If the Indiana Pacers look familiar when they play their first preseason game on Dec. 12, it’s because the 13 Pacers who played more than 250 minutes last season are all back with the team.
There was chatter about Victor Oladipo and there were discussions with the Boston Celtics about a sign-and-trade deal for Gordon Hayward. But Oladipo stayed put, Hayward went to Charlotte, and the only free agents in the Pacers’ 2019-20 rotation – Justin Holiday and Jakarr Sampson – re-signed.
So the Pacers are runnin’ it back with a roster that finished fourth in the East and got swept in the first round of the playoffs. In total, players still on the roster accounted for 98% of the Pacers’ 2019-20 minutes. That’s the league’s highest rate of returning minutes by a healthy margin.
The Pacers do have a new coach in Nate Bjorkgren, who will likely overhaul an offense that ranked last in the percentage of shots that came from 3-point range (31.7%) last season (and in the bottom five in each of Nate McMillan’s four seasons as head coach). And while they’re returning 98% of last season’s minutes, their projected starting lineup – Malcolm Brogdon, Oladipo, T.J. Warren, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner – played just 86 minutes (in six games) together last season.
They’ll have a healthier Oladipo and maybe the Warren that we saw in the bubble, shooting 3s more liberally and accurately. They should also get Jeremy Lamb (who tore his ACL in February) back in the first half of the season. So, while there’s no fresh blood in the rotation and it may be difficult for Indy to remain in the top five in the East given the expected improvement from Brooklyn and Philadelphia, there is an opportunity for a fresh start.
Same roster, new direction
The same could be said for the Chicago Bulls, who rank second in continuity, with players still on the roster accounting for 89% of last year’s minutes. The Bulls let Kris Dunn (sixth on the team in total minutes last season) walk, but are basically bringing everybody else back from a team that didn’t even qualify for the restart.
So the Central Division could offer two great tests of how much value there can be in a coaching change. Billy Donovan arrives in Chicago having taken his team to the playoffs in each of his five years as an NBA head coach, but he doesn’t have the stars that he had in Oklahoma City. This isn’t just a test of what a new coach can do, but also a test of what kind of coach Billy Donovan is.
Here’s how all 30 teams rank in regard to the percentage of last year’s minutes that are represented by players still on the roster…
% of 2019-20 regular-season minutes under contract for 2020-21
|Rank||Team||19-20 Min.||Ret. Players||Ret. Min.||% Ret. Min.|
A reset for the champs
The Los Angeles Lakers, though they went 16-5 on their way to the championship, are not exactly running it back. LeBron James (with an additional two years added to his contract) and Anthony Davis (with a new deal) remain Lakers, and that may be all that matters. But the champs have parted ways with five of the 10 players – Avery Bradley, Danny Green, Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee and Rajon Rondo – who played more than 900 minutes for them last season. While the team they beat in The Finals – the Miami Heat – ranks fifth in continuity, the Lakers rank 24th.
Bradley didn’t play in the restart and the returning Markieff Morris played more playoff minutes (385) than regular season minutes (199) for the Lakers. So there’s a little more continuity than the percentage of regular season minutes would indicate.
Still, it’s rare for a defending champions to return such a low percentage of the previous season’s minutes. The Raptors lost two starters last year (and had already lost a good chunk of their ’18-19 minutes with the mid-season trade for Marc Gasol) and still had a higher rate (62%). The 2010-11 Mavs, who parted ways with J.J. Barea, Tyson Chandler and DeShawn Stevenson? Even higher than that (66%).
In fact, 56% is the lowest rate of returning minutes for a defending champion since … you guessed it … the Last Dance. The 1998-99 Bulls began the (shortened) season with only seven returning players, who accounted for just 33% of the team’s regular season minutes in ’97-98.
Again, the Lakers still have James and Davis. And on paper, they made upgrades around their star duo. But the departure of five contributors, along with the short offseason and an abbreviated training camp, could lead to a longer adjustment period than usual for a defending champion.
The value of continuity?
A year ago, the Pacers were near the bottom of the league in continuity, having parted ways with six of their top 10 guys in 2018-19 minutes. They proceeded to lose their first three games of the season (to the Pistons, Cavs and Pistons again), but then won 20 of their next 26 and finished with their best record of the last six seasons, even though Oladipo played just 19 games and shot 39% when he did play.
Over the last few years, there has been a correlation between continuity and winning percentage (in the upcoming season), which makes sense. But success probably leads to continuity more than vice versa.
But the correlation isn’t that strong. While the Denver Nuggets led the league in continuity last year and finished third in the West, the Miami Heat led the league in 2018 and went on to finish 10th in the East.
There’s also not a consistent correlation between continuity and a team getting off to a strong start. Last year, the team that had the best 20-game start vs. how it finished was Minnesota, which ranked 16th in continuity. The year before, it was Memphis, which ranked 29th.
• The trade that sent Russell Westbrook to Washington on Wednesday dropped the Houston Rockets from 17th (68%) to 23rd (57%) in continuity. It didn’t affect the Wizards, because John Wall didn’t play last season.
• Westbrook became the seventh of the 54 players that played at least 2,000 minutes last season to change teams, joining Robert Covington, Jrue Holiday, Al Horford, Chris Paul, Ricky Rubio and Hassan Whiteside.
• There’s just a minimal correlation between winning percentage from last season and continuity this year. The bottom five in the latter does include three of the eight teams – Detroit, Golden State and Minnesota – that didn’t qualify for the restart, but it also includes the team with the league’s best record. In their effort to retool around Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks parted ways with seven of their top 12 guys in regular season minutes.
• Though the Oklahoma City Thunder roster is a major mish-mash and could undergo even more changes between now and the trade deadline, new Detroit Pistons general manager Troy Weaver managed to outdeal Sam Presti to land at the bottom of the continuity rankings. The top five and eight of the top 10 guys in ’19-20 minutes for the Pistons are all gone (with No. 2 having left at the deadline in February). The Thunder do get additional “reset” points for also making a coaching change.
• With the Westbrook-for-Wall deal done, it seems like the major movement is over. But there could be some minor changes in the continuity rankings between now and Dec. 22, with some returning players (J.J. Barea in Dallas and Chris Chiozza in Brooklyn are examples) fighting for roster spots.
• For now, the league average is 67% of last year’s minutes still on the roster. That’s much higher than last year (56%), but lower than 2018 (71%).
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