NBA Metrics 101: Who Ya Got, Warriors Starting 5 or 5 No. 1 Picks?
Now that Deandre Ayton is entering the NBA fraternity with the Phoenix Suns, he'll join 11 other No. 1 selections on rosters for the 2018-19 season. They date back to 2003, when LeBron James came off the board first overall at the behest of the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the star power doesn't stop with the world's best player.
Take a gander at the alphabetically organized talents you can find at the top overall spot after eliminating recent selections who no longer have a place in the Association (Anthony Bennett, Andrea Bargnani, Greg Oden and Andrew Bogut):
- PG: Markelle Fultz, Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose, Ben Simmons, John Wall
- SG: Andrew Wiggins
- SF: LeBron James
- PF: Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin
- C: Deandre Ayton, Dwight Howard, Karl-Anthony Towns
That's quite a bit of talent.
But once we subjectively pick a representative at each position (using player score, a composite metric explained here, to color our choices and provide a baseline for analysis), would that lineup be strong enough to take down a fully healthy version of the Golden State Warriors' new-look starting five?
The Houston Rockets came oh-so-close last year, falling in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals after Chris Paul went down with a balky hamstring. Then the Cleveland Cavaliers were swept out of the NBA Finals. And those defeats came before the addition of DeMarcus Cousins—an addition made without sacrificing any of the four incumbent All-Stars.
So can this fantasy team do what those others couldn't? Follow along as we break down the battle one position at a time before reaching the overall conclusion.
Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry (10.91 player score)
The Top Picks: Kyrie Irving (8.99)
The top picks have a wealth of options at their disposal, considering how many point guards have been selected with the first overall pick in recent years. We're obviously not rolling with Markelle Fultz after his disappointingly confusing rookie season, and Derrick Rose is no longer anything more than a solid backup option. But that still leaves us with Kyrie Irving's experience and offensive prowess edging out John Wall and Ben Simmons*.
Nonetheless, the Golden State Warriors can take solace in their positional supremacy all the same. It doesn't matter which point guard you choose from the NBA's coffers at this stage of league history; they're all inferior to a healthy Stephen Curry.
Irving improved on defense under the tutelage of head coach Brad Stevens. He sometimes became a more willing passer, adding that facilitation acumen to a bag of offensive tricks that includes wizardrous shot-making and tremendous scoring touch from all over the half-court set. But he's still not on the same level as Curry, who remains an underrated team defender, a terrific distributor and the deadliest shooter this sport has ever witnessed.
Parsing Curry's impact isn't a particularly perilous process.
The Dubs were a team-high 11.8 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor during the regular season, which leaves the other All-Stars in the dust—Kevin Durant (2.0 better), Draymond Green (2.1 better) and Klay Thompson (4.6 better).
Boston improved its net rating from 2.2 to 5.2 with Irving logging minutes, but that left him lagging behind Marcus Smart (4.7 better), Aron Baynes (5.2 better), Jaylen Brown (7.4 better), Jayson Tatum (7.8 better) and Al Horford (7.9 better)...and that's if we exclude non-rotation members.
Irving isn't the linchpin for the Celtics' success. He's a deserving All-Star with a highlight-reel skill set, but his importance can't stack up against Curry's.
Advantage: Golden State
*Note: This could quickly change during the 2018-19 campaign, allowing Simmons to take over as the top point guard drafted at No. 1.
Golden State Warriors: Klay Thompson (4.38)
The Top Picks: Andrew Wiggins (0.53)
Klay Thompson's score easily outpaces Andrew Wiggins' (the only legitimate 2 drafted in the top slot who's still active), which is even more impressive because it still sells the Golden State guard well short. Metrics such as RPM and TPA don't accurately evaluate the shooting guard's defense because he doesn't rebound well, rack up steals, block plenty of shots or tower above other players at his position. He's the rare player who fits that profile and still plays excellent defense, which the numbers aren't designed to handle.
ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton has more:
"Players with box-score defensive stats like Thompson's are typically poor defenders, so his defensive box plus-minus rating is far worse than league average. That rating is similar to the one RPM uses as a starting point to rate players, which means it's beginning with the assumption that the Golden State defense is succeeding in spite of Thompson rather than because of him.
"The lack of steals suggests that Thompson's defense is probably somewhat overrated, since these contributions tend to be undervalued in favor of one-on-one defense by most observers. Still, this isn't a case like Avery Bradley, in which elite individual defense doesn't seem to be translating at the team level. Thompson is clearly a very good defender, just in a way that's difficult to measure for a system designed to provide the best estimate for all players and not unusual cases like him."
And yet, even with the metrics working against him, Thompson has a clear-cut advantage. Wiggins, no matter how many points he scores on a nightly basis, has been a negative for the Minnesota Timberwolves, dragging down the team's ceiling with his volume-shooting habits and inability to contribute in any other facet of the game.
His national reputation remains somewhat palatable because points per game is the most glamorous of all statistics, the one most easily cited by casual fans. But even if we assumed he wasn't a detractor when rebounding or attempting to distribute, his woeful defense would drag down his overall profile.
Consider this: FiveThirtyEight.com's CARMELO projection system forecasts Wiggins breaking his two-year trend of negative wins above replacement to earn a meager 1.4 WAR. And to clarify, Nate Silver wrote the following in an explanation of this model, referring to the players who Wiggins is falling below: "A replacement-level player, in theory, is someone who is freely or cheaply available, e.g. a G League player or someone signed to a contract for the league-minimum salary."
Thompson, meanwhile, has no such issues. His 4.0 WAR in 2017-18 was his lowest score in the last three years, and that still easily outpaces even the most generous developments for Wiggins. This position is a blowout.
Advantage: Golden State
Golden State Warriors: Kevin Durant (11.51)
The Top Picks: LeBron James (19.46)
Kevin Durant might be starting to close the gap on LeBron James, and not just because the former won his second consecutive Finals MVP by helping sweep the latter's Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2018 NBA Finals. His mere presence on the floor made life so much tougher for James, as evidenced by numbers from NBA.com.
When James played in the Finals while Durant was riding the pine, Cleveland outscored its adversary by 26 points in 21 minutes. During the 158 minutes in which both superstars populated the hardwood, the Dubs had the edge to the tune of 86 points over the course of 158 minutes. If we allow for pace effects, the Cavaliers' net rating shifted from 56.4 to minus-28.3—a substantial swing.
But this, of course, isn't just due to the impact of these individuals. Durant had the luxury of playing alongside a far stronger supporting cast, which is why the head-to-head matchup doesn't paint the full picture. Trade the two, and the results likely reverse.
That's why we're still giving the advantage to the top picks—a conclusion supported by just about every individual number to which you can turn.
In our player score metric, which works to combine many of those statistics on a similar scale, James finished the year with the league's No. 2 score, trailing James Harden (19.51) by mere decimal points while easily outpacing Russell Westbrook (16.15), Anthony Davis (15.52) and everyone else.
Durant, meanwhile, wound up sitting at No. 11, neatly sandwiched between Victor Oladipo (11.97) and Chris Paul (11.28). That's partially due to injury-diminished playing time, but he'd have trailed James by a sizable margin even with the luxury of perfect health.
The historic scoring ability and increasingly well-rounded game of the Warriors small forward could allow him to take the throne before too long. But he's still looking up at a 33-year-old version of James, who continues to doom him to those second-place (or worse) finishes he once decried.
Advantage: Top Picks
Golden State Warriors: Draymond Green (7.49)
The Top Picks: Anthony Davis (15.52)
If Blake Griffin had been the only eligible power forward for the challengers, this portion of the conversation would've gone differently. But Anthony Davis has spent enough time at the 4—49 and 54 percent of his minutes in 2017-18, per Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass, respectively—that he still qualifies for this starting spot.
Excellent as Draymond Green may be in so many different facets of the game, he's still not a team-leading superstar who can match up against Davis—No. 3 in my preseason MVP standings while Green, arguably No. 3 or 4 on his own team, is nowhere to be found.
To be clear, that's not a knock on his skill set.
Green remains a ferocious and versatile defender capable of switching onto any position, protecting the rim and impacting passing lanes at all times. He's a generational talent as a passing big; even that may be selling him short, as indicated by the former Spartan's historic score in the version of passer rating recently developed by Nylon Calculus' Ben Taylor.
But coming off a season in which he averaged just 11.0 points while shooting 45.4 percent from the field, 30.1 percent from downtown and 77.5 percent from the charity stripe, he doesn't have the all-around game necessary to keep pace with Davis. And we should also note the unibrowed big man was actually the lone player to post a superior score in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus and play more minutes per game than Green during the 2017-18 campaign.
Davis was fantastic throughout this past go-round, and he showed the full extent of his skills after assuming a larger burden in the wake of DeMarcus Cousins' season-ending Achilles rupture. From Jan. 26 through the end of the season, he averaged 30.2 points, 11.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.0 steals and 3.2 blocks while only turning the ball over 2.5 times per game and slashing 51.4/33.7/83.5. Those numbers should make your eyes pop while fully clarifying why the New Orleans Pelicans representative holds the obvious advantage at this position.
Advantage: Top Picks
Golden State Warriors: DeMarcus Cousins (6.78)
The Top Picks: Karl-Anthony Towns (15.11)
This would've been a battle royale if DeMarcus Cousins had never suffered the ruptured Achilles that prematurely ended both his 2017-18 efforts and his tenure with the New Orleans Pelicans. Then again, a healthy version of this center wouldn't have needed to sign with the Golden State Warriors on a one-year deal.
Before Cousins' body betrayed him, he was in the midst of a fantastic season that involved plenty of defensive improvements—it's amazing what consistent commitment to the less glamorous end can do—to go along with his continued efficacy from beyond the arc and tantalizing combination of physicality and finesse around the hoop. He was more of an all-around player than ever before, capable of holding his own on either end while filling myriad roles for the Pelicans, ranging from go-to scorer to willing fast-break facilitator.
But what will we see moving forward?
We're assuming Cousins is healthy for the purpose of this exercise, but he'll still be on the wrong end of an Achilles recovery—one of the most difficult rehabilitations in professional sports. Most players, especially those who suffer the injury at this stage of their careers, aren't the same afterward. As Chris Towers wrote for CBS Sports back in 2015:
"All in all, players who returned from a ruptured Achilles didn't see a huge dropoff in their rate stats in their first season back, surprisingly. On the whole, these players' usage, rebound and assists rates generally stayed constant.
"However, their efficiency took a hit, as the collective dropped from 45.9 percent shooting to 40.9 on average. That could be the result of players settling for more three-pointers as they tried to get their legs under them, as the average three-point rate rose 21 percent."
That's not good news for Cousins, who needs every bit of efficiency to match the unabashed offensive prowess of a 22-year-old Karl-Anthony Towns.
And Towns is only getting better.
Not only did he average 21.3 points with a 64.6 true shooting percentage in 2017-18, making him one of just four bigs in NBA history to clear those thresholds during a qualified campaign, but he also did so while drastically improving his biggest weakness.
Towns ranked dead last among centers in 2016-17 with a score of minus-1.41 in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus before elevating to No. 63 (0.44) this past go-round. Yes, that's an above-average defensive score, though still lagging well behind where most 5s typically find themselves.
Time has passed by Dwight Howard, dooming him to drop out of the elites at his position. Maybe Deandre Ayton eventually takes this spot for the top-pick team. But for now, it belongs to Towns rather easily, and he's winning the battle against the league's resident superteam.
Advantage: Top Picks
If you're keeping score at home, the team comprised of No. 1 picks earned the edge at small forward, power forward and center while losing both of the backcourt spots. And that means it wins the overall war, right?
The magnitude of the victories has to matter here, and player scores aside, the frontcourt advantages come with smaller margins overall than the ones earned by the Warriors at the guard spots. LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns certainly outpace Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and a healthy version of DeMarcus Cousins, but not by enough to match the yawning chasm between Stephen Curry/Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving/Andrew Wiggins.
The Splash Brothers provided the foundation for Golden State's dynastic levels of success, so it's only fitting they're the spark behind the team's enduring superiority here.
Perhaps allowing depth to factor into this battle would give the top selections a chance. With John Wall, Ben Simmons, Blake Griffin and Dwight Howard coming off the pine, they'd surely be able to outperform a dangerous Warriors second unit that doesn't possess much star power. But in a clash between the starters, even a quintet of No. 1 picks can't take down the latest iteration of this juggernaut.
Good luck to the rest of the NBA as we head into 2018-19. If this fantasy team can't dethrone the back-to-back champions, squads constructed under typical roster-building constraints are in for quite the challenge.
Overall Advantage: Golden State