For the most part, the formula for playoff success in the NBA is simple: be really good. While the game does change, slowing down as each possession takes on more importance, for the most part the same things that win during the 82-game schedule matter in the postseason. My colleague Bradford Doolittle did find the importance of balance in a recent study, however, and it's these kind of subtle effects I annually hope to tease out by comparing playoff teams to their most similar predecessors.
My method compares the 16 playoff squads to the most similar playoff teams of the last 14 years (from the 1996 through 2009 postseasons) based on their Offensive and Defensive Ratings and pace of play (half weighted), all adjusted for league average.
Each of the past teams has had their playoff performance rated, getting a point for each playoff win, losing a point for each loss and getting four points for making the playoffs (three prior to 2003, when the first round was extended to seven games) and four points for winning a series.
For each current team, I've listed the average playoff score of the 10 most comparable teams from the past, as well as the number of those 10 teams who advanced to the NBA Finals and won the Championship. Lastly, I've listed each team's best comparable from the last 14 years. The big takeaway this year is how wide open things are. Three teams had higher average scores last season than this year's top team.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
Average Score: 9.8
Best comp: 1999 Utah Jazz (lost conference semifinals)
I'm not sure whether this is meaningful, but teams similar to the Cavaliers--who rank third in the league in Offensive Rating but have slipped a bit to seventh on defense this season--have tended to underachieve in the postseason. The 10 most similar teams won an average of more than 59 games, but not one reached the NBA Finals. Just three of the 10 teams did as well as we would expect based on seed, record and point differential.
2. Orlando Magic
Average Score: 12.6
Best comp: 2001 San Antonio Spurs (lost conference finals)
Statistically, Orlando has emerged as the league's best team, ranking second in Defensive Rating and atop the NBA on the offensive end. That kind of balance should translate very well in the postseason, and while the Magic's comparables are not overwhelming, they are very solid. The 2000 L.A. Lakers were the lone similar team to break through and win a championship.
3. Atlanta Hawks
Average Score: 4.7
Best comp: 2008 Dallas Mavericks (lost first round)
The Hawks combine a slow pace with efficient offense and fairly average defense, drawing comparisons to the Avery Johnson Mavericks teams (including the 2006 squad that lost to the NBA Finals), multiple Utah teams and the Mike Dunleavy Portland clubs. Surprisingly, seven of the 10 teams were knocked off in the opening round. Atlanta figures to have more success.
4. Boston Celtics
Average Score: 9.3
Best comp: 2001 Philadelphia 76ers (lost NBA Finals)
Despite their second-half slide, the Celtics still boast the NBA's third-best Defensive Rating. Teams that defend like that tend to have plenty of postseason success, and two of them (both the 76ers and the 2007 Cavaliers) got all the way to the NBA Finals. Last year, this method overestimated Boston more than any other team, though it couldn't know that much of the team's regular-season success was compiled with Kevin Garnett in the lineup.
5/6. Miami Heat
Average Score: 6.8
Best comp: 2005 Houston Rockets (lost first round)
The Celtics are a more successful version of the template for all the 4-7 seeds in the East playoffs, who share a defensive mindset. The Heat has quietly emerged as an elite defensive unit, which has to be considered one of the season's biggest surprises. Six out of 10 teams similar to Miami won in the opening round.
5/6. Milwaukee Bucks
Average Score: 5.1
Best comp: 2000 Philadelphia 76ers (lost conference semifinals)
Milwaukee had the look of a dangerous first-round opponent, especially in a matchup against Boston, before Andrew Bogut's season-ending injury. The Bucks haven't exactly collapsed since then, but they lost at home to both the Celtics and the Hawks, one of whom will be their playoff opponent.
7. Charlotte Bobcats
Average Score: 5.4
Best comp: 1999 New York Knickerbockers (lost NBA Finals)
Six of then 10 teams most similar to Charlotte won a playoff series, though just one of them advanced beyond that.
8? Chicago Bulls
Average Score: 2.2
Best comp: 2005 New Jersey Nets (lost first round)
Should Chicago reach the playoffs tonight with a win or a Toronto loss, the Bulls will be the worst offensive team to make the playoffs since the 2004-05 Chicago team, as well as New Jersey that same year. These Bulls are 28th in the NBA in Offensive Rating, and don't entirely make up for it with defense like the Bucks (23rd in Offensive Rating) or Bobcats (24th).
8? Toronto Raptors
Average Score: 1.7
Best comp: 2000 Milwaukee Bucks (lost first round)
The Raptors, of course, are at the opposite end of the offense-defense spectrum. Just two teams with a worse Defensive Rating relative to the league than Toronto's (which is last in the NBA this season) have made the playoffs since the merger--the 1982 and 1984 Denver Nuggets. Suffice it to say that porous defense has not historically been a successful formula.
1. L.A. Lakers
Average Score: 12.7
Best comp: 2001 Philadelphia 76ers (lost NBA Finals)
Though teams similar to the Lakers were not nearly as successful in the regular season as those similar to Cleveland or Orlando, winning an average of just over 54 games, they turned it on in the playoffs, with 2003 San Antonio and 1998 Chicago as champions. We'll see whether the Lakers can do the same after a poor month of April.
2/3. Dallas Mavericks
Average Score: 5.2
Best comp: 2000 Minnesota Timberwolves (lost first round)
Given that this method relies on the ratings that underlie point differential, it's no surprise to see the Mavericks compared to teams that were less accomplished in the regular season, especially in terms of seeding. One issue I didn't address in last week's look at the Mavericks and close games was how point differential fares as a predictor in the playoffs. Once we account for seeding, differential performs better than winning percentage, though the difference is not substantial. I'd like to take a closer look at matchups where the team with the lower point differential has home-court advantage and how ripe they are to upsets. Dallas will find itself in such a matchup in the first round no matter what happens tonight.
2/3/4/5. Utah Jazz
Average Score: 7.8
Best comp: 2006 Miami Heat (won championship)
Teams similar to the Jazz are a mixed bag. Five of them lost in the first round, none of them even forcing a Game 7, but two reached the NBA Finals and the most similar team of all won the title. I'm not sure what to take from that.
3/4/5. Phoenix Suns
Average Score: 9.1
Best comp: 2004 Sacramento Kings (lost conference semifinals)
Phoenix's combination of the league's best offense and a below-average defense means three of this decade's great Suns teams (2005, 2007 and 2008--all three with Amar'e Stoudemire) show up in the top 10, though none is higher on the list than fifth. The 2001 L.A. Lakers, the most offensive-minded champion of the last 15 years, also show up, though that's a little misleading since the Lakers turned it on defensively for the postseason. Phoenix doesn't have that ability.
4/5. Denver Nuggets
Average Score: 7.4
Best comp: 2001 Dallas Mavericks (lost conference semifinals)
A year ago, the Nuggets were one of the league's most balanced teams, but their defense has dropped from eighth in the league to 16th (though still barely above league average) this season. Part of that can be explained by Kenyon Martin's injuries, but even when healthy Denver wasn't defending with the same ferocity, and that could prove costly.
6/7. Portland Trail Blazers
Average Score: 3.2
Best comp: 2000 Utah Jazz (lost conference semifinals)
Surprisingly, the Blazers have the worst average score of any West team. Similar squads have tended to fall short of expectations--including last year's Portland team that lost in the first round. The defining marker of the Blazers is the league's slowest pace. Counter to intuition, faster-paced teams tend to do better than expected in the playoffs.
6/7. San Antonio Spurs
Average Score: 9.5
Best comp: 1998 Miami Heat (lost first round)
The Spurs are the league's most perfectly balanced team, ranking ninth in both Offensive and Defensive Rating. That combination has worked awfully well in the playoffs, and San Antonio rates better than any West team save the Lakers thanks in part to a pair of champions--the 2003 Spurs and 2006 Heat. All that would make for a very interesting matchup should Texas rivals Dallas and San Antonio square off in the first round again.
8. Oklahoma City Thunder
Average Score: 6.6
Best comp: 1997 Portland Trail Blazers (lost first round)
It doesn't take a list of similar teams to realize the Thunder is very good for an eighth seed, but that certainly does reinforce the fact. Seven of the 10 teams most similar to Oklahoma City this year won their first-round series. That won't necessarily help the Thunder against the Lakers, however.
Join Kevin to chat about the playoffs at BaseballProspectus.com Thursday at 1:00 p.m. Eastern. If you can't make it then, leave your question now.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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