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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

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Monday, April 10, 2017

Westbrook Sets Single Season Triple Double Record in Electrifying Fashion

By today's twisted NBA standards, Sunday's game between Oklahoma City and Denver was "meaningless" for Oklahoma City, as the Thunder were already locked into the sixth seed and a first round playoff matchup with third seeded Houston. Thus, the Thunder "should" rest Westbrook--but the Thunder do not operate that way and Westbrook would not stand for it if they did. He not only played in the game but he scored the Thunder's final 15 points as they roared back from a 14 point fourth quarter deficit. The Thunder trailed 105-98 with just :47 remaining but then Westbrook sank three free throws and scored on a driving layup before capping off the festivities with a 36 foot game-winning three pointer at the buzzer. By the way, this game was most assuredly not meaningless for Denver or Portland, two teams locked in a battle for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff berth. Westbrook's dagger knocked the Nuggets out of the playoffs. Watching Westbrook and the Thunder give their best effort in a "meaningless" game for them that had meaning in the overall standings sure felt much better than watching Cleveland Coach Tyronn Lue bench his best players and thus hand a win to his buddy Doc Rivers, whose L.A. Clippers may get homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs thanks to Lue's gift.

This is the third recent game in which Westbrook has saved the Thunder after they seemed to be hopelessly behind; we have not seen a player repeatedly and almost singlehandedly alter the outcomes of games in this fashion since Kobe Bryant did this--and Bryant typically did it primarily by being an unstoppable scoring machine, while Westbrook not only is an unstoppable scorer (it seems like almost an afterthought to mention that he has clinched his second scoring title) but also a tremendous rebounder and passer.

Westbrook finished with 50 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists--his third 50 point triple double this season, which is more than any other NBA player has posted in his entire career. This was also Westbrook's 42nd triple double of the season, breaking his tie with Oscar Robertson for most triple doubles in one season. The Thunder are 33-9 in those games. Not surprisingly, they enjoyed a +10 scoring margin with Westbrook on the court versus Denver and were outscored by nine points during the 11 minutes he was not in the game (a pace which adds up to a 39 point loss when projected over 48 minutes).

During Friday night's loss to the Phoenix Suns, Westbrook had already clinched averaging a triple double for the entire season, a feat previously only accomplished by Robertson. It is bizarre to hear anyone speak of the triple double as being an "arbitrary" statistical milestone; no one had said such a thing when players such as Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd racked up triple doubles. The Westbrook haters cannot seem to decide if it is better to minimize the importance of the triple double or to emphasize that James Harden has also had a large number of triple doubles this season; it is funny to hear anti-Westbrook arguments that veer wildly across the landscape like a drunken sailor: "Triple doubles don't matter but Harden has over 20 of them this season and if Harden had just 160 or so more rebounds he would have averaged a triple double as well and almost averaging a triple double is just about as impressive as actually averaging a triple double." Huh?

On Sunday night, a Houston reporter lobbed a softball question to Harden about how much winning should matter in the MVP race and Harden tried to smack it out of the park by saying that winning should matter more than anything. OK, fine--then the MVP this season should be Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry. There is just no way to twist the numbers or the facts to make Harden the MVP this season and it is a relief that the voters seem to finally be understanding that, at least if the most recent unofficial poll is correct in projecting that Westbrook has taken the lead over Harden.

While Harden begged for MVP votes, Westbrook responded to similar softball questions by repeatedly stating that he has been blessed and that he feels blessed to compete at the highest level. He did not ask for anyone's MVP vote because he lets his game do his talking, yet another way that he resembles Kobe Bryant.

I am not a big fan of per-minute projections but it is worth noting that if Westbrook averaged the same mpg as Robertson did during his triple double season in 1961-62 while maintaining his current production then his numbers would be 39.9 ppg, 14.6 rpg and 13.3 apg.Westbrook is putting up astounding individual numbers and his triple doubles are highly correlated with the Thunder's success. If the Thunder win their last two games they will finish with 48 victories, an amazing accomplishment one season after the departure of MVP candidate Durant and defensive anchor Serge Ibaka.

If you are an MVP voter who every year has voted for the best player on the best team and this season you vote for Durant, Curry or Leonard I cannot be mad at you--but no one else has a valid reason or excuse to not select Westbrook, who has set individual records while carrying what would otherwise be a Lottery team to the sixth best record in the Western Conference.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:42 AM

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