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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The West Gets Deeper: How the Addition of Two Enigmatic Veterans Will Affect the Bestern Conference

The Western Conference has been dominant this season. With at least ten playoff-caliber teams and eight legitimate championship contenders – yes, eight (compared to probably two or three in the East) – the disparity between the two conferences may be as large as ever. Three of the most reliable analytics-based power rankings, Hollinger’s, NumberFire’s, and TeamRankings‘, all rank ten Western teams in the NBA’s top fifteen.

It seems the rich are getting richer: in the past week, two of the East’s most talented players in Rajon Rondo and Josh Smith left the Northeast for Texas. Nothing’s for certain, though, as both players have been centers of controversy over the past couple seasons, especially in analytical circles. While both are very skilled, they have the potential to be poor fits for any team, including their new respective squads. Let’s take a look at the possible pros and cons in each situation.

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The Comprehensive 2014-2015 NBA Preview: Western 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 continue with my projected standings for the Western Conference, and analysis for the teams in it:

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Guide to The Rematch

Parker’s ridiculous game 1 buzzer beater. LeBron’s block on Splitter. Danny Green’s unbelievable shooting run. Ray Allen’s immortal corner three in game 6. The series lasted seven games, but fans were hungry for seven more. A year later, that wish may come to fruition. Through their all-playoff-long dominance, the Heat and Spurs seemed destined to meet again in this year’s Finals. With teams this great, a lot of information is needed to make a well-educated prediction on the series’ winner. Let’s take a look:

Last Round

San Antonio: Won in 6 (TeamRankings’ most likely outcome: win in 7, CornerThree prediction: win in 7)

Miami: Won in 6 (most likely outcome: win in 6, prediction: win in 6)

Both teams were able to end their series relatively early, with Miami in full control the entire series, and San Antonio looking dominant other than their hiccups in games 3 and 4. It was clear that the better team moved on in both conferences.

Key Stats

Overall ranking (TeamRankings): San Antonio 1st, Miami 4th

Last 10 games ranking (TeamRankings): San Antonio 1st, Miami 4th

Shooting efficiency (TeamRankings): San Antonio 2nd offensive, Miami 22nd defensive

Points in the paint per game (TeamRankings): San Antonio 7th offensive, Miami 8th defensive

Effective field goal percentage (TeamRankings): Miami 1st offensive, San Antonio 4th defensive

In terms of overall ranking, Miami is a weaker opponent than San Antonio faced last round in Oklahoma City, but with Miami coasting to the second seed during the regular season, that stat could be a bit skewed… These two teams boast the two best offenses in the league, ranking first and second on the offensive side in both shooting efficiency and effective field goal percentage. The Spurs’ defense, however, looks to be more up to the challenge than is Miami’s… Chris Bosh and co. will have to do their best to shut down the paint against San Antonio’s common two-big lineups, but their ranking defensively in the paint suggests they’ll be up for the challenge.

Starting Lineups

Spurs:

Pos Player  CornerThree WAR ranking ESPN WAR ranking
PG Tony Parker 157th 51st
SG Danny Green 60th 63rd
SF Kawhi Leonard 24th 66th
PF Tim Duncan 23rd 17th
C Tiago Splitter 187th 87th

Heat:

Pos Player  CornerThree WAR ranking ESPN WAR ranking
PG Mario Chalmers 101st 76th
SG Dwyane Wade 30th 85th
SF LeBron James 4th 1st
PF Rashard Lewis 231st 334th
C Chris Bosh 64th 22nd

Matchup Advantages 

PG: Spurs (Parker)

SG: No clear favorite

SF: Heat (James)

PF: Spurs (Duncan)

C:  Heat (Bosh)

Bench: Spurs

Coach: Spurs (Popovich)

The WAR rankings show the matchup between Parker and Chalmers is closer than conventional wisdom would suggest… Despite Dwyane Wade’s health, his matchup with Danny Green is more of a wash than you may think, with Green’s analytic-friendly ability to spread the floor and allow the offense more operating room, alongside superior defensive ability. Although it might be easy to assume that his proximity to Wade in the WAR rankings is partially because of Wade’s dearth of minutes this season, Green’s RPM (ESPN stat that doesn’t account for total minutes played) is far superior to Wade’s – 22nd to 77th… Though LeBron is the world’s best player, Kawhi Leonard will be able to give him the same headaches he gave Kevin Durant with his combination of length and strength, alongside a scrappy style that can frustrate his matchup. As I’ve brought up before, LeBron has already showed us his feelings on Kawhi Leonard:

… Erik Spoelstra has showed multiple different looks at the power forward position this postseason, from Shane Battier to Udonis Haslem to Lewis. It will be interesting to see if Spo is willing to give up Lewis’ offense in order to have a better shot defensively, or if he elects to hide Lewis on Tiago Splitter and force the Spurs to go to him offensively… Chris Bosh will continue to be one of the league’s true top big men, boasting one of the league’s best mid-range shots (courtesy of NBA.com):

Screen Shot 2014-06-01 at 3.25.19 PM

His pick-and-roll defensive ability will invaluable against players like Parker and Ginobili as well, and as I recently suggested, he may be called upon to guard Tim Duncan in the post as well. Bosh is of huge importance on both ends of the court in this matchup… The Heat have a solid bench, especially when Ray Allen is hot, but the Spurs can come from all angles, with Ginobili looking to erase his dreadful performance in last years’ Finals, and Boris Diaw becoming a huge contributor for the Spurs’ offense as the playoffs have gone along – his passing, post play, and three-point range make him both a matchup nightmare and an excellent facilitator of offense.

Regular Season Series Results

San Antonio 1, Miami 1

Odds (TeamRankings)

TeamRankings’ models overwhelmingly favor the Spurs, with each San Antonio winning outcome more probable than the most probable Miami outcome. I doubt the series will be this lopsided, but be careful not to simply disregard the graph because of conventional opinions – TeamRankings’ projections have correctly picked the winner of 11 of the 14 playoff series so far.

Keys For Each Team

San Antonio: Can they limit their turnovers and prevent Miami from getting into transition? Can Kawhi Leonard play well enough against LeBron to warrant consistent single coverage? Who will provide the offensive spark that Danny Green set off in last year’s matchup?

Miami: Can non-big 3 members provide enough offense? Will Miami’s ball-rushing, double teaming defensive scheme be torn apart by San Antonio’s ball movement offense? Can Dwyane Wade play up to his reputation?

Prediction

We already know how Gregg Popovich likes to play LeBron and Wade – force jumpshots. However, in last year’s matchup, LeBron his enough from the outside to bring the trophy to Miami. Will Pop change his approach? Either way, the bottom line is Miami is just as good as the team that won the Finals last year, but San Antonio’s gotten better. Depth, shooting, coaching, and a defensive edge will be enough to get the Spurs their revenge, and perhaps give Duncan, Popovich, and Ginobili chances to retire on top.

San Antonio in 6

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

All You Need to Know About the Conference Finals

Well, we’re here. After a very exciting first couple rounds of the playoffs, the Conference Finals have arrived. This season, the NBA again showed that there is little parity in its ranks, and multiple seven-game series usually weed out potential upsets. Accordingly, in both conferences, the only teams remaining are seeds 1 and 2. Both of these matchups, though, are sure to be classics. Let’s take a closer look:

San Antonio (1) vs. Oklahoma City (2)

Considered by many to be the West’s two true heavyweights, the Spurs and Thunder meet in the Western Conference Finals for the second time in three years. Where the Thunder won that matchup, they were not present last season when the Spurs swept the Grizzlies out of this round to advance to the Finals themselves. This year’s series will be must-see TV.

Last Round

San Antonio: Won in 5 (TeamRankings’ most likely outcome: win in 5, CornerThree prediction: win in 7)

Oklahoma City: Won in 6 (most likely outcome: win in 7, prediction: lose in 6)

Key Stats

Overall ranking (TeamRankings): San Antonio 1st, Oklahoma City 2nd

Last 10 games ranking (TeamRankings): San Antonio 1st, Oklahoma City 2nd

Shooting efficiency (TeamRankings): San Antonio 2nd offensive, Oklahoma City 4th defensive

Free throws made per game (TeamRankings): San Antonio 4th defensive, Oklahoma City 5th offensive

Effective field goal percentage (TeamRankings): San Antonio 4th defensive, Oklahoma City 7th offensive

Starting Lineups

Spurs:

Pos Player  CornerThree WAR ranking ESPN WAR ranking
PG Tony Parker 157th 51st
SG Danny Green 60th 63rd
SF Kawhi Leonard 24th 66th
PF Tim Duncan 23rd 17th
C Tiago Splitter 187th 87th

Thunder:

Pos Player  CornerThree WAR ranking ESPN WAR ranking
PG Russell Westbrook 53rd 59th
SG Thabo Sefolosha 97th 111th
SF Kevin Durant 1st 2nd
PF Serge Ibaka 26th 15th
C Kendrick Perkins 476th 415th

Matchup Advantages

PG: Thunder (Westbrook)

SG: Spurs (Green)

SF: Thunder (Durant)

PF: No clear favorite

C:  Spurs (Splitter)

Bench: Spurs

Coach: Spurs (Popovich)

Regular Season Series Results

Oklahoma City 4, San Antonio 0

The Thunder swept the Spurs impressively this regular season, but don’t put too much weight on these games: after being swept by the Nets in the regular season, the Heat went on to win four out of five against them last round. Both the Spurs and Heat are notoriously for taking the regular season slowly.

Odds (TeamRankings)

TeamRankings’ models clearly favor the Spurs here: San Antonio in 7, 6, and 5 are all more likely than the most probably OKC outcome.

Keys For Each Team

San Antonio: Can Kawhi Leonard, a defensive stalwart, slow down Kevin Durant without constant double teams? Can Tony Parker stay in front of Russell Westbrook? Can Tim Duncan get the shots he wants against tough post defenders in Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison?

Oklahoma City: Can secondary offensive contributors like Reggie Jackson and Ibaka make enough of an impact? Can they avoid stagnant offense late in games? Can they keep all of San Antonio’s shooters in check while denying Parker penetration? Will Scott Brooks utilize Collison and Steven Adams more, as opposed to the dreadful Perkins, as he did last round?

Prediction

Both of these squads, after looking surprisingly shaky in round one (both fell behind in their series before winning in seven games), are coming off very impressive wins against worthy teams in round two. The teams know each other well, but after a long enough series, better coaching, more consistency, and a powerful home-court advantage will send the Spurs back to the Finals.

San Antonio in 7

Indiana (1) vs. Miami (2)

After a very scary start to these playoffs, the Pacers are back on track and appear ready to compete in a rematch of last year’s seven-game Eastern Conference Finals. LeBron vs. George. Wade vs. Stephenson. Bosh vs. Hibbert. This series will be both physical and emotional, and will test both the ability and the resolve of both teams.

Last Round

Indiana: Won in 6 (most likely outcome: win in 7, prediction: lose in 6)

Miami: Won in 5 (most likely outcome: win in 5, prediction: win in 6)

Key Stats

Overall ranking: Miami 5th, Indiana 10th

Last 10 games ranking: Miami 4th, Indiana 7th

Assist-turnover ratio (TeamRankings): Miami 1st defensive, Indiana 26th offensive

Effective field goal percentage: Indiana 1st defensive, Miami 1st offensive

Rebounds per game (TeamRankings): Indiana 11th, Miami 30th

Starting Lineups

Pacers:

Pos Player  CornerThree WAR ranking ESPN WAR ranking
PG George Hill 121st 43rd
SG Lance Stephenson 72nd 75th
SF Paul George 14th 29th
PF David West 77th 31st
C Roy Hibbert 96th 40th

Heat:

Pos Player  CornerThree WAR ranking ESPN WAR ranking
PG Mario Chalmers 101st 76th
SG Dwyane Wade 30th 85th
SF LeBron James 4th 1st
PF Udonis Haslem 447th 329th
C Chris Bosh 64th 22nd

Matchup Advantages

PG: No clear favorite

SG: No clear favorite

SF: Heat (James)

PF: Pacers (West)

C:  Heat (Bosh)

Bench: Heat

Coach: No clear favorite

Regular Season Series Results

Indiana 2, Miami 2

The Pacers and Heat showed their matchup equality during the regular season this year, with the home team winning every game.  The scoring differential over the four games combined was just +8 in favor of Miami.

Odds

There looks to be a good chance of this series going to seven games, but if it doesn’t, these models definitely prefer Miami. According to Bayes’ Theorem of conditional probability, if the series doesn’t make it to seven games, the Heat’s chances of winning go up from 60.9% to 66%.

Keys For Each Team

Miami: Can they overcome their size and rebounding deficiencies with enough fastbreak points and outside shooting? Can Chris Bosh consistently keep Roy Hibbert far enough outside the paint? How big of a factor will Dwyane Wade be?

Indiana: Can Paul George play up to LeBron’s level? Will Hibbert find any sort of consistency and follow up last year’s huge performance in this matchup? Can the Pacers find enough offense to keep up with the Heat?

Prediction

Indiana will be plenty motivated, and won’t lay down in this series. With some minor changes, these rosters look almost identical to how they looked last year at thistime, and with luck, this time around will be just as enthralling. However, with Wade looking healthier and the Pacers definitely shakier, Miami will have enough firepower to hold off Indiana just enough to prevent a trip back to Indy for game seven.

Miami in 6

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

Who/When/Why: Second Round

We have just witnessed one of the greatest first rounds in NBA Playoff history: Game 7s, overtimes; four-point plays. Can the second round top it? Here’s what the stats say about each of the matchups:

San Antonio (1) vs. Portland (5)

Both of these teams were surprising in the first round: the Spurs in their difficulty finally advancing and the Blazers in their seeming ease. It’s the old guard vs. the new guard in a fast-paced, exciting matchup that will include lots of outside shooting.

Last Round

San Antonio: Won in 7 (TeamRankings probability of outcome: 17.8 %, CornerThree prediction: win in 4)

Portland: Won in 6 (Probability of outcome: 15.9%, prediction: lose in 7)

Key Stats

Overall ranking (TeamRankings): San Antonio 1st, Portland 4th

Last 10 games ranking (TeamRankings): Portland 1st, San Antonio 10th

Shooting efficiency (TeamRankings): San Antonio 2nd offensive, Portland 5th defensive

Total rebounds per game (TeamRankings): Portland 4th offensive, San Antonio 20th defensive

Starting Lineups

Spurs:

Pos Player  CornerThree WAR ranking ESPN WAR ranking
PG Tony Parker 157th 51st
SG Danny Green 60th 63rd
SF Kawhi Leonard 24th 66th
PF Tim Duncan 23rd 17th
C Tiago Splitter 187th 87th

Trail Blazers:

Pos Player  CornerThree WAR ranking ESPN WAR ranking
PG Damian Lillard 62nd 30th
SG Wesley Matthews 46th 77th
SF Nicolas Batum 50th 86th
PF LaMarcus Aldridge 19th 10th
C Robin Lopez 95th 27th

Matchup Advantages

PG: Trail Blazers (Lillard)

SG: No clear favorite

SF: Spurs (Batum)

PF: Trail Blazers (Aldridge)

C:  Trail Blazers (Lopez)

Bench: Spurs

Coach: Spurs (Popovich)

Regular Season Series Results

San Antonio 2, Portland 2

Odds (TeamRankings)

Screen Shot 2014-05-05 at 2.06.56 PM

Keys For Each Team

Portland: Can Lillard keep up with Tony Parker’s quickness when on defense, both on-ball and off, while still being himself on offense? Can LaMarcus Aldridge win his matchup against a defensive legend at his position?

San Antonio: Can they keep Portland off the glass? Can they find a way to slow down the red-hot Lillard while still keeping Aldridge and the perimeter shooters in check?

Prediction

The data here is interesting: while the Blazers have the advantage at most of the starting positions (though likely partially due to more minutes played), the Spurs have the predictive models at their backs. Though Portland has looked excellent lately, I’m going to go with the coaching, experience, and depth to pull through, despite close games and a couple of big performances from the Blazers’ big two.

San Antonio in 7

Oklahoma City (2) vs. Los Angeles (3)

Both squads had tougher times than anticipated shutting down their confident opponents in round 1, but now they’re in for perhaps the biggest showdown of the second round. With top-flight players galore on both teams, this series has all the makings of a classic.

Last Round

Oklahoma City: Won in 7 (Probability of outcome: 18.6 %, prediction: win in 6)

Los Angeles: Won in 7 (Probability of outcome: 19.5%, prediction: win in 6)

Key Stats

Overall ranking: Oklahoma City 2nd, Los Angeles 3rd

Last 10 games ranking: Los Angeles 5th, Oklahoma City 9th

Free throws made per game (TeamRankings): Oklahoma City 5th offensive, Los Angeles 21st defensive

Fast break points per game (TeamRankings): Los Angeles 2nd offensive, Oklahoma City 11th defensive

Starting Lineups

Thunder:

Pos Player  CornerThree WAR ranking ESPN WAR ranking
PG Russell Westbrook 53rd 59th
SG Caron Butler 189th 418th
SF Kevin Durant 1st 2nd
PF Serge Ibaka 26th 15th
C Kendrick Perkins 476th 415th

Clippers:

Pos Player  CornerThree WAR ranking ESPN WAR ranking
PG Chris Paul 3rd 6th
SG JJ Redick 183rd 167th
SF Matt Barnes 175th 69th
PF Blake Griffin 22nd 7th
C DeAndre Jordan 8th 8th

Matchup Advantages

PG: Clippers (Paul)

SG: Clippers (Redick)

SF: Thunder (Durant)

PF: Clippers (Griffin)

C:  Clippers (Jordan)

Bench: Clippers

Coach: Clippers (Rivers)

Regular Season Series Results

Oklahoma City 2, Los Angeles 2

Odds

Keys For Each Team

Oklahoma City: Can they get enough scoring from players 3-12 to supplement their two superstars? Can their bench keep pace with the Clippers’ Crawford, Collison, and co.? Can Ibaka play up to his competition in Griffin?

Los Angeles: Is Paul healthy enough to stay in front of the uber-fast Westbrook for a whole series? Can Matt Barnes check KD without needing a double on every possession? Can DeAndre Jordan defend the rim against some of the league’s most explosive finishers?

Prediction

This is a battle of heavyweights on a finals-type scale, with both teams in the top three of the league’s overall rankings. Chris Paul is hungry to save his playoff reputation, but he has health questions after last series. However, he’ll be able to run the offense well enough that the Clippers’ superior frontcourt and depth will continue to wear down the Thunder to the point of elimination.

Los Angeles in 6

Indiana (1) vs. Washington (5)

The Pacers limp into round 2 against a team that blew through its initial matchup with ease. However, Indiana has all of the tools to make this series an excellent one, and the absence of a “stretch 5” in Washington should allow Roy Hibbert to show again why he was an All-Star this season.

Last Round

Indiana: Won in 7 (Probability of outcome: 18.1 %, prediction: win in 6)

Washington: Won in 5 (Probability of outcome: 8.2%, prediction: loss in 7)

Key Stats

Overall ranking: Indiana 10th, Washington 14th

Last 10 games ranking: Washington 2nd, Indiana 13th

Effective field goal percentage (TeamRankings): Indiana 1st defensive, Washington 13th offensive

Three point percentage (TeamRankings): Indiana 3rd defensive, Washington 5th offensive

Starting Lineups

Pacers:

Pos Player  CornerThree WAR ranking ESPN WAR ranking
PG George Hill 121st 43rd
SG Lance Stephenson 72nd 75th
SF Paul George 14th 29th
PF David West 77th 31st
C Roy Hibbert 96th 40th

Wizards:

Pos Player  CornerThree WAR ranking ESPN WAR ranking
PG John Wall 10th 34th
SG Bradley Beal 58th 139th
SF Trevor Ariza 34th 79th
PF Nene Hilario 123rd 83rd
C Marcin Gortat 69th 21st

Matchup Advantages

PG: Wizards (Wall)

SG: No clear favorite

SF: Pacers (George)

PF: Pacers (West)

C:  Wizards (Gortat)

Bench: No clear favorite

Coach: Pacers (Vogel)

Regular Season Series Results

Indiana 2, Washington 1

Odds

Keys For Each Team

Indiana: Can this team forget its chemistry issues and fully get back to basketball? Will Roy Hibbert’s return to the paint give him a reenergizing? Can they slow down Wall and Beal in transition?

Washington: How good of a job will Trevor Ariza do on the oft-enigmatic Paul George? Can Nene bring the same physicality he did to Joakim Noah to David West?

Prediction

Washington has the young legs and the confidence factor, while the Pacers have been the better team over the full course of the season. However, despite much of the year-long data favoring Indiana, the Wizards’ long rest period and the superstellar play of John Wall on both sides of the ball will define this series in an upset.

Washington in 6

Miami (2) vs. Brooklyn (6)

This could be a classic matchup – Pierce and KG vs. LeBron and Wade in the playoffs for perhaps the final time. Brooklyn has gotten the better of Miami in their head-to-heads, while Miami has been much more consistent all season long. Let’s take a look at the data:

Last Round

Miami: Won in 4 (Probability of outcome: 14.8 %, prediction: win in 5)

Brooklyn: Won in 7 (Probability of outcome: 9.3%, prediction: loss in 7)

Key Stats

Overall ranking: Miami 6th, Brooklyn 15th

Last 10 games ranking: Miami 6th, Brooklyn 16th

Assist-turnover ratio (TeamRankings): Miami 1st defensive, Brooklyn 18th offensive

Offensive rebound percentage (TeamRankings): Miami 24th defensive, Brooklyn 27th offensive

Starting Lineups

Heat:

Pos Player  CornerThree WAR ranking ESPN WAR ranking
PG Mario Chalmers 101st 76th
SG Dwyane Wade 30th 85th
SF LeBron James 4th 1st
PF Udonis Haslem 447th 329th
C Chris Bosh 64th 22nd

Nets:

Pos Player  CornerThree WAR ranking ESPN WAR ranking
PG Deron Williams 83rd 57th
SG Shaun Livingston 84th 121st
SF Joe Johnson 111th 47th
PF Paul Pierce 102nd 61st
C Kevin Garnett 138th 97th

Matchup Advantages

PG: Nets (Williams)

SG: Heat (Wade)

SF: Heat (James)

PF: Nets (Pierce)

C:  Heat (Bosh)

Bench: Heat

Coach: Heat (Spoelstra)

Regular Season Series Results

Brooklyn 4, Miami 0

Odds

Keys For Each Team

Miami: Can the Heat prove that their getting swept by Brooklyn this season was a fluke? How big of a factor will Dwyane Wade be? Can they use their speed to beat slower Brooklyn by forcing turnovers and running in transition? Will Ray Allen have a big series against his famous former teammates?

Brooklyn: Are the well-aged Nets tired from their seven-game first round series? Can Pierce and Garnett evoke whatever power they do have that seems to gives LeBron troubles? Can they avoid giving up big runs (especially when playing in Miami)?

Prediction

Despite Brooklyn’s success this season against Miami, they’re coming off a grueling seven game series against Toronto, whereas the Heat walked over the Bobcats and haven’t played for an entire week. The Heat will be rested, prepared, and motivated enough to defeat the Nets, despite a couple of hiccups.

Miami in 6

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

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

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:

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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:

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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

Forgotten, but not Gone: The San Antonio Spurs

What do the following teams have in common?

  • Oklahoma City Thunder
  • Los Angeles Clippers
  • Houston Rockets
  • Miami Heat
  • Indiana Pacers

I’ll hasten with the answer: each team does not own the best record in the NBA. That title belongs to San Antonio, a team that, for whatever reason, year after year, continues to fly under the radar. An appearance on the biggest of stages, the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat in 7 games, apparently was not enough to garner respect for the bunch. TeamRankings.com, one of the leaders in sports analytics, uses an NBA power ranking system based off of tons of different information tidbits from every single game: home/away status, margin of victory, and many other factors. These data values are then algorithmically compared against thousands of past games, and higher weight is put on factors that tend to have greater effects on, and association with, winning. Let’s take a glance at their top six as of today: Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 3.54.58 PM

San Antonio doesn’t just have the league’s best record. These analytics like them as the league’s best team. Let’s look deeper in to some of the key points from the table:

  • Their rating is pretty convincing: the gap between SA and the Clippers, ranked third, is the same size as the gap containing all of teams 3-6. Additionally, the distance between SA and second-ranked Oklahoma City is tied for the largest gap between two consecutive teams in this top six.
  • Aside from dominating bad teams, they’ve taken care of business against the good teams ranked from 6-16, boasting the best record against those teams of the top six.
  • They’ve been very consistent in their excellence, as the lowest they’ve dropped in the rankings all season is fourth, by far the best of any team in the league.
  • The only scratch on this record seems to be their record against the top five, an ugly 3-8. They’re 0-3 against OKC, 2-1 against LAC, 0-3 against Houston, and 1-1 against Miami. This could definitely be a concern, as all of those teams are possible, even likely, playoff opponents. However, as will be outlined in a bit, the Spurs play a very different game in the playoffs.

What’s most amazing about the Spurs is that they don’t even go their hardest during the regular season. Head Coach Gregg Popovich, who is probably the league’s best, is notorious for saving his team’s health for the playoffs, once actually sent his four best players home just before a matchup with the Heat due to a back-to-back. How’s this for an amazing stat: they only have one player averaging over 30 minutes per game this season – Tony Parker. Parker’s 30.7 MPG average is good for 82nd in the league. 81 players play more minutes per game than Parker, and he’s only played in 52 of the Spurs’ 63 games. Talk about keeping your legs fresh. Of course, with only one player playing over 30 minutes, you need an exceptional gameplan (enter Gregg Popovich) and a well-balanced effort. The Spurs’ leader in win shares, an estimate of wins contributed by a single player based on a myriad of data, is Tim Duncan, with 5.5. Compare that to the Thunder, where Kevin Durant boasts a 15.5 and Serge Ibaka a 7.5. The Spurs have seven players owning more than 4 win shares; the Thunder only two. This balanced attack makes them tough to defend, as they don’t really need any specific players to have a great game to win, whereas if you can find a way to slow Kevin Durant enough, the Thunder are a far less effective team.

One of the Spurs’ most important players, in fact, might be Kawhi Leonard, often lost beneath the team’s legendary “Big Three.” However, his on-ball defense, rebounding, toughness, transition play, and outside shooting make him a weapon for Popovich in many facets of the game. Take a look at how his injury, and return, has effected the Spurs, via NBA.com:

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And here’s one of my all-time favorite videos – LeBron reacting to Leonard checking in during last year’s Finals:

It’s players like Leonard, who might be fourth or fifth on the opponents’ scouting reports, who really make the Spurs so successful.

Heres a glance at the overall excellence of Popovich’s bunch this season:

  • 3rd in average score margin (+6.7)
  • 7th in average points in the paint (45.8)
  • 2nd in assists per game (24.9)
  • 4th in assist/turnover ratio (1.688)
  • 2nd in effective field goal percentage (53.8)
  • 4th in free throw percentage (78.8)
  • 1st in three point percentage (39.6)
  • 1st in fouls per game (18.1)

The efficiency of this team is like that a well-oiled machine, putting up around 105 points on you every night whether you like it or not, doing it from multiple sources, and doing it with ease. They take care of the basketball while still being able to move it around to find the best possible shot on each possession. They take analytics-friendly shots, too, as they love to jack up threes and get into the paint. They’ve been doing it for years. Credit the players and the coaches, and take advantage of the Spurs while you can – you never know when Pop, Duncan, Manu, and Parker might call it a career.

Other squads may get the TV spots, but depth, balance, efficiency, and coaching: all the ingredients for yet another deep San Antonio playoff run.

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University