Predicting the Finals (The Long Way)

Predicting sports events is a losing endeavor. There is a reason that gambling is a such a lucrative business, for the bookmaker that is. Professional gamblers, like “psychics”, want to sell you their “knowledge”. Even wonder why don’t they use their “gifts” to make themselves rich without your money? Nobody can see into the future, and nobody’s system is good enough to beat Vegas’ odds consistently.

However for those that write about sports, predicting teams is a winning proposition (as long as there is no money on the table). If the prediction is correct, I can refer to it later. If it’s wrong, I’m sure no one will care, since it’s foolish to be held to that kind of accountability. Everybody has their own way of picking who will win. Some people decide which team is more hungry. Some people use which team has more heart. Other will look at which team has more playoff experience. I’m sure these people have varying degrees of success with these methods. I don’t know how anyone could quantify which team has more heart without getting a cardiologist involved.

I prefer something more tangible. As I’m typing this right now, I don’t know who I will predict to win. I’m going to look over all the data I have & make an educated guess at the end. I’m going to use Dean Oliver’s four factors of winning. Despite digging around, I haven’t found how he came to these results. This bothers me a little, but since his work in Basketball on Paper is so thorough and logical, I can let it slide for now. There are actually 2 sides to each factor, an offensive and defensive component.

Factor 1. Shooting (eFG%)

OFFENSIVE

L.A.	48.1%	102%	7th
DET	46.1%	98%	20th

[NOTE: The first number is eFG%, the second is their percentage of the league average, the last is their rank.]

Los Angeles has the advantage here, and it should be no surprise. Shaq led the league in eFG% with his massive FG% (58%). Payton, Malone, and Kobe all had better eFG% than the Pistons’ team average.

On the other hand Detroit is a poor shooting team. Adding Rasheed (47%) slightly improves their percentage, but their big scorers Hamilton and Billups have an eFG% of 46%. Meanwhile Larry Brown’s Ben Wallace experiment has me scratching my head. Wallace’s offensive contributions used to be limited to put backs and easy shots, which gave him a near 50% FG%. This year Brown has asked Wallace to take a more active role, and he’s been horrible (42%). Brown’s logic is to keep teams honest by using a defender on Big Ben, which should give the other Detroit shooters a small edge. Either it hasn’t worked as Detroit is 20th in eFG%, or the Pistons are a worse shooting team than I expected.

DEFENSIVE

L.A.	47.1%	100%	15th
DET	44.1%	107%	2nd

This is where the Pistons shine. Although L.A. is simply average, Detroit is awesome, only behind the Spurs. Which brings an interesting comparison, since Los Angeles beat the Spurs earlier this year. Here’s a little chart of L.A.’s big 4 scoring in that series.

Name	1	2	3	4	5	6	1-2avg	3-6avg
Shaq	19	32	28	28	11	17	25.5	21
Kobe	31	15	22	42	22	26	23	28
Payton	4	7	15	8	5	15	5.5	10.8
Malone	10	13	13	9	7	8	11.5	9.3
?????	32	33	28	23	28	25	32.5	26

Los Angeles lost the first two games, but won the next 4. The difference seemed to be Kobe Bryant, who averaged 5 more points in the Laker’s wins. The last row is Bruce Bowen’s minutes, Kobe’s main defender. Granted Kobe torched him in game 1, but it’s apparent the less Bowen played, the more points Bryant scored. The reason Bowen played less is the Spurs’ offense fizzled and they needed more scorers on the court. San Antonio’s offense was ranked 14th, slightly better than the Pistons. Detroit should learn a lesson from the Spurs. They have to stay close in the game, so Brown won’t be tempted to take his defenders out for more firepower.

Factor 2. Turnovers (TO/100poss)

OFFENSE

LA	14.2	109%	5th
DET	16.2	96%	20th

DEFENSE

LA	15.4	99%	16th
DET	16.5	106%	7th

Again, the Lakers are better on offense, while the Pistons are better on defense. However the Lakers have the edge here. How? They turnover the ball 14.2 times per 100 possessions, but force turnovers 15.4 times, which is a net of +1.2. Meanwhile the Pistons give it up 16.2 times, and get it back 16.5 times, which is a small +.3 net.

Factor 3. Offensive Rebounds (oREB%)

OFFENSE

LA	28.1%	98%	16th
DET	30.1%	105%	9th

DEFENSE

LA	26.7%	108%	5th
DET	28.3%	101%	12th

Getting this far is seems that these two teams have strengths & weaknesses in the opposite areas in just about every aspect. Detroit is better on the offensive glass, while the Lakers are better on the defensive. I can’t tell who has the advantage here. The Lakers’ great offensive rebounding is tempered by their below average offensive rebounding. Detroit is above average in both respects, but nowhere near the Lakers’ efficiency on the defensive end. I would guess that Detroit has a slight edge, but not by much.

Factor 4. Free Throws (FTM/FGA)

OFFENSE

LA	.244	107%	7th
DET	.247	108%	4th

DEFENSE

LA	.222	103%	16th
DET	.202	113%	3rd

I guess I spoke too soon about their strengths & weaknesses. Detroit is clearly superior here at both getting to the line, and keeping their opponents from the charity stripe. One thing to consider is how will Shaq change this? Surely the Pistons will foul Shaq when it suits them, so will this negate this advantage? For example, maybe the Pistons can get away with a foul here & there, because their big men don’t foul often. Giving a few free fouls to Shaq, will that put them in the penalty sooner? It might, but I don’t think it’ll be as much of a factor, since Detroit is so good in this respect.

SUMMARY:
Detroit has an edge in the weaker categories, free throws & rebounding, and Detroit’s defense should put them over the top. However Los Angeles is very efficient when it comes to scoring and not turning the ball over, combined with Detroit’s weakness in these same categories gives the edge to the Lakers. In simpler terms, Los Angeles has a good offense, and an average defense, while Detroit has a good defense, but a bad offense. It’s Detroit’s lack of offense that will hurt them.

Does this mean that the Lakers will definitely win? No. I’ll spare you from the all too familiar “anything can happen in a 7 game series.” Instead I’ll say that the statistics don’t tell the entire story. This entire column is based on the regular season stats. However, Kobe only played 65 games, Shaq 67, and Malone 42. On the other side of the ball, Rasheed only played in 21 games for the Pistons. We really don’t know exactly what these teams are like at full strength. I won’t write off Detroit yet, but I do think they’ll have to do a few things to keep themselves in the game.

No one can stop Shaq for a long period of time. The Pistons will likely do what everyone else has done, which is to put a body on him as best they can & foul him when it’s profitable. Detroit needs to stop the rest of the gang, especially Kobe. If L.A. can jump out to a lead, they’ll force Detroit to do something they’re not good at, which is try to score. The Pistons move at a slow pace, and turning out lots of points very quickly isn’t how they got here. The key for Detroit is to keep the games close. They can do that by keeping the non-Shaq Lakers from scoring, and getting good production out of Hamilton, Billups, & Rasheed.

The key for the Lakers is to score and put the pressure on Detroit. They need points out of someone other than Shaq & Kobe. Malone has done well enough (13PPG), despite facing two great defenders in Garnett and Duncan. Gary Payton has all but disappeared from the offense, scoring 8.8PPG in the playoffs. The Lakers need production from the rest of the gang, whether it be Fisher, George, or Rush. They’ll want to score points off of turnovers, while minimizing any damage the Pistons might cause on the offensive boards and at the free throw line.

I said I would make a prediction at the beginning of this column, and I’ll stick with it. If Detroit wins I won’t be surprised (or sad), but I have to go with the evidence I have. I know I said over a month ago that the Lakers wouldn’t be holding the trophy by summertime, but I’m going with the Lakers, in a hard fought 7 game series. The Lakers’ offense and the Pistons’ lack of offense give Los Angeles the edge they need.

Karl Malone vs Kevin Garnett… Part 2

My column last Tuesday must have been a hit, because I received a stream of emails larger than any other column before. Yes I beat my personal record of 1 email, and received 2 whole emails on the topic. Technically this will be the third posting in this series, since the one last Tuesday was an email response to my column on May 20th.

…my only point was that since both were all-D 1st team they are by definition comparable (of equal value, etc – the very best for a specific season). often we get people posting to the APBR groups who are young and have seen the players of today but not those of yesteryear (not that malone was great all that long ago). not knowing who you were/are, i had to wonder if you saw malone play. my point was that anyone who had seen karl malone play alot during that time would have come away thinking he was a helluva defender…

my personal belief is that he was a great defender for a long time but himself did not get the recognition from the sports media and public as one of the best because a) he was also a great offensive player, and often people think the two do not go hand in hand, and b) he played in utah, not the mecca of pro hoops, and the jazz were not center stage until 96-97 and 97-98, having lost in the finals both times to the bulls….

bob chaikin

I have to agree with Bob in that I haven’t seen Malone play alot. Being a Knicks fan, and living on the East coast didn’t give me many opportunities to see Malone’s defensive abilities. Maybe I’ve saw him play once or twice a year. Bob is right in a way, that since Utah is a West coast team without appearing in the Finals until late in his career I can’t judge Malone’s defensive game. When Malone did appear on the main stage (for us right coasters), he was a bit older & played against an offensively challenged player in Dennis Rodman. By that time in his career, Rodman’s sole abilities were rebounding & defense. Defending against an offensively challenged player is hardly a way to show your defensive skills.

Bob claims that Malone doesn’t get the respect he deserves because of his offensive skills. So is being a good offensive player is a detriment to winning defensive acclaim? Here are the All-NBA Teams for two recent years.

2002-03
FIRST TEAM

Tim Duncan, San Antonio
Kevin Garnett, Minnesota
Ben Wallace, Detroit
Doug Christie, Sacramento
Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers

SECOND TEAM
Ron Artest, Indiana
Bruce Bowen, San Antonio
Shaquille O’Neal, L.A. Lakers
Jason Kidd, New Jersey
Eric Snow, Philadelphia

2001-02
FIRST TEAM

Tim Duncan, San Antonio
Kevin Garnett, Minnesota
Ben Wallace, Detroit
Gary Payton, Seattle
Jason Kidd, New Jersey

SECOND TEAM
Bruce Bowen, San Antonio
Clifford Robinson, Detroit
Dikembe Mutombo, Philadelphia
Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers
Doug Christie, Sacamento

The awardees seem to be primarily in one of two groups: either great offensive players (Duncan, Garnett, Kobe, Shaq, etc.) or horrible offensive players (Wallace, Mutombo, Bowen, etc.). There is a third group with offensively mediocre players (Artest, Christie), but I don’t see how being a great offensive player hurts your chances of getting acclaim for your defensive play.

Bob wasn’t the only one to have an opinion on the Garnett vs Malone defensive matchup:

…I think Garnett’s defensive ability is something that might be deserving of a whole column/blog entry. He’s got all the All-Defense nods, but there are also those that think his rep vastly overstates his actual ability (Kobe Bryant falls into this category to an even larger degree).

I recall a few years ago, the Sonics coaching staff said at a season ticket-holder Q&A that Garnett could be beaten if you went at him — in other words, he’s an excellent team defender, but not as good one-on-one. Dean Oliver said something similar when I asked him about Garnett recently (we were watching Game 7 of Kings-Wolves).

His opponent performance by postition (http://www.82games.com/03MIN12C.HTM) is pretty good, but not in the stratosphere of Tim Duncan (http://www.82games.com/03SAS15C.HTM). Does his team defense make up for that?

Kevin Pelton

I’m sorry to say I can’t answer any of those questions. Right now I think it’s safe to say that nobody can give a definitive answer as to how good a player’s man-to-man defense or help defense is. I think in time we might be able to extrapolate +/- data in such a way that we can verify how good each player’s defense is. Maybe there will be a more advanced way in the future to figure these things out.

One question that we can start debating about is whether being able to play good defense against your man (man-to-man) is greater or less than being able to play good help defense (team defense). I would imagine doing the former wouldn’t show up anywhere on the box scores other than maybe a drop at the opposing player’s points scored (or eFG%, TO/48, etc.) at the same position. For example if Garnett is a good man to man defender, it’s possible that all the PF who’ve played against him will score less than their yearly average. Of course there are many ways this data could be corrupted as well. [For example a team may have a great shot blocker or play a slow tempo game (with few possessions).]

Without evidence to the contrary, I would say that being a good team defender is more important than being a good man to man guy. Being able to stop your opponent is a good thing, but let’s say you’re a SG, and your opposing team’s best scorers are the SF & C. You aren’t able to help your teammates as much. But if you’re a good help defender, you should be able to help your team whoever their scorer is, whether you’re Garnett helping out with a block, or Jason Kidd doubling down to getting a quick steal.