Who Will Win MVP?

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

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The Spurs: Not So Far Behind

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

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Why the Knicks Needn’t Fret at their Lottery Misfortune

Tuesday night, Knicks fans across America sighed (or screamed) at the same time, when it was announced their projected-2nd draft pick would actually be 4th – making them the only team in the lottery to actually lose ground. Missing out on the two consensus top-pick big men in Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor is a tough pill to swallow, especially when the Knicks won’t get their first choice of a consolation prize, but there is plenty of reason for looking up in New York this offseason.

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NBA Draft Prospects: College Career vs. Athleticism

Now that the NCAA season is over and the first round of the NBA playoffs has begun, most professional basketball fans are focused on the now rather than the future. However, plenty of GMs are spending their playoff time looking over film from this past college season, breaking down statistics and play styles to find their next potential franchise player. This year especially will feature one of the most interesting drafts in recent memory, with the Thunder receiving their first lottery pick since James Harden and the T-Wolves “earning” their 10th lottery pick in as many years.

When deciding who to pick, there are two popular stances to take: selecting a player based off of their performance at the previous level, or choosing someone with tremendous physical attributes that signal a promising “upside.” Admittedly, these aren’t the only factors teams take into consideration when drafting a top pick, but they’re the most observable traits to measure and analyze. Looking at the top rookies from the past three NBA seasons, what carries more weight: athletic traits or collegiate success?

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Race for the MVP

Around the midpoint of another exciting NBA season, there’s already buzz about candidates for the league’s most valuable player, and why not: for only the second time since 2009 (Derrick Rose, though he probably didn’t deserve it), the winner is likely to be someone not named LeBron James or Kevin Durant. With injury problems for both superstars alongside disappointing records (though the Cavs have turned things around of late), other, younger stars have entered the spotlight in bidding to be recognized with the NBA’s most prestigious individual award. Let’s break down how the top candidates stack up, and take a look at who’s most deserving of the award as of this point in the season.

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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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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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The Comprehensive 2014-2015 NBA Preview: Eastern Conference

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

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A Quick Who, When, and Why for the First Round in the 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:

Screen Shot 2014-03-31 at 4.03.29 PM

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:

Screen Shot 2014-03-31 at 4.31.13 PM

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:

Screen Shot 2014-03-31 at 5.15.52 PM

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:

Screen Shot 2014-03-31 at 7.54.32 PM

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