Archives For Western Conference

Can Anyone In the West Challenge?

Kurt —  January 14, 2010

[picappgallerysingle id=”3844925″]
Watching the Lakers play the best of their non-Gasol games last night, the question going through my head became: Can any of the teams in the West really challenge the Lakers? Can any of them keep the Lakers out of the Finals? (Of course, we are assuming a relatively healthy Lakers team in the playoffs, serious injuries change the equation for any team.)

Right now, I don’t think so. Denver and San Antonio could push the Lakers pretty hard, but I’m not sure they have all the pieces to beat them through seven games. But with the trading deadline approaching in a month, will one of the contenders in the West make a move?

Let’s take a look at the West, the teams and what they could do (helped in great part by Kevin Pelton’s fantastic post on sellers and buyers at Basketball Prospectus):

San Antonio: To me, this is the second best team in the Western Conference, something I expected before the season but took a while to blend and build this season. (Of course, seemingly every year we write the Spurs off early while they aim to peak late.) I look at it this way: The Lakers are outscoring their opponents by 6.5 points per 100 possessions this season — San Antonio is at 7.1 (nobody else in the West is close to those spreads). Injuries and schedule factor into that simple number, but the fact is the Lakers and Spurs have started to distance themselves from the rest of the West.

The Spurs have clearly made a commitment to go for it now, this is a small market team over the tax line and not backing away. If they could get another quality player on the wing (especially defensive minded) or more depth for the front line (to help them bang on the Lakers big front line) they may jump at it. And they have the expiring contracts to do it: Matt Bonner, Michael Finley and Roger Mason are all expiring deals. While that would cut into the Spurs depth, they might make a move for the right key player.

Denver: They are physical, have a great home court, and pushed the Lakers hard last year. However, they are essentially the same team as last year and they know they don’t match up with the Lakers in the post for seven games.

Denver has not been quiet about it — they want to add another big. All they have to do it is a $3.7 million trade exception if they don’t want to cut into the core of their roster (and they don’t). Can they add a big for depth — even a loaner — for that price?

Dallas: They see themselves as close — they do have the second best record in the West — but serious questions remain if they could get out of the second round of the playoffs, let alone their match up issues with the Lakers. Last night was just another piece of evidence that the Lakers have their number.

The piece they have to dangle is the contract of Eric Dampier — he is owed the rest of $10 million this year and has a voidable $13 million for next year. Would somebody trade for him for the rest of this year, giving up something of quality, as opposed to doing it next summer (the contract becomes voidable July 1)? Dallas will try.

Houston: They are a scrappy, fighting team of role players that will make whomever they face in the playoffs work hard, but likely they cannot win. Certainly not beyond a first-round upset.

Unless they turn Tracy McGrady’s deal into an actual star player. I can’t see good reasons for Toronto to trade Bosh to them, for example, but Houston would love it. And if they can pull off the steal, suddenly this does become a very dangerous team. What they lack is the go-to guy at the end of the clock and the end of games. With that guy they are a threat.

Shaking Out The West

Kurt —  September 17, 2007

I’m a little late to the Greg Oden “woe is us” party, but I genuinely feel bad for the guy. Really, is there any basketball fan that didn’t feel saddened by the news that Greg Oden will be out for next season? Even those who wrote hubris-filled “I told you so” columns felt bad. Anyone who loves basketball wanted to see what Oden — paired with so much great young talent around him — could do in Portland.

And we still will. I think the brilliant Shoals was the first to mention this (that I read), but here is a teenager whose game is more about defense, rebounding and back-to-the-basket scoring. Is it possible he’s never be quite as explosive as before the surgery? Yes. Would that dramatically curtail his game? Not so much. Plus, at his age he should bounce back well.

But all of that is two or three years away — what about this year? My first reaction is that without the defensive anchor in the middle Portland becomes a bit of a donut (insert Zach Randolph joke here), and while they will win more than 32 games, they are not quite a playoff threat.

So, where does that leave us in the West? Well, here’s a rough sketch, pre-traning camp breakdown.

The Big Three

San Antonio. They are the defending champions, they were second in defensive rating and fourth in offensive rating in the league — and they basically have the same squad back. So by default they are the favorites. My guess, losing Jackie Butler doesn’t hurt them much. (Yup, that’s a big statement, but I feel strongly about it.) Think about this: Next year they get better by adding Tiago Splitter to the mix. Ugh.

Dallas. Had the best record in the NBA last season, then got a bad playoff matchup and got tossed early. Yes, there is a blueprint on how to beat them, however not many teams have a Barron Davis to help do it. Dallas had the second best offensive rating in the league and a surprising fifth best defensive rating. They are still very good and still a contender.

Phoenix. I didn’t love their off-season. Yes, Grant Hill > Kurt Thomas, except when you’re trying to defend Dirk or Duncan. So maybe they are better in the regular season but take half a step back in the playoffs. Their defense got better but was still 13th in the league, and losing Thomas doesn’t help that. Bottom line: if Steve Nash’s back feels good come the playoffs, they still are contenders.

The Next Tier

Houston. If everything comes together for the Rockets, they can compete with the big three. But that means a healthy T-Mac and Yao for the majority of the season (and for the playoffs). I like the additions of Luis Scola and Steve Francis and how they fit in with the existing pieces. More importantly, the addition of Adelman on the bench helps this team win by opening up the offense. I think they will be in the mix with the big three, but until they prove it I keep them here.

Utah. This is a good physical team with a top point guard that didn’t do anything earth shattering in the off-season. That means they are still a good, physical team with a top point guard. Remember, this team was third in the NBA in offensive efficiency last year (trailing only Dallas and Phoenix) and their defense could get better if AK-47 shows up focused. The Jazz won 51 games last year and they are going to win a lot of games this year too.

Teams With No Margin For Error

These teams will likely make the playoffs, but it doesn’t take much (injuries, chemistry issues) to knock them out of the running.

Denver. Bringing in Chucky Atkins gives them a good outside shooter to complement the slashing of Iverson and the inside/outside game of Carmello. But with Iverson/Melo/Atkins on the floor, who is playing defense? Marcus Camby is just one man. They were ninth in the NBA in defensive efficiency last year, but can they maintain that level? I think not, but if they can they are a force.

Lakers. This could be a good team — if they play defense much better than last year, if they can stay healthy along the front line, if the Farmar/Fisher/Crittenton combo can be a good point guard situation, if they execute the offense and don’t try to go one-on-one too much. That’s a lot of ifs. Just like last year, a potentially good team but can they maintain that level of play for a season?

One Playoff Spots, Six Teams

I think any of these teams could get the final playoff spot (or slip past one of the two above if they falter). I’ve put them in my early order of likelihood, but all of these teams could be better or worse than suggested here — these teams will likely all be fighting it out for a trip to the post season.

New Orleans. Despite Chris Paul running the show this was a horrible offense last year, 23rd in the NBA. This year they get Peja back from injury and add Mo Pete to shoot from the outside. They get better, but imagine if Tyson Chandler could score….

Golden State. Last season’s playoff run (and the last month of the season) was magical and so much fun to watch. It was also a fluke — it happened because Baron Davis and Jason Richardson were healthy at the same time (and they got the perfect playoff matchup). Now Richardson is gone and Marco Belinelli may be good but he can’t make up for the losses. I think they take a step back, but I’ll still love to watch them play.

Sacramento. They add Mikki Moore to bring some youth and athleticism to an older front line, they bring in a new coach, and they still have Mike Bibby and Speedracer. They could be better than last year, I think they will be, but good enough to make the playoffs?

Memphis. Mike Conley runs the show and the combo of Gasol and Darko Milicic could bring some scoring to the front line. I think Rudy Gay will thrive in the more open offensive system of Marc Iavaroni. While everyone talks about Portland and Seattle as teams of the future, Memphis could be quite good in a couple years. But probably not playoff good this year.

Clippers. They still don’t have a great point guard, and now whoever does handle the ball can’t just toss it in to Elton Brand. This could be a tough season for the Clippers, but they do have some good, professional players still on the squad and they won’t roll over.

I Beg To Differential

Rob L. —  January 24, 2007

Rankings, Rankings, Rankings The NBA is far enough into the season that rankings such as Stein, Hollinger, Sagarin and FOTS (Friend of the Site) Knickerblogger generate heated debate. We the fans often go with our gut in response to outsiders ranking our team.

“Come on, Hollinger! The Lakers aren’t even in the top ten. They’re totally a top ten team.”

As we yell at the top of our lungs, the Staterati attempt to explain the why and how of their systems. There are real differences among the rankings, but one thing you’ll hear just about everyone mention is point differential.

A Win Is A Win, Right? The concept is simple. How much has a team outscored its’ opponents by? This idea migrated to basketball via Bill James. James found a strong correlation between runs scored/allowed and winning percentage in baseball. You can find the formula James used, as well as Dean Oliver’s basketball version here. Because this formula predicts team success fairly accurately, many use it to state what a team’s expected win % is.

And the short hand version of that is, “What’s that team’s point differential?”

Best In The West Which brings us to the debate raging over which team is currently tops in the Western Conference. The three teams in contention are the Mavs, Suns and Spurs. For whatever reason, most people (myself included) think of the Spurs as a little too old. This leaves the Mavs and Suns. Some go with record and pick the Mavs. But there are those out there that look at the point differential and pick the Suns.

All statistics compiled through Monday January 22, 2007

Mavs 34-8, +7.1
Suns 32-8, +8.9

The Mavs had played two more games than the Suns, but their records were comparable. Yet the Suns, on average, beat their opponents by 8.9 points per game. The Mavs, only by 7.1. In fact, the Suns sported the the biggest point differential in the NBA. And that’s just points per game. If we break it down into offensive and defensive ratings (points per 100 possessions) the Suns sport a +10.4 differential and the Mavs +7.7. The Suns are even further out ahead.

Here’s why I think that doesn’t tell the real story in this case.

Strength of Schedule Phoenix has had a much weaker schedule than Dallas to this point. Here’s how it breaks down.

Mavs vs Top 10 Teams 12-6, vs Top 16 18-6
Suns vs Top 10 Teams 4-7, vs Top 16 12-7

Sagarin’s Top 10 Teams are, in order: Dallas, Phoenix, San Antonio, Utah, Houston, LA Lakers, Chicago, Washington, Denver and Detroit. The Top 16 include: Cleveland, Orlando, Minnesota, Indiana, Toronto and New Jersey. If you look only at win-loss record, everything would stay the same except that the Bulls and Cavs change places in the 10/16 breakdown.

The first thing you’ll notice is that Dallas has played 18 games out of 42 against Top 10 teams. 24 out of 42 against Top 16 teams. That’s slightly more than half against the top half of the NBA. Phoenix has played only 11 games out of 40 against the Top 10. They played 19 of 40 against the Top 16, which is much more comparable to Dallas’ schedule. But it is clear that Dallas has faced more elite competition. My thought then, is that the Suns point differential is in part so high because they have beaten up on lowly teams.

The Test What I did was look at the Mavs first 42 games and the Suns first 40. (I know, the sample isn’t identical, but I’m just looking for close estimates.) I compiled point differentials for both teams against Top 10 teams and Top 16 teams. I further compiled two sets of Top 10 numbers: One where the Bulls were in it, the other had the Cavs instead. My hope was to see how the two teams played against similar opponents. Here’s what I found:

Mavs Top 10(Bulls) +2.11, Top 10(Cavs) +1.53, Top 16 +3.83 points per game
Suns Top 10(Bulls) -0.27, Top 10(Cavs) +1.36, Top 16 +5 point per game

And if we switch to offensive rating:

Mavs Top 10(Bulls) +2.39, Top 10 (Cavs) +1.73, Top 16 +4.33
Suns Top 10(Bulls) -0.29, Top 10(Cavs) +1.43, Top 16 +5.25

In both examples the Suns still hold the edge in point differential against the Top 16. But if we look at the Top 10 the Mavs hold the advantage. So at the moment, I’d have to say they are the better team. After Phoenix plays some more Top 10 teams I might come to a different conclusion. But I reserve judgment for now.

[Neither team has that many outlier games. The Suns had one win by 19 and another by 30. But most were closer to ten or less. The same is true of the Mavs who had wins of 27, 19 and 19 along with offsetting losses of 31 and 22 (the first was early season).]

Wrap It Up, Man! Point differential makes sense. It is a useful tool that has proven itself over time. But we must be careful not to use it without thinking. The current Mavs-Suns case is an example of how other factors can corrupt point differential.

Oh yeah. The Lakers are 9-7 against the Top 10, 17-7 against the Top 16. But their point differential is only…

“Whatever. The Lake Show’s going all the way, baby!