An early look at the 2012-13 Western Conference Playoff Puzzle – where do the Hornets fit?

Published: August 3, 2012

Mason tries to determine how the Western Conference standings will play out in 2012-13 and whether or not the Hornets could be playoff-bound by projecting PERs and expected player rotations.

An Explanation

First things first – yes, it’s very early to begin making predictions about next season’s playoff picture. There are plenty of variables that will inevitably come into play that will likely completely ruin everything we thought to be true. That being said, with free agency winding down, we can begin to evaluate each team’s new roster and how the talent stacks up against each other.

For simplicity’s sake, I have eliminated a few teams from this analysis. The main goal here is to project how the Western Conference “playoff bubble” will play out; therefore, I assume that last season’s top 6 seeds – the Spurs, Thunder, Lakers, Clippers, Grizzlies, and Nuggets – will all remain in the playoff picture. None of those teams lost any key pieces, and a couple of them added to their core. I also assume that the Kings will remain at the bottom of the conference for at least one more season.

That leaves eight teams – the Hornets, Rockets, Mavericks, Suns, Jazz, Timberwolves,  Warriors, and Blazers – left to battle it out for the final two playoff spots. To evaluate each team based on their new rosters, I weighted each player’s PER from the prior season based on expected minutes per game (also based off of the 2011-12 season) to get a MPG-weighted total PER for each team. This concept seems simple enough, but some assumptions were required in order to keep this analysis as simple as possible.


  • To project the PERs of this year’s rookie class, I plugged in the results from John Hollinger’s draft rater column from late June. In the case of Alexey Shved, Donatas Motiejunas, and Victor Claver, I had to create my own projections.
  • If a player was injured for most or all of the 2011-12 season or simply did not play in the NBA last year, I used the PER that was projected for them by Hollinger before that season began.
  • If a player’s projected PER comes in under replacement level, it will revert to replacement level. The underlying assumption here is that if a player is playing so poorly as to be under replacement level, the coach would reallocate his distribution of minutes towards players who were performing at a higher level. The replacement level PER that Hollinger provides is different for each position on the court; 11.0 for PGs, 10.5 for SGs and SFs, 11.5 for PFs, and 10.6 for Cs.
  • Due to the unpredictability of injuries, none were assumed. Clearly, they will unfortunately occur, but guessing when they will happen as well as the severity is no easy task.
  • Finally, the various levels of each team’s coaching staff will be ignored. Players obviously aren’t everything, but with this sort of analysis, it would be very difficult to integrate the impact of good vs. poor coaching.

Effectiveness of Method

I received a good suggestion from Will Hibert (who writes for At the Hive) for a way to test whether or not this method of team evaluation would be a useful one. He recommended that I evaluate last season’s Western Conference playoff teams using the same method and see how the results compared to what really happened. I took his advice, and compared the results to two rankings – the actual 2011-12 regular season standings, and Hollinger’s power rankings. The reason for using both is that often, the standings don’t tell you exactly how good a team is and what we can expect from it in the postseason; Hollinger’s rankings use factors such as scoring margin and strength of schedule to more accurately determine a team’s true quality.

While each team’s MP-weighted PER results were not exceedingly correlated to win-loss record, they were actually pretty closely correlated to Hollinger’s power rankings. If your gut reaction is to assume this is the case because Hollinger also devised the PER formula, don’t; PER in no way impacts his power rankings. As a result, considering the lack of data available to analyze a given season before it begins, the MP-Weighted PER appears to be a decent way to project how that season will play out. The data that allowed me to come to this conclusion can be found here.

The Results

I came up with three pretty well-defined tiers. The first tier consists of the top two teams that round out the playoff picture as the seventh and eighth seeds. The next tier is a group of three teams reasonably behind the first tier, but tightly packed together and not far enough behind that one of the teams couldn’t pull off the upset. The third tier are teams too far behind to realistically make a playoff push. So, without further adieu:

Tier 1 – Minnesota and Utah

The Timberwolves came out on top with a team MP-weighted PER of just over 17. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, actually; before Ricky Rubio went down last season, the T-Wolves looked like they could possibly sneak into the playoffs. Given the additions of Kirilenko and Shved from Russia, they will have a very good chance to be playing in May regardless of Brandon Roy’s health. The scariest part about Minnesota may be that their team’s MPG-weighted average age is even lower than New Orleans; only 22.72, compared to 23.13 for the Hornets.

The other team that can smell the playoffs is the Jazz, boasting a team MPG-weighted PER of 16.63; however, due to the team’s youth, this number could be low-balling them given the likelihood of their young players to improve. Utah got wiped out by San Antonio in the first round last season, but this is a team that will only get better. Burks, Hayward, Kanter, and Favors are all 22 years old or younger, and all had PERs above 14 last season which should only improve. If Utah’s young players can progress significantly, they could very well jump Minnesota under the leadership of Millsap, Jefferson, and new point guard Mo Williams. The Utah Jazz have a bright future ahead of them.

Tier 2 – Dallas, Golden State, and New Orleans

These three teams are all tightly packed, with team MPG-weighted PERs of 16.23 (Dallas), 16.19 (Golden State), and 15.96 (New Orleans). Out of the three teams, the Hornets likely have the highest ceiling, but also the furthest to fall. The Mavericks and Warriors have exceptional depth; only two of Dallas’ ten players who project to receive over 15 minutes per game have PERs under 15, both of whom (Collison and Carter) finished with PERs of 13.6 last season. Golden State will feature Curry, Bogut, and David Lee, have promising young players Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes on the wings, and also boast nice depth with the addition of two former Hornets, Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry.

The Hornets are the wild card here. The team’s back court depth is incredibly suspect, but will feature one of the strongest front courts in the league between Anderson, Davis, Lopez and Smith. Apart from Eric Gordon’s health, the biggest key for the Hornets to have a chance at making the playoffs is the progression of Austin Rivers. Greivis is a serviceable PG and will be adequate for getting Gordon and the Hornets’ big men the ball, but the team is remarkably thin at guard behind he and Gordon. If Rivers can surpass expectations for his rookie season and make a significant positive impact at the point guard position, then New Orleans has a legitimate chance to battle Minnesota and Utah for those last two playoff spots.

Tier 3 – Phoenix, Portland, and Houston

In an outcome that likely surprises few, Phoenix and Houston graded the worst out of these seven teams; Phoenix’s team MPG-weighted PER is 15.41, and Houston’s fell way behind them at 14.28. More than any team on this list, coaching will likely have a huge impact on the Suns’ success. Heavy minutes with Beasley and Johnson at the wings seems like a horrible idea, but one that likely isn’t out of the question. If the right players play, the Suns could be better than expected, but still not a playoff team.

UPDATE: Due to a couple requests in the comments, I have decided to include Portland in this analysis. The Trail Blazers’ MPG-weighted PER is 14.50, which is a bit ahead of Houston but well behind Phoenix. Hollinger’s draft rater does not work in Lillard or Leonard’s favor, however; both are projected below replacement-level. If both players exceed expectations and achieve PERs closes to league average, Portland’s MPG-weighted PER could very well exceed 15, but passing the Suns at 15.41 seems highly unlikely, keeping them entrenched in this third tier.

Houston is admittedly difficult to project due to the amount of rookies on the team, not to mention the fact that Daryl Morey could pull the trigger on his next trade at any moment. The current roster’s MPG-weighted per of 14.28, however, indicates that the Rockets won’t contend for a playoff spot this season, though it could be a formidable one in a couple years; I doubt Morey will stand pat with this group, though.

No matter how everything ends up playing out, the bottom of the 2012-13 Western Conference playoff race is sure to be a great battle that may come down to the season’s final game. My picks to sneak in are Minnesota and Utah, but Dallas will be right on their heels with the depth to withstand injuries to any player outside of Dirk. Golden State and New Orleans are directly behind Dallas, and should keep the Mavs looking over their shoulder.  What do you think? Are the Hornets legit contenders for a playoff spot, or are they still one season away? Share your thoughts below!

If you want to see how each team’s MPG-weighted PER was projected, you can find it here.