A Clipper Fan's Response to John Hollinger's Team Forecasts

Harry How

John Hollinger, ESPN stats guru and inventor of PER (Player Efficiency Rating), has recently posted a number of NBA team season forecasts. In these previews, he recaps their 2011-12 campaign, discusses their off-season moves (or lack thereof), and gives his opinion on what to expect for the 2012-13 NBA season. The following is my response to these forecasts for the Western Conference, top 8 seeds.

Now, first it should be made clear that Hollinger is very specific that he's discussing only their regular season record, not their playoff performance, as he indicates certain teams are built for the regular season and others are built for the playoffs, where rotations tighten and adjustments are made throughout the 7 game series.

By the time he finished discussing his top 8 teams in the West, I was left with a sour taste in my mouth. While I did disagree with a couple of Hollinger's forecasts, the main problem was that his predictions seemed to be contradictory, both between one another's points and in relation to both the ESPN rankings and his own stat, PER. As you may remember from my earlier post, I did an analysis of ESPN's player rankings, which included a comparison to rankings by PER. Here's a table I made, where I've included Hollinger's top 8 Western Conference teams, presented alongside the following:

  • The teams' 2011-12 records
  • Those same records projected to a full 82-game season
  • Hollinger's predicted records
  • The change in win-loss-percentage (W-L%) that Hollinger is predicting
  • Average 2011-12 PER of the players on those teams (weighted by 2011-12 minutes per game)
  • Average ESPN player rankings of the players on those teams (weighted by 2011-12 minutes per game)

Western
Conference

2011-12 Actual Record

2011-12 82-game Projection

2012-13 Hollinger Prediction

Change
in W-L%

Average PER

ESPN Rank

W

L

W-L%

W

L

W-L%

W

L

W-L%

San Antonio Spurs

50

16

0.758

62.1

19.9

0.758

60

22

0.732

-0.026

16.57

136.89

Denver Nuggets

38

28

0.576

47.2

34.8

0.576

59

23

0.720

0.144

16.68

130.61

Oklahoma City Thunder

47

19

0.712

58.4

23.6

0.712

58

24

0.707

-0.005

16.73

98.26

Los Angeles Lakers

41

25

0.621

50.9

31.1

0.621

53

29

0.646

0.025

16.99

136.70

Memphis Grizzlies

41

25

0.621

50.9

31.1

0.621

50

42

0.610

-0.011

15.35

132.71

Los Angeles Clippers

40

26

0.606

49.7

32.3

0.606

47

35

0.573

-0.033

16.87

118.96

Utah Jazz

36

30

0.545

44.7

37.3

0.545

44

38

0.537

-0.009

15.00

157.41

Minnesota Timberwolves

26

40

0.394

32.3

49.7

0.394

44

38

0.537

0.143

16.10

148.70


The table is sorted by Hollinger's rankings. Looking at the "Change in W-L%" column, the Thunder, Jazz, and Grizzlies do not seem to change much. This seems reasonable as none of these teams had huge upgrades or downgrades. Perhaps rookie Perry Jones III of the Thunder will have some impact (as they previously lacked frontcourt depth), the emergence of Enes Kanter will help the Jazz (though he's buried in a deep frontcourt including Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, and Derrick Favors), and a healthy ZBo/Darrell Arthur will help the Grizzlies make a small leap. But perhaps not. Either way, there's not a lot to disagree with here on these teams. I'm right with Hollinger on the Thunder, Jazz, and Grizzlies.

As for the T-Wolves, keep in mind that Hollinger wrote his analysis before Love was injured. If we pretend Love didn't get injured, Hollinger's prediction isn't far fetched at all. When healthy, the T-Wolves were a .500 team last year, which would mean that their off-season additions of Brandon Roy and Andrei Kirilenko are only adding 2 wins here. That's conservative, and I'm totally cool with that. The Spurs get docked some wins here, even though they are bringing back the exact same team as last year, but I suspect this is an age thing. This is perfectly reasonable as well (though I'd still never bet against Greg Popovich).

Where Hollinger starts to lose me is when he makes predictions for the Nuggets and the Clippers. First I'll tackle his analysis of the Nuggets. Hollinger has the Nuggets making as big a leap as the T-Wolves. The difference, though, is that the Nuggets did not suffer any major injuries last year, as the T-Wolves did with Rubio. That means that he is basing his enormous 12 game improvement on the acquisitions of JaVale McGee and Andre Iguodala. Is it JaVale McGee? He's coming off the bench and only played 20 minutes per game with Denver last year. After his acquisition, their defense didn't improve at all (opponent FG% dropped by less than half a percent, opponent PPG by less than a point), and while their offense did improve (Denver's FG% increased by more than 3%) it doesn't seem like that was McGee's doing, given that he only took 7 shots a game. I can see JaVale adding a couple wins, but that's about it. Iggy could add a lot of wins as well, as he's a much better passer/rebounder than Afflalo was. Hollinger cites Iggy's defense as the main game-changer, but we must remember that Afflalo was a strong defender as well. But absolutely, Iggy will help the Nuggets.

So yeah, the Nuggets will be a better team than last year, but just by how much? Keep in mind that a 12-win improvement is a LOT. I mean, the Heat added LeBron James and Chris Bosh, and they only added 11 wins (from 47 to 58). Iguodala and McGee are simply not going to improve the Nuggets more than LeBron and Bosh improved the Heat. Also consider that LeBron and Bosh were both from the East, so two strong Eastern Conference teams (Cleveland and Toronto) were removed from contention, making the entire conference became weaker for the Heat. Iggy and McGee came from the East, but the West got stronger, nabbing Dwight Howard and getting #1 draft pick Anthony Davis without losing any major stars. The situation is much less favorable for the Nuggets, yet Hollinger predicts they will fare better than the 2010-11 Heat did. Not so sure about that.

Now I'll move onto the Clippers. For some odd reason, Hollinger has dropped the Clippers' win percentage (the most of any of these teams) even though it's obvious that the team got better. Even from a PER perspective, Hollinger's bread and butter, the Clippers improved. Last year's weighted-average team PER of 16.46 would have had them 5th, but this year's improved weighted-average team PER of 16.87 is actually second highest, behind only the Lakers. Additionally, ESPN rankings would also put the Clippers second highest in the Western Conference. And yet Hollinger's analysis, which seems contradictory, has the Clippers finishing 6th. Somehow, despite improving their team quality, the Clippers get worse? This would make sense if the argument was that the conference got stronger, but then that would affect the unchanged teams such as Grizzlies, Spurs, and Thunder far more than the improved Clippers. I would also understand an argument about a lot of new faces, but the Clippers' starters are all the same.

No, I can't actually come up with a good reason for why the Clippers are getting snubbed here. In fact, neither can John Hollinger. Oddly, he seems to refer to the SF position as a position of concern. Perhaps he means from a starting-SF perspective? I suppose. But if you have 4 SF's who aren't quite starting-caliber, you have 3 SF's on the bench who are high-quality bench-caliber. This gets ignored completely. In fact, depth of the team gets ignored completely. I can understand ignoring Bledsoe and Jordan since they haven't really shown the world that they are consistently improved players yet, beyond the preseason. But to ignore the incredible depth of having Crawford, Hill, Barnes, and Odom all coming off the bench? All four of those guys started on their respective teams in the last 2 years (or last 1 year, if you exclude Odom). That is depth, and apparently it's not evident to John Hollinger. His conclusion is that the Clippers are good, but not good enough? Since there was player turnover, the implication, based on how Hollinger rated other teams, is that the Clippers got worse, not better during the off-season. Again, though, no evidence was given at all to substantiate the weakened record.

Now, I don't have anything against the Nuggets--I actually think they will be quite good, and I'd put them up there with the Clippers as the 4th/5th seeds, below OKC, LAL, and SAS--but it's just that Hollinger's arguments are inconsistent here. The Clippers get spurned for their lack of defense, which is reasonable as they were 18th in defensive efficiency last year (per ESPN). And yet, while Hollinger acknowledges the Nuggets were also a poor defensive team (19th in defensive efficiency per ESPN), that doesn't seem to be a major problem anymore because Iguodala is coming in. Simultaneously, he ignores that the Clippers replaced Mo Williams and Randy Foye with known defenders Grant Hill and Matt Barnes. Another argument Hollinger uses is that the Nuggets are deep because they can score deep into their roster. But are they any deeper than the Clippers in this way? Just using those PER rankings (which loves big scorers), you can see why Hollinger considers the Nuggets to be a deep team. But why doesn't this ring true for the Clippers as well?

Again, this is not to pick on the Nuggets, but rather to point out inconsistencies in the analyses that left the sour taste in my mouth, making me doubt whether Hollinger actually knows what he's talking about when it comes to the Clippers. I don't know if it's just that he's not paying attention to the Clips (not unusual for many writers) or if he actually thinks that they made bad moves during the off-season, but Hollinger is just not being logical here. And if there's anything that rubs me the wrong way, it's analytical, fact-based thinkers (like stat-heads) who suddenly decide to throw fact-proven logic out the window and go with their gut feelings.

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