Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

June 11, 2012

Team Performance in the Playoffs

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 12:19 pm

Because schedules in the playoffs are anything but balanced, the only way to really evaluate teams on a level playing field is to adjust for competition. I do so by comparing the Offensive and Defensive Ratings teams post to the weighted average of their opponents during the regular season. The amount better or worse than an average opponent during the regular season is the basis for offensive and defensive rankings and a combined net performance.

Entering the NBA Finals, here are this year’s numbers.

Team             Off    Def    Net
----------------------------------
Miami            7.9    4.8   12.8
Oklahoma City    9.3    2.6   11.9
San Antonio      5.9    3.9    9.8
Philadelphia     0.3    7.2    7.5
Boston           0.2    5.9    6.1
Indiana         -0.7    4.7    4.0
Memphis         -3.2    5.9    2.7
Denver           1.3   -0.6    0.7
Chicago         -4.7    5.4    0.7
L.A. Lakers      0.3    0.3    0.6
L.A. Clippers   -0.4    0.2   -0.2
Dallas          -0.5   -0.6   -1.1
Atlanta         -6.2    4.0   -2.2
Orlando         -7.6    0.4   -7.3
New York        -4.2   -3.6   -7.7
Utah            -9.6   -0.3   -9.9

I would submit that Miami outplaying Oklahoma City in the playoffs is something of a minority position, given that the Thunder had a much more difficult matchup in the conference finals and played three more games over the course of the playoffs. However, the Heat still had a better point differential en route to the NBA Finals, built largely during a dominant first-round win over the New York Knicks. While the Thunder swept the Dallas Mavericks, three of the four games could have gone either way.

Additionally, Miami’s more difficult set of early matchups (the Knicks and the Indiana Pacers rated ahead of both the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Lakers during the regular season, despite the championship pedigree of the West teams) made the Heat’s path slightly more difficult overall.

Despite losing the Western Conference Finals, the Spurs were still clearly the best team not to reach the Finals. After that, the rankings break down a bit because of injuries. The Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers are getting credited for beating the regular-season Orlando Magic and Chicago Bulls, who played below that level because of health.

June 8, 2012

Best High-Leverage LeBron Games

Filed under: Uncategorized — Neil Paine @ 10:55 am

Was last night’s performance the best we’ve seen from LeBron in a high-leverage game?

Here were his best Hollinger Game Scores in games where the Championship Leverage was 2.00 or greater (meaning the game had at least twice as much impact on the outcome of the NBA championship as the average playoff game that season):

Date Opp Result Min Pts TS% Ast Reb Tov S+B GmSc Lev
5/31/2007 at DET W 50.3 48 61.3 7 9 2 2 38.1 3.14
6/7/2012 at BOS W 44.8 45 75.1 5 15 4 0 36.4 2.83
5/18/2008 at BOS L 46.8 45 60.2 6 5 2 2 32.8 2.67
5/24/2009 at ORL L 42.0 41 53.2 9 7 2 3 31.3 2.04
5/26/2009 at ORL L 49.4 44 59.6 7 12 8 2 27.9 2.16
5/24/2011 vs CHI W 49.4 35 55.2 6 6 5 4 24.8 2.10
5/29/2007 vs DET W 44.3 25 54.4 11 7 3 3 24.3 2.13
6/2/2007 vs DET W 46.2 20 51.7 8 14 3 4 22.1 3.62
6/5/2012 vs BOS L 45.3 30 52.6 2 13 3 3 21.9 2.45
5/31/2011 vs DAL W 45.3 24 71.1 5 9 1 1 21.0 3.30
5/30/2009 at ORL L 44.9 25 50.3 7 7 3 1 16.1 3.18
6/12/2007 vs SAS L 42.0 25 47.1 7 8 5 3 15.9 3.01
5/21/2006 at DET L 46.8 27 49.1 2 8 3 1 15.6 2.34
6/2/2011 vs DAL L 39.6 20 59.7 4 8 5 5 15.6 3.41
6/12/2011 vs DAL L 40.4 21 62.6 6 4 6 2 13.6 6.18
6/10/2007 at SAS L 38.0 25 48.4 6 7 6 1 13.6 4.00
6/5/2011 at DAL W 45.3 17 53.9 9 3 4 2 13.6 3.97
6/9/2011 at DAL L 45.6 17 42.8 10 10 4 1 12.4 4.94
5/24/2007 at DET L 44.7 19 43.0 7 6 6 3 11.0 2.00
6/7/2011 at DAL L 45.7 8 31.3 7 9 4 2 5.9 3.62
6/7/2007 at SAS L 44.0 14 39.4 4 7 6 2 5.0 3.87

(Leverage for 2012 is based on an estimate of the final playoff-wide average game swing, derived from the pre-Finals average.)

Not quite his greatest high-leverage outing ever (that honor still belongs to this masterpiece), but it was pretty close. We’ll see if he can do it again in Game 7, which is tracking to be the 3rd-most important game of James’ career.

Email Neil at np@sports-reference.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Neil_Paine.

May 29, 2012

Sim Season Revisited

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bradford Doolittle @ 12:20 pm

I received an email from our good friends at Strat-O-Matic this morning pointing out something I should have rememberd. Last fall, we ran our Sim Season series as a partial remedy to basketball withdrawal brought on by the NBA lockout. In conjunction with Strat, we used their game engine and Kevin Pelton’s SCHOENE forecasting system to create the 2011-12 rosters, or at least the versions that existed at the time of the work stoppage. Then we ran the season game by game, and brought you the results on a daily basis.

Well guess what? The conference finals matchups forecast by Sim Season now look awfully prescient: Heat-Celtics and Thunder-Spurs. In other words, we nailed the NBA’s version of the final four well before we even knew if there would be a season. Okay, okay. There is some good fortune in that. The rosters across the NBA was markedly different than what they ended up as in the regular season. We had Chris Paul in New Orleans, Richard Hamilton in Detroit and lots of other players still in cities they ended up leaving. Nevertheless, we’ll score one for the simulation exercise, especially because most of us saw a Heat-Bulls matchup as inevitable and there weren’t a lot of people picking the Spurs to go this far.

We’ll have to try this again next year, though only in the aggregate. That daily thing was grueling …

May 21, 2012

A Note on Championship Leverage Index

Filed under: Uncategorized — Neil Paine @ 1:16 pm

I’ve used the concept of “Championship Leverage” a lot over the past year or so, but I realize that I’ve never really explained it very well. Here’s an attempt to correct that…

Championship Leverage obviously owes its name to the baseball stat invented by Tom Tango to measure the cruciality of a given base-out-inning situation. It starts with the win probability of each team in a series, given the current “state” of the series (home team in Game 4 up 2-1, road team in Game 6 down 3-2, etc.). The state of the series not only tells you how often each team can expect to win (assuming evenly-matched opponents with true .500 talent levels and a .600 home-court advantage), but also how much that probability can swing based on the outcome of the next game of the series, which in turn tells you the most important games in the series.

(more…)

May 10, 2012

In Defense of Coaches in the Playoffs

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 12:24 pm

I had forgotten it was this time of year again. The playoffs being upon us, it’s about the point where fans and analysts alike lament that coaches that led their teams to successful regular seasons suddenly seem unable to coach. In the past, Oklahoma City’s Scott Brooks (the 2009-10 Coach of the Year) has been a popular target for this criticism. This year, it’s been applied to Lionel Hollins of the Grizzlies, who finished fourth in voting for Coach of the Year.

My suspicion is this line of analysis says a lot more about the level of observation than the coaches themselves. By any measure, this hasn’t been Hollins’ finest series. Too often, the Memphis offense has struggled to exploit the advantage Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph offer in the paint. Still, if the Grizzlies went through a stretch like this in February, would anyone outside of Memphis notice? Instead, during the playoffs, every available eyeball is glued to the game.
What troubles me, especially in the Twitter era, is that big-picture perspective is lost in favor of overanalyzing every individual decision in the playoffs. The great Bill James once wrote that the trouble with discussing organizations is that we pick out a handful of moves, good or bad, out of the thousands that each team makes. James was pointing out how easy it is to cherry-pick examples that fit a preset conclusion. Except in the case of Vinny Del Negro, I don’t think that’s the problem here, as people begin the process with the best of intentions. Still, I think James’ message fits.

Two issues exacerbate this problem. The first is that, much of the time, coaches are choosing between flawed options. Late-game offense is an excellent example. No matter what play is called from the sideline, teams aren’t going to score against a set defense that is completely locked in more than about 45 percent of the time, making it easy to second-guess any decision because we overstate the chances of scoring in the unknowable alterative. This only increases as the playoffs go on and the defensive competition gets tougher, making it increasingly difficult for any coach to succeed.

In addition, I think it’s possible there is a disconnect between the areas of coaching that get the most scrutiny and what really matters. Skills like player development and building a positive culture naturally get more attention during the long regular season than the crucible of the playoffs. Beyond that, even areas that are invisible to outsiders–like how well a team prepares in the film room for what it’s about to face–are evident during games only in terms of the results we see. As a result of this vacuum, in-game adjustments and moves are blown up into the entirety of a coach’s role, which is a dangerous mistake.

None of this is to say we should stop analyzing moves in real time, which would certainly be a hypocritical position for me to take. I merely think it’s necessary to add perspective to that commentary.

You can contact Kevin at kpelton@basketballprospectus.com. Follow his coaching criticism on Twitter at @kpelton.

May 7, 2012

Every Playoff Game is a Snowflake

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 2:28 pm

So much of the time, we like to imagine that we can add results from the previous game of a playoff series, add in home-court advantage and player availability, and voila! An expectation for the next game. The Atlanta-Boston series is a reminder of the folly of such a philosophy. Let’s recap:

Game One: Hawks build a huge lead, then hang on for a win.
Game Two: Playing without Rajon Rondo, the Celtics steal a road a win as Josh Smith goes down with an injury.
Game Three: Despite Smith’s absence, Atlanta forces overtime in Boston before losing by six.
Game Four: The Hawks get back Smith and Al Horford … and lose by 22 after trailing by more than 30 points.

The moral of the story is there’s too much randomness within a single game to focus on one factor and expect it to regress to the mean. Every game is a unique environment. Sometimes, like in Utah-San Antonio, the results end up largely similar, but every game brings a new story all its own.

May 4, 2012

Underestimating the Base Rate

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 12:04 pm

On the surface, transfers in the NCAA and injuries in the NBA don’t seem to have anything in common. However, I think there’s a pattern to the way we discuss both of them. What they share is that a widespread belief that they are increasing–I’d say it even reaches the point of conventional wisdom–isn’t backed up when we seek to quantify the two phenomena, as College Basketball Prospectus contributor Dan Hanner did yesterday in response to John Gasaway‘s question about transfers.

I think there’s a common explanation. When we think about issues like injuries and transfers (and coaching changes, to add another) in a non-statistical sense, I believe our default position is that they are outside the normal scope of basketball. That is, we imagine a world in which nobody ever gets hurt, or transfers, or gets fired, because these things happen relatively rarely. At the individual level, it makes sense to assume each player will be healthy rather than injured, or stay rather than transfer, but instead of adding the small percentages of each outcome, we just apply the same assumption to the entire group. So when change does occur, we perceive it as foreign and unnatural.

Think about it this way: Do you ever remember anyone observing that injuries are down relatively to some other period? Maybe this happens at the team level, like with the Suns, but I don’t think it happens with anywhere near the frequency of people lamenting the increased prevalence of injuries. When injuries don’t occur, it’s invisible because that’s what’s supposed to happen. Same with a college team that doesn’t have any transfers and brings back the same group of players, minus seniors and early entrants.

As a result, it’s easy to underestimate how often these rare events happen. Whenever we do hear about a lot of them at the same time, it tricks our brains into thinking this is more unusual than it really is. So we often perceive injuries and transfers as happening at an increasing rate, when really nothing has changed.

You can contact Kevin at kpelton@basketballprospectus.com. Follow him on Twitter at @kpelton.

April 28, 2012

First-Round Picks

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 1:28 pm

Wanted to share my picks for each series save Indiana’s, including the ones Bradford previewed, as well as links to our comprehensive previews.
Chicago over Philadelphia in 4 (free)
I think the Sixers are better than this, yes, and they gave the Bulls some trouble in the regular season. However, Chicago is simply better at everything Philadelphia does well. Given the way the 76ers struggled in April, I see them packing it in if the Bulls win the first three games.

Miami over New York in 6 ($)
When Miami is at full strength, only a handful of teams can compare to its combination of front-line talent. The Knicks are closer than a year ago but not quite there.

Boston over Atlanta in 7 (coming)
I don’t think the Celtics are heavy favorites in this series. The Hawks have actually been the better team since March 1, and adjusting full-season results for likely playoff lineups only brings the two teams even. So don’t underestimate Atlanta’s chances. Still, home-court advantage may not matter as much for the Hawks, and it’s hard to pick against Doc Rivers and Kevin Garnett in a close matchup.

San Antonio over Utah in 5 ($)
Given more time to prepare to match up and a solid counter in Kawhi Leonard, I think the Spurs can keep Utah’s big lineup from being as overwhelmingly effective as it has been. The Jazz is now perfectly capable of proving me wrong, but I see this as the trendy “gentleman’s sweep.”

Oklahoma City over Dallas in 6 ($)
If Rick Carlisle can manufacture close games using the zone and other in-game adjustments, Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry may be enough to take the Mavericks home. Otherwise, the roster is just too deficient to knock off a Finals contender.

Denver over L.A. Lakers in 6 ($)
All four games were decided by single-digits and there’s no reason to expect anything else in this series. So, how predictive is the Lakers’ ability to win close games during the regular season? In the past, we’ve seen the same “skill” desert the Mavericks in the postseason–until last year, when they rode their clutch performance all the way to a championship. So I could certainly see this one going either way. Call it a tossup, in which case I’d prefer to buck conventional wisdom.

L.A. Clippers over Memphis in 6 ($)
the Clippers appear to be the stronger overall team. And this appears to be a particularly good matchup for the Clippers, who can neutralize the strongest part of Memphis’ defense with Chris Paul‘s ability to take care of the basketball and can use the zone to expose the Grizzlies’ weaknesses at the other end of the floor.

You can contact Kevin at kpelton@basketballprospectus.com. Follow him on Twitter at @kpelton.

April 27, 2012

An Incomplete List of Players Whose Season High Patty Mills Outscored Thursday

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 1:02 am

In Thursday’s season finale, a win over the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs reserve guard Patty Mills scored a career-high 34 points. That’s pretty good–better than a lot of All-Stars, high scorers, past MVPs and even the presumptive Rookie of the Year managed this season.
Ray Allen (28)
Carlos Boozer (31)
Luol Deng (26)
Tim Duncan (28)
Tyreke Evans (31)
Kevin Garnett (25)
Marc Gasol (28)
Pau Gasol (30)
Rudy Gay (32)
Manu Ginobili (24)
Eric Gordon (31)
Roy Hibbert (30)
Andre Iguodala (23)
Kyrie Irving (34)
Ty Lawson (29)
David Lee (31)
Paul Millsap (31)
Steve Nash (30)

April 25, 2012

An Unweighted Lottery Isn’t Enough

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 1:22 pm

(Apologies if your eyes now bleed at the mention of the words “lottery” or “tanking.” You can just skip this post. There’s basketball analysis elsewhere on the site.)

No team has done a better job of tanking during the last month of the 2011-12 season than the Minnesota Timberwolves. As late as April 1, the Timberwolves were legitimately thinking playoffs, but after their hopes were extinguished the Timberwolves quickly went in the tank, losing 11 consecutive games before beating the Detroit Pistons last week for their only win since March 28. The Charlotte Bobcats have lost more games, yes, but their No. 1 lottery spot was secure long ago. The Bobcats simply can’t stop losing. Minnesota, by contrast, has gone from a fight for the league’s 12th-14th worst record to the 10th position. The Timberwolves even managed the seemingly impossible: out-tanking the free-falling Golden State Warriors, who beat them at the Target Center on Sunday.

There’s only one problem with this discussion: Minnesota doesn’t have its own first-round pick, having lost it to the L.A. Clippers as part of the ancient Sam CassellMarko Jaric deal before the Clippers traded it on to New Orleans as the centerpiece of the package for Chris Paul. The Timberwolves don’t even have their second-round pick, which went to Houston as part of a trade during last year’s draft, then on to Portland.

Minnesota has zero incentive to lose, yet players like Kevin Love and Luke Ridnour have been shelved from injuries they otherwise might have returned from anyway. Why? Because playing basketball is inherently dangerous. Every time players take the court, there is a chance they might suffer or aggravate a serious injury that imperils their long-term future. This is being melodramatic, obviously, but one reason stars sit out down the stretch–both for lottery teams and playoff-bound teams that are locked into their seeds and have no incentive to win–is precisely to stay safe.

The Timberwolves are an extreme example because they relied so heavily on Love, and their other two players with more than 1.5 WARP (Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic) dealt with injuries while the team was still in the playoff chase. Still, their case suggests that an unweighted lottery in which all non-playoff teams have the same chances–and thus no incentive to lose games–isn’t enough to prevent teams from resting players down the stretch. If the desired outcome is a league in which lottery teams run hard through the finish line (and, for the record, I’m against this proposition because of the perverse incentives it gives coaches who need no excuse to favor washed-up veterans over promising young players), then something stronger than an unweighted lottery is necessary, like the Sloan Conference proposal to rank teams in the draft by how many games they win after being eliminated.

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