The 2017 NBA Playoffs are mercifully here.
After weeks of basketball with relatively low stakes at hand—unless you were pining to see who won the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, or whether the Utah Jazz or Los Angeles Clippers secured home-court advantage in the first round—we finally get meaningful games again.
With the arrival of the postseason comes an inundation of playoff preview pieces. While those are helpful and great content can be found on just about every basketball site imaginable, we wanted to do things a bit differently at NBA Math.
Instead of providing our loyal readers with something you can find on various platforms, we’re instead diving through the numbers to find one stat about each team you may not have known. Some are team stats, and others are remarkable seasons put together by some of the best players this amazing league has to offer.
Portland Trailblazers, No. 8 Seed, Western Conference
Did you know the Portland Trailblazers are secretly a defensive juggernaut? Okay, juggernaut may be a stretch. Actually, scratch that. It’s flat-out hyperbole, considering their 21st-ranked defensive rating.
But upon closer examination of their numbers, they appear to do just about everything correctly on a macro level.
The Blazers allow the second-fewest corner threes, force the second-most mid-range jumpers among playoff teams and hold opponents to 56.4 percent shooting in the restricted area—the lowest mark in the league.
So what gives? Why isn’t their defense better?
I wish could tell you, Portland fans. Some of it may be bad luck, which is backed by the fact that teams shoot 41.2 percent on wide-open threes against them—the NBA’s third-highest rate. It’s not like they’re just giving up a ton of wide-open looks, either; the Blazers allow the second-fewest wide-open shots from beyond the arc (8.6 per game). But when their opponents do get those opportunities, they knock them down at a rate just below Klay Thompson’s three-point percentage for the season.
It’s weird, and ultimately unexplainable. But will any of that even matter against the Golden State Warriors? Probably not.
Russell Westbrook seems to like Damian Lillard’s prediction of Portland beating the Dubs in 6 pic.twitter.com/d0Z9oF0X1u
— Mike Goldfarb (@MikeGoldFool) April 13, 2017
Just don’t tell Damian Lillard I said that.
Chicago Bulls, No. 8 Seed, Eastern Conference
The Chicago Bulls just capped what was a pretty tumultuous season. An ill-fitting, unathletic roster that finished the year with a 0.1 net rating (lower than two teams—the Miami Heat and Charlotte Hornets—who missed the playoffs) and the worst effective field-goal percentage (48.7 percent) in the NBA still managed to qualify for the postseason.
How did they do it? This may be an oversimplification, but the proper response features just two words: Jimmy Butler.
The NBA’s fifth-ranked player in VORP simply had a spectacular season that we didn’t talk enough about. He finished 2016-17 averaging 23.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 1.9 steals, all while posting shooting splits of 45.5/36.7/86.5.
His season was so unique, in fact, that it’s only been replicated five other times in the league’s entire history. Chicago’s shooting guard is one of just four players to score at least 23.5 points per contest on fewer than 17 field goal attempts nightly while averaging 1.5 steals and posting a 0.54 free-throw rate. The other three guys are James Harden, David Robinson and Charles Barkley, the latter two having done it twice apiece.
That makes Butler, a guy who could win MVP this season and two Dream Team standouts. Not bad company.
Memphis Grizzlies, No. 7 Seed, Western Conference
I can’t help but feel pity for the Memphis Grizzlies. As if the Chandler Parsons contract wasn’t bad enough, there’s also the recent news about Tony Allen, their best perimeter defender, and a new injury. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, the calf injury will probably end his season.
Sources: Memphis’ Tony Allen will rehab his calf strain as intensely as possible, but recovery time for this particular injury is a month.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) April 13, 2017
This was after Memphis finished the regular season with the fifth highest lost win shares and sixth highest lost VORP, per Man Games Lost.
For the Grizzlies to even have a chance against the San Antonio Spurs, they needed to find some semblance of health. Alas, such is the cruelty of life. But rather than dwell on that, let’s instead look for some reasons for optimism.
Please allow me to return to mourning the Grizz in peace. Thank you for being considerate during this difficult period.
Indiana Pacers, No. 7 Seed, Eastern Conference
With Nikola Jokic, Karl Anthony-Towns, Kristaps Porzingis and Anthony Davis, 2017 should be called the Year of the Unicorn. After experiencing a slight decline in the late 2000s and early 2010s, the NBA big man is back with a vengeance.
But those aforementioned players are only a few of the most exciting young hybrid power forward/center prospects, and the one player who doesn’t get nearly enough publicity is the Indiana Pacers’ Myles Turner.
The second-year big quietly had one of the most unique seasons in league history. Turner is now one of just two players ever to average over two blocks, shoot 34 percent from three-point land and over 80 percent from the foul line and have an effective field-goal percentage of at least 53 percent. The other guy? Former Boston Celtics great, Hall of Famer Kevin McHale.
Keep an eye on Indiana’s unicorn in its series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. If you haven’t had a chance to watch him yet, he may surprise you with his ability to spread the floor and protect the rim. Fans of the Pacers already know how good he is, but this could be a quality opportunity for him to break out in front of a national audience, as well.
Oklahoma City Thunder, No. 6 Seed, Western Conference
Alright, let’s see… interesting stats about the Oklahoma City Thunder… what can I come up with… aha, I got it! Did you know Russell Westbrook became the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double? You didn’t?! Well, that was easy.
In all seriousness, we need a unique statistic. So were you aware Oklahoma City ranks second in the NBA in snagging contested rebounds?
For all the talk about how Westbrook pads his rebounding stats by stealing boards from his bigs, it doesn’t even remotely affect his team’s excellence on the glass. The Thunder are first in overall rebound rate, third in defensive rebounding percentage and first in offensive rebounding percentage.
So, can we please stop using that as a talking point against his MVP campaign? I think I already know the answer to that question, but a guy can hope.
Milwaukee Bucks, No. 6 Seed, Eastern Conference
For the Milwaukee Bucks, let’s delve into NBA Math’s own database, which features our 2016-17 total points added (TPA) scores.
I had a hunch that this would be the case, which is why I took the quick voyage over to find this surprising mark. Of the 16 teams left to duke it out in the playoffs, the Bucks are the only squad with merely two active players who boast a positive TPA: Giannis Antetokounmpo (duh) and Greg Monroe.
Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Milwaukee Bucks in TPA for 2016-17 season (425.68). It’s franchise’s No. 3 single-season score since 1973. pic.twitter.com/KfSAicVZdz
— NBA Math (@NBA_Math) April 15, 2017
They do have a third player above zero, but unfortunately, it’s Jabari Parker, and his season ended on Feb. 9 after tearing his ACL for the second time in as many years.
It speaks to the Greek Freak’s utter brilliance (in just his fourth year of playing) that the Bucks were able to qualify for the postseason—and rather comfortably, too. Antetokounmpo places fourth overall in TPA this season (425.68), which puts him behind only Westbrook, Harden and LeBron James.
Watching him go up against DeMar DeRzan, Kyle Lowry and the Toronto Raptors may be one of our most sneaky-fun first-round matchups this year.
Utah Jazz, No. 5, Western Conference
Rudy Gobert being the NBA’s version of Godzilla aside, the Jazz have another strong factor going for them. Utah leads the league in both effective field-goal percentage (56.5) and true shooting percentage (62.1) in the clutch (five minutes or fewer remaining with a margin no greater than five points).
That effective field-goal percentage is so astounding, in fact, that it’s the highest rate posted by a team in the clutch since the 2008-09 Cavs, who earned a ridiculous 62.2 effective field-goal percentage. (So much for the “LeBron isn’t clutch” storyline many desperately clung to in the early 2010s.)
Considering the Jazz-Clippers series is probably the biggest tossup this year, those numbers could serve Utah quite well if it can maintain them when the lights get a little brighter.
Atlanta Hawks, No. 5, Eastern Conference
Like a lot of the bottom-half teams in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, the Atlanta Hawks’ season was, overall, a bit of a drag. They were great, then they almost decided to tank (around when they traded Kyle Korver), then they were good again, then Paul Millsap got hurt and they were flat-out bad, and then he came back and they closed the season on a high note.
It was a turbulent year, to say the least.
But are all of those ups and downs blinding us to the fact that the Hawks actually might be really good? At least when they’re fully healthy?
A bit of evidence in support of this cockamamie theory: Among lineups with at least 125 minutes played, Atlanta’s Dennis Schroder-Tim Hardaway Jr.-Thabo Sefalosha-Millsap-Dwight Howard quintet has the No. 3 net rating (27.3) in the NBA, trailing only a group apiece from the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers.
Want some more good news, Atlanta fans?
FWIW regarding Hawks starting lineup, Bud says Thabo Sefolosha is 100 percent and no limitations.
— Chris Vivlamore (@CVivlamoreAJC) April 14, 2017
Things are looking up for the Hawks! Certainly, a first-round win over the Washington Wizards would redeem Atlanta sports after what happened in the Super Bo—okay, nevermind, sorry.
Los Angeles Clippers, No. 4, Western Conference
Much like the Hawks, the Clippers’ season also resembled a roller-coaster ride. But not really the good kind. More like the kind you ride at the local fair which you’re not entirely sure you’ll survive, and you’re scared, but you ride it anyway because you don’t want your friends to know you’re scared.
Los Angeles has experienced some incredible highs (from the opening day of the season through Dec. 16, the Clips were third in net rating and joined Golden State as one of just two teams with top five offensive and defensive ratings) and some serious lows (primarily when both Blake Griffin and Chris Paul got hurt).
Presently, they’re back on an upward trajectory. Despite losing Austin Rivers, who is enjoying the best season of his career, L.A. heads into the playoffs on a seven-game winning streak. That somewhat surprising run helped it secure home court against the Jazz, which could be a deciding factor between two evenly matched teams.
Another interesting variable in this series is the Clippers’ clever defensive scheme, which forces their opponents to shoot 21.3 mid-range jumpers per game—the highest mark among playoff teams. Further, teams they play are only successful on 37.8 percent of their attempts from that area, which trails only the Houston Rockets.
The latter number may be partially due to luck, but the former certainly isn’t. And if they can get the plodding Jazz to shoot just a few more mid-range shots every night, it could help swing the series in their favor.
Washington Wizards, No. 4, Eastern Conference
As mentioned earlier, the Hawks have one of the NBA’s deadliest five-man lineups. Interestingly enough, so does their first-round opponent.
Among five-man units with at least 200 minutes, the Washington Wizards have the best net rating (17.4) in the non-Warriors division when they go with John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr., Kelly Oubre Jr. and Marcin Gortat. That bunch gives Wall, one of the best distributors in the league, both space to attack the basket and elite options to pass out to at the three-point line. If he needs a bit of extra help getting to the rim, a Gortat screen almost always does the trick.
Defensively, Oubre is the perfect small-ball 4, thanks to his ability to switch on pick-and-rolls or defend bigger guys on the low block. If he can consistently knock down open looks from beyond the arc, the Wizards offense becomes mighty hard to slow down. (Just don’t hold out hope on this actually happening, as he’s shooting a paltry 31.3 percent on wide-open threes this season.)
The NBA should create an alert for when Washington and Atlanta’s fives are all on the floor at the same time. Like a League Pass Alert, but one that can occur in the middle of the first quarter.
Houston Rockets, No. 3, Western Conference
The Houston Rockets are a fascinating team. We know they avoid mid-range jumpers like the plague. They bomb away from downtown. James Harden definitely deserves to finish (at least) second in MVP voting.
But we’ll take this in yet another direction. The Rockets, lords of three-point range, with the second-highest offensive rating (111.8) in the NBA—actually lead the league in another facet: points per possession (PPP) scored off cuts, with a 1.38 clip.
Not only will they pound you into submission from deep, but when you least expect it, someone will cut and, more often than not, score with ease. With a passer as creative as Harden, life is that much easier for the rest of the Rockets. They attack the hoop with enough frequency to keep opponents honest (No. 14 in the NBA with 683 possession-ending cuts), but also space them out far enough to make you forget they have it in their arsenal.
Defending Houston for an entire series is going to make a few teams absolutely miserable over the upcoming weeks.
Toronto Raptors, No. 3, Eastern Conference
Despite an extended absence near the end of the season from Kyle Lowry, the Raptors still claim the No. 4 net rating in 2016-17.
It’s an impressive feat, no matter how you spin it. But making it that much more noteworthy is the fact that Toronto leads the lead in average dribbles per touch, meaning they often wear the leather off the ball by pounding it into the hardwood instead of passing.
Usually, we imagine the most efficient offenses as the ones that model themselves after San Antonio, with the ball whipping around from player to player until it arrives in someone’s hands with an easy look for a bucket.
But not the Raptors, which just goes to show how killer DeRozan and Lowry are offensively. They can dribble, dribble and dribble some more, and their offense doesn’t suffer for it. Not many around the league can say the same.
San Antonio Spurs, No. 2, Western Conference
Over the offseason, after a brutal loss to the Thunder in last year’s playoffs, Tim Duncan retired. As his replacement, the San Antonio Spurs brought in veteran big man Pau Gasol. They also signed David Lee and Dewayne Dedmon, but other than that, they kept most of the roster intact. Surely they would take a step back during the first year of the post-Duncan era.
Well, that didn’t exactly happen.
The Spurs responded to losing their best player ever by finishing seventh in offensive rating, first in defensive rating and second in net rating. In a word, that’s ridiculous. They also finished the year with an absurd 61-21 record, largely due to the incomparable performances of Kawhi Leonard. But play in the clutch served as another major factor in their incredible campaign; the Spurs have the highest net rating in that time frame (21.5).
In clutch time, their offensive rating is 115.9, which is lower than the marks posted by six other teams. However, their defensive rating drops all the way to 94.4—by far the best mark in the league. Of the five players with the most fourth-quarter minutes played for Gregg Popovich (Leonard, Gasol, Patty Mills, Danny Green and LaMarcus Aldridge), four have positive defensive points saved on the year, and the fifth (Mills) is a massive defensive upgrade over the corpse of Tony Parker.
When you see that five-man outfit over the coming weeks, count how many times opponents successfully score on it. I’m sure teams like Houston and Golden State will figure out a way to do so, but it will be an extremely difficult code to crack.
Cleveland Cavaliers, No. 2, Eastern Conference
As defending champs, the Cleveland Cavaliers get double the love.
For starters, they lead the league in isolation PPP (0.99), which I suppose is rather obvious. After all, they do have LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, two of the best scoring talents the league has ever seen.
So for their second intriguing statistic, we’ll go in a more micro direction. This season, James became the first player in NBA history to average at least 26 points, eight rebounds and eight assists while boasting an effective field-goal percentage over 59 percent.
Yes, it’s true that Cleveland has struggled mightily in recent weeks. This may even be the worst a James-led team has played since before he joined the Heat. Nonetheless, he’s still the best player in the world, and second place may not even be all that close.
Whoever is discounting their chances of repeating should do so with caution.
Golden State Warriors, No. 1, Western Conference
Peruse the lineup section of NBA.com, and you’ll see that almost every single unit, be it two-man or five-man, is littered with Warriors at the very top. Quite frankly, it’s jarring to see Zaza Pachulia’s name topping any sort of list, but yes, even he’s featured there—and often.
Yet another facet in which Golden State dominates is in the hustle section, where you can see they lead the league in both loose balls recovered and deflections. They’re the only team in the NBA to even rank top five in both areas.
That would actually sort of explain why the Cavs are one of the very few teams who don’t seem to have as much trouble scoring on them. The Warriors make life impossible for opponents trying to do the right thing (pass), but Cleveland is the best isolation scoring team in the NBA, so that doesn’t really trouble it as much.
Can we fast forward to the Finals, please?
Boston Celtics, No. 1, Eastern Conference
It’s only fitting that we finish off with the spectacular Isaiah Thomas and the surprising, upstart Celtics.
We’ll keep our final section simple: This season, Thomas became one of just two players in NBA history to average more than 28 points on fewer than 20 field-goal attempts with a free-throw rate of 0.44 or higher and a free-throw percentage greater than 90 percent. The other person to do so was 2012-13 Kevin Durant, the year before he won MVP.
It was an incredible year from the shortest player in the league. He’ll deservedly get some sort of postseason award recognition, most likely with a spot on the All-NBA Second Team.
Hopefully you enjoyed our convoluted version of a playoff preview. As always, thanks for reading and enjoy the next few weeks. Don’t forget: We’re literally watching NBA history, so treasure every moment.
Follow Frank on Twitter @frankurbina_.