The numbers say the Heat will win in 6.
After blessing SLAMonline with the nERD Power Rankings throughout the season, our guys at numberFire are back to help us look at the postseason in an analytics-based way. So what do the algorithmic models say about the who will be taking home the Larry O’Brien? NumberFire’s Chief Editor is here with the answer.—Ed.
by Zach Warren / @ZachWWarren
We’re finally here! After much drama and shaky hoops, we’ve arrived at the logical destination after Russell Westbrook dramatically shortened his season. It’s the old men vs the unlikable superstar and his sandbagging sidekicks, two teams that can be both admired and disliked, making for nothing short of a very interesting battle.
If you’re just joining us for the first time, let me dispense with this up front: We do math. We do sports, but really, we do math. You won’t see an article on here with us talking about what we think about something; no, you’ll see an article about what millions of data points and mathematical modeling thinks will happen. And what does it think will happen in this case? Heat in 6. Let’s dig into why.
Factor 1: LeBron James
Let’s take the easy one first: LeBron James is the best player in this series, and it’s not really all that close. I don’t need to tell you that LeBron was the runaway pick for MVP, and math agreed—we had him as our No. 1 power ranked player, just ahead of Kevin Durant.
How good was he, you ask? He had a nERD score of 27.3, which means putting LeBron on a perfectly average team could constitute an extra 27.3 wins for that team. Yes, you’re reading that right; a team that would go 41-41 without him—say like, Dallas for example—would go 68-14 with him. That is absurd.
The highest player on the Spurs is Tony Parker, with a relatively paltry score of 9.1, placing him No. 15 in our power rankings.
Factor 2: Effective Field Goal Percentage
Playing the Bucks, Bulls and Pacers isn’t exactly a Final Level Boss-type challenge of a team’s defensive skills. There wasn’t a Stephen Curry in that mix, not even in Lance Stephenson‘s most vivid of dreams. The Bulls and Pacers in particular won during the regular season as a result of limiting opponents’ shots (both top four in defensive eFG%), not by creating their own (both bottom 9 in offensive eFG%).
With that said, that .459 defensive eFG% for the Heat through their first 12 Playoff games doesn’t look half bad, does it? The Bulls never shot higher than .500 eFG% against the Heat the entire series, and the Pacers have only managed the feat in their Game 2 victory. (Milwaukee topped .500 twice but lost both games.) Miami finished ninth in the NBA in defensive effective field goal percentage during the regular season, finishing with a .487 eFG% allowed.
Of course, Memphis came into their series with San Antonio expecting defensive dominance too, and the Spurs posted above their season average .531 eFG% in three of the four games. Against Miami, shooting that well may just be a necessity, as the Heat’s regular season .552 eFG% was the best regular-season mark since the turn of the millennium.
Factor 3: Defensive Rebounding
Given that the Heat shoot better and that the Heat have the best player in the game, where can the Spurs steal a game or two? The best place to look is on the glass, where San Antonio holds a distinct edge on defensive rebounding.
Over the course of the season, the Spurs have some of the best overall team defensive rebounding statistics in the League: No. 4 in defensive rebounding and No. 19 in offensive rebounds allowed, for a combined rank of 23. (The Heat have a combined rank of 36.) Additionally, the Spurs have the better overall defensive profile according to our team analytics, limiting opponents to 101 points per 100 possessions against the Heat’s 104 points.
If they can control the glass and keep eFG reasonably down, they can win a few games. But the next factor will ensure they won’t win the Championship.
Factor 4: Home Court
Perhaps the least math-driven factor of them all is home court advantage. The Heat are an absurdly strong 37-4 at home, the best mark for a team at home since the ’05-06 Pistons also went 37-4, en route to losing in the conference finals.
On the flip side, the Spurs went a very pedestrian 23-18 away from the friendly confines of Texas, representing under 40 percent of their overall wins. Conversely, the Heat’s 29 road wins constitute 43 percent of their total, and in fact, only one team has had a component total of less than 40 percent in the past decade: last year’s Miami Heat. Uh oh.
NumberFire is a sports analytics platform that uses algorithmic modeling to better understand sports. Follow Nik Bonaddio at @numberfire, Keith Goldner at @drivebyfootball, and Zach Warren at @ZachWWarren. Check out numberFire on Facebook.