Preseason predictions: Hits and misses
It's time to own up. Back in October I made 20 specific predictions for this NBA season beyond the usual guessing at award winners or conference seeding. Some of them held up. Others, as is invariably the case, fell apart completely. Let's walk through all 20 to see what became of each now that the regular season is nearing its end.
1. Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin will look like a different -- and better -- player.
A bit of a dud to start. My explanation here was largely linked to the influence of Dwight Howard, whose ability to draw in opponents on the pick-and-roll generally bodes well for his playmaking teammates. That's been true for Lin as well (he shoots 67.6 percent in the restricted area with Howard in the lineup as opposed to 57.6 percent without him), albeit not to the broad degree that I initially thought.
There can be little doubt that Howard helps; he covers for Lin's defensive mistakes, widens lanes to the rim and offers a big, mobile target. That combination just hasn't translated in a way that would suggest Lin to be a discernibly better player. Most of Lin's errors in judgment are familiar, as he still falls victim to the same shaky shot selection (pull-up jumpers in transition, fading turnaround shots after getting caught in the lane, etc.) and playmaking blunders (recognition of passing lanes, jump passing, etc.) that plagued his first season with the Rockets. He's a perfectly useful player still, and perhaps improved in smaller regards. Overall I just don't find that this billing is a fair representation of Lin's season.
Odd as it might seem to cull any bit of positivity from the Lakers' season, Gasol has looked far more comfortable this year than he did last. Beyond Howard's departure, specifically, it's undoubtedly simpler to be a featured piece on a horrid roster than a clumsy fit on a talented one. Gasol has capitalized on that opportunity (and the relief from nagging injury) to post his highest points-per-minute average since 2007 and mount one of the best rebounding seasons of his career.
If only evaluation of Gasol's season could stop there. Offense might have come naturally with a return to Gasol's functional comfort zone, though on defense he somehow looks even slower and less attentive than before. Gasol has long had a complicated relationship with his defensive responsibilities; he's both held down the back line for championship teams and punted completely in his assignments. He swayed toward the latter this season and I can't say I blame him. Playing committed, fundamental defense is futile on a team where no other player is operating by the same rules. That in itself may be giving Gasol too much credit in his apathy, though I'm inclined to cut the guy a break given just how wearying it can be to play game after game for a team this bad.
3. The Bobcats will not have a bottom-10 offense for the first time in franchise history.
Rats. I really thought Al Jefferson had a chance to elevate Charlotte's offense to the league average or near enough, but in that I may have underestimated the challenge of creating in clutter. Steve Clifford runs a sound offense in terms of action and design, but ingenuity can only do much to compensate for such a decided lack of shooting. The acquisitions of Gary Neal and -- though he's shooting poorly at present -- Luke Ridnour have helped address that problem, though not so dramatically as to undo Charlotte's miserable offensive production from early in the season.
For whatever it's worth: Charlotte has registered right around the league average (and well out of the bottom 10) in offensive efficiency since the All-Star break. A pity the 'Cats couldn't catch the groove of scoring mediocrity sooner.
In over 1,300 total minutes, lineups featuring Josh Smith, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe have performed as the equivalent of a bottom-10 offense and bottom-10 defense. Smith is in the process of completing one of the most abominable three-point shooting seasons in NBA history. Detroit has played so poorly as to cost the man who built the team his job, as well as the man hired to coach it.
Gotta eat this one. I still maintain that Smith can work -- and has worked -- as a small forward in the right situation, but holy hell is this not it.
5. A regular-season injury will doom one of the Western Conference’s potential contenders in the first round of the playoffs.
As of Monday, it was all but confirmed that Andrew Bogut would miss the playoffs with a fractured rib sustained in the last week. Golden State looks to be toast without him; any hope of consistently stopping or stalling a high-powered offense in a first-round series is dead, and with that the Warriors' intentions on running through several such offenses en route to the NBA title.
Beyond that, injuries to Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley have made Houston's path more challenging, Memphis spiraled to a low seed by injuries to Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, Chris Paul's extended absence might have cost the Clippers a shot at home-court advantage throughout, and Russell Westbrook's health has been a complicating variable at the least.
6. Evan Turner will rank in the top three in minutes played.
Nope. Even prior to being traded into a smaller role with the Pacers at the deadline, Turner ranked a mere 20th in the league in total minutes played. That's still quite a bit of playing time, though it left Turner a few hundred minutes removed from the top three even at that stage. I imagined that exasperation with the Sixers' roster might push Turner near the top, but credit is due to Brett Brown for refusing to overwork his players (none averaged more than Turner's 34.9 minutes per game) in a season where wins mattered so little.
7. Denver will be one of the 10 worst defensive teams based on points allowed per possession.
That they are, though just barely. For the season the Nuggets have actually fared better defensively than I anticipated. This was a team that lost its three best perimeter defenders (Andre Iguodala and Corey Brewer in free agency, Danilo Gallinari to injury), planned to commit more playing time to JaVale McGee and signed J.J. Hickson and Nate Robinson to play significant roles. There were brimming with implosive defensive potential, underlined by the fact that the combination of McGee and Faried hadn't yet made for a competent defensive tandem.
Things went poorly for the Nuggets, still -- just not as poorly as they otherwise could have. The combination of Faried and Hickson didn't totally cave in the way that shaky defensive frontcourts often do. Timofey Mozgov stepped in for the injured McGee and was startlingly reliable in the role. Darrell Arthur wasn't quite as mobile as his pre-injury self, though he still made for a solid defender by comparison to Denver's other options. There was just enough peskiness on the perimeter to keep the Nuggets from falling into outright defensive disaster, which is pretty remarkable considering that Brian Shaw rarely stopped swiveling through lineups and rotation tweaks.
Denver earned its ranking in the bottom 10, though against all odds it also separated itself a bit from the league's truly foul team defenses.
Hit, hit, miss, miss. I had such great faith in the NBA's retread complex, though picking Duhon and Thomas as potential pickups might have been a bit of a stretch. While both players were in the league as recently as last season, Duhon's chances suffered from never being all that good and Thomas' with the winning combination of poor attitude and lengthy injury history. Those made for sufficient barriers to entry, as they should. I still think Duhon and Thomas will end up back on an NBA roster sooner rather than later, if only because we've seen this same process play out so many times before. Castoff veterans are safe in their staleness, so much so that general managers often default to their signing when hit with injury or vacancy.
Final total: 516 minutes. I don't at all like that this prediction turned out to be right; Bynum may be petulant, but in basketball terms he fills a void for the league. The NBA is best served by having a slew of successful teams playing a wide variety of styles. A healthy Bynum could contribute to that as a rare high-volume post player. The persistently injured Bynum, though, does little more than stoke skepticism in both his ability to stay on the court and his approach in aiming to do so.
10. Cavaliers power forward Tristan Thompson’s unprecedented decision to switch his shooting hand will help his percentages significantly.
It really depends on how you choose to evaluate Thompson's shooting. If we opt to focus on his performance from the free throw line -- which may well be the purest representation of his right-handed shooting ability -- then the switch would seem a clear success. Thompson's percentage from the stripe is up to 69.2 percent after shooting 58.6 percent in his first two seasons, including a very solid 74-percent mark over the last three months.
Thompson's improvement from the field, though, is a bit muted. According to Basketball-Reference.com's shot finder, Thompson has improved from 36.3 percent to 37.9 percent on attempts identified as jump shots -- an imperfect classification dependent on play-by-play data, though the easiest means of separating out jumpers from hook shots and the like. That is in no way a significant bump, but when paired with Thompson's free throw improvement it may be enough. Rule this one as you will.
11. Toronto’s starting lineup will play well enough to complicate decisions regarding the future of Rudy Gay and Kyle Lowry.
That prediction as written turned out to be somewhat true, though it was originally framed as an expectation that Toronto's former starting five would play solid basketball. I wasn't a fan of the Rudy Gay-DeMar DeRozan pairing from the start, though in limited minutes last season the Raptors reformed starting lineup played remarkably well on both ends of the floor. Even with the caveat of late-season outliers this seemed like something that could possibly last; there was some semblance of balance with Amir Johnson and Kyle Lowry in the mix, as well as the prospective growth of Jonas Valanciunas to expand the lineup's horizons.
Here was my specific thinking from the original predictions post:
Many consider it a foregone conclusion that newly hired (and analytically inclined) general manager Masai Ujiri will look to trade Gay (who has a $19.3 million player option for next season) at the earliest opportunity, but there’s a point at which the Raptors’ on-court effectiveness could make that decision more challenging. Plus, with Lowry set to be a free agent after the season, Ujiri faces a decision on his immediate future. If this group plays well again together, can Toronto — which would have no room under the cap without shedding salary — really afford to let Lowry go?
It's true: There was a conceivable point at which Toronto's on-court effectiveness could have made the process of dealing Gay more complicated. Such success just never came to pass in 2013-14, as that same lineup -- which had outscored opponents by 12.9 points per 100 possessions the season prior -- floundered to dismal new lows in equivalent minutes this year. Ujiri seized that opportunity and unloaded Gay's deal, though Toronto's success since has activated the latter half of this prediction. Lowry's free agency now figures to be one of the more interesting subplots of the summer, given that his play has been of the utmost importance to the resurgent Raptors. The question applies as much now as it did then: Can Toronto really afford to let Lowry go?
Back injuries spoil dreams, even if those dreams are as wholly reasonable as this. On the bright side for Brooklyn: Kirilenko's season of frustration increases the odds that he'll pick up his $3.3 million player option for next year -- a turn of events that once seemed highly unlikely. The Nets might not have gotten the best from AK to this point but they may well get two seasons of his services at an unthinkable discount.
Dallas has been good to Ellis, in part because Rick Carlisle has wound up the cast-off guard as a dribble penetrator and aimed him toward the basket. Ellis' shooting percentages have bounced back accordingly, in part due to the fact that he now takes 40 percent of his shot attempts from the restricted area. His free throw rate has made a corresponding jump as well, if largely because defenses have little other option save to foul after Dirk Nowitzki draws enough attention as a screener to earn Ellis a free trip to the basket.
Playing under Carlisle, working with Dirk, sharing the floor with Jose Calderon -- all of these things matter. Yet fundamentally Ellis is cashing in on preexisting strength. He's able to do more by approaching shot creation more responsibly, and therein has made himself a useful piece for a high-functioning offense.
He was indeed, but it's impossible to evaluate the latter. I'm going to refrain from passing judgment on Jimmer's whopping 56 minutes of garbage time as a member of the Bulls, though that in itself is a turn worth considering. Why would a free-agent-to-be with plenty to prove opt to sign with a Chicago team that can barely get him on the floor?
Lots of misses here, save Miller. At least three of the four were heavily discussed trade chips, though -- their teams just couldn't land the right return package to strike a deal. Oh well.
16. Kevin Durant will average more than six assists per game.
His average as of Tuesday: 5.5 assists per game. So very close, though that half-assist difference matters little relative to the actual strides Durant made as a ball handler and playmaker this season. What a treat it is to watch him work.
17. New York will play well against the top Eastern Conference teams in the regular season.
Like so many others, I saw the Knicks as more or less the same high-variance challenger to the Heat and Pacers that they were last season. Instead they decided to forego much of what made last year's team so potent on offense while bailing completely on defense for much of the season. The final balance: A 2-5 record against the Heat and Pacers, in which the Knicks were outscored by 11 points per 100 possessions on average. Swing-and-a-miss.
18. Michael Beasley will, at some point and perhaps briefly, play meaningful minutes for the Heat.
Over the course of this season, Beasley has logged 15 minutes or more on 31 occasions, been given the opportunity to solidify a spot as a rotation regular and started a pair of games for good measure. He's logged 32 minutes in clutch situations (ahead or behind by five points in the final five minutes) -- more than three times the total of Shane Battier. He played a prominent role in games against San Antonio, Houston, Golden State, Chicago, and Portland. Beasley might not have played well enough to earn the trust of Erik Spoelstra, though at the very least he's been given meaningful opportunity.
19. DeMarcus Cousins will improve his shooting percentage for the third consecutive season.
Nailed it. Whether evaluated by effective or raw field goal percentage, this season marks the third straight in which Cousins has improved his efficiency from the field. It's also his biggest jump yet, as Cousins -- who as recently as last season shot just 46.5 percent from the field -- is closing in on the 50-percent threshold by which big men tend to be judged. Such gains are even more incredible in the context of Cousins' ever-rising usage rate, which this season trailed only that of Kevin Durant. To improve one's shooting percentages as the primary, dominant option on a crummy team is no small thing.
Two for three. The reintroduction of Kevin Love and Dirk Nowitzki to the All-Star pool was bound to create a crunch, though Aldridge earned his line to the final roster with a strong, well-covered opening to the season. There's not much room for debate there; Aldridge was a worthy All-Star having a great year for a team that was performing far better than expected. That Portland was front and center in the NBA consciousness for months undoubtedly gave him the edge over upstarts like DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis, though it's not as if his inclusion were by any means undeserved.
The miscalculation here was more linked to Tim Duncan, whose counting stats just couldn't compare to what was then an MVP campaign from Aldridge. Still, Lee and Randolph -- both of whom were All-Stars in 2013 -- were left off the team as predicted, ousted specifically by the returning candidates (Love and Nowitzki) mentioned. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.