As we enter the dog days of the summer -- always a calm time in the NBA -- there are a few notable free agents still out there (Greg Oden, Mo Williams and DeJuan Blair come to mind). For the most part, though, we've got a pretty firm idea what the rosters are going to look like when the 2013-14 season tips off on Oct. 29. As the depth charts have filled, so have the forecasts generated by ATH coalesced. ATH is the projection module of NBAPET, my system of integrated spreadsheets for tracking, evaluating and forecasting all things NBA.
With the pieces falling into place, let's take an early stab at ranking players by position, beginning today with point guards. (Although keep in mind that assigning a primary position to a player in today's NBA is often more art than science.) Over the next two weeks, we'll rank players by position according to ATH's forecasted WARP, or wins above replacement level. WARP is perfect for this kind of exercise because it accounts for a player's efficiency, volume of production and team context.
Here are the projected top 10 point guards for the 2013-14 NBA season followed by the next five and an overview of how some notable PGs fell outside the top 10.
1. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
Projected 2013-14 WARP: 15.9
This might be the Year of Chris Paul, if the Miami Heat falter a bit in the regular season or MVP voters grow tired of rubber-stamping LeBron James' name at the top of their ballots. With the Clippers poised to build upon last year's breakout season and challenge for the top seed in the West, it could come down to a Paul versus Kevin Durant battle for the coveted Maurice Podoloff Trophy. Paul has finished in the top five of the voting four times and as high as second. Although ATH sees a near replica of Paul's 2012-13 WARP, it's still a figure that will garner lots of MVP chatter.
And why wouldn't ATH see Paul churning out the same season? At 29, he's squarely in his prime and his individual winning percentages the past two seasons (.740 and .739) nicely illustrate just how consistent he is. Paul doesn't use as many possessions as he did in his top seasons in New Orleans, but every other facet of his game has remained intact. Last season, Paul shot a career-low 32.8 percent from 3-point range, although he offset that by doing more damage inside the arc. He has shot as high as 40.9 percent from deep in his career, and, if he has a fluky good-shooting campaign, it could put him over a .600 true shooting percentage for the first time in his career. In fact, ATH sees a regression in the 3-point rate, bringing Paul up to a .600 TS% on the nose. With so many weapons around him -- Blake Griffin, Jamal Crawford, Jared Dudley, J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, Reggie Bullock -- it will be up to Paul to orchestrate the most high-powered offensive attack he's been a part of to date.
2. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Projected 2013-14 WARP: 11.7
By the time the MVP voting results were released during the playoffs, Westbrook had been knocked out by a knee injury, and, unfortunately, that's probably what we will remember most from his 2012-13 season. Overlooked at the time was the fact that Westbrook finished ninth in the voting despite ranking third in WARP. Although Westbrook's value to the Thunder was apparently overlooked when the ballots were completed, it was abundantly clear when he was absent in the postseason. ATH isn't forecasting a decline for Westbrook this season as much as a regression, and the distinction is important. Regression, in a statistical context, simply means moving toward average. It can be a positive or negative effect, yet many people take the term as a pejorative.
Westbrook took a huge leap last season, and, like Derrick Rose in 2011-12, he's likely to come back to earth just a little bit. ATH sees Westbrook maintaining his roughly 33 percent usage rate of the past two seasons. Given some possible shortages on the Oklahoma City bench, it could climb even higher depending on how many of his minutes come with Kevin Durant off the floor. If so, Westbrook's tepid efficiency could slide into the danger area.
3. Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers
Projected 2013-14 WARP: 11.4
On a per-possession basis, ATH sees Irving bypassing Westbrook as the second-best point guard in the NBA. In general, NBA players experience the most growth in their early 20s, and Irving will be barely 22 by the time the 2013-14 postseason rolls around. His revamped Cavaliers might well be a part of the proceedings. ATH sees a growth in Irving's efficiency inside and outside the arc, resulting in a soaring true shooting percentage of .574. That's all while using the same portion of Cleveland's offense as the other young Cavaliers grow around him. The three-win leap in WARP is doable, but it certainly would help if Irving can make it through a season healthy. After two seasons, his career high in games played is just 59.
4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Projected 2013-14 WARP: 10.7
Curry jumped from 4.7 WARP to 15.8 last season, but of course his health was the driving force in that quantum leap. Curry's winning percentage the past two seasons has been virtually identical: .665 and .669. He'll turn 26 this year, so chances are he has established his level of play, giving him a lower ceiling than someone like Irving. However, that level of play is still really impressive. You can set your watch by Curry's 3-point shooting, but last year he actually shot worse inside the arc than outside it. ATH sees a regression in the right direction in that regard, but a concurrent one in the wrong direction in Curry's turnover rate. If Curry can continue his improvement in ball protection, his bottom-line value will rival that of the non-Paul class of point guards.
5. Deron Williams, Brooklyn Nets
Projected 2013-14 WARP: 9.9
With the change in talent around him, Williams will be one of the most intriguing players to watch in the coming season. In his best years in Utah, Williams was an assist machine, but, as a Net, he initially took on a heavy scoring load and his efficiency dropped off the map. Last season, with Brooklyn's roster improved, Williams' usage rate returned to previous levels, and his shooting percentages recovered accordingly. However, his assist rate was his lowest since his rookie season. Williams' turnovers also were down, so he simply had the ball less. With so much talent and so many alpha personalities on the new Nets, Williams can either be more of a cog in the machine or he can become its operator. Given the on-court proclivities of his new coach, Jason Kidd, I'm going to guess it's going to be the latter. If Williams can return to his days of double-digit assists, it will be a sign the new mix in Brooklyn is working.
6. Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies
Projected 2013-14 WARP: 8.5
ATH sees Conley's 2012-13 season as a career campaign, but he's not likely to regress much. The biggest uptick in his game last year was shot selection, with a 5 percent increase in the portion of his possessions that ended with a 3-point attempt. That kind of wisdom, once gained, is not easily lost.
7. Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls
Projected 2013-14 WARP: 8.3
Forecasting games played always is tough, and the formula for doing so leaves Rose with just 61 games in his projection. That's what happens when a guy misses 109 regular-season games over two seasons. His winning percentage is tabbed at .607, down from the .679 he put up in his MVP season of 2010-11. ATH, like the rest of us, believes Rose has plenty to prove in the coming season.
8. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
Projected 2013-14 WARP: 8.1
Lowry has put up right around 8.0 WARP in each of the past three seasons. He's in his prime and remains underrated. Could some younger guards behind Lowry climb over him on the value ladder? Sure. There are a number of point guards with higher ceilings, but few who have demonstrated such a consistent level of play.
9. Ty Lawson, Denver Nuggets
Projected 2013-14 WARP: 8.1
Lawson is a classic example of the usage/efficiency nexus. His usage rate has increased in every season of his career, and his true shooting percentage has declined. Just as important, though, his assist rate has steadily climbed even as his turnover rate has dropped. This season, ATH sees all those various elements coming together as Lawson steps into his prime.
10. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Projected 2013-14 WARP: 7.8
There is a school of thought that Lillard entered the NBA fully formed and that, as outstanding as he was in his rookie of the year campaign, Lillard is as good now as he's ever going to be. This is the season we begin to find out whether that's true. ATH projects that Lillard will take a significant step forward, with progress in shot selection and especially on the defensive end.
The next five: Kemba Walker, John Wall, Tony Parker, Jose Calderon, Ricky Rubio.
It's a point guard league right now, so there are some big names that slip outside the top 10. Rubio, who ranks 15th at 6.5 WARP, would rate as the No. 6 shooting guard, for example. So these are actually solid ratings for the up-and-coming Walker and Wall, even though they are both dinged for a combination of high usage rates and low shooting percentages.
Parker's standing represents a slip, but he'll turn 32 during the playoffs next season. That's a rough age for a guard historically speaking, and Parker's forecast sees a regression to what he was before his spike the past two seasons. He's still at 7.1 WARP, which put him in the top 10 of every other position except power forward.
Also: Rajon Rondo's existing injury limits his forecast to 48 games and a 4.7 WARP. It's an uncertain process with guys coming off serious injuries, but the one-year anniversary of his knee surgery isn't until Feb. 12. With a full projection of games played, Rondo's winning percentage would have landed him between Lawson and Lillard in the rankings.
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