As we prepare for the first full slate of games of the NBA season, let's take stock of where each team's roster stands at the outset of the 2013-14 campaign. These are the final offseason projections from ATH, my team projection system based on athletic indicators, aging patterns and trait matching for coaches and players. All transactions and injury news to date are accounted for.
The win totals you see in parentheses after each team reflect a baseline from ATH that is run through a season simulator 1,000 times to account for scheduling factors and to calculate playoff and championship probabilities. Rather than basing a team's playoff strength strictly on projected regular-season win-loss record, I'm now using a revised formula developed after last season that reflects both the shorter rotations we see in the postseason and the disproportionate effect the top players on each team's roster has on its eventual playoff destiny.
The other factor in the new playoff-strength formula is injuries.
Although we don't know who will get hurt during the season, we do know that players like Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Danilo Gallinari and Carl Landry won't play for a little while. However, right now, we can presume that by the time the postseason comes around, these players will be back on the job. The new formula accounts for this, so the injuries affect the respective seeds for the teams involved but not the formula for determining how they'll do in the playoffs.
The postseason probabilities generated by the simulations are reflected below by serving as our basis for separating the teams in tiers. For the first two groups, the teams are ordered by title odds. The second two groups are ordered by their probability of making the playoffs, while the final group is ordered by projected wins.
(Teams that won a championship in at least 5 percent of simulations, ordered by title odds)
Miami Heat (58.5), San Antonio Spurs (59.7), L.A. Clippers (56.6), Oklahoma City Thunder (53.0), Brooklyn Nets (54.3), Houston Rockets (54.3), Chicago Bulls (54.6)
Will Dwight Howard make the Houston Rockets a title contender?
According to ATH, there are seven prime contenders for the 2013-14 championship. There aren't really any surprises among the teams that made this group, but the absence of the Indiana Pacers is sure to generate some discussion. Miami established itself as a clear-cut favorite for a three-peat by winning 29.3 percent of the simulations. The Spurs were second at 16.9 percent, closely followed by the Clippers at 14.1 percent. San Antonio had the highest average win total, but its postseason strength was less than that of Miami, primarily due to the presence of LeBron James.
Oklahoma City, Brooklyn, Houston and Chicago all won between 6 and 8 percent of the simulations, so there was enough of delineation that I could have created a separate tier. Historically, as a season progresses, I've considered any team whose title odds are at 5 percent or greater to be part of the championship conversation, so I've left it at that. The Nets were the one team in the group that didn't get a large boost from the postseason emphasis on the top of the roster, but Brooklyn's one-through-eight roster strength was enough to keep the Nets solidly in the first tier.
(Teams that won at least 2 percent of simulations but less than 5 percent, ordered by title odds)
Detroit Pistons (49.0), Indiana Pacers (51.7), Memphis Grizzlies (49.2), Minnesota Timberwolves (46.2), Denver Nuggets (44.5), Atlanta Hawks (43.1)
This group includes a projected 4-seed (Indiana), both 5-seeds (Detroit and Memphis), both 6-seeds (Minnesota and Atlanta) and the seventh-seeded Nuggets. Indiana's projected regular-season strength isn't far off mainstream consensus. However, ATH rated the Pacers' postseason roster as less than that of Miami, Brooklyn and Chicago. The reason for that is what the system perceives as a lack of a clear-cut superstar on top of the roster.
However, we've seen Paul George in action, so if you believe that he is ready to ascend to the elite -- and I do -- then you can bump the Pacers into the first group. George's real-world growth is simply faster than what ATH can keep up with from a statistical standpoint.
As has been the case in recent seasons, the West projects to have a couple of strong teams at 5 and 6. In Memphis and much-improved Minnesota, you have a pair of teams that will be tough outs against whomever they play in the first round, but neither figures to have the benefit of home-court advantage. This, of course, didn't stop the Grizzlies from advancing the West finals this past spring. Two interesting teams are Detroit and Denver, both of which are perceived to be less than the sum of their parts. That may be the case, but if the chemistry issues for the Pistons and Nuggets are solved, both have enough top-shelf talent to win a playoff series.
(Teams that won less than 1 percent of the simulations but made the playoffs at least 15 percent of the time, ordered by playoff probability)
Golden State Warriors (44.2), New York Knicks (38.6), Dallas Mavericks (43.7), Washington Wizards (38.5), Cleveland Cavaliers (38.4), Toronto Raptors (36.7), Portland Trail Blazers (40.4), New Orleans Pelicans (39.8)
The controversial teams in this group are easy to spot. We covered disconnect between objective-based projections and those of the subjective variety for the Warriors and Knicks the other day, so I urge you to check that out. What's interesting to me about this group is that a number of teams commonly bandied about as "sleeper" squads are included. Chances are, the one or two biggest surprise teams of the season are going to emerge from the up-and-coming teams in Cleveland, Toronto, Portland, New Orleans and Washington.
If you are a fan of one of these teams and dare to dream, consider this: All of them except for the Wizards won the title in at least one of the simulations. Hey, a non-zero chance at a title is better than nothing.
Stuck in the middle
(Teams that made the playoffs in less than 15 percent of the simulations but averaged more than 25 wins per simulation, ordered by playoff probability)
Charlotte Bobcats (32.7), L.A. Lakers (31.8), Utah Jazz (31.7), Milwaukee Bucks (28.3), Sacramento Kings (29.8)
No team in this group made the postseason in even 5 percent of the simulations, so there is another clear dividing line between these teams and those in the tier above them. Generally speaking, this isn't a group to which you want to belong. None of them, on paper, has a realistic shot at the postseason, yet each also stands to be a long shot next May when the lottery picks are slotted. The Lakers obviously don't fancy themselves as being a member of this tier, so consider this more grist for their mill. For the Bobcats, who made the playoffs in 4.4 percent of the simulations, this level of performance would be something of a breakout.
Wiggins or Randle
(Teams that averaged fewer than 25 wins per simulation, ordered by projected wins)
Boston Celtics (24.6), Orlando Magic (20.2), Philadelphia 76ers (19.7), Phoenix Suns (15.0)
It's certainly possible that the Celtics edge up to the tier above them, and they did make the playoffs in one of the simulations. But chances are GM Danny Ainge is going to get a fair shot at landing the next franchise centerpiece in the 2014 lottery. If you root for one of these teams, you can start debating about whether Kansas' Andrew Wiggins or Kentucky's Julius Randle is the better fit. In Orlando's case, the prospect of adding Wiggins or Randle to the current young core led by Victor Oladipo and Nikola Vucevic has to be pretty exciting.