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June 12, 2012
NBA Finals
Sim Summer

by Bradford Doolittle

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Remember the NBA lockout last fall? Doesn't that seem like a long time ago? It certainly seems like a bad dream to me. During that time, when the airwaves were filled with the sounds of lawyers yapping instead of sneakers squeaking, we ran a simulated season at Basketball Prospectus. We used our SCHOENE projections and partnered with the Strat-O-Matic game company to function as our game engine. The advantage of doing it that way is that we had not just the macro-level projections that SCHOENE does so well, but also detail all the way down to play-by-play and box scores. It was fun.

As it turned out, the results were remarkably prescient, even though at the time we didn't know which free agents would hop teams, that Jeremy Lin would rise from obscurity, that Chris Paul would be traded to the Clippers or that Derrick Rose would be injured for much of the season. Despite all these things we didn't know, the bottom line was that our SCHOENE/Strat-O-Matic simulation nailed the eventual NBA final four, and the Finals matchup. While everyone, myself included, foresaw an inevitable Chicago-Miami East final, the simulation said it would be Miami over Boston in six games. In the West, where few saw the Spurs going deep into the postseason, the sim said it would be the Thunder over San Antonio in five. Pretty nice.

That the simulation predicted the correct matchups in the conference finals was impressive. That it also picked the right teams for the Finals is less so. A Heat-Thunder showdown was predicted by analysts far and wide, and both from the subjective and objective standpoints. In fact, if the simulation had not predicted Miami to play Oklahoma City, you would have had to question the integrity of the whole project. In our sim world, Miami landed homecourt advantage for the Finals and went on the beat the Thunder in seven games. I don't think a seven-game series in the real deal would surprise many people, but in fact it's the Thunder that earned the extra home game, so that changes things.

The rosters are different than our original simulated Finals as well. Eric Maynor was OKC's backup point guard and Derek Fisher was still a Laker. For Miami, Mike Bibby and Erick Dampier were still attached to the team; Shane Battier was not. There were also a couple of key performance jumps from our projected numbers to consider: James Harden went from good to great, and LeBron James had a historically awesome season. There were other smaller variances from the projections, but these were the biggies. Enough has changed to demand a re-run, so that's what we've done.

Why go to the trouble? It's not necessarily to calculate probabilities of the various outcomes. We can do that simply enough using point differentials, which we'll go ahead and do for you to serve as a comparison for our simulation. I used combined regular season and playoff point totals and gave double weight to the postseason, giving more credit for recent results. Doing this gives a boost to the Heat. During the regular season, the teams had virtually identical point differentials, though if you adjust for tempo, the Thunder came out slightly ahead. During the playoffs, the Heat has outscored their opponents by an aggregate 143 points, compared to 100 for the Thunder. After taking all this into account, we end up with a .729 baseline winning percentage for Miami (59.8 wins per 82 games) and .708 for Oklahoma City (58.1 wins per 82 games).

That's an awfully close margin and is one of many reasons we should be super-psyched for this series. Using the baselines and the log5 method, you can figure that Miami has a 62.7 percent chance to win any given game on its home floor, while the Thunder have a 57.3 chance to win each game at the Ford Center. On a neutral site, it's 52.7 percent for Miami and 47.3 percent for the Thunder. Very close to a toss-up. These numbers yield the accompanying table that tells us the percentage chance for each possible series outcome.

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
4.7%	(win in 4)
13.0%	(win in 5)
12.0%	(win in 6)
16.5%	(win in 7)
---------------------
46.1%	(win series)
---------------------
MIAMI HEAT
7.3%	(win in 4)
12.1%	(win in 5)
20.7%	(win in 6)
13.8%	(win in 7)
---------------------
53.9%	(win series)
---------------------

Running simulations not only gives us different odds, but gives us more detail. We'll don't just have a solid baseline for the expected outcome, but we know why those probabilities were generated. I updated the rosters and rotations to reflect this year's results and playoff player usage patterns, then ran 500 games on each team's home floor. Here are ten highlights from the exercise:

  1. The Heat won 64 percent of the simulated games, taking 78 percent of the contests at South Beach and exactly 50 percent of the games at the Ford Center. That was surprisingly more lopsided than our log5 analysis suggested.
  2. Miami averaged 100.5 points per game, exactly two points more than its regular-season average. Let's not forget that by beating the Knicks, Pacers and Celtics in the East, the Heat survived the fifth-, ninth- and top-ranked defenses in the league. The Thunder was 10th. Oklahoma City certainly seemed to find itself defensively though the course of the San Antonio series but based on regular-season results, this will be the easiest defense that Miami has had to solve in the postseason.
  3. The Thunder scored 95.7 points per game, well under its regular-season average of 103.1, which ranked third in the league. Miami was the NBA's fourth-ranked defensive team and more than that, they're good at just the right spot. James is the best perimeter defender in the NBA, maybe the best defender, period. He won't guard Kevin Durant exclusively, but if there is one player in the league that has a chance to derail the unstoppable Durant, it's LeBron.
  4. Durant led all scorers with an average of 28.1 points per game, but he shot just 44.8 percent from the floor. The average is virtually the same as his actual average, but he shot 49.6 percent from the field in the regular season. That will be a common theme in this series, as it is for all Thunder opponents. Durant will get his points, but you have to render him as inefficient as possible. In nine head-to-head meetings with James in his career, Durant has averaged 27.3 points and shot 47.5 percent.
  5. OKC point guard Russell Westbrook averaged 19.8 points but shot just 35.2 percent. In my rotations, I alternated Mario Chalmers and Dwyane Wade on him, and even mixed in a little Shane Battier. It seemed to work. If Westbrook shoots that poorly in the real series, Oklahoma City will be in trouble. Westbrook did get more than 10 free throw attempts per game in the simulations.
  6. I used a more robust version of James Harden than the one that was featured in our original simulations, but I still feel like he wasn't having the full impact that he actually has on games at this point in his remarkable development. Harden averaged an efficient 15.4 points in the sims, shooting over 50 percent from the floor and 40 percent from beyond the arc.
  7. The teams were very close in most every floor-game stat in the box score. Miami grabbed 50.5 percent of the rebounds and committed about one turnover per game less. The Heat also got to the line more often, though the Thunder shot a better percentage. Oklahoma City shot better from 3-point range as well, but got fewer looks. The biggest discrepancy was on 2-point percentage: Miami shot 48.6 percent inside the arc; Oklahoma City shot 44.1 percent.
  8. James was the series MVP. Strat-O-Matic uses the NBA's old efficiency formula and his 30.0 EFF per game easily outdistanced Durant's 24.7. James averaged 26.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and 7.2 assists. Bet he does even better in the real thing.
  9. Wade chipped in with 22.2 points on 44.2 percent shooting. The average is on target with his playoff average to date, but the percentage is down. The Thunder's Thabo Sefalosha was the main factor in that outcome.
  10. There are two things that might have skewed the results and both give hope to Thunder fans. First is the Harden factor -- I'm almost positive that he was short-changed. Until I started searching for player seasons similar to what Harden did this year, I hadn't realized the scope of just how special his season was. His .660 true shooting percentage was off the charts, the type of figure that low-usage centers get when they take nothing but dunk shots. It's the most efficient performance by an average-usage perimeter player in my database. The second thing is that I assumed full health for Chris Bosh, though we don't know he'll actually be able to perform at that level.

In addition to those possible skewing factors, I subjectively think the Thunder defense has improved beyond what was represented in the simulations. So there are plenty of reasons to think that there is less than a gap than the 64-36 split our exercise generated in favor of the Heat. But it almost certainly doesn't erase the gap altogether. Going by the numbers and the projected matchups, Miami looks like a solid favorite to give LeBron James his first championship ring.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Follow Bradford Doolittle on Twitter.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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