In terms of possible playoff outcomes, the Western Conference is much more unsettled, and much more interesting, than the East. While the Lakers are the defending champs and the team with the best record out West, things are very tight and basically any team has a shot of winning in the first round. Before we get to the match ups, here’s a few fun facts:
-The spread between the Lakers as the one seed and Oklahoma City at the eight seed is only seven games. This is quite rare. We went back to look at the typical spread in wins between one and eight in each conference since the expanded playoff format came into effect in 1983-84. Here are the year-by-year spreads by conference:
*1998-99 was a lockout shortened season and the results were prorated to an ordinary 82-game season.
So, the 2009-10 spread is quite rare. In fact, the top seed is usually 20 games better than the bottom playoff seed each year. This is only the second time the seeds have been so close (though it is actually the second time in three years). Before that, only 2000-01 West had such a narrow spread when the best team, the defending champ Lakers, coasted through the regular season and the T-Wolves had a nice showing in the eight slot. In any event, we can expect some serious battles going forward in April.
-The Thunder might be the best eight seed of All-Time. Only five eight seeds have ever won more the 44 games and they all have come in the last decade. Here’s the group, and how they did in the playoffs:
–2000-01 Timberwolves, 47-35, SRS Rating 1.81: Lost to the Spurs in the first round 3-1.
–2004-05 Grizzlies, 45-37, SRS Rating 2.63: Smoked 4-0 by the Suns in the first round.
–2007-08 Nuggets, 50-32, SRS Rating 3.74: Smoked by the Lakers 4-0 in the first round.
–2008-09 Jazz, 48-34, SRS Rating 2.31: Lost to the Lakers 4-1 in the first round.
–2009-10 Thunder, 50-32, SRS Rating 3.55: We shall see…
-Not to harp on the parity out West but most rating systems we’ve seen from ESPN, Basketball Prospectus, and other sites, have not jibed with the teams’ actual won-loss records. For example, SRS has the Jazz as the best team in the conference, followed by the Spurs. The Mavs, despite being a two-seed, are considered the worst Western playoff team by this ranking. For fun, here are the rankings per Basketball-Reference.com:
Obviously, formulas have some weaknesses. They don’t take into account match ups, injuries, and recent line up changes but they do make clear that we cannot call the teams with the best records prohibitive favorites by any means. Now let’s get to the match ups…
1. Lakers v. Thunder: This is a very dangerous test for a Lakers team that has cooled off significantly in the second half. Some have blamed the Lakers defense for the second half malaise but it seems that the problem really is offense. The Lakers are still solid defensively (4th overall) but have sunk to 11th in offensive efficiency from 3rd in 2008-09. More scary is that Kobe Bryant has declined a bit. His PER is down to a mortal 21.9 (from the 24 range the past two years) and this is the first time he didn’t lead the Lakers in PER since the Shaq years (it’s Kobe’s worst ranking since 2000-01).
The Thunder will be a tough team and it’s an open question if anyone on L.A. can stay with Kevin Durant. Still, there are a few things here in the Lakers’ favor: The Lakers have been peppered with very good teams in the first round the last few years. In fact, the three best eight seeds ever have all faced this Laker team. The Lakers handled a 50-win team Denver easily in 2007-08 and the Jazz almost as easily last year. Yes, the Lakers aren’t quite as good now as they were the past two years but this raises another interesting point: Phil Jackson teams almost never lose to a worse team. The last time I can think of a Phil Jackson team being upset was back in 2003-04 against the Pistons in the Finals and that Detroit team was excellent, not some anomaly. Finally, the Lakers took the season pretty easily from OKC (3-1) with the lone loss in March, after the Lakers were already coasting. In the end, OKC isn’t that much worse than the Lakers but I just can’t see the Thunder beating the deep Lakers. Between Kobe and Pau Gasol, the Lakers will move on, even if KD will give the some headaches to the Lakers. Prediction: Lakers win 4-1.
When they last met: You have to go back to 1997-98 to find the Shaq Lakers taking on the last George Karl Sonics team in the second round. O’Neal had a field day against Vin Baker, Sam Perkins, and Kim McIlvaine and knocked Seattle off 4-1. Incidentally, a second-year guard named Kobe Bryant played only 14 minutes in the series.
2. Mavericks v. Spurs: The Mavs have taken something of a beating from the stat community because of their pedestrian point-differential that projects them to have a 49-33 record. The Spurs have the opposite issue, a great projected won-loss (55 wins) but only 50 wins on the book. Dallas did have a nice showing against the Spurs (winning three out of four) but the Spurs are a different team in the second half. They’ve played mostly great when healthy, particularly Manu Ginobili. Assuming a modicum of health, the Spurs have a point guard that’s a bit too quick for Jason Kidd or Jason Terry and no answer for Manu either. On the other end, the Spurs have struggled with holding down Dirk Nowitzki too but I think the Manu/Tim Duncan combo is probably too much for the Mavs. Prediction: Spurs win 4-2.
When they last met: I’m sure we all remember that the Mavs beat the Spurs up quite well last year, 4-1. Dallas fans can also point out that they also beat the Spurs back in 2005-06 in one of the great forgotten series, where the Mavs won in Game 7 in San Antonio, thanks to Dirk’s dunk and Manu’s brain fart/slap foul that allowed Nowitzki to get a three-point play. Dallas and San Antonio have met only two other times in the Duncan/Dirk Era, both won by the Spurs (2000-01 and 2002-03).
3. Suns v. Trail Blazers: This had all the hallmarks of a great series. The Blazers are an efficient but slow offensive team (30th in pace factor!) and the Suns can burn (best offensive team in the NBA and fourth fastest team). What happens when the tortoise meets about with the rabbit? In this case, Portland had been fairly successful slowing down the pace against the Suns, holding Nash & Stoudemire to around 100 ppg and beating Phoenix two out of three. The serious problem here is that Brandon Roy just hurt his knee and is out. Under ordinary circumstances, I think Portland has at least a 50% shot of winning this series but without Roy, it’s unlikely that they can score enough points to slow down the Suns. Prediction: Suns win 4-1.
When they last met: It’s been quite a while. The last meeting of these franchises in the playoffs occurred in 1998-99. The Blazers were entering a mini-renaissance behind Rasheed Wallace and swept out the Jason Kidd/Tom Gugliotta Suns in the first round.
4. Nuggets v. Jazz: Both Denver and Utah also have injury issues. Kenyon Martin has struggled with patella issues and Andrei Kirilenko is reportedly out for at least some of this series with a calf issue (Carlos Boozer is also questionable). There are tons of fun match ups potentially here too, particularly Deron Williams v. Chauncey Billups at the point. The problem is that there is too much uncertainty to have a clear idea of what the series will look like. Still, we do know that the Nuggets have home court, a healthier team, and have handled Utah pretty well this year (3-1). Utah has been much better in the second half of the season and won the only match up between the teams in that time (though Billups didn’t play). While I believe Utah to be the qualitatively better team in the abstract, too many factors favor Denver right now. Prediction: Denver wins 4-2.
-Lakers beat Nuggets, 4-3
-Suns beat Spurs, 4-3
Western Conference Finals
-Lakers beat Suns, 4-1
-Cavaliers beat Lakers, 4-1