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Monday, April 12, 2010
The upsets will come from the West

By Henry Abbott

Back at the beginning of this season, I heard somebody explain, with authority, that there were only five NBA teams that mattered this season: Lakers, Celtics, Cavaliers, Spurs and Magic.

It's a decent list. In hindsight, (who could have predicted the Celtics' fade?) it's proving reasonable -- in the East. While it's the NBA, and anything can happen, the upcoming Eastern Conference playoffs really do feel like a battle between two teams from that list: the Cavaliers and Magic.

In the West, though, saying the playoffs would be predictable was a poor piece of predicting indeed. Eight teams will make the playoffs in some order, and while some are slightly stronger than others, they're all fighting in the same weight class.

There are a hundred ways to make this point, from the Lakers' and Spurs' lack of domination over the West's less-celebrated teams to the parity in the standings.

John Hollinger's NBA Playoff Odds factors things that matter, like point differential, home and road games, strength of schedule and recent performance, and simulates the rest of the season and playoffs 5,000 times every night. Today it says that the West is a place of very evenly matched teams.

Consider the East's four top-seeded teams, and how likely the playoff odds say each team is to make the Finals:

  1. Cavaliers 28.9
  2. Magic 45.0
  3. Hawks8.9
  4. Celtics 6.5

The playoff odds say that it's 89.3% likely that the Eastern conference champions will be a team that starts the playoffs with homecourt advantage. It's 73.9% likely to be either the Magic or Cavaliers.

In the West? Wow is it ever a totally different story. The top four-seeded teams there (for the moment, anyway), and their projected likelihood of winning the conference:

  1. Lakers 12.6
  2. Mavericks 3.4
  3. Jazz 22.5
  4. Nuggets 9.2

You see that? If you're thinking of this as a League of heavy favorites, how about this?

Take the West's top four teams. Give them homecourt advantage against all the lower seeds all the way through the playoffs. And guess what. This smart tool will predict that those four teams together have worse than a 50% chance (47.7%) to just make it to the darn Finals.

That could change -- the Suns could hop into the top four and change things with their 14.8% likelihood of winning the conference.

The big point, though, is that it's very tough to pick favorites at all, and that upsets would be no surprise at all. The Playoff Odds' West favorites to make the Finals are, in order, the Jazz, Spurs, Suns, Lakers, Blazers, Nuggets, Thunder and Mavericks. They're tightly bunched, too -- in the standings and in their likelihood of winning the conference.

In the West, about the only thing about that preseason prediction that's holding up is that the Spurs are, indeed, a good West team, and the Lakers are the top regular season seed. But they're both right there in the soup with everyone else when it comes to trying to win the conference, and if anyone tells you they know what's going to happen, they're lying.