NBA Playoffs, Suns v. Spurs: If your heart says Phoenix and your head says San Antonio, the numbers agree with your heart

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Spurs.pngIn the strictest sense, the San Antonio Spurs’ first round victory over the Dallas Mavericks should be considered a monumental achievement. A 2-7 upset should be praised in the highest regard. A pauper bested a prince! David toppled Goliath! The spunky underdogs with hearts of gold took down the evil billionaire!

Only it wasn’t. The Spurs’ win was a nice dose of revenge for the Mavs’ smackdown of a hobbled San Antonio team in last year’s playoffs, but this series may not have even been an upset. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more evenly matched series between a 2-seed and 7-seed, and each game reflected the balance between the two. The Spurs rightfully won the series in six, as their drastically improved health and the incredible parity among Western Conference playoff teams made the playoff seeding more than a bit misleading.

The intriguing underlying narrative of the match-up was win-loss record vs. statistical resume, as the Mavs boasted the superior record (hence the no. 2 seed) and the division-winner label, but the Spurs looked to be the more impressive team by slightly more complicated measures. For one, San Antonio’s point differential (considered by some to be the best predictor of playoff success) was far better (+5.1) than Dallas’ (+2.7), and was more in line with the West’s elite than borderline playoff teams.

Some have touted the Spurs’ series win as a victory for more advanced statistical measures; herein lies proof that win-loss record is not the best indicator of team superiority, and that other measures, even those as intuitive as point differential, could paint a better picture for comparative purposes. Better teams don’t just win more often, but their wins are of a fundamentally more valuable nature.

The irony here should not be lost on anyone. The Spurs, champions of the old guard, are, in this case, a poster team for the statistical revolution. Their victory over the Mavs can be explained away by the injuries or a Dallas collapse, but the data shows that the Spurs were the better team all along, even if they didn’t really hit their stride until late in the season.

It’s not just point differential, either. One of the more important tools of new wave statistics is the per-possession adjustment, a mathematical tinkering that renders pace irrelevant. It’s not about how many points a team scores in a game or even in x minutes, but how productive they are with a given possession. That’s why metrics like offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions) and defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) have become critical to the way that the smartest guys in the room are thinking about basketball. This game isn’t about total output, but rather how productive a team can be on a micro level. Every possession counts, and a team’s efficiency on a per-possession basis (either offensively or defensively) is ultimately what determines wins and losses.

Again, with the numbers in mind, the Spurs rightfully beat the Mavs. San Antonio’s efficiency differential (offensive efficiency – defensive efficiency; +5.23 points per 100 possessions for SA) was superior to Dallas’ (+3.96). All is well in the world of the spreadsheet.

Until the second round, which is where things really get interesting. The Spurs hold a slight edge over the Suns in point differential (+5.1 to +4.9), but when you break things down into per possessions measurements rather than per game? Phoenix (+5.81) has been the more efficient team this season, even if they only edge San Antonio (+5.23) by a slight margin.

Maybe the roughly half a point difference between the two teams isn’t enough to decide conclusively which team should take the series, but if we go strictly by efficiency differential in this case, the Suns are the favorite. They also hold home court advantage, which tends to make a difference in these seven-game affairs. If we’re not looking at the momentum each team has coming out of their first round series or the specific match-ups, the Spurs are the statistical underdog, if only barely.

In fact, if we look at the differential for each of Dean Oliver’s four factors (shooting as measured by effective field goal percentage, rebounding as measured by rebounding rate, free throw shooting frequency as measured by free throw rate, and turnovers as measured by turnover rate), the Suns own the advantage in all factors aside from rebounding.

Just like that, the Spurs have gone from de facto favorites to technical underdogs. Why is it, then, that this series feels like San Antonio’s to lose? Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili played with a lot of confidence in the first round, and though plenty of the Spurs’ wins against the Mavs were close, they looked like a team in control. The Suns, on the other hand, wavered a bit during their matchup with the Blazers, despite their white-hot ending to the regular season. The Suns may hold the home court, but the Spurs seem to have every other intangible advantage.

This series should be interesting for a number of reasons, but keep the Suns’ statistical superiority at the back of your mind. Regardless of how both teams look right now, the more detailed numbers show that Phoenix is the slightly better team, even if raw point differential doesn’t.  

Warriors hope to get Shaun Livingston, Matt Barnes back for second round

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — The Golden State Warriors hope to get injured reserves Shaun Livingston and Matt Barnes back from injuries for the second round of the playoffs after getting more than a week off between series.

The Warriors said Saturday that Barnes has been upgraded to probable for Tuesday night’s Game 1 and Livingston remains questionable but is hopeful he will be ready to return. Star forward Kevin Durant is expected to be a full go after missing two games and being limited to 20 minutes in Game 4 last round because of a strained left calf.

Barnes has been sidelined since April 8, while Livingston sprained a finger on his right hand in Game 1 of the first-round against Portland.

Golden State begins the second round at home on Tuesday night against the winner of Sunday’s Game 7 between the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz. The Warriors have been off since sweeping the Trail Blazers last Monday, giving them more than a week between games.

“I’m trying to make sure I rest it as much as I possibly can, because when I do come back I plan on staying all the way back,” Livingston said Saturday. “Hopefully it will be ready for Tuesday.”

After taking Tuesday and Thursday off following their first-round sweep, the Warriors practiced for a second straight day Saturday. They plan to practice again on Sunday and then again Monday once they know their second-round opponent.

There is no update on the status of coach Steve Kerr, who missed the final two games of the first round because of complications from two back surgeries. Kerr talks daily with interim coach Mike Brown and took part in coaching meetings Friday but was not at practice on Saturday.

PBT Extra: Rockets vs. Spurs far more than Kawhi Leonard vs. James Harden

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Kawhi Leonard vs. James Harden. Two MVP candidates matching up in the second round of the NBA playoffs.

However, the San Antonio Spurs vs. Houston Rockets is much more than that.

It’s a battle of pace. It’s a chess match between two of the best coaches in the game. It’s about which team’s role players are going to step up.

I talk about all of that in this latest PBT Extra. Plus, of course, when Leonard will guard Harden.

How to start your Saturday night: Watching 15 minutes of best plays from NBA season

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There are no NBA playoff games Saturday night, the first night since the start of the postseason there hasn’t been one game. Don’t worry, there are two games on Sunday, including Game 7 between the Jazz and Clippers.

But if you need a Saturday night fix, this will have to do: 15 minutes of the best plays from last season, as compiled by NBA.com.

Go ahead, watch it. You’ve got nothing better to do.

 

Paul Millsap says the expected, he will “most likely” opt out of contract

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This is ranked right next to “overeating can lead to weight gain” on the list of surprising things, but we will dutifully report it anyway:

Paul Millsap is going to opt out and officially become a free agent this summer.

Atlanta’s owner as well as Mike Budenholzer, the coach and head of basketball operations, have both said they plan to do whatever it takes to re-sign Millsap with the Hawks. Millsap didn’t sound like someone eager to leave after the Hawks were eliminated from the playoffs Friday.

“It’s been great. I’m looking to expand this and see where the franchise can go. These last four years has been great. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Even with both sides singing Kumbaya, keeping Millsap in Atlanta likely means a five-year contract at or near the max, which for a 32-year-old player means the Hawks would regret the last year or two of that deal.

Not that the Hawks have much of a choice here, they have to come in big and keep him. For one, they can’t afford to lose Al Horford and then Millsap for nothing in back-to-back years. If they were going down the rebuilding road, they needed to trade Millsap at the deadline (or last summer) to make sure they got something in return. Atlanta explored trade options at the deadline, but then pulled back (rumored to be because of an edict from ownership, which didn’t want to see the team blown up after the Kyle Korver trade).

By not making that trade the Hawks signaled their intention to remain a good team — a 43-win team this season that got them the five seed — with Dennis Schroder and Dwight Howard, one that draws well at an arena that historically has not been that full, and see if they can add on. They strike me as a team that will win between 42-50 games a year and be middle of the pack in the East for the next few years, unless they can find a way to add an elite player (which is incredibly difficult).

But if the Hawks can’t re-sign Millsap, then the plan gets blown up. So expect them to come in with a big offer come July 1.