Math Soup for the Soul: Possibilities for Eastern Conference Playoff Seeding
These days, the comment section of Knickerblogger is filled with exchanges like this:
“Good god. The Knicks are a combined 1-4 against teams below .500 since the Carmelo Anthony trade! Our defense looks like swiss cheese carved into the shape of a matador!”
“Oh please. They are 6-2 against teams OVER .500. Which group do you think we’ll be playing against in the playoffs?”
For better or for worse, KnickerBloggeristas are married to Carmelo Anthony, and that commitment has understandably made a lot of folks anxious. I figure, what better way to get control of our emotions than to turn to the numbers? The cold hard numbers.
Let’s start with some pie charts showing how tough the various Eastern Conference playoff teams’ schedules are. I sorted teams by win percentage and placed them in categories (bottom third, middle third, top third) and then compared those categories against teams’ remaining schedules.
So, as you can see, the Knicks’ schedule looks a whole lot easier on the surface than Atlanta’s or Philadelphia’s. Let’s look a little closer:
What we see here are some reasonable best case and worst case scenarios for each team. I categorize “winnables” as games vs. the bottom 2/3s of the league, and “gimmes” as games vs. the bottom 1/3 of the league. A lot of this was already clear: Orlando is pretty much locked in at the 4 seed. Miami has a distinct chance of moving up to the 2 seed.
There also are, however, some interesting things to note:
1) Philadelphia’s chances of moving up revolve around a worst case finish for New York and a best case finish for itself.
2) Chicago, despite being only a half game ahead of Boston, is much safer from Miami.
3) And… The fifth seed is still well within reach for New York.
Let’s look closer by ditching those crudely cut categories and use something fancy. Pythagorean Wins is a formula based on a team’s scoring differential, and is known to be more accurate in predicting wins than even wins when looking between seasons. It predicts based on the Knicks’ performance pre-tonight that they should be 34-32 (their exact record). Looking through about a half dozen teams, I’d estimate that it is about 1-2 games off on average, except in Texas. Texas teams for some reason don’t rhyme well with its equation, as the Spurs are supposed to be seven games worse than they are.
Anyway, I applied BR’s formula in reverse. I took the average score of games already played between teams that will play in this final month and applied them to the formula. Wanting all factors included, I also adjusted for the proportion of home games vs. road games (.12 game bonus) and the number of back to backs (.15 game bonus) played and played against. Finally, I gave teams that play end-of-season against a team that is likely to rest its starters (games vs. any of the top three seeds) a .25 game bonus.
As you can see, things look less rosy for New York in this model. However the scores applied to this formula were from the old Knicks, in the pre-Melozoic era. The new Knicks may be better or worse than their predecessors.
One factor that these stats don’t weigh is individual match-ups, for instance the Celtics have beaten Atlanta by an average of 17.5 points in their two games so far this season. They have won their games against their other two possible playoff opponents by an average of 0.7 points (Philadelphia) and 3 points (Knicks). Additionally an older team, Boston may be happy to rest starters in their back to back games. In order for them to get a more favorable match-up against the Hawks, the Knicks will have to move up. And with two games left against New York, Boston will have a say on the Knicks position. Interestingly, Miami has two games left against Atlanta. If they go all out for the win, they risk helping Boston get a more favorable first round team.
There’s one last thing I want to show you all before we bag and tag this one – something for the pragmatists, cynics, and optimists alike. Here’s what Pythagorean Wins has to say (adjusted for strength of schedule) about the number of wins this Knicks team would get in a full season based on their performance in the games listed.
So now go ahead you optimists. Post that comment: “Jordan Bulls, we’re coming for your 72 wins! After we get acquainted with Larry O’Brien this year of course.”
And you cynics: “I hope the Rockets enjoy our lottery pick next year. I’m through with this joke of a franchise. I’ll be watching the Knuggets.”
And finally, ye’ steady pragmatists: “48 wins. That’s just what I posted three weeks ago. Big surprise. Excuse me, but I have a date with a regression analysis that has curves in some very interesting places, if you know what I mean.”
Ah but wait! What’s this? This huge bowl of math soup is doing something to my stomach! It’s giving me a gut… feeling. A gut feeling. Yes, that’s it. And as we all know, gut feelings are the most reliable form of statistical analysis. My gut is saying:
#1 Chicago vs. #8 New Jersey (Haha Utah, you should have traded us Deron. Lottery pick = gone)
#2 Miami vs. #7 Philadelphia
#3 Boston vs. #6 Atlanta
#4 Orlando vs. #5 New York
In addition to writing for Knickerblogger, Max teaches English at Tallahassee Community College and writes short stories. He recently finished a feature screenplay, and he is working right now to raise the funds to film it. You can check it out on Kickstarter.