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April 19, 2008
NBA Postseason Preview
Looking Back to Look Ahead

by Kevin Pelton

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Sorry, long-time Prospectus readers. If you're looking for an NBA equivalent of the "Secret Sauce" indicators of postseason success discovered by Dayn Perry and Nate Silver for Baseball Prospectus, you're likely to be disappointed. The available research suggests that winning in the postseason isn't all that different than winning in the regular season. The takeaways are simple and broad: balanced teams generally do better than one-dimensional squads, and defense may take on slightly more importance in the playoffs.

Still, as we head into the first round today, it may be revealing to study how teams similar to this year's competitors have fared in the past. I've compared this year's playoff squads to the most similar playoff teams of the last 12 years (from the 1996 through 2007 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 three points for making the playoffs 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 out each team's best comparison from the last 12 years.

This is the third straight year I've used similarity to help predict the playoffs. The results so far have been mixed. In 2006, the numbers suggested the Detroit Pistons might be vulnerable despite a 64-18 record. Last year, they pegged San Antonio as the favorite...but also liked Chicago coming out of the East.

Western Conference

1. L.A. Lakers
Average score: 12.3
Finals/champs: 2/1
Best comp: 2005 Dallas Mavericks (lost semifinals)

There must be something about the water in La-La Land--four of the 10 most similar teams to the 2007-08 Lakers were other Lakers squads, just two of them from the team's Kobe Bryant/Shaquille O'Neal run. One is from 1996, the year before Bryant arrived in L.A., and another is from 1998, when he came off the bench in his second season. Similar teams tended to advance to the conference finals--six out of 10--but only two advanced on to the NBA Finals.

2. New Orleans Hornets
Average score: 8.8
Finals/champs: 1/0
Best comp: 2001 Portland Trail Blazers (lost first round)

Now here's a comparison I never would have made without using similarity scores. No, not the beginning of the end for the Jail Blazers (an ignominious sweep at the hands of the title-bound Lakers), but the Avery Johnson-era Mavericks. Both the 2006 and 2007 Dallas squads show up in the top 10.

3. San Antonio Spurs
Average score: 7.4
Finals/champs: 1/0
Best comp: 2005 Detroit Pistons (lost NBA Finals)

Usually, the San Antonio section includes a disclaimer about how this method naturally ends up comparing teams to past incarnations of themselves. This year, the Spurs' offense has eroded to the point that no such comment is necessary. The only San Antonio squad that appears in the top 10 is the 1998 version from Tim Duncan's rookie year. You have to go all the way to No. 20 to find a post-David Robinson Spurs team. I never like to bet against San Antonio, but this is by far the weakest team they've had in years.

4. Utah Jazz
Average score: 9.4
Finals/champs: 2/0
Best comp: 1996 Orlando Magic (lost conference finals)

All O, no D, at an average pace. It's an eclectic mix of comparable teams for the Jazz. After the last O'Neal Magic squad, the next most similar teams are the 1999-00 Indiana Pacers and the 1997-98 Seattle SuperSonics. If you can make some pattern of that, you know more than I do. Along with that Pacers team, the 1997 Utah Jazz also made it to the Finals.

5. Houston Rockets
Average score: 10.5
Finals/champs: 2/0
Best comp: 1998 San Antonio Spurs (lost semifinals)

The Rockets come up with a similar group of teams to the Spurs, albeit slightly more successful. Nine of the 10 teams advanced out of the first round, which is a pretty good rate, all things considered. The lone exception? Naturally, it was Houston a year ago...to the Jazz...in a 4/5 matchup...despite home court. Spooky.

6. Phoenix Suns
Average score: 9.4
Finals/champs: 0/0
Best comp: 2006 Phoenix Suns (lost conference finals)

All O, no D, at a fast pace. It's a more stereotypical combination, as done best in the Valley of the Sun. Three of the five most similar teams are the last three Suns squads; the other two are late '90s Lakers teams. Frankly, this combination hasn't had a ton of playoff success; Phoenix hopes Shaquille O'Neal can change that.

7. Dallas Mavericks
Average score: 4.7
Finals/champs: 1/0
Best comp: 2001 Portland Trail Blazers (lost first round)

This is a very similar group of teams to those picked out for the Hornets, yet also a much less successful group. Just three of the 10 teams won their first-round matchup, though one of those advanced all the way to the Finals. Give yourself a star if you guessed that team was the 2006 Mavericks.

8. Denver Nuggets
Average score: 7.5
Finals/champs: 1/0
Best comp: 2007 Denver Nuggets (lost first round)

Somewhat surprisingly, this is a pretty decent group, posting a better average score than teams similar to the Spurs. Much of that comes from the bottom of the group, however. Only one of the four most similar teams (last year's Warriors) made it out of the first round.

Eastern Conference

1. Boston Celtics
Average score: 18.2
Finals/champs: 5/5
Best comp: 1999 San Antonio Spurs (won championship)

All those Spurs teams may not be similar to this year's squad, but they are similar to a team in this year's playoffs--the Celtics. The five most similar teams to this year's Boston performance all called San Antonio home, as did seven of the nine most similar teams. Question the strength of their competition in the East if you must, but the formula--slightly above-average offense, otherworldly defense--has been very, very successful in the past.

2. Detroit Pistons
Average score: 10.8
Finals/champs: 1/1
Best comp: 1999 Miami Heat (lost first round)

Every year, the Pistons seem to come up with a group of similar teams that includes playoff disappointments--including the 2006 Detroit team that posted the league's best record only to lose in the conference finals. This year's group is led by one of the three No. 1 seeds to lose to a No. 8. However, it does include last year's Spurs.

3. Orlando Magic
Average score: 14.3
Finals/champs: 4/2
Best comp: 1996 L.A. Lakers (lost first round)

Well, this qualifies as a surprise. I'd taken note of the Magic's surprisingly balanced performance this season (sixth in the NBA in Offensive Rating, fifth in Defensive Rating), but I still wasn't expecting them to come out with the second-highest average score. Two similar teams--the 2002 Lakers and 2006 Heat--have won championships, while two more made the Finals. We'll know in a couple of months how that translates on the floor.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers
Average score: 2.8
Finals/champs: 0/0
Best comp: 2004 Miami Heat (lost semifinals)

This method relies heavily on point differential, so it's little surprising that the Cavaliers--who have home-court advantage despite being outscored this season--come out so poorly. Just three of the 10 similar teams made it out of the first round; none advanced any further.

5. Washington Wizards
Average score: 3.7
Finals/champs: 0/0
Best comp: 1996 Atlanta Hawks (lost semifinals)

The difference between the Cavaliers and the Wizards by this method can largely be explained by the presence of the 2007 Jazz, who took advantage of Golden State's upset to advance to the Western Conference Finals.

6. Toronto Raptors
Average score: 1.5
Finals/champs: 0/0
Best comp: 1996 Indiana Pacers (lost first round)

Using differential should help the Raptors, who outscored opponents by 2.9 points per game this season, belying their 41-41 record. Only one of their 10 most similar teams managed to get out of the first round.

7. Philadelphia 76ers
Average score: 2.8
Finals/champs: 0/0
Best comp: 2002 Toronto Raptors (lost first round)

Random note: Because over most of the last decade the West's weakest playoff teams have been so much better than the East's weakest playoff teams (a trend never more dramatic than this season), almost all of these bottom East teams are getting compared to past East squads; only one of Philly's 10 most similar came from the West.

8. Atlanta Hawks
Average score: 1.6
Finals/champs: 0/0
Best comp: 2004 New York Knicks (lost first round)

One team that advanced (last year's Nets), four that were swept. Congrats on snapping the postseason drought and thanks for stopping by, Atlanta. We'll send your parting gifts.

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

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