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May 16, 2010

Who Has Been the Best Playoff Team?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 2:12 pm

We talk in general terms about which teams have played the best in the playoffs, but it’s often difficult to separate schedule from performance. For example, how do you compare Orlando sweeping two lesser opponents with Boston upsetting the league’s winningest regular-season team, Cleveland?

My answer has always been to compare a team’s performance to the regular-season statistics of their opponents, weighted by games played in each series. So, through two rounds, let’s take a look at the four teams that advanced the conference finals. First, who had the hardest schedule?

Team    ORtg     Team    ORtg     Team    NetDif

PHX    112.2     BOS    105.5     BOS       +5.9
BOS    111.3     LAL    106.4     PHX       +4.7
LAL    111.0     ORL    106.4     LAL       +4.6
ORL    109.6     PHX    107.5     ORL       +3.2

Unsurprisingly, the Celtics top the list while the Magic comes in last, though the difference might not be quite as enormous as you would imagine. Phoenix and the L.A. Lakers have faced schedules of about even difficulty, but the Suns have–based on regular-season numbers–played the hardest slate of offenses and the weakest set of defenses. It’s hard to take Phoenix’s opposition numbers completely at face value, however, because the Suns got the luxury of playing Portland without a healthy Brandon Roy.

With that caveat, let’s take a look at the adjusted playoff performance of these four teams.

Team             ORtg

Orlando         +14.4
Phoenix         +10.5
L.A. Lakers     + 6.6
Boston          + 3.6

Orlando’s Offensive Rating in the postseason is 120.8, which would be remarkable regardless of the opposition. Add in the fact that the Magic faced the league’s best defense in the first round and Orlando is really doing something, although we cannot entirely account for the indifference shown by Atlanta in the conference semifinals. The Lakers have scored much better in the postseason, but let’s not go overboard and imply that the Western Conference Finals match equal offenses. Phoenix is significantly better. Boston brings up the rear here, but has improved its offense compared to the regular season, when the Celtics ranked 13th in the league.

Team             DRtg

Orlando         +11.1
Boston          +10.0
Phoenix         + 3.9
L.A. Lakers     + 3.0

The Magic also tops our list of best postseason defenses. The surprise is the Lakers coming in last. They have completely changed their stripes from the regular season, when they won with defense. Phoenix’s improved defense is probably getting too much attention as compared to the Suns’ still-excellent offense, but with the aforementioned Roy caveat, Phoenix’s postseason defensive numbers look pretty good. Certainly, the Suns have been better than the regular season, when they ranked 19th in the NBA in Defensive Rating.

Team           NetDif

Orlando         +25.5
Phoenix         +14.4
Boston          +13.5
L.A. Lakers     + 9.6

Putting it together, Orlando’s net differential is off the charts. The Magic is playing at an incredibly high level, and arguing that Orlando hasn’t been tested demeans what the Magic has done. Again, it is most surprising that the Lakers come out so relatively poorly. While they swept Utah, the Lakers had only one double-digit win in four games, so it wasn’t a totally dominant effort.

None of this is a guarantee of future success, of course. A year ago, Cleveland would have surely topped the list (though not as dramatically so as Orlando this time around). Teams change course and matchups matter. Still, when we discuss how teams have done in the playoffs to date, it’s good to have some numbers to use as a baseline.

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