Dead weight

Another refreshing season

Let’s have a look at some win total predictions courtesy of Matt Fay and Krishna Narsu.

The table below shows each team’s projected wins according to Vegas as well as some public statistical models from FiveThirtyEight, DARKO, Estimated Plus Minus (EPM), and LEBRON.

One thing that jumped out to me when I first saw these numbers is how (relatively) high projections are on teams that could be carrying around a lot of dead salary this season. By my count, there are four teams that have a player on their roster who earn max money and have a non-zero chance of sitting out the entire regular season.

In Los Angeles, Kawhi Leonard is recovering from an ACL injury and isn’t expected to rejoin the Clippers until the end of the regular season, if at all. The same goes for Jamal Murray and the Nuggets in Denver. In Brooklyn, Kyrie Irving’s reluctance to get vaccinated has put his playing status for the Nets in question. And while Ben Simmons has reported to practice in Philadelphia, it’s less clear when or if he intends to play in a game for the 76ers this year.

Recent history and common sense tells us that teams that devote max cap space to a player that puts on street clothes — either because of injury or other reasons — rarely amount to anything in the regular season, much less the playoffs.

Last season, the Golden State Warriors carried Klay Thompson’s max salary on their books while he recovered from an achilles injury. The Warriors finished 39-33 and lost both of their play-in games. The year before that, the Brooklyn Nets paid Kevin Durant a max salary to recover from his own an achilles injury. That Nets team finished with a 35-37 record and were swept in the first round by the Toronto Raptors. Meanwhile, The Wizards got zero games out of John Wall’s max salary in 2019-20 and the team won just 15 games.

I expect Leonard, Murray, Irving and Simmons to see the court at some point this season. But the longer they’re away from their teams, the more oppournities there are for things to go wrong and for the team to throw in the towel.

Remember the 2019-20 Warriors? They were expected to win around 47 games even though Klay Thompson was out for the season recovering from an ACL tear he sustained during the Finals. But Steph Curry broke his hand four games into the season and the Warriors tanked their way to 15 wins.

The margin for error for contending teams in the NBA is already small. If you chop off a team’s leg, all it takes is a light breeze or an unexpected injury to topple them over. Maybe the Clippers, Nuggets, Nets, and 76ers are able to stay afloat until the cavalry arrives, but don’t be surprised if one or more of those teams has the year from hell.


Title Favorites

Who cares about regular season wins. It’s championship or bust for some teams and this year the Brooklyn Nets are the betting favorite to win the title.

In the chart below, I’ve plotted the implied probability of winning the championship for the preseason betting favorite in each season since 2006. The Nets have an implied 30 percent chance of winning the whole thing. That makes them about as strong a preseason favorite as the year-two Heatles a decade ago (has it already been ten years!?).


#BoughtNotBuilt

While watching Lakers vs. Warriors on opening night I was struck by how different the two teams are constructed. Almost the entire Lakers roster was acquired in free agency or via trade. The only player on their roster that they drafted is Talen Horton-Tucker.

Meanwhile, the Warriors drafted Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Kevon Looney, Jordan Poole, Moses Moody, Klay Thompson, James Wiseman, and Johnathan Kuminga.

Those are two distinct approaches to roster building. Here’s how each of those constructions compare to the rest of the league:

In the chart above, I’ve plotted the roster composition of each team heading into the 2021-22 season. Each tile represents a rostered player and whether they were acquired via draft, free agency, trade, or through waivers.

For what it’s worth, no team has won the championship with fewer than two players on their roster that they drafted. This year’s Lakers will give it a go.


¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The chart below shows each team’s highest ranked player (based on an average across the NBA’s top 100 players from CBS, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and the Washington Post) versus their Vegas over/under.

The Brooklyn Nets have Kevin Durant, the consensus number one player in the NBA, as well as the highest expected win total. Meanwhile, the Orlando Magic’s highest ranked player is Johnathan Isaac (average rank of 92) and their expected win total is the lowest in the league.

One way to read this chart would be to see the NBA as a star-driven league. Simply having one of the ten best players on your roster is often enough to put you in title contention.

The other way to read this chart is to look at the powerful effect of winning bias. It’s easier to think more favorably of players on winning teams than of those of similar(ish) talent on losing teams. In other words, I look forward to everyone suddenly agreeing next season that Collin Sexton is a top 50 player once he’s traded to a better team.


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