After generating a healthy amount of conversation on the Internet with our backcourt rankings the other day, we of course have to complete the task with our look at the league's top frontcourts. Sometimes when we refer to "frontcourt," we're referring to just the big-man positions. But for today, we're referring to the three-position group of center, power forward and small forward.
The list is based on 2013-14 projected WARP as forecast by ATH, my system for generating performance predictions based on trait matching, athletic indicators and aging curves. At the bottom line, WARP is a function of both the quality and quantity of a player's production, so these rankings take into account not just how well ATH thinks a player will play, but how often.
The combined unit WARP for the frontcourts is based on the projections for each team's probable starters at center, power forward and small forward, plus the projected top reserve for the unit.
1. Miami Heat | Combined WARP: 35.3
LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Chris Andersen, Shane Battier
No surprise here. Any ranking for which James is eligible will invariably find him on top. Beyond the MVP, Bosh is an established All-Star willing to sublimate some of his own abilities in service of winning championships. It would be nice to be able to fully quantify that, but Bosh comes out pretty well in projections as it is. Andersen proved his worth during last season's playoffs and is one of the better value players in the NBA right now.
During regular-season play, the Heat are at their best with Battier holding down the 3 position, though his up-and-down play had him briefly exiled from Miami's rotation during the playoffs. This season Battier, nearing the age of 36, won't be supplanted by the amnestied Mike Miller, which could reintroduce Rashard Lewis to a significant role. And beyond all this is Greg Oden. We have no idea what to expect from the former No. 1 overall pick, but we do know he'll be one of the more fascinating players to watch in the coming season.
2. Detroit Pistons | Combined WARP: 33.0
Andre Drummond, Josh Smith, Greg Monroe, Josh Harrellson
The NBA is constantly in flux, which is something I think we can all agree on. Nevertheless, when we use analysis to point out a trend that is already well underway, there is an element of the sports community that just isn't going to believe you until the movement is fully manifested. That being the case, many were taken aback by our (well, my) ranking of Houston's backcourt the other day as the league's best projected group. And I suspect that many will also doubt this ranking of the Pistons. But I'm telling you, folks, the Detroit front line is flat-out loaded when it comes to pure talent.
That said, there are legit basketball reasons to doubt this lofty forecast. Drummond, Monroe and Smith -- individually -- can all play, and I've gone on record about buying into Drummond as this season's breakout star. But how does it all fit? There were plenty of questions about how Drummond and Monroe fit last season, but it was unclear how much of that was due to any lack of complementary skills, and how much was due to a lack of faith in the pairing by former coach Lawrence Frank.
Now that Smith is in the mix, the talent level is off the charts. But for this to work at an optimum level, someone is going to have to knock down some jump shots. Among the others, Harrellson isn't much above replacement level, but simply pops up as the top projection among an uncertain mix of talent that includes Kyle Singler, Jonas Jerebko, Charlie Villanueva, Tony Mitchell and Gigi Datome.
3. Brooklyn Nets | Combined WARP: 27.9
Paul Pierce, Andrei Kirilenko, Brook Lopez, Kevin Garnett
While the Nets' veteran backcourt lagged a bit in the rankings because of age, ATH projections show Brooklyn's frontcourt players maintaining a high level of production. And a No. 3-ranked frontcourt in conjunction with a middle-of-the-pack backcourt sounds like a winning formula to me, if not quite one of championship caliber.
There is more upside to this group than Brooklyn has in the backcourt. That's primarily because Lopez, at 26, is the one Nets rotation player just entering his prime seasons. He and Garnett will have to sort out who is going to be the primary pick-and-pop option, but at this stage Lopez is a better low-block option.
At the 3, it will be interesting to see how Pierce adapts to being lower in the offensive hierarchy than he is accustomed. Also, it's entirely possible that it'll become apparent that the Nets function better with the glue-player skills of Kirilenko on the court, which could lead to a bite into the playing time of a player who isn't accustomed to such a happenstance.
Beyond all that, there is Andray Blatche, one of the resurgent players of last season, and Reggie Evans, a mono-skilled talent who averaged more than 18 rebounds per 40 minutes. It's a lot to sort out.
4. San Antonio Spurs | Combined WARP: 25.3
Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, Matt Bonner
The Spurs are rock-solid everywhere and are so consistent as an organization that it's almost dull to analyze them. The biggest potential for excitement surrounds Leonard, the presumed heir to San Antonio's vaunted big three as the Spurs' franchise talent. ATH thinks he's ready for another leap, which could mean the first All-Star appearance for one of the league's rising stars.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder | Combined WARP: 24.9
Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Hasheem Thabeet, Kendrick Perkins
While Russell Westbrook's presence was enough by itself to propel OKC's backcourt into the top 10, the combination of Durant and Ibaka gets the Thunder's frontcourt into the mix. However, rookie Steven Adams, who isn't projected to play much, is the only other player in this unit forecast as better than replacement level.
6. Los Angeles Clippers | Combined WARP: 24.8
Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Jared Dudley, Matt Barnes
Griffin is one the league's young stars, and Jordan is very good at what he's very good at. Dudley, who has played as much 2 as 3 in recent seasons, has the combination of defense and deep shooting that is the perfect complement to Los Angeles' headline talents. Barnes remains underrated at the age of 34. I also like Byron Mullens with this group, but I'm concerned that "proven veteran" Antawn Jamison could end up usurping his playing time.
7. Atlanta Hawks | Combined WARP: 24.5
Paul Millsap, Al Horford, Kyle Korver, Elton Brand
The Hawks are another team with an underrated rotation. These are four good players, even if we don't quite know how it's going to work on the court. DeMarre Carroll is around as a dirty-work player, and Pero Antic replaces Ivan Johnson as the unknown, bald-headed big man with the potential to intimidate with his mere appearance on the floor.
8. Dallas Mavericks | Combined WARP: 23.0
Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki, Samuel Dalembert, Shawn Marion
Yep, ATH likes the new Mavericks, with both positional groups cracking the rankings. Nowitzki is still a top-25 player if he can stay on the floor, while Marion's athleticism has allowed him to remain productive well into his 30s. Carter was terrific as a sixth man last year and figures to log much of his time at the 3 given Dallas' crowded guard situation. Also, don't forget about DeJuan Blair, Brandan Wright and Dalembert, the presumed defensive anchor. Wright in particular is a darling of per-possession metrics.
9. Denver Nuggets | Combined WARP: 22.9
Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee, J.J. Hickson, Danilo Gallinari
Denver would fare better if we could project a full season for Gallinari. Faried, and to a lesser extent Hickson, are pretty fair bets to hit their respective projections. However, McGee has to prove that he can translate his per-minute numbers to a full-time role.
10. Portland Trail Blazers | Combined WARP: 22.6
LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez, Dorell Wright
Not one of these players will be as old as 29 by the end of the 2013-14 season, and other developing talents like Meyers Leonard and Thomas Robinson populate the depth chart. Lopez is not only a good defender, shot blocker and offensive rebounder, but his presence will allow Aldridge to limit his minutes in the middle. With Batum still in the process of developing into a premier wing, the Blazers' potential approaches that of other young collections of talent we've seen in Portland over the last couple of decades.
• Houston (No. 11) was in a virtual tie with Portland. We know about Dwight Howard and Chandler Parsons. We're still waiting to see how the power forward situation plays out.
• Indiana (No. 12) isn't getting a fair shake because of statistical pessimism about Roy Hibbert, an expected age decline for David West, and the uncertain production of Danny Granger. Also, I've got Paul George primarily playing guard on my Indiana depth chart.