Prognostirank, 2013: Conference Final Funerals, #5 to #3

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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 #5 to #3 -- or, the last second round exit and the results of our projected conference finals. See part one for first round ousters and part two for second round ousters.

• • •

TEAM #5: LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (Western 4th seed: 56-26, SRS of 6.43)

  • Series prediction: Clippers WIN in the first round, LOSE in the second round. ( • • )
  • Three most likely end results: 7-7; 4-3 then 3-4 ( • • ), 11-10; 4-3 then 4-3 then 3-4 ( • • ), 3-4 ( • • )

This Clippers team is better than you think it is. It really is. I was incredibly close to picking them to upset the Thunder -- I'm on the fence just enough that I went chalk instead, but the Clippers are a good team, and they're better than most people think. While Clipper fans and general league aficionados have made a habit of noting that the Clipper team that won 17 straight games early this season isn't the Clipper team that's come to play in April, there are two main mitigating factors that make me think that particular storyline is becoming overplayed.

  • Paul was injured early in 2013. He's been working his way back to health since, and in recent weeks, he's finally looked as healthy as he was during the streak. The Clippers' general performance has reflected this -- L.A. made a strong push for the three seed with a seven-game winning streak to end the year, and what's more, they haven't lost a game in regulation to a lottery team since March 19th. Yes, the Clippers looked pretty awful for a few months, and lost to lottery teams galore. But they certainly haven't lately.
  • The vast majority of L.A.'s trouble lies with the bench, not the starters -- I covered this in passing back in late March, and it's held true since. Their once-dominant bench lineups that led to an overestimation of the team's prospects have been absolutely abysmal in recent months. In the playoffs, a team's bench gets fewer minutes and the Clippers get to return to their starters, who are quite the effective bunch. So, yes -- L.A.'s bench was punching above their weight to start the season, then proceeded to punch well below their weight immediately thereafter. In the playoffs, it doesn't much matter WHERE the bench-as-a-whole punches -- on a team like this, the starters are going 40+.

Additionally, this could just be a gut feeling, but I get the sense that in a playoff scenario the Clippers would match up reasonably well against the Thunder. This may seem like an odd statement to make given that the Clippers were quite literally the only Western team the Thunder swept in the regular season -- the Thunder won 117-111 in OT in OKC and won by scores of 109-97 (no Chris Paul, and L.A. had it within single digits in the last minute) and 108-104 in L.A. And that's true. It IS a pretty weird statement to make, given that the Thunder are 4-9 against the other four best records in the league -- San Antonio, Memphis, Miami, and Denver. But 3-0 against the Clippers, and THAT'S their matchup disadvantage? "Sure, Aaron. Makes sense."

Really, though -- each of the games L.A. played OKC was a close contest, and that was despite the fact that L.A.'s bench was god-awful in every game. That bench won't be playing quite as much in a playoff situation. Chris Paul shot 2-14 in OKC's overtime win. I don't see that happening often in a playoff situation. And even with all those mitigating factors, OKC managed naught but a few close wins? Look -- the Clippers aren't unbeatable, and there's a reason I picked them to lose the series. But this isn't going to be some kind of evisceration. With a healthy Chris Paul and a healthy Blake Griffin, the Clippers run a non-systematic offense that thrives on transition buckets and a cobbled-together pick and roll with whatever parts and pieces Chris Paul can salvage from the refuse around him. The Clippers have a few individual pieces that thrive against the Thunder. Chris Paul traditionally does well against Westbrook, and Blake Griffin operates very well against Ibaka's block-happy ways when he goes up strong and makes it a point to finish. Jamal Crawford is markedly less efficient than Kevin Martin, but Kevin Martin relies on open shots in a Matt Bonner-esque way -- I don't think the gap between Martin and Crawford is going to be nearly as large in a playoff situation as it is in regular season production.

All that said? I still can't pick against a team that won games by an average of 9 points per game, even against an underrated and underappreciated Clippers team that's come a long, long way since the Chris Paul trade.

DEWEY'S TAKE: In D&D alignment terms, this team is neutral-neutral tending towards neutral-evil. Did I get that right, Tim Duncan? I'm sorry, I just don't know the game that well. :sweats: I only bring up alignment because back in the day, Aaron and I came up with an alternative alignment chart for players of a certain position: Solid-neutral-scrappy axis, and a solid-neutral-sketchy axis. This is a quality-independent alignment. You're solid in the first axis if you're like the Spurs or Warriors, getting wins through solid, fundamental play. You're scrappy if you're the underdog getting inexplicable wins. You know, like the Mavs or Jazz (even the Lakers!). Sketch is self-explanatory. Operative example being: Did you ever get a win by whispering a swear in your young impressionable opposing point guard to psyche him out? Then you're sketchy. Why all of this, Alex? Why? Well, because the Clippers are the solid-sketchy team to end all solid-sketchy teams and Chris Paul is their king. Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler, DeAndre Jordan... it's like this team took the old, weird Clippers of 3-5 years ago and made them good without fixing any of their ugly, jaw-chomping weirdness. It's wicked sketchy. And can you possibly be any more solid-sketchy than Vinny Del Negro? His name literally translates to "Lawyer of darkness, comically played by Joe Pesci." That's the literal translation. I think this about says it all.

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Prognostirank, 2013: The Second-Round Sepulchre, #10 to #6

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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 #10 to #5 -- or, the last two first round exits and the first three second round exits. See part one for first round ousters.

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TEAM #10: GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (Western 6th seed: 47-35, SRS of 1.32)

  • Series prediction: Warriors LOSE in the first round. ( • • • )
  • Three most likely end results: 3-4 ( • • • • ), 7-6; 4-2 then 3-4 ( • • • ), 5-6; 4-2 then 1-4 ( • • )

I struggled with this one quite a lot. Probably more than I should've. All things considered, the Nuggets should pulverize the Warriors. They're faster, better, smarter, stronger. They're deeper, and they've got ample personnel to take care of Golden State's biggest weakness; that is to say, an at-rim sieve by the name of David Lee, who's consistently a step slow and weak to contest. With Lee in the game for 35-40 minutes, it's hard for me to really visualize how the Warriors intend to stop the Nuggets from scoring 70 points in the paint per game. And if the Nuggets get that done, it's hard to see how the Warriors keep them off the line enough to guarantee the win. If there's one thing that kills the Warriors, it's that -- their interior defense is simply not up to par when facing off against a team like the Nuggets that drives the ball straight into their heart. Simply not.

That said? The Warriors have a few advantages of their own, mainly centered around Stephen Curry. While Ty Lawson ended the year balky and injured -- as did Tony Parker, Steve Nash, and virtually every point guard in the West's playoff picture not named "Russell Westbrook" -- Stephen Curry ended the year on a crazy hot streak. Curry shot 51% from three over his final 4 regular season games, and he's been doing it on vastly increased shot volume. Broadening the sample size... over the final month of the regular season (17 games), Curry shot an average of TEN THREES A GAME. That isn't a typo. The man shot 47% over those 17 games on ten threes a night. That's incredible. To put it in perspective... the 2003 Minnesota Timberwolves, the Garnett-led team that won 51 games and finished with the 4th seed in the West, shot 10 threes a game. As a team. Stephen Curry, by himself, shot as many threes per game over the past month as everyone on the 2003 Minnesota Timberwolves combined. And he made 47% on them. The man is insane.

Outside of Andre Iguodala's defensive masterwork, the Nuggets are a relatively poor team when you get out to the perimeter -- whether shooting it or defending it. The key to the series, for the Nuggets, is simply going to be keeping the ball out of Stephen Curry's hands. If they want to make this a short series, they'll need to force Curry pass out of traps coming up the floor and to shut down all passing lanes to the Golden State superstar. He'll get his points regardless, but they need to keep his three point shooting under wraps. If Curry is allowed to shoot 10-12 threes a night, the Warriors have an excellent shot of winning the series outright --  Curry shot over 60% on threes against Denver this season despite Iguodala's defense, mostly because Iguodala's more important as a roaming defensive presence than as a lock-in guy in the Denver scheme. If Curry's presence forces Iguodala to function more as a shut-down player than he has in Denver's system traditionally, that could give the Warriors an opening for the upset. More likely, their porous interior defense dooms them in the end -- but I still feel like they'll give Denver a hell of a push.

DEWEY'S TAKE: One game over .500 this calendar year (26-25), a negative point differential against the Western Conference, and the best single season a three-point shooter has ever had. Deep bench, towel waves, bronze icons in the golden light of Oracle Arena, the Warriors are middling (occasionally stagnant) on offense and middling on defense over the course of the season, and don't have a center. On any given night two or three offensive savants plus a rookie or veteran stepping up. Effortful, relatively futile defense, pull-up jumpers in transition. Their coach is a minister and a showman and a legendary floor general. They also have Richard Jefferson as a comically irrelevant player and veteran presence. They send their tiniest player through a golden gate of big men to get some space to shoot an insensibly high-arcing 3 from the top of the key. One of the most fun and watchable teams ever when they're on.

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

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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.

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