Prognostirank, 2013: First-Round Fishermen, #16 to #11

Posted on Fri 19 April 2013 in 2013 Playoff Coverage by Aaron McGuire

prognostirank logo 2013

For a background of and explanation of Prognostirank's purpose, click here. In a nutshell? It's a reverse-order ranking of all teams left in the playoffs, prognosticating on their playoff prospects and ranking them from worst to best. We then rate -- on a scale of 1 to 5 bullets -- our confidence in each prediction. Five bullets indicate a "very confident" prediction, one bullet indicates a "substantially wavering" prediction. Today's post outlines teams #16 to #11 -- or, the six teams most likely to bow out early.

• • •

TEAM #16: MILWAUKEE____ BUCKS (Eastern 8th seed: 38-44, SRS of -1.82)

  • Series prediction: Bucks LOSE in the first round. ( • • • • • )
  • Three most likely end results: 1-4 ( • • • • • ), 0-4 ( • • • ), 2-4 ( • • )

All things considered, the Milwaukee Bucks are not a very good team. They're the only playoff team that ended the year with a losing record, and their final point differential was actually worse than three teams that miss the playoffs. While they made a mid-season trade with the intent of bolstering their rotation, there's been virtually zero evidence that the Redick trade has improved their team and ample evidence they made a slight miscalculation in sending out Tobias Harris. Live and learn, I suppose. To make matters worse, they happen to be matched up against the best team in the NBA. The question with the Bucks is less "can they beat the Heat?" and more "can they take a few games from the Heat?" Popular opinion says no -- I'd say they've got a fighting chance at snagging a game or two, and possibly pushing it to seven. It's not incredibly likely, but it wouldn't be some kind of game-changing shocker either.

A few reasons for that. First, the turnovers -- for all of Milwaukee's numerous faults (poor shooting, confused offensive playbook, lack of free throws), they've always been particularly good at taking care of the ball. That's what happens when three of your players are legitimate NBA ballhandlers and your bigs don't tend to fumble, I suppose. While that doesn't exactly scream "upset potential", it DOES scream "they can win a home game", if you consider Miami's occasional over-reliance on ballhawking on the defensive end. Second, you've got the talents of John Henson and Larry Sanders, two bigs who have traditionally had relative success against Miami's defense, particularly when matched onto the smaller Shane Battier. Finally? Sheer statistical randomness. If Ellis or Jennings have a game or two where they get unreasonably hot and start draining guarded three point shots, the Heat are going to have a bit more trouble sweeping this team away.

All that said, this isn't exactly rocket science. I just outlined reasons that the Milwaukee offense could (and should) rally to win a game against the Heat -- I didn't outline reasons they could win the series. Barring a massive upset the likes of which the NBA hasn't seen in eons, this is a 4-5 game series. The Bucks have no particular defensive scheme that handles the Heat's multifaceted offense, and they're absolutely screwed if the Heat actually come out to play every night. If the Bucks push this series to six games -- getting their requisite 6 home games -- it'll be a big upset. Sorry, Milwaukee -- you're the first team gone.

DEWEY'S TAKE: A tremendous collection of talent, loosely tied together. Unintentional feeding factory for every other team, in terms of prospects. Have - at any given time - seven players that will be part of an NBA championship in the next five years, none of them with the Bucks. Trade machine stimulant, perennial 38-win team, alternately likable and mechanically unworkable, except in stretches. Richard Jefferson's Inferno.

• • •

TEAM #15: ATLANTA HAWKS____ (Eastern 6th seed: 44-38, SRS of -0.08)

  • Series prediction: Hawks LOSE in the first round. ( • • • • • )
  • Three most likely end results: 1-4 ( • • • • ), 3-4 ( • • • ), 2-4 ( • • )

The Hawks confuse me. A lot. In a much-publicized move, the Hawks chose to essentially cede the final 3 or 4 games of their season in an effort to tank from the 5 seed to the 6 seed. The end goal wasn't some expressly outlined matchup advantage against the Pacers -- it was simply to avoid the Heat in the second round, manipulating the bracket such that the first time they could possibly see Miami would be the Eastern Conference Finals. On one hand, that made sense -- the Heat are far and away the class of the Eastern Conference, and by manipulating your matchup advantages to ensure you meet them later, you're taking the long view and trying for an Eastern Conference Finals instead of a second round ouster.

All sounds good in theory, but then you get to the whole... actually looking at the matchups thing. And of all the teams in the Eastern Conference, not a single one -- perhaps not even Miami! -- matches up better with the Hawks than the Pacers. Not a single one. Larry Drew's post-Johnson offense relies on a fluid give-and-take around the perimeter, shooting the ball around from player to player and relying on Al Horford and Josh Smith's pivot passing to keep the shots flowing. It hasn't worked quite as well as Larry Drew would perhaps hope, with their final product rating out as a below-average offense with relatively poor spot-up shooting (despite the usually open looks) and a penchant for semi-guarded midrange shots besides. This Hawks team makes more of its noise on defense, where the combination of Smith and Horford tends to shut things down in the post (especially against smaller opposing bigs) and where their perimeter defenders (Teague, Stevenson, Korver, et cetera) gamble as a general rule. It works reasonably well against most teams.

Here's the issue -- Indiana isn't most teams. Atlanta's motion offense requires open passing lanes; Indiana's punishing defense requires obliterating them. Atlanta's defense requires that Smith and Horford can match the size of the opposing bigs; Indiana's bigs are stronger and smarter than Atlanta's. Atlanta's overall game requires a decent helping of two-point smallball with Harris and Teague on the court at the same time (their best two-man combination, on the season); Indiana's end-state goal is to goad other teams into smallball that gives Indiana a 2-3 inch height advantage at every single position. Atlanta was 2-2 against Indiana on the season, but the record is something reflecting fool's gold -- one of their wins was in Indiana's first few Grangerless games, and the other was a tight home win where Lou Williams went off for 22-3-12. With Williams, this Hawks team was a significantly better squad and had a much better chance of winning a series like this. Without him? I just don't see how they get it done, unless Indiana completely breaks down. And, let's be fair, Indiana's looked pretty bad lately. But they still should have enough in the tank to beat the Hawks. And beat them handily, too.

DEWEY'S TAKE: Every game is a plea to the Basketball Gods to stop the game forever. Always cosmically, deceptively unwatchable. Every year, like the spring, we hope for a cool rain of justice to fall upon us and give us a watchable Hawks team and justice, and the gods, simply deny us. Often in theory the Spurs, in practice the Blazers, but less fun, and if the Rose Garden were replaced with a warehouse in Atlanta.

• • •

TEAM #14: BOSTON CELTICS____ (Eastern 7th seed: 41-40, SRS of -0.62)

  • Series prediction: Celtics LOSE in the first round. ( • • • • )
  • Three most likely end results: 1-4 ( • • • ), 3-4 ( • • • ), 6-7 ( )

This is the first one I'm not exceptionally confident in. I don't see how exactly the Celtics win the series, but after years and years of outperforming my expectations, I'm not quite ready to completely write off Doc Rivers' boys. I'm still ready to partially write them off. Because my lord, they've looked bad this season. Look. When the Celtics have been slept on in previous years, they were never quite this bad. They had Rondo, and they won their Division every single year of the Big 3 era. That means they had a top 4 seed waiting for them, and a shot at one of the East's worst teams in the first round as something of a tune up. And they needed it, too -- with the exception of their 2011 sweep of the Knicks and their 2010 win-in-five against a talentless injured Miami team, first rounds have been a little nerve wracking for Celtics fans. Seven game nail-biters in 2008 and 2009, six tough games in 2013, and a general sense that the Celtics needed the first round as a tuning period to iron out the kinks.

Well, bad news. This year, the Celtics are the bad team -- they're one of the worst teams by-the-numbers in the playoffs, with a dismal offense and a defense that can only be described in true Red Green Show style as "alright, I guess." Avery Bradley has put himself in contention for an all-defensive team with his defensive play (although he's still a bit behind Tony Allen and Andre Iguodala to these eyes) and Kevin Garnett is still a beast on that end. Jeff Green is a competent defender individually, even if he takes off rotations and doesn't quite know the system yet. But nobody else on the team beyond those three guys really can execute Doc's system with any considerable success without Rondo or a younger Pierce, and their offense is a confused jumble of Jeff Green breakout nights, Jeff Green tepid nights, and the occasional times when everything comes together.

All that said, I have trouble picking strongly against them. I'm still picking them to lose the series, and I have a feeling it'll be one of those matchups that either ends in five lopsided games or goes down to the wire. But I wouldn't be completely shocked if Pierce had a throwback series, Green had a breakout series, and the Celtics got everything together just in time to rally past a high-variance Knicks team that has a few poor shooting nights. It's not likely, mind you, which is why I'm still picking New York -- they were a FAR better team this season, and they deserve to be the favorite. But the Celtics are not a team one can simply look past and scoff at, even with their troubles this season. This one's one of the few Eastern match-ups I'm actually interested in.

DEWEY'S TAKE: Grindhouse. Welcome to it. TD Garden. Tradition. Sportswriters. Bill Russell. Larry "The Legend From French Lick" "But Not a Hawk" Bird. Al Jefferson. Tony Allen. Kevin Garnett. Grindhouse. Age. Wisdom. Hurtin'. 5 years after.

• • •

TEAM #13: CHICAGO BULLS____ (Eastern 5th seed: 45-37, SRS of -0.01)

  • Series prediction: Bulls LOSE in the first round. (• • • • )
  • Three most likely end results: 3-4 (• • • • ), 2-4 ( • • • ), 5-7 ( • • )

Were I making this prediction early in the season, I'd probably have picked Chicago. But recent events have me a lot lower on their chances. Thibodeau recently announced that Joakim Noah is likely to miss some or all of Chicago's first round series with a variety of soreness-related injuries and general maladies. With Noah around, this Bulls team is an excellent defensive unit that can put a scare into anyone. Without him? I'm not entirely sure how they keep the series competitive. The Nets are a better-than-most think team, and putting Nazr Mohammad on Brook Lopez is going to work about as well as casu marzu on pizza. Jimmy Butler is really, really solid -- he's an excellent prospect and an excellent value pick, but Butler and a burnt-out Deng doesn't give me a ton of confidence against a Nets team that's entering the playoffs relatively healthy and coherent.

Additionally, I just don't see how New Jersey has to fight to defend the Bulls. Brooklyn is an abysmal defensive team, but they don't have too many injuries to speak of and Chicago's offense is just as lifeless and drab as their defense. Defending a team with an offensive "system" like Chicago is defense on easy mode. Chicago's offense basically boils down to a movement or two back and forth between a guard and a big, some aimless dribbling as their teammates refuse to seek out position, and a sudden realization that the shot clock is down to 5 seconds and they need to shoot it. End result? A lot of midrange jumpers -- a LOT of them. Most of them reasonably well contested, too. This has gotten even worse as of late with Joakim Noah out, who augments his defensive value with essential post passing and strong screens to free up their guards. It's rough.

All that said, if Noah comes back mid-round and the Nets punch under their weight (neither of which are particularly outlandish thoughts), the Bulls could win the series pretty handily. This series strikes me as one of those "Hawks/Heat 2009" type affairs -- it will be well-contested, long, and (probably) vindicating for one of the two fanbases at war. But by dint of combining an offense so terrible with a defense so terrible, the series will also be virtually unwatchable by anyone who doesn't love pain. Come back soon, Derrick! (Not this season, but someday, please.)

DEWEY'S TAKE: Main story's always Thibodeau because his players come and go because of injury. As you well know, Thibs' Bulls innovatively have seven players on the court at any time, plus Thibodeau himself torturing his opponents with his heavy-metal, sleep-deprivation-for-listener-and-speaker voice. He packs the box (the basketball court) with more players than the other team, because of a clever (and tenacious) misreading of zone defense rules. His players' minutes always threaten to break Wilt's 48+ record every season. Thibs hates Nate Robinson, but is more willing than you to immolate himself with the pain of Nate Robinson to win games. That's why he's a champion.

• • •

TEAM #12: HOUSTON ROCKETS____ (Western 8th seed: 45-37, SRS of 3.34)

  • Series prediction: Rockets LOSE in the first round. ( • • • • )
  • Three most likely end results: 3-4 ( • • • • ), 2-4 ( • • • • ), 1-4 ( • • )

I know what you're thinking. "Why, pray tell, is Houston so high on this? They're an eight seed going up against a historically strong first seed in a tough Western conference. Isn't that an easy call?" Yes, it is. On its face, sure. The Thunder are knocking on the doors of history -- they finished the season with an average margin of victory of 9.2 points per game. Some important context on that: only eight teams in NBA history finished with a differential that high, and seven of those eight went on to win the title. The only one that didn't? The 1972 Bucks, who lost the title because they had to play the best team within those eight, the 1972 Lakers! Very few teams put together that kind of a dominant regular season and don't finish it off with a title. In fact, all but one of them swept or gentleman-swept the first round. So why should the Thunder be worried about the Rockets?

Simple. Variance.

One of the advantages of modern statistical team-building is that it has keyed in a few smart underdog franchises to a variety of strategies to even the playing field. And the Houston Rockets are a stat-heavy dreamboat. Morey, McHale, and the powers that be knew that the Rockets would face a talent deficit this season -- they're one of the youngest teams in the league, superstar or no, and they were going to need a way to swing the odds in their favor when they played against teams that were markedly better. And what's the best way to do that? Force the issue. Play at an obscenely high tempo, constantly setting up your offense in semi-transition and jacking up more three pointers than the world thought possible. A low percentage three pointer is a better shot for an underdog than a slightly-better-percentage midrange, because every possession you can deign to outscore your opponent by 3-0 or 3-2 adds to your team's handicap. Speed the game up, force the opponent into an uncomfortable foul situation, and take as many high-variance scoring opportunities as possible. It isn't Moneyball -- it's upset-ball. It's how the We Believe Warriors upset an amazing Mavericks team. It's how bad teams beat good teams.

Fun fact, though. That cuts both ways. This Rockets team can play with anyone in the league if they err on the side of a good shooting night, and they can upset -- quite literally -- anyone in a single game. But they also can get blown to kingdom come if they err on the side of a poor shooting night, as seen in their 30 point loss to Golden State, their dual 22 point losses to OKC, and their 20 point blowout at home to San Antonio. The Rockets are great, but if their threes stop falling, they don't just become beatable. They become waif-thin, and they can get blown out even if your team has a bad night. For this reason, I can't see anyone really picking the Rockets to beat OKC. But I do think they'll have a game or two where their threes start falling and the Thunder can't quite keep up -- nobody could. So I'll predict a 6 to 7 game series -- one that the Thunder will win, and win well, but one where the Rockets put a bit of the fear of God into OKC's heart. Should be a lot of fun, regardless.

DEWEY'S TAKE: The exact opposite of the Bulls, a team that plays defense a) incidentally or b) because Kevin McHale is a very kind man and gee, it wouldn't be right for him to have to play you less than you deserve, young man. You don't want me to play Omer Asik 48 minutes, do you? He doesn't play very good offense, at all. You wouldn't want that. But he does defend. Can you defend? Good, do it. Here's a tasty protein shake filled with nutriments. I swear it's not so chalky when you actually try it. Best, Daryl.

• • •

TEAM #11: LOS ANGELES LAKERS____ (Western 7th seed: 45-37, SRS of 1.49)

  • Series prediction: Lakers LOSE in the first round. (• • • )
  • Three most likely end results: 2-4 (• • • • ), 3-4 ( • • • ), 5-7 ( )

I toyed with picking the Lakers to win against the Spurs, but I can't do it. I'll get to my assessment of the State of the San Antonio Union in a later Prognostirank post, but for now, one must pay the Lakers their due -- the plucky $100 million underdogs have scrapped their way into the playoffs. That's not meant to be mocking or facetious, either -- it's a solid accomplishment that this injured and disappointing team should be quite proud of. You may remember Alex once wrote a piece outlining how well the Lakers would have to play in the later stretches of the season if they intended to make the playoffs. Guess what? They played exactly that well. They won a lot of close games, completely erasing their exceptionally unlucky start to the season. They spent the first 2-3 months losing games they should've won and winning once by 20 points for every three losses by 2 points. They proceeded to spend the last few months winning games they should've lost and losing once by 20 points for every three wins by 2 points, which amounted to a final record that's -- somehow -- almost exactly what it should have been, given their margin of victory and their strength of schedule. Fun stuff.

Still. After the season ends, there will be ample time to write billions more words about the Laker team we can't stop talking about, so we'll axe the retrospective and start a series prospectus. How do the Lakers match up against the Spurs? Pretty well, on an individual-to-individual basis. Tim Duncan is a wonderfully deserving first-team All-NBA player who -- at his age -- has a mite bit of trouble with athletic big men, much like Dwight Howard's currently revitalized form. Ron Artest has the bulk to cause Kawhi Leonard a bit of trouble, and the cryptkeeper form Steve Nash is bumming about should wash out Tony Parker until Parker's rehab starts taking effect. Danny Green and Gary Neal can shoot, but so can Jodie Meeks in small portions, and Pau Gasol's recently revitalized play should realistically outduel Tiago Splitter. On an individual-to-individual basis, one's tempted to pick the Lakers. Even without Kobe around to tip the scales further in L.A.'s favor.

Here's the issue. It's not a one-on-one game, and even if you accept that the Spurs' bench looks like crap lately, one has trouble ignoring just how poorly L.A.'s general defense matches up against San Antonio's motion-offense playbook. Laker rotations this season have been somewhat predictable. They rotate well on one to two movements, but they miss the boat entirely if you complicate things further. And if you force a switch? Congratulations -- you've earned a completely wide open shot. Howard's recovery has gotten better over the past few months, but it doesn't erase L.A.'s general lack of quickness at anticipating the third motion of a play. Nor does it erase the fact that half of San Antonio's current perceived weakness is based around the fact that their threes simply aren't falling. The Spurs shot -- not a typo -- 31% on three pointers over the last 10 games of the regular season. They shot 39% on threes over the other 72 games of the 2013 season, and they shot 39% from three last season. If the Spurs shoot 31% from three over the course of the series, yes, they'll probably lose.

But that seems a bit unlikely. My take? The Lakers will upset the Spurs in one of the first few games, much like the 2011 Hornets split the first two games with a vastly superior Laker team. The Spurs will split the series in L.A., then take care of business in the last two games and head into the second round a healthier team than they are now, with Diaw back, Manu in decent shape, and Tony back to a decent facsimile of his MVP-3rd-place form. Teams can -- and often do -- slump badly heading into the postseason without suffering too much for their late-season sins -- just look at last year's Thunder (7-7 in their last 14) or last year's Heat (11-9 in their last 20). The Lakers have a shot, and if Kobe was around, I'd be tempted to pick them further. But I just can't do it.

DEWEY'S TAKE: If they win any game they will win every game and if they lose even once they will never win again. This is what I've been told about the Lakers season, and, remarkably, it was pretty true to life. They haven't lost that big one yet, though. What more can you say about them except they were bad but then they were good. They can't defend a box but they can get to the line and nothing about this team makes any sense even after watching what seems like 50-60 games. I watched them spitefully in lieu of the Spurs. I regret this immensely. The Hawks are a plea of the Basketball Gods to end basketball; the Lakers are Satan.

• • •

A few end-matter notes -- I'll be putting up the next part of the prognostirank series (with the last two first-round exits and my second round predictions) tomorrow. Parts three and four, outlining my conference finals picks and my NBA finals pick, will go up early next week. All of the predictions are already chosen -- I will not be editing the picks to adjust for anything we see in the intervening playoff games. I'd like to thank Hoopchalk for their excellent Playoff Preview Capsule series (used for some of the initial scouting here), as well as NBA League Pass and Basketball Reference for the game-watching experience and the stats to draw on when writing these.

Stay frosty, friends.