An Historic Upset?

Posted on June 7, 2007 by

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Ian Thomsen stated the following yesterday at SI.com:

I’m not going to say that the Cavaliers are incapable of upsetting the Spurs — not after watching them put down the supposedly unbeatable Pistons. If LeBron James turns out to be the best player on the floor, and if his teammates knock down shots like the Warriors did to Dallas, then the biggest Finals upset in 30 years (going back to the Trail Blazers’ 1977 win over Philadelphia) is possible.

The part of this quote I wish to focus on is the last two lines. According to Thomsen, the Cavs beating the Spurs will be the biggest upset since Bill Walton and the Trail Blazers defeated Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers.

Let me re-post the following table, which reports the efficiency differential of every Finals participant since 1974.

Table One: Efficiency Differential of the NBA Final Participants

From this table we see that the Spurs in 2006-07 posted a 9.1 efficiency differential. The Cavs only offered a 4.0 differential. In other words, when we look at efficiency differential we see that the Spurs were much better than the Cavs in the regular season.

Now let’s head back to 1977. When we look at the Philadelphia 76ers from that season we see a team that scored 98.5 points per 100 possessions while surrendering 94.9, which gives us a differential of 3.5. So the Sixers from 1977 – a team lead by Dr. J, George McGinnis, World B. Free, and Doug Collins – had a lower efficiency differential than the current edition of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The 76ers that season – with a bevy of scorers – was considered a great offensive team. But Portland in 1977 scored 100.0 points per 100 possessions. Yes, Bill Walton’s team was the better offensive team. Furthermore, Walton’s team only allowed 95.0 points per possession, so it was virtually the same defensively. With an efficiency differential of 5.0, it looks to me like the Trail Blazers should have been favored thirty years ago.

The 1977 Finals seems quite similar to the 2004 series, which we discussed in The Wages of Wins. In 2004 the Western Conference was represented by the LA Lakers, who had a differential of 4.1. Their opponent was the Detroit Pistons, who had a mark of 6.4. Yet, despite these numbers, it was the Pistons who were the underdog.

When we look at 1977 and 2004 we see the same story. In both cases a team with a number of “stars” took on a team lacking in star power. Or put another way, a team with a collection of scorers took on a team without as much scoring power. For example, the 76ers in 1977 had four players average at least 15 points per game (Erving, McGinnis, Collins, and Free) while the Blazers only had two +15 scorers (Walton and Maurice Lucas). In 2004, the Pistons were led in scoring by Rip Hamilton who only averaged 17.6 points per game. The Lakers had Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone, and Gary Payton. These four players each had several seasons in their careers when their scoring average topped twenty per game.

In each case, the media seemed to focus on the quantity of scorers available and simply concluded that the team with the most must be the favorite. Unfortunately, as is often stated in this forum, wins are about more than scoring. When we consider both offensive and defensive efficiency, we can see that that championships won by Portland in 1977 and Detroit in 2004 were not historic upsets. In fact if either lost, that should have been considered a mild upset.

Looking at Cleveland in 2007 we see that the Cavaliers have the most prolific scorer. And I think this has led some people to argue that Cleveland has a chance to pull an upset. Although it’s certainly possible that Cleveland could win this series, it would indeed be an historic upset if that happened.

Let me close by adding that Cleveland defeating the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals was also not an historic upset. Consider the following table, which reports the efficiency differential of every team in 2006-07.

Table Two: Efficiency Differential in 2006-07

As this table indicates, Detroit ranked 6th in the NBA this season with a differential of 4.6. Cleveland was ranked 7th with their mark of 4.0. Yes, Cleveland winning was an upset. But to call Detroit “unbeatable” seems like a bit of an exaggeration.

– DJ