Five Most Likely Champions By The Numbers

by April 19, 2013

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 this year’s Playoff outcome? NumberFire’s Chief Editor is here with the answer.—Ed.

by Zach Warren / @ZachWWarren

The first 82 are great and all, but for my money, I prefer 15: the number of series in the NBA Playoffs that will decide the 2013 champion.

Most people assume the Heat are shoo-ins in the East, and either the Thunder or the Spurs will come out of the West to challenge them. Is this accurate? Well, the numbers say… kinda, yeah. It’s hard to argue against LeBron or Durant (although a tiny bit easier for Duncan, but we’ll get to that).

But exactly which do we have favored, and how likely are they to surpass each round? We like to let the numbers speak for themselves.

1. Miami Heat

NBA Champs Win Conf. Finals Win Conf. Semis Win First Round
33.78% 55.56% 69.68% 90.68%

Miami’s odds of making the NBA Finals are greater than their odds of not making the NBA Finals. That says a tiny bit about how dominate the team from Miami has been this season, but it might say even more about the weakness of the rest of the Eastern Conference.

The Heat scored 8.6 points more per 100 possessions than they allowed this season, a statistic I’ll probably say about 27 times over the next two weeks. But that might not mean that much until you realize that the next best Eastern Conference team, the Knicks, only scored 4.8 more points per 100 possessions than they allowed. Miami’s first round opponent (Milwaukee) actually allowed more points per possession than they scored, and each of Miami’s potential second-round opponents (Brooklyn and Chicago) scored less than a bucket more than they allowed per 100 possessions.

That means that even if the Heat are actually only the second-best team in the NBA by our power rankings, the relative suckitude of the teams they’re potentially playing in the East means a leisurely stroll to the Finals. No team in the West, meanwhile, even holds a 60 percent chance of getting past the second round.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder

NBA Champs Win Conf. Finals Win Conf. Semis Win First Round
25.12% 40.48% 57.08% 79.30%

Maybe you got a little bit confused somewhere around the middle of the Heat’s insanely long win streak, but the real best team in the NBA sits in the dust bowl. With the No. 1 offensive efficiency and No. 4 defensive efficiency in the NBA, Oklahoma City’s 9.8 net points per 100 possessions sits as easily the top mark in the league. All hail our new Zeus-inspired overlords, am I right?

Well, I would be bowing down quicker if they were forced to undergo equal trials and travails as their South Beach counterparts. This playoffs, though, the Thunder’s road is about as rocky as Zeus’ own hiding from Cronus. Round one sees the Thunder tackle an eight seed that is our ninth-most efficient team overall in the NBA (and more efficient than any of Miami’s potential round one and two opponents). Round two sees a matchup against either the third-best or eighth-best NBA team. Fun. Then, the Spurs or Nuggets would likely await in the Conference Finals.

This is the point where David Stern should be booked for child cruelty, with the Heat having such an easier road than their Oklahoma City brethren. But even with the tough path, it speaks to the strength of the Thunder squad that they are the only Western Conference team to have a better than 16 percent chance of making the NBA Finals. Their Finals odds are over double anybody else’s in the conference.

3. Denver Nuggets

NBA Champs Win Conf. Finals Win Conf. Semis Win First Round
7.90% 15.84% 40.52% 76.28%

It doesn’t matter if you’re a worse team if you have an easier road. Denver is taking that mantra all the way to the bank, as their last-day-secured three seed gives them possibly the easiest road to the NBA Finals of any Western Conference team.

Having to face the Thunder, our strongest team in the West? That can wait until the Conference Finals. Having to face the Clippers, the second-strongest team in the West? That can wait until the Conference Finals as well, if they can get past the Grizzlies and Thunder. Instead, the Nuggets get to play the least efficient Western Conference playoff team in the first round (Golden State’s No. 12 overall on our charts), and a second round matchup against the not-as-tough-as-you’d-think Spurs looms next.

The Nuggets may be a distinct tier below the Heat and Thunder, but they’re also not a team to be taken lightly. They sit No. 5 in offensive efficiency at 110.4 points per 100 possessions, No. 11 in defensive efficiency at 105.1 points allowed per 100 possessions, and top ten in offensive eFG% (No. 7), offensive rebounding percentage (No. 1), offensive free throw factor (No. 10), defensive turnover rate (No. 8), and defensive free throw factor (No. 7).

4. Los Angeles Clippers

NBA Champs Win Conf. Finals Win Conf. Semis Win First Round
7.84% 15.96% 36.38% 62.64%

The Clippers are a good team. Their No. 4-ranked 110.6 offensive rating: good. Their No. 8-ranked 103.6 defensive rating: good. Their No. 4 offensive eFG% and No. 12 defensive eFG%: good and good. There isn’t much to not like about this team… until you look at the playoff breakdown and see just how hardcore this team is about to get Indiana Hoosier’d.

Our No. 3 overall Clippers have the single toughest first round matchup in the NBA playoffs; the No. 8 Memphis Grizzlies have the highest overall efficiency rating of any team that isn’t favored in their given series. From there, the Clippers would likely face the Thunder. Just look two teams up for how much fun that would likely be. A Spurs or Nuggets Conference Finals would be likely from there, but honestly, the Clippers would just be thanking their lucky stars to even get that far, given the nearly one-third odds of doing so.

5. San Antonio Spurs

NBA Champs Win Conf. Finals Win Conf. Semis Win First Round
7.54% 16.22% 28.32% 69.10%

You haven’t read incorrectly: other than Miami, not a single one of the other seven Eastern Conference playoff teams makes our top five most likely champions. The Pacers are sixth, the Knicks seventh, and the Bulls ninth, but none of them can hold a candle to the top four Western Conference seeds.

The Spurs may have had a chance at the West’s one seed until the final week of the season, but statistically, they’re actually not in the same ballpark as the Thunder, Nuggets, or Clippers. The main issue for the Spurs has been turnovers. Their 14.0 percent offensive turnover rate ranks No. 19 in the NBA, and they force turnovers on only 13.7 percent of opponent possessions (No. 13). Coupled with a next-to-last 20.5 percent offensive rebound rate, the Spurs have plenty of holes for the other top Western teams to exploit.

Their road to the Finals is slightly easier than the Clippers’, given their weaker first round opponent (No. 10 Lakers) and potential second-round opponent (No. 5 Nuggets). However, because of their lower all-around efficiencies and lower game-to-game variation (meaning their peaks in production are lower as are the valleys), the Spurs would hold a worse chance of beating Miami than their counterparts in L.A.

If you’re looking for full NBA Title odds, make sure to check out our Team Rankings page for a breakdown of all 16 teams in the field.

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.