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Friday, April 18, 2008
Who will win it all? The numbers speak

By John Hollinger
ESPN Insider

Has there ever been an NBA playoff season that had this much excitement leading into it? Very doubtful, and I have the inbox to prove it. The Western Conference playoffs in particular are generating all kinds of debate, with fans of all eight teams absolutely convinced they can make a deep playoff run.

If that isn't enough, two teams face first-round series that are essentially referenda on giant gambles they took with midseason trades. And at least two teams that won 54 games (or more) will be at the golf course within the next fortnight.

Back in the East things are a bit more clear-cut, yet plenty of wild cards abound even here -- from Agent Zero to the Pistons' hot temper to what the heck we're supposed to think about the Magic.

Kobe Bryant and LeBron James
A LeBron-Kobe NBA Finals is looking pretty unlikely.

Today, we dive in and, either try to make some sense of things ... or point out things that make some sense. With that in mind, here are eight big playoff questions -- one for every seed -- and my answers:

1. How tight are things in the West?

To make the point, let's look at the 1 versus 8 battle, which appears to be a dogfight in the making -- we're talking about 57 wins versus 50 wins (62 versus 52 in terms of expected wins). The Lakers are the favorites, obviously, but Denver trailed by only 2.2 points in the final edition of the Power Rankings.

For some perspective, consider that in the past four Eastern Conference Finals we had a 50-win team beating a 53-win team, 52 beating 64, 54 beating 59, and 54 beating 61. Seen in that light rather than in terms of a 1 versus 8 matchup, Denver's beating the Lakers would be fairly unremarkable. It goes deeper than that -- it's quite possible to have something like a Suns-Nuggets or Mavs-Rockets conference finals, and not in a 0.000001 percent kind of way either.

In fact, let's put some odds behind this. The Nuggets have an 5.1 percent chance of making the Finals, according to the Playoff Odds tool -- that's about a 1-in-20 shot. That's pretty darn good for the eighth team in an eight-team pool -- almost half as good as the 1-in-8 shot (12.5 percent) held by the "average" West playoff team.

Things get even crazier if we play out the first two rounds statistically. The teams with the best odds of making it out of the first round are Utah and the Lakers -- the Jazz, despite not having home court, are over 80 percent, while the Lakers are a shade under 75 percent. Relative to previous years, those aren't great odds, with even the best team having a 1-in-5 shot of going home.

In other words, this is an NCAA tournament-esque crapshoot. No. 1 and No. 2 seeds are a combined 89-7 since the playoffs expanded in 1983-84, for a .928 winning percentage. But in this year's West, the odds for the top two seeds are of the type we usually see in a 3-6 series.

Want some more crazy stuff? How about:

• Between Utah, Denver and Dallas, there's about a two-in-five chance that a Western team will make the Finals without having home court in any round.

• There's a 3.4 percent chance that all four lower seeds will win in the first round.

• And, my favorite: There's only an 11.6 percent chance that the top two seeds will meet in the conference finals ... but an 18.8 percent chance that a team seeded sixth or lower will have home-court advantage for that round.

(By the way, this exercise isn't nearly as fun in the East because the Celtics are total killjoys -- more on that in a minute.)

And remember, this is without any allowance for the possibility of injuries or suspensions or sudden lineup changes or whatnot. So get out the dartboard and hurl away. For all the predictions we're all making in the West, this is the first playoffs I can remember where there's a real risk of going 0-for-7 on the three rounds in the conference.



2. Why are the Playoff Odds so high on Utah?

There's a tendency to overreact to What Just Happened, so Utah's stinker against San Antonio on Wednesday night probably increased everyone's doubts about this team.

Nonetheless, the Power Rankings have Utah as the league's second-best team, and the Playoff Odds give them the best chance of winning the West at 31.0 perecnt.

The Jazz played extremely well down the stretch. Even with the meltdown in San Antonio included, over the last quarter of the season the Jazz had an offensive efficiency rating of 116.0 -- that dwarfs the Suns' league-leading mark of 111.2. To put that into context, if they had done it for a full season, the Jazz would have been by far the best offensive team of all time.

Utah went 37-12 after Jan. 1, and the number of blowout wins over quality teams is staggering. The Jazz beat the Celtics by 18 in Boston -- the Celtics' worst loss of the season anywhere. The Jazz beat New Orleans by 28, and then again by 22 -- two of the Hornets' three worst defeats of the year. They beat San Antonio by 26 and the Lakers by 24 -- for each, their worst loss of the season. They beat Phoenix by 22 and beat Denver by 27 ... twice.

Overall, Utah won an astounding 18 games by more than 20 points. In contrast, the Jazz didn't lose a single game by more than 20 points all season ... until Wednesday night in San Antonio. And given their questionable motivation in that game and Deron Williams' trouble with a bruised buttock, it's hard for me to hold that against them much when we have 81 games of evidence that they're the best pick in a compacted Western pack.



3. Why are the Playoff Odds so down on Detroit?

Detroit is barely ahead of Orlando in the Power Rankings, and the Playoff Odds give Orlando nearly the same odds of winning the conference. Since that doesn't seem possible, let me explain.

When I first saw this, I presumed it was because the Pistons have been biding their time playing their scrubs for the past month and a half. That sounds plausible, but actually Detroit played really well over the final three weeks -- the Pistons went 10-3 with a scoring margin of 8.7 points per game in their final 13 games. The real problem was what they did in the month prior to that, when they went 11-8 and got waxed by 18 by the Magic in their own building.

The other half of this equation is the Magic, who had a scoring margin of 10.0 points per game in the final quarter of the season. That's truly impressive, even if it came against a bunch of bad teams, and it's why Orlando is a surprising seventh in the Power Rankings.

Nobody really paid attention to the Magic's finishing kick because their playoff spot was sealed -- and because it wasn't accompanied by a great win-loss record (they lost three times by a single point). But check this out: All 15 of their wins after February were by double figures. It was a total non-story, but Orlando played as well as any team in the league over the final quarter of the season.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I think the second-round series between the Magic and Piston will be much, much better than anticipated. I wouldn't bet on Orlando, but should we expect a hard-fought, nail-biting series? Yes.



4. How good is Boston, really?

A lot better than you might think. Most observers look at the East and see the Celtics as a really good team who may or may not get past Detroit in the conference finals.

Wake up, folks -- this is one of the best teams of all time, and you might be surprised how easily they roll through the playoffs. I realize this is raining on the parade a bit since everybody is so jacked up about the competition in store this postseason, but I have to warn you there's a chance the Celtics are just going to flat-out destroy everybody.

Boston went 66-16, one of the best marks in league history, but even that mark sells the Celtics short. At 10.3 points per game, they had the scoring margin of a 70-win team. That scoring margin is better than all but three teams since the ABA-NBA merger, and those teams all had Michael Jordan. By contrast, last season the Spurs had a scoring margin of 7.8 ppg, and that was easily the best mark in the league.

Here's the real crazy part: their numbers were this good even though they coasted the final month and a half! Kevin Garnett didn't play 40 minutes in a game after March 5; he averaged 31.9 minutes in March and 25.4 in April. For Paul Pierce, it was 32.6 and 27.4; for Ray Allen, it was 31.2 and 29.0. Plus, each of them skipped two April games just to freshen up.

They have the three stars, yes, but they also play suffocating defense -- the Celts had one of best defensive seasons of all time, in fact (we'll get into that more as we get deeper into the playoffs). Meanwhile, a bench that was supposed to be a liability has instead kicked some serious butt, and the late-season addition of Sam Cassell added a crunch-time scorer to the mix.

The Western Conference is where all of the excitement and most of the quality resides, but I'd be very surprised if the West champs can beat Boston in the Finals ... and even more surprised if somebody besides Boston was their opponent.



5. San Antonio ... 8th? Really?

Yes, really. The Power Rankings seemed like raging Spurs fanatics a year ago, keeping them No. 1 even while Dallas won 67 games. But this year the Rankings have soured on San Antonio, putting them No. 8 in the league heading into the postseason.

We tend to look at the players and the uniforms and think these are the same Spurs, especially because they won only two games fewer than they did last season. But in a lot of ways they're not the same.

For one thing, the tiny drop in wins conceals a much larger difference in average scoring margin -- San Antonio outscored opponents by 7.8 points per game a year ago, but posted only a +4.8 mark this season. That difference of three points is normally worth eight wins, but San Antonio was much more fortunate in close games this year than it was a year earlier.

Additionally, there's the matter of peaking at the right time. Last year San Antonio was pretty good in the first half but went bonkers over the final two months. This year it's the opposite case -- San Antonio started the year 17-3, but finished it 13-9. In the Spurs' final 29 games they cleared 100 points only nine times and, as I discussed in a recent blog item, their offense has had a disturbing pattern of going off the rails after halftime.

That's the biggest difference between this year's Spurs and last year's. San Antonio ranked only 13th in offensive efficiency this season; last season the Spurs were fourth. If they can't find a way to generate more offense, they could be headed for a very quick exit.



6. What do we make of the Cavs?

Not much.

Let me put it this way: Last year the defending Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat limped through the season with 44 wins while giving up more points than they scored, and lots of folks said not to count them out -- and then they lost in four depressing games in the first round.

This year, the defending Eastern Conference champions limped through the season with 45 wins while giving up more points than they scored. You figure out the ending.

The only difference for Cleveland is that Washington, the Cavs' first-round opponent, also had a negative scoring margin ("The NBA: Where the league's 15th- and 16th-best teams' meeting in the Eastern Conference playoffs happens"). But one can argue the Wizards are better than they've shown because Caron Butler missed 24 games and Gilbert Arenas hardly played at all. With those two and Antawn Jamison, Washington is an offensive force -- and unlike last year, the Wizards occasionally play defense now.



7. How important is New Orleans' lack of experience?

Less important than you might think.

We're looking at a small sample here, but check out the out-of-nowhere teams to get a high seed in the playoffs over the past decade, and you'll see they didn't suddenly start gagging once the calendar hit May:

• Phoenix needed only 10 games to reach the conference finals after taking the league by storm in 2005 before falling to a superior Spurs team. The same year, upstart Seattle crushed Sacramento and then took eventual champ San Antonio to six tough games before succumbing.

• New Jersey won the conference in 2002 after rocketing to the top seed; the Nets' opponent in the conference finals that year was Boston, which had made a similar rise from the ashes.

• Milwaukee went from a forgettable mediocrity to division champ in 2001; the Bucks made the conference finals and were a missed Glenn Robinson bunny away from upsetting the Sixers.

But what is important for New Orleans is another issue that I don't hear anybody talking about: fatigue. I was shocked the Hornets played their starters in Dallas on Wednesday night, because if any team needed the rest it's this one.

New Orleans played the most back-loaded schedule in the league, with 10 games in the final 16 days and 18 in the final month. Eleven of those were on the road, including a six-game Eastern road trip at the end of March and a tough three-games-in-four-nights trip out West the final week.

They won some games on pure determination, most notably their 98-97 theft in Orlando on April 1, but check out the numbers the past couple of weeks. They went 2-4 in the final six games, including a 66-point clunker at home against Utah, and Chris Paul in particular saw his numbers dive: in 10 April games he averaged 17.6 points per game and shot 43.9 percent, even though six of the 10 opponents were terrible defensive teams (Minnesota, Golden State, New York, Miami, Sacramento and the Clippers).

Hornets coach Byron Scott is with these guys every day and presumably has a feel for their fatigue level, but it sure seemed to me the rest issue was more important to this particular team than the incremental improvement in its odds it would have had by facing Denver instead of Dallas ... especially because New Orleans couldn't guarantee that result even by playing its stars.


8. Enough with the numbers -- who's going to be there in the end?

OK, now for the fun part. Here's how it will all go down -- and remember, I gave you Chicago as your Eastern Conference champion before the season, so you know you can take these picks to the bank.

Kevin Garnett
Will anybody be able to stop Kevin Garnett and the Celtics?

You might have seen my first-round picks plastered elsewhere on this site, but for those who haven't, I like Boston in 4, Detroit in 5, Orlando in 6 and Washington in 6 in the East, and the Lakers in 5, New Orleans in 7, Utah in 6 and Phoenix in 6 out West.

My reasoning on Phoenix, by the way, is mainly that the Suns built their team to face the Spurs. Shaquille O'Neal has done extremely well defending Tim Duncan over the years. Somehow, San Antonio has to figure out how to make Shaq a liability on D and not an asset.

In the second round, I see Utah and the Lakers meeting in what should be the true conference finals -- which is why I was so disappointed the Jazz lost to San Antonio on Wednesday and missed out on the No. 3 seed. I have Utah beating L.A. in a six-game barn burner that's about as close to a coin-flip as any pairing you can come up with. (Note: I generally pick the road team to win in six and the home team in either five or seven, since the odds say that's how it's most likely to end. I made an exception for Orlando because it was so strong on the road.)

The Hornets-Suns second-round matchup should be a doozy, too. New Orleans might be even more exhausted after going seven against Dallas, but Phoenix doesn't match up nearly as well with the Hornets -- and New Orleans has home court. Thus, I'll take the Hornets in seven again, in another series that looks to be about dead even.

That sets up Chris Paul versus Deron Williams in the conference finals, which is a matchup we all want to see (well, unless you happen to walk around town in a gold "24" jersey). I think Paul might finally get the better of the matchup individually, but Williams has better teammates -- so Utah rolls to the Finals in six.

Back East, I already gave away my Pistons-Magic projection -- Detroit in a grueling seven. Meanwhile, the Boston juggernaut will dismiss Washington in four. That sets up a much-awaited conference finals battle between Boston and Detroit. But I think Boston will win in five easier-than-expected games.

The Finals? Utah versus Boston.

The 2-3-2 format and Utah's dominance at home will keep things interesting for a while, but mostly it will allow the Celtics to celebrate a title on their home court after knocking off the Jazz in six.

Well, that's what the odds say, anyway. Now let's see what really happens.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.