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

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:

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 6.50.56 PM

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