The Biggest Overachievers and Underachievers of 2016-17 NBA Season

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMarch 16, 2017

The Biggest Overachievers and Underachievers of 2016-17 NBA Season

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    Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

    Each and every year, we enter the NBA season determined not to be caught off guard.

    Each and every year, we fail.

    Preseason expectations are meant to be brokento be proved wrong. There's isn't an 82-game schedule that goes by without a handful of surprising and disappointing teams throwing off preconceptions.

    Determining which squads stand out the most, both good and bad alike, is often a matter of preference. Different people have varying expectations for different teams. But this process is going to be as objective as possible.

    It'll start with a review of record projections. We'll revisit preseason predictions from ESPN.com and FiveThirtyEight while extrapolating Basketball Reference's expected win-loss metric that's on every team page. The average of those three forecasts will be the benchmark against which every team is measured. 

    Overachievers will be picked by seeing which outfits recouped the most losses. For instance, the Boston Celtics had an average record projection of 49-33. They're on pace to go 52-30, so they've negated about 9.1 percent of their presumed losses.

    Underachievers will be selected based on those that have incurred the largest drop-offs. The Dallas Mavericks, for example, had an aggregate projection of 37-45. Right now, they're in line for 35 victories, so they're roughly 5.4 percent below their predicted clip.

No. 5 Overachiever: Atlanta Hawks

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Average Expected Win-Loss: 40-42

    Actual Pace: 45-37

    Percent Losses Recouped: 11.9

    It makes sense that preseason expectations were largely pessimistic for the Atlanta Hawks. The magic of a 60-win 2014-15 campaign had long since worn off, and they lost Al Horford and Jeff Teague, two of their four most valuable players, over the offseason.

    That the Hawks are on track for 45 victories and contending for a top-four playoff seed in the Eastern Conference is an overachievement. It's also something of a peanut-puny phenomenon. Their projection comes while grading out as the NBA's wildest month-to-month roller coaster:

    MonthOffensive Rating (rank)Defensive Rating (rank)Net Rating (rank)
    October108.1 (No. 5)86.4 (No. 1)21.7 (No. 1)
    November99.1 (No. 26)100.2 (No. 3)-1.0 (No. 15)
    December103.1 (No. 23)109.5 (No. 22)-6.4 (No. 27)
    January105.7 (No. 19)103.5 (No. 5)2.2 (No. 10)
    February101.0 (No. 26)104.1 (No. 7)-3.1 (No. 22)
    March106.1 (No. 17)105.2 (No. 13)0.9 (No. 13)

    Consistency is overrated, apparently.

    Miniature leaps from Tim Hardaway Jr. and Mike Muscala help balance this seesaw, and the defense has been mostly reliable, too. But Atlanta's spacing isn't what it was before, and Kent Bazemore is recapturing his offensive mojo a few months too late.

    Whether the Hawks finish this season as a pleasantly low-key surprise or exactly who we thought they were is anyone's guess. 

    Next-Biggest Overachiever: Philadelphia 76ers (8.8 percent of losses recouped)

No. 4 Overachiever: Memphis Grizzlies

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    Average Expected Win-Loss: 40-42

    Actual Pace: 46-36

    Percent Losses Recouped: 14.3

    There are two ways to interpret the Memphis Grizzlies' placement: Either be thankful a recent run-in with futility hasn't wholly wrecked their status, or fume about how five losses in six games ruined an even better standing.

    We know which card head coach David Fizdale is going to play.

    "We're stale," he said after a March 6 loss to the Brooklyn Nets, per the Commercial Appeal's Ronald Tillery. "We're a mediocre basketball team. Some of that is on me. This is our lowest point."

    "That's the problem, the whole image of this group is that if we're underdogs and don't win it [the championship], that's OK," he added on March 8, a day before losing to the Los Angeles Clippers, per Grizzlies sideline reporter Rob Fischer. "No. I'll continue to shuffle until I find something that works best that gives us the best chance to hold the trophy. And if people don't like it, they can kiss my ass."

    Fizdale's starting-lineup shuffle has since landed on Tony Allen, Vince Carter, Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and JaMychal Green. In the end, he basically subbed in Carter for Chandler Parsons, who is likely done for the season after suffering a meniscus tear in his left knee, according to ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon.

    This dip was inevitable. The Grizzlies were on course for 48 wins before rattling off five straight losses, but they always seemed to be teetering on the brink of ordinariness. Twenty-six of their games have entered the final two minutes with neither team trailing by more than three points, through which they're 18-8—the best mark in league.

    Is this thin margin for error sustainable? Should the Grizzlies be concerned with their string of blowout losses? Was their March 13 drubbing of the Milwaukee Bucks a harbinger of a renaissance?

    The answers to these questions are immaterial for our purposes. The Grizzlies have built a good enough cushion to remain an overachiever.

No. 3 Overachiever: Washington Wizards

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    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    Averaged Expected Win-Loss: 42-40

    Actual Pace: 50-32

    Percent Losses Recouped: 20.0

    Talk about your midseason about-faces. The Washington Wizards were one of the NBA's biggest disappointments for a large portion of the schedule. A lack of depth seemed crippling, and they didn't begin sniffing .500 until the end of 2016.

    Boxing Day marked a turning point. Three straight victories became six wins in eight tries, then 10 in 13 and then 17 in 21. The Wizards won 17 straight at home and fought the Cleveland Cavaliers into overtime on Feb. 6. They beat the Warriors on Feb. 28—an impressive feat even when Kevin Durant leaves with a sprained MCL.

    Just like that, Washington is contending for the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed and sits within striking distance of first-place Cleveland. Only one team—those dang San Antonio Spurs—has a better record since Dec. 26, a stretch that's spanned nearly half the freaking season:

    Washington:W-L (rank)Offensive RatingDefensive RatingNet Rating
    Before Dec. 2613-16 (No. 17)105.1 (No. 12)106.5 (No. 22)-1.4 (No. 16)
    Since Dec. 2628-10 (No. 2)110.9 (No. 5)105.7 (No. 8)5.1 (No. 4)

    Fatigue might end up being an issue down the stretch. The Wizards' starting five has logged almost twice as many minutes (724) as the next most-used lineup (377) during this tear, while only the Minnesota Timberwolves have turned to their second-stringers less.

    But Bojan Bogdanovic's arrival coupled with Ian Mahinmi's return has deepened the rotation, and Marcin Gortat is the lone starter on the wrong side of 28.

    Washington is deep enough to be considered a feel-good story—and has been on fire long enough to make the rest of the East sweat.

No. 2 Overachiever: Houston Rockets

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    Average Expected Win-Loss: 49-33

    Actual Pace: 57-25

    Percent Losses Recouped: 24.3

    The Houston Rockets are obliterating preseason forecasts by doubling and tripling (and quadrupling) down on their strengths.

    General manager Daryl Morey hired an offensive genius in Mike D'Antoni as head coach when everyone thought Houston needed a defensive whiz. He traded for Lou Williams, a poor man's James Harden-meets-Eric Gordon, while shedding defensive depth with the departures of Corey Brewer and K.J. McDaniels. 

    His reasoning: Why fight who we are?

    "We want to win the title, and obviously that's probably going through the [Golden State] Warriors at some point," Morey told SiriusXM NBA radio (via CBS Sports' James Herbert). "And we absolutely figured the only way we're gonna beat 'em is with a barrage of 3-pointers and it's probably going to be a 124-120 affair if we're going to get past them."

    Bold strategy, Cotton Daryl. Or maybe not. Because it's working.

    Houston has the Association's second-best offense and, on average, is drilling almost three more treys per game than any other Western Conference team.

    Winning in the playoffs isn't solely about swishing three-balls, but it helps if you're essentially a plus-nine from beyond the arc every night—particularly when getting to the free-throw line as much as Houston.

    Pairing this offensive output with a league-average defense makes the Rockets that much scarier. They are tied for 12th in points allowed per 100 possessions, and the bench isn't far behind.

    Testing out the four-man combination of Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon, Harden and Williams jeopardizes that push for middling stinginess, but that group scores so much (110.7 points per 100 possessions) it almost doesn't matter.

    If Houston is able to play its game in the postseason, no team is safe—not even Golden State.

No. 1 Overachiever: San Antonio Spurs

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    Mark Sobhani/Getty Images

    Average Expected Win-Loss: 57-25

    Actual Pace: 64-18

    Percent Losses Recouped: 28.0

    Everyone jokes about the Spurs' longevity. It's a trademark of appreciation—evidence that we expect them to exceed expectations. But seriously: What in the actual frick is going on?

    Preseason projections banked on San Antonio falling off from last season. Reasonable, right? Tim Duncan retired, and the frontcourt underwent an extensive overhaul with the additions of Dewayne Dedmon, Pau Gasol and David Lee. Tony Parker was another year older, as was Manu Ginobili. LaMarcus Aldridge turned 31 in July.

    If nothing else, the Spurs were working off a franchise-best 67 wins and seemed bound to regress by default. 

    It shows how much the majority of us know.

    San Antonio is on pace for the second-highest winning percentage in franchise history and, most astonishingly, looks like the odds-on favorite to finish with the Western Conference's best record.

    The Warriors stole back first place with a March 14 win over the Philadelphia 76ers, but the Spurs own the season-series tiebreaker and, unlike Golden State, they aren't laboring through their worst stretch in recent memory.

    San Antonio does have a harder schedule to close the season, according to PlayoffStatus.com. Head coach Gregg Popovich isn't about to ditch planned maintenance nights for a shot at first place, either.

    But the Spurs are built to play without anyone, including Kawhi Leonard. They post what would be a top-three net rating without him (plus-8.2). They defy logic, winning more than they should, overachieving when they're supposed to be devolving, even if only slightly.

    In other words: It's business as usual in San Antonio.

No. 5 Underachiever: Orlando Magic

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Averaged Expected Win-Loss: 32-50

    Actual Pace: 29-53

    Percent Win Drop-Off: 9.4

    Though the Orlando Magic's frontcourt clunkfest looked less than promising before the season, this didn't seem like a team that would contend for its fourth top-five draft pick in five years. And yet, here we are.

    Orlando is 29th in offensive efficiency and hasn't found a sustainable defensive identity. Trading Serge Ibaka to Toronto opened the rotation a bit, but Bismack Biyombo and Nikola Vucevic don't make for a workable duo up front. They cannot play together, and there will always be one who isn't seeing enough court time when head coach Frank Vogel staggers their minutes.

    On the bright side, Elfrid Payton lives! He's averaging 12 points, 8.2 assists and 7.7 rebounds while shooting 51.6 percent overall through his last 10 outings, three of which have ended with a triple-double.

    Aaron Gordon is starting to find his way as well. Ibaka's departure is allowing him to spend more time at power forward, his natural position. He's averaging 15.6 points and 6.0 rebounds on 49.2 percent shooting since the move and is finding ways to offset his crummy three-point marksmanship.

    As ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote: 

    He's lurking along the baseline for putback crams instead of hanging aimlessly around the perimeter. Gordon outsprints opposing bigs for transition rim-runs, and when the offense bogs down, he can juke guys off the bounce -- something that was harder against wings, who can generally hang with him. He has even run a few nifty pick-and-rolls with Vucevic.

    Is Gordon the Magic's primary cornerstone? Can Payton be the point guard of the future? Both are extension-eligible this summer, so general manager Rob Hennigan (or whomever is running the show come July) has to decide soon. What can Mario Hezonja bring to the table? Should they spend big in free agency or hit reset? The questions don't end.

    This latest slide would be easier to accept if Orlando had a clear directive. Instead, it's pushing forward as one of the league's bigger underachievers, with another defining offseason on the horizon. 

    Next-Biggest Underachiever: New York Knicks (8.6 percent win drop-off)

No. 4 Underachiever: Portland Trail Blazers

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    Averaged Expected Win-Loss: 43-39

    Actual Pace: 37-45

    Percent Win Drop-Off: 14.0

    By their own admission, the Portland Trail Blazers weren't preparing to take a leap this season. Head coach Terry Stotts told Lowe over the summer they were "probably not going to make the quantum leap the salaries might indicate."

    Barring a scorching-hot stretch run, Portland won't end 2016-17 with a winning record. A postseason bid isn't impossible, but anything higher than an eighth-place finish is out of the question.

    There is no feasible scenario in which the Blazers enter this offseason without facing a slew of questions. They'll scoot past the projected $122 million luxury-tax line if they stand pat—an untenable situation when, in all likelihood, they'll be working off fewer than 40 wins.

    That means trades—plural. And it's fair to wonder whether anyone is off limits. Damian Lillard is a certified star, while C.J. McCollum is right there with him. But they struggle to coexist on defense without a top-tier rim protector or army of impassable perimeter pests—personnel Portland doesn't employ and will (probably) have trouble acquiring without dealing either of its guards. 

    Even if the Jusuf Nurkic trade is the impetus behind a playoff appearance, the Blazers exit this season an incomplete squad. They weren't supposed to be the latest version of the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns. On paper, they still aren't. But a similar fate is on the table.

    Portland built its immediate future around last year's Cinderella run. After this letdown, it must figure out how to pivot.

No. 3 Underachiever: Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Average Expected Win-Loss: 42-40

    Actual Pace: 34-48

    Percent Win Drop-Off: 19.0

    Blame for the Timberwolves' underwhelming season falls almost squarely on the outside world's shoulders. Too many were overestimating the impact head coach Tom Thibodeau would have on the NBA's youngest roster. Zach LaVine (injured), Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are Minnesota's three most important players, and none of them are older than 22.

    Silver linings aren't hard to find even if, as a perpetual pessimist, you view the Timberwolves' season as a failure. They hover around the top 10 in offensive efficiency. Rookie Kris Dunn is already their best perimeter defender, while Shabazz Muhammad might be a good-to-great three-point shooter. Nemanja Bjelica is playing like a real stretch 4 over his last 16 appearances (39.5 percent from deep).

    Towns remains a monster, even if Nikola Jokic is bilking him of some spotlight. The "Wiggins has no killer instinct" trope is dead (and has been for two-plus years); he averages more drives per game than Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard, and he's shooting better than 65 percent at the rim.

    The defense is a work in progress, and it'll stay that way until at least one of LaVine (when healthy) or Wiggins makes measurable strides. But the Timberwolves are seventh in points allowed per 100 possessions over their last 10 games, through which they're 6-4, with victories over the Utah Jazz, Clippers, Warriors and Wizards.

    For the playoff-or-bust crowd, Minnesota is four games back of the eighth-place Denver Nuggets in the loss column and has one of the West's easiest schedules on deck, per PlayoffStatus.com.

    Whatever happens, the Timberwolves enter this summer in an enviable positionwith high-end prospects, gobs of cap space and enough encouraging regular-season stretches to know they're on the right track.

No. 2 Underachiever: Charlotte Hornets

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Average Expected Win-Loss: 44-38

    Actual Pace: 35-47

    Percent Win Drop-Off: 20.5

    Generating offense was always going to be a problem for the Charlotte Hornets in 2016-17. They lost Courtney Lee and Jeremy Lin over the offseason, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's returnwhile a theoretical defensive boondid nothing for their spacing.

    Kemba Walker has been sensational for most of the year, but his job is exponentially harder when Marvin Williams isn't shooting 40-plus percent from three and Nicolas Batum is posting the lowest effective field-goal percentage of his career.

    Charlotte nevertheless projected to be a playoff formality. Head coach Steve Clifford would guide his troops toward top-seven stinginess and 40-something victories, and that would be that. This held true for much of this season, until it didn't.

    "It's mistake after mistake," Clifford said following a March 13 loss to the Chicago Bulls, per the Charlotte Observer's David Scott. "We play with no discipline defensively. We don't. It's been the story too many times this year. This is on me now. I have to do a better job of getting them to understand what we have to do. We do it at times."

    The Hornets are a mere 16th in defensive efficiency since Jan. 1, during which time they're 10-24. They've been even worse over their last 10 games, checking in at 21st. The rim protection is shaky, and players are blowing rotations. Only the Hawks have allowed more wide-open three-point attempts since the turn of the calendar.

    With only 13 games left to play, the clock has expired on the Hornets' playoff hopes. They're four games back of the eighth-place Detroit Pistons in the loss column and are staring down the East's toughest remaining schedule, per PlayoffStatus.com.

    At some point, Charlotte will stop rotating between playoff cameos and sub-.500 finishes. It just won't be this season.

No. 1 Underachiever: Brooklyn Nets

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Average Expected W-L: 21-61

    Actual Pace: 15-67

    Percent Win Drop-Off: 28.6 

    This isn't as egregious as it seems.

    Sure, the Nets were favorites to finish with the NBA's worst record, but the gravity of their rebuilding process wasn't understood out of the gate. It makes sense that they weren't placed miles behind the Sixers.

    Sub-20-win seasons are usually deliberate, or close to it. The Nets had—and still don't have—incentive to tank. The Boston Celtics control each of their next two first-round picks. General manager Sean Marks stocked the roster with quality veterans (Trevor Booker, Randy Foye, the since-waived Luis Scola), and Jeremy Lin wasn't supposed to miss most of the season with hamstring issues.

    The Nets were never going to be playoff contenders, but it was easy to talk yourself into 20-plus victories. They play hard, they run at the league's fastest pace and they manufacture as many wide-open shot attempts as the Cleveland Cavaliers.

    Having spent some time around this team, Brooklyn has installed a culture and is assuming an approach worthy of a more flattering record. There are many nights when you see the outline of a better squad.

    The talent and continuity just aren't where the Nets need them to be—even less so than initially thought.

          

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.  

    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com and accurate leading into games on March 16. Team salary information via Basketball Insiders.

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