Forecasting the Western Conference for 2007-08

Yesterday I offered a forecast for the Eastern Conference that had many, many words and very few specifics.  Primarily that is because the Eastern Conference has a few dominant teams (Boston, Chicago, and maybe Cleveland and Detroit), one bad team (the Milwaukee Bucks), and ten teams that are hard to separate from each other.

Today it’s the Western Conference.  This forecast will also have many words, but also tend to be a bit more specific.  And that’s because the West is comprised of both really good and really bad teams.

Before I get to the forecast, let me again start with a list of assumptions and qualifications. If you read yesterday’s forecast, you can skip this section and go right to what I say about the West.

Assumptions and Qualifications

If you know WP48 (Wins Produced per 48 minutes) and how many minutes a player plays, then you know Wins Produced. And as noted many times here, Wins Produced and actual wins are quite closely related (which is not surprising, since Wins Produced is based on the link between wins and offensive and defensive efficiency).

In looking at the past it’s easy to see a player’s Wins Produced (well, easy in the sense that it can be done). When we look towards the future, though, calculating Wins Produced becomes a challenge. First of all, we don’t know future productivity.  Yes, there is a strong link between past and future per-minute performance.  But it’s not a perfect link. In other words, players can get better (or worse).

Then there is minutes played.  I have not modeled minutes played, so for these I have to make an educated guess (with the emphasis on “guess” not “educated”).

All that being said, I did go through each team’s roster and made an effort to forecast the 2007-08 season.  This forecast assumes that past productivity equals future performance (although I did make an adjustment if I thought a player was going to change positions).  And I am assuming that I have some idea how many minutes a player is going to play.  No allowance is made for player performance improving or declining.  And no effort was really made to account for injuries that haven’t happened yet.  In sum, this forecast is designed to tell us where everyone is starting the season.  If nothing changes on each team, this is where they will finish.

Okay, I think I stated all the assumptions and qualifiers.  Here is the forecast.  Again, today I discuss the Western Conference. Not only will I report how I think these teams rank before the season starts, I also offer a very brief discussion of how I reached this conclusion.  For those who want more details on each team, please see the review of the 2006-07 NBA season.

1. Dallas, San Antonio, and Phoenix

Just like last year, these three teams are the Best in the West.  Last year the Spurs were the best of this trio.  The only move the Spurs made of significance since winning it all in 2007 was the signing of Ime Udoka.  He is only an average small forward, but an improvement over Bruce Bowen (although it’s not clear that Udoka will take any minutes from Bowen).  Age is definitely an issue for the Spurs and at some point key contributors like Robert Horry and Brent Barry are going to stop contributing. 

Of the three, Dallas did the most to improve.  Eddie Jones has consistently been an above average player and he has been added to the Mavs backcourt.  Trenton Hassell was also added. Although Hassell is a below average player, he’s an upgrade over Greg Buckner.  The injury to Erick Dampier, though, is a concern.

And then there are the Suns.  The margin for error for the Suns is smaller than for San Antonio and Dallas.  Phoenix only has eight players who look to be part of the regular rotation.  An injury here or there can certainly derail the Suns drive for their first title. Still, any team with Steve Nash, Shawn Marion, and Amare Stoudemire is going to be difficult to beat. And if Boris Diaw can regain the form we saw in 2005-06, the Suns could surpass both Dallas and San Antonio.

4.  Utah, Houston, New Orleans, and Denver

After the top trio in the West, we see four teams that are going to fill in slots 4-7 in the Western Conference playoffs. Utah, Houston, and Denver were each in the playoffs last year.  The newcomer is New Orleans, whose 2006-07 season was derailed by injuries.  Again, a few thoughts on each team.

The Utah Jazz improved last year due to the emergence of Deron Williams, the health of Carlos Boozer, and the drafting of Paul Millsap.  All these players are back.  The big move was the loss of Derek Fisher, who produced -0.7 wins last season.  If Fisher’s minutes go to Ronnie Brewer and Jason Hart, two players who were above average last season, the Jazz could be a bit better in 2007-08.

Another team that looks to improve is the Rockets.  As I noted a few days ago, the Rockets have a number of questions with respect to playing time.  Although it’s not clear how Houston is going to allocate its scarce supply of  minutes (especially in the backcourt) it does look like Houston might be able to keep pace with Utah (although not catch the top three).

After the Celtics, the team that might improve the most is the Hornets.  Marc Jackson and Desmond Mason – two players who were in the negative range last year – are gone.  Peja Stojakovic and Chris Paul are back from injuries.  Plus the team added Morris Peterson and Julian Wright, two players who could be above average (assuming Wright plays small forward). Given all this I expect New Orleans to be in the playoffs in 2008.

And then there are the Nuggets.  Here is how Tony Mejia of CBSSports.com described Denver’s prospects:

CBSSports.com believes in Anthony and the Nuggets, predicting they’ll overcome Utah in the Northwest Division. If they fail, it had better be a result of the scenario Karl believes possible, where Utah simply outperforms them and wins more than 60 games. That’s unlikely, but if it happens, Denver has every right to shake off the disappointment and feel good about its season.

Okay, this says the Nuggets are looking at close to 60 wins.  But when you scan down to the bottom of the forecast, Meija predicts this team will only win 48 games. 

This is not just a problem for Meija.  People believe Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson are great players.  In fact, if Anthony was as good as LeBron James and Iverson was as good as Steve Nash (or some other top little guy), Denver could expect more than 60 wins in 2007-08. But judging by past performance, Anthony and Iverson are not that good.  Consequently, despite Meija’s rhetoric, his actual forecast is closer to the mark.  And furthermore, he is also correct to note that his forecast depends on the health of Marcus Camby, Nene Hilario, and Kenyon Martin. 

It’s odd, though, to see the disconnect between how Denver is described and how many wins people expect from the Nuggets.  With Carmelo and Iverson, people describe this team as a title contender.  But when it comes time to forecast wins, somehow the forecasts you see from pundits fall far short of what you would expect from a championship caliber team.

8. The Los Angeles Lakers

The last playoff team is the Lakers.  Before commenting briefly on the Lakers, let me note that the West is pretty much set.  There are eight teams in the Western Conference that look to be better than the other seven.  This was not the story told in the East, where the top four were trailed by ten teams hoping to fill the last four playoff slots. 

Okay, on to the Lakers.  At the moment the Lakers have not traded Kobe.  Despite the demands of Kobe -which seemed to alternate between “trade me” and “trade someone else for better teammates” – the Lakers didn’t do much this past offseason.  The one transaction involving a veteran was the acquisition of Derek Fisher.  As noted above, Fisher did not play too well last year.  So the Lakers don’t look like a team that will improve much beyond what we saw in 2006-07.  That might be good enough to grab the eighth seed, but probably not good enough to get this team into the second round of the playoffs.

9. Memphis, Golden State, Sacramento, and LA Clippers

Although I think there is a divide between the top eight and the bottom seven in the West, all is not lost for the non-contenders.  It’s possible that the Lakers will implode. And if that happens, one of these four teams could take the 8th spot.  

The leader of this grouping is the favorite team of 3ShadesofBlue, the Memphis Grizzlies. Memphis has Pau Gasol and Mike Miller, two above average veterans.  And Kyle Lowry looked very good in very limited minutes last year.  But after these players we see Hakim Warrick, Rudy Gay, and Stromile Swift, three very poor performers.  Newcomers Darko Milicic and Mike Conley should help a little bit, but I am not convinced these additions will be enough to catch the Lakers.

Another team chasing the Lakers is the Golden State Warriors.  As I noted last summer, the play of Jason Richardson was a big reason the Warriors were able to take the eighth seed in 2007.  But Richardson was traded to Charlotte. In the short term, such a move doesn’t move this team forward.  Still, Baron Davis, Andris Biedrins, and Matt Barnes (assuming he plays) are above average players that might be good enough to land a playoff spot.

Sacramento has already lost Mike Bibby for a few weeks, so they are likely to start slowly.  In fact, without Bibby this team probably drops out of this grouping.  The Kings do have Ron Artest and Kevin Martin, but the remainder of the roster is old and no longer exceptional.  If Brad Miller can return to what we saw a few years ago (a major if), and Bibby comes back, this team might be able to overtake the Lakers (but I doubt it).

And finally we have the Clippers. Not sure the Clippers belong in this grouping either.  The loss of Elton Brand severely clips the Clippers. The team did add Ruben Patterson and Brevin Knight, two players who can help.  And it is possible Chris Kaman will return to what we saw in 2005-06.  If that happens, maybe this team can hang on until Brand returns.

13. Portland, Seattle, and Minnesota

Okay, the previous four teams have a shot at the playoffs.  Now we have the teams lacking a shot (or at least, with only a very tiny shot).  Yes, these are the truly bad teams in the NBA.  The story for all three of these teams is the same. There simply are not enough productive players for these teams to be competitive with the rest of the NBA. 

Let’s start with Portland.  Brandon Roy and Jarrett Jack were above average last year (although not by much for Jack). Sergio Rodriguez was above average, but may not play much this year.  And Joel Przybilla was above average two years ago. Unfortunately, that’s it.  The rest of this roster ranges from below average to very bad (for very bad see Channing Frye).  Yes, LeMarcus Aldridge could make a huge leap in his second year (I am not convinced, but it could happen).  Even if that happened, though, this roster is simply not going to be very competitive.

I was pretty high on Seattle last summer.  In fact, I projected 37 wins for this team.  But Kevin Durant played very badly in the NBA’s summer league.  And then he was below average in the NBA pre-season.  These two performances lead me to think that maybe Durant will not come into the league and be productive from the start.  Unfortunately for Seattle fans, if Durant can’t produce, this team is not going to be very competitive. To see this, consider the list of above average players (WP48 last year in parenthesis): Kurt Thomas (0.136), Chris Wilcox (0.106), Nick Collison (0.112), and Delonte West (0.101).  Yes, there are a few other player who can be close to average.  But I think the play of Durant and Jeff Green (the team’s other lottery pick) might just sink this ship. 

And then we have the Minnesota Timberwolves.  For years this team was Kevin Garnett and not much else. Now it’s Al Jefferson and not much else.  In fact, after Jefferson only Craig Smith was above average last year. Furthermore Sebastian Telfair, Gerald Green, and Antoine Walker are in the negative range.  Put it all together and you see a team destined for the lottery in 2008.  The big question is – will Kevin McHale get to make that pick?

Looking at the Divisions

Here is the breakdown by division.

Northwest: Utah, then Denver, and then Portland, Seattle, Minnesota.  The last three can go in any order.

Southwest: Dallas and San Antonio lead the division (in either order), Houston and New Orleans take the three-four spots (in either order), and then Memphis.

Pacific: Phoenix takes the division followed by the Lakers.  Then Golden State, Sacramento, and the LA Clippers in any order.

My next post will preview the playoffs.  Hopefully that will be on-line before tip-off on Tuesday night.

– DJ

For a discussion of other teams see NBA Team Reviews: 2006-07

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The equation connecting wins to offensive/defensive efficiency is given HERE

Wins Produced and Win Score are discussed in the following posts

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

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