Wednesday, May 18, 2011

NBA Playoffs: A Look Ahead (Eastern Conference Edition)

Yesterday I wrote a column looking at the NBA Western Conference to see what the Thunder and Mavericks had to do to win the NBA Championship--and what could trip them up along the way.  The verdict, in short, was that the Thunder aren't ready to be championship contenders, while the Mavericks can win if they play up to their potential.  Vegas oddsmakers thought that the Mavericks (+250) were about twice as likely as the Thunder (+500) to win it all, and the analysis yesterday pretty much agreed.  Today, we're going to turn to the Eastern Conference and analyze the chances of the Heat and Bulls each winning the Title.  The series between NBA MVP Derrick Rose and Miami's Big 3 (see right) must have the NBA salivating.  It's a matchup of two of the most hyped teams that have some of the most hyped players in the Association.  But who is going to win this series?  And once they advance to the Finals, can that team win the Championship?  Can either team win it?  D-Rose or D-Wade?  Slow and soft Chris Bosh or slow and soft Carlos Boozer?  Can anyone stop LeBron? Hit the jump to find out.

Kevin Durant's Thunder are huge underdogs
the rest of the way in the postseason
Let's first get the basic stuff out in the open: as of Tuesday morning, has the Miami Heat as slight favorites (+180) to win the NBA Championship. They are followed closely by the Chicago Bulls (+200), then the Dallas Mavericks (+250), and finally the Thunder (+500) are far behind in fourth place. What this says is actually quite significant. The people whose livelihood depends on correctly handicapping NBA results believe that whoever comes out of the East will win the Championship, and they barely even give Oklahoma City a chance of pulling off an upset. What's also striking is that, despite Chicago's 1-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals, Vegas still thinks that the Heat will win the series. That's no easy task given that the Bulls hold home court advantage and have played to a 41-6 record at the United Center this year (regular season and playoffs). Out West, the Vegas bookies had the Mavericks as six point favorites last night in Game One. That was a pretty big margin for a late-round playoff game, as tonight's Bulls-Heat game only has a two point spread. This means that the bookies are, in effect, predicting Heat over Mavericks in the finals (a nice little repeat of 2006), but that the Bulls would still beat the Mavericks (or Thunder) if they were to advance out of the East.

Are they right?  After all, Las Vegas (generally) predicted the Lakers to win each of the last two NBA Championships, and they were correct.  Are they right about the Heat winning?  Or about the Bulls' favoritism if they reach the Finals?  After yesterday's look at the Western Conference, let's break down each team in the East and see what has to go right for them to win the NBA title.

Miami Heat: +180
Why They Will Win It All
LeBron, Wade, Bosh, and nine other guys are currently pegged as the favorites to win it all in 2011, and there are plenty of good reasons why.  Miami has the first and third best all-around performers during the 2010-2011 regular season in LeBron and D-Wade, respectively.  By contrast, the Bulls' top two Player Efficiency Rating (PER) performers are #9 (Derrick Rose) and #40 (Carlos Boozer).  Having two players who can dominate a basketball game better than anyone else on the planet (except #2 PER man Dwight Howard) is a huge advantage that Miami will hold over whomever they play the rest of the way.  On the same note, the Heat have the best offensive efficiency of any team remaining in the playoffs, meaning that they can be counted upon to score more often than any of their opponents.  These two nuggets--high PER from Wade/James and high team offensive efficiency-- have one very important implication for the Heat: they are never out of the game.  No matter how much Miami trails in one particular game, it is nearly impossible to put them away, since they can shoot, drive, and dunk their way back into it.

From a matchup standpoint, the Heat have a much better chance to win the NBA Championship if the Thunder emerge from the Western Conference Finals.  Though unlikely given their current 1-0 hole in the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder's roster is modeled in much the same way as the Heat's is: both have all-time great small forwards (James and Durant), superstar guards (Russell Westbrook and Wade), as well as disappointing big men (Chris Bosh and Kendrick Perkins.  Also, beyond those three players on each side, neither team has much in the way of depth.  Mario Chalmers and James Harden often come up with big performances for the Heat and Thunder, respectively, but neither can be counted on to contribute in a big game.  This matchup of two similar teams plays to the Heat's advantage for one simple reason: their stars are better.  LeBron and Wade are better players than Westbrook and Durant (52.99 composite PER vs. 47.33), and they have more playoff experience.  Wade has already won an NBA Title, and LeBron has been to the NBA Finals once before.  The Thunder's duo, by contrast, has never been past the first round of the playoffs before this season.  This is a huge advantage for the Heat, meaning that they will win the NBA Championship if they get to face the Thunder in the Finals.

Why They Won't Win It All
There are two big reasons why the Heat will not be able to follow the path I outlined above and win a title this season.  First of all, the Bulls will defeat the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals and advance to the NBA Finals instead of LeBron and Co.  Chicago is nearly unbeatable on their home floor, as they proved Sunday night in their second half demolition of Miami in Game One.  In addition, the Bulls are starting to get big performances from Luol Deng (23 points in Game One), giving Coach Tom Thibodeau another offensive option with Carlos Boozer not playing up to his potential.  The Heat, by contrast, have so little depth that it's scary.  Heat players not named LeBron, Wade, or Bosh scored 19 points in Game One, while taking 18 shots compared to the Big 3's 50.  Chicago, by contrast, got 40 points from players not named Rose, Deng, or Boozer, including two ridiculous dunks from reserve Taj Gibson.  The Heat just aren't deep enough to beat a team like the Bulls.  If they somehow manage to beat the East's top seed, they likely will run into the Mavericks, another deep team.  In Game Four against the Lakers, the Mavericks reserves, led by Jason Terry and Peja Stojakovic, combined for 86 points.  That's more than the whole Miami team scored in Game One against the Bulls.  'Nuff said.

Chicago Bulls: +200
Why They Will Win It All
Defense.  The Bulls were the best defensive team in the NBA throughout the regular season, with a league-leading defensive efficiency of 97.4. They were also second in the league in fewest points allowed--only 91.3 per game. The Bulls were also fifth in the NBA in blocks, second in rebounds, and they had the lowest field goal percentage against (43.0%) in the entire league. That's how they were able to hold the 102.1-points-per-game-scoring Miami Heat to only 82 points in Game One. They did so by owning the offensive boards (19 offensive rebounds to six) and by forcing Miami turnovers (16 for the Heat and only nine for Chicago). This impressive performance is a continuation of what the Bulls were able to do during the regular season, including against the Heat (Chicago won the season series 3-0).

Can anybody guard this guy?
If the Bulls were to advance to the Finals, they would match up very well against the Oklahoma City Thunder, who do not have anybody to guard NBA MVP Derrick Rose (see left).  D-Rose is a unique type of point guard who can shoot from the outside almost as well as he can slash to the bucket.  The Thunder just do not have anybody who can guard an elite offensive talent like Derrick Rose.  OKC is the only remaining team not in the top 7 in defensive efficiency, and their individual players are not strong defensively.  Given a league average defensive rating (according to of a bit over 100, Russell Westbrook checks in at 107, with James Harden at 108 and Thabo Sefolosha at 106.  This means that, more often than not, Derrick Rose will be able to score against the three Thunder who are most likely to be guarding him.  By contrast, the Bulls have the personnel to at least contain Kevin Durant.  Chicago forwards Taj Gibson and Luol Deng have defensive ratings of 98 and 102, respectively.  The Bulls also have Joakim Noah and his 97 defensive rating waiting in the paint to stop a slashing Durant or Westbrook.  Though each team has an elite star surrounded by some very good supporting players, the Bulls are built to handle the Thunder defensively.  D-Rose & Co. should hope, then, that they get to face OKC in the Finals because that is their best shot at a Championship.

Why They Won't Win It All
J-Kidd and the Mavericks could be
trouble for D-Rose and the Bulls
Though Chicago would/should love to play against the Thunder in the NBA Finals, they likely won't have the chance to do so. The Mavericks are too deep, experienced, and well-coached to lose to Oklahoma City, especially when they have home court advantage--and a 1-0 series lead. If both teams advance to the NBA Finals, a Mavericks-Bulls series will likely be too close to call. There are plenty of pitfalls in that potential series that could trip up the Bulls, though.  This isn't really a matchup issue for the Bulls because Dallas' advantage at power forward (Dirk v. Boozer) is offset by Chicago's edge at point guard (Rose v. 91-year-old Jason Kidd).  However, Chicago needs to stay away from the problems that plagued them in the first two rounds--when they looked vulnerable against Indiana and had trouble dispatching Atlanta.  When D-Rose had an off-night from the field, the Bulls have been really vulnerable this postseason.  When he shoots under 43.5% on field goals, the Bulls are 2-3, compared to a 7-0 mark when he shoots better than that. The problem for the Bulls, though, is that Dallas has the personnel to effectively guard D-Rose and force him into a low shooting percentage. Though they do not have any one defender who matches up great against Rose (then again, who does?), the Mavericks have a slew of different players they can send at the Bulls point guard throughout the series. They can utilize the speed of JJ Barea, and experience of Jason Kidd, and the speed/experience of Jason Terry--as well as the length of veterans Shawn Marion, Caron Butler, and Peja Stojakovic. Because the Bulls--unlike the Thunder or Heat--have only one player (Rose) that scares you offensively, the Mavericks are able to use any defender they want on Rose without being worried about ramifications elsewhere. That way, head coach Rick Carlisle can rotate defenders on D-Rose until he finds the one that works.  Thus, Dallas may be able to shut down the Bulls' leader and biggest source of offense, and that would certainly spell trouble for Chicago.

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