NBA First Round – Necessary?

I received an interesting & at first cryptic email today. The entire email was:

Houston. #6. 1995.

Need I say more?

The email was from Page 23’s Kevin Pelton. It took me a second to realize what this meant. It was in reference to my last entry where I wrote:

Off the top of my head I can’t think of a team past seed #5 that went two rounds other than the strike season Knicks.

I had been too busy (read: lazy) to actually research which low seeds have gotten far in the playoffs. Luckily I have readers astute enough to do my work for me. Of course Kevin’s point is made even more poignant by the fact that the 6th seed Rockets not only went past two rounds, but they were the champs as well.

The Rockets playoff team was a bit different than the one that earned them the 6th seed in the West. Midseason they traded Otis Thrope for Clyde Drexler. Drexler only played 35 games for the Rockets during the regular season. Similarly the 8th seeded 99 Knicks went through some changes as well. The newly acquired Camby and Sprewell were still trying to find their identities on the fly, especially in the playoffs when Ewing went down with his injured Achilles. The strike didn’t give them a chance to jell during the season, and who knows what their record would have been had they played the full 82 games.

If we wanted to take 20 years worth of data, let’s go back to 1983. Since then (and excluding 1999) there have been 5 teams that were either the 6th, or 7th seed to go at least as far as the Conference Championships (no 8th seeds have made it that far). The aforementioned Rockets, the ’94 Pacers, the ’89 Bulls, the 87′ Sonics, and the ’84 Suns. All of those teams were 6th seeds, except for the 7th seed Sonics.

In 20 years, there is a 4% chance that one of those teams (#6-#8) will make the conference finals, and and a .8% chance that one of them will make the finals and win it all. If you think I’m tilting the tables in my favor my excluding the strike season Knicks, the chances go up to 5%, 1.7% (to make the Finals), and .8% to win it all. Another thing to consider for the furture is the possibility of a first round upset is now lower with the expanded series (7 games from 5).

In other tournaments like March Madness, the NFL playoffs, and the World Cup, teams have better opportunities for upsets because it only requires one win to move on. The longer series gives the favorites a better chance at winning.

Sunday’s two games underscores the point between the first and second round games. The early game, a first rounder between the Heat and Hornets, meant little to me. It wasn’t because it wasn’t exciting, because tempers were flaring all over the court. One reason was that I couldn’t imagine either of these teams beating Indy in 7 games, and then the winner of Detroit/NJ on the road. The other was that it game 6 of the series. The Hornets were fighting for their lives, but Miami wasn’t. The other tournaments I mentioned above are all single elimination. Each game is important for both teams, not just the one with their backs against the wall. Tthe longer series makes each individual game less important as well.

The second round matchup between the Lakers & Spurs was another story. Since both of these teams have won the last 5 titles, I felt that the winner could possibly go all the way. The Lakers were the early season favorites, with their new additions of Payton & Malone. It was a GREAT game to watch. Even though it was only one game, it was the first of the series, and an upset on the Spurs floor would have tilted the series in the Lakers favor. That the winner of this series still has to face the winner of Minnesota/Sacramento to just reach the Finals is an awesome thought.

To conclude, really low seeds (7th & 8th) have virtually no chance of getting far in the playoffs. You can’t eliminate the first round altogether, because as pointed out by Kevin, 5th & 6th seeds do have a (very slim) chance of making a magical run. I can’t think of a playoff format that would make the first round more exciting without going to single elimination, or even a quick best of 3. The NBA will never allow such a hit on their wallets, even if it would make the game more exciting for their fans.

2004 Bloggers Bracket

Welcome to the KnickerBlogger 2004 Bloggers Bracket. First prize is Blog bragging rights for the year, and I’ve assembled a cast of the best bloggers around the country to participate. The rules are simple, you get a point for every correct team that you pick. In the unlikely event of a tie, tiebreakers will be taken by closest to the final score of the final game. All entries were sent to me before the first game was played on Saturday. First let’s meet the contestants:

Jon Hollinger – Jon’s blog says it all: “The Basketball Page for Thinking Fans.” Mr. Hollinger offers intelligent analysis with his “From the Baseline” blog at alleyoop.com. These days he’s moved on to real publishing, authoring the all encompasing Basketball Prospectus. The third edition covering the 2005 season is scheduled to be released in October, and I already have mine on order.

Kevin Pelton – Kevin fits the mold of Moneyball: logical, young, open-minded, and intelligent. He’ll use statistics to get a better understanding of any player or team. Whether it’s trying to understand how good Okafor might become, or if Gilbert Arenas is worth $7M. You’ll never know what topic he’s going to jump into at his Page23 blog.

Ron HitleyHornets247 has one of the most prolific blog writers. Ron’s articles are long, but he keeps the pace up with lots of quick tidbits. Check him out for the playoffs, since he’s likely to have something written something about every team.

Michael Avalone – The first page I’m going to in the morning is Michael Avalone’s Knicks Clicks. He’s got all the latest news about the Knicks, and I mean ALL the news. Like a young Dekembe Mutombo, nothing gets past him.

Scott Carefoot – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Scott is the best blogger out there. Scott isn’t ultra popular up north because of his cute little image before every post. Just read this post, which is maybe the best blog post I’ve ever read.

Tim KrausTim is my new best friend, thanks to my lucky picks in the NCAA pool. Always watching from the End of the Bench, Tim has the whole NBA covered, including those who cover the NBA.

Matt Bernhardt – The lowly Bulls don’t deserve such a good blogger. Although their lowly stature has supplied Matt with enough things to critique, Matt doesn’t stick to the Windy city, and comments on things outside of the game, including the plight of the college athlete, Mark Cuban’s weblog, etc.

Now on to the Picks:

BLOG:	Jon	Kevin	Ron	Michael	Scott	Tim	Matt	Me
EAST FIRST ROUND
E1v8 IND IND IND IND IND IND IND IND
E2v7 NJ NY NJ NJ NJ NJ NJ NJ
E3v6 DET DET DET DET DET DET DET DET
E4v5 MIA MIA NO MIA MIA NO NO MIA
WEST FIRST ROUND
W1v8 MIN MIN MIN MIN MIN MIN MIN MIN
W2v7 LAL LAL LAL LAL LAL LAL LAL LAL
W3v6 SAS SAS SAS SAS MEM MEM SAS SAS
W4v5 DAL DAL SAC DAL DAL SAC SAC SAC
SECOND ROUND
E2-1 IND IND IND IND IND IND IND IND
E2-2 DET DET DET DET DET DET DET DET
W2-1 MIN MIN MIN MIN MIN MIN SAC MIN
W2-2 SAS LAL LAL LAL LAL LAL SAS SAS
FINALS
EAST DET DET IND IND DET DET DET IND
WEST SAS LAL LAL LAL LAL LAL SAS MIN
CHAMP SAS LAL LAL LAL LAL LAL SAS IND
Score 82-78 89-80 87-81 110-95 93-86 90-75 90-82 91-84

In the East it looks like Indy, the Nets, and the Pistons are locks for the second round. Only Kevin has an upset here, by taking the Knicks. This is surpising, since both Knick bloggers have the Nets winning (us wimps!). Miami is a slight favorite over the Hornets. You have to give it to Ron, who is a much better fan of his home team than I am.

In the West, there is little room for upset where Minnesota and the Lakers are concerned. Scott and Tim both have the Grizzlies taking the Spurs out.

Everyone has the Pacers and Pistons fighting for the East. While the West, according to my fine panel, has Minnesota meeting either the Lakers or Spurs. The one dessenter being the Bulls Blog who choose the Kings to knock off the T-Wolves.

When it comes to the overall champion, I am the only one to choose an East team, taking the Pacers to win it all. Also I’m the only one that thinks Minnesota will make it that far. 5 of the 8 contestants think the Lakers are going all the way, with 2 picking the Spurs.

I’m not that surprised that no one wants to pick the East to win, but I thought the T-Wolves would get a little more respect. It seems that the majority of people think the winner of the Lakers/Spurs series in round 2 will decide the championship. I think the T-Wolves have a little advantage against the winner, since the team they will face in the second round will have a weak defense (SAC/DAL), and this series is less likely to be physical or go the full 7 games than the LAL/SAS series.

Good Luck Contestants!

71+2>72

The title says it all. A simple child can understand that 71 plus 2 is greater than 72. There are many applications of this. If Farmer Jeff has 71 apples, and he picks up 2 more apples, he’ll have more than Farmer Farmer Phil. He’ll also have more apples if he stops to pick up 3 more as well, but if his only concern is having more apples than Farmer Phil, then 2 apples will do. So why don’t NBA players understand this?

I watched it live, but in case you didn’t here’s all you need to know about the end of the Rockets-Lakers game on Saturday night:

0:11 Houston Full Timeout. 71-72
0:00 Jim Jackson missed 24 ft Three Point Jumper. 71-72
0:00 71-72 Shaquille O’Neal Defensive Rebound.

Why was Jim Jackson behind the three point line? I watched the play live, and I’ve seen it at least three more times since on replays. Francis drives down the lane on the right side, and Jackson spots up in the left corner. The closest defender to Jackson is moving closer to the hoop, and is a few feet from the basket. Francis passes the ball to Jackson in the corner, and he misses a three pointer.

What drives me mad is that Jackson stayed far away from the hoop. His defender was moving towards the hoop, so Jackson could have moved in closer as well. Certainly moving in from the three point line gives Jackson a higher percentage shot. If the Laker lead was two points, I can understand taking a wide open three pointer to win the game instead of opting for a chance at overtime. But the Rockets only needed two points to win, so why didn’t Jackson set himself up for a closer shot?

UPDATE: I’ve seen the replay yet again this morning. Jackson’s defender was Kobe Bryant who was in the paint at the time of the pass. Jackson could crept up to about 12-15 feet away & comfortably made the shot. I know hindsight is 20/20, but it’s basic basketball knowledge that when your defender goes towards the hoop to help out, you should move in as well.

Little Man In My Head

There’s a little man in my head
And he must have lived in someone else’s head before
‘Cause I was born in ’63
And he’s only been there since ’74

— “Little Man In My Head”
Dead Milkmen

Every once in a while, the part of my brain that thinks he’s a 94 year old grumpy man creeps out and spills it’s liver about basketball and just about anything else that can keep it awake for more than 10 minutes at a time. Today, this is what he shared with me.


ESPN has put up their experts’ picks on their web page. Not a single columnist has picked the East to win it all. I can understand the East being an underdog, but not one of their 12 experts is willing to go out on a limb on this one? Chad Ford has Gary Payton as the Finals MVP. Is the East that inferior that the 4th best player on a West team has a better chance to win the Finals MVP than any East team has of winning it all?

Marc Stein not only has the Mavs over the Kings, but apparently over the Twolves as well (since they he has them losing to the Spurs in the conference finals). Now that takes guts. I wonder how many other teams in the history of the NBA with a defense ranked in the bottom 5 have won not just one, but two series in the playoffs as underdogs. I mean an educated professional sports columnist like Marc Stein does know that the Mavs defense is that bad?

Bill Walton has the Lakers going all the way and Shaq as the Finals MVP. Just in case you were worried that he would be rooting for anyone else during his telecasts.

Moochie Norris has been left off the Knicks’ roster to make room for Allan Houston. Houston only has a 20% chance of playing this series. That seems about right, since Morris makes 20% of Houston’s salary.

Obviously the NBA moved the Knicks/Nets game to 4:30, because of the Yankees/Red Sox 1:20 game. I wonder if any game during the first month of the NBA regular season will ever mean enough to reschedule another league’s playoff game? Maybe an MLS game? Probably after that Freddy guy retires.

Or maybe they can just get rid of the regular season altogether and expand the playoffs some more. Sure an 81 game series may not be as exciting, but imagine all that extra playoff revenue!


Whew I think I got that all out of my system. On a positive note, you have to read this article. It’s just about the greatest article I’ve read concerning blaming a single player in a team sport. READ IT! Someone needs to give this guy some kind of prize.

Seeds

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:
East: IND, NJ, DET, MIA
West: MIN, LAL, SAS, SAC

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

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

TimberBlogger?

It’s pretty amazing how the regular season turned out. At the beginning of the year, I don’t think many people would have predicted that Indiana would have the best record in the league, and the Wolves would be the team to beat in the West. Before the season started critics were shouting to break up the Lakers, who acquired two hall of fame players, albeit past their prime. The Lakers made a decent second half push, and ended up with the number two seed, barely ahead of Sacramento.

How did Minnesota improve? Thanks to 82games.com (is there anything they can’t do?), it looks clear that they did it by upgrading their defense. Last year they averaged 108 pPts and their opponents 105 pPts (pPts is points per 100 possessions). This year their offensive output is the same, but they shaved their points against down to 101 pPts. Just to give you an example, this year their defense is ranked about 6th, while if they still had last year’s production, it would have been about 15th.

Knowing that they improved their defense, we can try to identify who the culprits are. We can look at the Wolves minutes last year, and compare it to this year. They took minutes away (by either trading or relegating to a smaller role) from Szczerbiak, Nesterovic, Kendall Gill, Peeler, Joe Smith, and Gary Trent, and gave them to Latrell Sprewell, Sam Cassell, Fred Hoiberg, Michael Olowokandi, and Mark Madsen. To me that looks like a defensive upgrade at every turn, save for Nesterovic.

Offensively, the Wolves are an efficient team. While they’re not in Sacramento’s class, they are 4th in eFG% behind Seattle and Dallas. Garnett and Cassell are very efficient and handle the majority of the shot attempts. Sprewell is their achilles heel in this area, as his .448 eFG% is very low, especially for some one that hoists it up about 15 times a game (same as Cassell). Put it this way, the worst team in the league, Chicago managed a .446 eFG%. Surprisingly Hoiberg leads the Wolves in eFG%, with .564, with his high percentage on three pointers (44%). The return of Wally Szczerbiak (.492 eFG%) gives the Wolves another scoring punch off the bench.

If anything I’m glad the Wolves will (in all likelihood) advance to the second round. I was tired of bad sportswriters using it as a tool to justify not voting for Garnett for MVP, and perpetuating the stereotype that one player is responsible for his team’s entire fate (hear that T-Mac?).

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.