Do Blocks Help?

Get that weak stuff outta here! Of course blocks help. Why wouldn’t they? There’s no better feeling as a big man than swatting your opponent’s naive attempt at a basket into the third row. Nowadays, however, with more data, there’s a bit deeper to dig when it comes to correctly valuing the NBA blocked shot.

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Race for the DPOY

“If anybody else gets that award, we need to have an investigation.”

Clippers coach Doc Rivers clearly thinks his center, DeAndre Jordan, is the favorite for defensive player of the year. Averaging ridiculous rebound and block totals, Jordan has a good shot, but is far from the favorite, as other candidates – both at the rim and on the perimeter – have (probably more) compelling cases. Doc, consider this the investigation.

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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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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

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