Nylon Calculus: Eastern Conference preview and projections from Justin Willard

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 09: Marcus Smart #36 of the Boston Celtics looks on during the game against the Philadelphia 76ers at TD Garden on October 9, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 09: Marcus Smart #36 of the Boston Celtics looks on during the game against the Philadelphia 76ers at TD Garden on October 9, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images) /

The new season is about to break on the horizon, and that means it’s that time again: I’ve compiled NBA win predictions and a handful of paragraphs for every team in the league, starting with the Eastern Conference.

For win predictions, it’s similar to how I’ve done it in the past. I use multiple seasons worth of data using multiple metrics — RPM, BPM, RAPM, PT-PM, BPM, and Dredge. I’ll adjust for a handful of factors, like age, and run it through the schedule. For minutes, I used Kevin Pelton’s numbers. Also, I included a bar chart for one select player for every team showing all their per possession and rate stats. This is not quite the depth I’ve done before for an NBA preview, but if the league gets to cut the preseason down then so do I.

And without further ado, here are my hateful attempts to bash your team’s chances:

Boston Celtics

After years of being analytics darlings and a beloved niche team full of misfit toys, the Celtics may have finally crested, although they still have a wealth of future draft picks. They’ve banked their future on Kyrie Irving, a flashy scorer whose exploits belie his on-court impact; Al Horford, an aging big man who may still be underrated by some but his value is most likely south of his $27 million contract; Gordon Hayward, who I quite like but it appears he’s reached his peak and it’s closer to borderline All-Star than you’d like; and their unprecedented assets have landed them a couple young players (Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown) who have not elicited much excitement.

Player spotlight: Marcus Smart

With Boston’s depth chipped away in exchange for bigger names, there may actually be more time on the court for Marcus Smart, a cult favorite who has few comparables. For this season specifically, his defense will be even more crucial because he’ll have to make up for the shortcomings of Kyrie Irving. He’s known for his strength and ability to guard bigger guards, as well as his tenaciousness — he’s the NBA equivalent of a wolverine. Statistically, this translates into an unusually high number of offensive fouls drawn, which are quite valuable, and along with his shooting woes he’s a wholly unique player.


For years, Boston was one of those teams that received optimistic win projections from the sort of folks who frequent Nylon Calculus. But now they’re one of the strongest “unders,” as the major trade has drastically changed the roster. The trade, as I see it, is a major disaster for the Celtics (Kevin Pelton was kind in giving Boston a C for the trade). Sure, Isaiah Thomas was injured, they didn’t want to pay him in the future, and no one wants a 5-foot-9 scorer heading into his 30’s.

But that doesn’t mean you have to give up Jae Crowder and one of the Nets’ first round picks too. And they gave that up for a player in Kyrie Irving who has consistently had weak impact for his entire career. I know people still think of him as a young phenom, but he hasn’t changed — don’t forget he’s regularly injured. One can quibble about the future value of Irving, but by pure production it’s close to a wash with Thomas in the present. Throw in Jae’s subtle value — he’s a borderline All-Star himself — and the potentially valuable big man Ante Zizic, and you’ve got a likely down season for Boston — they have to rely on a lot of minutes from young players now, killing their rating. They traded for a famous name in Kyrie Irving, and they’ve forgotten what made them one of the most surprising and underrated teams.

Wins: 46.4

Brooklyn Nets

After years of misery, I do believe the Nets are ascending, albeit slowly. They’ve got some steady management in Sean Marks, and they’re no longer shooting themselves in the foot with silly moves, like overpaying for veterans who don’t even move the needle or giving up assets for a fool’s errand. Instead the Nets have one thing they have needed for a long time: patience.

Player spotlight: D’Angelo Russell

As the second overall pick of the Lakers two years ago, right as the Kobe Bryant era ended for the team, expectations were unfairly high for the kid. He had a rocky rookie season to be sure, but he’s improved in several ways since then, and he’s still a tall point guard with a shooting touch and a lot of potential. One can be unimpressed with his efficiency or his defense, but a lot of that is tied into being a young player on a terrible team. When the Nets rise and he ages, it’s possible he’ll improve significantly.


I feel like I’ve said this before, but there’s not much to say about the Nets. The range of projections you see for them is fairly narrow, and that’s reasonable. They didn’t change much, and their new pieces aren’t very good — which is more of the same for a not very good team. But they’re about to leave purgatory; this is the last year they don’t fully own their pick. After this, they can build a real future.

Wins: 27.8

New York Knicks

For better or worse, the Carmelo Anthony era is over. I’d imagine there are some arguments that could hitchhike on that change, arguing that now is the time to be optimistic. But the core issues may still exist — this is still a James Dolan enterprise, and there’s not much in the way of new blood in the organization. If they still use their resources to overpay on ridiculous contracts and don’t understand how they gained what little success they’ve had, the Knicks will continue to be mediocre.

Player spotlight: Kristaps Porzingis

Would it be anyone else? The so-called “Unicorn” is a ludicrous combination of size and guard-like skills, mostly his outside shooting. He’s an echo across time of pre-injury Arvydas Sabonis. You’ll see few players with this statistical profile, as deft-shooting big men aren’t usually shot-blockers, and he doesn’t have many weaknesses, if any.


Outside of the Unicorn, there’s not much going on in New York. They’ve taken on Doug McDermott and Enes Kanter, ensuring some miserable defense for many lineups out there. I suppose one could argue there could be a breakout season from one of their youngsters, including a rookie, but one could say that about any team. There’s a lot of optimism connected to Frank Ntilikina, but the most prudent mindset is to be wary of rookies. What’s most likely is that they’ll have another season like last one, and this time they wont have Carmelo Anthony’s scoring, which on this sad team was quite useful at times. They need a lot of changes on the team, and it starts with their management. Let’s see if this is the start of a better era.

Wins: 28.3

Philadelphia 76ers

After a considerable period of time gaming the system to continuously mine the lottery for talent, a real team is forming out of the chaos. There’s a lot of young talent, even ignoring the prodigious big man Joel Embiid (There are some arguments that they have the second best collection of assets in the league). We get to see Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz, two highly coveted prospects, and they’re starting to bring in veteran talent, including that odd J.J. Redick one-year contract. They’re gunning for the playoffs, but that may be premature.

Player spotlight: Joel Embiid

He’s on the short-list of NBA players like Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal, who inspired literal awe when they stepped onto the court. We haven’t really seen anything like him before, and if he stays healthy I don’t understand how teams will guard him. He’s too huge to be guarded inside, and he’s got great hands and instinct for finishing around the rim.

You can’t just hack him because he can hit his free throws, and, of course, he can step outside to hit 3-pointers — he didn’t have enough attempts to quality for the chart below, but his percentage was near average (also, yes, he didn’t have enough minutes to quality either, but I forced him in.) You can’t kill him on the other end of the court either because he’s an imposing physical presence defending the rim. The best you can do is crowd him with defenders and hope he passes the ball or fouls out on defense. But he’s gaining some talented teammates and the team does value outside shooting — good luck Eastern Conference.


Philadelphia has some awfully optimistic predictions from subjective evaluators (i.e. high Vegas over/under lines.) I think this is just a case of premature excitement, as yes, they do have a lot of interesting young talent, but that doesn’t translate into success this year, and we’re still unsure if Embiid can play a full season. Have some patience — rookies and other young guys take some time before they can win games at high rates.

Wins: 29.9

Toronto Raptors

I’m afraid that this iteration of the Raptors have peaked. Their once strong bench has been depleted, and they don’t have enough weapons to compete with elite teams — and no assets to bring in anyone else. This is the Kyle Lowry and the DeMar DeRozan team, for better or worse. It’s a team in need of a dynamic trade, one to shake the doldrums out of the team. Otherwise they’ll be stuck in the upper-middle class of the east for the conceivable future.

Player spotlight: DeMar DeRozan

I suppose my thoughts about the Raptors all pivot around this All-Star. I don’t think investing in him was a sound basketball decision, though I understand Kyle Lowry would not have liked the team dumping him and a small army of Raptor fans would have stormed the offices with pitchforks had they not tried to pay him large sums of money to stay with the team. But outside of the nifty points per game numbers, he doesn’t offer a whole lot for how often he has the ball — he’s not terrible but he’s not worth a huge contract either. I imagine his athleticism distracts people from the fact that his defense is subpar, and on offense outside of shooting the ball a lot he doesn’t accomplish much. Since he’s not efficient, and his team fares well without him — and this is consistent over multiple years — why would you value him highly?


It’s subtle, but the Raptors lost a lot of production from the edges. Role players like Patrick Patterson, Cory Joseph, P.J. Tucker, Terrence Ross, and DeMarre Carroll are all gone, and Toronto didn’t gain enough to make up for their loss. The team is expensive now, due to huge contracts for the main core of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Serge Ibaka, and Jonas Valanciunas. I know a few people won’t agree with me about DeRozan’s (lack of) production, but the latter two aren’t worth big deals either. It’s the same Toronto team but with a weaker supporting cast — expect a small step backwards at the very least.

Wins: 47.0

Chicago Bulls

I debated just leaving this section blank except for a single “lol” but I’ll do my due diligence. The Bulls are, to put things favorably, in a transition period, except that I’m not quite sure where the transition is going. They’ve lost their star power, and they have no potential stars to fill the gap. Their best asset right now is cap space — so yes, the best thing about Chicago now is literally nothingness. Enjoy the season.

Player spotlight: Zach LaVine

As the centerpiece in a trade for Chicago’s superstar wing scorer, Zach, on paper, should be a budding star himself. But as you can see from the graph below, there are few signs he’s a star player, besides a high number of points. Even then, it’s his points per game average that’s more impressive because he played heavy minutes. Add in the fact that he’s an athletic player coming off a major knee injury, and you have a bewildering trade (Even Kevin Pelton, who doesn’t engage in much hyperbole, gave them a flunking grade.)


The team was surprisingly competent last season, but that was with Jimmy Butler. This is a rebuilding team (I think?), so don’t expect much from them. There’s a chance they could beat projections by a decent amount, but that all depends on one or more of their young players breaking out. And betting on that happening is not wise.

Wins: 26.1

Cleveland Cavaliers

For a Finals team, this was a whirlwind of an offseason. Kyrie Irving, perhaps curious at Boston’s proximity to the edge of this flat world, demanded a trade, and even though Cleveland had no leverage they received a bounty in return. They got one player who matches Kyrie’s production in Isaiah Thomas — he’s injured, yes, but Irving isn’t the healthiest player anyway — along with a type of 3-and-D player every contender needs in Jae Crowder. Plus, somehow, Cleveland also gained Ante Zizic and Brooklyn’s coveted first round pick. I suspect that’s because Thomas is injured and he’ll have to be paid soon, but that’s still a remarkable haul during a situation that could have been a disaster.

Then the team took a step backwards when they cowed to LeBron James and added a couple of his friends in Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose. Both are awful fits — you want shooters and defenders around LeBron, and both aging rapidly — and in the case of Wade, you fear he’ll actually get significant time at the end of big games. If Thomas comes back healthy, Wade is just a guy who’ll take the ball out of the hands of a better player — and Wade at this point without the ball is a liability. Throw in overpaying Kyle Korver, and the mediocre tandem of Jose Calderon and Jeff Green, and you got a disappointment for the entire NBA because we desperately need someone to matchup with the Warriors.

Player spotlight: Jae Crowder

The new Cavalier has a value that’s harder to explain to most people. His value is more subtle — defense and cohesiveness on offense — and none of his stats particularly standout, besides his 3-point shooting, oddly enough. But he’s a well-rounded, efficient player who should mesh well with LeBron James, and his versatility will be especially pertinent with their projected Finals foe.


The Cavaliers won 51 games last year, and based on their point differential you’d expect 49. Thus, it should be no surprise that even if you think they upgraded their roster, they still won’t have a win projection in the high 50’s. Remember, this is an easy conference and they care more about the post-season. Expect to see moments of LeCruise and some bumpy stretches, especially if the addition of Wade causes issues.

Wins: 54.4

Detroit Pistons

The Stan Van Gundy plan hasn’t been going swimmingly well. Andre Drummond is still a disappointing prospect, and they haven’t added anyone of significant value. Sadly, the team is mirroring the depressing decline of Detroit in general. If we’re lucky we’ll get to see more of Boban Marjanovic; otherwise it’s a fairly boring team.

Player spotlight: Langston Galloway

Detroit added Langston in the off-season, and he may be of importance if Reggie Jackson can’t return to form. He’s a ho-hum backup-type point guard. He has a below average usage, but, and this meshes with Van Gundy’s style, he’s a pretty good outside shooter. However, his efficiency is still poor, but at least it’s offset by his low turnover rate.


There’s no compelling reason to believe Detroit will be appreciably better. In fact, most analytic projection systems have them getting worse. This is mostly because of the loss of Kentavius Caldwell-Pope, as his replacement, Avery Bradley, doesn’t grade out well in metrics. Pope did, and he was one of their few bright spots — but they couldn’t afford him. That’s a shame because when you look at this roster you’d probably wonder, what exactly is so expensive? They’ll be lucky if they hit the playoffs again this year.

Wins: 34.3

Indiana Pacers

Paul George forced Indiana’s hand, and they were stymied into terrible deal with the Thunder. I understand that George’s bizarre insistence that he’s going to sign with the Lakers in a year would cool his market value, but you’ve gotta be able to net more than Victor Oladipo, who’s on an expensive contract that’ll hamper the roster for years. Nonetheless, there’s a glimmer of a healthy rebuild hidden here, mostly because Myles Turner is an interesting centerpiece and I like Cory Joseph. But they need more keepers.

Player spotlight: Myles Turner

Turner is another one of those Unicorn-types. He’s a real shot-blocker who spends a lot of time outside of the arc, and he’s becoming just accurate enough to garner attention. He’s not a star scorer by any means, and he’ll probably never be, but he’s above average for a center. His rebounding numbers are dull, but that’s mostly because he’s away from the rim on offense — his defensive rebounding is okay.


Not only did the Pacers lose Paul George, but they lost Jeff Teague as well. That’s a huge chunk of their “above replacement level” production. In other words, they had a talent drain. Victor Oladipo is unlikely to substitute here. He’s a volume scorer, not a value one, and his defense isn’t game-changing. They’re going to be in the Eastern Conference cellar for a while.

Wins: 30.6

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks are on the rise, and the question is more about when, not if, they become an Eastern Conference contender. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the fulcrum of this excitement, and for good reason — we’ve never really seen anyone like him. He’s a singular player, and he embodies the “positionless” mindset like no one else. But beyond him, there’s a still a good team, and with some nice development from Thon Maker and a couple more pieces, and they can definitely hit 55 wins or more. It just won’t happen yet.

Player spotlight: Giannis Antetokounmpo

I know this is obvious and every hardcore NBA fan knows him well (He was recently named among the funnest NBA players in a poll), but his stats are too fun to look at not to do this. He lights up so many statistical categories, and if he ever becomes an accurate shooter from outside one could argue he has no weaknesses. It’s hard finding a similarity too. Perhaps you could go with a young Tracy McGrady or LeBron James. When you analyze his numbers, you’ll see why that is.


My projection is more pessimistic than the general subjective consensus, and there are two primary reasons. Firstly, everything’s so positive about the team that their hopes are bleeding into their predictions — we want them to be good, so we’ll think it’ll happen. Secondly, Giannis had a breakout season, but those kind of major jumps in production are often followed by more of a plateau, even accounting for his age. Beyond that, however, there’s actually a bit of volatility, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see them hit 50 games. They’ve got a lot of young players like Maker and Jabari Parker, coming off a major injury, who could improve dramatically.

Wins: 47.2

Atlanta Hawks

So, which gif for a tumbleweed should I use? The 60-win Hawks have been completely dismantled, and the ruins are depressing. Paul Milsap left westward, and I don’t blame him. The problem with the Hawks is that they have nothing to show for his decision except cap space, which isn’t quite as useful in Atlanta. It’s another team in the conference in full rebuild mode.

Player spotlight: Ersan Ilyasova

The enigmatic, lost-Franco brother is strangely favored by many metrics. He’s a stretch-4 with some rebounding might on defense, or at least he used to have that, but he also draws a lot of offensive fouls. That’ll help directly with metrics like Dredge and PT-PM, but it also helps indirectly with plus-minus stats — drawing a foul is quite valuable, especially on offense as it causes a change in possession and often picks up a foul on a leading ball-handler or scorer. He’s getting older and his production is falling, but some metrics see him as one of Atlanta’s best players — which isn’t a good sign, obviously.


This is a star-less team, and truthfully no one’s even close to being a star. Dennis Schroder is the closest player, but he’s a scoring point guard who’s not an overwhelming force there, and he doesn’t offer much else.  DeWayne Dedmon is pretty good for his price, but we’re already scrapping the bottom of the barrel here — this team will compete for the worst record in the league. In some ways this is a great showcase to the value of Paul Millsap, but that’s a bittersweet way to cement that fact for Hawk fans.

Wins: 25.2

Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets haven’t changed much. They’re cycling through yet another center — this time it’s Dwight Howard — but there’s no reason to be pessimistic. They missed the playoffs last year, but that could just be a one-year blip.

Player spotlight: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

Thankfully, he had a fully healthy season after 2016. He’s one of the league’s unique players. He has that halfway broken jump shot that used to be even uglier, but he makes up for it with relentless defense and rebounding. Due to his poor outside shooting, he should be combined with stretch big men or else the floor gets awfully crowded — and Charlotte’s an okay fit there, thanks for guys like Marvin Williams and Frank Kaminsky.


I’m surprised there are still people enthused with the addition of Dwight Howard on their roster, but there are a lot of those people still out there. At this point in his career, after years of disappointing production, he’s starter value and that’s being generous. Nic Batum will be out a few weeks also, so it’s tempting to think Charlotte will fall under 0.500 again. But there’s a rebound effect (technically just regression to the mean) here: they were a lot better in 2016, and they still have a few of those players. The best predictions use multiple years of data, not just the most recent season (If you don’t believe me, check out Andrew Johnson’s projections, which love Charlotte. His predictions usually do really well). Thus, the Hornets will rebound a bit after a disappointing 2017 — the playoffs are likely.

Wins: 45.7

Miami Heat

The Heat shocked everyone by finishing with a 0.500 record with their collection of odd pieces and role players. But it appears they’ve fallen prey to a common team-building mistake: they’ve fallen in love with their role players, and they’re now overpaying them. Do you really want to invest in Dion Waiters for $47 million? And I love James Johnson as much as anyone, but four years for $60 million is a steep price. They’ve locked up a few pretty good players, but they’ve also destroyed their cap space in one of the best markets in the league.

Player spotlight: Hassan Whiteside

I’ve gotten put the spotlight on him for his shocking stats. He’s a player of extremes, rebounding and shot-blocking at elite rates while he rarely ventures out of the paint or passes. He’s a strangely high-usage player for his assist rate too — he has few historic comparables, if any. He’s an efficient scorer too, although he’s not at the top-tier level he’s been at in previous seasons.


I think some people will point to their post-All-Star break record as evidence they’ll be a well above-average team, but you can’t cherrypick a nice stretch for a team. It’s best to use a full season for prediction, not the last half, and it’s even better to use multiple ones. What’s the truth, their first half or their second half? It’s somewhere in between. Miami will have largely the same season they had last year because they brought back the same crew — they lost Dwyane Wade, but he’s fallen far from grace, and the addition of Kelly Olynyk won’t move the needle much either. Thus, expect a similar record to last season.

Wins: 43.4

Orlando Magic

If you think your team should trade its troubled star and rebuild, the Magic are a good example of how tough that path is to trek. They’ve been in the weeds ever since trading Dwight Howard years ago, and it appears they’ll still be in that mire. However, while the team made no major moves, they made smart, smaller ones, like signing Jonathon Simmons for $18 million over three years — and the last one is partially guaranteed. They still need to strike it big with their next star, sure, but they should hit all the smaller moves too. They might finally be on their way up in the league.

Player spotlight: Aaron Gordon

With the league obsessed with fluid players and unorthodox lineups, Gordon is a coveted, beloved piece. He had a down season last year, but that was partly because he was out of position after the odd acquisition of Serge Ibaka. Gordon is best at power forward where he can use his quickness against bigger players, and where his shaky outside shot is not a liability. He can also be more involved on defense there — due to his vertical abilities, obviously, he’s a decent shot-blocker. He should have a better season, and a breakout is possible.


The Magic haven’t changed much since last season, so yes, expect a similar season. They’ll be better — their win total last season was a little deceiving because they had a point differential of a 24-win team — but it’s mostly because of their collective age. Jonathon Simmons, however, is a positive addition, especially if he supplants Mario Hezonja’s minutes, as he had a miserable season. I don’t think it’ll be enough to make the playoffs, but it’s the Eastern Conference — most teams are in a nose-dive anyway.

Wins: 32.6

Washington Wizards

The Washington Wizards enter the season virtually unchanged. In some ways that’s okay — they have a good core — but there’s no visible path to reach contender status. This is John Wall’s prime, but they’ll need a bit more if they want to fight for an even better seed.

Player spotlight: Otto Porter Jr.

I’ll admit that after sticking to my guns as an Otto supporter that it felt great to see him improve tremendously once again, to the point where there a soft movement to name him an All-Star for his ridiculously efficient season. Looking closer, he had a high number of 3-pointers and few mid-range shots, he was one of the most accurate shooters in the league, he had a league-low turnover percentage, and Otto spelled backwards is Otto. I’d expect some regression downwards this season, partly because his value was derived from high levels of efficiency that aren’t likely sustainable. But he’ll still be a great complement to John Wall’s drive-and-kick game.


I know many people are clamoring for them to hit 50 wins, which they haven’t hit since the 1970’s. But their point differential last season suggested 46 wins, and they didn’t appreciably improve. Perhaps they’ll be lucky and hit 50+ wins — but the safest best is something a little lower.

Wins: 46.6