A Proposal for Fractional Assists

I would like to propose to the commissioner and his committee a small rule change to the game we all know and love.

I am proposing that half-assists should be awarded when free throws are made after a shooting foul, to the player who set the play up.  Half of an assist would be rewarded for each free throw that ends up being made. This would solve the problem of passers not getting enough credit sometimes for putting their teammates in the right positions to score the basketball.  If a point guard makes a perfect alley-oop or pick-and-roll pass to a cutting teammate, and that teammate is fouled and makes his two free throws, it was the point guard who directly led to those points.  In the current rule system, no credit is given.

In this case, the assister on the play has done his job. He has put another player in a position to score points, and points were scored.  The passer’s pass is no less valuable in this case – it might be even more valuable, because it draws a foul on the opposing team – so why not give credit where it is due?  Such a rule change could even improve the quality of our game.  One of the reasons that some people prefer college basketball to that of the pros is that they feel NBA players are too selfish and only out for their own points.  Players get frustrated if they actually do make a good pass, and aren’t credited for it, possibly leading to a “well, I’ll just shoot it myself” mindset.  I believe that making assists easier to come by could cause the ball to move around like a jumping bean, leading to a more crowd-pleasing, team-oriented game.

Of course, there are reasons that this hasn’t been implemented already.  There are potential objections to my proposal, one of which being free-throw shooting is a solitary action; that it is a pause in the game and stands aside from the rest of the action. A player stands alone and executes an action of focus: possibly not “assisted” upon by a teammate. I would address this by saying that the way that this player made it to the free throw line in the first place is the setup by the teammate who executed the pass.  Either way, if the player who receives the pass is unable to put the ball in the basket, no assist is awarded.  The ideas are parallel.

Another possible objection is the idea of a foul on a three-point shot.  If this were to happen, and all three free throws were then made, would the passer get 1.5 assists?  More than one assist on one play?  In this case, I would solve the problem by making an edit to my rule.  In the case of a three-point (or four-point) play converted through free throws, only one assist will be rewarded.  After all, why should three free throws be worth more to a passer than a normal three-pointer? The aforementioned tweak would make it so that all assists can remain equal as they’re meant to be. Some people may dislike fractional assists, but do they have any problem with fractional field goal or free throw percentages? If this is such a big deal, then perhaps an assist can be awarded only if all of the attempted free throws are made, though this would still hold back credit to the passer.

The final possible problem with the half-assist idea is the difficulty it will provide in statistical comparisons.  This rule has never been around, so people question whether this rule change would be fair to former players.  Comparisons would be all jumbled up, and many assist records would probably be broken.  The contention is that that isn’t in the spirit of the game, and that we should just keep it how point guards have had it for decades.  My response to this statement is that rules have been changed in the NBA many times, and many of these rules have affected statistics.  Because they improved the quality of the game, however, as this one does, they were implemented anyway.  Until 1944, there was no rule against standing near the basket for three seconds, so it was easier prior to get rebounds.  Until 1954, there was no 24-second clock timing each team’s possession of the ball, so teams could hold the ball for however long they pleased, skewing final scoring outputs.  And, most notably, in 1979, the three-point shot was added for the first time, lowering field-goal percentages and increasing point totals.  All records for points were easier to break after the rule, but it increased the quality of the game.  And, comparably to these rule changes, adding half-assists wouldn’t actually change the gameplay at all – it is only a matter of recording statistics – making it much easier to implement and making it a painless transition for players and teams.

The International Basketball Federation (FIBA) already has this rule in place.  It would cost nothing monetarily, and can improve the quality of the game of basketball by providing fairness to passers of the ball, making it easier for those who study and analyze the game to decide on better passers, and perhaps even leading to a more team-oriented game!  All it requires is implementation.

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

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Attention, SEC: The Achilles’ Heel of the Alabama Defense

Three national championships in four years.  Dozens of draft picks making millions of dollars in the NFL. The Alabama Crimson Tide, led by defensive gurus Nick Saban and his henchman Kirby Smart, have been without question the most dominating team in college football for the last five years.  Viewed as the kings of college football, the Crimson Tide pride themselves on their defense.  Generally speaking, they have been almost impossible to score against.  However, the Alabama defense has been exposed the past two years against a certain type of offense- the hurry-up spread with a quarterback capable of evading defenders.

In the past two years, Alabama has given up more than 28 points only four (!) times.  All four came against teams who like to spread the defense out and quickly snap the ball.  Two of those games were against Heisman Trophy Wwnner Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M, while the other two came against Auburn and last year’s Sugar Bowl opponent, Oklahoma.  Three of those four games resulted in losses.

During the 2012 season, Alabama gave up an average of 250 yards per game and was top 10 nationally in third down defensive percentage.  Against Manziel and A&M, they gave up 253 yards passing alone.  Manziel and co. also rushed for 165 yards, and completed 61% of third downs, including an astonishing 63% on third downs 7 yards and longer.  The inability to get off the field on 3rd kept the Tide defense tired and thrown off for much of the game, as they were not allowed to sub on and off the field when the Aggies went up-tempo.  The long drives turned into points, and an ultimate loss at home for the #1 ranked Tide.  It was their only loss of the season in 2012, though, and they went on to win the National Title.

In 2013, the Alabama defense gave up an average of 13.9 PPG and was fifth in total team defense, giving up an average of 286 yards per game and only 180 passing yards per game.  Their third down percentage was 34%, good enough for top 20 nationally.  In the 10 games against non-hurry up offenses without a running threat at quarterback, the Tide gave up 60 points (6 PPG) and recorded three shutouts.  They gave up less than a touchdown and an extra point on average to 10 different teams, including only 17 to a top 15-ranked LSU squad.  However, just as in 2012, the Texas A&M offense was not too kind to the Alabama defense, carving them up for 42 points and over 600 yards, 350 yards more than their average.  Once again, A&M was able to convert on 3rd, especially 3rd and 7 yards or longer, converting 63% of their attempts and going 50% from 7 yards or longer, including a 95 yard touchdown pass.  Although Alabama won the game 49-42, it was not because of their daunting defense we had seen in years past.

The last two games Alabama played in the 2013 season were against Auburn and Oklahoma, two teams who like to push tempo and have quarterbacks viewed as run-first attackers.  Against Auburn, the Tide defense, which had given up an average of 100 yards per game rushing, gave up 300.  You could see as you watched the game how tired the Alabama defense looked, constantly seeing linemen and linebackers with their hands on their hips, gasping for air.  Why were they tired?  A common theme – inability to get off the field.  Auburn converted 53% of its third downs, well above the average Alabama gave up.  Those conversions led to many double-digit play drives that left the Alabama defense, and coaches, confused and exhausted.  Although it was (famously) the fateful play on special teams that eventually cost Alabama the game and a National Title berth, the defense did play up to its normal standards.  Why couldn’t they stop Gus Malzahn’s offense?  Their difficulty most likely resulted from the fatigue of trying to catch quarterback Nick Marshall, as he took off with the ball and ran on what seemed like every other play (he only had 97 passing yards) – in another spread offense with a quick-legged QB.

The last game the Alabama defense got exposed in was in the 2014 Sugar Bowl against the Oklahoma Sooners.  No one gave Oklahoma a chance in the game, especially their offensive side of the ball.  The Sooners threw out their freshman QB Trevor Knight, who in the six games he started or played significant time in, only had thrown 5 touchdowns to 4 interceptions.  He had completed roughly 57% of his passes, but he was a running threat (7 yards per carry).  Against the Tide, Oklahoma lit up the scoreboard, scoring 45 points and racking up 429 total yards.  Knight broke loose and completed 73% of his passes, throwing for 358 yards and four touchdowns.  As for third downs, Alabama could not get stops frequently enough, giving up an abysmal 5/10 on third downs longer than 7 yards.  Oklahoma was a 14-point underdog coming into the game, but eventually won by that same figure, making the Crimson Tide defense look foolish for not being able to stop a quarterback whose stats were very mediocre heading into the game.

Alabama has dominated this decade of college football, and they will likely continue to dominate as long as Nick Saban is at the helm with excellent recruits, facilities, and a standout coaching staff – Saban’s defenses are ranked in the top 5 nationally yearly.  But if the stats serve us right, don’t be surprised to see the Tide lose a game or two next year to a team that runs a fast-paced offense with a capable running quarterback.

by Evan Lalande, Birmingham-Southern College

A Quick Who, When, and Why for the First Round in the West

San Antonio (1) vs. Dallas (8)

You know how I feel about the Spurs, and nothing’s changed. This will be a fun series, as proven playoff performer Dirk Nowiztki and new running mate Monta Ellis look to keep up the scoring pace with the old men from Texas.

Key Stats

Overall ranking (TeamRankings): San Antonio 1st, Dallas 10th

Last 10 games ranking (TeamRankings): San Antonio 6th, Dallas 9th

Shooting efficiency (TeamRankings): San Antonio 2nd offensive, Dallas 26th defensive

Three point percentage (TeamRankings): Dallas 2nd offensive, San Antonio 10th defensive

Key Players

Tim Duncan (23rd CornerThree WAR, 17th ESPN WAR) vs. Dirk Nowitzki (39th CornerThree, 4th ESPN)

Regular Season Series Results

San Antonio 4, Dallas 0

Odds (TeamRankings)

Prediction

The Spurs simply aren’t an ideal matchup for Dallas, as the Mavs have been swept by Gregg Popovich’s squad in each of the past two regular seasons. While Dallas can put up the points, their mediocre defense will be wheezing and panting trying to cover the NBA’s best offense. In what could conceivably be their last matchup, Duncan will get the better of fellow all-time great power forward Dirk in a quick series.

San Antonio in 4

Oklahoma City (2) vs. Memphis (7)

Last season, with Russell Westbrook out, the Grizzlies made round 2 a living hell for Kevin Durant, triple teaming him all over the court and effectively ignoring half of Oklahoma City’s roster. They’ll go with a similar strategy this time around, and the Thunder hope Durant’s improved passing ability, alongside a second star in Westbrook, will paint a different picture.

Key Stats

Overall ranking: Oklahoma City 2nd, Memphis 8th

Last 10 games ranking: Memphis 5th, Oklahoma City 7th

Free throws made per game (TeamRankings): Oklahoma City 5th offensive, Memphis 5th defensive

Offensive rebound percentage (TeamRankings): Memphis 2nd offensive, Oklahoma City 9th defensive

Key Players

Kevin Durant (1st CornerThree WAR, 2nd ESPN WAR) vs. Mike Conley (35th CornerThree, 16th ESPN)

Regular Season Series Results

Oklahoma City 3, Memphis 1

Odds

Prediction

The Thunder shouldn’t take Memphis lightly – they play excellent team defense, including one of the best point guard defenders in the league in Mike Conley to throw onto Westbrook. Regardless, this season’s all-but-MVP of the regular season will continue his incredible play and will be a huge part of his team’s overcoming the Grizzlies in round 1.

Oklahoma City in 6

Los Angeles (3) vs. Golden State (6)

As I wrote a couple weeks ago, the Clippers are one of my favorites for this season’s title. With one of the best big threes of all time, they’ll be a lot for the Warriors to handle. Steph Curry will have his hands full defensively and will be hounded by Chris Paul on the other end for the entire series. However, Curry seems to like making magic in the playoffs, and with an improved Klay Thompson and the addition of one of the best defensive players, if not the best, in the entire NBA in Andre Iguodala, this series figures to be an exciting one. With well-established bad blood between these two teams, it might be the best show of the first round.

Key Stats

Overall ranking: Los Angeles 3rd, Golden State 6th

Last 10 games ranking: Los Angeles 2nd, Golden State 10th

Ranking in Los Angeles (TeamRankings): Los Angeles 1st home, Golden State 3rd away

Three pointers made per game (TeamRankings): Golden State 2nd offensive, Los Angeles 9th defensive

Key Players

Chris Paul (3rd CornerThree WAR, 6th ESPN WAR) vs. Stephen Curry (18th CornerThree, 3rd ESPN)

Regular Season Series Results

Los Angeles 2, Golden State 2

Odds

Prediction

The Dubs will give the Clips a great fight (perhaps even literally), but without Andrew Bogut (out for the series) to check one of the Clippers’ two elite big men, the Warriors will likely have to match up two of David Lee / Jermaine O’Neal / Draymond Green / Harrison Barnes, all below-average low post defenders, against Blake and DeAndre. With the Clippers finally healthy with JJ Redick in the starting lineup and a scary-deep bench mob, all-time great playoff coach Doc Rivers will have no shortage of options to eventually overcome the exciting splash brothers.

Los Angeles in 6

Houston (4) vs. Portland (5)

Harden and Lillard going at it. Dwight and Aldridge going at it. Two teams that are relatively new on the Western Conference playoff scene will battle it out in a series that could go either way, and in exciting fashion. Both squads love to run, move the ball, fire away on threes, and crash the glass hard. Let’s take a deeper look to see which team will come out on top:

Key Stats

Overall ranking: Houston 4th, Portland 5th

Last 10 games ranking: Portland 1st, Houston 15th

Shooting efficiency: Houston 3rd offensive, Portland 5th defensive

Total rebounds per game (TeamRankings): Houston 1st, Portland 4th

Key Players

James Harden (17th CornerThree WAR, 20th ESPN WAR) vs. LaMarcus Aldridge (19th CornerThree, 10th ESPN)

Regular Season Series Results

Houston 3, Portland 1

Odds

Prediction

This is the toughest series for me to pick. The teams are definitely equally matched, and will each win multiple games for their home fans. For Houston to cool off the Blazers, who have been on a tear the last couple weeks, they’ll need great defense on LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard. If Terrence Jones guards Aldridge, he’ll likely have a field day, whereas if Dwight Howard guards him, one of the league’s best defensive centers will be pulled away from the paint (Aldridge shoots an almost innumerable amount of long mid-range jumpers). Lillard’s situation is more simple: Patrick Beverley is one of the league’s most aggressive and successful defenders at the point guard position, and could be this series’ X-factor.  However, he’s just coming back from injury. If Beverley’s not healthy, Lillard will be hard for Houston’s weak defensive guards to slow down, and I’ll quickly regret the following prediction.

Houston in 7

Find the corresponding Eastern Conference breakdown here.

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

A Quick Who, When, and Why for the First Round in the East

Indiana (1) vs. Atlanta (8)

This is a matchup the NBA probably wasn’t looking forward to – the fading Pacers against one of the worst teams in playoff history in the Hawks. Can Indiana get back on track and get motivated for the postseason? This is a rematch of last year’s first round series.

Key Stats

Overall ranking (TeamRankings): Indiana 9th, Atlanta 20th

Last 10 games ranking (TeamRankings): Atlanta 12th, Indiana 23rd

Effective field goal percentage (TeamRankings): Indiana 1st defensive, Atlanta 9th offensive

Assists per game (TeamRankings): Indiana 1st defensive, Atlanta 2nd offensive

Key Players

Paul George (14th CornerThree WAR, 29th ESPN WAR) vs. Paul Millsap (21st CornerThree, 49th ESPN)

Regular Season Series Results

Indiana 2, Atlanta 2

Odds (TeamRankings)

Screen Shot 2014-04-18 at 3.51.45 PM

Prediction

Under the leadership of the steady Frank Vogel, the Pacers will respond to urgency after falling behind in the series, and win out on their way to round two.

Indiana in 6

Miami (2) vs. Charlotte (7)

The ‘Cats are back in the playoffs, but they’ll have a tough task ahead of them in the three-time defending Eastern Conference champion Heat. With Big Al Jefferson in the middle, can they put enough pressure on Miami’s small lineups to make things interesting? Charlotte has ended the season strong, while Miami has had a rough go of it in March and April.

Key Stats

Overall ranking: Miami 7th, Charlotte 17th

Last 10 games ranking: Charlotte 8th, Miami 24th

Assist-turnover ratio (TeamRankings): Miami 1st defensive, Charlotte 2nd offensive

Points in the paint per game (TeamRankings): Miami 10th defensive, Charlotte 21rd offensive

Key Players

LeBron James (4th CornerThree WAR, 1st ESPN WAR) vs. Al Jefferson (16th CornerThree, 52nd ESPN)

Regular Season Series Results

Miami 4, Charlotte 0

Odds

Screen Shot 2014-04-18 at 4.01.11 PM

Prediction

As they did last year against an inferior Bucks squad, Miami will blow through the competition in round one, though Charlotte will steal game 3 in Carolina.

Miami in 5

Toronto (3) vs. Brooklyn (7)

With playoff legends Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, alongside established veterans Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, Brooklyn takes its intriguing lineups into a changing-of-the-guard matchup with Toronto, who brings youth and hunger to this battle.

Key Stats

Overall ranking: Toronto 12th, Brooklyn 16th

Last 10 games ranking: Toronto 14th, Brooklyn 22nd

Ranking in Toronto (TeamRankings): Toronto 14th home, Brooklyn 20th away

Ranking in Brooklyn (TeamRankings): Toronto 9th away, Brooklyn 10th home

Key Players

Kyle Lowry (13th CornerThree WAR, 14th ESPN WAR) vs. Deron Williams (83rd CornerThree, 57th ESPN)

Regular Season Series Results

Toronto 2, Brooklyn 2

Odds

Prediction

Two of the most underrated teams in the playoffs face off. Brooklyn’s experience, alongside Jason Kidd’s great coaching, will push this series to the limit, but with the league’s fourth-best point guard by both WAR ratings in Kyle Lowry next to hungry first-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan, and superior ability to play on the road, the Raptors will make Drake happier than Jay-Z and advance past the Nets.

Toronto in 7

Chicago (4) vs. Washington (5)

John Wall and Bradley Beal lead one of the league’s most explosive backcourts and a run-and-gun, three-point shooting offense for the Wizards against Tom Thibodeau’s grind it out defense for the Bulls in a clash of styles that will be more exciting than its billing.

Key Stats

Overall ranking: Chicago 13th, Washington 15th

Last 10 games ranking: Chicago 4th, Washington 13th

Three point percentage (TeamRankings): Washington 5th offensive, Chicago 8th defensive

Shooting efficiency (TeamRankings): Washington 14th defensive, Chicago 28th offensive

Key Players

John Wall (10th CornerThree WAR, 34th ESPN WAR) vs. Joakim Noah (11th CornerThree, 11th ESPN)

Regular Season Series Results

Washington 2, Chicago 1

Odds

Prediction

John Wall and the Wizards are ready for the big time, but they’ll have to prove it against one of the league’s best team defenses. Chicago will struggle to score, and Washington will jump ahead in this series despite its beginning at the United Center. However, as the series progresses, Tom Thibodeau will make the necessary adjustments to neutralize the Wizards’ deadly backcourt, and put the cap on a very exciting series.

Chicago in 7

Find the corresponding Western Conference breakdown here.

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

Is Parity in Sports Really Better?

It has been said recently that the NBA has never been stronger than it is right now, and it really is true.  The NBA is all over the sports news, currently dominating the news cycle on ESPN, getting more airtime than America’s pastime, the MLB.  Franchise values are skyrocketing and the league recently turned down a prospective owner who wanted to pay a billion dollars for the Kings, over $300 million more than they was valued at before the bidding war began.  The league has two extremely marketable superstars in Kevin Durant and LeBron James, who by all accounts are not only phenomenal basketball players, but also good citizens.

The NBA is an interesting test case because of the idea of parity in sports. With the NBA, you can pick 8 teams at the beginning of the season and you will have a 90% chance of getting the correct champion. Don’t believe me? Check this out.

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Three Big Reasons this Year Could be Different for the Clippers

The past couple of years, the Los Angeles Clippers have been plenty flashy during the regular season, but have struggled come playoff time, with one series win in those two previous seasons. This year, though, with new coach Doc Rivers, a legitimate big three, and various improvements across the roster, this could be the year the Clips make some more noise.

1. Blake Griffin

Blake Griffin has been one of the league’s most improved players this season. After averaging 18.0/8.3/3.7 last year, he’s boosted his stats up to 24.0/9.6/3.8, while still shooting almost 53% from the field. Blake’s been one of the best offensive power forwards in basketball, and is ranked fifth at the position according to CornerThree WAR. He has put up career highs in offensive win shares, defensive win shares, total win shares (where he’s fifth in the entire league), and total win shares per 48 minutes according to Basketball-Reference. One of the biggest reasons for this leap is the development of a more consistent mid-range jump shot, which has opened up Blake’s game. Now, when defenders have to respect his jump shot, he can get easier lanes to the rim for his fantastic dunks and ever-improving post moves. Take a look at how Blake’s shot has improved, per NBA Stats:

2012/2013:

Screen Shot 2014-04-06 at 1.58.59 PM

Last season, Blake was clearly pretty dreadful from mid range, with weak percentages either well below or at least comparable to the league average. His best spot was the left baseline around fifteen feet out, his only spot at least 40%, where he took 79 shots over the course of the season.

Here’s what he’s done so far this year:

Screen Shot 2014-04-06 at 2.02.50 PM

There’s still some red in there, but a bunch of it has turned either yellow or green. There are now three mid-range spots where he shoots at least 40% (up from one), including an excellent 47.92% mark in a spot where he shot just above 37% last year. He’s also taking more mid range shots, nearing 100 on the season in multiple places. If he can continue to diversify his offensive game come playoff time, it will bode well for LAC.

2. DeAndre Jordan

Although Blake Griffin has shown marked improvement across the board, DeAndre Jordan has found his stock rise incredibly high this season, and is a strong candidate for both Most Improved Player and Defensive Player of the Year. Under Doc Rivers, Jordan has been revolutionized as a player, especially in the rebounding department, where he’s averaging a ridiculous 13.8 boards per game, where his career average is just 7.9 and his single-season career best is just 8.3. He also has career highs in points (10.4), blocks (2.4), steals (1.0), and assists (0.9). Additionally, he continues to put the ball in the basket at a scarily efficient rate, shooting better than 67% from the field.

Jordan puts huge pressures on the opposing team on both sides of the ball, as his height and athleticism have always given him great raw potential. That potential, however, hadn’t been reached until this season, where he’s become a deadly roll man to the basket, and has been excellent defensively in the pick-and-roll, the post, and on weak side help. This has all added up to him being one of the most effective players in all the NBA, eighth in the entire league in CornerThree War and ninth in the league in win shares. Most people would never think of DeAndre Jordan as a top ten NBA player, but most most statistical accounts, he definitely is. Few players require as much gameplanning by opposing teams on both sides of the ball as Jordan, and the man who might just be the best center in the league could be another big contributor to the Clips making it over the hump come playoff time.

3. Chris Paul

What else can really be said about Chris Paul? Not only is he currently the consensus best point guard in the league, he might be one of the best point guards of all time. He boasts career averages of 18.6 points, 9.9 assists, 4.4 rebounds, and 2.4 steals, and has been around those numbers, mostly with improvement, this season (18.9/10.8/4.3/2.5). In the advanced stats department, though, Paul is even better. Despite missing almost 20 games this season, he still is somehow third in CornerThree WAR and seventh in win shares. He’s probably been the second-best player in the entire league this season behind Kevin Durant, as he is an excellent floor general, a capable scorer, and an elite on-ball defender at the position where on-ball defense is perhaps most important.

Much has been made of Chris Paul’s lack of success in the playoffs, but this season, he has the best team he’s ever played on. As a Hornet, his next best player was David West, who was very good, but this season, Paul is one of three borderline top ten players on his squad, and has a solid supporting cast outside of those three as well – Jamal Crawford is in line for another Sixth Man of the Year award, JJ Redick is healthy (and maybe the league’s best fifth option, with ability to handle the ball and shoot .394 from downtown), Matt Barnes is finding a way to put in one of the best seasons of his career at the age of 34, Darren Collison has finally found a niche, and players like Danny Granger and Glen Davis can pop up and have a big game on any given night if the defense doesn’t pay attention.

The Clippers finally run LA, and with one of the most accomplished playoff coaches of all time in Doc Rivers running the show, perhaps the best big three in basketball, and depth that would have most NBA teams very jealous, this year could be special.

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

Who’s Legit in the East? Part Two: Next Five Seeds

We previously took a look at the top four seeds in the East. Now, we’ll look at the teams currently ranked 5-9, and what kind of chances each of those teams has to do damage in the playoffs.

Brooklyn Nets (39-33)

The Nets had a rough start to the season, sitting at 10-21 by the end of December. 2014, though, has been kind to them. A 29-12 record in the new year, despite the absence of center Brook Lopez, has  Brooklyn as a team to watch as we enter the playoff race.

Their success has come from a balanced and efficient offensive attack, with no active player averaging more than Joe Johnson’s 15.5 PPG. Alongside Johnson, Deron Williams, Paul Pierce, Marcus Thornton, and Andray Blatche all average double figures in the points column (interestingly, though, they’re only 24th in the NBA in assists per game). Their offense is pretty solid, though not elite, by NBA standards, ranking 10th in effective field goal percentage and 9th in efficiency. Brooklyn’s offense is also balanced from a court standpoint, as they’re top ten in both two-point and three-point efficiency, making them a difficult matchup to prepare for. With the ball, this is a team that is good enough to keep pace with opponents.

Defensively, Brooklyn is less effective. They’re ranked 9th in opponents’ points per game, but that is due only to their slow pace, as their efficiencies are all below average, per TeamRankings.com:

Screen Shot 2014-03-31 at 4.03.29 PM

As the fifth seed, the Nets may also be at a disadvantage without home court in the first round (and most likely the rest of the playoffs, should they advance). They’re 25-11 at home, and rank 8th in the NBA in home power ranking per TeamRankings, making them a formidable force at the Barclays Center for any visitor. However, with the majority of their playoff games to be on the road, where they’re 14-22 (second-worst of the top nine seeds in the East) and rank 18th, Brooklyn may have a tough time giving Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett a last shot at a title.

One interesting tidbit is the Nets’ success against Miami – they’re 3-0 against the defending champs – but barring any big changes to the playoff picture for the top few seeds, a Brooklyn-Miami matchup wouldn’t be possible until the conference finals. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that Brooklyn makes it that far.

Best-case scenario: second round berth

Worst-case scenario: first round exit

Washington Wizards (38-35)

Led by emerging star John Wall, the Wizards have secured themselves their first playoff spot since 2008. Wall has truly been one of the league’s best players this season, with career highs in points (20), assists (8.7), steals (1.9) field goal percentage (.436) and three-point percentage (.362). According to Corner Three’s WAR, Wall is considered the tenth-best player in the league, above such players as Paul George, James Harden, Stephen Curry, LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard… you get the picture. His 1.9 steals per game, tied for fifth in the NBA, spearhead a defense that is excellent at forcing turnovers – they’re fifth in opponents’ turnovers per game, forcing a turnover on 14.9% of their opponents’ possessions (fourth). This allows Washington to capitalize with 16 fast break points per game, good for seventh in the league.

Washington plays an interesting style, as their pace slows down greatly as the game goes along. Take a look at their points for and against by quarter, again per TeamRankings:

Screen Shot 2014-03-31 at 4.31.13 PM

While they outscore their opponents by almost two points in the first quarter, they begin to play a more grinding style through the next three, with differentials of -1.1, +0.1, and +0.2. As the playoffs tend to have slower paces and lower scores, it will intriguing to see if Washington can jump out to the early lead they’re accustomed to.

In terms of shooting efficiency, the Wizards are pretty average on both sides of the ball – 16th on offense and 19th on defense. They’ll have to rely on their steals and havoc defense to get wins in the postseason, but with likely first-round matchup Toronto top 10 in not turning the ball over, the Wizards could find a tough road ahead. However, they’re good enough on both offense and defense to make a hard-fought series with just about any team in the East.

Best-case scenario: second round berth

Worst-case scenario: first round exit

Charlotte Bobcats (35-38)

Like the Wizards, the Bobcats have been starved for playoff position until this season. The biggest reason for this year’s success is Al Jefferson, who would also be the Bobcats’ key to pulling a possible, however unlikely, first-round upset of Miami.

Charlotte’s recipe for success has been pretty simple: play well on defense, and give the ball to Big Al on offense. Jefferson’s line of 21.5 PPG / 10.4 RPG / 1.09 BPG / 0.97 SPG has contributed to his ranking as a top-5 center according to WAR, and his ability to score with ease on the block has led to people like future Hall-of-Famer Paul Pierce to label him as “unguardable.”

However, teams in the playoffs, especially help-happy Erik Spoelstra’s Heat (who the ‘Cats figure to meet in the first round) will not hesitate to double Jefferson and force Charlotte’s 20th-ranked three-point percentage to do their damage. Despite a solid defense that ranks ninth in opponents’ shooting efficiency, Charlotte’s inability to force turnovers (28th in the league) and ho-hum offense (24th in shooting efficiency) won’t be good enough to beat the top seeds in the East, assuming Charlotte can stick it out the rest of the season and become eligible for postseason play. If Charlotte were able to somehow pass Washington and find their way out of a Indiana/Miami first-round matchup, they might have a shot at making some noise, but at three games back with just nine remaining, it would be difficult.

Best-case scenario: second round appearance (after jumping to sixth seed)

Worst-case scenario: Miss playoffs

Atlanta Hawks (31-41)

The Hawks have been – for lack of a better word – a disaster. After a 25-21 start that had them third in the East, they’ve won just six of their past 26 games. The biggest reason for their absolute freefall has been the loss of Al Horford, who went down just five days before that dreadful stretch began. Without their likely best player (on both sides of the ball), Atlanta is a mess.

The Hawks are in the bottom 10 in both rebounds and blocks, and are 17th in points both for and against in the paint. They rank 20th in both TeamRankings’ overall rankings and Hollinger’s power rankings.

Atlanta needs to turn their season around now if they want to retain their playoff spot, as their six-game losing streak has lined up quite nicely – or unfortunately, depending on your perspective – with a late Knicks surge. However, even with a playoff berth, despite an underrated offense that ranks second in assists (thanks to Mike Budenholzer’s Gregg Popovich training), their defense is probably too weak to put them on top of a seven-game series against any of the East’s playoff bound teams:

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Best-case scenario: first round loss

Worst-case scenario: early offseason

New York Knicks (31-41)

The Knicks are a curious case. They’ve won 10 of their past 13 games, but two of those losses were blowouts (one against the Lakers) and the other to a Kyrie-less Cavaliers team at home at Madison Square Garden. Regardless, thanks to the previously documented struggles of Atlanta, the Knicks have a good shot at the playoffs even after one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history.

Down years from Raymond Felton, Iman Shumpert, JR Smith, Tyson Chandler, and basically every member of the roster not named Carmelo Anthony or Tim Hardaway Jr., combined with very questionable coaching schemes from lame duck Mike Woodson, have all contributed to the Knicks struggles. Despite one of the league’s highest payrolls, New York is 21st in TeamRankings’ – and 18th in Hollinger’s – rankings.

Even with former defensive player of the year Tyson Chandler in the center, their defense has been absolutely brutal this season. Woodson’s propensity for switching bigs onto guards and doubling without quick rotations or accountability have led to defensive efficiency numbers that are, across the board, as bad or worse than Atlanta’s:

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The Knicks also seem to make it as hard on themselves as possible to score points, as they’re 30th in fast break points, points in the paint, and free throw attempts. 30th in all three. The life they’ve showed in the past couple weeks is a very good sign, and if they can push into the playoffs, which Hollinger gives them a 13.6% chance of doing as of today, they’d likely match up against the Pacers, a team that has had unthinkable struggles in the same past couple of weeks, and whom New York beat during that stretch. It would be interesting to see New York get hot against the one-seeded team that eliminated them last season, though the numbers say betting on such a situation would not be smart.

Best-case scenario: return to the second round

Worst-case scenario: miss playoffs

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University