We are closing in on training camp (thank you Basketball Jesus!), and I’d like to look at the state of our greatest players and what to expect next year.
I’ve concocted the cheesiest, easiest metric of all time to simplify things. I used the powers of addition to combine PER and WS per 82 games (WS82) to make one watered down number that kind of gives credit for the things PER loves (scoring, Usage, paucity of turnovers) and kind of gives credit for the things that WS loves (winning, efficiency). Now by no means is this going to give any sort of definitive order of who the best players are, but it will give us a list of names.
First thing to note is that last year there was a definitive top 5 players that stood out above the rest in most people’s minds. You could argue for who was most important to his team or best overall (and if you argued LeBron, you’d even be right), but there really wasn’t anybody else in contention in the popular opinion. LeBron James. Chris Paul. Dwyane Wade. Dwight Howard. Kobe Bryant. And this list with its phony-ballony statistical objectivity agrees.
However, the separation between Kobe Bryant and Brandon Roy was almost nonexistent by these measures. In fact the separation between Howard at 4 and Kobe at 5 is larger than the difference between Kobe at 5 and Duncan at 8. That doesn’t really matter, but it does sort of make it look like maybe, in terms of production anyway, we’ve got a top 4.
Not surprisingly, the champs have the highest combination of two players in Kobe and Pau Gasol. It stands to reason that they should repeat in that position as well. They are both in or just barely past their primes and don’t really project to be in major decline next season.
Speaking of projecting, I am not a big fan of trying to make age-based projections for star players. Those types of projections are ruled by the laws of large numbers (any statistical regression needs as much data as possible to be valuable). Regressions work. No doubt about it. But they tend to be more successful when examining homogeneous populations, and NBA stars are by definition exceptions that stand out from the broader spectrum. A very good mind taking a very careful approach might be able to make a good mathematical model to predict the rise and fall of an individual star, but that mind would also be an exception.
Now to make an uneducated prediction – the Magic project to be very, very good. Of all the players in the top 5, Dwight seems to be the one most likely to make another leap in production. He’s young enough to actually get stronger without losing speed and explosiveness, and there are a lot of skills left to develop. Jameer Nelson ranks 3rd among point guards behind only Chris Paul and Tony Parker. That’s not where I would rank him at all, but it indicates that he is elite. Interestingly Hedo Turkoglu ranked 111th in PER and didn’t make this list (top 100 PER only). Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis are there though. I’m not saying the Turk and Courtney Lee loss will be totally erased by grabbing Vince, but the return of Jameer and improvements in Dwight should more than make up for it – as long as Coach Van Gundy can adjust the team offense and defense, which I’m sure he can and will.
Is the top 5 (or 4) going to be possible to break next year? Is there somebody out there who can get his PER and WS up high enough to push ahead of Kobe, Dwight, Wade, Paul, or LeBron? Maybe. Clearly Brandon Roy is knocking on the door. If the Trailblazers progress as we expect, it’s unlikely. He should be able to defer more to his teammates and give more of the playmaking to Miller, to be the decoy on more plays. But he’s got the ability to get up there if Kobe backs off some for Artest. Then there’s the new paradigm, the 6′ 10″ swing man. He plays in Oklahoma City (yes they have an NBA team now), and we don’t have any idea what his ceiling is yet. Kevin Durant has scary potential, and he made a massive leap after moving from the shooting guard to the small forward. He could make a move next year, but I’m betting it takes 2 for him to break into the top 5.
It looks like the power forward has dropped from its perch and given way to the shooting guard. Oh, and I do consider Tim Duncan a center at this point. It looks like he’s going to be starting next to McDyess next year. That makes him center. I don’t want to hear it from Popavich either. You could also argue that Pau is a center as well, given that the Lakers’ best unit is him at the 5 and Odom at the 4. What about Amare? With Shaq gone, does he slide back over to center most of the time? That leaves Dirk, Bosh, and KG if he makes it back from injury as the whole of the PF elite (IMO). 5 years ago Duncan, Garnett, Dirk, Webber, Rasheed, Brand, Marion… as inspector Clouseau would say, “Not anymore.” Now it’s Wade, Kobe, Roy, Manu, Vince, Ray, Martin…
Let’s talk about LeBron for a second here. As you may know, last season LeBron matched Michael Jordan for the best PER since the NBA started keeping all the stats necessary to calculate PER. That is a staggering feat in and of itself, but what had everyone giddy was how LeBron managed to match that great PER number at the age of 24 with so much improvement left to be made. What nobody managed to mention was that Michael Jordan also scored that great PER number at the age of 24. Now here’s the bizarre thing, the reason Jordan’s PER dipped the next year is that the Bulls brought in a back to the basket center and took just enough possessions out of Michael’s hands to bring his numbers down. Here comes Shaquille to the Cavs!
There’s a point to be made about that too. Do you really want your best player to need to put up the best stats ever in order to give your team a chance of contending? Aren’t you better off with two players in the top 10 like the Lakers? Or three in the top 15 like the Spurs? I can’t wait to see how this season plays out. Major changes for the top teams in the league (except the Nuggets). Some of the most important changes may be players coming back from injuries – Tracy McGrady, Gilbert Arenas, Kevin Garnett, Jameer Nelson, Manu Ginobili… and even with all of those improvements to top teams, the defending champion Lakers still look like the team to beat. Is it important to note that Ron Artest and Trevor Ariza were virtually even by our numbers here and Ariza is 7 years younger? It may make a big difference for the Rockets in two or three years, but for next year, the Lakers are still looking like the favorites. You know what an old Celtics fan says to that? Beat LA! Beat LA!