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Friday, April 14, 2017

2016-17 Playoff Predictions

Before I make my annual playoff predictions, here are some of my thoughts about the 2016-17 NBA season.

Several players performed at a very high level but only one player had a historic season--and his numbers were directly connected to his team's success: Russell Westbrook should win the MVP in a landslide but because of The Tortured Logic of the 2017 NBA MVP Race we are supposed to believe that there are other legitimate contenders. Just to be clear: several players performed at a "normal" MVP level in 2016-17 but Westbrook operated at a distinctly higher level:

1) Westbrook became the only player other than Oscar Robertson to average a triple double for an entire season and along the way Westbrook broke Robertson's single season record by posting 42 triple doubles. Westbrook's Oklahoma City Thunder went 33-9 when he posted a triple double and 14-26 when he did not--in other words, when Westbrook played at a superhuman level he lifted the Thunder to the level of the San Antonio Spurs but when he was "merely" great the Thunder performed comparably to the Philadelphia 76ers. The only other guards who have had that kind of singular impact on the performance of an otherwise bad team are Pistol Pete Maravich with the Jazz in the late 1970s and Kobe Bryant with the mid-2000s Lakers.

2) Westbrook became the first player 6-3 or under to average at least 10 rpg.

3) Westbrook is the first player to average at least 30 ppg and at least 10 rpg in the same season since Karl Malone in 1989-90; Malone is a Hall of Fame power forward, yet the 6-3 point guard Westbrook accomplished something that Hall of Fame big men including Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing never did once in their entire careers.

4) Westbrook became the first player to average at least 30 ppg and at least 10 apg in the same season since Nate Archibald in 1972-73.

5) Westbrook averaged 31.6 ppg, 10.7 rpg and 10.4 apg, ranking in the top 10 in the league in each category: first in scoring (his second scoring title), third in assists and 10th in rebounding.  

Do you like "advanced basketball statistics"? I don't but all of the "stat gurus" who used such numbers to place Chris Paul or Steve Nash ahead of Kobe Bryant about a decade ago should note that Westbrook ranked first in plus/minus, first in offensive plus/minus, second in defensive plus/minus and first in value over replacement player. Westbrook is derided in some quarters as a bad defensive player but in one of the metrics that the "stat gurus" love--defensive rating--Westbrook ranked 13th, ahead of all of the other MVP candidates except Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant, neither of whom had the impact on the boards or on offense that Westbrook had.

The second biggest story of the season was the "rest" epidemic. Commissioner Adam Silver seems to be belatedly figuring out that this is a major issue, though it is still not clear exactly what he will do to remedy the problem. Meanwhile, until he does his job it is fair to say that NBA Primetime Saturday Night is NOT Fantastic. Even worse, the last week of the season turned into a farce, as the Cleveland Cavaliers "rested" their way from first place in the East to second place (thereby sending the message that the regular season does not mean much) while the Brooklyn Nets' tanking for draft picks not only made the Draft Lottery a sham but also affected who received the final Eastern Conference playoff berth as the Nets gladly absorbed a 112-73 beatdown from the Chicago Bulls on the final day of the regular season. Tickets to that game sure were worth the price of admission.

The third biggest story was that Kevin Durant proved to be the best player on an absolutely stacked Golden State team. The Warriors slumped as soon as he was injured and even though they eventually found their way--as they should be able to do considering the amount of talent on the roster--it was very obvious that when the squad was at full strength Durant was the man, not two-time reigning MVP Stephen Curry. What ultimately matters is who is the best player on the team when the team is at full strength, not the ability of a team with multiple All-Stars to win some games without Durant.

The fourth biggest story is that the NBA's version of Rasputin, the San Antonio Spurs, won more than 60 games. Every year for about the past decade or so the Spurs are written off and yet in virtually every year they are not only a regular season force but also a legitimate championship contender.

Other storylines of note include the ups and downs of the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers and the remarkable second half surge of the Miami Heat, who fell just short of securing a playoff berth. We have looked back enough for now, though, so it is time to shift our attention forward to the playoffs.

Here are my first round predictions:

The Cleveland Cavaliers stood atop the Eastern Conference for most of the season but their defense fell apart months ago, enabling the Boston Celtics to nip them at the finish line. Coasting through the regular season only to turn things up in the playoffs worked (sometimes) for Shaquille O'Neal and the L.A. Lakers, though it is worth noting that the Lakers had another MVP caliber player who most assuredly never coasted (Kobe Bryant). The Cavaliers seem to take their cues from James and when he coasts/quits they act like a substitute teacher is running class so anything goes.

The 53-29 Boston Celtics, both on paper and by the eye test, are probably one of the worst NBA teams to earn a number one seed in the past 40 years or so. That is not meant as a knock against what the Celtics have accomplished with a young coach and the 5-9 wunderkind Isaiah Thomas as floor general; it is just a statement of fact. Boston split the four game regular season series with the 41-41 Chicago Bulls but even though the Bulls' veteran backcourt of Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade has championship pedigree I expect the Celtics to win in six games.

The 2-7 matchup is a battle of underachieving teams--but one is a heavyweight while the other is a lightweight, so the outcome is not in much doubt. The 51-31 Cleveland Cavaliers treated the regular season with indifference at best but the 42-40 Indiana Pacers might be the most disappointing team in the league--at least if you believe what most "experts" predicted before the season began (I correctly pegged the Pacers as a .500 team but mistakenly thought that this would not be good enough to qualify for postseason play). LeBron James may enter "chill mode" during the regular season and he has at times quit during the latter rounds of postseason play but he is even better than Michael Jordan  at mercilessly knocking out weak teams in the first round. The Cavaliers will sweep the Pacers unless they become so bored that they lose a game in Indiana in order to clinch the series in front of the hometown crowd.

The 51-31 Toronto Raptors have fallen out of the Eastern Conference championship conversation but I am not sure why. This is an improved version of the team that pushed the Cavaliers to six games in last year's Eastern Conference Finals and if they stay healthy they are fully capable of making another deep playoff run. I did not expect Milwaukee to make the playoffs after Khris Middleton suffered an apparently season-ending injury but he came back in the final third of the season to lead the Bucks to a 19-12 record down the stretch, just enough to earn the sixth seed with a 42-40 record. This series features some intriguing, fun matchups but in the end Toronto will win in six games.

I expected the Washington Wizards to be a strong team. They started the season very slowly but down the stretch they made a run at the number one seed before setting for the fourth seed with a 49-33 record. The mercurial Atlanta Hawks finished 43-39 to grab the fifth seed. Both of these teams are so inconsistent that they are hard to read but I expect the Wizards to prevail in six games. John Wall is the modern Micheal Ray Richardson (without the off court issues) and he is the best player in this series.

In the Western Conference, the 67-15 Golden State Warriors are in the middle of one of the best three year runs in pro basketball history--but if they finish that run with "only" one championship then they cannot seriously be compared with the Russell Celtics, Magic Johnson Lakers, Jordan-Pippen Bulls or Shaq-Kobe Lakers, dynasties that each captured at least one set of back to back titles. Golden State's first round matchup with the Portland Trailblazers may feature one or two close games but in the end the Warriors will sweep the Trailblazers.

The 61-21 San Antonio Spurs are eight games ahead of any team in the Eastern Conference and just six games behind the Warriors. The 43-39 Memphis Grizzlies are almost annually pumped up as the proverbial team that no one wants to face but in the past six years they have lost in the first round three times and they have lost in the second round twice. The Spurs will win this series in five games.

The 55-27 Houston Rockets won about 10 more games than I expected them to win. I knew that James Harden would put up video game numbers in Mike D'Antoni's system but I thought that new additions Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon would continue to be injury-prone players; I also thought that any team with Harden as the leader would experience a fair amount of chemistry issues. The Rockets' opponent, the 47-35 Oklahoma City Thunder, finished one seed higher than I predicted (but I ranked Westbrook much higher as a leader and impact player than most "experts" did before the season began). In 2015-16, the Thunder squandered more fourth quarter leads than any team in the league. In the playoffs, they blew a 3-1 lead versus Golden State. At that time, the default late game option was for Westbrook to defer to Durant. This season, the Thunder are clearly a less talented team, so it is no surprise that their overall record is worse--but Westbrook has been a fourth quarter beast. When will the media members who wrongly dogged Westbrook for years at least concede that it is possible that Durant, not Westbrook, is the player who should have been deferring in those fourth quarter debacles?

The Harden-led Rockets are usually a safe bet to lose in the first round but the reality of this matchup is that they have a better and deeper overall roster than Thunder. Westbrook will likely outscore, outrebound and outshoot Harden with Harden enjoying a narrow edge in assists but unless Westbrook's teammates keep the games close enough for him to take over down the stretch the Rockets have to be considered the favorite. I predict that Houston prevails in seven games.

The L.A. Clippers annually are a supposed contender that can never advance past the second round. The Utah Jazz are a tough-minded, defensive squad but it is not clear if they can score enough to beat the Clippers. Both teams won 51 games but the Clippers own homecourt advantage thanks to the tiebreaker and that should be enough for the Clippers to win in seven games.

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Thus, I expect the second round matchups to be Boston-Washington, Cleveland-Toronto, Golden State-L.A. Clippers and San Antonio-Houston. The battle of the backcourts in the first series will be very fun to watch but in the end I will take Boston. Toronto pushed Cleveland to six games in last year's Eastern Conference Finals and the Raptors are capable of at least as much this time around but one suspects that "Playoff LeBron" will show up at least four times, which is enough for Cleveland to advance.

Warriors-Clippers is supposedly a great rivalry with some bad blood but when push comes to shove there will be more Draymond Green technical fouls and flagrant fouls than Clipper wins. The Spurs fell to the Durant-Westbrook duo last season but, as is usually the case, they will not have much trouble sending a Mike D'Antoni team home.

Boston and Cleveland had some great playoff battles during the first part of James' career. Now, as the saying goes, he is the master and they are the student. Cleveland will steal a road game early in the series and then prevail in six games.

The Spurs have the necessary parts to defeat Golden State but something has been off with the Spurs all season. I realize that may seem strange to say about a 61 win team but it is undeniable that at times the Spurs have lacked toughness and focus. Golden State will win in seven games.

If my predictions are right, then we will be treated to the first NBA Finals trilogy enacted over three consecutive seasons. For most of the season, I held firm to my belief that the Cavaliers have a great chance to repeat as champions but I have changed my mind because their defense is just not championship-caliber. Golden State will win in six games and stake a claim as one of the league's top three year dynasties.

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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 2016-2017 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked five of this season's eight playoff teams and I went seven for eight in my 2016-2017 Western Conference Preview. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2016: East 5/8, West 6/8
2015: East 5/8, West 7/8
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 71/96 in the East and 77/96 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of .771.

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

2016: 12/15
2015: 10/15
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: 133/180 (.739)

At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in the past 12 years I have correctly picked 13 of the 24 NBA Finals participants. In four of those 12 years (including 2016) 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 @ 1:26 AM

30 comments

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30 Comments:

At Friday, April 14, 2017 10:46:00 AM, Blogger Keith said...

In relation toWorth nothing that Westbrook has also been close to having been voted into the All-Defensive team a couple of times, including when it was still voted upon by the coaches. I'm not really sure where this idea that he's a bad defender comes from.

 
At Friday, April 14, 2017 1:58:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Keith-

I did not know that, and it frankly shocks me. Westbrook is a very bad defender. Reasons include but are not limited to:

* Chronic ball-watcher who gives up at least a couple back-door cuts per game.
* Does not hustle back in transition, particularly if he feels he just got fouled (Dwyane Wade syndrome).
* Never met a ball-fake he didn't bite on.
* Slams into every screen like he's Wile E. Coyote charging into a painted tunnel.
* Rarely contests his man (contested an average of 3 shots per game this year, among the lowest in the league).
* Rarely makes second or third rotations.
* Often leaves his assignment early to get rebounding position (Kevin Love syndrome).
* Tends to linger in the paint after an (opposing) offensive rebound, rather than recover to his assignment.
* Often late to rotate, particularly if he thinks the opponent is going to shoot.
* Rarely recovers to his man after offering help-D (though he is a pretty good helper, to his credit).
* Gambles for steals he has no chance of getting, leaving him out of position.


He's still my MVP for the year, but his defense is not part of the reason why.

 
At Friday, April 14, 2017 6:45:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Nick,

Just gonna have to disagree that Russ is a very bad defender but I agree his defense is not really why he is MVP this year and that he does gamble on steals a lot (it's often gotten him in the Top 10 of the league on steals though for the past few years). I wouldn't categorize him as an elite defender currently but he also a) carries a large offensive workload that means he often has to pick his spots, b) has all the athletic tools to be an elite defender, c) was praised for his defense coming into the league, and d) has received nods from current coaches like Frank Vogel and Terry Scotts for his defense.

Incosistent? Sure maybe. Terrible? No, I really can't understand that. Maybe David has more to add but defensive stats seem to back it up!

 
At Friday, April 14, 2017 8:40:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Keith-

" b) has all the athletic tools to be an elite defender, c) was praised for his defense coming into the league"

I totally agree with both those points and it's what drives me nuts about him. He COULD be a great defender if he wanted to. The offensive load/spot-picking argument may fly for this season, but it doesn't excuse the six years or whatever he played with Durant and put in exactly the same amount of defensive effort.

As for stats, it's worth noting that most defensive stats factor in DRBs, which obviously Russ is great at... but so is Kevin Love, and I think we can all agree he's not a great defender either. More complex stats, like RBPM or On/Offs make Russ look a little better than he is defensively as he plays most of his minutes with four good-to-great defensive players, and the lineups without him almost invariably include OKC's by far worst defender in Kanter and usually at least two other poor defensive players.

I wouldn't go quite so far as to call him terrible. I said "very bad" above, and that's about how I feel. He's certainly a better defender than, say, Harden or Lillard or Thomas, who are all terrible defenders.

 
At Saturday, April 15, 2017 2:03:00 AM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

My Predictions:

Bulls over Celtics in six games. The Celtics really don't impress me. The Bulls were terrible this year, but if Wade is remotely close to what he was in last year's playoffs and Jimmy has a breakout playoff performance then they can pull off the upset. Otherwise, I don't see the Celtics winning before 7 games, maybe 6.

Cavs over Pacers in five. The Cavs can sweep them, but it probably won't happen.

Raptors in seven over the Bucks. While the Bucks, are average, the Raptors struggle in the playoffs and the Bucks are young and hungry. They should give them a run for their money, but I can see the Raptors closing it in 6 too.

Wizards in five over Hawks. This could maybe go six if the Wizards fail to close a couple games, but the Hawks have no chance without a John Wall injury.

Warriors in five over Blazers. This could be a sweep, but I feel like a backcourt of Lillard and McCollum can still a game at home.

Spurs over Grizzlies in six. This Spurs team is not that great despite their 60 wins. The Griz will give them a run for their money.

OKC in six over the Rockets, IF Westbrook's supporting cast plays well, otherwise Rockets in 7.

Clippers in five over the Jazz if they show up. Otherwise the Jazz can push it to six or seven games.

 
At Saturday, April 15, 2017 2:27:00 AM, Blogger Awet M said...

Solid picks. Here are my quick and dirty observations.
GSW - Blazers. Without Nurkic healthy the Blazers won't steal a game. GSW sweep.

Spurs - Grizzlies. Spurs' superior depth will wear down Grit and Grind. Leonard will make clutch plays if necessary. San Antonio in 5.

Rockets - Thunder. This won't go seven cuz the Thunder can't keep up with the Rockets' superior firepower and they lack the defenders to slow down that three point barrage. Rockets in 5.

Clippers - Jazz. Neither team plays well on the road so Clippers win due to homecourt advantage. That and this could be their last dance together. Clips in 6.

Celtics - Bulls. The Bulls' veteran savvy will extend the series, but the Celtics will not choke. The Bulls will force Thomas to give up the ball and make the others beat them. Celtics in 6.

Cavaliers - Pacers. George can make LBJ look old but LBJ is even better than Jordan was in the first round. The Cavaliers' offense will hide their deficiencies on defense until the later rounds. Cavaliers in 6.

Raptors - Bucks. Raptors are balanced and versatile, and can withstand the Bucks athleticism and hunger. Giannis can single handedly extend the series though. Raptors in 6.

Wizards - Hawks. Wall and Beal will outgun the Hawks by themselves, and Gortat will neutralize Howard. Wizards in 6.

 
At Saturday, April 15, 2017 4:55:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

just for fun, my predictions:
BOS-CHI 4:2
CLE-IND 4:1
TOR-MIL 4:1
WAS-ATL 4:3

GSW-POR 4:0
SAS-MEM 4:2
HOU-OKC 4:2
LAC-UTA 4:3

then Cavs over Celts in ECF and GSW over SAS in WCF, finals for GSW this time around

WAS vs ATL is toss up, but Wizards have better coach I think, Clippers tend to have trouble in playoffs with some unexpected losses. I agree Spurs are not the Spurs... my dream is for them to acquire Westbrook.

 
At Saturday, April 15, 2017 10:01:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Keith/Nick:

I think that some of the criticisms that Nick makes regarding Westbrook's defense may have some validity (such as going too often for pump fakes or not attacking screens as aggressively as possible) but that Westbrook is not as consistently deficient in these or other areas as Nick suggests. I also think that the things that Westbrook does well defensively--including rebounding to complete the defensive possession and being disruptive in the passing lanes--more than mitigate Westbrook's deficiencies.

 
At Saturday, April 15, 2017 10:07:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Kyle:

I would be surprised if this inconsistent Bulls team finds a way to win four games against the Celtics, even if the Celtics are probably one of the weakest top seeds in NBA history.

 
At Saturday, April 15, 2017 1:53:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

I'm really curious about Memphis vs. SAS, LAC vs. UTA, and TOR vs. MIL and eventually CLE. I also kinda think OKC is gonna beat HOU. HOU's team fits together better, but OKC has more overall talent and doesn't need as much help from the refs. RWB doesn't have the same history of seeing his numbers crater in the playoffs that Harden does.

I am, I'm sure to no one's surprise, bummed that Miami missed out, as I think (assuming a heathy-isa Waiters) they coulda taken everybody in the East except Toronto and probably Cleveland. I agree that Boston is a super-vulnerable one-seed, and it wouldn't shock me if they lost to Chicago, and I expect them to lose to Washington in the second round (although I think they're better coached than WAS, so we'll see).

Now is probably not the time to get into a big argument about it, but for those curious, Miami finished exactly halfway between where I predicted and where David did, which I think is pretty funny given my history of claiming that "the truth may well be somewhere in the middle" in our various disagreements. I was a little closer on Dragic's numbers, but he actually outperformed both our expectations scoring-wise, though his late season bursitis likely cost him a second 50/40/20 season.

Personal predictions aside, it's a shame to see a team that played that hard- and when relatively healthy, that well- miss out while cannon-fodder like Indiana and Portland get in. It'll be interesting to see how much of Miami is back next year (and if they're any luckier health-wise).

 
At Saturday, April 15, 2017 4:12:00 PM, Blogger beep said...

Miami was bluntly put out of playoffs by Nets sitting their starters. If that isn't result fixing, then I don't know what is. And NBA did nothing about this blatant give away. No one seems to care either, so people blaming NBA for fixing results seem more and more right with each passing season.

I think full strength Nets would likely lose too, but that isn't the point.

 
At Saturday, April 15, 2017 10:31:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

*Correction

After revisiting David's Eastern Preview article, I see that I had misremembered my own predictions. I had pegged the Heat for 44 wins and the 8 seed (not 46 and 6th as I thought) and missed that mark by three games (though in that case they'd actually have been a five seed) and a tiebreaker, respectively.

I also though I'd predicted Dragic at 18-20 and 6-7, but upon revisiting I had him at 19-21 and 7, so I actually bulsleyed his scoring (20.3), but missed by a little over one assist.

I was correct that his various journeyman additions (Ellington/Johnson/Babbitt/Waiters/Reed) all had either career years or at least significantly improved years, though in the cases of Ellington and Johnson some of the credit for that belongs to their weight-loss, which was obviously not Dragic's doing.

I was likewise correct that they were poorly equipped to survive an injury to either Dragic or Whiteside; they went 1-8 in games Dragic missed, and 1-4 in games he left early due to injury (the one win their coming in a game that was a blowout before he got injured vs. TOR). They also staggered down the stretch to a slightly over .500 record with no Waiters and Dragic playing on essentially one foot due to bursitis. Whiteside was slightly healthier, missing only 5 games (in which they went 2-3). Particularly painful for me as a gambler was the late Indiana game Dragic missed with his eye swollen shut after an elbow; MIA almost won even without him (Indy's not great), and a win there would have made me money both by presumably getting the Heat into the playoffs and again by likely keeping the Pacers out of them. Sigh.

I was dead wrong about Justice Winslow, who I expected to improve, but who was abominable for the 18 games his played (4-14), though it's hard to know if he would have bounced back eventually had he not gotten hurt. I was slightly less wrong about Josh Richardson, who got off to a slow start but played well once he got healthy, particularly near the end of the season.

I of course did not expect Miami to lead the league in injuries (though I did know Bosh was out). Had I known that, i'd honestly have predicted much fewer wins than they ended up with. Winslow going out was ultimately probably a blessing in disguise, but more health from Waiters/Richardson/Dragic would have gone a long way, and McRoberts is certainly a better player than Babbit, who claimed his starting job. They lost, according to most articles, 328 man-games to injury. By contrast, the team I was wrongest about (Harden's Rockets) lost only 58 man games to injuries. OKC was the second healthiest team, at 73 games lost (I was wrong about them too, but by a smaller margin; I had them at 42, mostly because I thought RWB would miss a few games here or there). GSW and SA also had under 100 lost (though of course missing Durant is a bigger deal than missing almost anyone else), as did Phoenix (fat load of good that did them. Kill me now.).

Cleveland was only the 17th most injured team in the league, but their fans sure loved to wine about it anyway. They did lose a decent chunk of Love's season, to be fair, but Frye is a serviceable replacement for the offense they run. They also did most of their underachieving late in the season, when everyone was healthy.

As an aside, Portland was the most injured playoff team (171 games lost), so credit to them. They continue to make me look like an idiot season after season, as I had them missing the playoffs this year (I thought Dallas or NO would make it).

Moral of the story here is that I really hate injuries, and when I lose money, they're often the reason why (though I at least still won my Miami over bets this year as Vegas way underestimated them at 32-34wins). Somebody build a purple ray already.

 
At Sunday, April 16, 2017 12:41:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

In my 2016-17 Eastern Conference preview, I predicted that Miami would be a sub-/.500 team that missed the playoffs. I also stated that I expected teams 6-11 in the East to be bunched together and thus I "would not be surprised if Chicago, Indiana and New York beat out the teams that I have picked for 6th-8th." I was correct about four of the top five teams in the East (albeit not in the right order) and I was correct about teams 6-11, which were separated by just six games in the standings. I overestimated Detroit, Charlotte and especially Orlando and I underestimated Milwaukee based on expecting the Middleton injury to be too much to overcome (he returned late in the season and sparked a spurt that vaulted the Bucks into the top eight--thus validating the value that I ascribed to him). The Heat ended up exactly where I expected: out of the playoffs. Granted, the Heat started out worse than I expected before closing on a tear but my predictions pertain to the entire season and are designed to incorporate reasonably predictable injuries, etc. (i.e., not season-ending injuries to key stars who were healthy at the time I made my predictions, but the general health of players based on their previous durability). I don't believe that the Heat are as bad as they looked at the start but I also don't believe that they are as good as they looked down the stretch; this team as presently constructed will not win 60 games next season just because they closed the season on a 60 win pace.

As for Dragic, in the Comments section to that article I responded to a query from you by predicting that Dragic would average 16-18 ppg and 5-6 apg. I also predicted that his overall FG% would decline and I stated that I had no prediction about his 3FG%. Dragic averaged 20.3 ppg and 5.8 apg while shooting .476 from the field, just slightly lower than his .477 mark in 2015-16.

We will likely never agree on how to quantify/assess Dragic's impact on his teammates. You think that he magically induces guys who are in their primes to improve their numbers but I just don't buy that his impact is nearly as great as you state. Whiteside is an emerging star who only needed to become more mature and that seemed to happen this season. Waiters has always been talented but at his previous stops the ball was always in the hands of clearly superior players. In Miami, Waiters received more of an opportunity to do his thing. You may consider this a ringing endorsement of Dragic's impact but I see it as an indication that Dragic is not as good as Westbrook, LeBron or Durant.

The reality is that if Dragic is as great as you say then the Heat would not have started out as poorly as they did. The winning streak that they posted is impressive but was a result of multiple factors; we did not see Dragic taking over a la Kobe or Westbrook.

 
At Sunday, April 16, 2017 12:55:00 AM, Blogger Awet M said...

Impressive win by the Bucks. I did not account for their height advantage in the backcourt. The Raptors paid the price for playing Cory Joseph along with Lowry, cuz he couldn't guard Middleton. Not could he drive or shoot over Middleton. Lowry doesn't seem like himself yet and it might be a short series if he doesn't recover his old form ASAP.

 
At Sunday, April 16, 2017 1:28:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

"You may consider this a ringing endorsement of Dragic's impact but I see it as an indication that Dragic is not as good as Westbrook, LeBron or Durant."

I agree. I don't recall ever saying he was better Lebron or Durant, and it's been three years since I thought he was completive with RWB. But I do think he's better than Lillard, Thomas, or Irving.

You predicted Miami would win 35 games- they beat that by 6 games- and miss the playoffs. They were obviously better than their record when you factor in their injuries (in games Dragic played in at all (including games where he was hurt), for example, they won at about a 45 win pace). I would not go so far as to say they are a 60 win team as their second-half schedule was a little easier than their first (although it is worth noting that on the season, they performed at a 55ish win place whenever both Dragic and Waiters were playing) .

It is worth noting that of Miami's 41 losses, 27 of them came with either Dragic or Waiters injured (3 came with both out). I do not recall you predicting meaningful injury problems for either player, but if you factored that into your prediction I am quite impressed.

I also think that had you been told before the season they would lose over four seasons worth of man-games to injury, you would have predicted a much lower win total than you did. I would have too.

I think that their bad start has a lot of factors that are beyond Dragic's control, including his own injuries, Spoelstra's stubborn insistence on running the offense initially through Whiteside/Winslow, and an extremely chaotic rotation with Waiters, Richardson, and Winslow all jumping in and out of the lineup every through weeks.

This is an interesting pattern for Spoelstra. This is the second consecutive season where he has taken about half the season to realize Dragic is the key to his offense, and then seen excellent returns. I think Spoelstra is a great coach generally but he was wrong last year to lean on Wade (who is now only the second-best player on a team that won exactly as many games as Miami did with a lot fewer injuries) and this year to try and forcibly fast-track Winslow's development. Both seasons I predicted that if they put the ball more frequently in Dragic's hands and ran a more PnR based attack, they would do better. Both seasons Spoelstra eventually tried that and both seasons it worked.

1/3

 
At Sunday, April 16, 2017 1:40:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

As for the performances of his supporting cast, we now have a pretty sizable sample size. His PHX teammates all cratered absent him. His teammates from last year who went elsewhere- Wade, Deng, and Johnson- all saw their numbers drop. Part of that is age, but it is worth noting that both Deng and Johnson saw their numbers jump when they played with Dragic last season (Deng's especially so in the second half of the season). This year, exactly as I predicted, their various journeymen all had the best seasons of their careers.

Perhaps this is all a coincidence. Doubtless some of the credit belongs to Spoelstra and the Miami Heat organization. But at this point we have a four year sample size of guys playing their best when playing with Dragic*. What I see with the eye test backs up these numbers; what you do does not.

*Isaiah Thomas exempted.

Additionally, it is underselling Miami's second half quite a bit to call it a "tear." Before this season, no team had come back from 13 games under .500, nevermind 19. Perhaps you will call it a small sample size but it is half of a season and included wins over GSW, Cleveland, Houston (twice), Milwaukee, Washington, Toronto, and Indiana. Their win margin over that stretch trailed only GSW and SAS; before Dragic/Waiters got reinsured (when the sample size was "merely" 30 games or so) they were the winningest team in the league.

It's a shame they started off so poorly, both due to injury and questionable personnel decisions, but they pretty clearly had the talent/performance of a 50-56 win team when reasonably healthy. And Dragic was their best player.

Also, you repeatedly claimed Dragic's '14 season was a fluke; he put up almost exactly the same numbers this season, with much better defense. While you were technically correct that his FG% dropped (to the tune of missing 1 more of every 1000 shots), I'd argue that had a lot more to do with his having a much less healthy season than he did last year than anything to do with the absence of Wade or Bosh. It was also more than compensated for by his 9% jump in 3pt shooting and improved FTAs and FT%.

One of the three requisites you laid out for Dragic to impress you further was that he needed multiple seasons of 20 ppg. You claimed he would not do that unless she played on a Paul-Westphal like team that "scored 120 but allowed 130." The Heat scored 103 and allowed 102. He now has two seasons at 20 ppg. Has this season changed your estimation of him as a "15-5 guy" at all, or is it another "fluke?" Surely you agree that if he'd been healthier, or even if his teammates had, that's probably worth the one extra win to get into the playoffs? They had nearly triple the average number of injuries for an NBA team; you wanna talk about flukes? That's your fluke. If you remove Chris Bosh from the equation entirely, they STILL had the second most injuries, behind only Philadelphia.


2/3

 
At Sunday, April 16, 2017 1:53:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

As for this comment: "The reality is that if Dragic is as great as you say then the Heat would not have started out as poorly as they did. The winning streak that they posted is impressive but was a result of multiple factors; we did not see Dragic taking over a la Kobe or Westbrook."

Part of their poor start was that Goran missed nine early games, was removed from four more with injuries (1-12), and was offensively sidelined and/or playing varying degrees of hurt for much of that stretch. I suspect that if most team's best player missed or essentially missed 12 games, their record would suffer.

Moreover, though, I have never claimed that Dragic is great in the same ways that Kobe or Westbrook are great. He is not as good as either. He is not a consistent 30 pt scorer and never will be, but he is very efficient. He also has either a proven track record of bringing out the best in his teammates or at the very least the good fortune to always be on teams where guys are peaking. The guys I rank him ahead of that you do not- chiefly Thomas/Lillard/Irving- all score a little more than he does, but are atrocious defenders (Dragic is an above average but not elite one). None of them have a higher EFG% than Dragic does. They all have significantly more help and use significantly more possessions, yet produce similar assist numbers (and lower FG%, despite having better offensive help). I am of the opinion that if you put any one of them on his place on this Heat team, they'd be much closer to your prediction of 35 wins.

Pivoting back to predictions, I had three other things to say about the Heat:

1) They would need more front court help to seriously contend. I was pretty right about this; is there a worse starting combo of forwards than Luke Babbitt and 6'4 undrafted rookie Rodney McGruder? You talk often about doing more with less; Dragic got to within a tiebreaker of the playoffs with two starters who wouldn't even make the bench rotation for most playoff teams.

2) They were uniquely poorly suited to deal with injuries to Dragic or Whiteside. We've covered this.

3) They would live-or-die by whether or not their role-players could make their 3s, as those are the open shots Dragic excels at creating. Coincidentally, when their worst three point shooter (Winslow) went away, and their second-worst turned it around (Waiters), they suddenly became deadly.

I have always conceded that, to be his best self, Dragic needs a particular kind of team around him. In the second half of the season, he kinda/sorta had that (despite the aforementioned under qualified forwards). Now, if you just replaced those guys with, say, someone like Channing Frye (replaced by James Johnson in crunch time, natch) and Otto Porter, wouldn't this be a contending Eastern team? And wouldn't Dragic still be the best guy on it? I say yes.

Both Miami and Goran outperformed your predictions despite way more adversity than either of us expected for them. Is that worth anything to you? Or do you still think I'm nuts?

 
At Sunday, April 16, 2017 11:01:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Beep:

I agree with you that what the Nets did is a serious problem. Similarly, the Cavs giving a win to the Clippers is also a serious problem; that happened when Doc Rivers' friend Tyronn Lue sat out the Cavs' main players during a primetime Saturday night game a few weeks ago.

 
At Sunday, April 16, 2017 11:03:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Awet:

Yes, Milwaukee's win was impressive. Milwaukee has sometimes been a hard team for me to read; when I predict that the Bucks will do well they fall off and when I predict that they won't do well they exceed my expectations. They certainly have a lot of talent.

That being said, Toronto has shown the ability to bounce back after losing game one and at this point I still expect Toronto to win this series.

 
At Sunday, April 16, 2017 12:03:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I still would not take Dragic over Thomas, Irving or Lillard. I doubt that any NBA GM/President--including Pat Riley--would, either. Thomas will deservedly receive some MVP votes this season and will certainly be on one of the All-NBA teams. Irving may receive All-NBA consideration as well. Lillard is an All-NBA caliber guard, too, but the guard position is so stacked that I doubt he will make All-NBA this season.

I did not expect Miami to be a playoff team this season with Dragic as the best player and it turned out that I was right. In the end, Miami came very close and I am still not sure which is the "real" Heat: the sorry team in the first half of the season or the very good team in the second half of the season. The sample size is about the same for both, so I am hesitant to draw definitive conclusions.

Dragic is a good pg, so of course in some sense he "makes his teammates better" (to use the cliched phrase that I don't particularly like) but I don't think that you and I will ever agree about the extent to which he makes his teammates better.

In terms of changing my overall opinion of Dragic, I would say that his ability to score 20 ppg this season as his team's best offensive player without a reduction in his FG% surprised me to some extent. I would also say that his impact on his teammates' games is perhaps greater than I have suggested in the past, though I still don't think his impact is as great as you believe.

 
At Sunday, April 16, 2017 1:30:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

David-

I think, as I mentioned before the season, are biggest disagreement at this point is less about Dragic and more about the guys you have ahead of him. I do not think an extra 5-9 points (usually on an extra 5-9 possessions) or whatever are worth what they give up on the other end; watch any Thomas/Irving/Lillard game and they easily give up more than 10 points apiece on blown defensive attempts, lack of effort, or just getting bullied due to their size (Thomas).

Additionally, a league-average possession is worth just about one point, so Irving/Lillard scoring five more points on five more possessions does not impress me at all. Thomas is actually a hair more efficient than Dragic and I would not meaningfully argue against someone who claimed he was a better offensive player (though I would probably point out that Dragic relies a bit less on the refs to help him out). However, he is so bad defensively that despite his league-leading 4th quarter scoring his is only slightly better off with him on than off the court in those scenarios, and despite his presence they win 4th quarters by less than point on average.

I am additionally less impressed by Irving/Thomas/Lillard's higher scoring numbers as they are playing against much more divided defenses that have to account for more shooters, more initiators, and more finishers than Miami.

Briefly, on passing, all four players average essentially the same number of assists, but I think it's fair to say Dragic is passing to crappier players than the other three (though obviously Whiteside is a great finisher). Irving especially ought to be able to top 6 assists hanging out with Lebron James and Kevin Love. I suspect Goran would rather be passing to Jae Crowder than Rodney McGruder, or CJ McCollum rather than Dion Waiters or Josh Richardson, too.

1/2

 
At Sunday, April 16, 2017 1:31:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

I also disagree with this comment: "I doubt that any NBA GM/President--including Pat Riley--would, either. "

Riley has a pretty long history at this point of building his teams near-exclusively around two-way guys, which those players are not. Moreover, Thomas was available at a lower asking price & on a better contract than Dragic when Riley traded for Goran. At least at the time, Riley clearly preferred Dragic, although Thomas' numbers have certainly gone up since with more touches.

As for which version of Miami is "real," I think it's fair to say the one that had a more normal (though still high) injury rate is probably more representative of the team's quality than the the version that put out 20 starting lineups in its first 40 games.

Speaking of lineups, Miami's starters went 20-5 this year (it was their only lineup that played over 8 games). That includes two games each vs. Golden State, Toronto, Houston, Atlanta, Indiana, and Milwaukee, so it wasn't a total powderpuff schedule either. I am not saying that Miami is a 60 win team, but I think it's probably reasonable to assume a Miami team with an injury rate anywhere near the league average is probably a 50-55 win one. Heck, if we assume they go even just .500 (lower than their record w/ Dragic on the season) in the 12 losses Dragic either missed or left early due to injury, they're a 47 win team.

One more observation on injuries: Dragic missed an only slightly above normal (for him) number of games this year, but it was the first season where he had several lingering injuries that affected his play (particularly in December and March). If this becomes a trend, it will be a big problem for him and he will slip down my rankings, but for one season I am willing to call it a fluke. When healthy Dragic put up something around 22.5/6 on 52/43 shooting, which I think is more-or-less his ceiling on a team like this (though in a theoretical "perfect" situation he could probably be closer to 25/9, that is unlikely to happen at this point in his career) .

Anyway, after all that, it seems like it's the same old argument: I can't forgive Thomas/LIllard/Irving for their crappy D just because they shoot a little more often, you can. Different strokes.

 
At Monday, April 17, 2017 12:46:00 AM, Blogger Awet M said...

Missed most of the games today but caught the second and third quarter of the OKC Thunder - Houston Rockets matchup. It's pretty obvious OKC can't play Kanter cuz the Rockets keep putting him in the pick and roll, Harden with Capela. Kanter keeps falling back to the rim ineffectually. Hopefully they bench Kanter, but at the same time they need his rebounding to neutralize the Rockets' superior offense.

 
At Monday, April 17, 2017 2:21:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

Changing subjects back to the matter at hand, one thought each after one game each:

* Lebron is still the best player in the world, but Cleveland's defense doesn't look like it's gonna win a championship.

* Boston really shouldn't be getting killed on the boards by Chicago, at home, in front of their most engaged crowd of the last seven years.

* Poor Paul Millsap deserves to be on a fun team.

* I think Milwaukee is probably going to beat Toronto in this series unless something wonky or injury-ish happens.

* Marc Gasol is awesome, but it would really help him out if anybody else on Memphis felt like being awesome.

* If RWB keeps getting outplayed by Patrick Beverly, we're all going to feel really dumb win he wins the MVP.

* Portland still can't guard anybody, and they certainly can't guard Golden State.

* Rudy Gobert deserves better, and I hope he bounces back sooner than expected.

 
At Monday, April 17, 2017 1:16:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Nick, I agree the Cavaliers' defense don't look like championship caliber. In the last they were versatile enough to match up with others, even dictate the pace with lineups and rotations due to a flexible roster. But this is no longer the case due to the absence of Mozgov and injuries. Thompson is the only legit center left.

Frye tries hard but he is constitutionally incapable, and it shows on defense. When he and Love are on the floor they're too pliant. Thompson' calling card is engine and athleticism. He out works and overpowers bigger slower guys. But he's worn down due to no help inside.

Rim protection makes up for a lot of defensive holes but the Cavs don't have any. Their two besr perimeter defenders from last year are shells of themselves. Shumpert has fallen out of the rotation.

The Cavaliers look mentally exhausted and the rest of the Eastern Conference look stronger.

 
At Monday, April 17, 2017 3:51:00 PM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

My takeaways and confirmations from the first set of games:

*Any talk of Irving being a negative on defense needs to stop. That conversation should have ended last year really. The Pacers would be far better with an all-star level point guard. I think they will take game 3 and the Cavs will still close it out in 5.

*I said in my predictions that the Bucks would take the Raptors to 7 games. The Raptors could turn it around because of their history with game 1's, but it still does not change the fact that they never were a real contender in the East. It is my believe that the series could still go either way.

*I was not expecting Kawhi to dominate offensively like he did in Game 1. It would be awesome to see him maintain his level of scoring, especially if he can average 30 on Tony Allen if he makes it back. I'm still thinking Spurs in 6.

*The Clippers are still sorry and any chance of them making a serious run ended when they blew that 3-1 lead to Houston back in 2015. Blow. It. Up. The Gobert injury will hurt the Jazz, but I'm not sure why I believed that the Clips could close it out in 5. Bad prediction on my part.

*As we all knew - John Wall is the real deal. Hawks still lose in 5.

*The Warriors are all-time great. I still think Portland will take a close game 3.

*I'm more convinced that Bulls take this in 6 like I stated in my predictions. The Celtics are not built to win in the playoffs.

*The supporting cast for OKC is bad. Just bad. As I've said for months, I'm not even sure that Oladipo is capable of being the 3rd best player on a championship team. I struggle to find a team in history where Oladipo is better than the third best player. Maybe a couple. Taj is not a legit starting power forward in this league. He is more suited to be a great backup. If Andre Roberson cannot slow down James Harden, then I'm not sure why he should be getting time on a playoff team (besides the fact that he is one of the better players on the Thunder's roster - which speaks to how bad this team is). This team cannot win if Russell is playing as sloppy as he did yesterday. He needs to do a better job at be being more patient with his passes and not settling for as many three pointers. I said OKC in six because of my belief that Russell would transcend the series, but I'm not sure he can do that with the Rockets scoring like they can.... I've always liked Patrick Beverly he can play on my team any day of the week.

 
At Monday, April 17, 2017 5:49:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Kyle-

I'm curious (and didn't see all of the Pacers game), what makes you so high on Irving's defense? i've seen him engage for a play here or there over the years, but by and large he's always been inattentive and under motivated on that end, including in the playoffs, and frequently quits on plays after the initial action or rotation.

He can more-or-less stay in front of most PGs in one-on-one ISO situations, but no team relying on ISO-PG as their primary offensive tact is doing much anyways, and the ones that are (mostly OKC and HOU) have PGs he *can't* contain anyway. IMO his PnR coverage and team defense are both still awful, and those matter a lot more than being able to snuff out the odd Jeff Teague drive twice a game.

 
At Monday, April 17, 2017 11:50:00 PM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

Nick:

Kyrie is by no stretch a great defender, but he's not a negative either - similar to Westbrook.

 
At Tuesday, April 18, 2017 12:40:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

Kyrie:

I disagree on both counts, but at least Russ is a rebounder.

Kyrie has yet to play on a team in his career that isn't better defensively when he's sitting. Teams score 3.1 more points per 100 while Kyrie is on the floor than off it this season, which is by far the worst among Cleveland's starters and is 9th among their 10 most used players (only Korver is worse).

That's especially egregious given that he plays 28 minutes a night alongside Lebron (who has very positive defensive On/Offs) and only 8 minutes without him.

Cavs D-RTG:

w/ Kyrie/Lebron (28 mpg): 108.5
w/Kyrie/no Lebron (8 mpg): 111.1
w/Lebron/no Kyrie (11.4 mpg): 104

w/ Kyrie generally: 109.1
w/o Kyrie generally: 106

Cavs D-RTG w/ Lebron generally: 107
Cavs D-RTG w/o Lebron generally: 110

That pretty clearly tells us that the Cavs get nuked whenever Lebron sits, and that they get absolutely blitzed whenever Kyrie plays without Lebron. Basically, lineups without Kyrie (whether or not they have Lebron) are better defensively than lineups with both Lebron and Kyrie, both of which are way better than lineups with Kyrie/no Lebron. The Cavs are even a respectable defensive team when Lebron plays without Kyrie*!

*And the sample-size there is almost a full quarter per game, so this isn't a high-variance fluke.

On/Offs aren't the be-all end-all and require context to tell us anything (although in this case they should favor Kyrie as most of Cleveland's heavily used bench guys are garbage defenders and he plays most of his minuted w/ the Cavs two best defensive players in Lebron/Thompson, and those eight minutes he plays without Lebron are mostly against crummy opposing bench units), but those numbers back up what my eyes tell me...

Namely, that he's probably one of the worst four to six defensive starting PGs in the league (along with Lillard, Thomas, and a few others).

I'm not trying to be a jerk when I ask this, but I'm legitimately curious: what is it you see him do that makes you think he's not a substantial negative?

 
At Saturday, April 22, 2017 5:57:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Marcel

David I been doing this over ten years on this site. I get most my predictions right

I pick in west. Gs spurs hou clippers

East bos cle wash the


It looks like I will be 8-0 david

 

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