NBA Playoff Projections Watch: January 16
Sunday evening, after football was completed and I was coming down off of a Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan-induced high, I was flipping through channels to find something to fall asleep to. I was doing pretty well too: CNBC was right there in my grasp. But then I saw it: Gone in 60 Seconds. Starring the One True God himself, Nic Cage.
I'm not ashamed to say that I watched the entire movie. I'm not ashamed to say that I ordered in chicken specifically so I could watch the entire movie. And I only hated myself a little bit afterwards.
But then I had a thought that was way too close to Bill Simmons-esque for my liking: I wonder where this ranks in Nic Cage's best movies? "Best" is a very loose term here, because the former Mr. Coppola has been in some of the absolute worst movies of the past decade. I decided to spend a little time Wikipedia-ing and Youtube-ing, then I went to bed.
I didn't remember about the magic that is Nic Cage until I was searching Youtube highlights for Gordon Hayward on Tuesday morning, and lo-and-behold, a scene from Face/Off was a recommended video. You're funny, Youtube/Google. The Nic Cage/NBA parallel struck me though. What if the two could be combined? So here's a power ranking of NBA teams from worst Nic Cage movies to the best.
Be thankful, and maybe Nic Cage will bestow his awkwardly-phrased grace upon you.
The Wicker Man Category
30. Charlotte Bobcats: 0.0% Playoff Chance
29. Washington Wizards: 0.0%
28. Cleveland Cavaliers: 0.0%
27. New Orleans Hornets: 0.0%
26. Phoenix Suns: 0.1%
25. Sacramento Kings: 0.2%
24. Dallas Mavericks: 0.7%
Not the bees! Noooo! While I love any movie that openly features Nic Cage in a bear costume punching people, this movie was bad. As in, 15 percent on Rotten Tomatoes' bad. And that's strangely still higher than the playoff chances for all seven of these teams combined.
The Bobcats, Wizards, Cavaliers, Hornets, Suns, and Kings were all in this group last week, and none of their playoff chances have improved. Of these teams, only the Kings have an offensive rating in the top half of the league (they're 12th). Only the Wizards have a defensive rating in the top half of the league (they're 10th). And not surprisingly, these six teams comprise the final six spots of our nERD efficiency rankings.
But what about the Mavericks? Just one week ago, they at least had hope. A 3.5 percent chance of making the playoffs is something, right? But that hope has gone the way of Lisa Marie Presley from Nic Cage's life: gone for good. Even though they've gone 3-1 since the last posting of our playoff projections - and that only loss came to the No. 1 Clippers - the teams at the middle of the pack such as the Rockets and Jazz also improved their stock. With an offensive rating of 17th and a defensive rating of 21st, there's no particular place where Dallas can hang its hat.
And then there's this: of the eight key statistics found in Dean Oliver's Four Factors (each factor, offensive and defensive), the Mavericks aren't in the top ten in the NBA in a single one. Their greatest strength is offensive turnover percentage: they're 12th.
The Knowing Category
22. Orlando Magic: 3.8% Playoff Chance
23. Detroit Pistons: 9.3%
21. Toronto Raptors: 14.4%
There was potential there, but in the depths of our hearts, didn't we all know it wouldn't end well? Only the staunchest fans of the Magic, Pistons, Raptors, and apparently Roger Ebert would disagree. Only 34 percent of critics reviewing Knowing thought it wasn't horribly creepy, and I doubt that many people are high on these three teams' playoff chances as well.
Led by Nikola Vucevic, the Magic are rebounding better than they ever were with that Dwight guy, especially on the defensive end - their 75.1 percent defensive rebounding percentage is second in the NBA. Too bad it's all they know how to do - they're dead last in forcing turnovers and next-to-last in getting to the free throw line. Their playoff odds have dropped over six percent since last Wednesday.
The Pistons' odds have dropped too, although it's only a less dramatic 0.5 percent. Still, only going 1-1 over the past week isn't going to help them much. Neither is the immediate schedule: four of their next five games are against Eastern Conference squads with winning records, including the East-leading Heat and the Knicks (in London). If Detroit can't take at least two of those games, especially against the current 7-seed Boston Celtics, then their odds will drop even further.
The Raptors also contracted a case of the dropsies, going from nearly 17 percent last week to just over 14 percent this week. Strangely enough, this is good enough to place them 10th in the East. And their .483 effective field goal percentage (19th) and their ability to keep opponents from the charity stripe (dead last) should keep them squarely in 10th for the immediate future.
The Gone in 60 Seconds Category20. Philadelphia 76ers: 21.2% Playoff Chance
Nic Cage before his run of terrible movies! A smoking hot Angelina Jolie! A young, motivated center in Andrew Bynum! The growing Evan Turner! Car chases! A weak East! What more can you ask for?!?
Except, as it turns out, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. While Gone in 60 Seconds has only received a 25 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, its NBA counterpart hasn't fared much better.
At this point, it's time to hope and pray for an Andrew Bynum-inspired miracle for Sixers fans. And it really couldn't come a moment too soon. The Sixers have a -4.7 Net Player Efficiency Rating at center, easily the worst of any of the five positions. Opposing centers are shooting nine percent better from the field, attempting two more free throws per game, and grabbing 1.6 more boards overall. It's not a pretty sight down low for Philadelphia.
The Ghost Rider Category
19. Portland Trail Blazers: 25.3% Playoff Chance
18. Minnesota Timberwolves: 27.1%
Think of this as the improved version of the Wicker Man category. There's actually some success here, whether it's the young guys gelling, a few lucky victories, or an inexplicable $228 million at the box office. I feel like I'd pay that much just to watch Ricky Rubio and Damian Lillard go head-to-head alone.
People thought the T'Wolves would melt down Burning Ghost Rider Face-style after losing Kevin Love to injury 15 games ago. I was one of those people. I was also dead wrong. Despite only having one player (Nikola Pekovic) on the offensive rebound percentage top 20 and no players on its defensive counterpart, Minnesota ranks third and first, respectively, in those categories in the NBA. Right now, it's the only thing keeping them in the race.
But Minnesota's on the downswing, having lost four straight. Portland, meanwhile, is going the opposite direction: their playoff chances have almost doubled since last week. During that stretch, they played three top ten teams in Miami, Golden State, and Oklahoma City, and they won... well, one of those games. But it was a pretty one against Miami, in which they had a better turnover percentage, rebound percentage, and free throw factor (FT/FGA). They also benefited heavily from the Lakers falling back down to earth.
The National Treasure Category
17. Utah Jazz: 41.7% Playoff Chance
16. Los Angeles Lakers: 42.4%
Yes, I know this is National Treasure 2. I also love this scene.
There are some things in life that I just don't know what to make of them. Like why people eat ketchup-flavored chips. Or what National Treasure is supposed to be about. Or whether the Jazz or the Lakers are supposed to be good teams or not.
In Utah's case, it certainly seems that way. They've squarely pulled ahead of Minnesota for the lead in the Contender That Isn't Supposed To Be There race; Utah sits a half game behind statistically-overachieving Portland for eighth in the West. And it's happened through the power of offense. It should be no surprise with the Four-Piece Jazz Band of big men (Jefferson, Kanter, Milsap, and Favors would be an awesome band to see live) that the Jazz are in the top six in the NBA in both offensive rebounding and free-throw factor. They have also beaten their opponents in those particular categories in four of the past five games for each stat.
The Lakers are the seventh-best team in the NBA just by the analytics alone. No, really. Our stats say that and everything. Basketball-reference.com says they should have a projected record of 21-17. But instead they underachieve, and this particular slide has their playoff chances falling by over 30 percent in just the last week alone.
Before beating Cleveland on Sunday, the common thread during their six game losing streak was poor shooting. Of those six games, they had a lower effective field goal percentage than their opponents in five of them. In the one game where they did shoot better, against Denver, they also committed turnovers on 16 percent of their offensive possessions while Denver only did the same on six percent.
The Raising Arizona Category
14. Milwaukee Bucks: 84.9% Playoff Chance
13. Brooklyn Nets: 85.5%
12. Boston Celtics: 86.3%
Maybe it's sometimes bumbling and awkward. This is a set of teams, you know, for which the phrases "Billionaire Russian Owner", "Fired coach with winning record", and "Honey Nut Cheerios" have distinct and meaningful definitions. But at the end of the day, it's really not too bad.
If these three teams weren't in the Eastern Conference, this would be a completely different story. On our efficiency power rankings, the Nets sit 12th, while the Bucks sit 15th and the Celtics sit 16th. But it's a comforting feeling when the next-best team, the 18th Toronto Raptors, are sitting at 14-23. (It's very similar to how we have a jump between Raising Arizona and National Treasure in these rankings...)
Sure, they all have flaws. Boston borrowed Holy Cross's offensive rebounding gameplan. Brooklyn's snail's pace (dead last number of possessions per game) won't work if Miami or New York forces them into an up-tempo shootout. And Milwaukee just can't shoot, with the 26th offensive rating in the league. But as long as these three teams don't self-implode over the next couple weeks, they'll be just fine to head to the Promised Land.
The Con Air Category
15. Houston Rockets: 79.3% Playoff Chance
11. Golden State Warriors: 88.8%
Say what you want, but it's always going to be interesting. Explosions, one-liners, and memorable moments abound when the Rockets and Warriors step on the floor.
Apparently the King Geek Darryl Morey crunched the numbers and figured, "You know, the quicker we go, the better!" The Rockets are first in the NBA with 96.9 possessions per game. The Loyola Marymount strategy has some interesting results when applied to the Pros, however. The Rockets are dead last in offensive turnover percentage and 27th in opponents' eFG% due to the constant fast breaks and the emphasis on quick-shooting offense.
Golden State may no longer be playing Nellie Ball; they're only fifth in the NBA in overall pace. But they have a higher playoff chance than Houston because, unless their Texas counterparts, they actually know how to blend the high-octane offense with some defensive presence as well. Golden State ranks 11th in the league in defensive rating at 104.7 points per 100 possessions and sixth in opponents' eFG%. This is one type of lock down that Cameron Poe can approve of.
The Face/Off Category
10. Denver Nuggets: 95.3% Playoff Chance
9. Chicago Bulls: 96.9%
8. Atlanta Hawks: 98.5%
7. Memphis Grizzlies: 99.1%
6. Indiana Pacers: 99.3%
Here's a fun fact about me: Face/Off is one of my favorite '90s movies. Period. You can't do better than a movie where John Travolta and Nicolas Cage switch faces, followed by a boat chase scene where Travolta (with Cage's face) is trying to get his life back. I mean, just watch Cage above. He's exactly what you'd expect from Cage today, but the craziness works so well in context.
You should never be surprised if Face/Off wins a "Best Nic Cage movie" battle. You should also not be surprised if one of these teams comes from nowhere to win the conference - or even better, the NBA title. Between the five of them, our analytics give it an 18 percent chance of happening.
The new name to this second-tier list is the Denver Nuggets, whose playoff chances increased nearly four percent from just one week ago. It's interesting that they're being looked at as a lesser version of last year's team, because as of now, they have the tools to take the West. They're in the top half of the league in both offensive and defensive rating, they're in the top 11 in both offensive and defensive eFG% (the most important of the Four Factors), and they're first in the NBA in offensive rebounding.
The Leaving Las Vegas Category
5. New York Knicks: 100.0% Playoff Chance
4. Miami Heat: 100.0%
3. San Antonio Spurs: 100.0%
2. Oklahoma City Thunder: 100.0%
1. Los Angeles Clippers: 100.0%
This is your true fact of the day: Leonardo DiCaprio has never won an Academy Award. Nicolas Cage has. For Best Actor. And this was the movie.
Back in a time before he became a parody of himself, Nic Cage wowed the world by doing Nic Cage things, but doing them extraordinarily. That's what these teams do: they take normal team's strengths, but fulfill them to the max.
Take Tyson Chandler and the Knicks, for one. He's always been efficient on the offensive end; he's topped the NBA in offensive rating over each of the past two seasons. But this year, he's being extraordinarily efficient, with 138 points per 100 possessions. That offensive rating would be the best all-time, passing Horace Grant's 1991-1992 season with MJ's Bulls in which he put up a 132 offensive rating.
The Clippers are another solid example. Anybody can steal the ball. But nobody's doing it as well as the Clippers guards; both of the top two steals artists are in Lob City, with Eric Bledsoe stealing on 4.2 percent of his possessions and Chris Paul stealing on 4.1 percent.