Game 2 of the Indiana-Miami series showed just how important Chris Bosh is to the Heat’s chances of contending for a title this season. Without their best big man, Miami lost gave up its +12 advantage it had scoring in the paint in Game 1 and the rebounding margin was +10 in favor of the Pacers. Clearly, the Heat ought to be worried about their glaring disadvantage in the frontcourt.
However, more than anything else, Miami ought to fear the theory of “Mean Reversion.” This theory states that a statistic’s high and low values are only temporary and that over a longer period of time, these statistics are bound to move towards the average. In basketball terms, it’s simple really: no player or team will stay cold or hot forever; they are bound to return to normalcy.
So far in the playoffs the Pacers have not played up to their regular season standards and, more than likely, their production will return to normal sooner rather than later.
Offensively, the Pacers numbers are down across the board when compared to their regular season output. During the regular season Indiana scored 97.7 points a game on 43.8% shooting from the field and a 6th best mark of 36.8% from behind the 3-point line. In the playoffs, Indiana’s scoring is down to 91.0 points per contest while shooting only 29.3% on three-pointers. If the Pacers shot that poorly during the regular season, it would have been the worst percentage in the entire league.
Individually, several players are bound to break through. Shooting percentages for many of the Pacers’ key players have plummeted. Danny Granger shot 41.6% from the field during the regular season, but is only shooting 38.0% in these playoffs. Paul George has regressed from 44.0% to 39.0%. David West’s 48.7% conversion rate has dropped to 43.9% in the playoffs.
Roy Hibbert, who shot three out of his six field goal attempts in the first two minutes of Game 2, is bound to perform better against lesser competition. You would have to imagine that he will outperform his Game 2 numbers of 8 points on 2-6 shooting from the field. His 8.7 attempts per game are 1.6 less than he averaged during the regular season.
The theory of mean reversion would indicate that all these areas in which the Pacers are under-performing will eventually return to normal. It is highly unlikely that a very good three-point shooting team will continue to struggle in that category and that a player will shoot well below his season average.
Long story short: at some point Indiana is going to start making their threes, Granger, George, and West will step it up, and Hibbert is going to take advantage of the obvious advantage he has in the post. When all of that happens, how will the Heat respond? Certainly their defense has been a factor in keeping some of these numbers down, but a team that shoots the ball from distance as well as the Pacers do is bound to regain its form. Especially when you consider that Miami was tied for 25th worst in the league in opponents’ 3-point percentage.
Miami has to pray for a speedy recovery for Chris Bosh and that Indiana’s reversion to the mean does not happen any time soon.
After the mad blitz that was the NBA regular season, teams in the playoffs are certainly showing some fatigue. Many have argued that a season that demanded players to attempt to play 66 games in approximately 120 days has led to the rash of injuries. Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Josh Smith, Ray Allen, Baron Davis, Kendrick Perkins, and Iman Shumpert are among the players who have missed time this postseason because of injuries. Throw in the suspensions to Rajon Rondo and Metta World Peace and it is clear that perfect attendance was almost impossible to achieve this season.
Obviously, teams who are able to keep their best players on the floor have a sizable advantage over their opponents. A quick glance at the number of games missed by rotation players on playoff teams during the regular seasons offers a little insight. By looking at a team’s roster and gauging how many players from each team missed time due to injuries or suspensions can quite possibly predict that team’s chances of keeping its best unit intact throughout the playoffs.
Here are the teams that did the best job of keeping its best players on the court throughout this hectic season:
1. Indiana Pacers
30 games missed, 10 rotation players, 3.0 games missed on average
Players considered: Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert, David West, Paul George, Leandro Barbosa, Darren Collison, George Hill, Tyler Hansbrough, Dahntay Jones, Louis Amundson
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
41 games missed, 9 rotation players, 4.56 average
Players considered: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka, Derek Fisher, Daequan Cook, Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison
Note: Eric Maynor was not considered in this evaluation as his injury was suffered very early in the season and the team was adequately able to replace him with Derek Fisher
3. LA Lakers
35 games missed, 7 rotation players, 5.0 average
Players considered: Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, Ramon Sessions, Matt Barnes, Metta World Peace, Steve Blake
Note: The amount of games missed by Devin Ebanks and Jordan Hill was incredibly difficult to quantify as each players’ up and down play led to inconsistent playing time
4. San Antonio Spurs
83 games missed, 12 rotation players, 6.92 average
Players considered: Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills, Gary Neal, Stephen Jackson, Dajuan Blair, Tiago Splitter, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Matt Bonner, Boris Diaw
Note: The Spurs’ position on this list is remarkable especially considering several of their best players were held out of games at the end of the season.
5. Memphis Grizzlies
63 games missed, 9 rotation players, 7.0 average
Players considered: Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, OJ Mayo, Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, Mareese Speights, Dante Cunningham, Quincy Pondexter
6. Miami Heat
73 games missed, 10 rotation players, 7.3 average
Players considered: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole, Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier, Joel Anthony, Ronny Turiaf
7. Philadelphia 76ers
86 games missed, 10 rotation players, 8.6 average
Players considered: Jrue Holliday, Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams, Thad Young, Elton Brand, Spencer Hawes, Evan Turner, Jodie Meeks, Nikola Vucevic, Lavoy Allen
8. LA Clippers
86 games missed, 10 rotation players, 8.6 average
Players considered: Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups, Nick Young, Mo Williams, Caron Butler, Randy Foye, DeAndre Jordan, Kenyon Martin, Reggie Evans
9. Orlando Magic
78 games missed, 9 rotation players, 8.67 average
Players considered: Dwight Howard, Ryan Anderson, Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson, JJ Redick, Hedo Turkoglu, Glen Davis, Quentin Richardson, Chris Duhon
10. Utah Jazz
99 games missed, 11 rotation players, 9.0 average
Players considered: Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Gordon Hayward, Devin Harris, CJ Miles, Derrick Favors, Josh Howard, Alex Burks, Raja Bell, Enes Kanter, Earl Watson
11. Chicago Bulls
100 games missed, 10 rotation players, 10.0 average
Players considered: Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Richard Hamilton, Joakim Noah, CJ Watson, Kyle Korver, Taj Gibson, Ronnie Brewer, Omer Asik
12. Dallas Mavericks
102 games missed, 10 rotation players, 10.2 average
Players considered: Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, Vince Carter, Delonte West, Roddy Beuabois, Brendan Wright, Jason Kidd, Ian Mahimni, Brendan Haywood
13. New York Knicks
95 games missed, 9 rotation players, 10.55 average
Players considered: Amare Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, Iman Shumpert, Landry Fields, JR Smith, Jeremy Lin, Steve Novak, Baron Davis
14. Denver Nuggets
136 games missed, 12 rotation players, 11.33 average
Players considered: Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, Danilo Gallinari, Al Harrington, Javale McGee, Kenneth Faried, Andre Miller, Wilson Chandler, Corey Brewer, Rudy Fernandez, Kosta Koufos, Timofey Mozgov
Note: Faried was not counted as having missed any games, even though he only played 46 games this season. Once he started receiving consistent playing time beginning February 9th he did not miss another game.
15. Atlanta Hawks
133 games missed, 10 rotation players, 13.3 average
Players considered: Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Jeff Teague, Al Horford, Marvin Williams, Zaza Pachulia, Willie Green, Kirk Hinrich, Ivan Johnson, Tracy McGrady
16. Boston Celtics
167 games missed, 10 rotation players, 16.7 average
Players considered: Greg Stiemsma, Jermaine O’Neal, Chris Wilcox, Michael Pietrus, Avery Bradley, Rajon Rondo, Brandon Bass, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce
Note: Wilcox and O’Neal were both included because it appears the team still has not recovered from their injuries, shown by inconsistent minutes still given to Stiemsma, Ryan Hollins, and Marquis Daniels. It just seems like Doc Rivers is still trying to make up for the size they are missing with Wilcox and O’Neal out.
It should come as no surprise that the four teams that are widely considered to be the favorites to contend for the NBA Finals (Thunder, Spurs, Heat, and Lakers) are all in the top 6 teams on this list. Not only did these teams do a superior job avoiding the injury bug, but it is also incredible how few games their star players missed this season. James, Bosh, Duncan, Parker, Bryant, Bynum, Pau Gasol, Durant, Westbrook, and Harden missed a combined 38 games between the ten of them.
A team like Indiana, who no one thinks has a chance at winning a championship this year, certainly must be overjoyed at their ability to stay healthy. If a major injury does occur to one of their opponents, the Pacers’ tendency to field a healthy roster could prove to be the catalyst in a series against an undermanned team.
On the other hand, maybe we shouldn’t be all that surprised the Bulls are in the position they are in. Surely it was not their fault, but the numbers don’t lie: Chicago has a team that struggled with injuries all year long, and surely the playoffs are no different. The Bulls thought they might be able to get everyone healthy and on the same page down the stretch, but it should be no surprise to any of us that their unhealthy trend continued into the playoffs.
5. Ramon Sessions vs. Ty Lawson
Down the stretch, Sessions’ play dropped off a bit. Over the Lakers’ last 7 games, he still posted solid averages of 10.7 points per game on 41.4% shooting with 4 assists per game. However, during that span, he shot 40% or lower in four of those contests. Sessions will have to step up his offensive production as well as his ability to distribute the ball effectively to the three stars on that team. Lawson, on the other hand, has been consistent all year long, leading the team in scoring with 16.4 points a game while shooting an extremely efficient 48.8% from the floor. Lawson is going to want to push the ball up the court and try to influence the pace of play in the Nuggets’ favor. It will be Sessions’ job to slow it down; although he alone is certainly capable of running with Lawson, the rest of his team does not operate that way. This may not be the most important matchup of this series (as you will see below), but the pace of play will be crucial in this series and it begins with these two.
4. Tim Duncan vs. Al Jefferson
The Jazz have little chance at pulling off an upset here, but if it’s going to happen, Jefferson is going to have to carry the load. With San Antonio ranking 2nd in the league in scoring and Utah 4th, while both teams are in the lower half of the league in opponents’ scoring, offense will decide this series. Jefferson represents Utah’s most consistent scoring threat and thus their most important piece if they want to win this offensively loaded series. In his four games against the Spurs this season, Jefferson put up 21, 20, 19, and 12 points respectively and the Jazz went 1-3 in those games. Clearly, for these Jazz to have any chance at pulling a Memphis-sized upset in these series, Jefferson is going to have to produce more than what he has given Utah in their previous games against the Spurs this year.
3. Kobe Bryant vs. Arron Afflalo
Bryant struggled in his three games against the Nuggets this year, shooting only 27.5% from the floor. OK, that’s a small sample size, but how about last year? He was a little bit better, but still Bryant only managed to convert on 39.2% of his field goal attempts. This is no coincidence; Arron Afflalo clearly gives Kobe problems. Surely, George Karl will turn to other players to help out on Kobe, namely Corey Brewer, but Afflalo figures to be crucial in defending Bryant. Offensively, Afflalo really turned a corner in April. During that span, he has put up 18.7 points a game, while shooting 52.1% from the field and 44.9% from beyond the arch. On both ends of the floor, this has the makings of a great matchup, which will certainly have a large bearing on the outcome of the series.
2. Shawn Marion vs. Kevin Durant
Key in the Mavericks’ 2011 run to the Finals was Marion’s defense on any opposing player that Coach Rick Carlisle assigned him. In the Western Conference Finals against these same Thunder, Durant averaged 28 points a game on 42.9% shooting. Marion, not known for his offensive skills, put up 18 and 26 in games 3 and 5, respectively. If Dallas wants to make a run at upsetting the Thunder, Marion is going to have to disrupt Durant during key stretches like he did last postseason. Moreover, with Tyson Chandler gone Marion will be the one spearheading this defensive attack.
1. Blake Griffin vs. Zach Randolph
I know that Zach Randolph has not played like the 2011 version of Z-Bo as of late. And I know Griffin isn’t the most important player in determining the outcome for his team, but I still see this as the most crucial matchup in what is the most evenly matched series out West. The Grizzlies have slowly been working Randolph back into the rotation, which can partly explain why he hasn’t reached 20 points in a game since March 16. But the fact of the matter is that if Memphis wants to make a deep run, they need the Randolph of old to show up. Griffin, not the most adept defender in the league, might be a good place to start. Defensively, you know that Randolph and the rest of the Grizzlies are not going to allow Griffin to simply jump over them; they will gladly send him to the line before allowing him easy buckets. If Memphis’ offense is sputtering at any point, don’t be surprised if you see them throw the ball down low to Randolph to get them going. Only if he shows up like he did last season can the Grizzlies make a deep run.
Now that the playoff field is set, let’s take a look at how teams stack up in their chances to win a title. Below are my rankings of the each team’s chances to win the NBA Championship this postseason:
16. Orlando Magic
With Dwight Howard ruled out for the entire playoffs, this team has to turn to Ryan Andeson, Glen Davis, Jameer Nelson, and JJ Redick as their primary scorers. There is absolutely no way this team, without Howard can knock off any team here in a 7-game series. And to be quite honest, I don’t think they would be much higher on the list even if Howard were playing.
15. Utah Jazz
Yes, they made an incredible run to the playoffs. The team should be commended for being able to rebuild and win all at the same time, something very few teams in the past couple years have been able to do. But no, they are not getting out of the first round.
14. Philadelphia 76ers
Despite busting out of the gate at 20-9 the Sixers managed to go a mere 14-21 since then. This team relies on its superior defense, which is 2nd in the league in opponents’ points per game, and team play, with 8 players playing over 24 minutes per game and averaging at least 8 points per game. Unfortunately their defense will only get them so far against a healthy Bulls team or the star-studded Miami Heat. Expect this offense to struggle against the playoff-level intensity their opponents’ defenses are likely to impose.
13. Atlanta Hawks
After a season that saw teams play 66 games in roughly 120 days, depth is going to be big come playoff time. That’s bad news for a team without arguably its best player, Al Horford, and a terrible second unit.
12. New York Knicks
I just don’t see it with this team and I don’t think I ever will. Amare Stoudemire is not the player he once was. JR Smith drives me crazy every time he touches the ball. Carmelo is playing out of his mind right now, but he will come back to Earth sooner rather than later. However, with Tyson Chandler anchoring their defense and Steve Novak and Smith able to knock down threes, they can give any team a run for their money…just not a run at a title.
11. Denver Nuggets
This team will certainly cause its first-round opponent some headaches with its depth and blistering pace of play. Ty Lawson has been playing great all year, Arron Afflalo is firing on all cylinders right now, and Danilo Gallinari is finally healthy again. Although their model of star by committee is unprecedented, letting whoever is the hot hand take over in crunch time, it is also unproven. That and the fact that they give up 101.2 points a game, second-worst in the league, truly hinder their chances at making a deep playoff run.
10. Indiana Pacers
I love this team, absolutely love them. They roll 10 deep and play great team basketball. They don’t lean on any one player too much, so any guy can be their lead scorer any night and even if Danny Granger is cold, they can win. But this team is still a couple years away from being a title contender. They simply do not have that one player who can take over at the ends of games. Every other team ahead of them has what they don’t: a player who will take over in the fourth quarter and carry them to wins. Until they have that superstar, they will continue to simply be a good team, nothing more.
9. LA Lakers
Metta World Peace. It’s all been said, he’s clearly not sane. Fortunately for the Lakers, despite the impressive April World Peace was having, their playoff hopes do not rest on the far from level head of that man. Unfortunately for the Lakers, they have plenty other problems, their lack of depth chief among them. Also, their 3-7 record against the five teams above them in the standings (Oklahoma City,San Antonio,Chicago,Miami, andIndiana) is disconcerting. Having said all that, anything is possible with Kobe Bryant leading your team. And don’t forget they haven’t lost any of that length that gave them an advantage over every team they played en route to winning titles in 2009 and 2010.
8. LA Clippers
I know the Clippers haven’t been to the post-season in a long time, but the fact still remains: they have Blake Griffin, and more importantly, Chris Paul. If you’ve already forgotten what Chris Paul did to the Lakers last year in the playoffs please reintroduce yourself. He took the series to 6 games on his own, averaging 22 points, 11.5 assists, and 6.7 rebounds while shooting 47.4% from the three and 54.5% from the field, utilizing his tear drop in the lane to perfection. Just imagine what he will do with another legitimate star and some solid role players (Jordan, Butler, Foye, Young, and Martin). They have a shot at making a deep run, but that inexperience certainly knocks them down on our list.
7. Memphis Grizzlies
Everyone is scared to play this team in the playoffs and they should be. They have the most complete roster out of any team here with players who contribute in big ways at every position. On any given night they can kill you with their size (Marc Gasol), their speed (Mike Conley), or their perimeter length (Rudy Gay). If Zach Randolph, their best player from last year’s run, can get back to his old ways, this team is downright scary.
6. Dallas Mavericks
Sure, I am going out on a limb here putting the Mavericks this high. Most likely, they are going to face the Thunder in the first round of the playoffs and more than likely they will be knocked out in the first round. However, there remains a sliver of hope here that I see as greater than any of the teams I have already mentioned. Dirk Nowitzki, as he proved last postseason, has the ability to absolutely dominate a playoff series and that cannot be overlooked. If Dirk can catch fire, do not be surprised if the Mavericks shock the world again and make a run at the finals.
5. Boston Celtics
Everything about this team reads old. Old stars, old school, and, most importantly, old swagger. That’s right, this team has that hop in their step that they did back when they won the title in 2008. Their defense has been great all season long, currently ranking as the third best in the league limiting opponents to 89.6 points per game. But it has been their offensive output lately that has them thinking about a title. Avery Bradley has emerged as a reliable threat, Rondo has been playing out of his mind, KG is showing flashes of his former self, and Paul Pierce still has the ability to take over games. Their biggest issue right now is their rebounding. They currently rank No. 28 in the league in rebound differential at -4.4 a game. This team’s ability to corral crucial defensive boards at the end of games will be instrumental in any run they make.
4. Chicago Bulls
I want to put the Bulls higher on this list (read No. 1), but I just can’t do it until I see more out of Derrick Rose. Yes, I know, the team has played great basketball with Rose out of the lineup. But there is no way this team can compete with the elite in the NBA without their superstar. They cannot possibly expect Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Richard Hamilton, and Joakim Noah to hold their own over a 7-game series with the Heat. If Rose plays like the MVP he was last season, it is a completely different story. If that were to happen, the Bulls become my favorite to win it all with one of the three players most capable of taking over a game and a stingy defense.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
No, I do not think the blow to James Harden’s head knocks them down on this list at all. I am hopeful that he is going to bounce back just fine from the injury. However, OKC has other issues. Russell Westbrook is playing just poorly enough recently to make us all think that he might not be the best partner to pair with Kevin Durant again. In the month of April, Westbrook is shooting 38% from the floor. In the last five games he is 25-82 (30.5%) from the floor. Not exactly the numbers you want to see from your second option, especially when his shot selection indicates a first option mentality. Having said all of that, the Thunder have maybe the most talented roster top to bottom. They certainly have grown over the past couple years. Something just tells me that they are still a year away from knocking down the next two teams on our list…
2.San Antonio Spurs
It is shocking to me that the ole reliable Spurs have come to the forefront of the Western Conference. Just like every other year, I counted them out at the beginning of the season and said that this would be the year it all fell apart. But thanks to great moves by the front office, this is the deepest team in the playoffs. After an exhausting regular season, that depth may be more important than ever. And don’t you for one minute forget about Tim Duncan. The man is still a force to be reckoned with in the paint. Don’t let his numbers fool you, they are down because he is playing a career low 28.2 minutes a game. Yes, he is getting old, but he gives this team an inside presence that can cause huge matchup problems for lots of teams. And I haven’t even mentioned that Tony Parker is playing like he is 22 again, Manu Ginobili is bouncing back slowly but surely, and they’re second in the league in scoring at 103.5 points a game and first in three-point shooting (39.5%). Be afraid, be very afraid.
1. Miami Heat
I hate to say it, but to me the Heat are the favorites to win it all. You can talk about LeBron James’ inability to close out games all you want (and believe me, that is one of my favorite talking points) but the fact remains that this team simply has the most talent of any in the playoffs. They are certainly far from perfect, as I have my own doubts about their bench. But quite honestly, they are better than they were last year in all aspects and I do not see a team out East that can contend with them in a 7-game series. Try to name one team that can match up with this group. It’s not possible. LeBron James is a matchup nightmare all by himself. The one knock on the guy continues to be his performance when it matters most. I truly hope that storyline never dies, but right now, the odds say this is the year he overcomes that obstacle and claims a ring.