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Numbers can never tell entire NBA stories.
But that’s not the objective of advanced analytics. These statistics—like their more traditional siblings—are meant to be part of a larger picture.
And they often align more closely with the eye test than many might realize.
Granted, not every analytical darling is a household name. But not every important player is, either. The sport is too nuanced for a box score or a highlight reel to capture everyone’s contributions.
That said, advanced statistics have meaning. And we’re here to recognize some of the biggest analytical standouts by spotlighting six of the most recognizable categories and predicting which players will lead them in 2018-19.
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Hassan Whiteside’s surface stats took a big enough hit in 2017-18 that any mention of him in combination with the word “rebound” this summer likely involved the intangible goal of a bounce-back season.
But even as the big fella’s volume diminished in 2017-18, his per-minute production kept trending up.
In fact, he’d never averaged as many rebounds (16.3) or defensive rebounds (11.7) per 36 minutes in his career. By year’s end, he’d compiled a 24.2 rebounding percentage that ranked third among qualified players and bettered his rate from 2016-17 (23.9), when he had the Association’s highest average on the glass.
Because this category involves just the percentage of available rebounds collected, situational glass-cleaners can hold prominent leaderboard positions. Ed Davis and Alex Len, for instance, landed among the top 12 qualified players last season.
That said, elite rebounders typically take home the top prize. The last time Whiteside, Andre Drummond or DeAndre Jordan didn’t pace the qualified field was 2012-13.
But Drummond will now share rebounds with Blake Griffin for an entire campaign. And Jordan will likely lose some of his offensive boards, since the Dallas Mavericks have finished with the worst offensive rebounding percentage each of the last two seasons. Whiteside, meanwhile, remains as important as ever to the Miami Heat’s rebounding efforts after averaging twice as many boards as his next-closest teammate, Kelly Olynyk, last season.
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Matt Slocum/Associated Press
True shooting percentage is a fascinating stat, because the added weight given to three-pointers can determine the winner—but not always.
Last season, perimeter sharpshooters Stephen Curry and Anthony Tolliver held the top two spots among qualified players. But the previous top five was Tyson Chandler, Lucas Nogueira, Rudy Gobert, DeAndre Jordan and Montrezl Harrell.
Our crystal ball thinks this will be another campaign for the gunners. It’s also picturing a substantial spike for JJ Redick, who was third in this category during 2015-16 (63.2) but hasn’t sniffed the top 25 since.
Why would Redick, at 34 years old, trend up for a Philadelphia 76ers squad that failed to make an impact move this summer? Because the Sixers might be grooming an in-house difference-maker if promising offseason reports about 2017 top pick Markelle Fultz prove prescient.
“I have tremendous optimism and confidence that he’s going to have a hell of a year,” head coach Brett Brown said, per SI.com’s Jake Fischer.
If Fultz can catch up to Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, then Redick will again be surrounded with multiple playmakers like he was in 2015-16 (Chris Paul, Griffin and Jamal Crawford with the Los Angeles Clippers). Cleaner looks could be all Redick needs to rise above Curry, who could encounter a bumpy transition as the Golden State Warriors move away from veteran bigs to a cast of young centers and a rehabbing DeMarcus Cousins.
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When you think of traditional floor generals and advanced stats, this is probably the category that comes to mind. It’s the percentage of field goals a player assists while on the floor, and last year’s leaders were the top-shelf distributors you’d expect: Russell Westbrook, James Harden and LeBron James (in that order).
But John Wall—who had to navigate around knee surgery—held down the fifth spot, and that was tied for his lowest ranking since 2013-14. He paced everyone in 2014-15 with 44.6 percent, and he cleared that number—plus everyone else’s—with 49.6 during this past postseason.
Wall consistently steers his offense in the right direction. He masterfully manipulates defenders by playing at a breakneck pace but processing the game in slow motion, and he rarely misses an open passing window.
“The things John Wall sees are largely beyond us,” SI.com’s Rob Mahoney wrote. “While surrounded by giants and operating at preposterous speeds, Wall manages to track every passing angle available to him. … Somehow, a glance is enough to capture all of that information and anticipate every change.”
The Wizards have no reason to take the ball out of Wall’s hands; he’s the Association’s only player to average at least 9.5 assists each of the last four seasons.
His primary competition might not have that luxury. Westbrook now plays alongside Dennis Schroder, who finished ninth in assist percentage last season. Harden’s rate could backtrack if Paul doesn’t miss 24 games again. And the genesis of the Los Angeles Lakers’ strange construction was a desire to plug in multiple playmakers around James.
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The fight for any defensive honor will be ferocious.
If the Toronto Raptors’ Kawhi Leonard is healthy, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year will have all eyes on him as he transitions to a new team and recovers from a mostly lost season. But there’s also Rudy Gobert (the reigning DPOY), Draymond Green (the previous recipient) and surging young stoppers such as Joel Embiid and Dejounte Murray (both second-team All-Defensive selections as sophomores).
So, why does Andre Roberson get the nod? For starters, he owned this category last season (96.4) before a ruptured patellar tendon cut his campaign short Jan. 27. The Oklahoma City Thunder’s defense struggled to function without him (107.6 defensive rating, which would have been 19th), but that 96.4 mark with him is lower than any team has posted since 2011-12.
“The Thunder force far fewer steals with Roberson off the floor,” Fred Katz wrote for the Norman Transcript. “The deflections are down. The loose balls recovered plummet. The Thunder couldn’t play the type of switchy defense they deploy if Roberson weren’t there to begin [with].”
Assuming Roberson gets healthy—he’s running already—this defense should be among the NBA’s best. The Roberson-Paul George tandem is as versatile as they come, Steven Adams is an elite pick-and-roll defender (87th percentile) and having Jerami Grant take on Carmelo Anthony’s old minutes will make this unit longer, more athletic and infinitely more versatile.
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Who said predictions need to be bold?
Stephen Curry had the NBA’s best offensive rating this past season and the two before that. Considering he’s piloted a top-35 all-time attack in each of those campaigns, this run of analytical offensive excellence is hardly a surprise.
Surely, he benefits from sharing the floor with perhaps the most talent-rich roster in league history. Opposing defenses can only give him so much attention when they’re also worrying about four-time scoring champ Kevin Durant, historically accurate three-point marksman Klay Thompson and top 10 table-setter Draymond Green. (Not to mention four-time All-Star DeMarcus Cousins whenever his Achilles cooperates.)
But when it comes to offensive assistance, Curry gives more than he gets. He operates under the watchful eyes of a defense—not a defender, the entire defense—as a sharpshooter with limitless range, a dazzling shot-creator with street-ball handles, a ball-mover with underrated vision and an elite scorer with takeover ability.
“Steph is the system here,” Durant said, per Anthony Slater of The Athletic.
That offensive system fared 14.3 points better per 100 possessions with Curry than without last season. He’ll keep holding the keys until he tells the Dubs he doesn’t want to drive anymore.
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NBA.com’s contribution to the comprehensive-value category is meant to measure “a player’s overall statistical contribution against the total statistics in games they play in.” Six of the last seven MVP winners sat atop this ranking.
Clearly, we’re expecting big things out of Anthony Davis—and why wouldn’t we? He’s already a certified superstar with top-three PIE finishes in three of the past four seasons. Plus, his numbers could grow even more astonishing without a second All-Star on the roster.
Davis played 33 regular-season games after Cousins’ injury last season. During that slate, the Brow went for 30.2 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.2 blocks, 2.2 assists and 2.0 steals a night. For context, Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo is the only player to ever average 30 points, 11 boards and three blocks per game. Davis had six 40-point outbursts during that stretch; Harden was the only other player with six such games all season.
Davis will have more spotlight time without Cousins, plus a frontcourt partner for any situation. Nikola Mirotic is a spacer, Julius Randle is a shot-creator and (assuming he makes the roster) Jahlil Okafor is a low-block bully. None will steal Davis’ shine, but each can complement him in different ways.
“This could be the season when Davis becomes the best player in the league,” The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks opined.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.