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Hollinger's "All Break Out" and "All-Decline" Teams
Thursday, November 8, 2007
2007-08 All-Decline Team: Who's taking a step back?
By John Hollinger
With the good must come the bad. And thus, with my All-Breakout Team of last week must come the companion piece. Players can only break out if other players take a step back, and inevitably some of them will.
Most of these guys are older players who you won't be surprised to see on the list. Some are a bit younger but have statistical trends pointing in the opposite direction. What they all have in common is I'm expecting them to contribute substantially less than they did last season.
As with the All-Breakout Team, my 23-man All-Decline Team is chopped up into groups, making it easier for you to figure out exactly how much of a decline we're talking about. As with the breakout players, I've included projected player efficiency ratings for each, as well as last season's PER for comparison.
But before we get started, let me go to great pains to repeat that everyone on this list is on it because I expect a decrease relative to what they did last season. There are some All-Star players on this list and my point isn't that I expect them to stink; I just think they're unlikely to match their numbers from a season ago.
With that out of the way, let's move on to the envelopes:
Group I: The Elephant in the Room
Yes, Miami's Shaquille O'Neal (last season's PER: 21.85; projected PER 22.65) doesn't look quite as bouncy as he once did. While his projected PER for this season is higher than last season's, I'm going to go ahead and disagree -- the projections don't know that he seems content to rake in $60 million over the next three seasons regardless of what kind of shape he's in.
This discussion requires more space than I have here, so I've devoted an entire blog entry to him. If that's not enough for you, our Marc Stein -- still riding the euphoria of Manchester City's 1-0 win over Sunderland on Monday -- went to San Antonio to see Shaq in person and discussed his struggles in detail in last night's Daily Dime, while our master trainer David Thorpe provided a scout's perspective on the Big Fella's troubles.
Group II: The Fluke Rule Guys
Continuing with the low-hanging fruit portion of the team, this group consists of last season's "Fluke Rule" players. To review, the Fluke Rule says that any player past the age of 28 who experiences an increase of three points or more in PER is almost certainly playing way over his head, and is likely to return to earth a season later.
In over 90 percent of the cases, the player's PER declines the next season; on average they drop right back to their previous level. There was one Fluke Rule guy from last season that I don't agree with (Tim Duncan), so I've left him off. But you have to think these other guys are very safe bets to do worse:
Chucky Atkins, Nuggets (last season 17.45; projected 13.25)
While Atkins was in relative anonymity in Memphis, statistically he had a monster season. It was easily the best PER of his career, not to mention that his scoring rate blew away his previous best and he shot better than he had in half a decade. Since 33-year-old, 5-foot-11 point guards rarely trend upward anyway, this one seems like a pretty safe call. Atkins hasn't played a game yet this season because he's nursing a groin injury that will have him out for several more weeks.
Darrell Armstrong, Nets (last season 15.19; projected 10.40)
Armstrong was another guy who played out of his mind for a bad team, providing one of the few positive notes for the Pacers last season -- primarily because some of the 3-pointers he chucks up actually found the net for once. Armstrong relies heavily on that shot, but made a third of his long-distance tries for just the first time in four years in 2006-07. He's in great shape, but he's also 39 and can't shoot nearly as well as he seems to think, so don't expect an encore performance.
Mikki Moore, Kings (last season 14.81; projected 10.85)
Moore entered last season as a 50.6 percent career shooter. Last season, at age 31, he made 60.9 percent and led the league in shooting percentage on long 2-pointers at a ridiculous 58.4 percent -- nearly doubling what he shot from that range the previous two seasons. Obviously, this was a fluke with a capital PH, but the Kings were gullible enough to give him three years and $18 million as a reward. Other than the two players above, I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a more likely bet to decline this season.
Devin Brown, Cavs (last season 14.31; projected 13.03)
Brown was 28 for his Fluke Rule season, and had he been born a few hours later he wouldn't have qualified at all, so his indicators aren't quite as negative as they are for some of the other Fluke Rule players. Nonetheless, his performance with the Hornets last season was easily the best stretch of his career, and one has to be even more suspicious of it in light of the fact he shot unusually well on 3-pointers.
Ruben Patterson, Clippers (last season 18.60; projected 15.97)
Patterson is still an effective, contributing player, one who was vastly undervalued in the free-agent market and is going to help the Clippers in a big way. But it's highly unlikely he'll match the numbers he put up in Milwaukee last season, when he was arguably the team's MVP after starting at power forward for much of the season and shooting 54.8 percent with career highs in points, rebounds, minutes and shooting percentage. Especially since he's 32 and depends entirely on his quickness to get by as an undersized forward.
Jamaal Tinsley, Pacers (last season 15.24; projected 13.37)
As with Brown above, Tinsley was 28 during his Fluke Rule season, so the downward trend won't be quite as strong as for the others. On the other hand, guards who can't shoot tend to decline rapidly in their late 20s and early 30s, and Tinsley's injury proneness doesn't figure to improve the situation any. Even with the Pacers' hot start he's struggled, hitting only 31.9 percent from the floor thus far.
Group III: South American Division
I don't expect this to be a good season to be a basketball player from Argentina or Brazil. (Or Uruguay for that matter -- alas Esteban Batista, we hardly knew ye).
Anderson Varejao, Cavs (last season 14.45; projected 14.23)
Here's one reason the two sides are so far apart on money: If you look at players similar to Varejao, they rarely move beyond "energy guy" status as they get older, but the energy inevitably wanes. Obviously Varejao is particularly low-hanging fruit for this list since, if and when he returns, he is unlikely to be in game shape. But even if he'd been in Cleveland since September, our expectations might have needed tempering.
Manu Ginobili, Spurs (last season 24.18, projected 21.7)
Don't take this too far -- the guy is still an All-Star caliber performer who remains one of the league's most underrated players because the restrictions on his minutes hurt his per-game averages (believe it or not, he had the league's ninth-best PER last season).
But Manu was so good last season that it would be very difficult for him to repeat it -- he put up his best numbers since coming to the NBA in pretty much every category. As a 30-year-old slasher, we'd expect his numbers to go down anyway, and I think it's a relatively safe bet that he won't finish in the top 10 in PER this season despite his strong start so far.
Nene, Nuggets (last season 17.83; projected 17.39)
Statistically, the expectation was for a very slight drop from last season's numbers. Then I looked at the guy and did a double take. Apparently somebody spent his summer training with Shaq, and Nene's poor conditioning helped him lose his starting spot to Kenyon Martin. Through four games he has a 10.39 PER and quite possibly the league lead in blown chippies around the basket.
Walter Herrmann, Bobcats (last season 16.17; projected 15.13)
I'm as bewildered as you are that Sam Vincent seems so reluctant to play this guy, given how well he performed a season ago. That said, I wouldn't want to bet anything I valued on Herrmann repeating the performance. His solid PER from last season stemmed from doing only one thing well: making a high percentage of his shots. That's valuable, but it's also the most fluke-prone stat, meaning we shouldn't necessarily buy that this is Herrmann's true ability level based on half a season with a 60.6 true shooting percentage. It hasn't held up in his limited minutes this season: He's 2-for-13 from the floor thus far.
Group IV: Solid vets in distress
These guys all had really bad indicators on their player projections for this season, and each offered at least one other subjective reason not to like their odds of improvement this season.
Matt Harpring, Jazz (last season 14.75; projected 13.44)
The numbers say he's 31 and is likely to do worse anyway, but this one is mainly a subjective call. Harpring had more knee trouble in the offseason, and was already quite possibly the league's slowest wing player -- something that became obvious when he was asked to guard anyone with even a modicum of speed. The worry here is that any further diminution in speed will compromise his quickness to the point that he can't defend the position any longer.
Andre Miller, Sixers (last season 16.18; projected 13.97)
Miller has one of the league's biggest projected declines this season, mainly because most guards of his age and body type tend to hit the wall at the same point in their careers. Miller isn't in great shape, isn't a good outside shooter, and at 6-2 isn't particularly tall for his position. Those are three huge risk factors for a guard entering his 30s, and Miller is now 31. I'm thinking that Denver definitely sold his stock at its peak.
Antonio Daniels, Wizards (last season 15.02; projected 12.99)
Daniels is a similar case to Miller. He's 32, he depends almost entirely on penetration for his offense, and most of the players similar to him began struggling mightily at the same age. He's in better shape than Miller, but like many of his teammates, he's off to a wretched start. He has just four points in 47 minutes of inaction and, even more shockingly for one of the game's best foul magnets, he doesn't have a single free-throw attempt.
Antonio McDyess, Pistons (last season 18.22; projected 15.50)
McDyess' second half last season was ridiculous. His PER after the break was 24.4, or just above Kevin Garnett's. He averaged 20 points and 12 rebounds per 40 minutes and shot nearly 60 percent. You expect that to keep up? Me neither. Dice will be an effective center for Detroit, no doubt, but the veteran big guy isn't going to be matching Garnett shot for shot again.
Bostjan Nachbar, Nets (last season 14.59; projected 12.32)
This is a bit of a risky call since he shot the lights out in the preseason (he was New Jersey's leading scorer and pumped in nearly 20 a game), but the numbers say that Boki will have a tough time keeping up his performance level of a season ago. He'd never shot above 39.2 percent in a season until 2006-07, when he hit 45.7 percent, and he more than doubled his PER from a season earlier. He was only 26, so it's possible he just got better; perhaps more likely, however, is that he was playing over his head.
Jerry Stackhouse, Mavs (last season 16.88; projected 14.08)
He's 32 and depends heavily on his penetration skills. He's coming off what was his best season in the last four, and missed only 15 games after missing a combined 109 the previous three seasons. The optimist in me wants to believe he's just training harder and reaping the benefits. The cynic in me says Dallas was awfully fortunate to get one season like this out of Stackhouse, and it's not realistic to expect another.
Brent Barry, Spurs (last season 16.65; projected 14.43)
Barry led the league in true shooting percentage last season, but has three negative indicators heading into this season. The first is that he turns 36 on New Year's Eve. But as a shooting specialist, that's not necessarily deadly. The second is his declining defensive ability, which made the Spurs reluctant to use him last season, even though he was shooting the lights out; the addition of Ime Udoka should further crimp his playing time.
Factor No. 3, believe it or not, is the fact that he led the league in TS% last season. To do so almost requires a player to play beyond his normal capabilities, and looking back at previous players to do so, nearly all declined the following season -- in fact, so did Barry the three previous times he led the league in this category.
Group V: Stars who might not be as starry
Kirk Hinrich (last season 17.09; projected 16.44) and Ben Gordon (last season 18.31; projected 18.12), Bulls
Last season both players saw their PERs shoot up, increases that came about almost entirely due to a rise in shooting percentage. Is it possible they just got more accurate? Yes. But we know shooting percentage tends to be the most fluke-prone stat, so when a player's performance improvement is built mainly on that one category, it should set off our radar.
Gordon and Hinrich should remain effective this season, but despite their youth they may not match the numbers they posted last season. Certainly they haven't come close in the early going -- Hinrich is at 36.7 percent from the floor during Chicago's winless start, Gordon at 34.7 percent.
Caron Butler, Wizards (last season 18.41; projected 17.05)
I'm skeptical about Butler's chances for a return visit to the All-Star Game for two reasons. Objectively, a lot of similar players had trouble keeping up the same production level, as you can tell by the projected PER decline. Subjectively, it's awfully difficult to rain in long 2-pointers the way he did last season, when more than two-fifths of his shots came from that range and he drained 44.1 percent of them. Don't be shocked if his numbers are a bit less scorching this time around.
Zach Randolph, Knicks (last season 22.81; projected 20.83)
Probably the easiest star player in the league to predict a decline for. Not only was he arguably playing over his head in his breakout season for the Blazers, but he's moving into a system where another player, Eddy Curry, has a similar role and is likely to take a big chunk of his shots. Randolph will still be effective -- he's too good not to be -- but don't expect the eye-popping stats he produced in Portland last season.
Group VI: Reigning MVPs
Dirk Nowitizki, Mavs (last season 27.70; projected 24.76)
Let's not get carried away -- he still projects to have one of the league's top five PERs. It's just tough to play at such an exalted level for a full season, and doubly tough to do it two seasons in a row. And subjectively, in the wake of last season's first-round disappointment it wouldn't surprise me at all if he pulled a LeBron and decided to save some of his juice for the playoffs this time around.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
Friday, November 2, 2007
Updated: November 3, 11:47 AM ET
2007-08 All-Breakout Team: Who's raising their game to next level?
By John Hollinger
It's a new season, and with every new season we see inevitable changes. Some guys show improved jumpers or bigger muscles and play better than we expected; others show up 20 pounds heavier or a year older and can't quite produce at the same level.
Today we're going to look on the first half of that equation: my All-Breakout team for 2007-08. Veteran readers will be familiar with this product, as I've done it the past two years, as well. However, this time I'm going to change the format a little.
In the past, I've just picked 10 guys and gone with them as a list, which was nice and all but didn't quite do justice to their individual cases. Looking back on last year's team, for instance, the breakout I expected from Luol Deng was of a completely different type than the one I expected from Danny Granger. One guy was going from solid starter to borderline All-Star, the other from backup to solid starter; just throwing them together on a list didn't quite seem to capture the difference.
So this year, I bring a bit more nuance to the list. I've broken it up into a few different categories so you can more easily understand exactly how much breaking out we're talking about with these guys. Actually, I made eight groups, which might be overkill, but what the heck.
As always, the ground rules come first. First, I'm scrapping the nobody-from-last-year's-list rule since I'm changing the format; welcome back, Josh Smith. (And yes, it's possible to break out twice in a row -- once from part-time starter to minor star, and again from minor star to big-time star.)
The last two rules from a year ago remain, however: First, no comeback cases like Bobby Simmons or Kenyon Martin -- we're just talking about players legitimately stepping up from their former level. Second, minutes matter. There are a few guys I would have included on this list if I'd been more sure of their minutes (Trevor Ariza, for instance, or Sergio Rodriguez); since I'm not, I'm leaving them off.
That still leaves a 20-man team, however, for this year's All-Breakout squad. Not all of them are going to be superstars, but I'm betting on all of them to do a lot more damage this season than last. The envelopes, please:
GROUP I: All-Star to superstar
Dwight Howard, Magic (projected PER: 24.51)
In preseason, he was a sight to behold. Not to mention on Opening Night he tallied 16 points, 12 rebounds and 7 blocks against the Bucks. He's more physically imposing than a year ago, if you can imagine that. Plus, he has obviously worked on his shooting touch in the offseason, and it looks like he's even getting the hang of passing out of double-teams.
He's a two-way player, too, who is going to be on the All-Defense team one of these years. That could be as soon as this year; he stands to reap a big chunk of the credit if the Magic are as good as I expect.
GROUP II: Nawlins bound?
These guys haven't been on an All-Star team before, but all four put up monster numbers after the break last year. So if everything breaks right, they could be in New Orleans in February.
Josh Smith, Atlanta (projected PER: 20.74)
The Hawks' southpaw took his game to another level down the stretch last season, when he had to become Atlanta's go-to guy after Joe Johnson went down. Johnson's return means Smith will have to strike a balance, but his attacking off the dribble after last season's break was a welcome change from all the long J's he settled for early in the season.
He's got crazy hops, of course, and is an underrated passer, so as long as he stays aggressive and eschews the 20-footers, his game seems primed to take another step forward.
Al Jefferson, Timberwolves (projected PER: 19.33)
Here's all you need to know about how well Jefferson played down the stretch last season: When the Garnett rumors started, I got several e-mails from Celtics fans asking if Jefferson wasn't going to be the better player this year. While that's a stretch that would make a Slinky wince, it goes to show what a force Jefferson has become on the blocks.
Some wonder if he'll get the same shots playing on a lousy Wolves team, but Jefferson's team last season was lousy, too. It won't make a difference. Look for him to threaten the 20-10 barrier and do it while shooting around 50 percent.
Andre Iguodala, Sixers (projected PER: 19.09)
Iggy is another guy who took off after last season's All-Star break, and like Jefferson he's going to get his numbers while playing for a terrible team. Unlike Jefferson, however, he's a multilayered threat who defends, attacks off the dribble and is a good passer.
All that's missing is a consistent long-range jump shot, and I suspect he might have the form and work ethic to add that element in the next year or two. If so, he could be a perennial All-Star even if his team is terrible.
Tyson Chandler, Hornets (projected PER: 15.80)
A dervish on the boards who helped the Hornets stay afloat through all their injuries last season, Chandler is a poor man's Ben Wallace who defends and rebounds like crazy but is very limited offensively. At least he can convert his putbacks into points and get some alley-oops in transition, and he's not dropping as many passes around the basket as he used to.
His projected PER isn't as good as the other guys' PERs because of an off year in 2005-06 with Chicago when he had a weird lack of stamina, but if he steps up at all from what he did last season he's going to get a lot of attention. He also might lead the league in rebounding.
GROUP III: Second-year phenoms
LaMarcus Aldridge, Blazers (projected PER: 18.00)
The top choice for Most Improved Player in ESPN.com's preseason analyst poll, Aldridge showed why on opening day, when he lit the Spurs up for 27 points. Food for thought: Everyone talks about Aldridge's jumper allowing him to make room for Greg Oden once Oden returns from knee surgery, but perhaps we need to consider the opposite possibility. Maybe Oden is the one who will have to make room on the block for his teammate.
Ronnie Brewer, Jazz (projected PER: 15.95)
If Derek Fisher had stayed, would he have kept his job? You have to wonder given how good Brewer looked in the preseason and in Utah's opener. His ability to score around the basket allows him to benefit from all Utah's screening and cutting, while his knack for getting out in transition gives the Jazz offense another dimension.
I worry about him and Andrei Kirilenko playing together on the wings since neither of them can shoot worth a darn, but it seems his other talents may overwhelm that one weakness.
Andrea Bargnani (projected PER: 14.09)
Subjectively, I suspect Bargnani will beat his projected PER numbers. I say that not because he scored 20 points in 22 minutes Wednesday night, although that's certainly a point in his favor, but because his numbers from the Italian league suggested he'd play better than he did last season -- so I'd argue there's plenty of room to go up.
Throw in a likely boost in playing time (not to mention shots) and his per-game numbers seem set for a fairly big leap.
GROUP IV: Guys who will be appearing on this list for the final time
Darko Milicic, Grizzlies (projected PER: 15.66)
I am so done with making excuses for this guy. So why is he on this list? Because when I watched the Memphis-San Antonio game on Wednesday, it looked like he was actually playing hard. I can't say that I've seen that before.
We all know the only thing holding him back is his motor, so the fact that he looked like he actually gave a crap is a huge factor here. He's only 22, he's probably going to play more, and if motivated, he can still be a huge force as a center.
GROUP V: Veteran forwards who could have career years
It's weird putting these guys in a list of breakout players, but sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. All three of these guys have been around the block a few times, but each could be headed for a career year.
Gerald Wallace, Bobcats (projected PER: 19.56)
The single most underrated player in the league, Wallace is an All-Star caliber talent who hasn't been selected thanks to a combination of injuries and a lack of exposure. Wallace had career-best scoring numbers last season even though his first two months were rough thanks to an early-season concussion.
He's becoming less one-dimensional, too, with an improved jumper and one-on-one skills. If he can stay in one piece and keep the Bobcats reasonably close in the playoff race, this might be the season he finally gets some recognition.
Drew Gooden, Cavaliers (projected PER: 17.04)
With Anderson Varejao holding out, Gooden stands to be the main beneficiary in the form of increased minutes -- he played 40 in the opener after averaging 28 last season.
The 26-year-old forward may also have more shots coming his way too, since Zydrunas Ilgauskas isn't getting any younger and the Cavs' guards continue to disappoint. Add it up, and last season's averages of 11.1 and 8.5 could be this season's 14 and 10.
Mike Dunleavy, Pacers (projected PER: 13.78)
No, this isn't a joke. He had a great preseason and a strong opener against Washington. He's guaranteed minutes and is no longer burdened by expectations the way he was in Golden State. And at 27, he should be at his peak as a player.
Finally, his numbers last year weren't even that bad -- he had a 15.06 PER in Golden State before the trade to Indiana messed with his numbers. With a new system that seems friendly to his style of play and with every other factor lined up in his favor, maybe now we'll see him at his best.
GROUP VI: Next-generation point guards
Deron Williams, Jazz (projected PER 16.92)
Chris Paul, Hornets (projected PER: 24.67)
I hear you now: "Thanks for giving us those two, rocket scientist. I hear that Nowitzki guy in Dallas might have a good year, too." OK, this was an obvious call. But I feel weird making a list of emerging young point guards and excluding these two. And while both are established stars, each could make further improvements this season -- one easy area in which to step up would be 3-pointers, where each struggled last season.
(By the way, if Williams' projected PER looks low to you & it is. His bad rookie numbers still hold him back in the projections system, but in his case I'm much more willing to trust what he did last season).
Devin Harris, Mavericks (projected PER: 16.98)
Now that he's been installed as the Mavs' starter at the point, Harris' star is likely to rise -- as much in terms of perception as in per-game numbers. Harris is one of the league's quickest guards, an asset that's especially apparent at the defensive end.
His being a full-time starter is likely the last barrier to All-Defense recognition; meanwhile, he's a jump shot away from being an absolute dynamo at the offensive end.
Louis Williams, Sixers (projected PER: 14.29)
Since nobody paid any attention to the Sixers last season, and the same will probably happen this season, I'll sound the warning: Keep an eye out for this guy, because he's one of the league's top young scoring guards. He's only 21, but his absurd quickness allows him to beat almost anyone off the dribble.
He's still figuring out how to put it all together, but he's going to get minutes and his talent is undeniable, so we could be looking at this season's Monta Ellis.
Nate Robinson, Knicks (projected PER: 16.59)
Whispers out of New York are that Robinson is finally starting to act like a grown-up. If so, it may allow his prodigious scoring skills to come to the forefront. The 5-9 spark plug averaged nearly a point every two minutes last year and may top that this time around; combined with a potential boost in playing time (especially if he can poach Stephon Marbury's job), he could boost his scoring average to around 15 a game.
GROUP VII: They're not gonna be stars, but …
This is my favorite category -- the role players who are ready to step up and make a much larger contribution.
Ronny Turiaf, Lakers (projected PER: 15.13)
He fouls too much to stay on the court for extended minutes, but I'm a big fan of this guy's energy, and he actually has some skill, too. Turiaf had the league's eighth-best rate of shot blocks last season and is an efficient scorer at the other end.
I'm a little amazed the Lakers haven't played him more and I'm not sure they realize what they have, but the fact he started the opener makes me think they've started noticing.
Kelenna Azubuike, Warriors (projected PER: 13.82)
Is he as good as Jason Richardson? No. Will he end up playing a lot of minutes in his place? Absolutely. Nobody talks about this guy when they mention the Warrior's perimeter players, but I suspect he's going to end up playing a major role -- especially once they've seen enough seven-point, one-rebound, no-assist nights from overhyped rookie Marco Belinelli. I never understood why Azubuike fell out of the rotation during last season's playoffs, and it seems he's still getting better.
Linas Kleiza, Nuggets (projected PER: 12.99)
It's all about opportunity, folks, and Kleiza has a huge one. With J.R. Smith in the doghouse and Chucky Atkins in business casual on the sidelines, Kleiza becomes the Nuggets' shooter du jour.
It's a plum job, as he showed in hitting five triples against Seattle on Wednesday night, because everybody will be zoning up this team and daring them to win from outside. Like a lot of guys on this list, Kleiza also played much better in the second half of last season.
GROUP VIII: They're not gonna be stars, but…
Several guys just missed the cut for a variety of reasons, so let's give them all a quick moment in the sun:
• David Lee would be near the top of this list if I thought the Knicks were smart enough to start him ahead of Eddy Curry. But they're not …
• A lot of folks are talking up Jason Maxiell and Amir Johnson, but I'm not sure if there are enough minutes available for either to put up breakout-type numbers -- especially since they're taking each other's minutes …
• Same goes for Travis Outlaw and Martell Webster, though I like Outlaw much better of the two …
• Dorell Wright would make this list if his coach didn't seem so averse to playing him …
• Andray Blatche's name has come up a lot too, but I'll be more receptive when I hear he's putting in the work and has his head on straight …
• Same goes for perennial teases Gerald Green and Sebastian Telfair …
• Charlie Villanueva would be a nice pick if another guy who plays his position hadn't been promised 25 minutes a game …
• Paul Millsap will be a stud if one of the two guys in front of him gets hurt …
• Luis Scola might be a better breakout pick for 2008-09 -- a lot of the veteran European players have seemed to need a year to get their sea legs …
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.