Back before the regular season, Daniel Lewis and myself underwent an extensive project. Our goal: predict the final record of every NBA team. Both of us mapped out the NBA schedule and predicted every single game in order to come up with realistic predictions of the regular season. It was a fun exercise, and it created another idea in my head.
I wanted to evaluate my predictions in a way that would also grade the performances of each team and how they are playing, so I decided to keep a real time table of my predictions for each game versus the actual outcome. It’s lead to some fascinating results. Here are the early season results of my predictions (original articles for full record predictions are here and here).
In the Eastern Conference, there are some pretty clear color disparities for a couple of teams, but the rest has gone as expected. With a clear hierarchy at the top of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and the Cleveland Cavaliers...then everyone else, the win-loss records are not surprising. Three teams have legitimately shocked me though: the Chicago, Indiana, and Washington.
How are the Chicago Bulls playing basketball so well this season? NBA.com credits them with the sixth best Net Rating in the NBA, and one of the most interesting reasons is their sky high offensive rebounding rate of 31.4 percent as a team. They have four players with an individual OREB% greater than 8.0. To put that in perspective, the Minnesota Timberwolves and our Denver Nuggets have five players combined. This is the best way for the Bulls to make up for a lack of three point shooting and extensive midrange shooting: collect as many misses as possible.
Also, that Jimmy Butler guy has been pretty darn great. He’s averaging over 25 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1.5 steals per contest through this opening stretch. The lowest profile players to ever do that over a full season are Rick Barry and Paul Pierce. Pretty good company.
I expected this team to come out of the gate running, and while the Pacers are 12th in pace, they haven’t played very intelligent basketball. Of course, Paul George kicking a basketball into a fan’s face doesn’t help matters, but the real issue is the turnover issues with the starting unit. George, Jeff Teague, and Monta Ellis are combining to average 8.9 turnovers per contest, which can’t happen, given the lack of efficiency from Teague and Ellis.
Also, I look at the Ian Mahimni departure as a sign that the Pacers wanted to play fast, but with Teague, Ellis, and Thaddeus Young in the lineup, Myles Turner was never a capable enough positional defender to cover Mahimni’s loss. Now, he may grow into that, and yes, he has lots of blocks, but they need Rudy Gobert or Hakeem Olajuwon to keep that defense at a solid level.
Poor John Wall. He’s having his best season of his career, but the Wizards cannot stop anybody (last in effective field goal percentage). They are also incredibly inefficient, as Bradley Beal and Markieff Morris are both flirting with 50% true shooting. Their bench is quite possibly the worst in the league, and it doesn’t help that Ian Mahimni (oh, hey you!) hasn’t played a minute yet.
But there is good news for the Wizards! The relationship between Wall and Beal is improving...wait, never mind. Oh, but the young guys are going to be a large addition...wait, that’s just Otto Porter’s potential contract. At least the cap situation is gonna get better...$99 million on the books for next season and $103 million the year after, not counting said Otto Porter contract...yikes.
The Western Conference is, by comparison, a colorful mess. Nine teams have at least a two game differential in the West, while the East has just six. Lots of teams aren’t where they thought they would be (or at least where I thought they would be) at this early stage. There is time to go on hot streaks of course, but starting out the season poorly is usually a bad sign. Here are the three teams that have surprised me the most: Dallas, Houston, and the LA Lakers.
Wow, talk about a train wreck. At 2-11, Rick Carlisle and company just don’t seem to know how to win. It’s rough when the best player on the roster is Harrison Barnes, and Dirk Nowitzki has been out for awhile, but they are awful. Six of the regular rotation players have a true shooting percentage under 50%. Andrew Bogut has a TS% under 40% and a 28.5% turnover rate (Basketball Reference).
To put that in perspective, Emmanuel Mudiay is shooting better than Wesley Matthews, Dwight Powell, Dirk Nowitzki, Justin Anderson, and Andrew Bogut. Tank away, Dallas Mavericks.
So far, I was wrong about the Houston Rockets. I say so far because what James Harden is doing is unprecedented. The only other two players in NBA history to post an assist rate of greater than 50% and a true shooting percentage greater than 60% are John Stockton (six times) and Steve Nash (four times). Add in his absurd rebounding rate for a point guard, and he’s all alone. The Russell Westbrook comparisons to me are crazy, because James Harden is just insanely more efficient while putting up these incredible numbers.
Now, James Harden is an incredible player. As teams continue to scout the Rockets though, I think they will eventually figure this team out. Either that, or an injury to a key player (any of Eric Gordon, Clint Capela, Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza, or even Harden) would be a disaster for a team that lacks capable depth behind the starters. That said, I’m rooting for Harden to succeed. His skill set has absolutely been unlocked by Mike D’Antoni letting him loose on teams.
Los Angeles Lakers
I’m not going to spend anymore time talking about the Lakers than I have to, but I would be lying if I said I was expecting them to be 7-7 at this point. They have four extra wins at this point in the season, which is expected when the team has certain things going. They are all healthy at the same time, shooting the ball well at the same time, and riding the wave of a new coach.
Call me a pessimist. Call me a Laker hater because of the Nuggets’ troubles with them. I don’t really care. They are bound for regression. They are playing eight games in the next 12 days. Six against playoff teams and Golden State twice. I have them winning one of the eight, but if they come out of that stretch 3-5 or better, it will be time to start rethinking whether the Lakers can win 35 games or more.
Also, the Nuggets are 5-8 in my expected win prediction, and they are 5-8 now. The sky was never falling Nuggets fans. I have them going 7-5 over their next 12 games, and if they can be at or close to .500 after a 25 game segment of the schedule, then they will be right back in the playoff race.
As these graphs can depict, the schedule ebbs and flows. Weathering the storm of difficult stretches like this past segment is just as important as taking advantage of cooler seas ahead. The Nuggets have weathered the storm to this point, surviving injuries and a failed experiment with the starting lineup. As they continue to move away from that, expect to see some more green for the team in blue and gold.