2014-15 Playoff Preview

The 2014-15 NBA playoffs presents an atypical playoff scenario.  There aren’t several contenders to assess.  Really, we are talking about the Golden State Warriors and everyone else.  Only five teams have ever had more wins in an NBA regular season than the Warriors (GS is the fifth NBA team to win 67 games in a season).  Seven of the nine other 67+ win teams won a title.  The two exceptions are the 1972-73 Celtics, who lost in the Conference Finals to the Knicks (though Boston did have the mitigating factor that John Havlicek injured his ankle during the series) and the 2006-07 Mavericks, who somehow lost in the first round to an eight seed Warriors team led by some Don Nelson voodoo (remember his putting Matt Barnes on Dirk Nowitzki?).

But the 2014-15 Warriors’ record actually understates their dominance.  They have the best defense in the NBA and the second best offense.  In fact, the Warriors’ SRS of 10.01 rates them as better than almost all the other dominant teams mentioned above. Here is a list of the best NBA teams, by SRS, since 1979-80:

  1. 1995-96 Bulls, 72-10, 11.80 SRS (won title)
  2. 1996-97 Bulls, 69-13, 10.70 SRS (won title)
  3. 1991-92 Bulls, 67-15, 10.07 SRS (won title)
  4. 2014-15 Warriors, 67-15 10.01 SRS (we shall see)
  5. 2007-08 Celtics, 66-16, 9.30 SRS (won title)
  6. 2012-13 Thunder, 60-22, 9.15 SRS (lost in second round of playoffs)
  7. 1985-86 Celtics, 67-15, 9.06 SRS (won title)

The Warriors aren’t just good…they are rubbing elbows with the Michael Jordan Bulls and a couple of dominant Celtics teams (the 2012-13 lost Russell Westbrook to a knee injury in the playoffs and ended up losing to Memphis in the second round).

So, can anyone stop the Warriors?  Anything can happen but the deeper look at the numbers indicates that, absent an untimely injury, a Warriors title is likely.  If you had to pick a team that could possibly beat Golden State, only two really stick out as having a legitimate shot, the Spurs and the Cavs.  The Spurs are the only team to beat the Warriors twice this year and the only team that GS has a losing record against (Warriors were 1-2 against the Spurs but were thoroughly beaten in both losses).  The Cavs have a shot because LeBron James is still transcendent enough to beat anyone.  If this worries you in any way as a Warriors fan, remember that there is no guarantee that either the Spurs or Cavs ever actually get to the Warriors.  With all this in mind here are our predictions for the playoffs:

First Round Predictions

Eastern Conference

  1. Hawks v. Nets: There is an overall sense that Atlanta is not quite as good as its record. This isn’t based upon any objective analysis as much as the fact that the Hawks don’t have any perceived stars and have, essentially, the same team that wasn’t impressive last season. This knee jerk reaction isn’t totally fair.  The Hawks are well-balanced and deep team and the Big Three of Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, and Al Horford is a formidable core.  On the other hand, the Hawks’ expected win-loss record is 56-26, showing them to be legitimately good team but not any better or worse than several other teams with mid-50s wins.  Looming for Atlanta is a match up with the Cavs, which will be the highlight of the Eastern Conference playoffs.  Whatever the outcome of that series, it is likely that this blah Nets team will be a speed bump on the road.  Prediction:  Hawks win 4-1

When they last met:  The Hawks and Nets have been in the same conference for almost 40 years but, surprisingly, this is their first playoff meeting.

  1. Cavaliers v. Celtics: In the end, the Cavs look like a pretty good team with a mediocre defense (17th in the NBA) and a great offense. The overall stats don’t explain that little lull that may have cost Cleveland 60 wins.  Just as a reminder, on December 23, 2014, Anderson Varejao tore his Achilles and the Cavs were left without any defense in the middle.  At the time, Cleveland was 17-10.  On January 9, 2015, the Cavs first played Timofey Mozgov at center.  They were 19-17 at the time.   After that date, the Cavs went 34-12 the rest of the way and looked like the team to beat in the East. So, the Cavs are likely much better than their record.

The Celtics have shown a pulse this season, with a high pace and a decent defense.  A playoff appearance will help keep the fans focused during the rebuilding process but they lack the horses to stop Cleveland.  It will be interesting to see how Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas match scoring bunches.  Prediction:  Cavaliers wins 4-1.

When they last met:  LeBron should remember this one.  The Celtics upset of the Cavs in the second round of the 2009-10 playoffs was one of those surreal playoff moments.  Cleveland was a prohibitive favorite to win the series (and the title).  The Cavs started up 2-1 and ready to move on when the Celts just blitzed the, to win the last three games by a total of 51 points.  Cleveland watched it’s best title shot slip away and its star mentally leave for Miami before the end of the series.   In those final three games, LBJ shot .340%  from the field, .154% from three, and just looked generally in a daze.

  1. Bulls v. Bucks: The Bulls slipped defensively a bit this season (11th in NBA) but have made up for it with some serious offensive improvement (also 11th in NBA) by Jimmy Butler and Paul Gasol.  Still, not all is great in Chicago.  Tom Thibodeau may be let go after the season (his disputes with management are well-documented) and Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose are coming off injuries.  Despite all this, the Bulls are a very solid 50-win team and can compete with anyone.

By contrast, the Bucks look like the 2013-14 Bulls, a great defensive team with no offensive ability at all.  The Brandon Knight/Michael Carter-Williams swap hasn’t helped the offense much either.   The vibe is much more hopeful in Milwaukee, as Jason Kidd has done a nice job turning the Bucks into a hard working team.  Nevertheless, this is not a great match up for the Bucks.  Milwaukee will fight hard but its inability to score will be decisive.  Prediction: Chicago wins 4-2.

When they last met:   In 1989-90, the Bulls were the 55-win third seed and met divisional rival Bucks (44-38) in the first round.  Though they hadn’t yet beaten the Pistons, the Michael Jordan Bulls were improving and gearing up for regular title contention.  The previously tough Bucks, were now a solid but declining team.  The Bucks always felt that with tough Alvin Robertson at the two guard, they had someone who might hold down MJ enough to win the series.  Robertson was as strong as any shooting guard in the NBA and a nasty defender (in college, he was reputed to have been able to outwrestle any player on the Arkansas football team).  Despite Robertson’s reputation, MJ didn’t seem too bothered this series.  Chicago won 3-1 and Jordan’s line for the series was amazing: 36.8 ppg, .539 FG%, 8.0 rpg, 7.0 apg, 2.5 spg.

  1. Raptors v. Wizards: This is the only first round series in the East with any semblance of doubt in the outcome. The Wiz are athletic and tough defensively but don’t score.  Meanwhile, the Raptors are like the anti-Bucks.  They are very effective scoring in their slow-paced Kyle Lowry/Demar DeRozan offense (4th) but have plummeted to 25th on defense (after being really balanced last season).  In this battle of styles, Toronto was 3-0 against the Wiz this season (though two of the games were close).  The numbers also suggest that the Wiz have an expected win-loss close to .500.  Putting all together, the Raps should win but the defensive failings are troubling.  Prediction: Raptors win 4-3.

When they last met:  This is their first playoff matchup.

Western Conference

  1. Golden State v. New Orleans: With everything we noted above, it’s hard to make an argument for the Pelicans competing with the Warriors. The Pelicans don’t defend well and that will be huge problem against the Warriors.  One interesting observation for posterity…though the Pelicans are the eight seed, they might have the actual best player in this series.  Yes, Stephen Curry is likely the MVP but wouldn’t you trade him for Anthony Davis?  Prediction: Golden State wins 4-0.

When they last met:  This is their first playoff matchup.

  1. Rockets v. Mavericks: The advanced stats don’t love Houston.  Despite having the two seed and 56-wins, their SRS is only seventh in the NBA and they have the expected record of a 50-32 team (pretty much the same record as the seven seed Mavs).  So, this is not the typical one-sided second seed/seven seed matchup.  To make thing even more interesting, the Rockets and Mavs are both offensively inclined and play at high paces.   The glaring question for Dallas, though, is who can guard James Harden?  Dallas is a below average defensive team and Monta Ellis probably won’t slow Harden down too much.  Conversely, the Rockets have plenty of bodies to throw at Dirk Nowitzki.  Prediction: Rockets win 4-2.

When they last met:  The Rockets and Mavs last met a decade ago in in the first round of the 2004-05 playoffs.  The Mavs were hot coming into the playoffs after Avery Johnson replaced Don Nelson near the end of the season (Dallas was 58-24 overall and finished 16-2 with Avery).  Johnson had Dirk, Jason Terry, Josh Howard, and Jerry Stackhouse.  Houston was 51-31 with Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady.  Houston started out winning two games in Dallas before dropping two at home and a Game 5 back in Dallas.  Houston forced a Game 7 showdown but failed to show up for that game, losing by 40, 116-76 (Yao and T-Mac scored 60 of the 76 points).

  1. Trail Blazers v. Grizzlies: First off, Memphis, despite being the five seed, actually has home court advantage by virtue of having more wins than the division winner Portland. The Blazers, like the Bulls, are a very solid overall team, without any glaring weaknesses on either side of the ball.  In fact, Portland’s SRS and expected wins exceed the Grizz’s SRS and wins.  Memphis is the same bruising, defense-first team they have been the last few years.  There are a ton of really fun match ups here: Damian Lillard-Mike Conley, LaMarcus Aldridge-Zach Randolph, and Robin Lopez-Marc Gasol to name a few.  Two factors have me leaning toward Memphis: (1) the homecourt advantage and (2) the fact that Memphis beat Portland 0-4 in the regular series.  Prediction: Grizzlies win 4-3.

When they last met:  This is their first playoff matchup.

  1. Clippers v. Spurs: This might be the best four-five seed matchup ever. The Spurs may live to regret losing the last game of the season since they have fallen from second seed to the lower seed in a matchup with the second best team in the NBA per SRS.  The Clippers are an offensive juggernaut.  Even with injuries to Blake Griffin, the Clipps managed to have the best offense in the NBA (the defense is average).  This will be the best series to watch in the first round.  It’s no more than a guess but I am picking the Spurs because they are bit better balanced team and I do wonder if DeAndre Jordan’s abysmal free throw shooting might become an issue.  Prediction:  Spurs win 4-2.

When they last met: It feels like a million years ago but it was only 2011-12 when the Spurs swept the Clippers in the second round of the playoffs.  Most of the key players remain the same.

Second Round Predictions

Eastern Conference

  1. Hawks beat Raptors, 4-1
  2. Cavaliers beat Bulls, 4-2

Western Conference

  1. Warriors beat Spurs, 4-3
  2. Rockets beat Grizzlies, 4-3

Conference Finals

Eastern Conference

  1. Cavaliers beat Hawks, 4-2

Western Conference

  1. Warriors beat Rockets, 4-1

NBA Finals

  1. Warriors beat Cavaliers, 4-2

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