The NBA Playoff Preview and the Picks (Part 1: Just the Facts)

Posted on 04/15/2011 by

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I can live with doubt and uncertainty. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.

— Richard P. Feynman

We’ve spent a lot of time together on this blog looking at what makes a team successful in the playoffs. We’ve seen some very interesting patterns. I’ve done some complicated math.

We are going to have some fun today.

Because, Today is the day when we put it all together and I preview the 2010-11 playoffs and make some picks.

Let’s start by turning the floor over to Mr.Feynman again ( The quote is from “Simulating Physics with Computers”):

I want to talk about the possibility that there is to be an exact simulation, that the computer will do exactly the same as nature. If this is to be proved and the type of computer is as I’ve already explained, then it’s going to be necessary that everything that happens in a finite volume of space and time would have to be exactly analyzable with a finite number of logical operations. The present theory of physics is not that way, apparently. It allows space to go down into infinitesimal distances, wavelengths to get infinitely great, terms to be summed in infinite order, and so forth; and therefore, if this proposition is right, physical law is wrong.

So what we are attempting to do is possible. Just not very easy. God help me.

Not exactly what I was going for

Let’s start with recapping what we know.

Warning: Science ahead!

Playoff Fact List

I don’t do this much anymore but I’m going to give some background before we go. A fuller explanation can be found in the Basics .
This article uses Wins Produced and WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] to evaluate player’s performance.

This measure uses three key components to evaluate a player:

  • The player’s per minute box score statistics
  • The player’s team’s per minute box score statistics
  • The average performance at the player’s position (PG, SG, SF, PF or C)

To give a general scale, an average player has a WP48 score of 0.100. The very best players in the league usually have a WP48 over 0.300. To put this in perspective; an average player who plays a full season at 40 minutes a game would generate around 6.83 wins for their team. In contrast, a player posting a 0.300 WP48 would generate about 20.5 wins at 40 minutes a game over an 82 game season.

I consider 400 minutes in a season a significant sample

I consider:

  • a <.000 WP48 player a waste of a roster spot
  • a .000 to .100 WP48 player a bench player
  • a >.100 WP48 player a starter
  • a >.200 WP48 player a star
  • a >.300 WP48 player a superstar
  • a >.400 WP48 player a freak of nature

Let’s talk relevant playoff facts.

Fact #1: The half baked Notion : (Go Here for More)

The Half-Baked notion is this: what wins in the regular season is not necessarily what gets you the big trophy.

The half baked notion tells us that a good deep team filled with average and above average players will get you in the playoffs but to get far in the playoffs you need your wins to be concentrated in your Top 6.

If we look at 2010 numbers:

  • The best two players accounted for 55% of a teams wins in the 2010 Playoffs.
  • The top three players are just below the pareto threshold
  • The next three (4,5,6th man) account for the rest of the positive win contribution about equally.
  • After that everybody else actually hurt teams in the playoffs.

Fact #2 The Championship equation (originally seen here, here and here)

The point of the equation is to identify necessary conditions to be met by any team wishing to contend for a title. I’ve found when looking at all the champions since 1978:

  • Win 52 or more games (Houston is an aberration that can be explained in one word: Hakeem)
  • Have two star points (either >2 Stars, > Star + Superstar or > 2 Superstars) in your Playoff Top 6
  • Have at least one .140 WP48 player who plays PF or Center in your Playoff Top 6 (credit to some dude and we’ll call it the Suns Corollary)
  • A superstar puts you in the conversation if you can make it in and surround him some talent (credit to Neal Frazier and we’ll call it the Hakeem Factor).

Fact #3: The Measure of a Champion ( see Here and Here)

Fact #3 is about greatness.  A true great wins a championship. If the goal is to win it all, greatness on the court has to be measured in terms of the contribution to winning a championship. That is the concept behind the Championship Metric. Winning the Championship is about winning in the playoffs. A team needs 16 wins in the playoff to win it all now (and 12 or 15 at different times in the past).

Year Wins to Championship
1978 to 1983 12
1984 to 2002 15
2003 to Now 16

A player’s greatness should be a function of his contribution to winning a championship. His wins. His share of a championship. If I take the Wins Produced by each player in the playoffs and divide it by the wins required to win a title I come up with a nifty little metric : Championships Produced.

With championships produced, I can do the following table:

Magic, Jordan, Pippen, Duncan, Bird, Shaq, Rodman and Kobe are the champions. This top eight looks more like it. It meets all our criteria, players on championship teams who produced the most championships. Simple. Straightforward.The end.

Maybe thirty years ago but not now. Didn’t a pitcher with a 13-12 just win a Cy Young? A great player gives you a chance to win but other factors (roster, injuries and luck) out of his control play a part in him winning that elusive ring. Players should be judged on what they do. So let’s expand this to include all the players in the playoffs.

37 Champions. Each of the players on this list from the top to the bottom gave us fantastic playoff moments. Everyone played in the Finals. Magic is on a planet of his own of course.

Now we identify and divide the players by category:

  • Gold:   >1 Championship Produced
  • Silver: >.75 Championship Produced
  • Bronze: >.50 Championship Produced


Then of course you can do this :

Couple of points:

  • You need a gold or silver player to win. Full stop.
  • No team wins without a gold or silver player who’s done it before (unless of course they have Larry Legend playing for them and a ridiculous roster). Magic, Horry, Duncan,Kobe, Manu,Billups, Prince, Rondo did it on the first go but were playing with Kareem, Hakeem,Robinson, Shaq, Duncan,Wallace & Garnett (all bigs). So Howard needs that plus one to get it done (Lebron had it right).

Fact #4: The Unfair Advantage (originally seen Here)

This is the official “Hold your Horses, Nuggets’ fans” factor.

Now before you get all outraged at me for hating on the Nuggets, let me explain.

You just wont like it, Nuggets fans

This all goes back to my previous post on Homecourt advantage in the NBA (which you can read here). The basic equation goes something like this:

Probability of Home team winning a game (Win %)

= (Projected Wins Home Team-Projected Wins Road Team)/82 +.606

=Win %: (Proj. Home Team Win% – Proj. Road Team Win%) +HCA(.606)

This is the simple equation I came up with for the home team winning a single game (see here for detail). The base assumption being that based on the data set (all regular season games from 1999 thru 2008 ) the home team wins 60.6% of time) and this was good and worked fairly well. As I got older and wiser (or at least more creaky), I then decided to add some more factors in:

  • Add in the effect of rest days and back to backs.
  • Add in the effect of altitude

I did some maths (which if you want to read just follow the link already) and figured the homecourt advantage in each scenario over playing at a neutral site. I then put that in a pretty table like so:

In summary, both, altitude and rest days affect the Homecourt advantage (HCA) and they interact with one another. Average HCA is at 59.9%. Altitude is directly proportional to HCA . Rest days are a little stranger. Altitude directly interacts with rest. Denver and Utah kill teams at home if they have a rest edge but they get killed themselves if the other team is coming in with at least a two day rest edge.

Apply that toa regular season played by identical clones and you get:

So if I assume all teams are equal, Utah and Denver both get a 10% boost in winning percentage when they play at home. This is good for four extra wins a season versus the average. It’s really not a level playing field. But there is a dark side to this advantage. It’s effect in amplified during the regular season and a lot of it goes away once the playoffs begin.

Playoff Home Court Advantage
Rest Low Altitude Medium Altitude High Altitude
1 56.10% 63.20% 63.90%
2 or More 59.70% 60.50% 77.80%

The advantage is fairly still there but reduced (except for game 3 that should be a cakewalk).

Ok that was a lot of work and a lot of facts. Let’s put these to use.

The Playoff Checklist:

The Team Vitals (Everyone):

The Team Vitals (Top 6 Approximation):


And now we are ready for the picks.

You may have noticed that this is only part one.

Part 2 is coming later! Tonight! Now I'm off to dinner!


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