The Mess in the West

Posted on April 9, 2008 by

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The season is winding down and so our thoughts turn to the playoffs. Now we wish to know how each team will do in the NBA’s second season.

Forecasting the East is easy (so everyone should look like Erich Doerr).  Whether we look at won-loss record or efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) the Boston Celtics are the “strong” favorite in the East.  Entering Wednesday night’s game, the Celtics had a 62-15 record and a differential of 11.2.  Both marks lead the league (by a wide margin).  Consequently, no matter how the non-Boston series are decided in the East, we still expect that whoever has to face Boston will lose.  In other words, we should fully expect the Celtics to appear in the NBA Finals.

Forecasting the West

In the West the forecast is the much more difficult.  Here is how these teams are seeded (won-loss record before Wednesday’s games in parenthesis):

1. New Orleans (54-23)

2. San Antonio (53-25)

3. LA Lakers (53-25)

4. Utah (52-26)

5. Houston (52-25)

6. Phoenix (52-26)

7. Dallas (49-29)

8. Denver or Golden State (47-31)

Now here is how these teams rank in terms of efficiency differential:

1. Utah (7.5)

2. LA Lakers (6.7)

3. New Orleans (5.6)

4. San Antonio (5.4)

5. Phoenix (5.1)

6. Dallas (5.0)

7. Houston (5.0)

8. Denver (3.7)

9. Golden State (2.5)

If efficiency differential predicts the outcome of each series, then here is how the Western Conference will unfold:

First Round

New Orleans over Denver or Golden State

San Antonio over Dallas

LA Lakers over Phoenix

Utah over Houston

Second Round

Utah over New Orleans

LA Lakers over San Antonio

Western Conference Final

Utah over LA Lakers

Trades and Injuries Make Forecasting the West Very Difficult

But wait a minute… these differentials are based on what the teams did the entire season.  The rosters of these teams – because of injury and/or trades – have not remained the same the entire year.  Consequently, the efficiency differential the teams have posted for the entire season may not reflect the quality of the team entering the post-season.

For example, the Suns with Shaquille O’Neal only have a differential of 3.5.  In other words, Phoenix has been a worse team with Shaq (despite what they did to the Spurs on Wednesday night)

In contrast, Dallas with Jason Kidd has posted a 6.5 differential.  If this mark captures the current quality of the Mavericks, then we would expect Dallas to defeat the Spurs in the first round.  In other words, the number seven seed would be favored to defeat the second seed (and I doubt that has ever happened before in NBA history).

And then we have the Lakers.  The Lakers were very good when they had Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum.  After Bynum got hurt the team traded for Pau Gasol.  Teaming Kobe with Gasol also resulted in a very good team (while Kobe without Bynum or Gasol is not a great team).   What happens if Bynum comes back and the Lakers can put all three on the court at the same time?  Will the Lakers then be better than the Jazz?  

The problem with these questions is that we do not know if Bynum will come back (although I read a report that he might return this weekend). And we don’t know how he will play if he does return.

Okay, here is what I think we know right now.  At the moment the Jazz have the best efficiency differential.  So they should be the “weak” favorite in the West.  If the Lakers get Bynum back the Lakers could become the “weak” favorite (or perhaps a “strong” favorite if Bynum is really as productive as he was earlier in the season).

Notice I used the word “weak” favorite.  The difference between all these teams is so small, that no team in the West (except maybe the Lakers with everyone healthy) is a “strong” favorite to win anything.  So we should not be surprised to see any team finally emerge.

What should surprise us is if any team that does emerge from the West actually defeats the Celtics in the Finals (except maybe the Lakers with a very healthy and very productive Bynum). The Celtics are most definitely a “strong” favorite to win the whole thing. 

Forecasting the East

Okay, the Celtics are the clearly the favorite in the East.  But who will the Celtics get to play (and defeat) on the way to the Finals?
Here is how each team in the East ranks in terms of efficiency differential (again, not including games from Wednesday night):

1. Boston (11.2)

2. Detroit (8.0)

3. Orland (4.9)

4. Toronto (2.7)

5. Philadelphia (0.8)

6. Washington (-0.2)

7. Cleveland (-0.6)

8. Atlanta (-1.6)

Given these marks, here is how each round should go down (given how the teams were seeded entering Wednesday night):

First Round

Boston over Atlanta

Detroit over Toronto

Orlando over Philadelphia

Washington over Cleveland???

Second Round

Boston over Washington (or Cleveland)

Detroit over Orlando

Eastern Conference Final

Boston over Detroit

Looking at efficiency differential, the only real question is Cleveland and Washington.  Washington has a slight edge for the season.  But Cleveland made a significant trade a few weeks ago, so their roster has changed substantially. And Washington gets Gilbert Arenas back. So that series is hard to forecast (I could be persuaded to take Cleveland, though).

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t make much difference.  Unless the Hawks pull off the greatest upset in NBA history (and make no mistake that would be the greatest), the winner of the Cavaliers-Wizards series gets Boston.  And neither Cleveland nor Washington should be expected to defeat Boston (and yes, I know Washington took 3 of 4 from Boston in the regular season.  I still think Boston is the heavy favorite against the Wizards). 

Getting Ahead of Ourselves

Let me close by noting that there are still about seven days worth of games left to be played.  Since we don’t know the final seedings, any forecast is a bit premature.  What I did wish to point out, though, was that when we finally see how these teams finish, forecasting the East will still be easy.  And forecasting the mess in the West will still be messy.

– DJ

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