Four-Point Play

Parroting the Parity Parody

Everybody these days is talking about how wide-open the race will be for the 2020 NBA Playoffs, and my Efficient Plus-Minus win projections are no different, with six contenders forecast to win 50-plus games and come within three victories of first-place Denver, who is projected to win 55.3 games.

All in all, 21 additional contenders are bunched up in the middle to vie for the seventh-through-27th slots, with these 21 teams projected to win anywhere from 32 to 48 wins.

The only separation from playoff contention you actually see is at the very bottom, where three teams—Atlanta, Charlotte and Cleveland—seem to be in freefall mode for last place.

With that in mind, I thought I’d give quick commentary for each NBA team, through the lens of each squad’s core players, while listing each’s EPM projections in parentheses.

For the most part, these core leaders are all healthy enough, smart enough and strong enough to keep their organization in contention during a season where everybody seems to be continuous contention.

Keep in mind, some squads are still in summer free-agent team-building mode, with the most notable noted by high replacement-player minutes to fill in parentheses.

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

1. Denver Nuggets (55.3 Adjusted EPM Wins)

Nikola Jokic (+7.57 EPM projection) is the point center that Mike Malone has built this team around, while Jamal Murray (+2.10) and Gary Harris (+2.13) are his Rocky Mountain Splash Brothers.

2. Los Angeles Clippers (54.4)

Departed Los Angelenos Danilo Gallinari, Tobias Harris and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander helped the 2018-19 Clippers get to 48 wins, but the additions of forwards Kawhi Leonard (+7.14) and Paul George (+4.81) will take Doc Rivers’ team to that next level. Look for 25-year-old center Montrezl Harrell (+5.54) to take his star turn this season, too.

3. Los Angeles Lakers (53.7)

Forwards Anthony Davis (+7.66) and LeBron James (+5.22) are the headliners, but do not be surprised if bang-for-buck center DeMarcus Cousins (+4.70) returns to All-Star form in Frank Vogel’s system.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

4. Philadelphia 76ers (53.2)

GM Elton Brand reshuffled the deck he was originally dealt, but managed to hold onto his two aces in center Joel Embiid (+9.88) and Ben Simmons (+4.67), while also getting his dynamic duo better complements, much to Brett Brown’s delight.

5. Houston Rockets (52.8 with 1272 replacement-player minutes to fill)

Mike D’Antoni again has two of the greatest playmakers of all-time in former teammates James Harden (+8.97) and Russell Westbrook (+6.47), in addition to stellar rim runner/rim protector Clint Capela (+6.32).

6. Milwaukee Bucks (52.4 Adjusted EPM Wins)

Giannis Antetokounmpo (+11.63) will rely heavily on longtime Bucks Eric Bledsoe (+3.67) and Khris Middleton (+1.93) in setting the defensive tone for Mike Budenholzer’s club that has 2020 NBA championship aspirations.

Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

7. Portland Trail Blazers (47.7 with 629 replacement-player minutes to fill)

Just as bookend guards Damian Lillard (+6.34) and C.J. McCollum (+2.51) make Terry Stotts’ offense go, so too is the importance of the injury-recovering center Jusuf Nurkic (+7.44) and Hassan Whiteside (+4.41) on the defensive end.

8. San Antonio Spurs (47.4)

Gregg Popovich’s team is loaded with up-and-coming talent, but his leaders are still 34-year-old power forward LaMarcus Aldridge (+4.19) and 30-year-old shooting guard DeMar DeRozan (+3.13).

9. Utah Jazz (45.9)

Center Rudy Gobert (+5.94) still quarterbacks Quin Snyder’s defense, but thankfully 22-year-old shooting guard Donovan Mitchell (+2.85) has some help running the offense with 31-year-old point guard Mike Conley (+2.78) joining the team.

Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

10. Minnesota Timberwolves (45.0)

Both of Minnesota’s main marathon men—center Karl-Anthony Towns (+7.75) and small forward Andrew Wiggins (+1.48)—are braced for career years, which is what it will take for Ryan Saunders’ club to make the playoffs out West, where eight of our top 10 NBA teams reside in the Western Conference.

11. Indiana Pacers (44.6 with 1656 replacement-player minutes to fill)

Nate McMillan is going to see how long he can play his two best players together—centers Myles Turner (+3.35) and Domantas Sabonis (+5.22). If they have the same chemistry that either had with departed power forward Thaddeus Young, the Pacers become an East contender again.

12. Boston Celtics (43.9 with 3462 replacement-player minutes to fill)

All signs are pointing toward a Kemba Walker fit (+4.02), a Jayson Tatum comeback (+2.16) and a Gordon Hayward (+2.89) full recovery, which rewards Brad Stevens’ patience in so many ways.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

13. Toronto Raptors (43.7 with 880 replacement-player minutes to fill)

Pascal Siakam (+4.99) is the new sheriff in town, and Nick Nurse is just thankful he also still has longtime deputy Kyle Lowry (+2.84) to rely on as well.

14. Golden State Warriors (42.7 with 4074 replacement-player minutes to fill)

Klay Thompson’s partial-season absence will be felt in the standings, but if Steve Kerr can get this team into the 2020 NBA Playoffs, Stephen Curry (+7.70), D’Angelo Russell (+2.99) and Draymond Green (+2.49) are capable of pulling off a series upset or two.

15. New York Knicks (40.2)

The names are not sexy, but power forward Julius Randle (+3.93), point guard Elfrid Payton (+1.96) and center Mitchell Robinson (+4.61) have the talent that can get David Fizdale’s Knicks back into the playoffs for the first time in seven years.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

16. Sacramento Kings (39.4)

Sacramento’s 21-year-old point guard De’Aaron Fox (+2.19) and 20-year-old power forward Marvin Bagley (+3.23) are still of prospect age, but Luke Walton is going to rely on them as if they are his proven leaders … because they are.

17. Dallas Mavericks (39.4)

Dallas fans have waited all year for Luka Doncic (+3.61) and Kristaps Porzingis (+4.09) to team up. And the giant sharpshooters will not disappoint Rick Carlisle, who has built his team around this construct in their Year 1 together, with obvious help from GM Donn Nelson.

18. Detroit Pistons (38.2 with 1955 replacement-player minutes to fill)

The 26-year-old giant Andre Drummond (+6.15) is establishing himself as the game’s most athletic center, while sidekick Blake Griffin (+4.53) can share what that was like from his days as a 2011 NBA slam-dunk king.

Brock Williams-Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

19. Oklahoma City Thunder (37.8)

Center Steven Adams (+4.85) still remains to do most of the dirty work for his point guard, only this time it is an old-but-new OKC favorite, Chris Paul (+5.64).

20. Memphis Grizzlies (37.6)

Center Jonas Valanciunas’ (+3.40) presence is important to the Grizzlies, not only because he allows the young bigs to find their own space within the team, but also because—as a 20 points-per-game leader—he was the picture of efficiency on a team lacking scorers.

21. Phoenix Suns (36.8)

The Suns may be young, but 21-year-old center Deandre Ayton (+3.12) and 22-year-old shooting guard Devin Booker (+2.60) are now capable of leading this team to a 30-win season for the first time since 2015.

Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images

22. Washington Wizards (35.1 with 3099 replacement-player minutes to fill)

Bradley Beal (+4.93) has young, but talented prospects starting alongside him, which may give Washington enough wins to sneak into the 2020 NBA Playoffs in the weak East.

23. Miami Heat (35.0 with 4150 replacement-player minutes to fill)

If the Wizards do not make the postseason, the Heat are your next best bet to do so, mainly because new acquisition Jimmy Butler (+6.20) is to South Beach what Beal is to DC.

24. Chicago Bulls (34.6)

Otto Porter (+3.87) is exactly what Jim Boylen’s young Bulls need—a versatile 26-year-old forward who can space the floor on offense and play sound defense on the other end.

Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

25. New Orleans Pelicans (34.1)

Alvin Gentry himself said not to look at rookie Zion Williamson as the face of this franchise, choosing to let his 19-year-old power forward grow into the role, while 29-year-old point guard Jrue Holiday (+3.26) and 28-year-old center acquisition Derrick Favors (+3.17) take the leadership roles, on both offense and defense.

26. Brooklyn Nets (33.5)

Kyrie Irving (+5.38) is a good acquisition for 2019-20, and injured Kevin Durant will really help out in 2020-21. But if you are expecting Brooklyn to build upon last year’s surprising 42-win season, I suggest you manage your expectations for a year. Remember, 20-year-old center Jarrett Allen (+2.35) is still growing into a future top pivot in the 2020s, while the losses of D’Angelo Russell, DeMarre Carroll, Ed Davis and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will be felt this season.

27. Orlando Magic (31.8 with 311 replacement-player minutes to fill)

Nikola Vucevic (+4.13) has become the center of this team in more ways than one, with management assembling a nice supply of surrounding young players and prospects to complement Vooch and Coach Steve Clifford’s defensive-minded team.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

28. Atlanta Hawks (27.5)

Prospects John Collins (+4.33) and Trae Young (+0.99) are only 21 and 20 years old, respectively, but they have already shown their future All-Star potential as a 20-10 man and lights-out shooter, respectively. As for now, however, these youngsters and their teammates will take their lumps.

29. Charlotte Hornets (25.8 with 344 replacement-player minutes to fill)

Charlotte lost the only core leader they had when free agent Kemba Walker left for Boston. As for now, the Hornets are in tank mode as they pay starter money to five players who would be reserves on any playoff-contending team.

30. Cleveland Cavaliers (20.5 with 4921 replacement-player minutes to fill)

Kevin Love could become the Cavs’ core leader if he ever got healthy. Alas, the 30-year-old forward-center has not played 2000 minutes during any of the past three seasons, where he has been limited to 22, 59 and 60 games, respectively.


You Got Serbed!

It is no coincidence that Nikola Jokic’s Denver Nuggets has become my choice as NBA favorite in the same summer (see above) that Nikola Jokic’s Serbia national team has become USA Basketball’s top threat to winning gold at the 2019 World Cup.

In case you are denser than dense, the common link here is center Nikola Jokic, whose name now gets mentioned with the best basketball players in the world, and deservedly so.

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Just one look at his boxscore and advanced statistics shows the rapid progression the 24-year-old Serbian has made in the NBA during his four regular seasons and one postseason of basketball in America (see box below).

Nikola Jokic’s NBA Statistics

 Season  G  MPG  PPG  RPG  APG  BPG  PER  MIN  EPM
 2015-16  80  21.7  10.0  7.0  2.4  0.6  21.5  1733  +4.13
 2016-17  73  27.9  16.7  9.8  4.9  0.8  26.3  2038  +6.93
 2017-18  75  32.6  18.5  10.7  6.1  0.8  24.4  2443  +5.94
 2018-19  80  31.3  20.1  10.8  7.3  0.7  26.3  2504  +6.43
 2019 Playoffs  14  39.8  25.1  13.0  8.4  0.9  29.6  557  +9.63
KEY: G games; MPG minutes per game; PPG points per game; RPG rebounds per game; APG assists per game; BPG blocks per game; PER Player Efficiency Rating; MIN minutes; EPM Efficient Plus-Minus.
Source: Basketball-Reference

And now with USA Basketball lacking a player of similar greatness—Kemba Walker is the only All-NBA player on the Daydream Team—Jokic legitimately gives his country a chance of upsetting the world-dominant Americans at the World Cup in Shanghai, China in mid-September.

After all, Serbia is coming off silver-medal finishes in the two most recent global tournaments, finishing second in both the 2016 Olympics and 2014 World Cup.

If that is not enough—and it is enough—check out the brief résumés of Jokic’s top World Cup teammates to see why these NBA Serbians are giving USA Coach Gregg Popovich more grey hair as he prepares for a country that he knows very well (Pop’s father was Serbian, mother Croatian).

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Bogdan Bogdanovic, Sacramento Kings forward: The 6-6, 205-pound wing is an all-around talent that is blossoming nicely in California. The 26-year-old Bogdanovic (-0.51 EPM in 2175 minutes) averaged 14 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists in 28 minutes per game for the 2018-19 Kings.

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Nemanja Bjelica, Sacramento Kings forward: The 31-year-old stretch forward is such a great team player at this stage in his career, establishing himself as a starter and finisher in Sacramento. Bjelica (+0.83 EPM in 1788 minutes) averaged 10 points and 6 rebounds in 21 minutes per game in 2018-19, while making 40 percent of his 3.3 three-point attempts per game.

Boban Marjanovic, Dallas Mavericks center: Boban is the best pinch hitter in NBA history, with a career 26.4 Player Efficiency Rating that ranks fifth all-time, just trailing Michael Jordan (27.9), LeBron James (27.6), Anthony Davis (27.4) and George Mikan (27.0). Granted, Marjanovic (+4.58 EPM in 681 minutes) can only be used in advantageous bigs-versus-bigs matchups because of his size, which is why he has only logged 1819 minutes in his four-year NBA career. The 7-3, 290-pound actor who played Ernest in “John Wick 3” averages 6 points and 4 rebounds in 10 minutes per game over 186 NBA contests.

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Milos Teodosic, former Los Angeles Clippers guard: The 32-year-old point guard will play for Virtus Bologna of the Italian League this 2019-20 season. But when he was a 6-5, 196-pound guard for the Clippers, Teodosic (-1.58 EPM in 1284 career minutes) averaged 8 points and 4 assists in 21 minutes per game in 60 contests over the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons.

Miroslav Raduljica, former Milwaukee Bucks center: It has been four years since the 7-0, 249-pound center played in the NBA. But in the limited time he played in 2013-14 and 2014-15, Raduljica (-0.85 EPM in 488 career minutes) did well as a third stringer, averaging 4 points and 2 rebounds in 9 minutes per game in 53 contests for the Bucks. The 31-year-old center now plays in the China Basketball Association, averaging 24 points and 10 rebounds in 31 minutes per game for eighth-place Jiangsu Kendia.

Marko Guduric, Memphis Grizzlies guard: The 6-6, 200-pound rookie wing just signed a two-year, $5.3 million deal with Memphis. His specialty is spacing the floor as a 43-percent three-point shooter on three trey attempts per game for Turkey’s Fenerbahce the past two seasons.

Vasilije Micic, point guard: The second-team All-EuroLeague point guard’s draft rights are owned by the Philadelphia 76ers (52nd pick in 2014 NBA Draft). As a 25-year-old standout for Turkey’s Anadolu Efes, the 6-5, 200-pound point guard led his Istanbul crew to a Turkish BSL title and EuroLeague runner-up finish in 2018-19.

Nikola Milutinov, center: The San Antonio Spurs’ 26th pick in the 2015 NBA Draft has filled out nicely, putting on 36 pounds to his 7-0, 256-pound frame since he was drafted four years ago. The 24-year-old center averaged 11 points and 8 rebounds in 24 minutes per game, while his Olympiacos team finished eighth in both the Greek League and EuroLeague last season.


Rested Developments

Nobody better described why all the American All-NBA players—with the exception of Kemba Walker—were bailing from the 2019 World Cup than C.J. McCollum, who did so this week on a podcast with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Upon reflection, it is obvious that the travel schedule has become just too demanding for anybody who has plans on playing deep into the 2020 NBA postseason during the April-May-June 2020 quarter.

Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Think about it.

For marketing and training purposes, USA Basketball is demanding its players give up the entire month of August and half the month of September, while the team travels to four cities in three continents for World Cup competition and sponsorship drives.

To break it all down, read the following …

This first week-or-so of August has been spent training in Las Vegas.

Next week will be spent—from the 12th through the 17th—training in Los Angeles.

The following week—from the 18th through the 28th—will be spent in Melbourne, Australia, training and participating in exhibitions.

From there, the USA Basketball team will be training and playing the World Cup in Shanghai, China, from August 29 through September 15.

Following that, NBA preseason camps begin two weeks later.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

USA Basketball players like Kyle Lowry, who reached the 2019 NBA Finals with the Toronto Raptors, did not play his final Finals game until the Raptors won the championship on June 13, which gave the All-Star guard only seven weeks off before he had to end his summer offseason.

USA teammates like All-Star forward Khris Middleton and center Brook Lopez of the Milwaukee Bucks also undergo similar hardships which result in only 10 summer weeks off, since their NBA postseasons ended at the 2019 East Finals May 25.

No other USA Basketball team has asked as much of its players and teams–in the cases of Lowry, Middleton and Lopez–to play 10 or 10 1/2 months of the calendar year.

We pray they stay healthy.

In the meantime, we must ask ourselves, Is two-months-off-and-10-months-on really the way to play this game?


The Problem With All-Decade Teams

Two weeks ago, Four-Point Play listed our unbiased 2010s All-Decade team, using regular season and postseason win shares as our barometer.

We simply wanted to pay homage to the decade’s finest and wanted to do so using an uncontroversial methodology. That is why we used win shares, as tabulated by Basketball Reference, as the metric of choice.

The NBA.com All-Decade team (this is not an official NBA award), meanwhile, took an opposite approach and created a panel of NBA TV producers and analysts, along with NBA.com employees to vote on their well-publicized squad.

As a result, you had some rather surprising selections that were talked about ad nauseam on basketball Twitter and all the basketball talk shows all week long.

There were six players that differed from our FPP All-Decade team, with DeAndre Jordan, Kyle Lowry, Al Horford, Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol and Pau Gasol being slighted by the NBA All-Decade team.

For what it is worth, I did think the NBA.com survey did make two good calls in recognizing Paul George and Dwyane Wade, who were two players that just missed the top 15 wins shares list that we based our FPP picks on.

After all, PG ranked 23rd and 18th in regular season and postseason win shares, while DWade ranked 24th and eighth—both close enough to merit serious consideration. And if I had given my own opinion instead of using our unbiased method, I too would have selected both on my personal All-2010s team.

So great job, NBA.com!

That said, I had a problem with the other four discrepancies: Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Kobe, who ranked 97 and 34th in regular season and postseason win shares in the 2010s decade, only had four good seasons in this decade and seemingly won his honor from work done in the previous 2000-through-2009 decade. His selection made no sense to me.

Melo, who ranked 27th and 88th, also did not seem to muster the merits.

A.D., who ranked 15th and 125th, and Giannis, who ranked 39th and 49th, were two other strange selections, since they did not start their NBA careers until mid-decade during the 2010s.

Before you think I am hating on these four players, know that I would select: 1. Kobe on my 2000s All-Decade team, obviously; 2. Melo for the 2010s team if we counted his international career too, where he won his second and third Olympic gold medals leading the 2012 and 2016 USA Basketball championship teams; 3. A.D. and Giannis as two of my predictions of players who will make the 2020s All-Decade squad, which I did in our own FPP 2020-through-2029 All-Decade projections two weeks ago.

I just think it is a darn shame that future Hall of Famers like Pau and Marc Gasol—among others—got snubbed from the 2010s decade that truly belonged to them, especially when it was done by other greats who performed their best in other eras or on other platforms.