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Friday, April 17, 2015

2014-15 Playoff Predictions

The overall composition of the Western Conference playoff field is what I expected with the exception of New Orleans taking the place of injury-riddled Oklahoma City but the seeding is different than I predicted. The defending champion San Antonio Spurs lost to New Orleans in the  final game of the season and summarily dropped from second to sixth in the standings. I picked the Spurs to be the West's best team and that could still happen but now the Spurs may have to win three series without home court advantage to achieve this. Of course, the biggest story in the West--and in the league, period--is the 67-15 record posted by the Golden State Warriors. I picked the Warriors to finish fourth, which is probably more generous than most analysts were prior to this campaign. Stephen Curry has emerged as an MVP caliber player and should be the clear favorite for that award if you subscribe to the "best player on the best team" theory (I prefer the best player period theory and believe that LeBron James should have won every regular season MVP since 2009). I will be very interested to see how the highly touted Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies perform; I am much less impressed by those teams than many other commentators are.

In the Eastern Conference, I did not foresee Atlanta's rise from the eighth seed to the top spot. Danny Ferry put together an underrated, supposedly no-name supporting cast around LeBron James in Cleveland a few years ago and now he has built an underrated, supposedly no-name squad that finished ahead of James' new-look Cavaliers. I thought that the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers had enough firepower to make the playoffs in the East despite their injury problems but both teams came up just short. The Cavaliers started the season 19-20 but after James exited his self-described "chill mode" they went 34-9 the rest of the way and looked like the best team in the league. Chicago's chemistry--on court and off court, in terms of the simmering feud between Coach Tom Thibodeau and the front office--has not been quite right all season. The other five playoff qualifiers are hardly worth mentioning, at least in terms of being legitimate championship contenders, though Jason Kidd deserves some recognition for the fine coaching job he did while leading Milwaukee to a 41-41 record, a 26 game improvement.

Here is my take on the first round matchups, followed by some thoughts about the 2015 NBA Finals.

Eastern Conference First Round

#1 Atlanta (60-22) vs. #8 Brooklyn (38-44)

Season series: Atlanta, 4-0

Brooklyn can win if...Brook Lopez continues to play at the high level that he reached in the final month or so of the season, Deron Williams plays at an All-NBA level and the Nets contain Atlanta's lethal three point shooting.

Atlanta will win because...the Hawks are a well-rounded squad that has completely embraced the team-first concept that Coach Mike Budenholzer learned as a San Antonio assistant. The Hawks rank fourth in field goal percentage and sixth in defensive field goal percentage; their only weakness is rebounding but the Nets are not a strong rebounding team, either.

Other things to consider: The Hawks do not have a player who would rightly be considered a superstar or a franchise player but four Hawks made the Eastern Conference All-Star team this season. The Hawks have a lot of really good players who function well together.

#2 Cleveland (53-29) vs. #7 Boston (40-42)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Boston can win if...LeBron James enters "chill mode."

Cleveland will win because...the Cavaliers have been on fire during the second half of the season. LeBron James reasserted himself as the best player in the league, Kyrie Irving is a dynamic scoring threat and the team's midseason acquisitions have added size, depth and three point shooting.

Other things to consider: Boston started the season 4-11 but closed the season with a 15-6 run to grab a playoff berth. The Celtics are riding a six game winning streak--including two victories against Cleveland, albeit a disinterested Cleveland that could neither move up nor down in the standings--and are probably a better team than their sub-.500 record suggests. However, the Cavs are also better than their record suggests and unless James completely disappears this should be a short series.

#3 Chicago (50-32) vs. #6 Milwaukee (41-41)

Season series: Chicago, 3-1

Milwaukee can win if...the Bucks can keep the rebounding battle close and find a way to score against Chicago's stingy defense that ranked fourth in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage (.435).

Chicago will win because...the Bulls have a lot of playoff-tested veterans and this year's squad has added some offensive firepower with a (somewhat) healthy Derrick Rose and a revitalized Pau Gasol.

Other things to consider: Jason Kidd may not be well-liked in some NBA quarters but he is proving to be a pretty effective NBA coach. No one expected much from the Bucks this season but they surpassed some more heralded teams to earn just their third playoff appearance since 2007.

#4 Toronto (49-33) vs. #5 Washington (46-36)

Season series: Toronto, 3-0

Washington can win if...the Wizards can recapture the form they demonstrated in last year's playoffs and in the first half of this season.

Toronto will win because...the Raptors are a team on the rise in general and they match up well with the Wizards in particular.

Other things to consider: The Wizards started out 19-6 but went 27-30 the rest of the way. There is little reason to believe that they will suddenly turn things around.

Western Conference First Round

#1 Golden State (67-15) vs. #8 New Orleans (45-37)

Season series: Golden State, 3-1

New Orleans can win if...Anthony Davis plays at a historically great level and if the pressure of being the number one overall seed proves to be too much for the young Warriors.

Golden State will win because...the Warriors proved over an 82 game season that they are an outstanding team. Stephen Curry emerged as the best player on the best team, Klay Thompson is an All-NBA Team candidate and the rotation includes several other very talented players.

Other things to consider: Golden State versus a reasonably healthy Oklahoma City would have been fascinating but that possibility was dashed when the Thunder shut down Kevin Durant. Golden State versus Russell Westbrook on a solo mission would have been compelling theater. Golden State versus New Orleans is going to prove to be a mismatch, though Davis' debut on the postseason stage is worth watching.

#2 Houston (56-26) vs. #7 Dallas (50-32)

Season series: Houston, 3-1

Houston can win if...Dwight Howard controls the paint and the referees reward James Harden for flailing on his drives to the hoop. The Rockets need for Harden to shoot at least .450 from the field, draw a large number of free throw attempts and not turn the ball over at a high rate. Houston also must hope that playoff Rajon Rondo does not show up.

Dallas will win because...the Mavericks are not going to let Harden just march to the free throw line. They will contest his three point shots, exploit his lack of a midrange game and contest his drives without hacking him. Dirk Nowitzki is declining but the every other day scheduling of the playoffs should help him recover between games. Rajon Rondo has a history of rising to the occasion in the playoffs. He could be a pesky defender on Harden.

Other things to consider: We have heard for three years that Harden is a "foundational player," to quote Houston GM Daryl Morey's peculiar description after acquiring Harden. Many people think that Harden deserves the 2015 MVP. Dwight Howard missed half of the season but the Rockets went 28-12 with him--including 5-2 down the stretch to secure the second seed--and he is healthy now. There are no excuses for Harden and the Rockets to not make a deep playoff run--but I think that Harden will once again struggle as his team falls in the first round.

#3 L.A. Clippers (56-26) vs. #6 San Antonio (55-27)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

L.A. can win if...Chris Paul lives up to his press clippings as an MVP candidate.

San Antonio will win because...the Spurs finally have their full championship nucleus back in action. San Antonio won 11 straight games before falling in the final game of the season. Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard missed 18 games but he reasserted himself down the stretch as one of the best two way players in the league.

Other things to consider: This is a nightmare matchup for the Clippers. The Clippers are not particularly tough mentally and have yet to make it to the Conference Finals despite having a talented roster headlined by two MVP caliber players. These are two of the top six teams in the league but one of them will be going home very early and it will most likely be the Clippers.

#4 Portland (51-31) vs. #5 Memphis (55-27)

Season series: Memphis, 4-0

Memphis can win if...the Grizzlies slow the game down, pound the Trail Blazers in the paint and make just enough outside shots to prevent Portland from trapping Memphis' big men.

Portland will win because...LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard will be the two best players on the court and Memphis' chronic inability to make a shot outside of the paint will enable Portland to harass Memphis' big men with extra defenders.

Other things to consider: Memphis swept the season series but that does not always mean much heading into the playoffs, when there is more time off between games and a team is able to focus on the opposing team's weakness. Memphis went 5-6 in the final 11 games, slipping from second in the West to fifth (Portland received the fourth seed despite having a worse record by virtue of winning the Pacific Division title). The Grizzlies' lack of outside shooting and overall lack of scoring punch will be too much to for them to overcome.

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I expect the second round matchups to be Atlanta-Toronto, Cleveland-Chicago, Golden State-Portland and San Antonio-Dallas. Atlanta-Toronto should be entertaining but I expect Atlanta to prevail. Cleveland-Chicago will be a hard fought series; Chicago enjoys an edge in coaching and toughness but LeBron James should be enough to overcome those factors if he plays at his top level. Golden State has too much firepower for Portland. San Antonio and Dallas have contested some classic playoff series and this could be another one but the Mavericks do not have quite enough weapons and togetherness to dethrone the champions.

The Conference Finals should be outstanding. Atlanta is San Antonio East and the Hawks will try to frustrate LeBron James much like the Spurs have done two out of three times in the NBA Finals. As always, it will come down to which LeBron James shows up. If he plays his best, the Cavaliers will beat the Hawks. Golden State-San Antonio is a dream matchup, as the young upstarts seek to unseat the league's model franchise. It is tough to win three playoff series without home court advantage but if any team can do it the Spurs can. Look for the Spurs to get the split at Golden State in the first two games and win the series in six games.

The Spurs have been Kryptonite to LeBron James' Superman ever since they swept his Cavaliers in the 2007 Finals. The Spurs are smart, they are tough and they do not deviate from their principles or game plan under pressure. Coach Gregg Popovich is one of the great leaders in sports history. The Spurs will need all of those assets to win back to back NBA titles and overcome James' quest to end Cleveland's 50-plus year professional sports championship drought. Kawhi Leonard has demonstrated that he can make James work at both ends of the court. Tim Duncan is not as statistically dominant as he was when he won back to back regular season MVPs more than a decade ago but he anchors the Spurs' defense and provides an important post presence offensively. Tony Parker's speed and ability to finish in the paint put great pressure on opposing defenses.

I expect the San Antonio Spurs to win the 2015 NBA championship.

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Here is a summary of the results of my previous predictions both for playoff qualifiers and for the outcomes of playoff series:

In my 2014-2015 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked five of this season's eight playoff teams and I went seven for eight in my 2014-2015 Western Conference Preview. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2014: East 6/8, West 6/8
2013: East 7/8, West 6/8
2012: East 8/8, West 7/8
2011: East 5/8, West 5/8
2010: East 6/8, West 7/8
2009: East 6/8, West 7/8
2008: East 5/8, West 7/8
2007: East 7/8, West 6/8
2006: East 6/8, West 6/8

That adds up to 61/80 in the East and 64/80 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of .781.

Here is my record in terms of picking the results of playoff series:

2014: 13/15
2013: 14/15
2012: 11/15
2011: 10/15
2010: 10/15
2009: 10/15
2008: 12/15
2007: 12/15
2006: 10/15
2005: 9/15

Total: 111/150 (.740)

At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in the past 10 years I have correctly picked 10 of the 20 NBA Finals participants. In three of those 10 years I got both teams right but only once did I get both teams right and predict the correct result (2007). I correctly picked the NBA Champion before the playoffs began just twice: 2007 and 2013.

I track these results separately from the series by series predictions because a lot can change from the start of the playoffs to the NBA Finals, so my prediction right before the NBA Finals may differ from what I predicted in April.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:22 PM

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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Which Statistics Best Predict Championship Success?

Which statistics best correlate with championship success? I wrote about this subject for NBCSports.com in 2006 and then updated that article in 2009. My newest article for The Roar compares the 2015 Golden State Warriors to NBA champions since 1990: Which Statistics Best Predict Championship Success?

Also, here is a list of how the past seven NBA champions ranked in point differential and defensive field goal percentage:

2008 Boston Celtics: 10.2 ppg point differential (1), .419 defensive field goal percentage (1)
2009 L.A. Lakers: 7.6 ppg point differential (2), .447 defensive field goal percentage (6)
2010 L.A. Lakers: 4.7 ppg point differential (6), .446 defensive field goal percentage (5)
2011 Dallas Mavericks: 4.2 ppg point differential (8), .450 defensive field goal percentage (8)
2012 Miami Heat: 6.0 ppg point differential (4), .434 defensive field goal percentage (5)
2013 Miami Heat: 7.9 ppg point differential (2), .440 defensive field goal percentage (6)
2014 San Antonio Spurs: 7.8 ppg point differential (1), .444 defensive field goal percentage (8)

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:39 PM

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Olympic Star/ABA MVP/NBA All-Star Spencer Haywood Receives Overdue Hall of Fame Selection

Spencer Haywood, who has been selected as a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame's 2015 class, is a seminal figure in basketball history. He starred for the 1968 gold-medal winning U.S. basketball team after many black players boycotted that squad. Then, Haywood left the University of Detroit as an underclassman to play for the ABA's Denver Rockets, for whom Haywood won Rookie of the Year, All-Star Game MVP and regular season MVP honors in 1969-70 after leading the league in scoring (30.0 ppg) and rebounding (19.5 rpg). Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain (37.6 ppg, 27.0 rpg) and Walt Bellamy (31.6 ppg, 19.0 rpg) are the only other rookies in pro basketball history who averaged at least 30 ppg and at least 19.0 rpg.

After a contract dispute with the Rockets, Haywood jumped to the NBA and signed with the Seattle Supersonics, precipitating a legal battle that eventually reached the Supreme Court:

Haywood's case involved a tangled web of legal issues: the Denver Rockets accused attorney Al Ross of convincing Haywood to breach his contract with them, while Haywood and Ross responded that the Rockets had signed Haywood when he was still a minor and did not have proper legal representation; the NBA objected to Seattle signing Haywood before his college class had graduated; the ABA wanted Haywood to be forbidden from playing for Seattle and compelled to fulfill the terms of his Rockets' contract; the NBA Buffalo Braves felt that they should have the rights to draft Haywood and attempt to sign him before any other NBA club dealt with him.

The NBA's four year rule was declared illegal by the courts and Haywood was permitted to play with the Supersonics until the remaining legal issues were resolved. The legal wrangling wiped out most of Haywood's 1970-1971 season and he played in only 33 games for the Supersonics, posting very respectable averages of 20.6 points and 12.0 rebounds. Haywood's case was eventually settled out of court, with the end result that he was allowed to remain with the Supersonics permanently.

The overturning of the four year rule had a lasting impact on collegiate and professional sports. In 1971 the NBA instituted a "hardship" rule that allowed underclassmen to be drafted as long as they proved that they suffered from financial hardship. Needless to say, such declarations were a mere formality, as noted by writer Jackie Lapin in the April 1975 issue of Sport: "…almost anyone who has been any good at the game in the past decade would qualify--with the probable exception of Bill Bradley, the banker’s son."


Haywood's case paved the way for players to enter the NBA before their college class graduated. He thus affected the career paths of a host of Hall of Famers, from Magic Johnson to Isiah Thomas to Michael Jordan all the up to Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

Haywood's transition to the NBA was not easy. Haywood has often said that during his first season with Seattle the road team public address announcer would say Haywood's name and then declare that he was an "illegal player" who would not be permitted to participate. I have not been able to find a published account that includes that specific detail but, in a larger sense, Haywood's recollection is accurate. The Bulls sued the Supersonics for $600,000 and the Trail Blazers formally protested a 121-118 loss because Haywood's presence on Seattle's roster was an illegal distraction. According to an article in the January 4, 1971 edition of The Bulletin, Haywood sat on the bench but did not play in the games in question versus Chicago and Portland.

For decades, Haywood has felt slighted by the NBA, its players and the Hall of Fame selection process. He believes that the NBA never forgave him for winning in court and that many of the players who came after him never heard of him and/or did not appreciate his role in changing the rules. In a 2004 interview, Haywood told me, "The young guys coming out now don't get to know who Spencer Haywood is. They (the NBA) have named the rule 'early entry.' So, 'early entry' was not a person. 'Early entry' never went to the Supreme Court and fought anybody."

Haywood is very proud of his performance in the 1968 Olympics, when he averaged a team-high 16.1 ppg and set a U.S. Olympic record by shooting .719 from the field as Team USA went 9-0. He is the first teenager (age 19) to play for the U.S. Olympic basketball team. Haywood told me, "In '68 we went to the Olympics and we had the black boycott and all these things, Harry Edwards and everybody was against us and all these things, but we looked at ourselves as Americans, Americans first, and that we had to defend our country against the oncoming enemy, which at that time was Russia, the Soviets, whoever. It's the same thing that is going on now in terms of sports. When you talk about international sports, you talk about the Davis Cup in tennis and the World Cup, I mean countries are going nuts over this. Why aren't we as Americans looking at it as something special?"

After carrying Team USA to the gold medal, Haywood made his aforementioned spectacular ABA debut. Haywood was a dominant player in the first portion of his career. He averaged 24.9 ppg and 12.1 rpg during his five seasons in Seattle, earning four All-Star selections and four All-NBA Team selections (including First Team honors in 1972 and 1973 when he finished fifth and seventh respectively in MVP voting).

Seattle traded Haywood to the New York Knicks in 1975 and his battle with cocaine addiction tarnished the latter part of his career. He bounced around to several teams and he only averaged more than 20 ppg once in his final seven seasons. Haywood averaged a career-low 9.7 ppg in 1979-80 as a member of the Lakers' championship team, though he was suspended during the playoffs and did not receive his championship ring for several years. He spent the 1980-81 season playing pro basketball in Italy. Haywood bounced back in 1981-82 as a solid contributor (13.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg) who helped Washington advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since the Bullets reached the NBA Finals in 1979.

Haywood averaged 20.3 ppg and 10.3 rpg in his 13 season professional career. His high performance level in college basketball, Olympic basketball and pro basketball should have earned him Hall of Fame induction years ago. When I spoke with Haywood about the slight, he was understandably upset but also philosophical about his situation: "What I do is I try to eat right, treat people right, and do right and pray right and just be righteous with people. In time, it will come. That's my thing."

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:42 PM

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