Projecting the 2021-22 NBA Standings

The NBA’s Preseason is finally over. Naturally, then, it’s time to rank some teams.

As I discussed with The Athletic’s Seth Partnow on Pod Strickland a month or so ago, rankings can ruffle feathers, and are always at least partially subjective. For that reason, I want to outline here how these rankings were developed, and how they should be interpreted, before we dive in. If you’re here for the hot takes, though, feel free to scroll past the fine print.

Each team’s rating is based on a blend of individual player ratings and minutes projections for those players.

  • That means that player/lineup synergies aren’t directly accounted for here, though those synergies could impact the metrics behind the player ratings themselves (more on those in a bit).
    • Coaching improvements or changes won’t be directly accounted for either (e.g. Dallas going from Rick Carlisle to Jason Kidd).
  • Essentially, if a player is projected to be really good, and also projected to play a lot of minutes, that will have a massive positive impact on a team’s rating, and vice versa.
  • These rankings won’t account for any in-season trades, or unforeseen drastic injuries, although minutes projections are generally conservative (topping out around 30 per game) to partially account for this dynamic.
    • Players who are not likely to play many minutes for their current teams this season (e.g. Kyrie Irving and John Wall) are projected as such, though their minutes aren’t blended into any other teams to project for possible trades.
    • Minutes projections are based on myself and RJ‘s personal educated guesses, and they rarely diverge from the projections by ESPN’s Kevin Pelton.
  • The teams are then ranked by this aggregate rating in terms of how they’d be expected to perform over the course of this full regular season.
    • That’s a key callout – this, by no means, is a ranking of teams at full strength, or who’s a title favorite, or who will make it further in the playoffs.
  • Overall team ratings are normalized to wins, and adjusted for strength of schedule based on which division each team is in.

The individual player ratings are made up of three main components, combined into one aggregate rating, and then adjusted for year over year anticipated change:

  • 1/3 of a player’s rating is based on talent-predictive advanced impact metrics.
    • Specifically, DARKO DPM by Kostya Medvedovsky is leveraged here.
    • This is meant to be an unbiased predictor of current performance, as opposed to a results-reflective measurement of past performance.
  • 1/3 of a player’s rating is based on results-measuring impact metrics from last season.
  • 1/3 of a player’s rating is based on myself and RJ‘s personal player ratings. Eye test fans rejoice – as long as your eye test agrees with ours.
    • These ratings are based on current player value, and don’t account for potential regression or improvement next year (see next bullet).
    • For rookies, this makes up the entirety of the rating.
  • That aggregate rating is then bumped slightly up or down to account for development along an age curve, with improving performance until age 25 (with steeper improvements for younger players) and declining performance after age 30 (with steeper declines for older players).
    • These changes are still very conservative, as development isn’t necessarily linear.
    • To that point, these changes are based strictly upon age – not years of experience, nor whether an individual player has easier or more difficult nuanced paths to development than another.

Spoilers here:

And let’s take a look at the team-by-team projections!

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. Milwaukee Bucks (56-26)

Notes: The defending champs didn’t make too many changes vs. last season! Continuity for a championship roster should be helpful, and Jrue Holiday’s proven regular season impact will drive huge value for a team with middling depth past Giannis.

2. Brooklyn Nets (51-31)

Notes: The Nets had a quiet but solid offseason, retaining Blake Griffin and adding Patty Mills. The biggest things, of course, will be minutes – will Kyrie play and will KD and Harden stay healthy? If so, the Nets should be a lock for a top seed.

3. philadelphia 76ers (50-32)

Notes: A mountain of salt – how long will Ben Simmons be on this roster? As of now, it’s still an elite starting 5, centerpieced by Joel Embiid, whose 8.5 RAPTOR ranked 2nd in all of basketball last season, and who should be back for another run at an MVP. A wild card could be the growth of Tyrese Maxey, who struggled in impact metrics last season but could be primed for improvement.

4. atlanta hawks (47-35)

Notes: One of the most exciting young teams in basketball, the Hawks bring back a nearly identical roster to the one that made a Conference Finals run last season, where Trae Young (3.3 EPM last season; 95th percentile among point guards) cemented himself as a legitimate star. This could be a team that makes a move midseason to jump the ranks, as Cam Reddish and Lou Williams minutes are projected to be detrimental.

5. Miami heat (45-37)

Notes: The Heat reeled in the biggest fish in free agency in Kyle Lowry, who’s long been an advanced stats darling (his 2.5 DARKO DPM ranks 25th in the NBA). PJ Tucker, who was instrumental in the Bucks’ championship run, isn’t looked upon as fondly in regular-season value, and the Heat will need more from once-prized prospect Tyler Herro if they want to truly contend this season.

6. new york knicks (44-38)

Notes: Coming off a surprising playoff run, the Knicks added maybe their immediate best player this offseason in Kemba Walker, assuming he can stay healthy. DARKO DPM isn’t yet a believer in Julius Randle as an All-NBA-level player (0.7), but if he can replicate his 2020-21 campaign, the Knicks could return to the top 4 of the conference. Another development leap from RJ Barrett or regression from Derrick Rose or Alec Burks could also swing the Knicks’ season in one direction or the other.

7. boston celtics (43-39)

Notes: Our projections are lower on the Celtics than some, with Dennis Schroder and Josh Richardson looking like downgrades from the departed Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier. Another leap from Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown, or more minutes for Robert Williams, are the most likely paths to a top-6 finish.

8. Washington Wizards (41-41)

Notes: Washington had a productive offseason, moving Russell Westbrook and adding multiple productive pieces (Spencer Dinwiddie, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell) to a suddenly-deep roster. The minutes and development of Kyle Kuzma, Rui Hachimura, and Deni Avdija will be crucial to whether this team can crack the top 6 in the conference or whether they’ll enter the lottery.

9. Indiana Pacers (40-42)

Notes: The Pacers could surprise some people this season, behind a healthy Caris LeVert and TJ Warren. The advanced metrics don’t like Domantas Sabonis as much as the All-Star voters do, but Myles Turner – assuming he stays a Pacer – makes up for it, as the 5th-most impactful defender in basketball last season according to RAPTOR.

10. chicago bulls (39-43)

Notes: The Bulls were active this offseason, with additions of Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso (immediately their top player per RAPTOR) potentially outweighed by a costly trade and contract for DeMar DeRozan, who’s always performed better in the eye test than the impact metrics. Chicago will need big improvements from Patrick Williams and Coby White if they are to realize their playoff aspirations.

11. Toronto raptors (38-44)

Notes: The suddenly-rebuilding Toronto Raptors are top-heavy, with 4 excellent starters surrounded by a potpourri of young players and question marks. OG Anunoby is worth watching for a development leap with more offensive opportunity, and the team could get a boost from its return to Toronto.

12. charlotte hornets (35-47)

Notes: The Hornets are officially LaMelo Ball’s team. However, barring a before-expected arrival to superstardom, Charlotte will need a lot of young players and depth pieces to significantly overperform – or be traded – to make a run at the playoffs.

13. detroit pistons (30-52)

Notes: All eyes will be on 1st overall pick Cade Cunningham this season, but it’s debatably an even bigger year for Killian Hayes, Detroit’s top-10 pick from last season who missed lots of time due to injury and looked a bit lost in the limited time he did have on the court. Kelly Olynyk should be an upgrade for the frontcourt, while the predictive metrics are taking a wait-and-see approach (-0.6 DARKO DPM) on 2021 Most Improved Player contender Jerami Grant.

14. orlando magic (30-52)

Notes: The Magic are in full rebuilding mode, and may not play a single “positive” player on the court this season. However, the development of Jalen Suggs and return of Jonathan Isaac will be crucial to a successful season. Cole Anthony (5th-worst among all qualifying players last season in RAPTOR) has a chance to prove he’s a long-term contributing NBA player.

15. cleveland cavaliers (28-54)

Notes: The Cavs had an interesting offseason, investing a lot into an as-of-yet unproven Lauri Markkanen and giving $100 million to Jarrett Allen. The question is how many minutes will be left for rookie Evan Mobley. Meanwhile, it’s a make-or-break year for Collin Sexton, a pending free agent, who despite a massive scoring leap last season hasn’t shown enough defense to prove he’s a net positive player.

Western CONFERENCE

1. utah jazz (52-30)

Notes: The Jazz are strong candidates to repeat their West Regular Season supremacy, with two excellent All-Star guards flanking perennial DPOY Rudy Gobert, who led all of basketball last season in the defensive component of all three impact metrics used in this projection. Solid rotation players are galore elsewhere as well behind multiple 6th Man of the Year candidates, and an under-the-radar acquisition of versatile wing Rudy Gay.

2. phoenix suns (49-33)

Notes: The Suns bring back the same core that had them on the doorstep of a championship last season, with a new contract for Chris Paul and an absolute steal to bring back Cameron Payne. Keep an eye on the continued growth of DeAndre Ayton, their third-best player per DARKO DPM, as he looks to play for a new extension.

3. portland trail blazers (48-34)

Notes: The Blazers might be the most eyebrow-raising team on this entire list, but think of it this way – they have a good chance at 7 legitimate plus players, a type of depth highly rare in the NBA, and do have a legitimate top-10-level talent in Damian Lillard, who ranked 3rd leaguewide in all 3 of LEBRON, EPM, and RAPTOR last season. A full season of underrated role players Robert Covington and Jusuf Nurkic won’t hurt, either.

4. dallas mavericks (47-35)

Notes: The Mavs bring back a very similar roster to the one that got bounced early last season, and replaced Hall Of Fame coach Rick Carlisle with the maligned Jason Kidd. The continued growth of Luka is obviously imperative, but they’ll need big contributions from newly-extended Tim Hardaway Jr. and maxed-out Kristaps Porzingis to reach their potential.

5. los angeles lakers (45-37)

Notes: The Lakers are the latest franchise to embark upon the Russell Westbrook experiment, and one of the most polarizing players in NBA discourse lives up to that reputation across the impact metrics (+2.8 LEBRON & -1.8 RAPTOR). If anyone can make it work, it’s LeBron James – but can the depth and age of this team hold up?

6. denver nuggets (45-37)

Notes: The Nuggets have an MVP in Nikola Jokic and a stud young max prospect in Michael Porter Jr. – can they stay in the thick of things in time for the return of Jamal Murray? They’re hoping Aaron Gordon might have another gear, and if Bones Hyland can contribute on the perimeter in year 1, they might have a chance.

7. golden state warriors (43-39)

Notes: The Dubs have high expectations this season with the return of Klay Thompson, but it would be unfair to expect another All-Star campaign right away after his injury return. Otto Porter Jr. should help shore up some depth, but heavy minutes for James Wiseman (2nd-worst RAPTOR in the NBA last season behind Aleksej Pokusevski) threaten to drag down a top-heavy roster.

8. los angeles clippers (43-39)

Notes: The Clippers are in a similar position as the Nuggets, hoping the basketball gods provide a positive timeline on their injured star while a solid roster holds down the fort in the meantime. Paul George (7th in the NBA in DARKO DPM) continues to be one of the most underrated players leaguewide, and if Reggie Jackson and Nicolas Batum can both continue their career renaissances, LA should be right in the mix when the time comes.

9. new orleans pelicans (42-40)

Notes: The Pelicans saw significant roster turnover with the departure of Lonzo Ball and Steven Adams, but brought in solid contributors in Devonte’ Graham and Jonas Valanciunas. To keep Zion happy, Brandon Ingram will need to return to All-Star form, and growth from Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kira Lewis Jr. could help this roster to the playoffs.

10. memphis grizzlies (40-42)

Notes: The Grizzlies look to build on a promising season by returning to the play-in. An extremely young roster will need growth from potentially its best prospects in Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., who have struggled significantly on defense and offense respectively, to help establish a course to long-term contention.

11. minnesota timberwolves (37-45)

Notes: Entering Karl-Anthony Towns’ 7th season, the Wolves still don’t appear on track for a playoff spot, though they helped their case by acquiring a nice fit in Patrick Beverley. D’Angelo Russell continues to underperform his reputation, but a leap from Anthony Edwards, who showed significant flashes in his rookie year, could do wonders for the perception and direction of the franchise.

12. sacramento kings (36-46)

Notes: The Kings are still awaiting the Leap, but come back with a largely similar roster despite coming very close to trading sharpshooter Buddy Hield (41% 3PT for his career) in the offseason. Tyrese Haliburton’s promising rookie year provides hope for a talented young backcourt, while the returning Richaun Holmes (67% true shooting last season) is one of the most underrated bigs in the league. However, the depth and defense likely won’t be enough for an elusive playoff berth.

13. San antonio spurs (35-47)

Notes: The Spurs changed course this offseason, subtracting DeMar DeRozan and adding Thaddeus Young from the Bulls. As a result, an already-solid defensive unit behind Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, and Jakob Poeltl figures to get even staunchier, but there’s left a massive void in playmaking duties that this team will have to fix either internally or via trade to compete for a playoff spot.

14. houston rockets (28-54)

Notes: The rebuild is on in Houston, with a roster chock-full of promising neophytes, 6 players 21 or younger projected to play heavy minutes. They’ll surround borderline star Christian Wood (21 PPG last season on 37% 3PT), who at 26 could very much be a part of this team’s long-term future. It will be a development season, but there’s plenty to be excited about watching.

15. oklahoma city thunder (22-60)

Notes: The Thunder continue the merry-go-round of surrounding players for Shai Gilgeoud-Alexander as they stockpile draft picks. In the meantime, Shai, who by far led the NBA in drives per game last season, is primed to make a leap into the stratosphere. For OKC, it will be another season of seeing which other guys might stick around long term, with high hopes for raw 19-year old Aleksej Pokusevski and 1st-round playmaker Josh Giddey.

by Derek Reifer & RJ Garcia, Northwestern University

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