As usual, we reach the end of another interesting season with the same reaction: thank god it is finally over, now let’s get to main event already! At the outset, the 2013-14 season finds us, for the first time in awhile without a clear cut favorite. Conceivably, there are six teams with a credible shot of winning the title. Unlike the previous three seasons, LeBron James’ presence does not make his team a prohibitive favorite. So, that’s a fun change. Let’s jump in and look at the matchups:
1. Pacers v. Hawks: This doesn’t sound fun. The Hawks are a thoroughly mediocre team that made the playoffs by virtue of a terrible bottom half of the Eastern Conference. They are matched up with the Pacers who, in the best of times, are a great defensive team (1st in NBA) with bad offense (23rd in NBA) and, in the worst of times (the last month) have been abysmal offensively. The Pacers have shown a ton of vulnerability against teams that can score a bit but the Hawks are not exactly scary on that front (or any other front for that matter). Atlanta does have two wins against the Pacers this year but Indiana should get an easy ride to the second round, though things will get tougher quickly from there. Prediction: Indiana wins 4-1.
A Deeper Look: By advanced metrics, some of the big Pacer names don’t look so great. Lance Stephenson earned raves for his improved play but his PER is an averageish 14.7 and Roy Hibbert was even worse at 13.5. These numbers obviously undersell the defensive impact both these players have made but their low PERs presents at least some evidence that their impact is overblown (Stephenson and Hibbert actually have fewer win shares than David West and George Hill). Hibbert’s offensive shortcomings are particularly noteworthy because he is already 27 and has fallen quite a bit from the past few years. This is not to imply he is not a valuable player but the numbers do not support him being on a level with the best of the best at center.
2. Heat v. Bobcats: It was surprising to see the Heat not answer the bell when the one seed was up for grabs, especially against a struggling Pacers team. Does this weak stretch run indicate a bigger issue with the Heat? As we noted before the season, it has been a coupl of decades since an NBA team has been able to make four straight NBA Finals and the collective fatigue (mentally and physically) of making deep runs year after year, have to take a toll. Viewed through the lens of a team worn down by years of pressure and playoff runs, the Heat are either starting to show vulnerability or taking the foot of the pedal (a la the Spurs) to be ready for the playoffs. The answer is probably somewhere in between. In any event, the Bobcats will not exactly press the Heat. While Charlotte does have a quick small point guard (Kemba Walker) and tough post player (Al Jefferson) who both present some weird matchups for Miami, Charlotte just can’t guard Miami. Prediction: Miami wins 4-1.
A Deeper Look: The Bobcats are the Pacers Lite (24th on offense and 5th on defense, all at a slow pace). This is eerily similar to the last Bobcats playoff team of 2009-10. At that time, Larry Brown led the Bobcats to a 44-38 record (one game better than this year’s squad) all with the best defense in the NBA and 24th offense at a slow pace. This edition is a little younger than the 2009-10 Bobcats but both teams were built on veteran anchors up front (then it was Tyson Chandler and now it is Al Jefferson). Like Chandler, Jefferson clearly will not be part of the next very good Bobcat squad. Michael Jordan grew frustrated and bored with the Larry Brown team and blew it up only to re-coalesce with essentially the same strategy. Charlotte is indeed on a long strange road indeed.
3. Raptors v. Nets: As a Nets fan, I was not thrilled to see the team tank a bit to try to avoid Chicago and to potentially set up a match up with Miami in the second round. Yes, Brooklyn has struggled against the Bulls and yes, they are 4-0 against the Heat but there are credible counterarguments to this strategy. First, the Nets haven’t exactly done great against Toronto, a very good team in its own right. Second, a nice run one season against Miami doesn’t change the fact that the Pacers will be much easier to stop offensively come playoff times. Getting back to the first point…Toronto might be a better match up than Chicago but the Raptors are a very good team. Actually, I take that back. In fact, the Raptors have a significantly better SRS rating than Chicago (2.55 to 1.20). This could like be a case of being careful what wish for. Prediction: Raptors win 4-3.
A Deeper Look: While Kyle Lowry has unquestionably been Toronto’s best player, Demar DeRozan has gotten a lot of credit for improving his game. DeRozan was coming into this season as a one dimensional slasher, who couldn’t hit an outside shot. DeRozan has improved but not exactly in the way you’d expect. DeRozan was a very poor three-point shooter this year (64-210 for .305%) but this actually represents an improvement over where he was in the past. In the previous four seasons, DeRozan was went from zero threat to abysmal to his current role as just another bad shooter. Here is his five year history as a three-point shooter:
2009-10: 4-16, .250%
2010-11: 5-52, .096%
2011-12: 24-92, .261%
2012-13: 34-120, .283%
2013-14: 64-210, .305%
Now, .305% isn’t great shakes but it is acceptable enough to make someone consider guarding him occasionally. In addition, DeRozan has coupled the three-point improvement with more free throws (his free throws/36 minutes jumped from 5.1 to 7.5 this year). DeRozan’s improvement is a delicate balance but it shows that there is room to add value through marginal improvement on a bleak skill set.
4. Bulls v. Wizards: Like many teams in the East, this series pits two defense first teams. The Wiz improved quite a bit defensively this year but the Bulls are the most extreme defense-first team in the NBA (28th in offense, 2nd in defense, and 29th in pace). Tom Thibodeau’s teams do not play an aesthetically pleasing style but they do win. Thibs will play the same tough defense and hope that his guards get hot enough to carry the Bulls offensively. Matching up D.J. Augustin against John Wall sounds like a futile endeavor but the fact is that the Bulls are so good defensively everywhere else, that there is a significant chance that if Augustin can just score adequately, the Bulls can win. You also have to wonder what Drew Gooden and Marcin Gortat will do against Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson defensively. Expect an ugly, slow, slugfest. Prediction: Bulls win 4-2.
A Deeper Look: Trevor Ariza has been a nice under-the-radar contributor for the Wizards. Always a good athlete, Ariza has somehow learned to shoot this year. Before 2011-12, Ariza never shot better than .334% from three. In 2012-13, he ticked up to .364% (on 76-209 shooting). This year, Ariza took a career high 442 attempts and made 180 (.407%). Ariza still wasn’t a great offensive player (15.8 PER) but this uptick was enough to make him valuable. Can a player like Ariza gain this new skill so late in his career? It seems likely that this is a fluke but he is an interesting data point for future experiments in letting bad shooters fire away.
1. Spurs v. Mavericks: Are the Spurs the favorite to win the title? The numbers point to an unequivocal yes. They have the most wins, the best SRS in the NBA (by far), and have a championship pedigree. The concerns with the Spurs seem to be age-related. They are older and some feel that they just can’t athletically match up with the young thoroughbreds. Memories of San Antonio struggling with Kevin Durant are the primary reason for this concern. Of course, there does not appear to be anyone in the NBA who can match up with KD and the Spurs nearly beat the super athletic Heat last year. I think the real concern could be depth. It’s not that the Spurs lack depth but rather that they almost have too much depth. They excelled by sitting people all year and not having much fall off on the bench (the Spurs had no players play 30 mpg). As John Hollinger noted long ago, deep teams are actually more vulnerable in the playoffs because all rotations shorten and there are more off days to recover. Therefore, those great eighth and ninth men off the bench just aren’t as valuable as they would be during the long slog of a regular season.
Now the Spurs will presumably make up for this by playing Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili much more. Here are the average minutes per game for the Big Three during the regular season versus the playoffs:
-Manu Ginobil, regular season: 23.2 mpg, playoffs: 26.7 mpg
-Tony Parker, regular season: 32.9 mpg, playoffs: 36.4 mpg
-Tim Duncan, regular season: 30.1 mpg, playoffs: 35.0 mpg
So, the greater minutes from these three should at least offset loss of depth brought by playoff style basketball. Still, they are not young and a chance of injury is always there. They are not overwhelming favorites but I think the Spurs are set for that (perhaps) final title run. There are plenty of holes in all the other great teams. Absent injury or a superhuman effort from Durant or Chris Paul or some other superstar, TD will get one more title.
As for the Mavs, they really morphed back to the old Don Nelson Mav teams from the Dirk/Nash Era: great on offense and very poor defensively. This team isn’t particularly athletic or tough up front, so they are a welcome match up for the Spurs. Dallas could probably annoy certain teams but they will be a speed bump for the Spurs. Prediction: Spurs win 4-1.
A Deeper Look: Did you know that the Mavs have not won a playoff game since beating the Heat in the 2010-11 NBA Finals? Despite the playoff drought, the Mavs’ main piece looks as good as ever. For all the talk that Tim Duncan has not lost much on a per-minute basis from his prime, Dirk Nowitzki is aging just as well. Dirk’s 23.6 PER this year was his best since 2007-08. Dirk is clearly not as fast as he used to be (his free throw rate has dipped a bit from his prime) but his 2013-14 resurgence was fueled by the second best two-point percentage of his career (.532%) and staying consistent in most other categories. It’s not clear how much longer Dirk can continue to play at this level (as a player he really has no comparables yet) but, even if you assume he declines normally from here, there is no reason he can’t make it to age 40 as a good player.
2. Thunder v. Grizzlies: OKC gets a tougher matchup than the Spurs in the first round. The Grizz are actually better than they look when you consider that Marc Gasol missed a good amount of time with a knee injury. But for that injury, there is no reason to think that Memphis might’ve been finished above Golden State and possibly even Portland and/or Houston. Memphis’ tough defense and slow paced style, would fit in well with all the Eastern Conference teams. Here, they have to face the explosive Thunder, which is a tougher road. In fact, almost any team would be a better match up for the Grizz. OKC is sure to want revenge for last year’s upset in the playoffs (which was helped by Russell Westbrook’s injury). Memphis will try to slow things down enough to win a grind out series but Durant is playing so well right now it doesn’t seem like anyone can stop him. Prediction: Thunder win 4-2.
A Deeper Look: Mike Conley is a unique player. Most young players hit their peaks pretty quickly. Guards who dominate the ball look fully formed early (think Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis, Damon Stoudamire, and even Kenny Anderson). Not Conley. He has steadily improved every season since his rookie year in 2007-08, culminating in a career high 20.0 PER this season. Conley’s improvement has been gradual and subtle. His stat line is pretty much identical to his career numbers except for one thing: he is shooting more (though not any better) than before. Conley’s is taking a career high 15.2 shots/36 min (up three shots a game from last season, which was also a career high). His threes are up about one per game but he is also getting to the line a little more and he is taking one more two point shot a game too. Basically, Conley has been able to slowly raise his volume of shooting without affecting his efficiency. This is rare. The only other young point I can remember developing like this was Gary Payton. Conley isn’t quite as good as GP but has raised his ceiling as a player way above where many people thought it was a few years ago.
3. Clippers v. Warriors: This match up has quite a bit of juice. Every time we see these teams play, the Warriors get irritated with Blake Griffin’s chippy style and then take it upon themselves to get even chippier (culminating in a game where Griffin drew two bogus techincals on plays where the Warriors were trying to cheap shot him). This honest dislike will make the series fun. What will make the series even more fun, however, is watching Stephen Curry and Chris Paul go at it. Paul has been injured a bit this season but he is still clearly the best point guard in the NBA. Curry plays a much different style but he is not far off of Paul. The Warriors don’t have quite as much talent as the Warriors and the potential injury to Andrew Bogut is a real killer too. The Clipps are the best offensive team in the NBA and actually have the second highest SRS rating in the NBA (7.27). This is a really good team. Expect a tough series but the Clipps should prevail. Prediction: Clippers win 4-3.
A Deeper Look: Present without much comment, here’s how Danny Granger stacked up with Evan Turner after the deadline trade:
-Granger: 16.2 mpg, .429 FG%, .353 3FG%, 2.3 rpg, 0.7 apg, 8.0 ppg, 12.6 PER
-Turner: 21.1 mpg, .411 FG%, .500 3FG%, 3.2 rph, 2.4 apg, 7.1 ppg, 9.7 PER
Moral of the story: scoring inefficiently in a high octane offense doesn’t translate to a bad offensive team.
4. Blazers v. Rockets: It has been a very nice season for Portland but they do have the feel of a paper tiger. Portland was always a good offense team but the Blazers were able to improve by getting the defense to about league average (16th) and continue to shoot well. How did they do this? Partly by letting J.J. Hickson go for the more effective defense of Robin Lopez. As for Houston, they have a similar offensive emphasis but are a bit better defensively (thanks to Dwight Howard). This should break down like a traditional 1980s-1990s Western Conference playoff series, with tons of running and gunning. Houston has the better defense, the better SRS (slightly), more playoff experience, and the player for whom Portland has no answer for (Howard). It will be close and fun to watch but Houston should move on. Prediction: Houston wins 4-3.
A Deeper Look: LaMarcus Aldridge improved quite a bit from the previous season but the perception that Aldridge is better because of better shooting is not reflected in the stats. Rather, Aldridge has played this well before. The main difference is that his shooting percentage is actually down a little and his rebounds are way up (he was previously a decent rebounder but has swelled to very effective).
-Pacers defeat Bulls, 4-3
-Heat defeat Raptors, 4-3
-Spurs defeat Rockets, 4-2
-Thunder defeat Clippers, 4-3
-Heat defeat Pacers, 4-2
-Spurs defeat Thunder, 4-2
-Spurs defeat Heat, 4-2