NBA Playoff Projections Watch: February 23
There's one certain headline that caught my eye this morning: "Kobe Bryant Guarantees the Playoffs".
As somebody who works with playoff projections and odds on a daily basis, I just had to say, "Really?" I understand the concept of wanting to be confident in your team, but there's a certain point where confidence runs face-first into a wall of false bravado. Kobe should be able to see that wall ahead of him. It looks vaguely like Dwight Howard standing there and not fighting for another rebound.
That's why I've decided to break down this week's playoff projections by order of guarantees, from Really? to Mind-Numbingly awesome. This is post-Trade Deadline, mind you (not that it would matter much with the, umm, caliber of players moved yesterday). And when you look at the odds, really the only question left has to do with those Lakers.
The Matt Hasselbeck Category
30. Charlotte Bobcats: 0.0% Playoff Chance
29. Sacramento Kings: 0.0%
28. Orlando Magic: 0.0%
27. Phoenix Suns: 0.0%
26. Cleveland Cavaliers: 0.0%
25. Washington Wizards: 0.0%
24. New Orleans Hornets: 0.0%
23. Minnesota Timberwolves: 0.2%
If they ever remake the "Agony of Defeat" section of the Wide World of Sports intro for the 21st Century, I propose that this exact video be the underlying footage. You know, and if they wanted to make it hip, they could put one of the One Direction guys at the end screaming "Fail!" or something. That's cool, right?
"So, Mr. General Manager of the Worst Team in the NBA, know what you need? Why, you need Josh McRoberts! Why, he has played exactly seven minutes in our last four games combined, but they were a great four minutes. He'll be excellent not being able to take playing time from Byron freaking Mullens.
"Why yes, Mr. General Manager of the Third-Worst Team in the NBA, I dare say you are correct! And in return, I believe that Hakim Warrick will do for you quite nicely! Granted, you will waive him five hours later, and he may never play in the NBA again after you do so. Isn't that delightful!"
"Indubitably! Come, let us submit this to the league office right now! Then, our combined playoff chances will surely not budge an inch from the 0.0% that they currently are."
I want to be an NBA GM some day so I can have this exact conversation.
The Jon Kitna Category
22. Portland Trail Blazers: 1.5% Playoff Chance
21. Detroit Pistons: 3.9%
20. Dallas Mavericks: 5.2%
19. Toronto Raptors: 7.7%
18. Philadelphia 76ers: 14.5%
Honestly, that's not too outlandish of a guarantee, when you think about it. Oh, my team's going to win 10 games with this absolute freak of a receiver we drafted! The likelihood is somewhere around predicting that Kanye West would end up with Kim Kardashian. There's some rationale behind it, but you'd still be surprised when your crazy reasoning actually occurs.
That's where all five of these teams sit: you can talk yourself into believing them if you try hard enough, but chances are, they'll leave you at the end of the season saying, "Wait, I believed what?"
The Raptors may have half the odds that the Sixers do of making the playoffs, but to me, they're the most interesting team in this group. It's a tale as old as time. Team barely clinging onto the Playoff Ledge decides they are going to be buyers and trades for a star. Said star leads them to a five game winning streak, including wins over playoff teams in Indiana, Denver, and New York. Said star also has a 97 offensive rating and a 106 defensive rating in his nine games with the franchise. Wait, you haven't? Well, come to think of it, neither have I.
It's odd to say, but Rudy Gay actually did very little to spur the Raptors to victory, other than not letting them win by more due to his egregiously high 30.1 percent usage rate. Instead, Toronto leaned on another star in the making: Amir Johnson. The Raptors forward played at least 29 minutes in all three of those wins over playoff teams I mentioned. And in each game, he had an offensive rating at least 17 points higher than his defensive rating, showing overall efficiency that the Raptors haven't seen all year.
The Kobe Bryant Category
17. Los Angeles Lakers: 30.6% Playoff Chance
I honestly have no idea what to think of Kobe's guarantee. The sports fan side of me says, "Oh, Kobe's guaranteeing this? He's going to play extra hard now!" Meanwhile, the sports analyst side of me took a frying pan and beat that sports fan into a purple-and-yellow pulp.
Let's look at this from an analysis perspective. The Lakers are eighth in offensive rating. That's not bad; they have the Jazz (ninth) and Warriors (11th) both beat while the Rockets are above them in fifth. The Lakers are also 18th in defensive rating. That is bad, but the Warriors (20th), Rockets (21st), and Jazz (22nd) are all worse. Can those advantages allow them to catch up 3.5 games in the standings?
Survey says... probably not. As it stands, the Lakers (the ninth-best team in our nERD rankings, mind you) still play five games against the top eight teams in the rankings, plus two games against the Warriors (No. 14) and one game against the Rockets (No. 10) to boot. They would likely need to take three against the top eight teams, plus two of three from the playoff spot rivals to have a chance.
And in order to do that, the Lakers will have to get some more solid play out of, of all people, Steve Nash. As mentioned last week, the Lakers are poor on both sides of the ball with turnovers: 21st in offensive turnover percentage and 28th in defensive turnover percentage. Perhaps it was unreasonable to ask Nash to help cure those woes: his career turnover percentage is around 20 percent, mostly due to his past-paced days in Phoenix. But at a current 21.4 percent turnover rate, Nash is turning the ball over four percent more than anyone else in the starting lineup, something that can't happen if the Lakers are to win.
Do you trust a 39-year old point guard to get better as the season drags on. Nah, I don't either.
The Tim Tebow Category
16. Milwaukee Bucks: 82.0% Playoff Chance
15. Utah Jazz: 86.7%
14. Houston Rockets: 87.4%
13. Golden State Warriors: 88.4%
Start at 2:20 for the Tebowing.
Notice what Tebow actually says, there. There are a ton of platitudes about "playing hard" and doing things the right way. But he doesn't actually guarantee anything. "Tebow's Promise" has about as much pull as his promise that he wasn't going to mess up a circumcision or two in the Philippines: it's the thought that counts, right?
No, no it's not. That's what we get with these four teams; empty promises. They sound nice, and they play well, but you never quite know whether they're going to actually pull through, because there's no actual weight behind their push.
The Milwaukee Bucks used to be in the last category down. They used be virtually cemented. But slowly and surely, those percentage points keep slipping away, and the Sixers and Raptors are still clinging to the hope that they can catch the Bucks. Last week, the Fighting Miller Breweries were at 87 percent. This week, they're at 82 percent.
I already talked a bit yesterday about how the J.J. Redick trade was essentially a wash and may only be useful in getting Monta Ellis, his 97 offensive rating, and his 105 defensive rating off the court a bit more. Know who actually might have helped a bit more? Well, how about Josh Smith and his 14.0 percent true rebound rate to a team that is dead-last in defensive rebounding.
I know, I know. It would have taken a lot to get him. I mean, it's not like the Hawks would have accepted Monta Ellis as the centerpiece... wait, that's what they wanted? Seriously?
I want to be an NBA GM some day.
The Mark Messier Category
12. Boston Celtics: 93.3% Playoff Chance
11. Atlanta Hawks: 98.8%
10. Brooklyn Nets: 99.9%
9. Chicago Bulls: 99.9%
8. Denver Nuggets: 99.9%
To make a real guarantee, there has to be something at stake. The New York Rangers had not won a Stanley Cup since they were called the New Amsterdam Rangers, and they were actually a group of Rangers instead of hockey players. I'd say something was at stake when Messier made his guarantee.
There's something at stake for all of these teams as well: the opportunity to be legitimate. With the Heat and Knicks dominating the Eastern storylines and the Thunder, Clippers, Spurs and (undeservedly) Lakers dominating the West, these particular teams wouldn't mind a stake in the action.
There's a catch, though: do you realize that only one of these team (the Nuggets) are actually in the top ten of our power rankings? A top ten that includes, among other teams, the Lakers and Rockets? For most of these guys, it's easy to dismiss them as one-hit wonders because of their relative inefficiencies.
Of these teams, only the Nuggets (No. 6) and the Nets (No. 10) are in the top ten in points scored per possessions. Only the Bulls (No. 4), Celtics (No. 6), and Hawks (No. 9) are in top ten of the defensive efficiency rankings. Make a note how those two lists don't overlap. The Thunder, Spurs, and Clippers, meanwhile, are top ten in both.
Let's put it this way: there's a reason that these teams only have a combined 8.5 percent chance of winning it all. Just as Messier's guarantee has been overshadowed by another New York guarantee in the annals of history, so are these guarantees likely to be overshadowed by the final seven teams on our list.
The Joe Namath Category
7. Memphis Grizzlies: 100.0% Playoff Chance
6. Indiana Pacers: 100.0%
5. New York Knicks: 100.0%
4. Los Angeles Clippers: 100.0%
3. San Antonio Spurs: 100.0%
2. Miami Heat: 100.0%
1. Oklahoma City Thunder: 100.0%
We have two more teams joining the 100% odds club: the Pacers and the Grizzlies. And both of these teams have done it in a similar fashion: with defense.
Despite being at the top of the charts, neither Memphis nor Indiana has a particularly strong offense: the Grizzlies only have the 17th-best offensive rating while the Pacers sit in 24th. The two teams, however, sit 1-2 in DRtg, with the Hoosier State Fellas at the top of the charts.
Does this necessarily bring good tidings in the playoffs? Well, it's sort of a mixed bag. In the past three years, X teams have been in the top five of defensive rating but bottom half of the league in offensive rating. The 2012 Celtics made the Eastern Conference Finals as a 4 seed. The 2012 76ers made the second round as an 8 seed (granted, going against a Rose-less Bulls). The 2011 Celtics lost in the second round as a 3 seed. The 2011 Milwaukee Bucks just missed the playoffs in ninth in the East. And both the 2010 Bucks and 2010 Bobcats were knocked out in the first round as a six and seven seed, respectively.