Projected NBA win totals, playoff standings for all 30 teams in 2018-19
by Kevin Pelton on (original: http://www.espn.com/nba/insider/story/_/id/24246576/projected-nba-win-totals-playoff-standings-all-30-teams-2018-19)
Let's take a first look at how the 2018-19 NBA season might play out after a busy offseason highlighted by LeBron James' move from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Los Angeles Lakers.
For the past three seasons, we've been using ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM) along with a projection of games played and my best guess at playing time to forecast the upcoming NBA campaign. After unusually large errors in last season's projections for the Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors, I've made a couple of changes to the process.
As Andrew Johnson recently explored on Nylon Calculus, players who change teams tend to see their RPM decline, particularly if they rate far better than average offensively, and they are now projected separately from players who stay on the same team. Additionally, I redid the way players without RPM projections are handled using their outlook from my SCHOENE player projection system, improving the accuracy of their defensive ratings. The changes improved how well RPM projections retrodicted past seasons using actual minutes played, both in and out of sample.
Inevitably, the unpredictable nature of injuries, midseason trades, randomness and factors that can't be quantified by RPM mean some teams will exceed or fall short of their projections. Nonetheless, they give us an early guideline of what to expect from the upcoming season, so let's take a look conference-by-conference.
1. Toronto Raptors
Projected wins: 55.1
The Raptors have a history of outperforming their RPM projections, including last season, when they were pegged sixth in the East with an expected 44.7 wins. This season's forecast will be much tougher to beat. With Kawhi Leonard penciled in for 65 games, the Raptors project as the East's best team -- and the second-best overall -- because of the upgrade from DeMar DeRozan on the wing.
2. Boston Celtics
Projected wins: 53.2
Given Boston won 55 games with Gordon Hayward limited to five minutes total and Kyrie Irving missing 22 games last season, winning just 53 this season would probably be considered a disappointment. Part of the issue is the Celtics' point differential was more consistent with a 51-win team, meaning they start at a slightly lower baseline. Projections for Hayward and Al Horford are also conservative, giving Boston room to outperform them.
3. Philadelphia 76ers
Projected wins: 47.8
Something similar is true of the Sixers, who won 52 games last season with the point differential of a 53-win team. One key factor in this relatively low projection is that Joel Embiid is expected to play just 50 games, 13 fewer than last season. If he can avoid injury, Philadelphia will perform better. The 76ers also suffer from the addition of forward Wilson Chandler, projected for a minus-1.8 RPM.
4. Indiana Pacers
Projected wins: 45.7
Continuing a theme, the Pacers are projected to take a slight step back after winning 48 games and giving the Cleveland Cavaliers a scare in the opening round. Indiana slightly outperformed its point differential last season, consistent with a 45-win team, and added a player rated poorly by RPM (Doug McDermott, minus-2.2). Add in regression for Victor Oladipo after a career season, and the Pacers might struggle to match last season's record.
5. Milwaukee Bucks
Projected wins: 45.2
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Indiana is atop a second tier in the East with four teams separated by barely two projected wins. Milwaukee, which finished seventh in the conference last season, is pegged to take a slight step forward into that group with the addition of Brook Lopez (projected minus-0.6 RPM) solidifying a center spot that was a major weakness after the Greg Monroe trade.
6. Miami Heat
Projected wins: 44.8
Miami brings back largely the same roster that went 44-38 in 2017-18, so it's no surprise the Heat are expected to finish in about the same spot in the East. Miami's projection would take a slight hit if future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade (projected minus-2.4 RPM) decides to return for a 16th season.
7. Washington Wizards
Projected wins: 43.6
The Wizards are hoping to jump back into the mix for home-court advantage in the East two years after winning 49 games and getting within a win of the conference finals. However, RPM sees this season more likely looking like last season's 43-39 finish. The addition of Dwight Howard (projected minus-1.4 RPM) doesn't figure to help much, though John Wall performing more like he did in 2016-17 would help Washington beat this projection.
8. Detroit Pistons
Projected wins: 39.4
After the Wizards, there's a big step down to the next tier of teams hoping to replace the Cavaliers in the playoffs. Detroit is at the front of that line despite a projection largely unchanged from last year's 39-43 finish.
9. Charlotte Hornets
Projected wins: 38.3
RPM missed on the Hornets last season, pegging them as heavy favorites to make the playoffs. Charlotte's projection is far more modest this time around, though the Hornets still have a chance to get into the playoff mix if center Cody Zeller can beat the 68 games he's projected to play.
10. Brooklyn Nets
Projected wins: 36.8
The Nets should take a solid step forward from last season's 28 wins after filling out their bench with newcomers Ed Davis (projected minus-0.6 RPM), Jared Dudley (minus-0.8) and Shabazz Napier (minus-0.8), all of them solidly better than replacement level. As a result, Brooklyn could challenge for a playoff spot in the first year the team owns its first-round pick outright since 2013.
11. Orlando Magic
Projected wins: 33.6
Internal development should lift Orlando past last season's 25 wins, but the Magic remain a long shot to reach the playoffs in the seventh season of a rebuilding project that began with Dwight Howard's trade nearly six years ago.
12. Cleveland Cavaliers
Projected wins: 31.0
With the newly extended Kevin Love as an anchor, the Cavaliers have more talent left than they did the last time LeBron James left, when they slipped to 19 wins. Nonetheless, with just two players (Love and Larry Nance Jr.) projected for an RPM better than plus-0.1, Cleveland will have a difficult time returning to the playoffs.
13. New York Knicks
Projected wins: 30.8
I pegged Kristaps Porzingis for 41 games, which would put his return in late December under the assumption he'll miss a few more afterward for precautionary reasons. Without their All-Star, the Knicks will likely struggle despite putting together some promising young talent.
14. Chicago Bulls
Projected wins: 28.0
The Bulls used their cap space on matching an offer sheet to restricted free agent Zach LaVine (minus-2.1 projected RPM) and signing former No. 2 pick Jabari Parker (minus-1.8), so it's no surprise they aren't expected to improve much on last season's 27 wins.
15. Atlanta Hawks
Projected wins: 25.9
Atlanta figures to be a bit more competitive than last season's 24-58 finish, though the Hawks may have incentive to be the first team that goes all-in on lottery positioning in a season when most other teams are at least hoping to improve.
1. Golden State Warriors
Projected wins: 58.6
The Warriors ended up falling short of last season's expected 62.6 wins, largely because of injuries. Though Golden State may be healthier this season, aging and regression to the mean drop the Warriors' projection to about where they ended in 2017-18 (58 wins) -- though it's still 3.5 wins ahead of any other team.
2. Utah Jazz
Projected wins: 53.4
In a conference that no longer appears to have a second elite team, Utah moves up despite -- or perhaps in part because of -- a relatively quiet offseason. With Rudy Gobert in the lineup, the Jazz won at a 54-win clip in 2017-18, so it's reasonable to think they can maintain that pace this season.
3. Houston Rockets
Projected wins: 53.0
Even if the Rockets had brought everyone back this offseason, their RPM projection would likely have come in well south of last season's 65 wins, which slightly exceeded their point differential (typical of a 61-win team). Factor in the downgrade from Trevor Ariza (minus-1.2 projected RPM) and Luc Mbah a Moute (minus-0.1) to Carmelo Anthony (minus-1.6, and reportedly on his way to Houston) and James Ennis (minus-1.7), and Houston drops slightly behind Utah in terms of projected average wins.
4. Denver Nuggets
Projected wins: 50.5
Though they fell just short of the postseason, the Nuggets won 46 games with newcomer Paul Millsap (38 games) playing less than half their games. Add in the development of young talent and possible addition by subtraction with the Wilson Chandler trade, and Denver is a sleeper to contend for home-court advantage in the opening round.
5. Minnesota Timberwolves
Projected wins: 49.6
Having beaten out the Nuggets for the last playoff spot in the West, the Timberwolves also figure to improve by virtue of better health after going 10-13 in the 23 games Jimmy Butler missed.
6. Oklahoma City Thunder
Projected wins: 47.2
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Surprisingly, even after re-signing Paul George, the Thunder don't look any better than they did last season, when they won 48 games with the point differential of a 50-win team. While conventional wisdom has Anthony's departure in the addition-by-subtraction category, likely replacement Jerami Grant (projected minus-1.7 RPM) actually rates worse. And newcomers Nerlens Noel (minus-1.1) and Dennis Schroder (minus-1.2) don't project as significant upgrades on the second unit, so even a full season from Andre Roberson after a ruptured patella tendon doesn't keep Oklahoma City in the projected top four in the West.
7. New Orleans Pelicans
Projected wins: 44.1
This projection for the Pelicans is more in line with their point differential (typical of a 44-win team) than their actual 48 wins last season. With the adjustment for changing teams, neither Elfrid Payton (minus-1.3 projected RPM) nor Julius Randle (minus-1.0) look like major upgrades for New Orleans -- though they came at value prices.
8. Portland Trail Blazers
Projected wins: 42.0
The Blazers' offseason makeover of their bench, along with regression to the mean, is responsible for a projected drop from last season's 49 wins -- good for third in the West. Seth Curry (projected minus-1.4 RPM) doesn't rate as well as Napier, while Davis' departure means more minutes for second-year center Zach Collins (minus-1.9).
9. L.A. Lakers
Projected wins: 41.2
When the Lakers first signed LeBron, I put together a preliminary RPM projection that pegged them for 50 wins. So why the drop to 41 in the full version? No team was hit harder by the adjustment for players changing teams than the Lakers, who project to have just 55 percent of their minutes played by returning players. (Only the Phoenix Suns are lower in this regard.) And no individual was hit harder than James, whose projected RPM dropped from plus-5.0 to plus-2.7. While LeBron's offensive RPM did in fact take a huge hit when he joined the Miami Heat in 2010-11 (from plus-8.7 to plus-4.8), he's still likely to beat that projection.
If James drops only to a plus-4.0, the Lakers would move into eighth, and even if this projection is accurate for all teams they would still probably be better than 50-50 bets to make the playoffs because somebody else falls out, so RPM isn't necessarily calling them a lottery team. Nonetheless, these projections do now suggest the Lakers are far from challenging the best teams in the West.
10. San Antonio Spurs
Projected wins: 38.5
The narrative about the Spurs since the Leonard trade has been that they're adding DeRozan to a team that won 47 games last season with virtually no contribution from Kawhi. (I even mentioned something similar in my trade grades.) The problem with that analysis is San Antonio lost two other starters in Danny Green and Kyle Anderson, who filled Leonard's spot in the lineup. Anderson rated as the Spurs' second-best player by RPM last season and Green (minus-0.2) projects better than DeRozan (minus-0.4) by RPM. Add in aging from San Antonio's veteran core and it's certainly possible the Spurs won't be as good as they were last season, though I wouldn't necessarily bet against them making the playoffs.
11. LA Clippers
Projected wins: 35.5
The Clippers attempted to remain in playoff contention while mostly avoiding long-term salary to maintain their 2019 cap space, but by RPM they achieved only one of those two goals. They project as also-rans in the West playoff race in part because newcomers Marcin Gortat (minus-1.4 projected RPM) and Mike Scott (minus-1.8) rate poorly. So too does Avery Bradley (minus-1.1), who may as well be a holdover, while one-and-done point guards like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (minus-2.7) have been ineffective as rookies.
12. Memphis Grizzlies
Projected wins: 33.1
Though the Grizzlies have beaten poor RPM projections in the past, that wasn't the case last season, when their controversial 35-win projection actually proved 13 too many. That was partly due to injury and an emphasis on draft positioning, but even with the addition of Anderson (projected plus-1.4 RPM), Memphis actually projects worse than a season ago. Aging is a factor there, with stars Mike Conley and Marc Gasol another year removed from their primes.
13. Dallas Mavericks
Projected wins: 32.1
Dallas is a bit closer to competing in the West than last season's 24-58 record, given the Mavericks' point differential was more typical of a 32-win team. Without much incentive to lose games after trading a protected pick to the Atlanta Hawks to move up for Luka Doncic, Dallas should be closer to that mark this season, though projections for Doncic (minus-0.8, still fourth-best among rookies) and DeAndre Jordan (0.0) are conservative.
14. Phoenix Suns
Projected wins: 27.2
While the Suns might be trying to win after signing Ariza to a one-year, $15 million contract, RPM still doesn't see them as particularly competitive. After all, Phoenix was last in the league in both offensive and defensive rating, so even a projected improvement to 27th on offense won't help much. (The Suns still project as the league's worst defense on a per-possession basis.)
15. Sacramento Kings
Projected wins: 25.4
No expected lottery team has less incentive to lose games than the Kings, who owe their 2019 first-round pick to either the 76ers (if it lands No. 1 overall) or the Celtics (otherwise). But even after decent additions in free agents Nemanja Bjelica (minus-0.5 projected RPM) and Yogi Ferrell (minus-0.2), Sacramento is the only team without a single player projected better than league average by RPM. So the Kings come in just behind Atlanta with the league's lowest average wins.
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