Crunching Numbers With NBA Math, Episode 6

Looking for the best NBA minds weighing in on the trials and tribulations of players throughout the Association? Want insights into the statistical side of the sport? Trying to identify sleepers and overrated players?

Just hoping to increase your basketball knowledge?

We’ve got you covered at Crunching Numbers—NBA Math’s roundtable that will feature a handful of writers and/or analysts weighing in on five different topics. This is the sixth edition, focused largely on the races for the No. 8 seed in each conference, and we have another quartet of special voices featured.

Follow them on Twitter with the links provided below, then see what they have to say:

Zach Buckley

Bleacher Report

Chris Crouse

Hoops Rumors

John Karalis

Red’s Army

Zach Mikash

Denver Stiffs

 

 

1. Erik Spoelstra has turned Tyler Johnson and James Johnson into huge assets, and his work pushing the Miami Heat into playoff contention should impress everyone. Should he stand any chance in the Coach of the Year conversation? 

 

  If Erik Spoelstra isn’t on your short list of Coach of the Year candidates, you’re doing it wrong. The Miami Heat—who don’t have Chris Bosh or Justise Winslow and do have Rodney McGruder and Luke Babbitt in the starting lineup—have gone an NBA-best 21-4 since Jan. 7, outscoring opponents by 9.2 points per game in the process. Spo has commanded a complete buy-in from this ragtag roster and found the ideal role to coax career-best stretches out of nearly everyone in the rotation.

The Heat skipper is the runaway COY winner of the second-half, but this isn’t a half-season award. The total package matters, and it’s hard to envision Miami’s looking strong enough to get Spo the honor after its abysmal 11-30 start. The last 10 winners have averaged 58.3 wins—the Heat would have to win out just to reach 48.

  My (theoretical) vote for Coach of the Year will go to Gregg Popovich every year until he retires, though Erik Spoelstra deserves to be in the conversation. The Heat are competing for the playoffs despite missing three of their seven highest-paid players, and it’s largely due to Spoelstra’s ability to maximize the impact of the available talent. James Johnson’s development is one of the better stories in the league this year, and Tyler Johnson is proving he deserves to be a starter in the league.

Miami is more of a playoff-caliber team than its record indicates.

  I think he’s definitely in the mix. It’s probably Mike D’Antoni’s award to lose, considering how much better Houston is and his decision to turn James Harden into the team’s point guard. But there are a lot of great candidates this year, and Spo is one of them.

There’s no doubt he’s taking a roster full of guys most fans couldn’t name and pushing them to heights no one expected. If Miami continues this run and gets his team into the playoffs, I wouldn’t be shocked if this turns into a Doc Rivers in 2000 situation, when he won Coach of the Year by getting a terrible Orlando team to a .500 record.

  Coach of the Year is usually fairly dependent on total wins, which is why Mike D’Antoni is my pick.

Still, no one has done more with less than Spoelstra, and that’s deserving of some votes. But it’s hard to imagine a low playoff seed garnering Coach of the Year status. The ironic thing is while Spoelstra’s putting together one of the better coaching performances we’ve seen, I’m pretty sure Pat Riley wants to kill him for it. It’s going to be one of the deeper drafts in memory—especially near the top—and the Heat looked destined for a top-five pick.

 

2. Sticking in the Eastern Conference, the Chicago Bulls are still in the race for No. 8 despite a complete lack of shooting ability. Is it possible to win in today’s NBA when you break the typical mold so significantly, or do the Bulls represent the ceiling of what we can expect from non-shooting teams?

 

  I’d be hesitant to use the Bulls as the standard for non-shooting teams, because you could build a much better space-starved roster. Their problems run well beyond their perimeter limitations—does the front office not know what type of system Fred Hoiberg prefers?—although that’s been a clear problem area since the antiquated squad was first assembled.

Zigging where everyone else has zagged can be a shrewd way of uncovering market inefficiencies, but three-point shooting is a non-negotiable in today’s game. Without it, lanes are too clogged to attack with dribble penetration and off-ball cuts. The grit-and-grind Grizzlies have probably enjoyed the most spacing-deprived success recently, and even they’ve recognized the need to modernize their offense.

The last four champions have been top-five teams in three-point makes, percentage or both. That pattern is almost guaranteed to repeat this season.

  The ceiling on teams without the ability to stretch the floor is severely limited. Ten of the last 12 NBA Finals teams have ranked in the top 10 in three-point rate, and if the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers meet again this June, it will make 12 of 14. Teams must emphasize the three-point shot, and if they don’t, then they max out as a borderline playoff team, which is what the Chicago Bulls are right now.
  It’s possible to win by bucking a trend, but not the way Chicago is doing it. Let’s be clear: Chicago is a top-to-bottom mess of a franchise at this point that is lucky to have one of the league’s bright young stars surprisingly develop under its watch. A team could choose to build around a guy like that and go against the trend, but it would probably have to load up on defensive wizards and hope to stop-and-run its way to success. It would need some great passers too, because it would probably run a cut-heavy offense that would require some good vision to execute.

How good could this team be? I dunno, but you can do it and be OK.

  I wouldn’t say the Bulls represent what we can expect; I’d say that’s the Memphis Grizzlies. While Mike Conley has developed into a nice shooter, that wasn’t always the case. But the Grizzlies have shown a team that relies on defense and strong post play can be a perennial playoff team—though it’s likely going to struggle to get into the Finals.

The Bulls’ problem is that they lack strong post play as well. So if you’re looking for the ceiling of a team with a bunch of ball-dominant wings without great shooting, then yes, it’s probably a fringe playoff contender like Chicago.

 

3. Plenty of teams are still competing for No. 8 in the Western Conference—the Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks seem to be the primary candidates, and we can’t count out the Minnesota Timberwolves. Of those four, who do the Golden State Warriors least want to see in the first round? Does your answer change if the San Antonio Spurs overtake Golden State for the top spot?

 

  Before their post KD-injury slide, the Warriors had the most efficient offense in NBA history. So, they wouldn’t have trouble dismantling the Nuggets’ last-ranked defense or the Blazers’ 27th-ranked unit. The Mavs’ top two shot leaders are Harrison Barnes—last year, a No. 4 option (at best) on these same Warriors—and 38-year-old Dirk Nowitzki. Any chance Golden State would have trouble containing that? None.

That leaves only the Timberwolves, who have defeated the Dubs both this season and last. Minnesota has the best player on all four rosters in Karl-Anthony Towns, a crazy-athletic rising two-way star in Andrew Wiggins and two defense-first point guards in Ricky Rubio and Kris Dunn to harass Stephen Curry. Those aren’t the ingredients for a series win, but it could be enough for a few tense moments and maybe even a Minnesota victory.

This probably doesn’t change if it’s the Spurs, though they might rather face the Mavs than the Wolves. There’s more inexperience for Gregg Popovich to exploit against Minnesota, but also more athleticism to deal with.

  The Dallas Mavericks-Golden State Warriors matchup would be a fun series to watch, especially since it will the 10th anniversary of Don Nelson’s No. 8 seed knocking off Mark Cuban’s top-ranked team. However, Steve Kerr and Co. shouldn’t fret about this matchup, nor any of these teams.

Dallas can’t match the Warriors’ firepower. Portland’s defense holds the team back. The Minnesota Timberwolves have one of the best point differentials since the All-Star break, but the team can’t run with Golden State over a seven-game series. Out of the bunch, the Denver Nuggets pose the biggest threat, though inconsistencies plague them. Neither Steve Kerr nor Gregg Popovich has anything to worry about until the second round.

  I don’t think any of those teams scare anyone. Denver is improved now that Jokic is the focus of its offense, but it’s not equipped to stop Golden State or San Antonio over a seven-game series. Portland can run-and-gun its way to a couple of wins but, again, none of those four teams are that scary in a first round series.

Now, if the Warriors drop to second and have to face the Grizzlies, then we’re talking. That’s a bad matchup for them. San Antonio might want to jump into that top seed to avoid a potential matchup with the Thunder. Both teams should survive if those matchups materialize, but they won’t be easy first-round series.

  Whether it’s San Antonio or Golden State, I think both would prefer to avoid Portland.

Talent is the great equalizer in the playoffs, and no one outside of Portland is bringing talent like Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Additionally, an engaged and focused Jusuf Nurkic is a mountain of a basketball player to deal with, and neither Golden State nor San Antonio (especially if LaMarcus Aldridge is out) has a player who can match Nurk in terms of strength in the post. Dallas is also dangerous with the playoff experience of Dirk Nowitzki and Rick Carlisle.

But without a doubt, I think both San Antonio and Golden State would prefer the inexperienced Nuggets or Timberwolves.

 

4. Obviously, plenty of players will have significant impacts in the postseason pushes. Who are you paying close attention to that the rest of the basketball-watching universe might be overlooking? 

 

 

I’m tempted to say Goran Dragic, because casual fans don’t appreciate how good he is and how scalding-hot he’s been (21.7 points on 52.3/45.4 shooting, 5.5 assists over his last 25 games). But since the Dragon is getting some recognition—Eastern Conference Player of the Month nominee in February—I’ll spotlight two Heat players who aren’t getting enough: The Brothers Johnson.

Tyler and James, neighbors in real life and on the reserve unit, are the lifeblood of Miami’s bench. Between them, they’ve been good for 25.9 points, 9.0 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.8 blocks per game. Spo said recently neither can probably take Sixth Man of the Year honors on his own, but they’d walk away with the reserve tandem award if one existed.

James’ playmaking helps the offense run smoothly as Tyler’s development at point guard continues. Tyler’s hops allow him to punctuate some of James’ best passes. It’s been an incredible partnership to see mature, and the fact the Heat don’t lose much (if anything) when they bring on the reserves is among this star-less squad’s greatest strengths.

  I’m interested to see how Tristan Thompson plays downs the stretch. He needs to elevate his game even further now that Andrew Bogut won’t be joining the Cleveland Cavaliers for a postseason run. Kevin Love’s health and availability will be the top indicator of whether the franchise can repeat, but Thompson’s play is right behind that variable.
  I’ll stay in Boston and tout the development of Jaylen Brown. His progress from the beginning of the season up to now has been surprising. His post-All-Star-break numbers have all jumped—most notably his three-point shooting. His raw percentage has jumped 16 percent to 46.7 percent behind the arc, and his true shooting percentage has risen from 51.4 to 63.0.

Those numbers might not be sustainable, but they do speak to an increased comfort level and confidence. Even if his shooting falls to average from behind the arc, it’s still much better than anyone expected so soon. Add to this his increased ability to defend the 2, and Brown could end up being a surprise three-and-D option for Boston in the playoffs.

  Being a Nuggets guy, I’m paying close attention to the rookie shooting guard Jamal Murray. He’s supplanted Emmanuel Mudiay in the rotation and has been playing more consistently ever since.

The Nuggets are an offensive powerhouse when Nikola Jokic is on the floor, but when he steps off, Denver looks a bit lost on who to go to for scoring. Lately, Murray has provided that much-needed punch from the reserves. The Nuggets are all in on the playoffs, and they’ll need Murray to play a vital part their run. Beyond just this year’s playoffs, this run is a glimpse into the Nuggets’ future in determining if Jokic and Murray are the players to build around. The team’s pretty convinced about Jokic, and a big stretch run from Murray would eliminate what little doubt there may be about his prospects as well.

 

5. Who ends up with the final playoff spot in each conference? 

 

 

Let me find a four-sided coin before submitting my Western Conference pick. I guess I’ll go with the Nuggets, largely because of their current cushion. It’d help if they played defense every once in a while, but if you’re going to lean heavily toward the offensive end, at least a talent like Nikola Jokic allows you to do so. Their schedule is fairly manageable the rest of the way, and their roster features a good mix of seasoned vets and rising prospects.

I’ll say the final three playoff seeds in the East go to the Pacers, Pistons and Heat. Indy isn’t playing the most inspiring ball, but the schedule sets up for a comfortable landing. The top-10 defenses and coaching experience for Detroit and Miami inspires more confidence than even Giannis Antetokounmpo can create in Milwaukee without Jabari Parker.

 
I’d take the Miami Heat to win the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed, though they could easily end up with the seventh spot instead. Pat Riley’s squad has the highest scoring differential in the league since the All-Star break.
In the Western Conference, I’m taking the Mavericks. I love the way this team is playing, and the addition of Nerlens Noel is exactly what it needed to make a playoff push.
 
I think Coach Spo’s magic runs out and Milwaukee holds on. Neither team has a huge schedule advantage overall, but Miami finishes with Denver fighting for its playoff life, Charlotte/Toronto/Washington on the road, Cleveland, then Washington again. The Cavs might be resting guys, but Toronto and Washington are fighting for seeding, so that can be a tough stretch. I don’t think Miami can pull it off.
The West comes down to one game for me: March 28, Denver at Portland. I think Portland wins at home, which would not only gain it a full game on the team it’s currently chasing, but it would also earn the tiebreaker. With that win, I think Portland jumps into the driver’s seat and holds onto the last spot.
  I think Portland gets in for the West. The Nuggets have been clinging to that final spot for a while, but their schedule is about to get brutal while the Blazers have a much easier go. They feel like they could put together a five-game winning streak at any moment and seize control of the playoff race.

In the east I’m going to go with the Bucks. I have no reason for thinking that beyond my personal desire to see Giannis Antetokounmpo go one-on-one with Lebron James for at least four games. The idea of that is far more exciting than some lame revenge narrative that would come with either a LeBron vs. Miami or LeBron vs. Wade series.

 

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