We're at an interesting juncture of the NBA season in that we have enough accumulated data to get a bead on the storylines generated by our preseason projections but it's early enough that these solid-seeming trends can turn into fool's gold.
With that in mind, let's run through some of the key overachievers and underachievers among the league's players so far in the 2013-14 campaign.
I'm labeling an overachiever as anyone whose WARP to date outstrips the preseason forecast set by ATH, the projection module in my suite of analysis tools. The converse is true for underachievers. Note that the players I'm expounding on below are simply the ones I find most interesting in each group, so please don't read this as a leaderboard.
Paul George, Indiana Pacers
WARP: 2.73 over projection
George has become one of the NBA's premier shot-makers, and the Pacers have accordingly shifted the heavy lifting of their offense onto his shoulders. His usage rate has jumped 5 percentage points, and the increased workload has left George's efficiency unaffected. His true shooting percentage has improved from .531 to .590. Plus, his turnover rate has decreased. George's floor stats are all either stagnant or down, but the huge uptick in point production has more than boosted his bottom-line value.
At 23 years old and in his fourth season, George is at the point of a player's career that is typical for a star to manifest his potential. We saw his improvement on an almost game-by-game basis during the last postseason, so this season's leap is really no surprise. To his credit, coach Frank Vogel recognized what he had and tweaked his offense accordingly. The only red flag is George's success on corner 3s. He has hit 24-of-39 (62 percent) from that area, partly a result of the focus of his offseason program. It's probably not a sustainable rate, but a regression on those shots will do little to undermine George's campaign for a good many MVP votes.
Spencer Hawes, Philadelphia 76ers
WARP: 1.88 over projection
It's easy to forget that Hawes, now in his seventh NBA season, is just 25 years old. He entered the league as a face-up big who took more perimeter shots than he should have given his success rate. When Hawes moved to Philadelphia, he focused his game on becoming a more traditional center. The past two years Hawes has increasingly drifted back out to the arc, and this season the results have been stunning. Hawes is hitting 44 percent from 3-point range, with nearly all of those looks coming from above the break.
While Hawes' defensive rebounding and block percentages have also edged upward, it's the 3-point rate that has boosted his value. Given that he's shooting 10 percentage points better than his career rate on 3s, some regression is likely. However, with the Sixers rebuilding and Hawes on a reasonable expiring contract, it's unclear why his name doesn't come up more often in trade rumors. Hawes could move the needle for a number of contending teams.
Lance Stephenson, Indiana Pacers
WARP: 1.56 over projection
The under-reported aspect of the Pacers' rise has been their player development system, with Stephenson being just the latest player to evolve from a modest draft position into a true impact performer. Roy Hibbert, George and Danny Granger all fall under this category. The Pacers' scouting department deserves a ton of credit for seeing key qualities in these young players that other organizations missed.
Stephenson's numbers entering this season were lackluster, and from that standpoint, his track record did little to stir my projection system. As Stephenson has become a more focused and efficient offensive player, the Pacers have shifted some of George Hill's playmaking role over to him. Stephenson may have entered the league with a gunner's mentality, but the Pacers have convinced him that his all-around base of skills is the true source of his value.
DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors
WARP: 1.49 over projection
Long despised by analytics, DeRozan's game has become more efficient thanks to improved shot selection and playmaking. More of his shot attempts have come from behind the arc, and while DeRozan's stroke is still inconsistent, he is shooting the 3 at a career-high rate (33 percent). His assist rate is also a career best, and two of his three highest assist totals for the season have come since the Raptors traded Rudy Gay to the Kings. DeRozan is not a star, but he has become a truly productive player.
Josh Smith, Detroit Pistons
WARP: 2.09 under projection
The Pistons have to get more creative in order to get Smith back to focusing on the strengths of his game, which won't be easy with him playing the 3 most of the time. Smith is grabbing fewer rebounds, making fewer plays and blocking fewer shots as his defensive assignments draw him away from the lane. What he's done more of is launch jump shots, many of them 3s, but his ability to make them is as bad as ever. Detroit has had some impressive performances this season, and Smith has had some big games. Overall though, Detroit has yet to maximize the odd-fitting, but talented, core of its roster.
J.R. Smith, New York Knicks
WARP: 2.05 under projection
Smith has embodied the enigmatic nature of this season's Knicks. He simply hasn't looked like the same player since returning from early-season knee surgery. Smith has long been one of the league's streakiest shooters, but this season the valleys have come without any peaks to offset them. Only twice this season has Smith made half his shots in a game. His 3-point shooting is average for the third straight season, but his inability to convert inside the arc has to make you wonder if the knee trouble is lingering. Smith has made just 33 of 100 2-point shots and just 22 of 53 in the paint. If the problem is physical in nature, his production may not rebound.
Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
WARP: 1.55 under projection
Griffin is still an All-Star and is playing more minutes this season, which props up his per-game averages. On a per-minute basis, his production is pretty much a doppelganger for his career baseline. And that's fine, except that, given his age (24) and record of production, my projection system saw Griffin taking a step forward this season, not backward. Part of that may be the Clippers' system under Doc Rivers, which de-emphasizes offensive rebounding. That detracts from one of Griffin's offensive strengths.
Paul Pierce, Brooklyn Nets
WARP: 1.49 under projection
Pierce's story could be swapped with that of longtime teammate Kevin Garnett. Both have suffered from moving to supporting roles in their first season with the Nets. For Pierce, that's meant less time with the ball in his hands, and only recently has he begun to display any kind of offensive rhythm. The good news is that the recent improvement has coincided with his move to the bench. The bad news is that the uptick in efficiency has been as a low-usage, spot-up shooter, and that's not Pierce either.