they underachieved last year and played a tougher than average schedule. They will be, in all likelihood, from an objective perspective, a lesser club next year. But they will still absolutely be one of the very best teams in the league and one of the top contenders to win the title. Having two top 10 players in the league, each at just 25 years old, does wonders for your ability to weather the loss of role players.

*I projected Ryan Gomes as a replacement level player at -2.5 xRAPM. In 2011–12, he was a -4.4 in xRAPM for the Clippers, but he was hurt quite often and I believe it damaged his effectiveness quite a bit. The previous year, where he was much healthier, Gomes was a much more useful -1.7 xRAPM. I think Gomes will probably be closer to -2.5 than the -4.4 that he was in his last year in the league. However, if you project Gomes to be that terrible again, the Thunder still project as a 59 win team against a league average schedule.

Projecting the NBA using xWARP: Indiana Pacers

Continuing my series projecting the 2013–14 NBA regular season using xRAPM and minutes projections, today I’ll be discussing the Indiana Pacers.

The Pacers had a very strong starting group last year. According to Basketball-Reference, the Pacers starting five-man unit was fourth in the entire league in Net Points per 100 possessions among lineups that played at least 300 minutes together, clocking in at a sterling +12.1 points per 100 possessions. Over the course of an 82 game season, a +12.1 MOV translates to a roughly 72-win team. The Pacers’ five of George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West, and Roy Hibbert played over 1200 minutes together, ranking them as the second most played 5 man unit in the entire league, trailing only the Oklahoma City Thunder’s starting five of Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, and Kendrick Perkins. The Thunder’s starting five only managed a (still incredible) +10.7 Net Points per 100 possessions. Basically, the Pacers’ starting five players was arguably the best in the entire league, given the relatively large sample of minutes they played together and their excellence when they were on the floor.

The Pacers’ problem was that their bench was pretty terrible. They gave pretty significant minutes to sub-replacement level players like D.J. Augustin, (-3.68 xRAPM), Gerald Green (-3.21), Orlando Johnson (-3.36), Sam Young (-4.94) and Dominic McGuire (-2.93). Well, this coming year that will no longer be the case. With the exception of Orlando Johnson, all of those guys will not be on the team next year. Instead, they’ve been replaced by C.J. Watson, Chris Copeland, Luis Scola, a returning Danny Granger, Donald Sloan (another below replacement player, but hey, you can’t win them all), and rookie Solomon Hill (who projects to be just above replacement level at -2.3). In addition, Orlando Johnson projects to be better this year, as he progresses upward in his career trajectory, though he’ll still likely be below replacement level. The Pacers starting five has gotten significant reinforcements. How much better will this make the Pacers?

Well, there’s one more thing to worry about and that’s just how good will Danny Granger be when he returns to the floor. I have no way of knowing what Granger will look like in xRAPM should he return healthy. I don’t know if he will be the roughly +1 xRAPM player he was in just 5 games this year or if he will look more like the +2.5–3.0 player he has been over the two years prior. Tendinosis is a scary injury. So, I ran the projections using Granger’s bad numbers from last year and then again with a possession-weighted average of Granger’s last few seasons adjusted for his 30 year old age. Up first, what the Pacers look like with a significantly reduced (like last year) Granger playing about 63 games.

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Next year, the Pacers with a less-than-peak-effectiveness Granger look like a 55 win team. Given that they won 49 games last year, this might seem like a disappointing improvement considering how much better their bench has gotten this offseason. But a six-win improvement is very significant. That’s a 12% increase in wins. In addition, Paul George’s minutes projection is lower than his actual minutes from this past year by a shade under 400 minutes. So if George is able to play as many minutes as he did last year, the Pacers could be even better. Speaking of the Pacers being better, what would they look like if Granger comes back and plays like he did at his peak effectiveness?

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The Pacers now look like a 57 win team. This may be understating things for the Pacers, too. If Granger is playing like he did 2–3 years ago, chances are that means he’s basically healthy, so he’d likely play more than the 63 games he’s projected to play here. That would push the Pacers win total even closer to the very top of the Eastern Conference. The Pacers, with their revamped bench and the return of Danny Granger to the rotation, look to be a team firmly entrenched in the top 4 of the Eastern Conference. It looks more or less like a four way toss up for which team will be the East’s best in the regular season. For Pacers fans, the more encouraging part of this exercise is looking at how much better their bench now is, to complement their returning starting five, which was the league’s best last year. In the playoffs, the Pacers’ ability to shorten their rotations and play their best five players for longer periods of time is the reason, along with their superior interior play, that the Pacers were able to take the Miami Heat to the brink of elimination. The Pacers now have a bench with competent players to play minutes in the playoffs and not be totally overwhelmed. That change could be the difference between their falling short this postseason and an NBA Championship in the 2013–14 season.

Image from ONE/MILLION via Flickr