Tuesday, May 17, 2011

NBA Playoffs: A Look Ahead (Western Conference Edition)

Since the NBA playoffs started, all we've been doing here at SportStatistics is looking backwards. We've looked at some great/awful individual lines and stats from the previous day's action, and we've  done recaps of almost every postseason game played thus far in 2011. What we haven't done yet, though, is look ahead to the rest of the postseason and assess what is likely to come. Since we're roughly half way through the NBA postseason, I figured now would be a good time to step back from dissecting each individual game in incredible detail and instead look at what is likely to transpire in the Conference Finals and in the NBA Finals. Will Dirk (see right) finally get that first ring?  Can D-Rose be NBA MVP and Finals MVP?  Will the Evil Empire of South Beach continue to make me unhappy? And what about the NBA's humblest superstar, Kevin Durant?  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, Sportsbook.com had the Miami Heat as slight favorites (+180) to win the NBA Championship. They were followed closely by the Chicago Bulls (+200), then the Dallas Mavericks (+250), and finally the Thunder (+500). 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 42-6 record at the United Center this year (regular season and playoffs). Out West, the Vegas bookies have the Mavericks as six-point favorites tonight in Game One. This is a pretty big margin for a late-round playoff game, as tomorrow's Bulls-Heat Game Two 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? About the Thunder's huge underdog status? Let's break down each team and see what has to go right for them to win the NBA title, starting with the Western Conference.  Eastern Conference to come tomorrow.

Dallas Mavericks: +250
Why They Will Win It All
It's Dirk Nowitzki's time.  Dirk has had a PER of at least 22.8 every year since he was 22 (that's 11 straight seasons!), and his PER has been above 25 on four occasions.  Dirk is still on top of his game, too, with a 23.4 PER this season, good for 10th in the NBA.  He has been playing at an elite level longer than any player remaining in the postseason, and this might be Dirk's last shot.  The German native knows this, and has been playing like he really wants it this year.  Dirk is averaging 26.5 points and 8.4 rebounds this postseason, all while shooting 60% from three-point range. He also hit huge shots in Dallas' close Game One and Game Three victories over the Lakers, proving that he can get it done in crunch time in a big game. That was the biggest knock against Dirk in 2006 when the Mavs folded in the Finals to the Heat, but now he's silenced the doubters. Though the Mavs will be facing some tough big men in the next round or two, Dirk is equipped to handle the Thunder's Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, the Bulls' Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, and the Heat's...well they don't really have anyone to guard Dirk this year.  Dirk was especially impressive in making All-Star seven-footer Pau Gasol look tired and soft this postseason. For proof, check out Dirk's Game One against the Lakers (for further reading, see Game Two vs. Lakers, Game Three vs. Lakers, Game Four vs. Lakers). Though Dirk might not be in the top 10 all-time NBA players like his coach claims, Nowitzki is still at the top of his game and primed to keep the run going.

In addition, the problems that plagued the Mavs during their last trip to the Finals are no longer part of the equation in 2011. In 2006, the Dallas offense was led by Devin Harris--a young, up-and-coming point guard who was still pretty raw--and Jason Terry, a combo guard if anything. That season, Terry was the Mavericks' assists leader, with only 3.8 per game in both the regular season and playoffs.  Harris played more and more as the season went on, but he had only a 1.12 assist-turnover ratio in the playoffs. As a result, the Mavericks were unable to pull out closer games against the Heat, going 0-3 in games decided by fewer than 10 points in the Finals. By contrast, Jason Kidd--he of 11,578 career assists--is running the Dallas offense now.  He had a 3.73 assist-turnover ratio in the regular season, and is at 2.88 in the playoffs. That's a huge improvement over Harris's efficiency in 2006, and his raw assist totals are roughly double what Terry's were back then. This means that the Mavs are better equipped close games in 2011, just like they did in Games One and Three against Los Angeles.

Why They Won't Win It All
If the Mavs can't slow down stars like D-Wade, then
they'll have some real trouble moving forward
The Mavericks, just like the Bulls, are capable of beating anybody and winning the 2011 NBA Championship. However, also like the Bulls, Dallas has to avoid certain pitfalls that could make their round to immortality a little trickier than they would hope. First, as the Mavericks showed in Game Four against Portland, they are susceptible to being beaten by great players who get hot for only a few minutes--when Brandon Roy scored 18 in the fourth to rally the Blazers from an 18-point deficit. That could be problematic for Dallas, since the three other teams remaining all have superstars who can similarly take over a game: Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade (see above). Now, I believe Dallas has the pieces to be able to contain these superstars and force their teammates to step up. However, the Mavericks have to execute on the defensive end against these guys. If they do not, Dallas is in trouble. The Mavs are not the youngest team around, and they could be really susceptible to big runs from younger, more athletic opponents. If they let Derrick Rose run wild in the Finals, or if Durant goes off on them for 40+ on a nightly basis in their upcoming series, then the Mavs could have trouble. Strong team defense was the key for the Mavs against Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, and it will be the key for them going forward. But will they play it? If not, then Dirk will be trophy-less again.

Oklahoma City Thunder: +500
Why They Will Win It All
Kevin Durant. If the Thunder are going to win it all, Kevin Durant has to put this team on his back and carry them. In the regular season, the Thunder were only 2-4 when Durant scored fewer than 20 points, with the only wins being home against Sacramento and Phoenix. On the other hand, OKC was 16-3 when Durant scored 32 or more points, with the only losses being against Dallas, Miami, and Boston. For the Thunder to beat the Mavericks, and then the Heat or the Bulls, Kevin Durant has to lead them--just like he did in Game Seven against the Grizzlies, by scoring a game-high 39 points in the series-clinching victory. Durant has been the NBA scoring champion for the past two seasons, and he better act like it when it counts: now.

The Thunder will also need to get some big performances from Kendricks Perkins, who has largely been a disappointment since coming over from Boston. In 17 games with the Thunder, Perkins has played to 9.1 PER, making him the worst Thunder player to get more than eight minutes of floor time per game this season. In his 28.6 minutes per game this postseason, Perkins is averaging 4.7 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 0.67 blocks per game. By contrast, Perkins averaged a double-double (11.9 points and 11.6 rebounds per game) in the 2009 playoffs with Boston. Especially with Serge Ibaka's health in question, the Thunder are going to need to find some production in the interior against Dallas.  Tyson Chandler has been a beast defensively all season, especially on the interior. If the Thunder don't give him somebody big to guard, like Perkins (see left), then Chandler will be able to patrol the paint all series, thwarting Durant and Russell Westbrook any time they try to drive. If Kendrick Perkins can step up and become the player the Thunder traded for, then Oklahoma City will make life really difficult for the Mavericks. The same holds true if the Thunder make the finals. The Bulls have a great interior defender, Joakim Noah, that needs to be neutralized if the OKC stars are to score with any easy. On the other hand, the Heat don't really have any great post defenders (sorry Ghost of Zydrunas Ilgauskas), and a rejuvenated Kendrick Perkins should be able to take advantage.

Why They Won't Win It All
The Thunder just aren't there yet. They're too young a team to compete against the experienced Mavericks, they lack the defenders to guard Miami's Big 3, and they match up very poorly against the Chicago Bulls. Chicago is set up defensively to guard Kevin Durant, while the Thunder have nobody to contain Derrick Rose. The Thunder are still young, though, as their entire core--Durant, Westbrook, James Harden, and Ibaka--is made up of players age 22 of younger. This team has such a bright future, as none of those players are in their primes--and Ibaka and Harden have plenty of room for growth. However, the Thunder as a team are just too raw to compete at this high a level so soon. They struggled mightily against the eighth-seeded Grizzlies, a team that gets very little production from anyone under 6'11". They also struggle to spread the floor well, coming in 24th in the league in assists. As a result, they have trouble from the perimeter, making them #18 in three-pointers made and #19 in three-point percentage. These pedestrian numbers are not the characteristics of a top-flight team. The Mavericks, for example, were second in assists and eighth in three-pointers made in 2010-2011. Championship caliber teams can spread the floor, find the open shooter, and knock down outside shots. That's how Dallas beat the Lakers, and that's how Miami beat the Celtics. The Thunder cannot do that yet, so they will be unable to advance in this postseason. But there's always next year.

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