Kevin Pelton's NBA mailbag returns, featuring your questions on how Team USA would do against the rest of the league, how long to believe in potential for high draft picks, gaps between advanced stats and the eye test and veteran players signing international deals.
If the USA FIBA roster were an actual team in the NBA, how many wins would you project them to have in 2020? Let's assume in the western conf. Would they have home court in the playoffs? #peltonmailbag— Bryan Rahija (@bryanrahija) August 27, 2019
Here's a look at how the final USA roster for the FIBA World Cup would rate in my projections based on ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM) along with my guess at an NBA-style rotation:
Based on those minutes, this team would be projected for an offense 3.2 points per 100 possessions better than league average (tied with the LA Clippers for third) and a defense 3.1 points per 100 possessions better (tops among teams in this season's projections). The net result is a projected 56.4 wins on average against a neutral schedule, which would lead this year's RPM projections.
This is a good reminder that when we compare this roster to its USA Basketball predecessors, that's a really high bar. There's still a lot of talent on this team. Consider that the roster includes arguably the top four players on the 2019-20 Boston Celtics, whose 47.4-win projection ranks fifth factoring in schedule. If you swapped out the remaining Boston players for the rest of the USA roster, that team would look like a title contender if not favorite based on the surplus of starting-caliber players.
That said, I gave this roster the benefit of treating players as if they were with their current team, which matters because of the adjustment for players who change teams. (Of this group, only Kemba Walker did this summer.) If you instead treat all 12 players as new to their team, the projection drops to 47.2 wins on average with an offense barely better than league average. That probably better reflects the challenge for the U.S. in the World Cup. Even a lesser USA roster is still far more talented than its opponents, but other national teams have superior chemistry after years of playing together in some form or another. Under first-time coach Gregg Popovich, the U.S. has to build that kind of cohesion on the fly.
"What's the statute of limitations on potential for high draft picks?" -- Kevin P.
I was inspired to answer my own question after seeing a report by my former colleague Ian Begley of SNY that Hasheem Thabeet has been playing 5-on-5 with members of the New York Knicks ahead of training camp. Thabeet is still inevitably referred to as the No. 2 pick, but by this stage of his career -- a decade after he was taken between Blake Griffin and James Harden -- that distinction obviously no longer holds any predictive power.
To try to study the question of how a player's draft status loses meaning over time, I looked at a cohort of players who entered the league between 2001 and 2010. For this group, I tried to project their wins above replacement player (WARP) over the next five seasons based on their WARP the previous campaign, age and draft pick. (To quantify draft status in a meaningful way and incorporate undrafted players, I used the average pick value that's part of my consensus draft projections.) Then I went year by year in terms of experience.
Studying the issue this way showed the value of draft pedigree declining over the course of a player's first four seasons in the league. Here are the year-by-year coefficients as well as the difference between a player drafted first, 10th, 31st and undrafted so as to give some context for what it means:
After a player's rookie season, their draft status still tells us a lot about the kind of career they're going to have even after accounting for how they played as a rookie. At the extreme, we'd expect a No. 1 pick to produce nearly 13 more WARP over the next five seasons than an undrafted rookie who performed identically at the same age. The value of potential is still evident after Year 2, but by the end of rookie contracts for first-round picks, the difference between the No. 1 pick and an undrafted player is just three WARP over the next five years. In fact, as soon as Year 3, the value of draft status isn't a statistically significant amount different from zero. So it appears that the statute of limitations on potential in fact runs out pretty quickly.
Where do you see the biggest gap between advanced stats and what you see when you watch the game? #peltonmailbag— Myles Moose (@MylesMoose) August 29, 2019
I have two answers to this question. The obvious one is defense: the box-score stats we have fail to capture much of what happens on defense, and it's difficult to tease an individual player's influence out of plus-minus data. So inevitably, there's going to be a bigger difference between what I see on defense -- keeping an eye on how players rotate defensively or handle the pick-and-roll -- and those numbers.
The more interesting answer is I think I have a tough time seeing what players aren't doing when I'm watching a game. They can stay out of the way, not make a lot of mistakes and look OK. This is often a standard we apply to rookies. But one of the lessons of plus-minus data is that simply avoiding negative plays isn't enough. Players also need to regularly influence the game in a positive way to be strong contributors.
#peltonmailbag there seems to be an unusual amount of veteran bench players signing international deals rather than finding NBA opportunities. Does the data back that up and what could be possible causes?— staved (@danielstave) August 26, 2019
I'd had the same observation, influenced by the number of players from my list of best remaining free agents by skill set as of last month who have yet to find NBA teams. (Only four of the 15 players I listed have signed, with Jeremy Lin the latest to sign abroad.)
It's a little tricky to quantify this, but there are 11 players who had at least 1,000 minutes of playing time last season and haven't signed NBA deals so far this offseason. It turns out that number isn't so unusual. There were nine such players around this time last year and a whopping 14 as of the start of September 2017 (not counting a handful of restricted free agents who were at contract impasses with their former teams, who aren't comparable). So I think this is a case where the current examples always seem more salient than past ones, like Monta Ellis going from playing nearly 2,000 minutes in 2016-17 to out of the league the following summer.