Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Big NBA Season Preview, Round I, Part II - Central Division

Continuing the Fruithoopz pre-season NBA roundup, we move on to the potentially very competitive Central Division. As it stands, there are two title contenders, at least two legitimate Most Improved Player candidates, one MVP candidate, three new head coaches, and the first overall draft pick, all in this division.

(Click here for the Atlantic Division)


Central Division

Detroit Pistons
On the surface, it looks like new coach, but same old Pistons. Michael Curry takes over a team that is still led by the old core of Billups, Hamilton, Prince, and Rasheed Wallace. But the Pistons have actually re-built their entire core while continuing to contend at the top of the Eastern Conference -- something that's supposed to be impossible in the salary cap era. As the starters age over the next few years, Rodney Stuckey, Aaron Afflalo, Jason Maxiell, and Amir Johnson will be stepping in to take their places.

Outlook: They're still one of the two best teams in the improved East.

Players to keep tabs on: Amir Johnson was already my early favorite to win Most Improved Player this year, even before he was named a starter for the upcoming season. He'll struggle at times staying on the floor because of foul trouble, and there will probably be some growing pains, but he can do a lot of great things on the court. Stuckey, Afflalo, Maxiell, and even Kwame Brown are worth paying attention to this year to see how they improve their games during the course of the year -- the Pistons are doing an excellent job of developing their young players.

Reasons to watch: Amir Johnson is, besides being an important young player, also incredibly fun to watch. Also, check out what draftexpress says about Maxiell: "One of the few players in the League who will really try to dunk everything when he sees a hole. Won’t hesitate to go through defenders to get at the rim." And that is despite the fact that he has a well-developed mid-range game. 

Cleveland Cavaliers
Cleveland's big offseason move was acquiring Mo Williams from Milwaukee. Pretty much ever since Cleveland drafted Lebron James, they've been looking for a suitable perimeter scorer to play alongside him and take some of the shot-creation burden off. Ricky Williams wasn't quite right, and Larry Hughes was a complete disaster. So now begins the Mo Williams era in Cleveland.

The desire to have a shot-creator play with James is not unreasonable. Last year, James scored or assisted on a whopping 56% of the points the Cavs scored while he was on the court. The only players who played significant minutes last year that could create shots besides Lebron were Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Larry Hughes, and Hughes was woefully inefficient last year, shooting 37.7% from the field including 34.1% from three. Hughes is gone, and Delonte West has proven to be an adequate fill-in as a spot-up shooter if Boobie Gibson (44% from three) is not in the game, and Wally Szczerbiak can also hit from outside when he's in the game). Howev
er, finding a perimeter player who can create his own shot has still been a goal, and that's where Mo Williams comes in.

Williams is a solid outside shooter when he needs to be, but last year he also took a full 22% of his shots from inside the paint (for comparison, Boobie Gibson took 11% of his shot attempts from inside), and only 25% of the points he scored from inside were assisted, meaning m
ost of his inside scoring came from dribble forays into the paint. He didn't only create scoring opportunities for himself -- he averaged 6.3 assists per game last year, and he instantly becomes the second best passer on the Cavs.

The question is, how exactly does Mo Williams fit in to
the Cavs offense? Does his taking pressure off of Lebron make Lebron a better or more efficient player?

The idea that a player's efficiency declines somewhat as his usage increases has been alluded to several times in previous posts. In his book Basketball on Paper, Dean Oliver introduces a tool for looking at an individual player's usage-efficiency relationship, known as the "skill curve." Below is a modified version (I've inverted the axes, because it makes more sense to me this way) of the skill curve for Lebron James over the last three seasons (click the picture to enlarge).

League average efficiency last year was 107.5 points per 100 possessions, so it's clear that Lebron is able to stay very efficient even when taking on a huge portion of the offense (average usage would be around 20%, since there are 5 players on the court). But it does seem like the team would be better off if Lebron didn't have to take on a particularly large usage rate. Last year, he led the league in usage rate at 33.5 -- Kobe Bryant (31.4), Tracy McGrady (30.4), and Carmelo Anthony (30.2) were the only other players with usage rates over 30.

Let's first clear up what Mo Williams is not: Mo Williams is not a great defender. He is not an elite scorer. He is not a possible all-star. On most teams, he wouldn't be a great option as a #2 scorer.

But Cleveland isn't most teams. They have one of the best defenses in the league, even when Gibson is in the game, and Williams is probably a better defender than Gibson. And with Lebron producing enough for two players, all Williams needs to be offensively is good enough to keep Lebron from having to take on more than 35% of the offense while he's on the floor.

Last year, Mo Williams had a very similar usage rate to Larry Hughes. The difference was what he did with the possessions, as he was able to produce 111 points per 100 possessions, as opposed to Hughes' 96 -- that leads to a better than 15% increase in production from the Hughes days (Hughes didn't play most of his minutes at point guard, but I'm assuming Williams will be asked to fill a similar role when it comes to scoring, although Williams' ability to find open teammates will be a welcome addition). Given better results, Lebron might even look to funnel more of the offense to Williams, as he was willing to do whenever Hughes or Gibson got hot last year. Given Williams' skill-curve, it would appear he could handle some small increases in usage:

(I'm a little dubious about Williams' ability to be such an efficient offensive player when using 30% of the team's possessions, but looking at the data for the past three years, it's happened 29 times and he only had 7 bad games out of those 29). Additionally, playing alongside spot-up shooters like Gibson and finishers like Anderson Varejao, Williams' ability to gather assists should reduce the amount of work Lebron is forced to do.

There are still some lingering questions about the newish-look Cavs. First off, Larry Hughes was a much better perimeter defender than anyone left on the roster. Delonte West is passable,
and Williams can guard smaller point guards, but I'm not sure how a playoff series against Chauncey Billups would look. Hughes didn't offer as much defensively as he took off the table offensively, and Cleveland's ability to rebound is still strong, so this is a minor concern.

More pressing, though, is the question of the Cavs offensive system - or, complete lack of one. Williams' contributions on offense come through having the ball in his hands, creating off the dribble, slashing and passing. He is a decent spot-up shooter, but that's not what they acquired him to do. So, what does a Cleveland offense look like when Lebron is playing away from the ball? The reason the scenario is so hard to imagine is that it doesn't ever happen. Watching Cleveland games last year was mostly about watching Lebron dribble the ball for 20 seconds and then go to the hoop or shoot a fall-away three pointer -- it's remarkable that he was able to score and distribute as efficiently as he did given the sorts of opportunities he was getting from the offense. Coach Mike Brown is going to have to set up some sort of offense that allows Lebron to work off the ball, setting up in the mid-post or cutting to the basket or something that either gives him easy scoring opportunities or draws defensive attention away from shooters. If Williams can have the ball in his hands enough to average 5 assists, then the whole offense should benefit.

Outlook: They should start better than they did last year, with Pavlovic and Varejao at training camp and starting the season. Beyond that, I'm not convinced they're good enough to beat Detroit or Boston in a 7-game series. If the offense can improve (in the ways outlined above), then there's a shot. As long as Lebron James is healthy, the team should win 5-10 more games than the 45 they won last year, which would be just enough to James his first MVP trophy.

Players to keep tabs on: Sasha Pavlovic looked to be coming into his own as a solid defender and dependable outside shooter in 2006-2007. He held out for a contract coming into the 2007-2008 season, and then when he got back he seemed off all year. A lot depends on which Pavlovic shows up this year -- if the 2006-2007 version appears, that will be huge for the Cavs on the defensive end, as he can guard perimeter players very well and is big enough to handle guards that would otherwise outmuscle Cleveland's otherwise small backcourt. Also, watch for D-League call-up Lance Allred, if he makes the team. 

Reasons to watch: Lebron is the obvious answer. But did you realize what a funny dude Delonte West is?

To be continued . . . (Sorry, this post was already too long as it is, but Indiana, Milwaukee, and Chicago coming up next!).

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