Here I am sitting with my NBA bracket. All empty & waiting to be filled out. I’m more curious about the thought process that goes into such an endeavor. What would make someone choose one team over another? If logic is in play, shouldn’t I always pick the higher seed, since they have home field advantage and are usually the team with the better record? Or do I use my gut feeling? What information am I using to base my picks on? Do I go with the hot/cold teams (SAS, MIN, IND, DET, and MIA are hot; NJ, MEM, HOU, and SAC are cold)? Do I take the teams with more playoff experience (LAL, SAS, NJ, & DET) over the ones that aren’t playoff tested (NY, DEN, MIA, & MEM)? Where can I find solace in my decisions?

A good place to start is to look at recent history. I don’t have a team of experts at my call (this is a one man blog, not ESPN). So I’ll quickly use the last two years as a starting point, to find out what kind of team is most likely to pull off an upset. Here are all the underdog winners over the last two years:

Year	Rnd	TEAM	Seed	OPP	Seed
2002	2	BOS	3	DET	2
2002	2	LAL	3	SAS	2
2002	3	LAL	3	SAC	1
2003	3	NJ	2	DET	1
2003	2	DAL	3	SAC	2
2003	1	LAL	5	MIN	4

Out of the 16 first round games, there has only been one upset. The 5th seed Lakers played without Shaq for 15 games, and only missed the 4th seed by one game. However with their center (and franchise player) healthy, they took the Wolves in 6. They were as easily dismissed by the Spurs in the second round 4 games to 2. Of the latter rounds, it seems that the #3 seed has the best chance of survival. Subtracting the well documentated Lakers 2002 championship, 2 of the remaining #3 teams have won their second round game. Both teams were offensive orientated teams that just got hot at the right times. Boston behind the shooting of Walker & Pierce, and Dallas with their myriad of scorers. Twice the #1 seeds have been upset one series before the finals.

So with my extremely small sample size, what kind of data am I armed with? First round upsets are rare, but the further you go in the playoffs, the more perilous it gets. This should be obvious because the disparity between the teams gets smaller (instead of a #1 playing a #8, it’s a #1 playing a #4 or #2). In my small sample size, no team lower than a #5 seed is likely to pull of an upset. In history there have been lower seeded teams to move on past the first round (Knicks & Nuggets). However the odds seem too slim when given even odds (as a picking out a bracket is).

Leaving open the option that a #6 could slip by, I’ll take a quick gander at those two matchups. #6 Memphis isn’t likely to upset the Spurs. San Antonio still has the best defensive team in the league, and I think that makes it a little tough for an underdog to unseat them at home. Similarly with other #6 team, the Bucks. They are facing the #2 defensive team in the league, and I don’t see the Pistons losing with home court advantage.

The 5th seeds have a little better chance at unseating their opponents. According to me, a few days ago Miami only had a 17% chance of taking the 4th seed. Their opponent the Hornets were in the 6th seed. Thanks to the Bucks who mailed it in the last few games (why does that sound familiar?) those two get to play each other. Miami seems to have every edge, home court advantage, hot team going into the playoffs, and the better record. The Hornets only have their playoff experience, but I don’t think that’ll be enough to unseat the Heat.

Dallas-Sacramento is the matchup that could go either way. Both teams are great on offense. However the Kings have an average defense, while Dallas ranks among the bottom 5 teams. It’s not without the realm of possibility for the Mavs to take this series, especially if their offense explodes. However I can’t get over their defense being that bad, especially while facing the league’s best offense.

So in the first round, I’ll be a wimp and take all the favorites:

To keep my street cred, I’ll have to go out on a ledge in round two. So here we go. I’ll predict both 3rd seed to win their series. Detroit and the Spurs are ranked #1 & #2 in defense, and both teams finished with better records than their 2nd seeded counterpart. Not many people are taking the Nets over the Pistons, but enough people are not only picking the Lakers to win in the second round, but to go all the way. I can’t find a good reason to pick either of these teams to knock off the top teams, so I have an Indiana-Minnesota finals.

Second & Third Round:
East: IND def MIA, then DET
West: MIN def SAC, then SAS

For the finals, I’ll take Indy over Minnesota. Despite my hatred for the Pacers due to their rivalry with the Knicks, the East needs a to win a championship to gain any type of respect from the media. While the talent disparity is still there, an East team winning it all will let free agents feel they can win a championship in the East. Recently I’ve felt that players are going to or staying out West because they think it’s their best chance at winning a championship. Logic dictates that while it may be easier to reach the finals in the weaker East, the West is pumping out the rings faster than Sauron. In any scenario, I will be rooting for whoever represents the East in the Finals

IND over MIN score of the final game: 91-84

Playoff Odds 04/05/04

Curious at how the seeds to the playoffs might turn out, I got a little ambitious. It all started from something I learned a while back. That is you can calculate the probability of a team winning a game if you know: the home team’s record at home, the road’s team record away, and the league’s home win %. I used this little formula in a previous column to talk about the Knicks’ chances to win their 5 next games.

I decided to see how far I could take this. So I inserted all the home/road records of every team in the league into a spreadsheet. Then I put in the remaining schedule for the entire league. I determined probability of the winner of each game using this formula. Based on these odds & using Excel’s random number generator, I played out the rest of the season 1000 times.

The East:

Team	Ewins	EW%	Seed1	Seed2	Seed3	Seed4	Seed5	Seed6	Seed7	Seed8	Miss

IND 59.9 .730 1.00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00
DET 54 .658 .00 .00 1.00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00
NJN 48.5 .591 .00 1.00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00
MIL 42 .512 .00 .00 .00 .77 .19 .04 .00 .00 .00
MIA 40.9 .499 .00 .00 .00 .17 .58 .23 .02 .00 .00
NOR 40.1 .489 .00 .00 .00 .05 .22 .62 .09 .01 .00
NYK 38.3 .467 .00 .00 .00 .00 .01 .09 .66 .24 .00
BOS 37.5 .457 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .02 .22 .70 .05
CLE 34.8 .424 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .01 .03 .96
PHI 34.1 .416 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .01 .99
TOR 32.2 .393 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 1.00
ATL 27.3 .333 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 1.00
WAS 25.6 .312 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 1.00
CHI 23.8 .290 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 1.00
ORL 20.3 .247 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 1.00
[Ewins = Expected # of wins, EW% = Expected winning percentage]In the East, the top 3 seeds are already set in stone. Indiana, New Jersey and Detroit will be the top 3. New Jersey clinches the #2 spot, due to winning the weak Atlantic. Milwaukee has a 77% chance of taking the 4th seed (a.k.a. the last home field spot for the first round), followed by Miami (17%), and New Orleans (5%). More good news for Bucks’ fans, they won’t likely have worse than a 5th seed (4%). Miami can fall as far as the 7th seed, but even that is a small (2%) chance.

Speaking of that 7th seed (we know Penny Hardaway isn’t anymore), the Knicks appear to be the favorites here, with a 66% probability of facing the Nets in the first round. After the events of this weekend, that should prove to be a most interesting matchup. Boston might win the 7th seed, and the Hornets have a 9% chance of falling that far as well. If either Cleveland (4%) or Philly (1%) makes the playoffs, it’ll be at the expense of the Celtics.

The West:

TEAM	Ewins	EW%	Seed1	Seed2	Seed3	Seed4	Seed5	Seed6	Seed7	Seed8	Miss

SAC 56.73 .692 .55 .02 .31 .10 .02 .00 .00 .00 .00
LAL 56.23 .686 .25 .18 .45 .10 .02 .00 .00 .00 .00
MIN 55.69 .679 .12 .41 .11 .36 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00
SAS 55.53 .677 .07 .39 .13 .41 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00
MEM 52.55 .641 .00 .00 .00 .03 .77 .20 .00 .00 .00
DAL 51.41 .627 .00 .00 .00 .00 .20 .80 .00 .00 .00
HOU 44.77 .546 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .90 .07 .03
UTA 42.6 .520 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .03 .43 .54
POR 42.43 .517 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .04 .32 .64
DEN 42.09 .513 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .03 .18 .79
GSW 37.09 .452 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 1.00
SEA 36.93 .450 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 1.00
LAC 28.94 .353 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 1.00
PHO 27.83 .339 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 1.00
The West isn’t as simple. Four teams are vying for the #1 seed. Just looking at the expected wins column, and there is little to separate them (barely more than one win). The Kings are the favorites, but at 55% are hardly locks for the top spot. If you add in the Lakers’ 25%, there is an 80% chance that the Pacific will have the top seed.

Minnesota (12%) and the Spurs (7%) can still land the top spot. However since there is an 80% chance that the Pacific gets the #1 seed, then that means there is the same probability that these two teams will have the #2 seed. The Timberwolves (41%) have a slight edge over the Spurs (39%) here. There is the tiniest chance (2%) that the Lakers or Kings will slip to the 5th spot, and in that scenario, the Grizzlies would grab the last home field spot (#4).

There are 6 teams that can avoid the lottery. Actually Dallas and Memphis have guaranteed them no worse than the 6th spot. The Rockets only have a 3% probability of missing the playoffs, and will likely get the 7th seed. That leaves Utah (46%), Portland (36%), and the Nuggets (21%) to fight for the final spot (although technically any of them can be as high as #7). It’d be nice to see the Nuggets win that 8th seed, and hopefully critics won’t blame only him for not being able to get out of the first round, like they do to Kevin Garnett.

The Dean Oliver Interview

Baseball is in the midst of a revolution of sorts. No it’s not about steroids or home run records, but rather the wave of statistical analysis that is hitting the league like a Pedro Martinez high and tight fastball. The grandfather of this uprising could be Branch Rickey, the former Dodgers GM. More than half a century ago, he knew there were flaws in measuring a player’s value with stats like BA, RBI, and even fielding percentage. Even though the baseball world ignored these simple findings, other people did not. A small group of people asked: “what are the best tools we have to evaluate baseball players?”

The fathers of the revolution are guys like Bill James, Pete Thorn, and John Palmer, who have given birth to the modern day soldiers. Current GM’s like Billy Beane, J.P. Ricciardi, Paul Depodesta, and Theo Epstein value statistical analysis over observational appraisal. Columnists like Rob Neyer are part of the mainstream and have forced the old regime to pick up new terms like OPS to adapt. Voros McCracken, a lawyer turned baseball consultant, turned a world of baseball thinkers on their head with his theory that (with few exceptions) pitchers have little effect on a batted ball in play. The movement has hit the streets with a new generation of writers from all walks of life preaching the new credo.

What does this have to do with Dean Oliver? His book is part of a parallel movement in basketball. Dean’s goal with his book is to better understand basketball through statistics. Where current statistics don’t give enough information, Dean creates his own. Whether you’re a casual fan or a failled GM looking for a way to improve your way of thinking, Dean Oliver’s book should be of interest to you.

“Basketball On Paper” tries to answer the tough questions. Is Team A really good defensively or does their slow tempo give that illusion? Read the book. Which team was the best offensive team of all time? Read the book. Can my team benefit from playing a risky strategy or should they tone it down? Read the book. How valuable is Iverson with his low FG%? Read the book.

The fires of same revolt are slowly starting to kindle in basketball. No there are no Billy Beane’s in the front offices of the NBA, yet. Nor is Bill Walton scrambling to learn what PER means. Jon Hollinger’s “Basketball Prospectus”, columns like Kevin Pelton’s Page 23, discussion groups like the APBR, and Dean Oliver’s “Basketball on Paper” will change the way people think about basketball, like their sabermetric cousins are currently doing in baseball.

And now, on to the interview:

“Basketball on Paper”:

KB: Since writing your book “Basketball on Paper,” what have you been working on since & what can we expect from you in the future?

I’ve actually been working on marketing the book and convincing NBA teams of the value of this kind of work — any of the type of statistical work that is logical and reasonable to help a team. I have been talking to a number of teams, the league office, and to media. I’ve done a couple of limited studies relating to work I’ve done for years for the Seattle Sonics. I’ve written a couple things and I am outlining another book on statistical approaches to basketball strategy.

KB: What were some of the responses to your book?

I did a radio show down in Tampa and Doc Rivers came up to me after hearing it and really wanted to talk to me and get a copy of the book. That was nice. I sent the book on to Bill James, who in an email to me said it was an excellent book. He is planning an endorsement. I know that some readers get concerned by seeing formulas or numbers of any sort, which is a bit of a shame since they really are there to support stories and lessons of how the game works and how good talent is.

KB: What is missing or what is next in the literature on basketball statistics?

I think what is missing is the same large audience that baseball stats have. There isn’t a lot of money in a lot of the basketball writing at this point. And it’s a difference in the games. Baseball is slow enough that fans can really talk about what’s going on, pull in numbers. Basketball numbers are tremendous, they’re plentiful, and they’re insightful, but the time to use them or to make adjustments based on them is just not there. So fans look for the excitement and coaches make a lot of decisions based on gut feel. I’ve introduced some rules of thumb for hoops that can be applied on the fly, but it’s going to take a little while to catch on.

What is next in line for research is really a translation system for players from one league to the NBA. College stats have the best history, but high school and international leagues have significance now. We’re just catching up on this and it is not an easy problem. I’ve figured a few things out, but I have too many rules like “The Pitino Rule” that are just annoying and not very general. (Basically, Pitino’s system causes some of his players to be overvalued by stats.)

KB: When I read your book, “Basketball on Paper” I couldn’t help but think of it as the “Win Shares” of basketball, because of :

  • It’s ability to try and understand defense, where traditional methods are lacking
  • The clarity in which advanced statistical ideas are presented
  • The author’s humor

Do you see yourself making a book similar to “The New Bill James’ Historical Abstract”, either by making a recount of basketball by historical periods, or by ranking players by position?

I would very likely do such a book in combination with people like John Grasso, Bijan Bayne, Harvey Pollack, and my contacts in the NBA. The statistical library to evaluate the older players is incomplete, so video and news stories would be very important to make some accurate representations. These guys could definitely help. And I wouldn’t want to do what Elliott Kalb did with his book recently either, which is subjectively rank guys without a lot of link to objective evidence. You mention the recount of basketball by historical periods and I have done a lot of that. Total Basketball does some work along these lines, but doesn’t really talk about why Wilt scored 50 ppg in 1962, for instance, which is important. I mention those things — pace, less judiciousness in shot selection, lack of double-teams — in Basketball on Paper and would like to assemble more of that in a book like this.

Is this something that is right around the corner? Probably not. The group of interested basketball historians is growing, but it isn’t large enough to pay for the massive research involved. I hate having to say it that way, but basketball writers do need to make a living.


KB: On ESPN’s MLB main stat page, they have a “sabermetric” stat OPS on the main page, and a sabermetric page with such stats as isolated power and runs created. On ESPN’s NBA page, the closest they have to advanced metrics is points per shot and adjusted field goal percentage. How long do you think it will take before the major sports web sites will post stats like your off. Rtg., stop%, or Hollinger’s PER?

We’re getting there. The WNBA will put out possession stats and points per possession stats this year. The WNBA is also quite receptive to some of the defensive work we did with them a couple years ago and we’re hoping to do that again this year. Issuing monthly reports on what individuals forced the most misses would be nice small pieces of information that help that league and intrigue the bigger brother, the NBA.

The NBA does now have something it calls “efficiency”, which is just a sum of the good things minus the bad things, something I’ve heard referred to as “plus/minus” or is almost Tendex or Bob Bellotti’s Points Created. Going to the more advanced individual numbers is going to take a while. Putting team numbers out there first is huge. Then, in a couple years, we can start talking about other stuff. What we don’t want is another NFL-like passer rating stat that everyone jokes about as the lead stat.

KB: How would you define who is the best rebounder in the league? Would you simply look at REB/48min, or are there other considerations (incl. FG% and pace)?

Primarily, rebounders can be evaluated by the percentage of available rebounds they get. With 10 guys on the court, 10% would be average. I think Rodman was up around 20%. This accounts for pace and FG%. What it doesn’t account for is whether it really makes the team a good rebounding team, which is a modifying factor. A guy who gets 15% of available rebounds on a bad rebounding team is not as useful as one who gets 15% on a good rebounding team (because he is competing against his own teammates for boards). But that is relatively small in terms of importance.

KB: Is there a way to translate a player’s college statistics into his success at the professional level?

As I said above, this is one of the most important projects on the front burner. I’m getting better at it by studying the cases that just don’t work the first time and figuring out why.

KB: What has surprised you about the NBA season this year so far?

In terms of wins and losses, there aren’t a lot of surprises. I’m a little surprised at how successful the Nuggets are. I thought they’d be a lot better, but not this much better. I have been surprised by the coaching turnover. Doc Rivers was out quick, though the losing streak made it less surprising. Byron Scott’s firing and the discord between Ainge and Jim O’Brien — those really surprised me. I also was surprised at how cheaply Portland got Shareef Abdur-Rahim.

The Knicks:

KB: What do you think of the job Isaiah Thomas has done with the Knicks this year?

He wasn’t shy. Being decisive is usually a good thing, but his history in charge generally concerns me. So, picking up Marbury is a nice thing. Marbury is a very good piece to have. I just don’t know if the baggage of the other players, plus the losses were worth it if he’s trying to build a championship team. It’s more important that Isiah know how to follow up the moves he has made than just standing on what he’s got. So he gets a big Incomplete at this point.

KB: If you had to, where would you rank Stephon Marbury among today’s point guards?

Jason Kidd is solidly above him. Otherwise, he is in a class of points who are quite good (Nash, Parker, Billups, Cassell, Payton, and I’m sure I’m forgetting someone). Marbury is the best on the offensive side, but his defense lacks. Intangibly, he’s worn out his welcome a few times now and that matters.

KB: In your opinion, what player (current or former) is Nazr Mohammed most similar to? In the best case scenario what player could he aspire to become?

Curious that you ask that. Curious that the Knicks really valued him. One of my techniques for looking for players is to look at successful players in the league and see what guys are modestly similar to them who may not be getting much time. Mohammed came out modestly similar to a couple prominent big men in a study I did for the Sonics. I think Garnett or Duncan was one. But I have sooo many numbers that suggest he just isn’t going to end up good that I discarded him as a legit possibility. I did all that right before the trade, so I found it very coincidental. Best case: he might be Jamaal Magloire. He just can’t consistently score inside.

KB: Is Kurt Thomas worth $30 over 4 years, or could the Knicks have gotten similar production out of a cheaper and younger player?

Kurt Thomas is serviceable. He’s not a bad player. But he’s just not someone I see as a significant component of a championship team. It’s a risk to go after a younger player, but I would have taken that risk.

One final question:
KB: What do you like best about the Knicks?

Weeellllll, I do tend to root for Lenny Wilkens. He may be old-school and not care about the kind of work that I do, but he’s always seemed like a decent guy.