The Hawks went 60-22, Cavaliers 53-29, Warriors 67-15 and Rockets 56-26 this season.
How much do those record tell us about those teams entering the conference finals?
Something, but definitely not enough.
Players like Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Love, Dion Waiters, Justin Holiday, Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas all factored into their team’s regular-season results. But – due to injury, trade or shortening of playoff rotations – they likely won’t play a part of the conference finals.
In an attempt to get better data, I’ve used nba wowy! to rank playoff teams by regular-season net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating), counting only the lineups that include five players projected to be in the team’s post-season rotation.
This measure is far from perfect. It doesn’t account for opponent or weigh lineups based on how often they’ll be used in the postseason, and it’s impossible to precisely predict a team’s playoff rotation.
We did this exercise before the playoffs and before the second round. I’ve updated the numbers with second-round results and modified projected rotations where necessary. As always, remember, this is only one data point in a complex picture when evaluating teams.
Here are the conference finalists’ ratings – actual regular-season to projected based on expected rotations:
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
Offensive rating: 111.7 to 114.9
Defensive rating: 106.9 to 103.3
Net rating: +4.8 to +11.6
1. Atlanta Hawks
Offensive rating: 109.6 to 110.5
Defensive rating: 103.8 to 103.0
Net rating: +5.8 to +7.5
The big question: Will Kyrie Irving play? This projection assumes he does.
Without Irving, Cleveland actually rates better by this model (114.7 offensive rating/91.4 defensive rating/+23.3 net rating). This doesn’t mean the Cavaliers actually are better without Irving. Of course, they’re not. That stellar play without Irving comes in just 273 minutes, a small sample that was at least partially self-selected by David Blatt. Cleveland surely wouldn’t fare as well if it had to play its Irving-less minutes against the starters of a 60-win team, but that will be the predicament the Cavs would face without him here. This indicates, though, the Cavaliers might fare better than expected without Irving. That’d mean more responsibility for LeBron James, which often works out well. It’s hardly a sure bet, though – just a clue.
In the same vein, even with Irving included for Cleveland, the Hawks’ projected rotation players have play more than 2.5 times as many minutes together as the Cavaliers’. Before the playoffs began, Cleveland looked poised to run through the Eastern Conference. But Kevin Love’s injury threw a wrench into the projections. Not only do the Cavaliers rate worse than with Love, we have less information by which to assess them.
This model does not account for game location, and Atlanta has home-court advantage.
Bottom line: We know the Hawks are good. The Cavaliers – at least those that project to play these Eastern Conference finals – have looked better than Atlanta, but we also know less about them.
1. Golden State Warriors
Offensive rating: 111.7 to 115.4
Defensive rating: 101.3 to 97.9
Net rating: +10.4 to +17.5
2. Houston Rockets
Offensive rating: 107.5 to 110.1 to 112.3 to 111.4
Defensive rating: 104.0 to 101.0 to 101.2 to 104.2
Net rating: +3.5 to +9.1 to +11.1 to +7.2
The Warriors’ projection includes includes David Lee and Festus Ezeli, not Marreese Speights, who’s out at least Game 1. If Speights can play, Golden State rates even better on both ends.
As noted by John Schuhmann of NBA.com, the Rockets are the first team since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams to reach the conference finals while being outscored in the postseason. Most teams – at least the ones that avoid injury – see their projection rise as they win during the playoffs, but Houston’s has fallen. The Rockets are still well ahead of their actual regular-season production, though.
One big reason this model underrates Houston: Dwight Howard doesn’t factor as prominently because he missed so much time due to injury. As long as he remains healthy, the Rockets will rely on him more than projected here – and they’ll be better for it.