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Previewing the 2006 Playoffs

NBA Statistical Analyst Kevin Pelton

by Kevin Pelton, 4/21/06


We find ourselves on the eve of what promises to be a most interesting NBA Playoffs. As teams move into "Win or Go Home" mode, the NBA's flawed playoff seeding system has produced what should be some fascinating Semifinals series if all holds to form, though at the expense of giving a fair shake to teams like Dallas and Memphis.

To try to do something unique with my Playoffs preview, I've taken a look at all 16 teams from the perspective of similar teams. Team similarity (and player similarity, for that matter) is still very much a work in progress. My method for the time being is to use how much a team's Offensive and Defensive Ratings are above or below league average to compare them to other teams, squaring the difference at both ends of the floor with the team in question.

I've listed each team's Offensive and Defensive Ratings relative to league average, as well as their most similar team and its playoff performance and the percentage of the 20 most similar teams who have made the NBA Finals and won it all. There are many issues with this method, some of which I'll discuss, but we'll see come June whether it has any predictive value.

1. San Antonio Spurs (63-19)

Off/Def: +1.9 / + 6.8
Most Similar: 1998-99 San Antonio (won Finals)
Finals Appearance: 30%
Championship: 25%

One of the problems with this method is that teams with a distinct style -- the Spurs most definitely qualify -- end up being compared to past incarnations. In this case, the 98-99 Spurs are followed by last year's model, while the 1999-00 Spurs (who actually lost in the First Round, due in large part to an injury to Tim Duncan) come up fourth. You can quickly deduce that similar teams went 5-1 in the Finals, an impressive mark.

2. Phoenix Suns (54-28)

Off/Def: +6.2 / + 0.5
Most Similar: 1991-92 Cleveland (lost Eastern Conference Finals)
Finals Appearance: 40%
Championship: 10%

Teams like the Suns were more successful in the playoffs than you might guess -- at least until they got to the Finals. Only two of the similar teams come from the 2000s, though both -- 1999-00 Indiana and 2000-01 Milwaukee -- did well in the playoffs. The bigger caveat is this doesn't reflect how much the Suns have struggled, particularly on defense, in the last two months.

3. Denver Nuggets (44-38)

Off/Def: -0.6 / +1.4
Most Similar: 1989-90 Cleveland (lost First Round)
Finals Appearance: 0%
Championship: 0%

Ah, the wonders of the current NBA playoff format. A few comparable teams won in the First Round, but that's about as much damage as they did. Three of the top 20 comparables failed to even make the playoffs.

4. Dallas Mavericks (60-22)

Off/Def: +5.5 / +1.5
Most Similar: 1986-87 Boston (lost Finals)
Finals Appearance: 45%
Championship: 20%

Not nearly as defensive-minded as most people tend to believe, the Mavericks join Phoenix in taking full advantage of the success enjoyed by Boston and the Lakers in the 1980s, scoring the highest rating in the West in terms of comparable teams that advanced to the NBA Finals.

5. Memphis Grizzlies (49-33)

Off/Def: -0.5 / +4.4
Most Similar: 1990-91 Houston (lost First Round)
Finals Appearance: 15%
Championship: 0%

A very fitting comparison indeed. The 1990-91 Rockets had a fine season, winning 52 games, but that proved two too few. Houston was doomed to the sixth seed, forced to match up against the 58-24 Lakers (who had finished second in the Pacific Division to Portland, leaving them the third seed). The Lakers, en route to a Finals appearance, swept Houston 3-0. Memphis has the right formula for some playoff success, but not the right matchup.

6. Los Angeles Clippers (47-35)

Off/Def: -0.5 / +2.9
Most Similar: 1983-84 Philadelphia (lost First Round)
Finals Appearance: 0%
Championship: 0%

While the Clippers don't have a great point differential, I'm a little surprised their comparables haven't performed better in the postseason.

7. Los Angeles Lakers (45-37)

Off/Def: +2.1 / +.8
Most Similar: 2003-04 Memphis (lost First Round)
Finals Appearance: 5%
Championship: 5%

Should you read anything into the fact that the 1994-95 Houston Rockets appear in the Lakers' comparables? Nah. Comparable teams to the Lakers haven't as a whole experienced much more success than would be expected from their record and seed. We haven't accounted for Kobe Bryant, however.

8. Sacramento Kings (44-38)

Off/Def: +0.5 / +1.2
Most Similar: 1992-93 Orlando (no Playoffs)
Finals Appearance: 0%
Championship: 0%

The Kings get a handful of comparable teams that just missed the playoffs, including the extremely similar 1992-93 Magic. I hadn't realized that Orlando was unlucky to miss the playoffs (the Magic should have gone 45-37 based on point differential, which would have made them the fifth seed in a crowded East). I think it worked out for them when they won the Draft Lottery.

And now, to the East ...

1. Detroit Pistons (64-18)

Off/Def: +4.5 / +3.4
Most Similar: 1986-87 Atlanta (lost Semifinals)
Finals Appearance: 25%
Championship: 20%

I don't know whether to read anything into it, but the Pistons list of comparables reads like a Who's Who of teams that should have done more in the postseason. That starts with their top team, the 86-87 Hawks, who won 57 games in their best year of the Dominique Wilkins era but were dropped 4-1 in the semis by the 52-win Pistons. Both the 1999-00 Blazers and 2001-02 Kings suffered heartbreaking losses to the Lakers in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, while the 1994-95 Spurs were also upset in the WCFs.

2. Miami Heat (52-30)

Off/Def: +3.1 / +1.8
Most Similar: 1978-79 San Antonio (lost Eastern Conference Finals)
Finals Appearance: 25%
Championship: 5%

A pretty solid group in terms of making the Finals, but not in terms of winning once there.

3. New Jersey Nets (49-33)

Off/Def: -2.0 / +3.8
Most Similar: 2003-04 Houston (lost First Round)
Finals Appearance: 10%
Championship: 5%

The Nets are actually the second-worst offensive team in the playoffs, beating out only the Chicago Bulls. The two comparable teams to make the Finals came in back-to-back seasons by the same franchise -- the 1977-78 and 1978-79 Seattle SuperSonics.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers (50-32)

Off/Def: +1.8 / +0.8
Most Similar: 2002-03 Utah (lost First Round)
Finals Appearance: 5%
Championship: 5%

Other than another appearance by the 1994-95 Rockets, not a lot of postseason success here.

5. Washington Wizards (42-40)

Off/Def: +2.7 / -1.3
Most Similar: 1997-98 New Jersey (lost First Round)
Finals Appearance: 5%
Championship: 0%

The Wizards show a mild similarity to the 1985-86 Houston Rockets, one of the weaker Finals teams in NBA history. The 1984-85 Denver Nuggets also advanced to the Western Conference Finals, though they did it by beating a pair of 41-win teams as a second seed. The potential path is considerably more difficult for the Wizards.

6. Indiana Pacers (41-41)

Off/Def: -1.9 / +3.7
Most Similar: 2003-04 Houston (lost First Round)
Finals Appearance: 10%
Championship: 5%

From this perspective, the Pacers are virtually identical to the Nets, so this could be a very interesting (if not necessarily exciting, given the defensive mentalities) First Round series. Indiana is the team in the playoffs most underrated by its record; the Pacers Pythagorean record is 47-35, while New Jersey's is 45-37.

7. Chicago Bulls (41-41)

Off/Def: -2.3 / +3.3
Most Similar: 1977-78 Seattle (lost NBA Finals)
Finals Appearance: 5%
Championship: 0%

Hmm ... Strong finish to season after slow start? Check. Relatively open conference? Check. Injury to MVP-caliber center on opposing team? Can't rule it out. Okay, the Sonics comparison is a longshot; that team went 42-18 after starting the season 5-17 and replacing Bob Hopkins with Lenny Wilkens, and completely made over the lineup. But Chicago's recent performance (six straight wins and nine in the last 10 games) has been good enough to potentially make things interesting.

8. Milwaukee Bucks (40-42)

Off/Def: -0.1 / -1.7
Most Similar: 2001-02 Washington (no Playoffs)
Finals Appearance: 0%
Championship: 0%

Stunningly, just one of the Bucks' 20 most comparable teams even made the postseason. Thanks for stopping by, Milwaukee, your Gone Fishin' clothes will be handed to you on your way out.

Playoff Picks

West Round 1:
San Antonio over Sacramento in 6
Phoenix over L.A. Lakers in 7
L.A. Clippers over Denver in 5
Dallas over Memphis in 5

East Round 1:
Detroit over Milwaukee in 4
Miami over Chicago in 7
Indiana over New Jersey in 6
Cleveland over Washington in 5

West Semifinals:
San Antonio over Dallas in 7
Phoenix over L.A. Clippers in 6

East Semifinals:
Detroit over Cleveland in 7
Miami over Indiana in 5

Western Conference Finals:
San Antonio over Phoenix in 5

Eastern Conference Finals:
Miami over Detroit in 6

NBA Finals:
San Antonio over Miami in 5

Mailing List

Back in the old Hoopsworld days, I had a mailing list that notified readers when my columns were posted. Now that I'm writing several different places, it seems appropriate to bring it back. If you'd like to join, please e-mail me at kpelton@hoopsworld.com.

Kevin Pelton formerly wrote the "Page 23" column for Hoopsworld.com. He provides original content for both SUPERSONICS.COM and storm.wnba.com, where you can find more of his analysis of both the NBA and the WNBA. He can be reached at kpelton@hoopsworld.com.

Also see Kevin's previous columns for 82games.com:
The Year in Stats
Why I'm an APBRmetrician
Wanted: Open Minds
Investigating Dwyane Wade's Injury Risk
The Similarity of Eddy Curry and Mike Sweetney
Rating the Rookies: Projected Fantasy Stats
Valuing the Preseason
Every Play Counts: Kobe Bryant
Comparing the 50 Greatest
Every Play Counts: The Phoenix Pick-and-Roll
Every Play Counts: Antonio Daniels
Every Play Counts: Detroit-San Antonio
The Value of Kobe Bryant
Every Play Counts: The Phoenix Suns D
The Value of Steve Nash
The Curious Case of Darko Milicic
The 2005-06 Every Play Counts All-Defensive Teams


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