Saturday, April 19, 2014

2014 Playoff Preview: Round 1, Part 1

As the internet is flooded with previews for the playoffs, I thought I'd keep my predictions concise and include whatever information I found to be unique.


Indiana Pacers (1) versus the Atlanta Hawks (8)
-While much has been written about team chemistry during their second-half implosion, CJ Watson was injured for most of the last third of the season, and the results were pretty drastic: before 3/5/14, they had a point differential of +7.7 as the best in the league, and after that -4.7, which includes four games he played in where they won three. At the beginning of the season I highlighted how a competent backup point guard would help their woeful bench, and it's proven true here, as without him the offense falls apart when they go to the reserves. They also need his outside shooting.
-The Evan Turner trade was a couple weeks before that, but they faced a weak schedule before losing Watson and had single digit wins against teams like Boston. The stat geeks were derided for not believing in Turner's potential, with all that silly talk about pace inflating stats and inefficient shooting. But we've seen who's been more accurate long-term.
-Remember, Indiana did beat OKC recently (and yes, CJ Watson played.)
-Despite Indiana's strength and Atlanta's lukewarm season, this is a poor matchup for the Pacers. Every major rotation player besides Elton Brand can shoot a three, and they'll force Hibbert out to the perimeter where he's not quick enough to contain pick and roll's and step-back three's -- or simply not used to it.
-The Hawks were treading water above 0.500 for a while, but Millsap's injury was too much to handle, as losing Horford for the season destroyed their effective depth. With Millsap, it's a good team.
-This is a test of faith of sorts for NBA fans -- do you believe in full season results or momentum? Who are the Pacers now? If these Pacers are what their numbers suggest over a full season, they should have few problems extinguishing the Hawks; however, if they have truly slipped this could be a hard-fought battle with an opponent who will put their big men into uncomfortable positions on defense.

Prediction: Indiana in five games.

Toronto Raptors (3) versus the Brooklyn Nets (6)
-After the Rudy Gay trade, the Raptors have been a +4.4 team, fifth in the league.
-Once Kirilenko came back from injury, the Nets were +1.4 in point differential the rest of the season, much better than their total season results. However, during the same time span the Raptors, naturally, were significantly better.
-Note that Brook Lopez went down for the season just a few days before Kirilenko came back. Once he was removed from the team and the Nets had more versatile weapons, their odd lineups with all 6' 7" guys plus a center were very effective. It's also more evidence that center scoring is overrated, at least when the center is not a good passer/distributor.
-Toronto has been a deceptively strong team with only one all-star, especially since that all-star is probably only the third best player on the team after Lowry and Amir Johnson.
-Most full season team ranking systems are harsh on the Nets due to their early struggles and their incessant resting, including that last game of the season where Jason Collins played 23% of his total season minutes.
-Weighing by projected starter minutes and ESPN's real plus/minus, the Nets are actually a stronger team, but this all depends on how much they'll use their lowly rated young guys, Plumlee and Teletovic.
-An injury to a key Brooklyn player is not a remote possibility.
-You have to really distort the numbers to make Brooklyn look significantly better. If it's close, Toronto's homecourt advantage is the trump card.

Prediction: Toronto in seven games.


Oklahoma City Thunder (2) versus the Memphis Grizzlies (7)
-Along with the Clippers, I found that OKC played a lot better as its competition increased.
-An ESPN video had some new metric about "synergy" that found Durant and Westbrook had negative synergy, which runs counters to previous two-man teams with titles like LeBron-Wade and Kobe-Pau. I'm not exactly sure what this metric is, but it's probably close to going to the player pair plus/minus page here and comparing a pair to what the team's overall plus/minus is. For example, Durant/Westbrook rated a +7 there, which is nearly identical to the team's adjusted rating on basketball-reference. LeBron/Wade were a +7 too (though LeBron/Bosh were +9), but the team's adjusted overall rating was only +4.7, suggesting a positive "synergy."
-After Marc Gasol came back, the team posted a +3.5 point differential. This is a pretty scary 7-seed.
-The Grizzlies will swarm Durant well, but I don't expect it will be effective during these playoffs with Westbrook back to draw attention and help set up their role players, and with a better Durant.
-Prince is going to see major minutes, and in theory his length is useful against Durant ... but he's long in the tooth and hurts their already anemic offense. This is a team that needs a major punch in its offensive attack.

Prediction: Oklahoma City in five games.

Los Angeles Clippers (3) versus the Golden State Warriors (6)
-Bogut going down with an injury reduces their chances, but if they play Draymond Green heavy minutes they can still be an effective team.
-The Warriors, in fact, are an elite team if they don't let the bench get in the way, as Marreese Speights and Harrison Barnes are two of the worst rotation pieces for good playoff teams. Fortunately, they have Steve Blake to replace Jordan Crawford and, before him, the general void of not having a real backup point guard.
-Mark Jackson's strange insistence on playing bench units separately and not staggering key ball-handlers Curry and Iguodala, or even David Lee, limited their firepower in the regular season, but in the playoffs this is less of an issue. They could be better in the playoffs.
-Chris Paul is a fantastic playoff player and deserves a better reputation.
-Going back to the synergy metric, Paul/Griffin were +11 versus a +7.3 rating, for what it's worth.
-With Redick back and Glen Davis replacing some of the awful big man bench minutes, the Clippers are fully rounded and are much better than most think.
-Using my new variable team strength metric, I found the Clippers rated best in the entire league versus playoff quality competition. Meaning, their regular season point differential underrated how good they were against better opponents (or, conversely, how much they let off the throttle versus inferior competition.)
-With Bogut out, Jermaine O'Neal and Draymond Green are the best options for Griffin. But O'Neal is old and will probably get in foul trouble, and Green is too small -- Griffin underwhelms against bigger defenders. Griffin may destroy poor David Lee.

Prediction: Los Angeles in five games.

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