Tuesday, June 12, 2012

2012 Finals: Thunder v Heat

A battle of two superpowers that could dominate the landscape over the next few years. The Thunder's core of their four best players are only 22.5 years-old on average, while the Heat players are just barely on the older side of the prime age for NBA players. The Heat want to be the next dynasty, but the Thunder are in an arguably better position, especially with their superior front office. The best match-up, however, is Durant versus LeBron, as the finals have rarely seen a duel between guys who went 1-2 on the MVP ballot who play the same position. Jordan-Drexler in '92 was the last time, and Wilt-Thurmond in '67 was the only other instance I could find. Drexler was slated to be Jordan's rival, but after the '92 thrashing Jordan let everyone know he had no peers. Durant-LeBron, given the importance of LeBron winning his first title and Durant's role in trying to usurp him as the best player, and how they're both poised to challenge the all-time scoring record, could end up being one of the greatest finals match-ups in history.

On the surface the match-up would appear to heavily favor the Thunder, who got through dispatching last year's champions the Mavericks, the Lakers and their embarrassment of titles since they drafted Kobe, and top-seeded Spurs who had been decimating the competition. The Heat, meanwhile, needed seven games to oust the injury-riddled and old Celtics and had similar problems against the Celtics. Look more closely, however, and the advantages pile up for the Heat.

The most obvious advantage is that Bosh is finally healthy. Some people may want to discredit the Heat for making it to the finals after Howard, Rose, and others went down with injuries, but they suffered through an injury to their all-star power forward. On a team with no depth, especially in the frontcourt, this was troublesome against the Pacers and Hibbert and the Celtics and Garnett. His box score stats may have declined, but his impact on the court is undeniable: the Heat are simply light-years better when he plays if you look at the record of their games when he's on the court, simple +/-, lineup combinations, and adjusted +/-. He's a tall power forward with long arms, a good jump shot, an ability to get to the rim and finish or draw fouls, and good defense thanks for his quick feet and size.

Depth may have plagued the Heat at times this year, but when their key players are healthy they're hard to stop.  In the playoffs the elite players log more minutes and less are given to the driftwood found at the end of the bench. That means more LeBron and Wade and less Juwan Howard and James Jones. I know this is mentioned a lot by people like John Hollinger, but it's important enough that I have to reiterate its power. Many of the stat-inclined build models that use regular season numbers without any adjustment for greater playing time of the team's stars. Tiny differences can mean the difference between a champion and a team coming away with a handful of nothing.

Weaknesses of each respective team also align in Miami's favor. Miami has problems against big centers as Joel Anthony is quick on his feet but a little small and no one off the bench is any bigger. Having Bosh back in the rotation will help, but he's not the answer to huge centers like Andrew Bynum. Oklahoma City, of course, has no such threat, and even with an amazing offense have few threats in their frontcourt other than an Ibaka 15-footer (feel the earth tremble out of fear from a midrange jumper) Perkins, for instance, is a great counter against low-post brutes, but he's of little use against the Heat. Of course, he'll remain in the starting lineup and rack up major minutes, and Miami is fine with that.

The Thunder have a devastating offense, but their weakness is turnovers. Against a team that can force turnovers and wreck havoc in transition this is a problem. Westbrook gets flak for his tendency to ballhog, but he also rightfully is criticized for his turnovers. Durant has pushed himself into the upper-crust of NBA players, but passing and controlling turnovers is nearly the only area on offense he hasn't conquered. The Thunder were surprisingly last in the league in turnovers, yet they were ranked second in offense. (Spurs were third in turnovers and led the league in offensive efficiency, so go figure.) Using an isolation-heavy attack, they can score on almost anyone one-on-one but can struggle keeping the ball on their side of the court. The Heat were tied for first in turnovers forced per game during the regular season at 15.1, and with Wade and James running in transition it could lead to a lot of easy baskets

But are the Heat better? Is it even close? The Thunder finished 49-17, one better than Miami's 48-18. Point differential was also nearly a wash: +7.1 for OKC and +7.2 for MIA. The Thunder were again second in the league in offensive efficiency at 107.1, but ninth in defense at 100.0 (points allowed per 100 possessions, roughly a whole game.) Miami was sixth in offense with 104.3, but have a superior defense clocking in at fourth with 97.1. However, given the Thunder's home-court advantage, one would think it'd be a close series with the Thunder barely squeaking by, ignoring the aforementioned advantages Miami has. Namely, there is one advantage I'd like to dig into: a top-heavy rotation versus a superior bench. Miami has the better big three, but after that it's all Oklahoma City

Looking closer into the numbers, Miami's advantages are definitely at the top three. For +/- and the adjusted varieties, it's a significant difference. In measuring the effect of that difference I calculated an expected point differential based on how many minutes you get from each player and looking at a couple different lineup scenarios. In each one, and this counts the regularized +/- and basketballvalue's one and two year flavors, Miami had a sizable lead, and this was even with minimizing Derek Fisher's minutes as much as possible.

Here's one example: Miami +2.24, OKC +1.79. Since that's the regularized version, the numbers skew closer to 0 than they would in reality. The minutes I used are close to what players have logged in the playoffs so far with more given to the best players on each side. LeBron and Durant at 43 minutes each, for examples, and I have Bosh at a conservative 33 minutes per game, but that's a complete stab in the dark. I will caution that playing around with numbers in that fashion can lead to results that are decided before you punch in the last numbers, but from an objective standpoint it's hard to argue that the series isn't at the very least even.

As a last point, throw out the numbers and all that damned logic and look at what sports writers look at: the story. LeBron is looking for redemption after a failure in Cleveland from his Herculean efforts, and last year after he teamed up with all-stars as a sort of mercenary group of young stars looking for titles. After winning a third MVP trophy, he's at the prime age for an NBA player at 27 and the history books make so much more sense if he won it this year, so we wouldn't have to add footnotes to his legacy like, "First guy to win three MVPs without a title in the third MVP year.) Having such a dominant player without a title is strange in a star-driven, uneven league where a handful of stars own most of the titles. The Thunder are America's team of likable talent, but the Heat are, as any sports writer would say, grizzled veterans who have everything to lose.

Besides, doesn't Derek Fisher have enough rings?

Prediction: Heat in seven games.
Random prediction: Durant and LeBron combine to average 80-22 in the first three games.

1 comment:

  1. marklipson@rogers.comJune 26, 2012 at 9:54 AM

    Hi Justin,

    Just a quick tip of my cap and thanks for your intelligent analysis and articulate, insightful commentary. Pretty sure this is the best stuff I've read since I first picked up Bill James' Abstracts ('87 or '88). I'm going to make it a point to get back here as often as possible.