NBA 2019-20 Playoff Preview (For Real!)

Well, the 2019-20 NBA playoffs are finally upon us!  Let’s run through a quick preview/FAQ of what’s going on….

How should we feel about this? 

It’s hard to quantify exactly.  It feels….different.  How to explain?  The best analogy I could come up with relates to serialization in comic books.  I was never a huge comic book fan but, as a young kid, they were around and I dabbled in them like any good 10-year old would.  In reading them, I found one (of many quirks) was continuity.  The comic books would be released monthly and would usually involve an ongoing story.  Once a year, though, the same comic book would release an “annual,” which was usually a self-contained story that had no apparent relationship with the ongoing story. 

The annual troubled a younger me.  When was this supposed to be happening?  How could the X-Men be battling their nemeses for months in New York, yet take a quick break to go to outer space for a side adventure?  Did the happenings in the annual “count” for the larger story?  It just didn’t make sense to me at the time.  I haven’t thought about this comic book conundrum in over 35 years but, for some reason, the abrupt return of the NBA gave me a strong déjà vu to this exceedingly trivial note that was buried deep in my memory banks.  

By the same token, the NBA of the regular season was a long time ago.  The current playoffs do clearly relate to the 2019-20 season but it all feels so long ago and we are removed enough from the regular season that the playoffs feel likely something new and different.  For most purposes, this space adventure in the NBA bubble is pretty much its own thing.   

As an adult, I understand that comic book annuals and the mostly self-contained separate NBA playoffs exist for one two basic reasons: the ability to generate interest and revenue.  I don’t mean this in a totally cynical way.  The reason the entertainment exists is to entertain and to make money.  The 2019-20 NBA playoffs certainly feel like a different event and will always have a bit of an asterisk to purists but this is the best were are going to get and, as a fan, I’ll take it over watching Michael Jordan games from the 1990s for the thousandth time.

Overarching Issues Looming

Before turning to the chances of each specific team, there are a few larger issues that prevent anyone from really knowing what will happen next.  Let’s run through them:

COVID-19:  It appears that the NBA has mostly gotten the risk of infection under control.  The NBA recently announced that there had been no positive tests since the NBA players checked into the bubble.  Of course, we live in fluid times and it only takes one mistake to change this.  We already have instances of players leaving the bubble accidentally or totally on purpose.   We also have players who have indicated that they may not be totally educated on how transmission works.  In short, the early returns are good but the risks will not stop and there is always a chance that key players could be sidelined unexpectedly with COVID during the playoffs (we, of course, hope no one gets infected or, worse, extremely ill).  Uncertainty abounds on this issue.

Returning to play after a long layoff:  Much has been written about whether, and to what extent, “hot teams” exist.  No matter your stance on the issue, it’s clear than anyone peaking back in March (notably the Raptors) may not have that same mojo four months later.  The interesting question is whether the four-month layoff favors vets or younger players.

The only similar situation we can point to is the NBA’s abrupt return after the long lockout before the 1998-99 season.  The lockout season was slightly different because some of the teams had tons of roster changes in the off-season, whereas today there are no major new signings/trades permitted (with the exception of minor fill-ins).

In reviewing the 1998-99 season, we found a few trends that might be relevant today.  First, good coaching really mattered:

-Chuck Daly took a mediocre Orlando team and led them to a tie for first place in the Atlantic.

-Larry Brown and George Karl quickly turned around previously bad teams in Philly and Milwaukee.

-The only teams that somewhat underperformed their talent were the Shaq/Kobe Lakers (coached by Dell Harris), the Sonics (coached by Paul Westphal, who was done in by Vin Baker), and the Hornets (coached by Dave Cowens). 

We also saw few older players who returned significantly below previous ability and were never quite the same: Patrick Ewing (age-36 and coming off a major wrist injury), Baker and Shawn Kemp (both only 29 but way overweight and with other issues), Scottie Pippen (age-34), Mitch Richmond (age-33). 

The Whacky New Format

You can consult the NBA’s official breakdown for more extensive explanations but, briefly, here is the format for the bubble:

-Each team will play eight “seeding games” which permit teams to move up/down from current seed and allow any teams currently outside the playoffs to make the eight seed in a play-in tourney.  The eight seed could get whacky.  According to the NBA: “If the team with the eighth-best record in its conference is more than four games ahead of the team with the ninth-best record in the same conference, no play-in tournament will be necessary…. But if the team with the eighth-best record in its conference is four games or fewer ahead of the team with the ninth-best record in the same conference, then we’ll have a battle for the final spot between those two teams.”  The play-in game will be best-of-three format.  For reference, the Magic are currently 5.5 games up on the Wiz for the eight seed and the Grizz are 3.5 up on the Blazers.

-Besides the play-in tourney, the rest of the playoffs will be played in the usual format.  The NBA expects the Finals to be complete by mid-October and the 2020-21 season could start on December 1, 2020 (which sounds optimistic).  The only major difference will be that that there will be no live fans or actual home court.  The lack of an actual home court will be interesting and it’s not clear how that will affect results.  For reference, in 2013, Kevin Belhumeur did a study at Bleacher Report on the home court advantage and found that the home teams won much more often in the playoffs but noted that a lot of that can be due to the fact that the better team usually has the higher seed. 

Still, he found that teams hit more shots and turned the ball over less at home as well.  This better play was attributed to two potential factors: referee bias and the psychological impact of playing at home.  In other words, the rush of home fans can subconsciously (or consciously) influence refs.  As for hitting more shots, Belhumeur noted that: “the psychological impact of playing at home is a self-sustaining placebo effect: Home-court advantage gives the home team an edge simply because players believe that it does.”

In 2019, Courtney Williams of Samford University revisited this study and found that home teams had won 75% of Game 7s in the previous ten years.   Most recently, Steve Aschburner at did a deep dive as to how the lack of true home games might affect the playoffs and found that we are in unknown territory.  Summing it all up, the best teams are now probably slightly less likely to win without home court but, in the NBA, the better typically wins anyway.

Handicapping the Teams

Given all the unknowns described above, the odds set for winning the title will end up being quite fluid.   Let’s assess each team’s outlook together with its current odds:

Eastern Conference

Bottom Tier

Washington Wizards, +53333

Orlando Magic, +45000

Brooklyn Nets, +8333

Presumably, the Nets’ better odds reflect the theoretical possibility that Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving could return. In reality, the Nets will be lucky to have 10 players on the roster.  Still, the Nets have a big enough lead on the Wiz (who will be missing Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans) that the Nets should get the eight seed without a play-in series. I see the Magic getting the seven seed and the Nets at eight but both teams should be dispatched quickly in the first round.

Middle Tier

Philadelphia 76ers, +2000

Indiana Pacers, +12000

Miami Heat, +4000

These three teams played essentially even during the year.  Of the three, the Heat have the best SRS by a small margin.  I don’t see any of the teams as a real threat to best teams in the East.  The worst of the three (currently the 76ers) has to pay Boston or Toronto in the first round, while the other two get to play each other (after which the winner will likely be impaled by the Bucks in round two).  The Pacers are not going to have their best player in Victor Oladipo but still have a surprisingly good frontline.  The 76ers have Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons but still lack guards.  Miami has moderate talent but, probably, the best coach of the three and Jimmy Butler.

Top Tier

Milwaukee Bucks, +277

Toronto Raptors, +1767

Boston Celtics, +1367

Ordinarily, Boston and Toronto would be in a death match to get the home court associated with the two seed. Now, it doesn’t really matter.  Instead, they just have to wait for the inevitable round two neutral court brawl, which should be a lot of fun.  The Raps have the slight edge right now but I think Boston will win that series, mostly because Toronto has the key player who is at age of potential decline in Kyle Lowry.

Regardless, whoever wins is not nearly as good as Milwaukee, the class of the conference and the NBA (assuming Giannis stays healthy).  The Bucks SRS was really good last year and this season is even better (the best in the NBA since the 2016-17 Warriors).  Having said all this, here is how the East will likely shake out:

Round One

-Milwaukee over Brooklyn, 4-0

-Toronto over Orlando, 4-1

-Boston over Philadelphia, 4-2

-Miami over Indiana, 4-3

Round Two Predictions

-Milwaukee over Miami, 4-1

-Boston over Toronto, 4-2

Eastern Conference Finals

-Milwaukee over Boston, 4-1

Now let’s dabble in the West….

Western Conference

Bottom Tier

Phoenix Suns, +38333

San Antonio Spurs, +36667

Sacramento Kings, +33333

New Orleans Pelicans, +8000

Portland Trail Blazers, +7333

Memphis Grizzlies, +21667

That’s some fight for eight.  It’s never safe to count anyone out but the Suns, Spurs, and Kings have the worst records of the bunch and it’ll be tough for the them to hurdle over each other to position for that play-in.  That leaves the Pelicans, (the only team in this group with a positive SRS), Portland, and Memphis.  While Memphis has a decent future, it feels like they would have a tough time beating the Blazers or the Pels in a play-in series.  Assuming a healthy Zion Williamson this seems like New Orleans’ opportunity to shine.  Zion is unstoppable and the other pieces from the Laker trade have been playing well too.  The Blazers have the best player of this tier but they have been consistently below average this season.

Middle Tier

Dallas Mavericks, +3333

Houston Rockets, +1233

Oklahoma City Thunder, +8667

Utah Jazz, +5533

Denver Nuggets, +2467

The secret here is that the Mavs have the best SRS, by far, of any teams in this tier, followed by the Rockets.  Yet, Houston and Dallas sit at the six and seven seeds respectively.  The seeding is super important here.  The seven seed will likely draw the Clippers, while the rest of this tier will play each other.  The Rockets are favored by odds makers as best but I see Dallas as undervalued and Denver as way overvalued. 

Top Tier

Los Angeles Lakers, +190

Los Angeles Clippers, +300

This tier is the most fun.  The Lakers rate out as the better team by a small amount but the key here is that LeBron James is 35 and is being asked to reach maximum intensity in a glitchy post-season like we’ve never seen.  The Lakers could very well win it all but I don’t see them as prohibitive favorites.  Here are our Western Conference predictions:

First Round

-L.A. Lakers over New Orleans, 4-2

-L.A. Clippers over Oklahoma City, 4-2

-Houston over Utah, 4-2

-Dallas over Denver, 4-3

Second Round

-L.A. Lakers over Dallas, 4-3

-L.A. Clippers over Houston, 4-2

Western Conference Finals

-L.A. Clippers over L.A. Lakers, 4-2

NBA Finals

-Milwaukee over L.A. Clippers, 4-3