Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

May 15, 2011

Eastern Conference Finals Pick

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 1:56 pm

To me, picking between the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat comes down to a few factors, none of them quite so simple as “Who’s the better team?”

– Evaluating regular-season performance
Since the Bulls finished four games clear of the Heat in the East standings, the natural assumption is that Chicago was the better regular-season team. However, the Heat ever so slightly had the superior point differential, +7.5 points per game to +7.3. That’s well within the margin of error, but don’t assume the Bulls were the better team.

– Evaluating playoff performance
This is where things get tricky. How do we integrate how teams have played in the playoffs with the larger sample of the regular season? So far, Miami has been 11.4 points per 100 possessions better than an average team would be expected to perform against the Philadelphia 76ers and the Boston Celtics. That’s the second-best mark among playoff teams, trailing only the Dallas Mavericks (+14.1). Chicago, meanwhile, has been relatively less impressive than in the regular season, playing +6.3 points per 100 possessions better than we’d expect based on the regular-season performance of the Indiana Pacers and the Atlanta Hawks. There are some mitigating factors, including injuries on both sides and the Hawks picking up their level of play in the postseason, but that’s a significant gap.

Another way to consider the issue, as used in my reassessment of the Mavericks, is to consider the regular-season performance of the playoff rotation. I did not use lineups for the Bulls, because they’ve played a lot of units that saw relatively little action in the regular season (most notably Derrick Rose and C.J. Watson together), but if you use the more simple method of regular-season on-court rating weighted by playing time, the Heat’s advantage grows slightly (Miami’s playoff lineups would be expected to play 8.7 points per 100 possessions better than average, while Chicago’s expectation is +8.0).

– Home-Court Advantage
On a neutral court, I think Miami is the better team. The Heat might win 55, or even 60, games out of a hundred. But this series won’t be played on a neutral court. Sport Skeptic has some good research showing that an advantage of a full point in regular-season point differential is necessary to give the lower-seeded team the edge on paper. Adjusting for playoff lineups doesn’t quite get Miami there. So, to pick them is to believe that the Heat is a better team than regular-season results would indicate. I think that’s the case, that LeBron James and Dwyane Wade had an extra gear in reserve they showed off in the series with the Celtics. That erased the silly notion that Miami couldn’t win close games, as well as the reasonable one that Tom Thibodeau-style defenses were the Heat’s kryptonite. In order, the most likely outcomes of this series seem to be Miami in 6 or Chicago in 7. It’s close to a tossup, but I lean ever so slightly to the Heat.

Miami in 6

(Stay tuned for a complete preview from Bradford on the series later today.)

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