One Bold Prediction for Top 20 NBA Stars Heading into 2014-15
As the 2014-15 NBA season fast approaches, it's time to project how the league's most prominent superstars will fare when action tips off.
With questions swirling regarding Kobe Bryant's effectiveness at age 36, Derrick Rose's ability to remain healthy for the entirety of the upcoming campaign and Anthony Davis' place among the Association's elite, we're here to make some bold calls.
Specifically, we chose to explore statistical trends based on players' recent production and extrapolated new statistical benchmarks for the upcoming season.
In some cases, that meant statistical increases in key categories. In other instances, the predictions pertained to decreased production.
It's also crucial to note we're not specifically ranking the players themselves. Instead, they're simply listed alphabetically by last name.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless noted otherwise.
LaMarcus Aldridge, PF, Portland Trail Blazers
Prediction: LaMarcus Aldridge's field-goal percentage will dip to a new career low
LaMarcus Aldridge entered the early-season MVP conversation last season thanks to some gaudy nightly numbers.
Specifically, Aldridge averaged 25.0 points and 12.2 rebounds in December before torching opponents to the tune of 26.1 points and 13.1 rebounds in January.
However, as Aldridge's numbers ballooned, so did his share of the offensive burden.
Over the course of 69 games, Aldridge hoisted 20.6 shots per night, which represented a 2.8-shot-per-game increase from the previous year.
And while a scoring average of 23.2 was a new career high for Aldridge, his field-goal percentage dipped to a career-worst 45.8 as a result of the increased workload.
More surprising, though, was that Aldridge's beloved mid-range jumper didn't always fall with the regularity we'd become accustomed to.
For instance, Aldridge shot a career-worst 34.6 percent between three and 10 feet while recording a mark of 38.8 percent shooting between 10 and 16 feet (the lowest percentage since his rookie year).
Fortunately, Aldridge drained shots between 16 feet and the three-point line at a solid 44.2 percent clip, and those shots accounted for 41.5 percent of his total attempts last season.
All that said, Aldridge should be in line for a similar role next season alongside fellow scoring savant Damian Lillard. Should his volume hold steady or even increase slightly in a contract year, it's not inconceivable to think that Aldridge's field-goal percentage could sink yet again.
Carmelo Anthony, SF, New York Knicks
Prediction: Carmelo Anthony will lead the league in catch-and-shoot field-goal percentage
Along with Stephen Curry and Kyle Korver, Carmelo Anthony possesses one of the quickest releases in the NBA.
Thanks to that unique trait, Anthony has made the catch-and-shoot jumper a key weapon in his offensive arsenal.
That was particularly evident last season, when Anthony drilled 46.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot jumpers while knocking down a staggering 43.8 percent of his catch-and-shoot attempts from beyond the arc, according to SportVU player-tracking data.
Still, those marks didn't rank as the league's best, for Korver had other plans.
Among players who attempted at least five catch-and-shoot jumpers per game, Korver posted league-best shooting percentages of 51.2 from the field and 49.9 from three.
Anthony's ascension to the top of the catch-and-shoot throne may be dependent on other marksmen having off years, but he clearly possesses the tools to surpass the league's most consistent knockdown shooters.
Kobe Bryant, SG, Los Angeles Lakers
Prediction: Kobe Bryant will shoot better than 47 percent from the field for the first time in his career
It sounds strange, but Kobe Bryant has never made more than 47 percent of his shots from the field over the course of a single season.
The number itself is a tad arbitrary, sure, but examining Bryant's career history, it's hard not to notice how close he's come to topping 47 percent on several occasions.
Most notably, Bryant shot 46.9 percent from the field during the 2001-02 campaign after knocking down 46.8 percent of his attempts two seasons prior.
The hypothesis for why Bryant's never had a particularly sterling field-goal percentage (his career mark sits at 45.4) revolves around the heavy volume at which he's shot the ball.
Proof: According to Basketball-Reference.com, Bryant ranks tied for second all time when it comes to the number of seasons during which he's attempted at least 20 shots per game.
After Michael Jordan (12), Bryant (10) is knotted up with Elgin Baylor and Dominique Wilkins.
But since the Los Angeles Lakers have padded their roster with capable scorers in Jeremy Lin and Carlos Boozer while retaining the services of Nick Young, the potential exists for those ancillary weapons to space the floor and free up some room for the decreasingly mobile Bryant to operate.
“I’ll be sharper,” Bryant told Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard. “Much sharper. Much more efficient in areas. I’ll be limited in terms of what you see me do, versus a couple years ago. But very, very methodical, very, very purposeful.”
We're banking on that mentality pushing Bryant into an efficient new realm of production.
Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors
Prediction: Stephen Curry will lead the league in field-goal percentage on pull-up jumpers
Stephen Curry is a jump-shooting savant, the likes of which we haven't seen since Reggie Miller.
But what makes Curry so deadly is that he isn't confined to catch-and-shoot jumpers like so many long-range snipers.
Instead, Curry has employed a filthy pull-up jumper that is nearly impossible to guard given how quick his release is.
CBS Sports' Zach Harper recently explored how lethal Curry's pull-up shooting was last season:
Here's where it gets interesting. Curry shot the most jump shots off the dribble last season, at 7.4 per game per Synergy Sports. Typically, those are bad shots. But not for Curry. The average percentage on jumpers off the dribble for players who took at least one per game was 36 percent. Curry shot 45 percent. The average points per shot on those attempts was .80, Curry averaged 1.11. That difference is insane.
Despite those gaudy numbers, Curry still didn't lead the league in conversion rate on pull-ups among players who attempted at least three per game (defined as "any jump shot outside 10 feet where a player took 1 or more dribbles before shooting," per NBA.com) because of the insane volume Harper alluded to.
After racking up a league-leading 848 points on pull-up jumpers, though, Curry proved he has the chops to improve on a mark of 43.6 percent, according to the league's SportVU player-tracking data, and challenge for the Association's top spot.
Anthony Davis, PF, New Orleans Pelicans
Prediction: Anthony Davis will tie Derrick Rose as youngest player to win NBA MVP
Anthony Davis is bound for tremendous individual success after a breakout sophomore campaign, but his status as one of the game's elite players may not be solidified until the New Orleans Pelicans vault up the Western Conference standings.
With that in mind, it's feasible to imagine a world in which the Pelicans stay relatively healthy, resulting in a 10-15 win improvement in the standings, which would put Davis firmly in the league's MVP conversation.
Should that be the case, it's hard to imagine a world in which Davis isn't carrying the Pelicans to newfound success, especially after he became the fourth player in league history to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks between the ages of 18 and 21, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
Additionally, Davis was one of just 15 players to post a win share total of greater than 10 last season, per Basketball-Reference.
With those accomplishments in mind, a scenario clearly exists wherein Davis' name can top the MVP leaderboard.
I know how good he’s going to be. I know how good he is now, but I know how good he’s going to be. He’s an MVP-caliber player. So he’s next. He’s next in line – a guy that has grown so much in just a year. I’m excited to see what he does from here. He’s definitely on pace.
Should Davis stun the basketball universe and steal the trophy from the clutches of Durant and LeBron James, he would tie Derrick Rose (22 years old) as the youngest player to win the esteemed award.
Tim Duncan, PF, San Antonio Spurs
Prediction: Tim Duncan will play fewer than 2,000 minutes
Tim Duncan has played fewer than 2,000 minutes over the course of a single season just twice in his career.
And both occurrences came during lockout-shortened seasons.
But with Duncan going on 39 years old in the final year of his contract, it would be understandable if head coach Gregg Popovich sought to get his aging superstar ample rest in advance of the franchise's late spring title defense.
The way we see it, Duncan could maintain last season's minute-per-game clip of 29.2 and still fall short of the 2,000-minute threshold.
For example, if Duncan received 15 days of rest sprinkled throughout the regular season, he would play a total of 67 games, which would put him at 1,956.4 minutes played.
Since we know Popovich is fond of maintenance plans for his key contributors, a third sub-2,000 minute campaign feels like it could be in the cards for Duncan this season.
Kevin Durant, SF, Oklahoma City Thunder
Prediction: Kevin Durant will become the seventh player in league history to top 20 win shares
Kevin Durant came oh so close to cracking the 20-win share threshold last season, finishing with a league-leading total of 19.2.
And considering he'll still be entering the early phase of his prime at age 26, it's terrifying to consider how much room the reigning MVP has to improve until he reaches his ceiling.
With that said, we're going out on a limb and projecting Durant to join Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (three times), Wilt Chamberlain (six), LeBron James (one), Michael Jordan (three), George Mikan (three) and Oscar Robertson (one) as the seventh player to crack 20 win shares in a single season.
An efficient monster who recorded a career- and league-high player efficiency rating of 29.8 last season, Durant has the Oklahoma City Thunder primed to avenge their Western Conference Finals loss to the San Antonio Spurs.
As Durant continues to mold his legacy as one of the greatest scorers the NBA has ever seen, expect his numbers to climb in tandem with his evolving greatness.
Blake Griffin, PF, Los Angeles Clippers
Prediction: Fewer than 10 percent of Blake Griffin's field-goal attempts will be dunks
The growth in Blake Griffin's offensive game has been remarkable. And yet, few seem ready to acknowledge how dominant a force he's become.
Last season, Griffin was one of two players to average at least 20 points, nine rebounds and three assists, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Kevin Love was the other.
More importantly, Griffin grew as a mid-range shooter under Doc Rivers, knocking down a career-high 39.8 percent of his shots between 10 and 16 feet, per Basketball-Reference.
As a result of increased confidence in his mid-range capabilities, Griffin attempted a career-low 14.2 percent of his total shots in the form of dunks, which represented a 5.7 percent decrease from the year prior.
With those numbers in mind, we're going to project another drop in the range of 5 percent, which would be consistent with last year's surprising decrease.
So long as versatility remains a staple of Griffin's ever-expanding game, his reputation will change in concert with recognition as one of the league's most dominant all-around forces.
James Harden, SG, Houston Rockets
Prediction: James Harden will lead the league in scoring average on drives
With Chandler Parsons out of the picture, James Harden will be tasked with picking up even more of the slack in the scoring department for the Houston Rockets.
Thanks to Parsons' departure, we're projecting Harden to take a sizable step forward when it comes to scoring on drives.
Although Harden was among the more efficient scorers on such plays last season, he ranked No. 15 overall when it came to his nightly output on drives (minimum five drives per game), according to SportVu player-tracking data.
During the 2013-14 season, Harden averaged 5.4 points on drives while the Dallas Mavericks' Monta Ellis led all players with 7.3.
But considering Harden's game serves as a microcosm of an offensive philosophy that's predicated on heavy doses of inside and outside action, an increase in dribble-drive scoring feels appropriate.
According to NBA.com, drives are defined as follows: "Any touch that starts at least 20 feet of the hoop and is dribbled within 10 feet of the hoop and excludes fast breaks."
Since 39.5 percent of Harden's field-goal attempts last season came between zero and 10 feet, per Basketball-Reference.com, his efficient ways are perfectly tailored toward a boost in production near the rim.
Dwight Howard, C, Houston Rockets
Prediction: Dwight Howard will reclaim the league's blocks crown
Dwight Howard prospered during his first season with the Houston Rockets, but it's clear Superman still has some work to do if he wants to regain the form that annually had him in the MVP conversation.
Once the game's most intimidating rim protector, Howard has seen that esteemed title usurped by up-and-comers Serge Ibaka and Anthony Davis over the past few seasons.
In fact, last season was the first time since 2006-07 that Dwight blocked fewer than two shots per game.
Despite that drop-off, we're well aware Howard possesses the length and quickness necessary to be considered one of the Association's most feared defensive presences in the restricted area.
According to the NBA's SportVU player-tracking data, Howard limited opponents to 47.8 percent shooting at the rim last season (minimum five attempts per game), which ranked among the league's top 20.
That number then improved to 43.1 percent during the playoffs, which was good for No. 3 overall among all postseason-eligible bigs.
After leading the league in blocks during back-to-back seasons with the Magic (2008-09 and 2009-10), it's time for Howard to re-establish himself as an elite shot-blocker after a brief hiatus.
LeBron James, SF, Cleveland Cavaliers
Prediction: LeBron James will enter the 50/40/90 club
Is it a reach to say LeBron James will post 50/40/90 shooting splits in his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers? Unequivocally, yes.
But as we've learned in the past, LeBron James' game doesn't adhere to convention. Simply put, it's impossible to have expectations for James because he shatters them so regularly.
So in this case, we're going to think outside the box.
James has shot better than 50 percent from the field during each of his last five seasons. So in that regard, the first third of his task shouldn't be an extraordinarily daunting undertaking.
However, things get dicey when we're discussing his three-point and free-throw shooting capabilities.
While LeBron has evolved into a strong three-point shooter, he's notched a conversion rate of 40 percent from beyond the arc just once (2012-13) during his 11-year career.
And when it comes to crossing the 90 percent threshold from the charity stripe, James has never come close. His career percentage sits at 74.7 percent, and his single-season high is 78 percent (2008-09).
Not only that, but sinking 90 percent of one's freebies isn't exactly a common occurrence.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, only five players (Kyle Korver, Ray Allen, Pablo Prigioni, Brian Roberts and Trey Burke) who qualified for the league's minutes leaderboard sank at least 90 percent of their free throws last season.
The odds are against James, but doubting his ability to pull off the improbable would be silly.
Damian Lillard, PG, Portland Trail Blazers
Prediction: The Portland Trail Blazers will be a better defensive team with Damian Lillard on the floor
The Portland Trail Blazers will go only as far as their defense takes them.
We know what the offense is capable of, having posted the league's second-best offensive rating (111.5), according to Basketball-Reference.com.
But Terry Stotts' defense was below average, at best, last season, and Damian Lillard's development on that end will be imperative to a deeper playoff run.
According to NBA.com, the Blazers were actually 1.3 points better per 100 defensive possessions with Lillard off the floor. That margin was essentially the difference between Portland's defense ranking as a pedestrian unit and an above-average one.
The good news is Lillard displayed improvement on defense last season, shedding two points from his individual defensive rating (down to 110) while boosting his defensive win shares by more than a full game.
In order to be considered in the same breath with names like Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and John Wall, though, Lillard will need to display some revelatory and committed defensive play, the likes of which we haven't seen from Portland's star point guard through two seasons.
Kevin Love, PF, Cleveland Cavaliers
Prediction: Kevin Love will average fewer than 20 points per game
Now that the trade sending Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers has been completed, the league's premier stretch 4 will step into a new, possibly uncomfortable role.
Love played the role of alpha dog in the Timberwolves' offense for years, but upon joining the Cavaliers will assume secondary scoring responsibilities behind LeBron James while sharing the floor with Kyrie Irving.
As a result, the three-time All-Star could see his scoring average decline quite a bit after averaging a career-high 26.1 points last season.
And as Bleacher Report's Greg Swartz recently explained, Chris Bosh's statistical drop-off during his first year with James in Miami could serve as a model for Love's production during the 2014-15 season:
While his minutes were similar, Bosh's stats did see quite a decrease, as expected.
What was surprising to see was that his efficiency stats (field-goal percentage, PER) fell as well. One would think playing with James and Dwyane Wade would only help to create more open looks, thus increasing his shooting percentage.
Specifically, Swartz mentions that Bosh's scoring average dipped by 5.3 points from 2009-10 to 2010-11, while the rest of his basic box score stats declined as well (with the exception of minutes played).
Love clearly has the tools necessary to post some outrageous numbers, but those night-to-night outbursts may be behind him now that Cleveland boasts three offensive studs.
Joakim Noah, C, Chicago Bulls
Prediction: Joakim Noah will defend his Defensive Player of the Year crown
Joakim Noah's style of play isn't aesthetically enchanting when compared to peers like Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Love, Blake Griffin or even Tim Duncan, but his commitment to excellence on defense makes up for his lack of flash.
With quick feet and quicker hands, Noah entrenched himself as one of the league's few elite defensive centerpieces last season.
As a result, Noah ran away with Defensive Player of the Year honors, totaling 555 points in the final voting. The gap between Noah and second-place finisher Roy Hibbert (166) was a gaudy 389 points.
Last season's league leader in defensive rating (96) and defensive win shares (6.6), Noah propelled a depleted Chicago Bulls club into the playoffs behind a cumulative defensive rating (100.5) that ranked No. 2 overall behind the Indiana Pacers.
Now, with the Bulls healthy and throttling toward the top of the Eastern Conference, it's time for Noah to impose his defensive will once again.
With Derrick Rose back at full strength and Pau Gasol joining Noah in the frontcourt, the 29-year-old won't be forced to assume such a hefty offensive burden, freeing him up to play the role of defensive linchpin.
Seeking to become the first back-to-back winner of Defensive Player of the Year hardware since Dwight Howard (2009-10, 2010-11), Noah appears primed for more greatness in the months ahead.
Dirk Nowitzki, PF, Dallas Mavericks
Prediction: Dirk Nowitzki will pass Shaquille O'Neal for No. 6 all time on NBA scoring list
Last season, Dirk Nowitzki leapfrogged Oscar Robertson and moved into 10th place on the NBA's all-time scoring list.
As things stand, Nowitzki has compiled 26,786 points over the course of 16 professional seasons.
And now that he's cracked the top 10, Nowitzki is primed to pass a handful of other esteemed scorers.
Examining the league's all-time scoring list, Nowitzki should have no problem flying by Hakeem Olajuwon (26,946 points), Elvin Hayes (27,313) and Moses Malone (27,409) this season.
The daunting task will be passing Shaquille O'Neal, who racked up a massive 28,596 points over the course of his 19-year carer.
In order to pass The Big Aristotle during the 2014-15 season, Nowitzki will need to drop 1,811 points, a tally that would represent a 76-point increase from last season, when the German sharpshooter averaged 21.7 points over the course of 80 games.
The bold thinking here is that Nowitzki may cede some offensive responsibilities to Chandler Parsons during the first year of their partnership in Dallas, making his ascension past O'Neal that much harder.
However, Nowitzki proved doubters wrong last season by falling percentage points shy of re-entering the 50/40/90 club, so discounting his scoring ability even at age 36 would be unwise.
Chris Paul, PG, Los Angeles Clippers
Prediction: Chris Paul will become the eighth player in league history to average at least three steals
Historically speaking, this is arguably our boldest prediction.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, only seven players in NBA history have averaged at least three steals over the course of a single season.
Those men are as follows: Don Buse, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Micheal Ray Richardson, Alvin Robertson, John Stockton and Slick Watts.
And not since Robertson accomplished the feat during the 1990-91 season has anyone crossed the three-steal-per-game threshold.
In fact, it's been 10 years since any player came fractional points close of hitting the mark. During the 2004-05 season, Larry Hughes of the Washington Wizards tallied 2.9 steals per game, while Scottie Pippen and Gary Payton equaled that average during the 1994-95 and 1995-96 seasons, respectively.
Consider Paul has led the league in steals six of the last seven seasons—including four in a row—and it's clear he has the defensive pedigree to join the likes of Magic and Michael with a standout campaign.
Derrick Rose, PG, Chicago Bulls
Prediction: Derrick Rose will appear in 85 percent of the Chicago Bulls' regular-season games
Due to a litany of untimely injuries, Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose hasn't appeared in more than 60 percent of his team's games during a single season since 2010-11.
In fact, since the start of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, Rose has appeared in just 21.3 percent of Chicago's 230 regular-season contests.
It's with those numbers in mind that we're going out on a limb and predicting Rose appears in at least 85 percent of the Bulls' games this season.
Assuming he plays to the floor of our prediction, Rose would appear in 70 of a possible 82 games.
Considering he's likely to receive scheduled days of rest along the way, 12 missed games feels like an appropriate guess for an explosive athlete who's starting to regain his footing.
Dwyane Wade, SG, Miami Heat
Prediction: Dwyane Wade will rank as a top-10 scorer at season's end
Don't count Dwyane Wade out.
I know it's tempting after he appeared in just 54 games last season and was a serious defensive sieve during the postseason (defensive rating of 111), but the pieces are in place for the 32-year-old to undergo a career renaissance next season.
Yes, Wade shot the ball at a career-best 54.5 percent clip last season, but his scoring average dipped to 19.0, the lowest mark since his rookie season.
With LeBron James out of the picture and Erik Spoelstra's offense ready to run through Wade and Chris Bosh, it's the three-time champion's time to shine yet again.
After all, Wade simply torched opposing defenses inside the arc last season, knocking down 51.7 percent of his shots between three and 10 feet while converting on an even 50.0 percent of his attempts between 10 and 16 feet.
And you better believe Wade is motivated to prove doubters wrong after a lackluster 2013-14 season.
"I need it. I need it," Wade told our Ethan Skolnick about handling a bigger load next season.
With that determined mindset and a pedigree that suggests he's fully capable of assuming a heftier burden on the offensive end, we like Wade's chances to emerge as an elite scorer again.
John Wall, PG, Washington Wizards
Prediction: John Wall will shoot better than 40 percent from mid-range
John Wall's development on both ends of the floor over the last two seasons has thrust him into the realm of superstardom with gusto.
However, there's still one area of Wall's game that could use major refinement: his mid-range jumper.
While he's revered as one of the league's most fearsome open-court presences, Wall's jumper is still very much a work in progress.
According to NBA.com, Wall shot 36.62 percent on mid-range shots last season, attempts that were classified between 16 and 24 feet. That mark actually represented a percentage point decrease from the season prior, although it was an improvement over his mark of 32.5 percent during his sophomore season.
Should Wall's jumper make the leap, so to speak, defenders will be forced to respect his range, which would make his speed an even more lethal weapon.
For example, if defenders need to step up and pressure Wall beyond the free-throw line more aggressively, it limits the amount of cushion they can give themselves to prevent the point guard's quick dribble-drives.
Given the maturity we've seen from Wall of late, there's no reason to think he can't start honing his craft more efficiently from mid-range.
Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder
Prediction: Russell Westbrook will shoot at least 45 percent on drives
Last season, we predicted Russell Westbrook would rank among the league's top five in terms of player efficiency rating.
At season's end, he wasn't far off at No. 8, having posted a career-best PER of 24.7.
Although his efficiency is ticking up, there remains a key area in which Westbrook needs to excel in order for the Oklahoma City Thunder's offense to reach its full potential.
On 6.4 drives per game last season, Westbrook shot just 39.2 percent on shots classified as "any touch that starts at least 20 feet of the hoop and is dribbled within 10 feet of the hoop and excludes fast breaks," according to SportVU player-tracking data provided by the NBA.
Among players who attempted at least five drives per game, that conversion rate ranked 54th out of 58.
The only players with more cringe-worthy percentages were Kemba Walker, Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Jennings and Rudy Gay.
A near 6 percent increase is rather bold for a player who's shown such erratic tendencies around the rim, especially since his field-goal percentage in the restricted area has declined in each of the past two seasons, according to NBA.com.
But with Westbrook's PER steadily rising, it's time for his dribble-drive to match his efficiency in other departments.