NBA Quarterly Report: Third Quarter Team Awards
After the first quarter mark of this NBA season, I handed out my way-too-early picks for the main NBA awards and their made-up negative equivalents. After the second quarter (or the first half, depending on how you feel about breaking down fractions), I used numberFire’s nERD metric to see what it would be like if we used an advanced statistic to select the East and West All-Star teams.
At what I’m deciding is the three-quarter mark of the season (I didn’t do the actual math, but every team passed the 60.5-game mark last Monday, so good enough for me), I’ve decided to get away from the individual accolades like the regular NBA awards and All-Star selections and shift the focus to the teams. Seeing as how awards for teams don’t really exist outside of the best team getting to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy after the NBA Finals, these will all be made up.
My selections for each award, of course, are always up for debate. Sure, I made the darn things up and am therefore the self-proclaimed ultimate authority on them, but I love arguing these kinds of things. Get in on the conversation over on our NBA Questions section or disagree with me on Twitter, I can take it.
Regardless of who you pick for each of these imaginary awards, there’s no denying that this has been a very interesting season. Let’s take a look at the story so far and hand out some well-deserved hardware.
The “We’re Not Even Supposed to Be Here” Award
As of right now, the Suns are outside of the playoff picture looking in, exactly as everyone thought they would be before this season began. The thing is, they’re only a game out of the very competitive Western Conference and currently sport a higher nERD than the Memphis Grizzlies, their biggest competition for the spot . Not bad when you consider that Vegas had them pegged as the second worst team in the entire league with the over/under for their final win total set at 21.5 (a number they passed in mid-January and will likely double before all is said and done).
They’ve surprised everyone this year, largely thanks to a stellar offense (eighth in the league with an offensive rating of 106.9) led by budding star Goran Dragic. The Dragon is having a career year, posting a career-best nERD of 9.8 this season, good enough for #14 on our NBA Player Rankings. Other rising star Eric Bledsoe has recently returned from injury to join Dragic and an interesting cast of characters who were once believed to be nobodies in a late season playoff push. The surprising Suns have been one of the most interesting stories in the NBA this season and deserve to be recognized for it, no matter where they end up when all is said and done.
The “Tank U” Award
While Phoenix surprised us all by turning what everyone thought was a tanking job into a playoff fight, the Philadelphia 76ers are doing an excellent job of proving us all right. They were the only team projected worse than the Suns by Vegas (over/under win total of 16.5, which they haven’t reached and might not). They are the clear and obvious winners of the “Tank U” award (as in “Tank University”, as in they’re qualified to offer graduate-level studies in tanking) for their continued excellence in the field of giving their team no chance to win at the game of basketball.
Let’s check the résumé, shall we? Trade an All-Star for an injured rookie and subsequently shut him down for the season? Check. Trade two of your three most productive veterans, keeping only the one that was disgruntled and clearly wanted out? Check. Let inefficient-shooting and turnover-prone rookie point guards Michael Carter-Williams and Tony Wroten lead your team in usage percentage? Check. Fill your roster with guys even the biggest NBA diehards have never heard of (Jarvis Varnado, I’m looking at you)? Check. Stop winning games altogether in late January. Checked out.
There’s nothing wrong with rebuilding or using a lost season to develop young guys, but what the Sixers are doing is almost offensive in its blatantness. Whether you agree or disagree with the concept of teams intentionally losing games for a better chance at the draft lottery, you’d have an easier time convincing someone that water isn’t wet than that Philly isn’t doing just that.
They’re #30 on our NBA Team Rankings with a nERD of 15.5 (that’s insanely low, by the way) and would be even lower if there were further down to go. They’ve lost 20 straight games and might not win another before the season ends. Gross.
The “Oneway” Award
The Portland Trail Blazers were in early contention for this award, for the way their success lives and dies by their offense, but having the 19th-ranked defense in the league (104.8 points per 100 possessions) isn’t as bad as it could be. For a true look at disparity between one side of the ball and the other, look no further than the Chicago Bulls.
The Bulls are currently second in the league in defensive rating at 97.8, trailing only the Indiana Pacers. If you look at only games since January 1st, the Bulls are actually number one. It is a large part of their success this season and the reason why they’re unexpectedly at fourth place in the Eastern Conference, despite losing two All-Stars in Derrick Rose (to injury) and Luol Deng (to a trade).
Defense obviously goes a long way and Coach Tom Thibodeau and defensive stalwart Joakim Noah obviously deserve a ton of credit for the way the Bulls have managed to stay competitive in the face of adversity, but boy howdy does their offense stink.
Their offensive rating of 101.7 has them at 27th in the NBA, while their .480 effective field goal percentage has them at 26th. They also have the third highest turnover ratio in the league at 16.4 per 100 possessions (which is probably to be expected when your center has been leading your team in assists for the last few months).
The Bulls will still be able to make some noise in the playoffs, when the game slows down and defensive prowess tends to makeup even more for offensive deficiencies. All the same, there’s no denying that the Bulls have been the team to rely the most heavily on one side of the ball this season.
The “Can’t Buy Me Wins” Award
New York Knicks
The two teams with the highest payrolls in the NBA are both located in New York. The $101.8 million Brooklyn Nets are currently two games over .500 and are at least well within the playoff picture in the lowly Eastern Conference, while the New York Knicks and their $88.5 million payroll are currently sitting with a winning percentage of .403 and our algorithms only give them a 13.7% chance of making it into the postseason.
It’s pretty astonishing when you consider that just last season, the Knicks were second overall in the conference and considered one of the Heat’s biggest threats. They’ve had a rough year, to say the least.
On the financial side of things, their biggest offseason acquisition was to throw a bunch of their future draft picks and role players at the Toronto Raptors to earn the right to pay Andrea Bargnani $11.9 million this season for 42 games of a -3.0 nERD. Let’s not forget that they’re also giving Amar’e Stoudemire the league’s third-highest salary this season ($21.7 million) to produce a 0.2 nERD.
Phil Jackson has been brought in to try to turn the fortunes of this franchise around, but he’ll have a lot of work to do. Right now, the Knicks represent the “mo’ money, mo’ problems” adage better than any team in the league, as their best player, Carmelo Anthony, looks poised to opt out of the final year of his contract and jump ship this summer.
The “Addition By Subtraction” Award
Speaking of Andrea Bargnani, the Raptors new GM Usai Majiri started off his reign in Toronto by offloading Il Mago’s big albatross of a contract this past summer. That turned out just to be the appetizer, as he then shed the team’s other supposedly untradeable contract by sending Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings 18 games into the season.
Both moves looked like great cost-cutting manoeuvres, but no one expected what came next. Once Gay was out of town, players like DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry elevated their play to All-Star levels. Role players stepped up and the Raptors became arguably the third best team in the Eastern Conference after the obvious choices of the Heat and Pacers.
After starting out the season 6-12, the Raptors have posted a record of 31-16 (a winning percentage of .660, compared to .333 in the early going). They have had the league’s fifth-best net rating since the trade at 5.7 on the strength of an offensive rating of 106.7 (10th) and a defensive rating of 101.0 (5th).
It’s not every day you see a team offload their two biggest contracts and get that much better, that quickly. The Raptors might not be true contenders at this point, but they’re on pace to set a franchise record in wins and are currently eighth on our NBA Team Rankings with a nERD of 60.1. Not bad at all.
The “Ours to Lose” Award
Miami Heat / Oklahoma City Thunder / Indiana Pacers
All of the awards so far have been more or less about expectations for certain teams and whether or not they have been met. It’s hard to give out team awards for this season, however, without recognizing the squads that we expected to be great and who delivered on that promise. The Pacers, Heat, and Thunder represent three of the four best records in the league (more on the other team in a moment) and are all legitimate title contenders.
The Pacers are currently leading the Eastern Conference with a winning percentage of .742 and, as previously mentioned, are the league’s most dominant defensive team with a stingy defensive rating of 97.3. Paul George has taken the leap into superstar status, while players like Roy Hibbert, Lance Stephenson, and David West represent solid and consistent production at an All-Star or near-All-Star level. Our algorithms give them a 17.2% chance of winning the title, second only to the Heat.
Speaking of the Heat, they’re still excellent. Yes, they seem to have lost a bit of a step and perhaps the on/off switch that we all talk about so much might be getting harder to turn on, but we’re still projecting them with the best championship odds at 19.5%. LeBron James is having another MVP-worthy season, Dwyane Wade is enjoying a renaissance year (when he plays), and Chris Bosh is still the best third banana there is. They only trail the Pacers by three games for the top spot in the East, a race that could have a lot of implications come the Eastern Conference Finals.
As for out West, the Thunder remain one of the league’s best teams, only two years removed from a Finals appearance. Kevin Durant is deep into a very intriguing MVP race with LeBron, while Russell Westbrook is proving his haters wrong time and time again with the way he has remained explosive and uncontainable in his return from knee surgery. They currently have the league’s second-best nERD at 69.2 and we’ve got them fourth with a championship likelihood of 11.1%.
The “Fine Wine” Award
San Antonio Spurs
The Pacers, Heat, and Thunder are all right where we expect them to be, and perhaps it’s time we all just admit that we expect the San Antonio Spurs to be there too. Every year we expect them to succumb to age and every year they continue to be excellent and fight for the top spot in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
Their big three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili are all in their 30s and those three and budding star Kawhi Leonard have missed a combined 42 games this year. The result? They’re posting the fourth highest winning percentage in their franchise’s storied history and still hold a 10.7% chance of winning it all, according to our metrics.
Like a fine wine, Coach Gregg Popovich’s system and players are aging well and staying consistently competitive in an ever-changing NBA. As long as this current core of players and coaching is together, we should all stop counting them out as championship contenders until they’re eventually eliminated. As we learned just last year, that might not be right until a last-second Ray Allen three in the NBA Finals.
The “Contender That the General Public is Not Ready to Admit is a Contender but is Totally a Contender” Award
Houston Rockets / Los Angeles Clippers
Just about any NBA pundit will tell you their list of contenders this year includes the Heat, Spurs, Thunder, and Pacers, but the big point of contention always seems to be whether or not to include the Los Angeles Clippers or Houston Rockets on that prestigious list.
People are generally hesitant to include teams that have yet to prove themselves on the big stage. It’s pretty fair to include the Clippers and Rockets in that category, considering neither of them has played past the second round in almost two decades. This could be the year that all that changes though, when you consider that our unbiased algorithms have them both placed in the upper echelon of teams in terms of both regular season projections and a shot at the title.
The Clippers are currently first on our NBA Team Rankings with a nERD of 74.9. They lead the league with a ridiculous offensive rating of 110.8. While that would lead some to believe they rely on that side of the ball to win games, they’re also seventh in the league in defensive rating at 101.4.
We’ve got them projected as the third most likely champ when all is said and done, with a 15.3% chance of hoisting the Larry O’Brien in June. Chris Paul remains the golden standard for point guards in the league, Blake Griffin has taken the superstar leap, and the coaching of Doc Rivers and the depth of the Clippers bench makes them undeniable contenders.
While the Clippers might be easier to convince most people on, the Houston Rockets are also having an amazing season (albeit rather quietly) and are very much in the mix for the title this Spring. They currently have the league’s third-best nERD at 68.8 and are tied with the Thunder for the fourth-best chance of winning the title at 11.1%.
James Harden is a bona fide superstar and Dwight Howard is anchoring a much-improved defense and rediscovering his pre-Laker form. They might not be considered on the same level as the Thunder, Spurs, or even the Clippers out West, but they’re very much poised to turn some heads in this year’s playoffs. Don’t sleep on them.