TV analysts talk all the time about formulas for success, but usually in an entirely subjective fashion. The notion is an interesting one, especially entering the postseason. Are there tested styles that produce playoff results? To try to answer that question, I have for the past three years used history to look for the teams most similar to each playoff entrant. Last year, the method pegged Boston over the Lakers in the Finals, though it offered less-convincing results earlier in the playoffs.
This year's version compares the 16 playoff squads to the most similar playoff teams of the last 13 years (from the 1996 through 2008 postseasons) based on their Offensive and Defensive Ratings and pace of play (half weighted), all adjusted for league average.
Each of the past teams has had their playoff performance rated, getting a point for each playoff win, losing a point for each loss and getting four points for making the playoffs (three prior to 2003, when the first round was extended to seven games) and four points for winning a series.
For each current team, I've listed the average playoff score of the 10 most comparable teams from the past, as well as the number of those 10 teams who advanced to the NBA Finals and won the Championship. Lastly, I've listed each team's best comparable from the last 13 years.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
Average Score: 13.6
Best comp: 2001 San Antonio Spurs (lost Western Conference Finals)
Though the Cavaliers have the league's best record and point differential, their group of 10 most similar teams isn't quite as strong as you would expect. Just two of the 10 reached the NBA Finals, though both (the 2007 Spurs and the 2000 Lakers) won the championship. Naturally, with Danny Ferry as GM and Mike Brown as head coach, Cleveland has built a team in the mold of the San Antonio team for whom both worked earlier this decade. Five of the Cavs' ten closest matches are Spurs squads.
2. Boston Celtics
Average Score: 20.2
Best comp: 1998 Chicago Bulls (won championship)
Stunningly, this year's wounded Celtics group actually comes out better by this method than did last year's championship team (which had an average score of 18.2 and five champions). You might guess the reason is that Boston is similar to last year's incarnation, but because that Celtics squad was more potent on the defensive end, it's not among this one's ten best comps. As last year, Boston shows up as similar to all four San Antonio championship teams (and seven total Spurs entrants) as well as the '98 Bulls and the 2000 Lakers. Alas, all of this analysis relies on Boston having Kevin Garnett in the lineup, and it doesn't appear that will be the case.
3. Orlando Magic
Average Score: 15.1
Best comp: 1999 San Antonio Spurs (won championship)
Take note, those who believe the Magic's formula isn't championship-caliber. Orlando's group of most similar teams was more successful than those similar to Cleveland, and includes twice as many champions. While this method doesn't drill down into Four Factors skills like the Magic's reliance on three-pointers and poor offensive rebounding, Orlando's combination of strong defense and an above-average offense has been potent in the past. That's no guarantee of success, but it is reason to not write off the Magic.
4. Atlanta Hawks
Average Score: 3.0
Best comp: 2003 Utah Jazz (lost first round)
The Hawks' combination of above-average offense and above-average defense seems like it should be successful in the postseason, but in practice similar teams have struggled. Just three of the 10 most comparable teams won a playoff series. Atlanta does have the luxury of home-court advantage, which many of the other teams did not. Even given that, similar teams tended to perform worse than expected.
5. Miami Heat
Average Score: 3.7
Best comp: 2007 New Jersey Nets (lost semifinals)
The Heat's group of comparable teams was slightly better than that of the Hawks, with four of the 10 reaching the conference semifinals. Another important difference was how competitive those teams were once they got there--last year's Cavaliers squad took Boston to seven games and both the 2007 Nets and the 2004 Heat were competitive as underdogs.
6. Philadelphia 76ers
Average Score: 3.8
Best comp: 2001 Indiana Pacers (lost first round)
Miami and Philadelphia were very similar in terms of their statistical profile this season, so their lists of similar teams are generally the same, only ordered differently.
7. Chicago Bulls
Average Score: 1.5
Best comp: 2004 Boston Celtics (lost first round)
The list of comparable teams would improve somewhat if the analysis used Chicago's performance since the trade deadline. As is, just one of the ten teams most similar to the Bulls advanced past the first round--and that team (the 2005 Washington Wizards)--was summarily swept out of the postseason. Only one of the other teams (the 2002 Nets) even forced a deciding game. Chicago will hope to take advantage of Garnett's absence to be more successful.
8. Detroit Pistons
Average Score: 3.1
Best comp: 2005 Indiana Pacers (lost semifinals)
Teams similar to the Pistons have tended to overachieve in the postseason, with their three best comps all advancing and two of them pulling upsets. The similarity was relatively low because Detroit plays at an extremely slow pace (29th in the NBA), and teams like that who make the playoffs tend to be much more successful overall.
1. L.A. Lakers
Average Score: 11.3
Best comp: 2002 L.A. Lakers (won championship)
Consider the Lakers the opposite of the Celtics in this measure. Despite winning more games than they did in 2007-08, this year's Lakers squad has a slightly worse set of comparable teams, owing to a less-potent offense. The two previous finalists in the top ten were both Lakers teams--the 2002 squad that completed the three-peat and last year's group. Just three of the ten teams reached the conference finals, with the vast majority falling in the second round.
2. Denver Nuggets
Average Score: 7.8
Best comp: 2004 L.A. Lakers (lost NBA Finals)
The Nuggets combine balance at both ends with a fast pace, a style that has proven all or nothing in the past. The most similar team to them reached the Finals and another (the 2006 Miami Heat) went all the way. However, half the comparable teams lost in the opening round, two of them in sweeps. Given Denver's half of the bracket, neither losing in the first round nor reaching the conference finals should be a huge surprise.
3. San Antonio Spurs
Average Score: 4.8
Best comp: 2000 Miami Heat (lost second round)
They may have Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich and black and silver uniforms, but these Spurs are clearly not quite in the mold of their predecessors. These results show that. None of the past San Antonio squads shows up in the top ten, and six of the ten lost in the opening round. The most successful team of the group was the 2007 Detroit Pistons, who lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to Cleveland.
4. Portland Trail Blazers
Average Score: 6.8
Best comp: 2006 Dallas Mavericks (lost NBA Finals)
As I wrote about for Sports Northwest Magazine earlier this season, the Blazers' combination of an elite offense and a slow pace is unique in NBA history. So it's hard to find a good set of comparables for Portland. The best match was the 2006 Mavericks, who slowed things down in Avery Johnson's first full season at the helm while maintaining an efficient offense. That Dallas team rated just slightly better over the course of the season, yet reached the NBA Finals and was the favorite there before falling to Miami.
5. Houston Rockets
Average Score: 7.5
Best comp: 2005 Houston Rockets (lost first round)
The Western Conference's best defensive team, by this method the Rockets score ahead of the two teams who narrowly finished above them in the standings. The 2001 Philadelphia 76ers and 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers show that this kind of style can reach the NBA Finals. However, four of the ten best comps were unable to get out of the first round.
6. Dallas Mavericks
Average Score: 4.3
Best comp: 2001 Toronto Raptors (lost semifinals)
This group is a little better than you'd expect for a sixth seed, featuring four teams that won a first-round series. Just one of those moved on to the conference finals--the 2007 Utah Jazz, which stole Game Seven on the road at Houston before riding a favorable matchup against Golden State to a second series win.
7. New Orleans Hornets
Average Score: 5.5
Best comp: 2005 Indiana Pacers (lost semifinals)
All things considered, this is a pretty strong group, featuring more teams than not who won their opening-round series (six in all). Five Detroit Pistons teams show up in the top ten, including three from the most recent run. The 2007 Pistons were the lone team similar to the Hornets to reach the conference finals.
8. Utah Jazz
Average Score: 4.5
Best comp: 2004 Memphis Grizzlies (lost first round)
One interesting feature of this year's West teams is that none of them are similar to their 2008 versions. That is especially true in the case of the Jazz, which has gone from 5.8 better than league average last year to just 1.6 percent better this season. That disappointing drop-off is the biggest reason the Jazz is mired in an unenviable 1/8 series against the Lakers. While one of the most similar teams (the 2004 Lakers) broke all the way through to the NBA Finals, just three of the top ten won a series.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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