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Which teams are well-positioned heading into the NBA Playoffs?
The NBA playoffs officially start today. The play-in games were earlier this week, and we saw both 7 seeds keep their positions, and both 8 seeds lose at home to the number 9 team. In the east, it was a toss up about who is the better team - Cleveland or Atlanta. Cleveland was in the top 5 of the conference at one point so to not even make the playoffs, including a home play-in loss, is disappointing.
Having said that, Atlanta has the star who shows up in the postseason and was only 1 game behind Cleveland so it wasn’t exactly an upset that they won. In the West, the Clippers have got to be upset. They led by double digits in the second half on the road in Minnesota and choked that away. They then came home, fell down by double digits early, only to take a 4th quarter double digit lead and blew that again. Yes, they didn’t have Paul George who was out with covid for that second game, but they didn’t have Paul George for much of the year so they should have been able to hold on to win that game.
I called out New Orleans back in our December 10th power rankings and said they would have to go 31-24 the rest of the way to have a chance at the play-in. They went 29-26 and won both play-in games and history will remember them as a play-off team. Well done!
At the trade deadline I wrote about how the playoff teams that advanced past the first round of the playoffs fared during the regular season. Here is what I found.
|Playoff Status||Win % vs ≥ 0.500||Win % vs < 0.500||Overall Win %|
|Conference Finals Loser||0.573||0.789||0.677|
|2nd Round Loser||0.587||0.792||0.688|
I’ve broken down the last 8 Finals winners, Finals losers, conference finals losers, and 2nd round losers, and averaged their winning percentage against teams that finished at or above 0.500, below 0.500, and overall win percentage. Let’s see what we can infer from those 3 statistics.
1. Teams that advance beyond the first round of the playoffs win, on average, at least 75.1% of the time against teams under 0.500, or 15 out of every 20 games. NBA Finals winners at a higher rate, more like 17 out of 20 or 86.1% of the time. Over the last 8 years, not counting the crazy results of covid world and the bubble in 2021 and 2020, the most losses to sub 0.500 teams that an NBA Finals champion had in a season was 6.
Now that the season is over, what playoff teams meet this requirement? Only Phoenix had a winning percentage of greater than 86.1% against below .500 teams. Phoenix and Milwaukee are the only teams to have lost 6 or less times to a below .500 team, so they are NBA Finals-winner worthy. Are we heading towards an NBA Finals rematch?
The list of teams that had a winning percentage of greater than 75.1% is pretty long: Miami, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn in the east (also Charlotte(!)) and Memphis, Golden State, and Denver in the west. That’s 4 teams in each conference. History says those could be the first round series winners this year (editor's note: although Golden State and Denver play each other, so one of them will have to lose. Our model likes Denver to win that series).
2. Teams that advance beyond the first round of the playoffs have a win percentage of 67.7% overall, so about 55 games over the course of a normal 82 game season. This is a year where the historical averages will drop. Only Phoenix and Memphis finished with an overall winning percentage of 67.7% or greater.
3. Teams that advance beyond the first round of the playoffs beat teams with a winning percentage of 0.500 or greater at least 57.3% percent of the time. The NBA playoff format is a 7 game series, so you can win 4 and lose 3 and still advance. The winning percentage of a team that wins 4 and loses 3 is 57.1%. So teams that go deep in the playoffs, winning at least 57.1% of the time in May and June, historically win at least that amount of the time in the regular season against good teams. This year, again, only 2 teams finished with a winning percentage of greater than 57.3% - Phoenix and Memphis. So if Phoenix and Memphis just play average, they’ll advance to the conference finals where one of them will have to lose. Miami and Boston both only missed the mark by a fraction of a game, so they should be pretty confident. Every other team will have to play above their season average just to win a playoff series!
Having said all this, it’s worth pointing out every year we see a team catch fire and exceed the expectations their numbers would place on them. For example:
Last year, Atlanta only went 15-21 against above 0.500 teams in the regular season, but somehow went 8-4 to get to the conference finals. Even though they lost they still finished with a playoff win-loss record of 10-8.
The year before that in the bubble, Boston only won half of their games against above 0.500 teams but made it to the conference finals, going 10-7 in the playoffs.
In 2018, Cleveland only went 22-23 against above 0.500 teams in the regular season, but LeBron flipped a switch and went 12-6 before getting swept in the Finals.
Here is the breakdown of each team. Highlighted cells that are green meet the criteria mentioned above. Red cells fall far below the criteria. Yellow cells are somewhere in between.
|Seed||Team||Win % vs ≥ 0.500||Win % vs < 0.500||Overall Win %|
|Seed||Team||Win % vs ≥ 0.500||Win % vs < 0.500||Overall Win %|
As you can see, Phoenix and Memphis are the only teams to meet the criteria in all 3 areas and therefore should feel pretty confident heading into the playoffs.
The Boston vs Brooklyn series will be a good test of the data. Boston won 57.1%, equivalent to winning 4 times in 7 games against a quality opponent. Brooklyn only won 38.8% of the time. Obviously Brooklyn’s data comes with an asterisk because, until just a few weeks ago, half of their games were played without Kyrie Irving. That will be a fun one for sure.
Phoenix got the best first round draw of everyone, but they are definitely deserving of that being clearly the best team in the league this year. New Orleans is the only below .500 team to make the playoffs. This series should be short, 5 games or less.
Utah vs Dallas will be interesting because they both are in the yellow category for all 3 metrics. One bad break (Doncic injury) could be enough to swing the series because both of them were going to have to play above average just to win the series. Dallas is up against it with their injury.
Milwaukee, though they do meet the criteria in one category to be a potential Finals winner, lost more games than they won against above .500 teams. Obviously that can’t continue if they want to defend their championship.
n the Phoenix area, one of the local radio hosts is a former NFL player, Ron Wolfy. Whenever he is asked for a prediction he says he hates it because it’s an affront to the athletic process. Just like the stock market, prior performance does not guarantee future results. If this last March Madness tournament taught us anything, it’s that rankings and historical data can’t predict the future (editor's note: but we will try!). Here comes the best 2 months of NBA basketball. May the best team win.back to blog