Last season, many household names led the pack in the five main statistical categories: points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks per game. Players like Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and Kevin Love all were at or near the top of the list of leaders in these statistical categories. With that said, here is my list of the top three projected leaders in these statistical categories for the upcoming 2014-15 NBA season.
POINTS PER GAME:
1. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder – Last year, Durant had a season for the ages, winning the MVP award and the scoring title by a wide margin. While I don’t think he will win the MVP again, Durant has a very good chance of winning this year’s scoring title as well.
Last year, Durant averaged an incredible 32.0 points per game, and while that feat will be hard to duplicate, he still could average near 30 points a game. The reason Durant continues to win all of these scoring titles is obvious: he has the league’s best mix of skill and opportunity. Durant’s offensive arsenal includes incredible three-point shooting and fantastic finishing at the rim, and he is the unquestioned alpha male of his team (though Russell Westbroook would like to think otherwise). With that said, Durant will win yet another scoring title, his fifth in six seasons. Prediction: 29.6 PPG
2. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers – While LeBron didn’t average as many points per game in Miami as he did in his first stint with the Cavaliers, he was far more efficient. Back in Cleveland, I expect his total points per game to rise for a few reasons. First, Miami was a team that controlled the pace and moved a bit more slowly, while the Cavs should be a fast-paced team this season, giving them more possessions and LeBron more chances to score. Second, LeBron and Dwyane Wade played similar games, and this took away opportunities from each of them.
In Cleveland, LeBron and top-sidekick Kevin Love play complementary games, so they will each create opportunities for each other. Lastly, I believe LeBron will be more motivated than ever before, as he wants nothing more than a title for his hometown team. With all of that put together, LeBron will up his scoring average from his days in Miami. Prediction: 28.4 PPG
3. Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks – Melo always has been, and always will be, an elite scorer, there is no denying that. In a vacuum, Melo would be second on this list, behind Durant. However, I expect a (very) minor dip in scoring for Melo this season, for a multitude of reasons. The first and main reason I see for a lower point output from Melo is the fact that he has a lot of adjusting to do, even more so than LeBron James.
Melo has a lot of new teammates in New York this season, and will be playing in a system that is foreign to him, Phil Jackson’s famed Triangle. While this is known to open up offenses, it will take some time to adjust. I also believe that the Knicks are more talented this season, and that will take away a few opportunities a game from Melo. With all of that said, Melo is still an elite scorer, and his points per game average will still reflect that. Prediction: 27.0 PPG
Notable Omissions: Kevin Love, James Harden – While both of these players are elite scorers, they will not make the top 3 because of the three truly elite players ahead of them. Harden’s average should be similar to last season, and Love could see a small dip, as he will be playing with other superstars for the first time in his career. However, this emission is less of a knock on these two, and more of a testament to the greatness of Durant, James, and Anthony.
REBOUNDS PER GAME:
1. Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons – There’s no other way around it: Andre Drummond is a beast. While he has his limitations (most notably, a jump shot and at the free throw line), Drummond may already be the best rebounder in the NBA. In terms of per-minute stats, Drummond was the league’s top rebounder a season ago, pulling in almost 20 boards per 48 minutes.
This year, Drummond is in line for a substantial bump in minutes, which alone should vault him to the top of the rebounds per game list. That doesn’t even include other factors, such as Drummond actually getting stronger and better on the boards (a scary thought for opponents), or the Pistons becoming a team focused on transition and 3-point shooting (transition = faster games = more possessions = more rebound opportunities for Drummond). Drummond has excelled on the offensive glass, but his defensive rebounding has lagged a bit behind. It should catch up this year. All in all, Drummond should lead the league in rebounding this season, and it might not be close. Prediction: 14.2 RPG
2. DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers – The beat should go on for the walking pogo-stick that is DeAndre Jordan. Jordan led the league in rebounds per game last season, and is poised for another big season on the boards. What Jordan lacks in shooting ability and other basketball specific skills, he more than makes up for with his athleticism, defense, and rebounding.
While he is known mostly for his incredible dunks, his biggest impact for the Clippers comes on the defensive end and on the boards. Jordan was second in the league in both offensive and defensive rebounding, showing he is a great rebounder on both ends of the court. This season, with the Clippers’ roster remaining almost exactly the same as last season, there’s no reason to believe Jordan’s production should be any different. He might experience a slight dip in production, as the addition of Spencer Hawes will probably lower Jordan’s minute total, but overall, his numbers should look very similar to last season. Prediction: 13.4 RPG
3. DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings – Another year for Cousins, another year that more people realize he is an elite center in the NBA who has matured greatly since he was drafted. Cousins has a reputation for being immature, stubborn, and a hothead. Early in his career, those were true; however, he has now matured, and he is finally ready to be the leader for his Kings.
With that said, two factors should be working in Cousins’ favor that will cause his rebounding numbers to improve: he will play more minutes, and he will be better. Last year, Cousins averaged 17.4 boards per 48 minutes, the third best mark in the league. However, because he only played 32 minutes per game, he was fifth in rebounds per game. This season, his minutes should climb to about 35 or 36 per game, and if he rebounds at a slightly higher rate (which is totally possible), he will be third in the league in rebounds per game. Prediction: 12.7 RPG
Notable Omissions: Kevin Love, Dwight Howard – Again, Kevin Love shows up on the notable omissions list, this time with Rockets’ big man Dwight Howard. Both of them are fantastic rebounders, but the rise of young studs pushes them down the list. Also, as Howard ages and Love moves to a team that won’t allow him to forgo defense to get into rebounding position, they should each see slight dips. Nothing too major though.
ASSISTS PER GAME
1. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers – This is probably the least surprising player on any list here. Paul is far and away the best floor general in the NBA, and saying anyone is close would be an insult to Paul’s ability. His vision is phenomenal, and he is an incredible passer, but he truly is on another level in his ability to see plays develop. He is always a step ahead of his opponent, and this pays major dividends when leading his team. Paul is the ring-leader of the Lob City Clippers, constantly throwing alley-oops to high flying big men Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Also, with Spencer Hawes to run pick-and-pops with this season, Paul should have even more of an opportunity to rack up assists. Paul will lead the league in assists, and it might not be close. Prediction: 11.2 APG
2. Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls – This prediction is based on one thing: Rose’s health. If Rose stays healthy, there is far too much talent around him in Chicago for him to not rack up tons of assists. In his last full season (all the way back in 2010-11), Rose averaged 7.7 assists per game, and he upped that number to 7.9 per game in 2011-12, where he only played in 39 games. The Chicago Bulls have more talent around Rose now than they did in any of his previous seasons, with players like Pau Gasol, Doug McDermott, and Tony Snell (only played 10 games with him last year before getting hurt) to go along with the improved Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson. Also, with Rose coming off of two seasons lost to knee injuries, you would have to think he will do less play-making himself and leave some of it up to his teammates, while Rose dishes them the ball for assists. All of these factors mean Rose will set a career high in assists. Prediction: 9.1 APG
3. John Wall, Washington Wizards – John Wall is one of the top young point guards in the NBA, and it really showed last season as he led the Wizards to the playoffs for the first time in his career. Wall and his Wizards should only be better this year. They had a young team last season, and they return most of the key cogs from their roster, with the exception of Trevor Ariza. However, he was replaced with Paul Pierce, which is an upgrade on offense. Bradley Beal, Nene, and Marcin Gortat will round out a very solid starting five for the Wizards, and Wall will be counted on to lead the team. He will deliver, not only with home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, but with a lot of assists for easy buckets for his teammates. Prediction: 9.0 APG
Notable Omissions: Ty Lawson, Kyrie Irving – Lawson is one of the best passers in the game, and he clearly has the talent to be in the top 3 in assists per game. Irving is a popular candidate to see a huge bump in assists with the major additions of Brendan Haywood and James Jones in Cleveland (oh yeah, and that LeBron James guy, too). But they won’t finish in the top 3, only because of the skill of the guys above them. Nothing at all against Lawson and Irving, as both are incredible passers who will rack up assists this year.
BLOCKS PER GAME:
1. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans – Of all of the young stars in the league, Davis is arguably the brightest. He is a 6’11” athletic freak with the skills of a guard, and is only getting better. He led the league in blocks per game last season, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t do it again. Davis blocks shots like it’s no one’s business, and in his third season, he should be a significantly better player. That is a truly scary thought.
Davis alone will be enough to make the Pelicans a good squad, but they probably won’t contend for the playoffs in a stacked West. Nevertheless, with Davis’ rapid improvement into one of the best players in the league, he will continue to dominate on the defensive end for years to come, and block plenty of shots. The question isn’t if he’ll lead the league in shots blocked per game, but by how much. The answer could be a lot. Prediction: 3.3 BPG
2. Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder – Two years ago, Serge Ibaka averaged a ridiculous 3.7 blocks per game. He was the fourth option on offense, behind Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. When Harden was traded, Ibaka’s blocks-per-game number went down, and this is no coincidence. In each of the past two seasons, he has had to shoulder more of the offensive load, and this has left him with less energy to expend protecting the rim.
With that said, he is still an elite shot blocker in today’s NBA. Ibaka anchors the defense for the Thunder, and he is a big reason why the Thunder are one of the top teams in the NBA. With Reggie Jackson morphing into a very good scorer, Ibaka may be able to revert back to that fourth banana on offense, albeit with a bigger role than when he was the fourth option with Harden. Because of this, he should be able to block more shots per game this year than he did in the past two seasons. Prediction: 3.1 BPG
3. Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers – Talk about a roller coaster season for Hibbert. In the 2013-14 season, Hibbert started the season fantastically, earning a berth in the All-Star game. As the season progressed, however, he lost his confidence, to the point that he would have goose eggs in some playoff games. I believe that, while he probably won’t make the All-Star game again, he should be a more consistent player this season overall. After losing Paul George to a season ending injury and Lance Stephenson to the Hornets in free agency, the Pacers are poised for a major step backwards as a team this season. However, I believe Hibbert has the capability to come forward and lead the team to contend for the 8th playoff spot in the East. While he will not necessarily be an All-Star, he is good enough and the Pacers have enough talent and a good culture to compete for a playoff spot. Prediction: 2.4 BPG
Notable Omissions: DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard – Both big men have been noted for superior shot blocking, especially Jordan in recent years. However, Jordan is due for a slight decline in minutes this year with the addition of Spencer Hawes, and with the projected improvement from Hibbert, he won’t finish in the top 3 in blocks. Howard, while still a very good shot blocker, is no longer among the game’s elite at blocking shots.
*Note – While it’s hard to call him a notable omission because he has yet to play an NBA game, look for Nerlens Noel of the Philadelphia 76ers to block a lot of shots as well and challenge Hibbert for the 3rd spot on this list.
STEALS PER GAME:
1. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers – Remember reading above about Paul being the best floor general in the NBA? Well, he’s also the league’s best pickpocket. Paul is usually tasked with guarding the opponent’s best offensive guard, as J.J. Redick is a poor defender alongside him in the Clippers’ starting lineup. Paul is incredible and sizing up opposing guards, and ripping the ball away from them. Paul feasts on poor ball-handlers, and makes it difficult for opposing point guards to set up the offense the way they would like. Because of his elite passing and defense, Paul is the league’s best point guard. Prediction: 2.6 SPG
2. Michael Carter-Williams, Philadelphia 76ers – Last season’s Rookie of the Year is known for two things: play making and defense. His first season in the NBA was a major adjustment on defense, as he came from the vaunted 2-3 zone at Syracuse. With a full NBA season under his belt, Carter-Williams will be more used to the intricacies of man-to-man defense.
Not only that, but the 76ers will be awful again this year, so Carter-Williams will most likely have free reign to gamble for many steals. While this will cause him to get burned quite often, his steal total should skyrocket. When all of this is combined with the insanely fast pace the 76ers play, there is no reason to think MCW can’t finish second in the league in steals per game. Prediction: 2.4 SPG
3. Elfrid Payton, Orlando Magic – Usually, rookies have a major adjustment from playing defense in college to doing so in the NBA. This statement would generally hold even more ground when talking about a rookie who played his college ball at Louisiana-Lafayette. However, Payton is no ordinary rookie. He will be a fantastic defender from day one, and paired with Victor Oladipo, will form the most formidable defensive back court in the NBA for years to come. This season, the Magic should be better than last, but will still struggle. This should give Payton free reign to gamble, like Carter-Williams in Philadelphia. Payton will be a menace on defense this season and for years to come, and should be a regular on this list throughout his career. Prediction: 2.1 SPG
Notable Omissions: Ricky Rubio, John Wall – Rubio is a fantastic pickpocket, but he should see a dip in steals. With the additions of Andrew Wiggins and Thaddeus Young (he was 3rd in the league in steals!) to go along with Corey Brewer, the Wolves will have a lot of guys who will rack up steals. They will grab a lot as a team, but individually, each should see a slight dip. Wall will rack up a lot of steals, but I believe he will fall just short of Paul, Carter-Williams, and Payton.
*All stats used courtesy of ESPN.com