Who Will Win MVP?

The conversation’s been heating up over the past couple of weeks – who is this year’s NBA MVP? The four top candidates seem to be Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, and LeBron James, and each has their own defining claim to the trophy. Westbrook is putting up the best box score stats of anyone in the modern era. Harden probably has the next-best box score stats but has a better record. Kawhi is the best defensive player of the bunch and his team has the best record of the bunch. LeBron is probably still the “best player in the NBA” if you ask players or coaches. So who will take the crown?

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The Spurs: Not So Far Behind

Though it’s finally over, the Golden State Warriors’ winning streak was the talk of the NBA during its run, and why not? The dominance of the Warriors has been more than apparent this season. Their already-defending-MVP Stephen Curry has been by far the best player in the Association this season, contributing over 1.5 wins more than the next best player in our WAR rankings. Golden State is 24-1 with an average point differential of +13.1, and there’s no doubting the already-defending-champions have been the NBA’s best team, but by how much?

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Does Tanking Really Work?

Since the race for once-in-a-lifetime prospect Anthony Davis, tanking has been one of the most controversial topics in NBA conversation. The then-Bobcats aggressively lost games to put themselves in position to get the Brow, leading them to the worst winning percentage in the history of the league.

The biggest argument about tanking is usually regarding its morality, and whether a team and its fans should root for failure in order to find long term success. The league is also split on whether tanking is good for the NBA and its franchises, as shown by the failed “anti-tanking” vote that would’ve revolutionized the lottery system. However, for most NBA fans, there is little doubt that tanking is a “smart” plan. But is tanking really smart? Does it often work?

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Right Triangle? On the Knicks’ Struggles and Whether They’ll Continue

After a terrible year in 2013-2014, the Knicks made some big changes this offseason, all stemming from the hire of Phil “Zen Master” Jackson as team president.  Jackson is considered by many to be the greatest basketball genius on the planet, with 13 championship rings – 2 as a Knicks player, 6 as coach of the Bulls, and 5 as coach of the Lakers – to his name. One of Jackson’s self-proclaimed biggest reasons for success is the triangle offense, a system that has taken on a sort of legendary aura over the years. The Zen Master brought his protege Derek Fisher on board to become Knicks head coach and teach the team this art, which is assumed to be the offensive philosophy New York will employ for as long as Jackson remains team president. However, the Knicks haven’t started so hot this season – they’re currently 2-6 and already falling well behind divisional rivals like 7-1 Toronto. Is the slow start due to slow chemistry building and system learning among players, or could New York have a real long-term problem?

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The Comprehensive 2014-2015 NBA Preview: Eastern Conference

After an amazing 2013-2014 season, the unbearably long offseason is finally coming to a close. There’s a lot to look forward to this year in the NBA, with superstars on new teams, contenders adding pieces, and more squads than ever with a chance to make noise. Let’s get started with my projected standings for the Eastern Conference, and analysis for the teams in it:

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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

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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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Who’s Legit in the East? Part One: Top Four Seeds

With the NBA Playoffs right around the corner, the Western Conference is shaping up for a very exciting and competitive tournament, starting right from the first round. The East, however, has been the butt of all jokes since early in the season. Disappointing years for the Knicks and – to a lesser extent – Nets, combined with another Derrick Rose injury, has definitely lowered the level of competition in the conference. Teams like the Raptors and Wizards now find themselves in uncharted territory for their franchises the last few years – with mid to high playoff seeds. Which squads are real threats to win it all?

Indiana Pacers (51-18)

The Pacers started the season as the consensus best team in the NBA, jumping out to a 16-1 record, but have been much weaker of late.  They’re 35-17 since that start, which is still very good, but not quite as elite, and just 5-5 in their last five games. So, what’s their deal?

One of the biggest reasons for their falling off is the slumping performance of Paul George. Last season’s Most Improved Player, Paul George is one of the league’s best perimeter defenders, who’s also making great strides offensively, but early in the season was heralded as a two-way superstar, and maybe even the fourth or fifth best player in the league. Those talks have disappeared. Here’s how his season has progressed from an offensive standpoint, and how he’s affected the team’s success:

  • October:      28.0 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 5.0 APG, .486 FG%, .412 3P%, 2-0 W/L
  • November: 23.0 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 3.1 APG, .472 FG%, .403 3P%, 13-1 W/L
  • December:  24.1 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 3.7 APG, .468 FG%, .394 3P%, 10-4 W/L
  • January:      21.3 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 3.5 APG, .410 FG%, .315 3P%, 10-5 W/L
  • February:    21.0 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.4 APG, .401 FG%, .395 3P%, 10-3 W/L
  • March:          19.6 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 4.2 APG, .388 FG%, .290 3P%, 7-5 W/L

His field goal percentage has progressively dropped every single month, while  his points, three-point percentage, and team record have all followed general downward trends. Which Paul George the Pacers get in the playoffs could be the biggest factor in whether or not they can make it out of the East, or even to the conference finals at all.

TeamRankings.com’s power rankings likes the Pacers as the NBA’s fifth best team, good for best in the East. If they continue to play top-flight defense and can become more consistent offensively, they’ll be right in the thick of things.

Best-case scenario: NBA champions

Worst-case scenario: Second-round exit

Miami Heat (47-20)

Will the Heat “turn it on?” It’s become well-documented that the Heat don’t really push for the number 1 seed during the regular season, preferring to save their strength for the playoffs, where they blow through round after round like a freight train. That may be a good strategy – according to TeamRankings, their home power ranking (#5) is the same as their away power ranking, suggesting that perhaps home-court advantage won’t be too necessary for Miami in the playoffs.

Will they make it through those playoffs, though? They don’t rebound the ball, and rely on small lineups with three-point shooting to stretch out their opponents and give LeBron James and Dwyane Wade lanes to the basket. It’s worked in the past, but the role players that helped the Heat execute this strategy the past couple years haven’t been the same role players. Let’s examine:

Ray Allen

  • 2012/13: 10.9 PPG, .419 3P%, 112 Offensive Rating, 3.4 Offensive Win Shares
  • 2013/14: 9.7 PPG,    .372 3P%, 112 ORtg, 2.3 OWS

Shane Battier

  • 2012/13: 6.6 PPG, .430 3P%, 122 ORtg, 2.8 OWS
  • 2013/14: 4.3 PPG, .335 3P%, 112 ORtg, 1.1 OWS

Mario Chalmers

  • 2012/13: 8.6 PPG, .409 3P%, 110 ORtg, 2.6 OWS
  • 2013/14: 9.3 PPG, .389 3P%, 107 ORtg, 1.8 OWS

Even with Norris Cole improving, these three key cogs for Miami need to step their games up for the Heat to three-peat. The absence of Mike Miller has been felt as well. LeBron can only do so much, and with Dwyane Wade a question mark with injury history, good defensive teams like Indiana and San Antonio will be able to slow Miami’s scoring runs without role players knocking down threes. TeamRankings likes Miami as the sixth best team in the league overall, second in the East.

Best-case scenario: NBA champions

Worst-case scenario: Loss in conference finals

Toronto Raptors (38-30)

Now, things start to get a little more blurry. Toronto is the third seed in the East, but is 12.5 games back of Indiana and 9.5 back of Miami. They’re twelfth in TeamRankings’ overall rankings, with five Western Conference teams separating them from Miami. Are they legit, or is this drop off too severe? Let’s look at some deeper stats to decide.

Can they get easy baskets? In the playoffs, defense turns up, and it becomes more difficult to score in isolating situations. Can the Raptors score when it’s necessary?  They’re not great at it – they’re 27th in fast break points per game with 10, 23rd in points in the paint per game with 38.9, and 18th in effective field goal percentage at 49.5%. For a three seed, their offense is rather weak, even with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan both having career years.

Their defense? That’s where the Raptors make their stand. They’re good at preventing their opponents from getting the easy baskets they themselves starve for – sixth in opponents’ points per game, twelfth in opponents’ fast break points per game, and eighth in opponents’ effective field goal percentage. Toronto is clearly a solid defensive team, with an All-Star (and a snub) to try to carry some of the scoring load. If they can continue to play their slow-paced game and get into their halfcourt defensive sets, and Lowry and DeRozan don’t flame out, this team could very well make a bit of noise.

Best-case scenario: Conference Finals berth

Worst case scenario: first round elimination

Chicago Bulls (38-31)

Want to know what good coaching can get you? One glance at the Bulls’ roster, and you’d probably guess they’re missing the playoffs. And you’d be wrong. At thirteenth on TeamRankings power rankings, just behind Toronto, Chicago is right in the thick of things in the East. As a matter of fact, they may be even more in the thick of things than the Raptors.

Chicago’s run to relevancy this year without their superstar, Derrick Rose, has multiple key parts: great team defense (courtesy of both Tom Thibodeau and personnel), Joakim Noah’s career year, and the resurgence of DJ Augustin.

Just how good is the Bulls’ defense? Their rank of second in opponents’ points per game is partially due to their slow pace (they’re 30th in points per game themselves), but the rest of the stats show how elite their defense is. Second in opponents’ points per game, fourth in opponents’ assists per game, third in opponents’ rebounds per game, and eighth in opponents assist/turnover ratio. Those stats only scratch the surface of Thibodeau’s machine: take a look at their advanced numbers (courtesy of TeamRankings):

Screen Shot 2014-03-22 at 5.30.20 PM

All around the board, this is one of the league’s best two defenses, second in many categories only to Indiana. Like Indiana, though, and Toronto too, their success hinges on their offensive success. For Chicago, those numbers tell a bleak story:

Screen Shot 2014-03-22 at 5.35.23 PM

The Bulls are in dire need of Derrick Rose (or Melo?), as their offense is, for lack of a better word, anemic. But it’s been better lately, thanks partly to the blossoming of Joakim Noah. The Bulls run their offense through Noah at the high post, where he takes his defender out of the paint to open up cutting lanes right to the rim for guards and forwards – cuts to which Noah is very able to pass, as he’s one of the most uniquely skilled big men in the league. He can handle the ball as well, so if you want to give him too much space daring him to shoot, or get up in his face to block his passing vision, he can get momentum and blow by you to the rim with his dribble. Noah is one of the league’s best centers, boasting impressive offensive and defensive ratings of 112 and 96, respectively, and providing 9.2 win shares to the Bulls this season – good for thirteenth in the league overall, and second among centers (behind DeAndre Jordan of the Clippers).

Another jolt to the Bulls’ offense has come from an unlikely source in DJ Augustin. After being an afterthought in Indiana and being cut by Toronto, Augustin has been a big part of Chicago’s late run to playoff relevancy this season. Take a look at what he’s done for Coach Thibs compared to his previous two stints (courtesy of ESPN)*:

Screen Shot 2014-03-22 at 5.46.16 PM

For the Bulls, the key will be scoring enough points to beat their opposition. Their defense can seek to carry them past the playoffs’ weaker teams if it performs to the standards of this season, but it won’t be able to get them past anyone if their offense continues to perform like one of the NBA’s worst. The Bulls have potential to do big things this postseason, but have plenty of potential to disappoint as well.

Best-case scenario: Conference Finals berth

Worst-case scenario: first-round boot

Next up, we’ll take a look at the teams ranking 5-9 in the East, and why the teams previously mentioned might want to take them more seriously than they think.

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

*In order, these stats are: games played, games started, minutes per game, field goals made/attempted per game, field goal percentage, three pointers made/attempted per game, three point percentage, free throws made/attempted per game, free throw percentage, offensive/defensive/total rebounds per game, assists/blocks/steals per game, fouls/turnovers per game, and points per game.