What Does the Cousins Trade Mean for the Pelicans and Kings?

Last night after the All-Star Game, a bombshell deal was announced (now official) as the Sacramento Kings sent their superstar center, DeMarcus Cousins, along with Omri Casspi, to the New Orleans Pelicans for Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, and 2017 first- and second-round picks. This was a surprising move for multiple reasons, the first being that less than two weeks ago Kings GM Vlade Divac made it clear that Cousins would not be traded.

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Does Tanking Really Work?

Since the race for once-in-a-lifetime prospect Anthony Davis, tanking has been one of the most controversial topics in NBA conversation. The then-Bobcats aggressively lost games to put themselves in position to get the Brow, leading them to the worst winning percentage in the history of the league.

The biggest argument about tanking is usually regarding its morality, and whether a team and its fans should root for failure in order to find long term success. The league is also split on whether tanking is good for the NBA and its franchises, as shown by the failed “anti-tanking” vote that would’ve revolutionized the lottery system. However, for most NBA fans, there is little doubt that tanking is a “smart” plan. But is tanking really smart? Does it often work?

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Right Triangle? On the Knicks’ Struggles and Whether They’ll Continue

After a terrible year in 2013-2014, the Knicks made some big changes this offseason, all stemming from the hire of Phil “Zen Master” Jackson as team president.  Jackson is considered by many to be the greatest basketball genius on the planet, with 13 championship rings – 2 as a Knicks player, 6 as coach of the Bulls, and 5 as coach of the Lakers – to his name. One of Jackson’s self-proclaimed biggest reasons for success is the triangle offense, a system that has taken on a sort of legendary aura over the years. The Zen Master brought his protege Derek Fisher on board to become Knicks head coach and teach the team this art, which is assumed to be the offensive philosophy New York will employ for as long as Jackson remains team president. However, the Knicks haven’t started so hot this season – they’re currently 2-6 and already falling well behind divisional rivals like 7-1 Toronto. Is the slow start due to slow chemistry building and system learning among players, or could New York have a real long-term problem?

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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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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 East

Indiana (1) vs. Atlanta (8)

This is a matchup the NBA probably wasn’t looking forward to – the fading Pacers against one of the worst teams in playoff history in the Hawks. Can Indiana get back on track and get motivated for the postseason? This is a rematch of last year’s first round series.

Key Stats

Overall ranking (TeamRankings): Indiana 9th, Atlanta 20th

Last 10 games ranking (TeamRankings): Atlanta 12th, Indiana 23rd

Effective field goal percentage (TeamRankings): Indiana 1st defensive, Atlanta 9th offensive

Assists per game (TeamRankings): Indiana 1st defensive, Atlanta 2nd offensive

Key Players

Paul George (14th CornerThree WAR, 29th ESPN WAR) vs. Paul Millsap (21st CornerThree, 49th ESPN)

Regular Season Series Results

Indiana 2, Atlanta 2

Odds (TeamRankings)

Screen Shot 2014-04-18 at 3.51.45 PM

Prediction

Under the leadership of the steady Frank Vogel, the Pacers will respond to urgency after falling behind in the series, and win out on their way to round two.

Indiana in 6

Miami (2) vs. Charlotte (7)

The ‘Cats are back in the playoffs, but they’ll have a tough task ahead of them in the three-time defending Eastern Conference champion Heat. With Big Al Jefferson in the middle, can they put enough pressure on Miami’s small lineups to make things interesting? Charlotte has ended the season strong, while Miami has had a rough go of it in March and April.

Key Stats

Overall ranking: Miami 7th, Charlotte 17th

Last 10 games ranking: Charlotte 8th, Miami 24th

Assist-turnover ratio (TeamRankings): Miami 1st defensive, Charlotte 2nd offensive

Points in the paint per game (TeamRankings): Miami 10th defensive, Charlotte 21rd offensive

Key Players

LeBron James (4th CornerThree WAR, 1st ESPN WAR) vs. Al Jefferson (16th CornerThree, 52nd ESPN)

Regular Season Series Results

Miami 4, Charlotte 0

Odds

Screen Shot 2014-04-18 at 4.01.11 PM

Prediction

As they did last year against an inferior Bucks squad, Miami will blow through the competition in round one, though Charlotte will steal game 3 in Carolina.

Miami in 5

Toronto (3) vs. Brooklyn (7)

With playoff legends Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, alongside established veterans Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, Brooklyn takes its intriguing lineups into a changing-of-the-guard matchup with Toronto, who brings youth and hunger to this battle.

Key Stats

Overall ranking: Toronto 12th, Brooklyn 16th

Last 10 games ranking: Toronto 14th, Brooklyn 22nd

Ranking in Toronto (TeamRankings): Toronto 14th home, Brooklyn 20th away

Ranking in Brooklyn (TeamRankings): Toronto 9th away, Brooklyn 10th home

Key Players

Kyle Lowry (13th CornerThree WAR, 14th ESPN WAR) vs. Deron Williams (83rd CornerThree, 57th ESPN)

Regular Season Series Results

Toronto 2, Brooklyn 2

Odds

Prediction

Two of the most underrated teams in the playoffs face off. Brooklyn’s experience, alongside Jason Kidd’s great coaching, will push this series to the limit, but with the league’s fourth-best point guard by both WAR ratings in Kyle Lowry next to hungry first-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan, and superior ability to play on the road, the Raptors will make Drake happier than Jay-Z and advance past the Nets.

Toronto in 7

Chicago (4) vs. Washington (5)

John Wall and Bradley Beal lead one of the league’s most explosive backcourts and a run-and-gun, three-point shooting offense for the Wizards against Tom Thibodeau’s grind it out defense for the Bulls in a clash of styles that will be more exciting than its billing.

Key Stats

Overall ranking: Chicago 13th, Washington 15th

Last 10 games ranking: Chicago 4th, Washington 13th

Three point percentage (TeamRankings): Washington 5th offensive, Chicago 8th defensive

Shooting efficiency (TeamRankings): Washington 14th defensive, Chicago 28th offensive

Key Players

John Wall (10th CornerThree WAR, 34th ESPN WAR) vs. Joakim Noah (11th CornerThree, 11th ESPN)

Regular Season Series Results

Washington 2, Chicago 1

Odds

Prediction

John Wall and the Wizards are ready for the big time, but they’ll have to prove it against one of the league’s best team defenses. Chicago will struggle to score, and Washington will jump ahead in this series despite its beginning at the United Center. However, as the series progresses, Tom Thibodeau will make the necessary adjustments to neutralize the Wizards’ deadly backcourt, and put the cap on a very exciting series.

Chicago in 7

Find the corresponding Western 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

Who’s Legit in the East? Part One: Top Four Seeds

With the NBA Playoffs right around the corner, the Western Conference is shaping up for a very exciting and competitive tournament, starting right from the first round. The East, however, has been the butt of all jokes since early in the season. Disappointing years for the Knicks and – to a lesser extent – Nets, combined with another Derrick Rose injury, has definitely lowered the level of competition in the conference. Teams like the Raptors and Wizards now find themselves in uncharted territory for their franchises the last few years – with mid to high playoff seeds. Which squads are real threats to win it all?

Indiana Pacers (51-18)

The Pacers started the season as the consensus best team in the NBA, jumping out to a 16-1 record, but have been much weaker of late.  They’re 35-17 since that start, which is still very good, but not quite as elite, and just 5-5 in their last five games. So, what’s their deal?

One of the biggest reasons for their falling off is the slumping performance of Paul George. Last season’s Most Improved Player, Paul George is one of the league’s best perimeter defenders, who’s also making great strides offensively, but early in the season was heralded as a two-way superstar, and maybe even the fourth or fifth best player in the league. Those talks have disappeared. Here’s how his season has progressed from an offensive standpoint, and how he’s affected the team’s success:

  • October:      28.0 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 5.0 APG, .486 FG%, .412 3P%, 2-0 W/L
  • November: 23.0 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 3.1 APG, .472 FG%, .403 3P%, 13-1 W/L
  • December:  24.1 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 3.7 APG, .468 FG%, .394 3P%, 10-4 W/L
  • January:      21.3 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 3.5 APG, .410 FG%, .315 3P%, 10-5 W/L
  • February:    21.0 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.4 APG, .401 FG%, .395 3P%, 10-3 W/L
  • March:          19.6 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 4.2 APG, .388 FG%, .290 3P%, 7-5 W/L

His field goal percentage has progressively dropped every single month, while  his points, three-point percentage, and team record have all followed general downward trends. Which Paul George the Pacers get in the playoffs could be the biggest factor in whether or not they can make it out of the East, or even to the conference finals at all.

TeamRankings.com’s power rankings likes the Pacers as the NBA’s fifth best team, good for best in the East. If they continue to play top-flight defense and can become more consistent offensively, they’ll be right in the thick of things.

Best-case scenario: NBA champions

Worst-case scenario: Second-round exit

Miami Heat (47-20)

Will the Heat “turn it on?” It’s become well-documented that the Heat don’t really push for the number 1 seed during the regular season, preferring to save their strength for the playoffs, where they blow through round after round like a freight train. That may be a good strategy – according to TeamRankings, their home power ranking (#5) is the same as their away power ranking, suggesting that perhaps home-court advantage won’t be too necessary for Miami in the playoffs.

Will they make it through those playoffs, though? They don’t rebound the ball, and rely on small lineups with three-point shooting to stretch out their opponents and give LeBron James and Dwyane Wade lanes to the basket. It’s worked in the past, but the role players that helped the Heat execute this strategy the past couple years haven’t been the same role players. Let’s examine:

Ray Allen

  • 2012/13: 10.9 PPG, .419 3P%, 112 Offensive Rating, 3.4 Offensive Win Shares
  • 2013/14: 9.7 PPG,    .372 3P%, 112 ORtg, 2.3 OWS

Shane Battier

  • 2012/13: 6.6 PPG, .430 3P%, 122 ORtg, 2.8 OWS
  • 2013/14: 4.3 PPG, .335 3P%, 112 ORtg, 1.1 OWS

Mario Chalmers

  • 2012/13: 8.6 PPG, .409 3P%, 110 ORtg, 2.6 OWS
  • 2013/14: 9.3 PPG, .389 3P%, 107 ORtg, 1.8 OWS

Even with Norris Cole improving, these three key cogs for Miami need to step their games up for the Heat to three-peat. The absence of Mike Miller has been felt as well. LeBron can only do so much, and with Dwyane Wade a question mark with injury history, good defensive teams like Indiana and San Antonio will be able to slow Miami’s scoring runs without role players knocking down threes. TeamRankings likes Miami as the sixth best team in the league overall, second in the East.

Best-case scenario: NBA champions

Worst-case scenario: Loss in conference finals

Toronto Raptors (38-30)

Now, things start to get a little more blurry. Toronto is the third seed in the East, but is 12.5 games back of Indiana and 9.5 back of Miami. They’re twelfth in TeamRankings’ overall rankings, with five Western Conference teams separating them from Miami. Are they legit, or is this drop off too severe? Let’s look at some deeper stats to decide.

Can they get easy baskets? In the playoffs, defense turns up, and it becomes more difficult to score in isolating situations. Can the Raptors score when it’s necessary?  They’re not great at it – they’re 27th in fast break points per game with 10, 23rd in points in the paint per game with 38.9, and 18th in effective field goal percentage at 49.5%. For a three seed, their offense is rather weak, even with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan both having career years.

Their defense? That’s where the Raptors make their stand. They’re good at preventing their opponents from getting the easy baskets they themselves starve for – sixth in opponents’ points per game, twelfth in opponents’ fast break points per game, and eighth in opponents’ effective field goal percentage. Toronto is clearly a solid defensive team, with an All-Star (and a snub) to try to carry some of the scoring load. If they can continue to play their slow-paced game and get into their halfcourt defensive sets, and Lowry and DeRozan don’t flame out, this team could very well make a bit of noise.

Best-case scenario: Conference Finals berth

Worst case scenario: first round elimination

Chicago Bulls (38-31)

Want to know what good coaching can get you? One glance at the Bulls’ roster, and you’d probably guess they’re missing the playoffs. And you’d be wrong. At thirteenth on TeamRankings power rankings, just behind Toronto, Chicago is right in the thick of things in the East. As a matter of fact, they may be even more in the thick of things than the Raptors.

Chicago’s run to relevancy this year without their superstar, Derrick Rose, has multiple key parts: great team defense (courtesy of both Tom Thibodeau and personnel), Joakim Noah’s career year, and the resurgence of DJ Augustin.

Just how good is the Bulls’ defense? Their rank of second in opponents’ points per game is partially due to their slow pace (they’re 30th in points per game themselves), but the rest of the stats show how elite their defense is. Second in opponents’ points per game, fourth in opponents’ assists per game, third in opponents’ rebounds per game, and eighth in opponents assist/turnover ratio. Those stats only scratch the surface of Thibodeau’s machine: take a look at their advanced numbers (courtesy of TeamRankings):

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All around the board, this is one of the league’s best two defenses, second in many categories only to Indiana. Like Indiana, though, and Toronto too, their success hinges on their offensive success. For Chicago, those numbers tell a bleak story:

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The Bulls are in dire need of Derrick Rose (or Melo?), as their offense is, for lack of a better word, anemic. But it’s been better lately, thanks partly to the blossoming of Joakim Noah. The Bulls run their offense through Noah at the high post, where he takes his defender out of the paint to open up cutting lanes right to the rim for guards and forwards – cuts to which Noah is very able to pass, as he’s one of the most uniquely skilled big men in the league. He can handle the ball as well, so if you want to give him too much space daring him to shoot, or get up in his face to block his passing vision, he can get momentum and blow by you to the rim with his dribble. Noah is one of the league’s best centers, boasting impressive offensive and defensive ratings of 112 and 96, respectively, and providing 9.2 win shares to the Bulls this season – good for thirteenth in the league overall, and second among centers (behind DeAndre Jordan of the Clippers).

Another jolt to the Bulls’ offense has come from an unlikely source in DJ Augustin. After being an afterthought in Indiana and being cut by Toronto, Augustin has been a big part of Chicago’s late run to playoff relevancy this season. Take a look at what he’s done for Coach Thibs compared to his previous two stints (courtesy of ESPN)*:

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For the Bulls, the key will be scoring enough points to beat their opposition. Their defense can seek to carry them past the playoffs’ weaker teams if it performs to the standards of this season, but it won’t be able to get them past anyone if their offense continues to perform like one of the NBA’s worst. The Bulls have potential to do big things this postseason, but have plenty of potential to disappoint as well.

Best-case scenario: Conference Finals berth

Worst-case scenario: first-round boot

Next up, we’ll take a look at the teams ranking 5-9 in the East, and why the teams previously mentioned might want to take them more seriously than they think.

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

*In order, these stats are: games played, games started, minutes per game, field goals made/attempted per game, field goal percentage, three pointers made/attempted per game, three point percentage, free throws made/attempted per game, free throw percentage, offensive/defensive/total rebounds per game, assists/blocks/steals per game, fouls/turnovers per game, and points per game.