Predicting NBA Stat Leaders for Every Major Category During 2014-15 Season
Numbers have long been an integral part of sports fandom, but never quite to the extent that they are today, particularly in the NBA. New measures—from advanced stats like PER and true shooting percentage, to the shot type and play-by-play data now available on Basketball Reference, to the NBA's integration of SportVU metrics—have afforded devout followers of the Association a more expansive set of tools with which to understand the game and add fuel to the fire of basketball's fiercest debates.
Still, there's something about the old-fashioned box score stats that sets them apart from all of the new-fangled ones.
Maybe it's just a matter of familiarity. After all, the league has been tracking points, assists and field-goal percentage since its inception; it added rebounds to the mix for the 1950-51 season and started recording steals and blocks in 1973-74. Even those pertaining to the three-point shot, which the NBA didn't adopt until 1979-80, easily predate consideration of the "four factors" (i.e. effective field-goal percentage, offensive rebound percentage, turnover rate and free-throw rate) outside of teams' front offices.
At this point, handing out distinctions for advanced stats, like a usage rate title or a win shares crown, would seem strange. And yet, talk of scoring and rebounding titles is not only acceptable, it's cause for excitement and intrigue.
While the newer metrics continue to matriculate into the mainstream, let's look at who should be in the running to lead the league in each of the seven most celebrated statistical categories: points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, field-goal percentage and three-point makes.
3. Carmelo Anthony: 28.6 points
Michael Jordan averaged 33.6 points per game during his first season in Phil Jackson's triangle offense. Kobe Bryant registered a more modest 22.5 points per game in his, albeit alongside league MVP Shaquille O'Neal. Average the two, and you get 28.6 points per game—a shade under what Anthony averaged in 2012-13 (28.7), just above his take from last season 2013-14 (27.4) and right around what he should register in 2014-15.
A season as the focal point in the Zen Master's signature scheme, this time overseen by Derek Fisher, should afford Anthony ample opportunity to pile up points, particularly on a New York Knicks squad that needs all it can squeeze out of him.
2. James Harden: 29.5 points
Here's what Harden told ESPN.com's Scoop Jackson in a recent conversation between the two:
Scoop: Bottom line, you are on this team and a lot of players aren't, but in your mind, who is the best basketball player alive right now?
Scoop: That's what I was about to say, "including you." You made that sound like it was an easy answer.
Harden: It is. Myself.
However you feel about Harden's self-aggrandizing opinion, it's on him to back it up this season. He'll certainly have to if the Houston Rockets are to hang around the Western Conference's elite, now that Chandler Parsons is off to Dallas. Don't be surprised, then, if/when Harden shatters his previous career high by scoring something close to 30 points per game.
1. Kevin Durant: 31.3 points
Durant would be hard-pressed to replicate, much less add to, the 32 points per game he averaged for the Oklahoma City Thunder last season. Assuming Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka are both able to stay healthy, the Thunder won't need Durant to take as many shots and carry quite so hefty a load on their behalf in 2014-15.
That doesn't mean, though, that Durant won't lead the league in scoring for a fifth time in six seasons. As great as Durant was without Westbrook, he still managed to average 31.3 points in the 46 games in which his sidekick was present.
3. Kevin Love: 13 rebounds
Love already has one rebounding crown to his credit and should be in the mix for many more as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. As Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry concluded, Love's presumptive sojourn to Rock City should precipitate a return to the interior and all its attendant rewards:
With Love’s move to Ohio, it’s hard to imagine anything but upticks in efficiency and downticks in his perimeter shooting. He’ll be in the middle of a much stronger offensive environment, chock full of better opportunities and easier matchups than what he saw in Minnesota. But perhaps most of all, he’ll be in a place where he can focus on his most important skill set — cleaning up on the glass. For the first time in years, he won’t be his team’s primary scoring option — he will be their primary rebounder.
2. Dwight Howard: 13.3 rebounds
Like Harden on the perimeter, Howard won't have as much help on the interior as he did last season. Trevor Ariza's a better rebounder than Parsons was, but he can't make up for Omer Asik's departure all by himself.
Without Asik around, Howard will have to soak up more minutes than he did during his first season in Houston, which, in turn, should yield more than the 12.2 rebounds per game he gobbled up in 2013-14. Suppose Howard jumps from 33.7 minutes to 36.7 minutes this coming season. At his career rate of 0.36 rebounds collected per minute, he'd add 1.08 caroms to his nightly collection, thereby bumping his average to 13.3 rebounds.
Math: isn't it the best?
1. DeAndre Jordan: 14 rebounds
One season under Doc Rivers' tutelage—and a less restrictive minutes regimen—boosted Jordan's boarding average from 7.2 to a league-leading 13.6. What, then, might D.J. do for a follow-up?
Probably not another 6.4-rebound jump. But the Los Angeles Clippers aren't exactly replete with rebounders and sharpshooters, so there should be enough free caroms around for Jordan to up his average a bit.
And that's not including whatever fire Steve Ballmer might be able to light under him.
3. Stephen Curry: 10 assists
Curry took a team-high 17.7 shots per game within an often-stagnant Golden State Warriors offense constructed by Mark Jackson last season and still managed to rack up 8.5 assists per game. That number should rise considerably under Steve Kerr, who's already made passing a priority.
"I want the ball to move. That's the biggest thing," Kerr told The San Jose Mercury News' Diamond Leung. "We've got to get more ball movement, more passes per possession."
No kidding; according to NBA.com, the Dubs were dead-last in passes per game last season, 58.9 of which came on account of Curry. Look for both of those figures to skyrocket at Kerr's discretion, with Curry reaping the benefit.
2. Rajon Rondo: 10.4 assists
Once upon a time, Rondo was the NBA's reigning king of assists.
And by "once upon a time," I mean "two years ago." Rondo chipped in 9.8 assists in the 30 games he played with the Boston Celtics last season after returning from an ACL tear.
If he had better teammates, a healthy Rondo would be a near-lock to register 11 dimes per outing. Instead, we'll have to peg him closer to 10.4 assists, unless he winds up on a better squad before the season is through.
1. Chris Paul: 11 assists
With Rondo out for most of last season, Paul rose to the top of the assist crop for the first time since 2008-09.
It was a long time coming for Paul. His dip in that department coincided with a devastating knee injury suffered the very next season.
Now, Paul's back in the saddle of the "Best Point Guard" discussion and should remain there for the next few years, health permitting. Another assist title, aided by leapers like Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and shooters like J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford, can only help his cause.
3. Mike Conley: 2.2 steals
Injuries to both his own body and Marc Gasol's took their toll on Conley's kleptomania last season. He dropped from fourth in steal percentage (3.4 percent) in 2012-13 to just 20th (2.4 percent) in 2013-14.
So long as Gasol's around to anchor the back line of the Memphis Grizzlies' defense, Conley should be free to gamble on the perimeter.
2. Chris Paul: 2.4 steals
Only once in the last seven seasons has Paul not led the league in thefts. That exception came in 2009-10, when Paul missed 37 games with a knee injury.
Paul's size, age (29) and history of physical issues could make it difficult for him to add to his record total of steals titles in 2014-15. So, too, could the competition he'll have among feisty point guards. But that shouldn't preclude him from racking up 2.4 steals a night, as he has every other year since 2010-11.
1. Ricky Rubio: 2.5 steals
Rubio has led the NBA in steal percentage during each of the last two seasons. Paul, though, edged him in steals per game both times, in part because Rubio played fewer minutes. With Love (presumably) gone and nearly a year-and-a-half gone since Rubio tore up his knee, the Minnesota Timberwolves figure to turn to Ricky to pick up the slack on both ends of the floor.
3. Anthony Davis: 2.5 blocks
Davis is already one of the NBA's best shot-blockers—at the tender age of 21—and is only getting better. He led the NBA in blocks last season, with 2.8 per game, and has already added about 15 pounds of muscle this summer, per FOX Sports Southwest's Jennifer Hale. Davis has used his added bulk to brilliant effect in training with Team USA, for whom he figures to be the only true shot-swatting threat once the roster is pared down to 12.
That won't be the case with the New Orleans Pelicans, who brought in Omer Asik this summer to both play alongside and back up Davis in the middle. Asik is more lane-clogger and carom-collector than rim-protector, though his mere presence could at once take pressure off Davis to be a defensive demon and shave a few blocks off his teammate's final tally.
2. DeAndre Jordan: 2.7 blocks
The Clippers have but one player who might rightly be described as an above-average interior defender and rim-protector: DeAndre Jordan. It's a responsibility that Jordan handled well last season, during which he piled up 2.5 blocks while facing 10.3 field-goal attempts at the rim per game from his opponents. The latter number was the second-highest in the league, per NBA.com.
Having Spencer Hawes, who checked in ahead of Jordan in at-rim attempts defended, on the bench should help, though patrolling the paint still figures to be Jordan's chief charge. Combine Jordan's length, athleticism and improved timing with the Clippers' tendency to funnel everything to the middle on defense, and D.J. could emerge with as many as 2.7 blocks per game to his credit in 2014-15.
1. Serge Ibaka: three blocks
Nobody's blocked more shots over the last four seasons than Ibaka—and that's not just hyperbole. He's led the league in total blocks every year since his second NBA campaign, with 900 swats to his credit over that span. According to Basketball Reference, only seven players in NBA history have blocked more shots during that same portion of their respective careers.
Ibaka doesn't figure to slow down any time soon in that regard. He'll be all of 25 when the season starts, with an elite defense in OKC to anchor. Steven Adams' development should take some pressure off Ibaka on the defensive end, though that needn't infringe upon the Congo native's ability to rack up blocks at a league-leading pace.
3. Dwight Howard: 58 percent
Howard has never hit less than half of his field goals in a given NBA season. And yet, for all of his dominance down low, Howard has come away as the field-goal percentage champion just once in his 10 pro campaigns.
Howard's attempt to become a low-post power probably hasn't helped. According to Synergy Sports (account required), Howard converted just 45.9 percent of his post-up shots last season—his worst mark on any shot type.
Then again, it might behoove Howard to improve his efficiency down low, what with his 29th birthday coming up in December and his back problems taking their toll on his alley-oop athleticism. More shots and more responsibility on a pared-down Rockets squad may well drag down Howard's field-goal percentage slightly.
2. Andre Drummond: 64 percent
If Stan Van Gundy does for Drummond what he did with Howard in Orlando, the Detroit Pistons could have a beastly efficient big man on their hands for years to come. Drummond clocked in with the second-highest field-goal percentage (.623) in just his second NBA season, thanks in no small part to his league-leading 667 attempts in the restricted area.
Another year of development should help Drummond's cause on both the court and the leaderboard. Then again, more responsibility within the Pistons offense and fewer easy looks against defenses that are keyed in on him could take a toll on Drummond's field-goal percentage.
Either way, Drummond figures to approach last season's conversion rate, if not bump it up a bit.
1. DeAndre Jordan: 70 percent
Jordan has had no such problems thus far, and he certainly didn't in 2013-14. He took a whopping 90.5 percent (466-of-515) of his shots within the restricted area and converted a sizzling 71.9 percent of them.
It helped Jordan's case to have superb passers like Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford around to toss up lobs left and right. Doc Rivers' attempt to turn Jordan into a modern-day Bill Russell didn't hurt, either.
But, ultimately, it was Jordan's length, leaping ability, power and coordination that were most responsible for him posting the fourth-highest field-goal percentage in NBA history last season. With so many other threats on the floor for the Clippers, Jordan could get enough close, easy looks at the rim to become just the second player ever to hit 70 percent of his shots while qualifying for the field-goal percentage crown.
3. Damian Lillard: 225 threes
Lillard actually took 19 more three-pointers last year than Klay Thompson, but he hit five fewer. That shouldn't come as any great surprise in light of Lillard's shot distribution. Of his 554 three-point attempts, 500 were of the longer, above-the-break variety, which Lillard knocked down at a 39 percent clip.
Lillard's not likely to catch many breaks from the corners this season. Those spots remain the domain of Wesley Matthews, who checked in fourth in three-point attempts and fifth in makes.
And, really, the Portland Trail Blazers wouldn't (and shouldn't) want their point guard to spend his time piddling in the corners when he's supposed to be surveying the floor from up top. So long as Lillard builds on his early successes, the Blazers should be just fine.
2. Klay Thompson: 230 threes
Whatever additional pressure Thompson might feel as "The Guy The Warriors Didn't Want to Trade for Kevin Love" should be no worse than counteracted by his experience with Team USA this summer.
In truth, Thompson's trajectory would've been an upward one, regardless of those considerations. He recorded career highs in just about every three-point-related category last season, and, at 24, is ripe for improvement in 2014-15, especially with Steve Kerr overseeing Golden State's revamped offense.
After knocking down 223 treys this past campaign, Thompson would seem a smart pick to put through even more time around, assuming he stays healthy.
1. Stephen Curry: 250 threes
Health is always going to be of some concern to Curry, given both his slight frame and his past ankle problems.
These last two seasons, though, have exposed the world to Curry's true greatness as a shooter. He set an NBA record with 272 threes in 2012-13 and led the league again last year with 261.
As mentioned earlier, Kerr's made clear his desire for the Warriors to run a more pass-happy offense this season. That approach could cut down on Curry's opportunities to shoot, though his stunning accuracy from deep may well be enough to put him in the top spot at season's end.
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