First Round Fall Out

We touched on a few of the first round losers last week (Raptors and Celtics) but now let’s take a look at the fallout for the some of the remaining losers.   Today, we’ll look at Milwaukee, Brooklyn, and Portland.  Spurs, Mavs, and the Pelicans will be a little bit later.

-Milwaukee Bucks:  The Bucks huge improvement is, no doubt, a rousing success and Jason Kidd has proven himself to be a very solid coach.  The future is wide open too.  The Bucks are no doubt most excited by Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was 20 this year and objectively looked like a defensive monster.  While the Greek Freak clearly improved offensively, he is still not an exactly an offensive powerhouse.  Antetokounmpo’s PER jumped from a weak 10.8 rookie season to a solid 14.8, mostly due a rise in his shooting percentage (his true shooting rose from .518% to .552%).

Some interesting notes about Antetokounmpo’s development:

Shot selection: in 2013-14, he took 28.2% of his shots from three-point land versus only 5.6% this season.  Antetokounmpo was actually a fairly decent shooter from three as a rookie (.347%) but this year he fell to an abysmal .159%.  One can only presume that he didn’t totally lose the ability but that Kidd told him only to shoot the shot when absolutely necessary (i.e. desperation moments) and not as part of the set offense.  It would be easy to improve his numbers a bit by getting this shot closer to his rookie efficiency.

Rebounding: Antetokounmpo rebounding improved considerably (his rebound rated jumped from 10.2% to 12.2%).  This was not because he was in the paint more on offense (he grabbed the same percentage of offensive boards) but because he improved on the defensive glass, snagging almost 20% of defensive boards (up from 16.3%).

Blocks/Steals:  Antetokounmpo looks like a defensive menace but this is still not reflected in block or steal rate, which were averageish and remained basically flat with his rookie year.

PER:  Last season, we looked at Antetokounmpo’s PER as a 19-year old and noted that he was not on the high side.  As a 20-year old, he still isn’t super impressive.  His 14.8 PER ranked 43rd out of the 59 NBA 20-year olds with over 2,000 minutes played.  That ranking sounds worse than it actually is.  He is bunched with several players in a tight range closer to the median than the bottom.

Plenty of All-Star players also had mediocre PERs at the same age (James Harden had 14.0, Russell Westbrook had 15.2 and DeMarcus Cousins had 14.6).  If you limit the search, however, to only second-year players at age-20 (this would remove mostly rookies), Antetokounmpo still doesn’t look great.  He is still near the bottom of the list, coming in at 17th out of 22 players in second-year players in PER.  None of the guys below him on the list are stars either: Darius Miles (14.4), Bradley Beal (14.3), Spencer Hawes (13.0), Marvin Williams (12.2), and Bismack Biyombo (10.1).  (Yes, Beal still has a chance).

The Freak v. Noel: While I haven’t read others make this comparison, I naturally associate Antetokounmpo with Nerlens Noel, another skinny player with a similar defense-first skill set.  Let’s look at their per/36 minute numbers this season:

Players FG FGA FG% 3p% Rebs Asts Stls Blks Tos Pts PER VORP
Noel 4.7 10.2 0.462 0 9.5 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 3.2 15.0 1.6
Giannis A. 5.4 11.1 0.491 0.159 7.7 2.9 1.0 1.2 2.5 3.6 14.8 1.6

Antetokounmpo and Noel come out roughly similar in value, though Noel looks more like a potential Marcus Camby, while it is tough to figure out exactly who to compare with Antetokounmpo .  This is what Antetokounmpo such a fun case study because he is so clearly an incredible athlete but he also clearly lacks the eye-popping stats.  His future value seems to point more towards good, solid players and not superstars. Can he make another huge leap?  Definitely but the odds aren’t as high as some have indicated.

-Brooklyn Nets: The Nets’ future isn’t bleak in the traditional sense.  Usually, bleak implies that a franchise is going to go through a long stretch of terrible season.  The Nets aren’t fun to watch but they also aren’t terrible.  In fact, the Nets have to try to compete to avoid the utter embarrassment of giving away high lottery picks to the Celtics for the privilege of about one year of older versions of Pierce/Garnett.

Sustaining mediocrity won’t be too hard.  The Nets have aging vets who are way overpaid (Joe Johnson/Deron Williams) but still productive enough to play.  They also will have to re-sign Brook Lopez, who despite his faults, is a very valuable player, and Thaddeus Young (getting him for KG was a huge steal that salvaged the season).  This core and a few solid reserves (Bojan Bogdanovic and Miles Plumlee) should be able to get Brooklyn somewhere in the 40 to 45-win range.  The Nets will then have cap room to spend after 2015-16, when they will be one of many teams hoping to snag Kevin Durant or some other star.

This is not the blueprint for success as much as it is a two-step process: (step 1) avoid a collapse in the short term and (step 2) play the free agent slot machines for the small chance of getting KD or another star in the in 2016 free agent grab bag.  This plan is wholly logical based on the Nets’ current situation but is unlikely to fully succeed (at least getting the big free agent part).

It is also fair to wonder how the Nets got in this dismal position of treading water without being able to properly rebuild and why the GM who made such choices is still employed by the team.  I know upper management may have forced some of these moves on Billy King but there are probably better idea men out there.

In terms of player focus, Williams is the guy most on the hot seat.  He was brought in to be the cornerstone superstar.  His numbers plummeted this season so badly that some have questioned whether he’s ever been good for the Nets.  In fact, D-Will was very good his first two seasons with the Nets (if not quite as good as the great points) but the downward arc the past two seasons is troubling.  His PER stats as a Net:

-2011-12: 20.3

-2012-13: 20.3

-2013-14: 17.6

-2014-15: 15.7

He is still better than Jarret Jack but there is reason to wonder if the old D-Will will ever comeback.  Williams has had ankle problems for years that haven’t helped.

Let’s look at the numbers to see where D-Will is most struggling.  In 2014-15, Williams’ two-point field goal percentage tumbled to .395%, by far the lowest in his career (he was a career .491% from two before this season).  Williams doesn’t get to the rim as much as he used to either but he did so at a better rate 2013-14, when he was still above average for his position.

Is it possible that Williams just had remarkably poor shooting luck this year and that the decline this season is temporary?  A look at Williams’ shot chart doesn’t clarify the situation.  Williams did shoot a career low on long-range twos (.351% versus a career mark of .437%).  This is the type of shooting that would be a cause for optimism because long twos are precisely the types of shots that could fluctuate from year-to-year without regard to athletic decline.

On the negative side of the ledger, Williams couldn’t finish at all near the rim.  For the first time in his career, he had no dunks for the season (he isn’t exactly a regular dunker but he is usually good for a few a season).  In addition, his 0-3 foot shots were at a career low (.457% versus a career .585%). All this is to say that there are plenty of indications that the decline here has more to do with injury/age than it does with bad luck.  Hopefully, Williams will be healthier next season but the presumption will be that the D-Will going forward will be more similar to 2014-15 than to the 2010-13 version.

Finally, there have been rumbles reported that the Nets might buy D-Will out because of his decline and the fact that he isn’t happy.  Looking at Williams’ numbers and the Nets’ other concerns, though, a buyout of Williams doesn’t make sense.  He is still the Nets’ best point guard and they want to be competitive.  Unless the buyout enables them to sign a better player, just setting Williams loose doesn’t help the franchise on the court (even if it somehow saved luxury tax costs).

-Portland Trailblazers:  It was tough for fans to see Portland get knocked out by Memphis so easily.  Still, the Blazers have nice pieces and had a good season.  The key issues of the off-season will be the pending free agencies of LeMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews.  Matthews has been a nice value player for Portland but is coming off an Achilles tear.  There is no reason to think that he won’t be the same player but, it doesn’t feel right to pay too much before you see if he lost anything to injury.  A short term deal would be fair for all sides.  It would give Portland some measure of security that Matthews can still play before committing long term and it would let Matthews reestablish market value and put him in the position for big money when the cap goes up.

Aldridge is the trickier case.    His 29 and coming off of another monster year (23.4 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 22.8 PER).  Despite his being the best player but PER, the plus/minus and VORP stats afford him with very little credit for Portland’s winning season.  Aldridge was fifth on the team in VORP at 1.4 (behind even Robin Lopez) and his BPM was barely positive.  These stats do not jive with other plus/minus numbers, which find Aldridge to be the best player on the team.

Putting all the noise aside, if one just watches Portland for even a few minutes, one can see that Aldridge is clearly a hugely valuable player and cannot be replaced with in-house options.  The Blazers have no choice but to offer Aldridge the max and hope that he doesn’t have wondering eyes (returning Texas via San Antonio or Dallas have been rumored).  Without Aldridge, Portland would likely fall to a fringe playoff team.

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