Final Thoughts on the NBA Finals

Posted on June 17, 2007 by

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Here are my Final Final thoughts. In this column I address three issues: The MVP in the Finals, LeBron’s problems on the game’s biggest stage, and my bronze medal performance in the True Hoop Stat Geek Smackdown.

Did Tony Parker deserve the MVP award for the Finals?

Going into the last game, Tim Duncan had a PAWS (Win Position Adjusted Score) of 13.8 across the first three games. Parker’s PAWS stood at 3.7. Two things would have to happen for Parker to surpass Duncan in the final game. Parker would have to play very well. And Duncan would have to play very badly. In the deciding game Parker posted a PAWS of 5.9, which is very good. Duncan, meanwhile, had a horrible game. Although he had 15 rebounds, he committed six turnovers and only made four of fifteen shots from the field. He also only made 40% of his free throw attempts. When the game ended Duncan’s PAWS stood at -4.6.

So Duncan’s PAWS for the Finals finished at 9.5 while Parker’s finished at 9.7. If we look at PAWSmin (Position Adjusted Win Score per minute), Parker’s mark was 0.0642, which just eclipsed Duncan’s mark of 0.0639 (Note: Readers of NBA Babble and Win Score will notice my numbers are a bit different. This is because I am treating Duncan strictly as a power forward while I think Jason Chandler treated Duncan as a center).

Of course, if all we focus on is PAWSmin, than Manu Ginobili’s mark of 0.073 leads the way. No matter how you look at it, the main stars of the Spurs in the regular season – Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili – led the Spurs to the title.

If we pull back from the Finals, and look at the entire playoffs, a different story is told.

Table One: The Spurs in the Playoffs

For the entire post-season the star of the show was Tim Duncan. In the regular season Duncan produced 20.1 wins and offered 0.355 wins per 48 minutes [WP48]. In 20 post-season games his WP48 fell to 0.311, but that was still easily the best mark on the Spurs. Ginobili also played well in the post-season, though again his performance dipped slightly. Such a story is consistent with the tale we told in The Wages of Wins. Players tend to play the same in the post-season as they do in the regular season, although in the playoffs – because the level of competition improves – players tend to offer a bit less.

Generally the dip in performance is quite small. For the Finals MVP, though, we saw a much bigger decline. Yes, Parker played well against Cleveland. But across all 20 playoff games he was actually below average. So if the MVP of the Finals is just about the Finals, then giving the award to Parker seems reasonable. If the MVP is about the entire post-season, it looks like more consideration should have been given to Duncan or Ginobili.

What happened to LeBron?

After Game Three I noted how rare it was for LeBron to have four consecutive below average games. This observation led me to state that LeBron would definitely not be below average in Game Four. In the comment section of that note, though, A.H. Paschal pointed out that since each game is an independent event, LeBron was just as likely to be below average in the fourth game as he was in the first.

And of course that is true. So as Fonzie would say (from Happy Days, a reference my students no longer get), I guess I was wrrrrrrrroo. I mean I was wrrooo…. Okay, I was not entirely correct in my analysis. Geeeez.

Apparently LeBron saw my comment and really wished to hammer home the fact I said something inconsistent with rightness. When Game Four was over LeBron’s Win Score stood at -4.5. This marked the first time in his career that the Spurs had forced him into the negative range. So in a game the Cavaliers really, really needed to win, LeBron played the worst game of his playoff career. In fact only four times in his entire career has he been this bad.

When we look at the Finals we see that LeBron played badly in each game. Of course we wonder why. Here are some theories:

1. Bruce Bowen is an amazing defender. If this is true, why had this not been evident before the Finals? In eight regular season games against the Spurs, LeBron had posted a Win Score per-minute that was quite similar to what he had done against every other team in his career.

2. The Spurs have an amazing team defense. It’s true that Bowen did not guard LeBron by himself. Defense in the NBA tends to be a team activity and we need to give credit to other players on the Spurs. Still, once again we wonder about LeBron’s past performance against the Spurs. If it’s the case that the Spurs have a magical LeBron defense, why was this never apparent before?

3. LeBron happened to have a few bad games at an inconvenient time. LeBron has played badly before in his career. In fact, LeBron has had a below average PAWSmin in 37% of the regular season games he has ever played. Yes, overall LeBron is a great player. But like all great players, bad games can happen.

Explanations for LeBron’s failure in the Finals reminds me of the story told in The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb emphasizes our habit of trying to explain everything. My sense is that LeBron’s failure in the Finals is just the kind of event Taleb is talking about. We are talking about a sample of four games. Although we could convince ourselves that we “know” why LeBron played poorly, I don’t think we have enough information to draw a conclusion.

Okay, enough on LeBron in the Finals. I do want to note that if we look at every post-season game before the Finals we see that LeBron played well in every game but one. Consequently, as the following table illustrates, for the entire post-season LeBron was an amazing player.

Table Two: The Cavaliers in the Playoffs

LeBron, though, was not a one-man team in the playoffs. Zyrdunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao, and Daniel “Boobie” Gibson all played well. Drew Gooden was also above average, although relative to the regular season, he offered considerably less. Despite Gooden’s decline, it does look like there is more to this team than King James.

Of course, the Cavaliers still have room for improvement. The team is very weak at shooting guard. In both the regular season and playoffs, Larry Hughes and Sasha Pavlovic were below average. And at point guard, everyone was below average in the regular season. Over the last two months everyone but Gibson was still below average. So despite the rise of “Boobie”, Cleveland needs help in the backcourt if it’s going to improve.

How did I lose the TrueHoop Stat Geek Smackdown?

In the TrueHoop Stat Geek Smackdown I took the bronze medal. The winner, Justin Kubatko (of Basketball-Reference.com) finished with 65 points. Kevin Pelton – of the Seattle SuperSonics – tallied 63 points. And I finished with 62 points.

This is how the contest worked. The seven competitors picked each playoff series. If you picked the winner you received five points. If you picked correctly the number of games in the series, you received an extra two points.

Looking over the final standings we see that Kubatko and Pelton both picked 11 series (out of 15) correct. John Hollinger and I each picked 10 of 15 correctly. I did lead the competition with the correct number of games called in six series. But because the Cavs could not win one game against the Spurs, I failed to call the length of the Finals correctly. Kevin Pelton, who finished second, had the Finals going to seven games. Had the Cavs took just one game, I could have taken the silver medal.

Unfortunately I had no hope of winning this competition heading into the Finals. Kubatko picked the Spurs to win in five games as well. So I could not catch the leader.

The similarity between Kubatko’s picks and my own extended throughout the competition. In 11 out of 15 series, Kubatko and I had the same winner in the same number of games. Yes, 73% of the time we had exactly the same forecast.

Here is where we differed:

Rockets vs. Jazz: I had the Rockets in seven. Kubatko had the Rockets in five. Jazz won the series in seven.

Cavaliers vs. Wizards: I had the Cavs in four, Kubatko had the Cavs in five. Cavs won in four.

Cavaliers vs. Nets: I had the Cavs in seven, Kubatko had the Cavs in five. Cavs won in six.

Pistons vs. Bulls. I had the Bulls in six, Kubatko had the Pistons in seven. Pistons won in six.

In the end, the Pistons and Bulls were my un-doing. In discussing his victory, Kubatko revealed his methodology. Kubatko said he picked teams strictly by the numbers, which is also what I did. In other words, we each tried to ignore how it looked like a team was playing in the playoffs. Consequently we each picked the Jazz to defeat the Warriors in five.

But whereas I only considered efficiency differential, Kubatko considered both the quality of the two teams and home court advantage. And when you consider home court advantage we see that the Pistons should have been slight favorites to defeat the Bulls. So I failed because I ignored home-court advantage (which was a bit stupid on my part).

Although I lost, the exercise did demonstrate something very important about the NBA. Basketball, relative to football and baseball, seems to be fairly predictable. Kubatko and I picked according to the numbers and did pretty well. Although I have not looked at this, I suspect you could not do as well picking by the numbers in football or baseball. In other words, in basketball the best teams tend to win in the playoffs. Of course it still helps to have home court advantage, something I will try and remember next year.

– DJ