Playoff Quick Thoughts

We made it through the seeding round and now we have actual playoffs!  The playoffs, like everything else in the Bubble, will feel slightly unsatisfying but still much, much better than nothing.  The playoff predictions we made pre-Bubble (Bucks over Clippers) still hold in my mind.  Instead of running through the predictions again, thought we could dig through some quick observations that were on my mind…

-Dallas’ O:  Yes, Dallas had the best offensive rating off All-Time this year.  The defense was a more pedestrian 18th in the NBA (which was the same ranking as Dallas had last year).  The Mavs haven’t had an above-average defense since 2011-12 and haven’t been top ten since their title season of 2010-11. 

The Mavs seemingly have come full circle to the Don Nelson Years, when they were thought of as an offense-only squad.  How true was the perception?  Here are Nellie Mavs rankings from his peak years in Dallas (we’ll skip his 1990s rebuild seasons):

2000-01:  4th in Offense, 13th in Defense

2001-02:  1st in Offense, 25th in Defense

2002-03:  1st in Offense, 9th in Defense

2003-04:  1st in Offense, 26th in Defense

2004-05: 4th in Offense, 9th in Defense

Like any Nellie squad, things were weird.  The 2001-02 and 2003-04 Mavs had top offenses but even worse defenses than the current Mavs.  They alternated those horrible defense years with some pretty solid seasons.  How did Nellie do this? The variance seemed to come from the hodge podge of role players, who were sometimes good defensively (other times, not so much).  Rick Carlisle will clearly have to fix the defense next season if they want to get to the next level.

This is the second straight year that the NBA has set a new offensive rating record.  Last year’s Warriors narrowly edged out the 1986-87 Lakers (the 2018-19 Rockets were a fraction away as well).  The Mavs are unique because most top offensive teams were legitimate contenders for a title.  Of the top offenses since 1979-80, all of them before this year’s Mavs have made, at least the Conference Finals.   The best offensive team not to win a playoff series (so far) was the 1986-87 Mavs (which was ironically pre-Nellie).  That Mavs team is currently the 12th best of All-Time and was built around Rolando Blackman, Mark Aguirre, and Derek Harper (and even got moderately positive contributions from James Donaldson).  They were knocked out in the first round by the Sonics.

Finally, a less well-known fact from this year is that the 2019-20 Bucks were almost as good defensively as the Mavs were offensively.  Milwaukee’s D placed fifth among defenses in the since the three-pointer was enacted in 1979-80.  In some ways, this accomplishment is more impressive than the Mavs’ offensive record.  NBA teams are constantly pushing the record of offensive efficiency and it has been years since a defense pushed the leader board.

-Philly Futility:  I knew that the Celtics have historically gotten the best of the 76ers but did you know that the 76ers have not beaten the Celts in a playoff series since 1981-82?  And they’ve met quite a few times since then.  Here’s the breakdown of Boston v. Philly in the playoffs, working backwards to the last time Philly actually beat Boston:

2017-18, Boston wins 4-1 in the Second Round:  Brad Stevens’ crew handled Philly fairly easily in the second round, 4-1.  Al Horford hit a couple of big shots to end the series early.  Boston had won more games but Philly had a higher SRS and Joel Embiid.  It was a fairly surprising outcome (to me) that Boston won so easily.

2011-12, Boston wins 4-3 in the Second Round:  The perception was that Boston, which still had its title core together (Pierce, Garnett, Rondo, and Ray Allen), was a clear favorite.  Philly was only 35-31 and had upset Chicago because of Derrick Rose’s untimely injury.  Again, however, Philly was actually a little better on paper (3.59 SRS versus 2.26 SRS for Boston).   Philly had a ton of good players (Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young, Lou Williams, Elton Brand).  The decisive factor was that Boston had Game 7 at home.

2001-02, Boston wins 3-2 in the First Round:  The year after Allen Iverson and Larry Brown went to the Finals, they struggled as a barely .500 team.  They met the Pierce-Antoine Walker Celtics, who bombed threes and were surprisingly good (49-33).  The three-point strategy worked.  Antoine and Pierce shot 40-83 from three for the series and they used Rodney Rogers as a proto-stretch five, who shot threes and helped neutralize Dikembe Mutombo’s defense.  The series was relatively close until Game 5 in Boston, where the Celts smoked them 120-87 (and Pierce dropped 46 on 8-10 from three).

1984-85, Boston wins 4-1 in the Conference Finals:  Charles Barkley was a rookie and Julius Erving and Moses Malone were in decline.  The Sixers went 58-24 but Boston was close to its peak with Larry Bird (Boson went 63-19, 6.46 SRS).   Boston went up 3-0 and dominated most of the series.  Dr. J (.324%) and Moses (.405%) really struggled from the field.  Philly would end botching the rebuild and Barkley never got to play the Bird Celtics in the playoffs again.

1981-82, Philadelphia wins 4-3 in the Conference Finals:  The Celtics had more wins but Philly famously won Game 7 in Boston.  Andrew Toney dropped 34 points on the Celtics and Bird (7-18) and Parish (8-21) shot poorly.  Philly would go on to lose to Magic’s Lakers in the Finals.

Given the injuries and the fact that Philly has no guards, it does not appear that they will break the Celtics’ streak this year. 

-The Best Passing Big:  There is a lot of talk now that Nikola Jokic might be the best passing center ever.  The answer to this question depends on your definition of “passer.”  There are those that like Bill Walton’s peak passing or those who note that Wilt Chamberlain led the NBA in assists.  Let’s take a look at the top passing seasons by centers by a few metrics:

Total Assists

1. Wilt Chamberlain, 1967-68, 702

2. Wilt Chamberlain, 1966-67, 630

3. Nikola Jokic, 2018-19, 580

4. Nikola Jokic, 2019-20, 512

5. Bill Russell, 1966-67, 472

Assists Per Game

1. Wilt Chamberlain, 1967-68, 8.6

2. Wilt Chamberlain, 1966-67, 7.8

3. Nikola Jokic, 2018-19, 7.3

4. Nikola Jokic, 2019-20, 7.0

5. Nikola Jokic, 2017-18, 6.1

Assist Percentage (excludes pre-1973-74 seasons)

1. Nikola Jokic, 2018-19, 37.0

2. Nikola Jokic, 2017-18, 35.2

3. Nikola Jokic, 2017-18, 29.6

4. Nikola Jokic, 2016-17, 28.8

5.  Vlade Divac, 2003-04, 28.7

The numbers are fairly compelling.  Other than Wilt’s two freaky seasons for Philly, Jokic is the best passing center ever.  It also seems fair to conclude that Wilt’s anomalous passing seasons were not quite as organic as Jokic’s super-consistent passing since coming to the NBA.  So, yes, Jokic is the best passing center ever.  It is possible that Walton or Unseld threw better outlet passes but Jokic is the total package and has already been a better passer for more sustained period than Wilt.