I did a pile of number-crunching to come up with my forecast of the 2011-12 NBA season, so might as well get it on the record here.
My main purpose was coming up with projected win totals for each team and comparing those to the over/under betting lines (strictly for educational purposes, of course). I’m not going to explain all the gory details of my process, but the short explanation is I used the Wins Produced methodology to determine player productivity (explained in great detail on the Wages of Wins blog), and then painstakingly worked through the depth chart for each team to
guess estimate the number of minutes played by each player.
One of the valuable characteristics of Wins Produced is it is relatively stable from year to year so my starting point is each player’s productivity level from last season. It would be better if I used some sort of weighted average of the last few seasons, but that would be even more work, and this is only for fun anyway. The only other adjustment I made is based on age – I boosted the productivity for players under age 24, reduced it slightly through age 29, and reduced it even more for players in their 30s. That pattern is consistent with other research by Dr. Dave Berri (creator of Wins Produced).
For rookies, I used some rough numbers based on calculations by Devin Dignam (one of the Wages of Wins bloggers) around the last NBA draft. My understanding is the correlation between college (or European) production and NBA production isn’t that strong, but it’s better than nothing.
OK, enough of that. Here are my projected standings:
- Miami 48-18
- Chicago 43-23
- Orlando 42-24
- Boston 39-27
- New York 38-28
- Philadelphia 37-29
- Atlanta 33-33
- Milwaukee 31-35
- Cleveland 29-37
- Indiana 29-37
- New Jersey 28-38
- Detroit 21-45
- Charlotte 19-47
- Washington 18-48
- Toronto 18-48
- Oklahoma City 51-15
- LA Clippers 46-20
- Denver 44-22
- San Antonio 42-24
- LA Lakers 41-25
- Memphis 38-28
- Portland 37-29
- Phoenix 35-31
- Dallas 34-32
- Golden State 30-36
- Minnesota 28-38
- Houston 28-38
- Utah 27-39
- New Orleans 21-45
- Sacramento 15-51
One thing I forgot to take into consideration is the more imbalanced schedule in the lockout-shortened season. As you can see, the results show the West as significantly better (yet again), but with teams playing a higher percentage of games against their own conference, it’s probably safe to say that the West teams may turn out a little worse than I’ve projected. Conversely the East teams might turn out a little better by having more games against fellow East patsies.
But nobody can predict the future anyway, so small differences are not that important. What I’m interested in is significant differences between these projections and the consensus opinion, as represented by over/under betting lines.
I identified 10 worthwhile bets, which I’ll list in increasing order of confidence.
- Houston UNDER 32.5 wins. I projected 28 wins, but I don’t feel great about this one. Why? Mostly it’s because I trust GM Daryl Morey to tinker with his team throughout the season to keep it in playoff contention. If things aren’t going well, he’s been an active and effective trader in the past. Point guard Kyle Lowry is ranked among the top 10% of the most productive players in the league, but the other “stars” like Kevin Martin and Luis Scola don’t help all that much.
- Orlando OVER 37.5 wins. I projected 42 wins, but this is a prime exhibit of the challenge of these sorts of projections. If Dwight Howard stays put for the entire season, this pick looks fantastic. If he gets traded, the team will quite likely fall apart and enter a major rebuilding mode, in which case the Under is the easy call. If someone was betting real money, this is a stay-away.
- New Orleans UNDER 24.5 wins, I projected 21 wins. I discuss Chris Paul in more detail later, but suffice to say his removal from this team is catastrophic to its chances to compete. Eric Gordon is a decent young player, but he ain’t no Chris Paul. The NBA (which owns this team) seems to be taking the approach of maintaining and compiling young, cheap assets while trying to sell the team – hello, Mr. Aquilini, it’s time to make another call!. Which means the current team really sucks. The reason for my relative lack of confidence in this pick is simply that 24.5 wins is already pretty low, so there isn’t a lot of room in the event the Hornets’ young guys develop faster than expected.
- Sacramento UNDER 20.5 wins. I projected 15 wins, making this the worst team in the league. They have so many young players that are fun to watch, but there’s just nothing to tie it all together. Unless you count their new 6’6” centre, Chuck Hayes. Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins are hugely talented, but haven’t yet proven they can score efficiently or play within a team concept. Jimmer Fredette will also be fun to watch and I think he’ll be decent, but not good enough as a rookie to make a big difference.
- Indiana UNDER 36.5 wins, I projected 29 wins. I’m honestly stumped when trying to figure out why the consensus view of Indiana is that they are a substantially above-.500 team. They added David West from New Orleans, but that’s about it. West is decent (although returning from a major knee injury) and this team has good guards (Darren Collison, George Hill) but I see them significantly below 36 wins.
- Denver OVER 37.5 wins, I projected 44 wins. Isn’t it curious how the massively overhyped Carmelo Anthony leaves Denver with NO negative impact (the team was actually better without him) and yet he is still treated as a demi-god in New York. Let me list the Denver players that I project, based on the Wins Produced metric and my forecast of playing time, to produce more wins this season than Carmelo Anthony: Ty Lawson, Nene, Arron Afflalo, Chris Andersen, Andre Miller and Danilo Gallinari. Yes, that’s 6 players. Many will scoff that someone like Chris Andersen, a crazily-tattooed backup center, is more productive than the darling Melo, but even if this metric is not perfect the larger point is simply that Carmelo ain’t nothin’ special. Denver has simply put together a roster of good to very good players, without any superstars and more importantly without any major drags in the rotation other than Al Harrington. And Ty Lawson is a really good point guard.
- LA Clippers OVER 40.5 wins, I projected 46 wins. So many of the top players in the NBA are not as productive as the hype would suggest, but Chris Paul is the exception. He is truly one of the very best players in basketball and by Wins Produced is the best point guard since Magic Johnson. You add him to the emerging tandem of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, plus the addition of productive vets in Chauncey Billups and Reggie Evans, and this team is a championship contender. Health is the major concern as Paul has knee issues, but a full season from him should easily push the Clippers over 40 wins.
- Dallas UNDER 42.5 wins, I projected 34 wins. If I was a famous sports pundit, the most controversial part of my projections would be suggesting the reigning champion Mavericks will miss the playoffs. That part may not turn out to be correct, but I really don’t think they’re very good. It’s amazing how little credit Tyson Chandler received for them winning the title last year as Dirk was the storyline that everyone latched on to. Yet they didn’t win any titles before Chandler arrived, and I don’t think they’ll come anywhere close now that he’s left. They made a great move picking up the very productive Lamar Odom from the Lakers, but this is an old team. By the way, I don’t have a pick for the Knicks, but their acquisition of Chandler sets up a very interesting narrative. I think the Knicks are solidly a playoff team, and the mainstream media narrative will give all the credit to Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire, conveniently ignoring once again the likely impact of Tyson Chandler.
- Phoenix OVER 27.5 wins, I projected 35 wins. For some reason this team is not getting any respect, but Steve Nash remains an elite point guard. They also have a center who should finally break out this year as a top player in Marcin Gortat. I suppose there is some risk that Nash gets traded and the team goes into rebuild mode, but it seems to me that getting to 28 wins is not a particularly difficult task for this team.
- Cleveland OVER 16.5 wins. I project 29 wins for Cleveland and I think this bet is a slam-dunk winner (hypothetically speaking, of course). The Cavaliers collapsed last year without LeBron but they have some good pieces, especially Anderson Varejao. I think Kyrie Irving will win rookie of the year and the Israeli hero Omri Casspi should bounce back strong. Ramon Sessions is another very useful player in the backcourt, and even Alonzo Gee should be solid.
So those are my 10 best over/under picks. For the other 20 teams my projection was too close to the over/under line to make it worth betting on.
I don’t have any stats that suggest which teams will outperform, or under-perform, their regular performance in the playoffs, so I guess this means that I’m picking Oklahoma City to win the title over Miami in the final. Three times a bridesmaid for LeBron….
Oklahoma City is paying 2.5 to 1 to win it all, which aren’t great odds. A decent longer shot based on my projections is Denver, which pays 18 to 1.
You can also bet on division winners and the only one that I thought paid enough to bother is San Antonio to win the Southwest. New Orleans will be bad, and Houston also not very good. Memphis is a darkhorse favourite (I project 38 wins), but the betting favourite is Dallas. As discussed above, I don’t like the Mavericks and have them at 34-32 whereas I have San Antonio at 42-24. The Spurs pay 3.25 to 1 to win the division. That’s a very good bet.
And finally, there are a whole bunch of individual player prop bets that I happened to peruse while doing my research. Here are some of the bets that I like, based mostly on gut feel rather than specific research.
- Amare Stoudemire UNDER 25.5 points per game. He has exceeded that in the past, but Carmelo will be offensive option #1 and not particularly good at sharing. They have shoot-first point guards in Baron Davis, Toney Douglas and Mike Bibby, plus the fact that Amare should age prematurely based on his injury history, and it’s a gut feel that he finishes under.
- Derrick Rose OVER 8 assists per game. I think Derrick Rose is massively overrated and came nowhere close to deserving the MVP award last season. His best move of the season was being quoted last summer as saying “Why not me” in regards to winning the MVP, which gave the media a storyline they could vote for (and yes, I think it’s preposterous that people who write stories for a living get to vote for awards, as they have proven to vote for the story rather than on merit). But he is a very good player and seems to be a driven sort of guy who might decide that increasing his assists, even if it reduces his points, will make him a more complete and overall more productive player. And yes, that is the depth of my analysis of this bet.
- Brandon Knight UNDER 12.5 points per game. Brandon Knight is a first-round pick from Kentucky, who wasn’t very good as a freshman point guard in college last year. He’s only 20 and has potential, but there are established guards in Detroit ahead of him (especially Rodney Stuckey and Ben Gordon) so I don’t think he’ll get much playing time.
- Dwight Howard UNDER 13.5 rebounds per game. In this case I admit to being swayed by the Basketball Prospectus simulation of the first 5 weeks or so of the season. Their stats had Howard averaging only around 10 rebounds per game. Another factor is the possible distraction of the “will he, won’t he” trade talk, combined with his lower rebounding last year, and I feel pretty confident taking the under.
- Steve Nash OVER 10.5 assists per game. Well, Steve Nash is still really good. The man doesn’t eat sugar! Which means who knows what, but he’s really committed to maintaining his fitness and his status as an elite player into his late 30s. Phoenix will still be a decent team, and he should surpass this with ease.
- Joakim Noah OVER 10.5 rebounds per game. Joakim Noah is really good at one thing (other than hair maintenance – he is one of the few NBA players to have the hair to play wide receiver in the NFL) and that’s rebounding. He’s only 26 and has many years of finishing just behind Kevin Love in the rebounding stats ahead of him. This is my slam dunk player prop bet of the season.
I always believe in standing behind my forecasts, so I will review how these projections turned out at the end of the season. I might even compare my results to some of the so-called NBA experts out there. And I will report a rate of return on the (hypothetical) basket of wagers that I discussed.