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With the NBA season just days away we’re looking at a few NBA players who posted career-bests last season that might not be entirely replicable. I always root for everyone to play their best I’m expecting a step back from these five guys.
In the case of Collin Sexton, regression may be too strong a word. The Cavaliers added a lot of frontcourt talent in Lauri Markkanen and Evan Mobley and continued development from Isaac Okoro and Darius Garland should only lighten his load. And we’re talking about an explosive young guard who has shown clear improvement each season. But the next evolution of the Cavaliers has to be about more offensive balance and that means Sexton’s per-game box score numbers should take a hit.
He averaged 18.4 field goal attempts per game last season and a 29.7 usage rate, both top-20 marks and significantly higher than any of his teammates. With more weapons around him he could theoretically be more effective but it will probably be by doing a lot less than he has the past two seasons.
4. Kyle Kuzma, Washington Wizards
Some people might look at Kuzma’s situation with the Wizards and see an opportunity for a talented young player to step out of the shadows and become a leader. I just see a guy who suddenly won’t have LeBron James or Anthony Davis helping create open shots for him anymore. Over the past three seasons, Kuzma has played roughly 65 percent of his minutes with at least one of them on the court. Playing next to them, he’s averaged 17.7 points per 36 minutes on a 56 true shooting percentage. Playing without either of them, he’s averaged 19.8 points per 36 minutes on a 51.4 true shooting percentage.
Basically, when he’s played with the Lakers’ stars he’s been a solidly if unspectacularly efficient complementary scorer. When he’s played without them, he’s been a horrifically inefficient high-volume gunner. All due respect to Bradley Beal, I would expect we’re going to see a lot more of the latter from Kuzma this season.
Jackson’s comeback with the Clippers was one of the most heartwarming stories of last season and it was great to see him spin the opportunity into a new two-year contract. However, I’m a bit concerned that some of his performance may have been a mirage. The most eye-popping piece of Jackson’s production last season was him hitting 41.9 percent of his 3s. Over his two regular seasons with the Clippers, he’s now made 42.9 percent from beyond the arc and 43.1 over their two postseason runs.
Those are fantastic numbers but they’ve come on a total of 519 attempts, regular season and postseason combined. In his 8.5 seasons before joining the Clippers he shot 33.5 percent on nearly 1900 attempts. Research has shown it takes about 750 3-point attempts for 3-point percentage to stabilize enough to be an accurate representation of true skill. So while he’s certainly improved as a shooter he may not be nearly as good as he’s looked the past season-and-a-half. For example, Kostya Medvedovsky’s DARKO projection system, which takes into account the entirety of a player’s career with recent developments weighted more heavily, projects him to be a 38.1 3-point shooter at this point. That’s still a strong number but meaningfully lower than what he’s done the past two seasons.
Jackson should be a useful and important piece for the Clippers again this year. But I’m skeptical he’s hitting better than 40 percent of his 3s again.
Andrew Wiggins was a legitimate revelation for the Warriors last season, playing aggressive, engaged defense and posting career-highs in 2-point percentage, 3-point percentage and block percentage. Recast as a complementary scorer, he thrived as his shot selection was refined and his offensive role winnowed. But again, the nature of mean regression implies that his numbers might come down a bit next year, even in the same advantageous situation.
In addition, there is a good chance Wiggins’ per-game numbers drop as he makes space in the Warriors’ rotation for the return of Klay Thompson, the emergence of Jordan Poole and the additions of Otto Porter Jr. and Nemanja Bjelica. I expect he’ll be solid again this year but maybe not quite as impressive as last season.
All due respect to Randle and Knicks’ fans but this one seems like an absolute lock. His Most Improved Player campaign last year was just too far removed from his career norms to imagine it was really a stepping stone to bigger things. Even if the regression is small, I just don’t see how his numbers won’t be worse this season.
Randle made 41.1 percent of his 3s last season after hitting 29.5 percent of 570 attempts over his first six seasons. The aforementioned DARKO projection system estimates that even after his explosive shooting season his true 3-point skill level is around 35.4 percent. And that was the most significant improvement he made as a scorer last season — his actually shot under 50 percent on 2-pointers last year for the first time since his first full season in the league.
The Knicks added some more offensive weapons this season, which should make life easier for him, but players like Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier have value as primary creators and will likely take the ball out of Randle’s hands a fair bit, depressing his assist totals even if he has better shooters to pass too.
Randle’s 2020-21 season was incredible and worth celebrating and I think he’ll still be a big positive for the Knicks this season. But I also think when it’s all said and done, we end up looking back on last season as the high point of his career.
The Chicago Bulls made a big splash in free agency. If they want it to translate to playoff success, they’ll need to answer these questions.