NBA Metrics 101: Teams with Biggest Turnaround Potential for 2017-18 Season

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistJune 6, 2017

NBA Metrics 101: Teams with Biggest Turnaround Potential for 2017-18 Season

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    Though the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers continue to maintain strangleholds over their respective halves of the NBA, new challengers will eventually emerge. Some will be playoff teams who just keep improving, but others will burst out of the darkness and onto the scene. 

    Inevitably, at least one lottery squad from the 2016-17 campaign will surge into the playoffs and throw a scare into the conferences' top dogs. But which of the 14 candidates has the best chance to do so? 

    To evaluate this competition objectively, we're looking at each of the 14 lottery squads' ranks in six different categories: 

    1. Average age: Younger teams, as determined by Basketball Reference, tend to have better chances at experiencing breakthroughs, since youthful players have more upside that could be tapped into at any point. 
    2. Cap space: Teams with more money to spend this offseason have increased abilities to land impact players who can foster turnarounds. 
    3. Draft equity: Better draft picks and the volume of the selections both matter here. Draft equity was calculated by allotting 60 points for the No. 1 pick, 59 for No. 2 and so on, until the No. 60 pick was given a single point. The scores for teams' picks were summed, such that the highest total received top marks. 
    4. Positive players' TPA: By summing all above-average scores in NBA Math's total points added (TPA) for players still under contract for 2017-18, we can see how much positive production lottery squads have on the roster. 
    5. Star players' TPA: This followed the same process as the previous category, but only players with TPAs at or above 100 were included, thereby giving more importance to the men who are already not just playing well, but truly thriving. 
    6. Roster upside: This was a subjective category, incorporating everything for which the other five pieces can't account. That includes breakthrough potential for individual players, below-average contributors who should grow immensely in 2017-18, strength of the coaching staff and so much more. 

    Once each of the 14 teams was put in order for the six categories, their ranks were summed such that six would be a perfect score (No. 1 in each of the six). That calculation determined the final order of this all-important countdown. 

Honorable Mentions

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    Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

    Charlotte Hornets, 48 Turnaround Score

    With Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller and Kemba Walker, the Charlotte Hornets already have a strong core under contract. They even have a legitimate star lining up at point guard, and there are a few youngsters waiting to break out if given more opportunities to produce. But the limited methods to improve the roster mean almost all growth will come internally, which makes it tougher to ascend up these rankings. 

    Charlotte doesn't have much money to spend this summer, and it could be forced into filling holes—backup point guard, more shooters on the wings, etc.—with limited cap flexibility. The roster is older than all but three other lottery finishers, and the only incoming rookies will come with the Nos. 11 and 41 selections.

    The Hornets should look rather similar in 2017-18. They may stop underperforming based on their talent and underlying metrics—19 teams won more games, but only 11 had better net ratings—but that's not quite enough here. 


    Los Angeles Lakers, 46 Turnaround Score

    The Los Angeles Lakers have checked most boxes necessary for a big turnaround. 

    Their roster is young and full of upside, as any combination of Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram, D'Angelo Russell, Ivica Zubac, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. could easily break out during the 2017-18 campaign. Cap space is present in abundance, so long as the Purple and Gold can lure high-quality players into Hollywood under Magic Johnson's supervision. Highlighted by the No. 2 pick that will likely be used to select Lonzo Ball or De'Aaron Fox, they even have two first-round selections with which they can add more excitement to their ever-growing coffers. 

    But the incumbent talent just isn't there yet, and having a few players to lean upon is a massive part of any turnaround. 

    Ingram showed flashes of upside during his rookie season, but he largely struggled. Russell improved substantially but still has too many flaws to serve as a legitimate All-Star candidate. In fact, Nance is the only player under contract who finished the 2016-17 season with a positive score in NBA Math's TPA


    Other Lottery Teams: Miami Heat (50 Turnaround Score), Orlando Magic (50), Brooklyn Nets (55), New York Knicks (56), Dallas Mavericks (62), Sacramento Kings (62), Detroit Pistons (68) 

5. New Orleans Pelicans, 38 Turnaround Score

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    Age Rank: No. 8

    Cap Space Rank: No. 13

    Draft Equity Rank: No. 14

    Positive Players' TPA Rank: No. 1

    Star Players' TPA Rank: No. 1

    Roster Upside Rank: No. 1

    The New Orleans Pelicans won't have much money to spend in free agency, even if Jrue Holiday gets away and lowers the level of incumbent talent on the roster. They don't have many draft picks to play around with—their lone selection comes at No. 40, barring any trades between now and the end of the draft process. 

    But they have something no other lottery finisher can boast: two legitimate superstars. 

    Some turnaround candidates have one. But with both Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins set to prowl the Smoothie King Center, the Pelicans have enough talent to make some serious noise in the Western Conference, even if the rest of the New Orleans roster is nothing more than lackluster. The upside of two possible top-10 players tends to trump untapped potential, even when that potential comes with impressive pedigree. 

    By the time the Pelicans acquired Cousins for a package centered around Buddy Hield, it was too late for a legitimate playoff push. The former Sacramento King also struggled during his initial run with his new squad, forced to stave off declining production and ineffective shooting. 

    But by the end of 2016-17, he'd shown growth alongside Davis, making clear just how much damage the "fire and ice" duo could do. In 394 minutes together, they posted a 2.8 net rating, and that marked swelled to a gaudy 9.4 during the final four games they both suited up for. 

    The 2017-18 campaign will inevitably bring a few more growing pains, but no other team attempting to vault from the lottery into the postseason has a duo quite like this. 

4. Phoenix Suns, 35 Turnaround Score

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    Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

    Age Rank: No. 3

    Cap Space Rank: No. 10

    Draft Equity Rank: No. 4

    Positive Players' TPA Rank: No. 7

    Star Players' TPA Rank: No. 5

    Roster Upside Rank: No. 6

    Devin Booker can score 70 points in a game, but he won't push the Phoenix Suns to that proverbial next level until he can supplement his scoring explosions with production in other areas. He was still merely an average player—No. 75 in my year-end rankings—during his sophomore campaign, thanks to his defensive porosity and limitations when working as anything but a primary scorer. 

    Fortunately, he's not the only player on this desert-dwelling roster with substantial upside. Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender both flashed impressive skills during their rookie seasons, T.J. Warren is yet another offensive threat, and Eric Bledsoe is a legitimate star—maybe even the most underrated point guard in the Association. 

    And it gets better still. 

    Phoenix has Bledsoe (the only incumbent player who finished with a positive TPA, per NBA Math) and the youthful upside, but it can also add plenty more talent this summer. Maybe not by signing a big name, since it can't even offer a max deal to free agency's crown jewels, but most assuredly through the draft.

    Only three lottery teams—the Orlando Magic, Sacramento Kings and Philadelphia 76ers—are better positioned than the Suns, who can add players with picks Nos. 4, 32 and 54. Even if the second-round additions are draft-and-stash options to avoid overcrowding an already crowded team, bringing a top-five prospect into the mix and pairing him with the many other up-and-comers on this youthful roster will go a long way. 

2(tie). Denver Nuggets, 30 Turnaround Score

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    Age Rank: No. 5

    Cap Space Rank: No. 9

    Draft Equity Rank: No. 8

    Positive Players' TPA Rank: No. 3

    Star Players' TPA Rank: No. 2

    Roster Upside Rank: No. 3

    Just imagine that the Denver Nuggets stand pat throughout the offseason. 

    They don't move to make a massive trade for Jimmy Butler or Paul George, even if they have the resources necessary to tempt the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers. They flirt with superstars such as Kyle Lowry, Paul Millsap and Chris Paul before deciding to spend only a bit of money on the tail end of the roster. They make acquisitions during the draft, but they're only bringing on wait-and-see prospects with Nos. 13, 49 and 51. 

    Even in that situation, the Nuggets could break out and lock down a Western Conference playoff spot. Their roster is already that good, regardless of whether Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler choose to return for another season in the Mile High City. 

    The young roster is highlighted by Nikola Jokic now, and he sparked a 113.3 offensive rating from Dec. 15 (when he re-entered the starting five) through the end of the year. Only the Golden State Warriors (112.9) came close to that mark, leaving little doubt the Denver offense was elite while the league's best passing big was leading the charge.

    Only eight men added more value, per NBA Math's TPA, than the breakout center, and he's far from the only exciting youngster in Denver. Gary Harris is close to becoming a top-tier shooting guard after displaying unmatched cutting synergy alongside Jokic, while Jamal Murray, Juan Hernangomez, Emmanuel Mudiay (maybe?) and Malik Beasley give the franchise across-the-board upside. Plus, Kenneth Faried and Will Barton join Harris and Jokic as incumbents already providing positive value. 

    The Nuggets couldn't quite complete the postseason charge in 2016-17, but they might not be digging out of a hole one year later. 

2(tie). Philadelphia 76ers, 30 Turnaround Score

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    Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

    Age Rank: No. 2

    Cap Space Rank: No. 1

    Draft Equity Rank: No. 3

    Positive Players' TPA Rank: No. 6

    Star Players' TPA Rank: No. 14

    Roster Upside Rank: No. 4

    The Philadelphia 76ers are young and full of upside. They have the cap space necessary to sign anyone this offseason, though that's a bit misleading since few of the league's top players will consider joining a true rebuild—Kyle Lowry might be the lone exception, per a report from Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer. They can even add elite talent during the 2017 NBA draft, using the No. 3 pick to bring a potential stud aboard and then trying to find depth with their four second-round selections. 

    But this is still all about Joel Embiid

    Sure, there are other positive players in Philadelphia. Robert Covington and Richaun Holmes were quite good throughout this past season, while Shawn Long impressed in a very small sample. T.J. McConnell provides nice depth at point guard, and players such as Nik Stauskas, Justin Anderson and Dario Saric have plenty of upside. Even if you're not sold on Jahlil Okafor ever developing, you have to be intrigued by Ben Simmons as he prepares for his delayed rookie season. 

    But Embiid stands above them all—and not just literally. 

    The big man dealt with more injuries that limited him to just 31 appearances. He was also consistently in foul trouble, and mostly because of minutes restrictions, he played only 25.4 minutes per game. But had he played more, he'd be a lock for Rookie of the Year, an All-Star and a legitimate contender for Defensive Player of the Year while averaging over 20 points. 

    And even while the rest of the Sixers were growing around him, Embiid alone turned the Sixers into a playoff threat. That's not an exaggeration. Philadelphia outscored opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions when the Kansas product was on the floor, giving it a net rating better than the full-season marks of all Eastern Conference teams other than the Toronto Raptors. 

    Think about that. The Sixers with Embiid outperformed the regular-season Cleveland Cavaliers. And they're about to add a lot more talent, both through internal development, returns to health and incoming ability. 

1. Minnesota Timberwolves, 29 Turnaround Score

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    Age Rank: No. 1

    Cap Space Rank: No. 11

    Draft Equity Rank: No. 10

    Positive Players' TPA Rank: No. 2

    Star Players' TPA Rank: No. 3

    Roster Upside Rank: No. 2

    The Minnesota Timberwolves are the youngest of all the lottery teams, and they're already one of the most talented. While the New Orleans Pelicans boast more upside because of the Anthony Davis-DeMarcus Cousins duo, the rest of the roster is far weaker. The Denver Nuggets and Phoenix Suns may have as many different players with upside, but the extent of that upside is more limited. 

    Karl-Anthony Towns is already one of the NBA's 20 best players, and he spent the second half of his sophomore season trying to prove that number should be cut in half. His defense is still a work in progress, but he did average 28.4 points, 13.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists after the All-Star break while shooting 59.7 percent from the field, 43.4 percent from downtown and 84.1 percent from the stripe. 

    But he's far from the only potential superstar in Minnesota. 

    Andrew Wiggins is already a stud scorer, though the rest of his game needs to come around. His overall value is severely curtailed by his inadequate defense and inability to contribute when he's not producing points (to the extent that he still grades out as a negative overall presence), but the talent is there in spades. Zach LaVine was in the midst of a breakout campaign before tearing his ACL, and Kris Dunn showed some high-quality defensive chops during his rookie season, even if his shot is still missing. 

    Those four could become a top-notch quartet, and we haven't even mentioned Gorgui Dieng (one of the league's most underrated contributors) or Ricky Rubio (still a solid starting 1 without whom the offense struggles). Plus, the 'Wolves have the No. 7 pick in the draft and could add another potential star, though they're not exactly swimming in cap space. 

    The whole team will need to continue adjusting to head coach Tom Thibodeau's defensive strategems, but upside oozes forth from this organization. Between the bona fide star (Towns) and the ridiculous potential of the other young players scattered throughout the roster, no one has a better chance to go from the lottery to competing for home-court advantage in the first round of the 2018 playoffs. 

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter:@fromal09.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball or NBA Math and accurate heading into Game 3 of the 2017 NBA Finals.