The 2014-15 NBA season is fast approaching, and after an exceptionally busy offseason, many things in the league will be unknowns when teams tip off in roughly six weeks. The shift of power away from South Beach and towards northeast Ohio has sent ripples all through the league. Transactions in the NBA do not exist within a vacuum – the same can be said about the Donald Sterling, Bruce Levenson and Danny Ferry’s comments and the subsequent discipline involved in each situation. They do not only effect the LA Clippers and Atlanta Hawks, but the other 28 teams to varying degrees.
With so many unknowns and the potential for an especially unpredictable opening month of the NBA season (discerning fans can learn plenty about a team in 15-18 games), I believe that a useful exercise would be to highlight themes that will most likely play a large part in predicting teams performance accurately. While much has changed, all one has to do to see a good example of things staying the same is to look at the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. They are rolling out for another season with the same coach and the same cast and characters that have won 5 of the last 15 championships. Their brand of basketball will be largely the same, with a few new Pop wrinkles as always, and it will continue to be mimicked by smart minds all over the league (in Atlanta, Philadelphia, and almost certainly Cleveland).
So, what else do we know?
- The Eastern Conference is weak, but it will be better than it was last year. It looks to me that the East has improved significantly – shifting some of the balance of power and increasing their odds of producing a collection of strong playoff teams. While Cleveland is easily ahead of all other teams in terms of my projected win totals, Chicago poses a strong case with the additions of Mirotic, Gasol and McDermott, plus the return of Rose. I would project Cleveland to win 62+ games, and Chicago to win 54+. Beyond Chicago and Cleveland, I would peg Charlotte, Washington, Atlanta, Brooklyn and Miami as strong teams capable of winning 45+ games. The bottom of the East will be so bad, with Philadelphia, Orlando and Boston, that the middle teams should see some win inflation. Last year was a banner year for conference disparity, but you can expect to see some correction this year. Remember this when over/under win totals come out – I will likely lay heavy on the middle of the Eastern Conference to go over their projections.
- Three pointers will continue to rise league wide, and teams that do it well will continue to reap the benefits. The three-point shot is going nowhere, and teams that create them well and convert them well will benefit. San Antonio’s devastating barrage in the Finals was no surprise to those who watched them all year, and Atlanta, Portland, Dallas and Washington all saw good long distance shooting increase their odds of collecting valuable wins in the playoffs. Remember, though – having good shooting isn’t the first requirement to having a dangerous long distance attack – good ball movement and shot creation is. Teams that are loaded with shooting but don’t create the shots well for themselves can be overvalued – such as Golden State last season. Look for the teams that shoot the most corner threes – the highest valued three-point shot – as one indicator of their ability to create quality distance shots. Of course, in this measure, there is no substitute for watching the games and learning from observation – you still can’t learn everything you need to know from a spreadsheet.
- Good defensive teams will likely be undervalued early on. This is because defensive efficiency is harder to project than offensive efficiency when you are working with rosters but no sample data. Good defensive teams, and I mean top 8 defenses, really, will be in every game and will win a lot of games that the casual fan might not pick them to win. Charlotte last season was a great example of this – they consistently outperformed forecasts for their success by playing quality defense and staying close in games. The New Orleans Pelicans, with the development of Anthony Davis and the addition of Omer Asik, look like a great bet to surge as a defensive team. If they can do this, they will likely produce a good return on investment early in the season, until oddsmakers adjust. Last season, oddsmakers didn’t adjust to Charlotte’s real value until very late in the season.
- Coaching matters. The style a team plays will have a great impact on their success. I don’t mean this as in “teams that play like the Spurs will succeed more than teams that don’t” or “teams that play the Triangle will perform 5 points per game better than teams that don’t.” Statements like this are meaningless unless you look at the talent of the rosters involved. Philadelphia will lose a LOT of games by a LOT of points. They will also frequently produce a lot of high scoring games, because their pace of play is so fast and there are so many opportunities for both teams involved to score in this scenario. Because their talent level is abysmal compared to their average opponent, over a long enough timeline the fast pace will lead to a larger margin of defeat for the Sixers. While the Houston Rockets also play very fast, they do so because their ability to score points more efficiently than their average opponents creates the opposite effect from Philadelphia. If you have James Harden and Dwight Howard, more possessions can increase your probability of separating yourself from your opponent. Likewise if you have no NBA player with a history of significant success in the league – it just goes in opposite directions. Learning each team’s style of play and how it relates to their talent is hugely important for anyone who wants to successfully forecast on a day-to-day or whole season basis.
There are other assumptions involved here, of course. I will delve into my team-by-team assumptions when the over/under lines come out next month. I already know what ranges I am expecting for each team, and whether I think that team has a realistic chance of making that range or not. I will do an in-depth post for each division when these odds are released. I will also predict the playoff seedings, conference champions and league champions prior to the season start. But for now, these themes and assumptions are part of what I believe you can use to evaluate teams ahead of the start of play. Study the coaches, breakdown the strengths and weaknesses likely to be present on both sides of the ball, and look at last year’s numbers again – were their any anomalies, and if so, what happens if they are corrected this season? Never think that you can’t find something new in old data. There is enough in there to help you form some real opinions about individual teams’ chances of improving or regressing, for sure.