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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Who has the Best Backcourt in the NBA? Part 1

Recently there has been a lot of talk about which team has the best backcourt in the league. This began with Dion Waiters stating that he and Kyrie Irving own the title. Next, John Wall stepped up and said that he and Bradley Beal gave the Wizards the best backcourt in the league.  In preparation for the Corner Three Positional Rankings and the Corner Three Top 100, we decided to tackle the backcourt argument using stats.

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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

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