Category Archives: Playoffs

For James, East Final Is an Ex-MVP’s Shot At Redemption

For the first time in three years, LeBron James did not give an acceptance speech at the Most Valuable Player’s press conference. Now, as he faces his successor at the podium, Derrick Rose, in the Eastern Conference Finals, James is hoping his Heat can do exactly what the Magic and Celtics did to him — prevent the reigning MVP from advancing to the NBA Finals.

In the NBA, the Most Valuable Player carrying his team to the brink of a title is the rule, not the exception. Since the league began handing out the hardware in 1956, the MVP’s team has appeared in the championship round 28 times, good for a 51 percent rate. And during the NBA’s halcyon era of Magic, Larry, and Michael, the clip was even higher: from 1983-2003, the MVP made a Finals appearance in 16 of 21 seasons, more than 75% of the time. In a world where current players are largely measured against those three names alone, it makes headlines when a reigning MVP fails to reach the league’s grandest stage.

Perhaps this is why the drought of recent winners has been met with so much scorn. Since 2004, only one MVP (Kobe Bryant in 2008) has led his club to the Finals. The others — Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, and James — flamed out in the Conference Finals (or in the cases of the latter two, earlier), provoking backlash from the Skip Bayless set and anyone else preoccupied with legacies or comparisons to long-retired legends. That it has been viewed as a blemish on James’ otherwise staggering resume is undeniable.

Yet now he has a chance to inflict the same criticism on Rose, the youngest MVP in league history. It’s strangely fitting, because their paths have run parallel ever since the Rose-for-MVP talk rose from a whisper at the lunatic fringe of Bulls fandom to a din heard across the entire country. In the wake of ‘The Decision’, the media tried to talk itself into casting Kevin Durant as James’ foil, but Rose out-Duranted everyone, ranging from his own sharp improvement to the Bulls’ unexpected #1 seed and the endearingly humble manner in which he carried himself (culminating in a truly beautiful moment at his MVP presser). In the minds of many, he embodied the yin to James’ preening yang.

For these reasons, the media will doubtless go easier on Rose than they did James, should the Bulls’ season end early. And by the same token, the fact that James felt he needed two other big names, one of whom is nearly his equal in the universe of NBA megastars, to reach the Finals again will continue to dog him if the Heat prevail. But even if his legacy cannot be fully repaired through victory, it’s clear that in a twist of fate, the only way James can gain some measure of redemption for his “incomplete” MVPs of 2009 and 2010 is to stamp Rose’s 2011 award with the same stigma.

The Dissolution of the NBA Playoffs’ Ruling Class

From 2008 to 2010, the NBA playoffs clearly had a “ruling class” that consisted of Boston, Orlando, and the Los Angeles Lakers. Combined, those three teams played 26 playoff series, and just once did one of them lose to a team outside of their own small clique:

Year Round Rd# Team Opp W L Winner
2008 EC1 1 BOS ATL 4 3 BOS
2008 WC1 1 LAL DEN 4 0 LAL
2008 EC1 1 ORL TOR 4 1 ORL
2008 ECS 2 BOS CLE 4 3 BOS
2008 WCS 2 LAL UTA 4 2 LAL
2008 ECS 2 ORL DET 1 4 DET
2008 ECF 3 BOS DET 4 2 BOS
2008 WCF 3 LAL SAS 4 1 LAL
2008 FIN 4 BOS LAL 4 2 BOS
2009 EC1 1 BOS CHI 4 3 BOS
2009 WC1 1 LAL UTA 4 1 LAL
2009 EC1 1 ORL PHI 4 2 ORL
2009 WCS 2 LAL HOU 4 3 LAL
2009 ECS 2 ORL BOS 4 3 ORL
2009 WCF 3 LAL DEN 4 2 LAL
2009 ECF 3 ORL CLE 4 2 ORL
2009 FIN 4 LAL ORL 4 1 LAL
2010 EC1 1 BOS MIA 4 1 BOS
2010 WC1 1 LAL OKC 4 2 LAL
2010 EC1 1 ORL CHA 4 0 ORL
2010 ECS 2 BOS CLE 4 2 BOS
2010 WCS 2 LAL UTA 4 0 LAL
2010 ECS 2 ORL ATL 4 0 ORL
2010 ECF 3 BOS ORL 4 2 BOS
2010 WCF 3 LAL PHO 4 2 LAL
2010 FIN 4 LAL BOS 4 3 LAL

Over that 3-year span, the Lakers-Celtics-Magic triad went 20-1 in series against non-ruling class teams, and as a result the road to the NBA title always went through one of the three teams. The rest of the league was largely irrelevant when it came to determining the championship.

Until this year, that is. For the first time since 2007, a ruling-class team failed to register at least 1 series win in a playoff season, as the Magic fell to the Atlanta Hawks in a 1st-round upset. Yesterday, the Lakers saw their season end against a non-ruling class team for the first time since 2007, losing in embarrassing fashion against the Dallas Mavericks. And the Celtics, for all of Kevin Garnett & Rajon Rondo‘s heroics in Game 3, still trail Miami’s superteam 2-1 in their Eastern Conference Semifinal series.

It’s tough to make any sweeping statements on the basis of a few week’s worth of games, but the 2011 playoffs seem to indicate a major changing of the NBA guard. After having their way with the league’s proletariat for three seasons, the once-mighty ruling class now finds itself on the wrong end of a radical upheaval.

Playoff “Quarterbacks”: Rajon Rondo or Tom Brady?

As an announcer, Mark Jackson sure loves to repeat himself. Whether it’s “Mama there goes that man,” “Hand down, man down,” or my personal favorite, “Grown man move” (clip unavailable), Jackson’s canned go-to phrases are a staple of any ESPN broadcast — especially when cutting to a commercial break, serving to punctuate an important replay with, well, words that have lost all meaning.

Recently, though, Jackson’s been repeating another comment he began to make during Rajon Rondo’s triple-double vs. Cleveland two weeks ago. Here’s a variation from Saturday night:

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Championship Usage Patterns III: Regular-Season Teams Built For the Playoffs

In Part II of this series, I developed a method of estimating a team’s probability of winning the NBA Championship based on the allocation of their possessions among their top 5 players. The idea is that, assuming 2 teams are championship-caliber, the one who follows the time-tested pattern of Star 1a + Star 1b + 3 role players will be more likely to win a championship. Today, I’m going to apply this to all regular-season teams in NBA history, and see which teams were theoretically built for postseason success, then look at what actually happened to them.

First, we need to define what it means to be a “championship-caliber team”. Historically, the average regular-season SRS of all NBA champions is 6.07, and the median SRS is 6.059. Obviously, teams have won with SRS scores of under 6 (the 2006 Heat were the last team to do so), but as a general rule, if you post an SRS of 6 or greater during the regular-season, you have established yourself as either the odds-on favorite or at least one of the leading candidates to win the NBA title, which is what we’re going for here.

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Championship Usage Patterns II

After yesterday’s post about optimal championship usage patterns, I got a lot of good feedback about possible alternative versions of the same study that would better capture the effect I was going for. When setting up for the initial study, I struggled between sorting by minutes played and by raw modified shot attempts (MSA), each of which had unique advantages. But a nice compromise (suggested by reader Brian) would be to isolate the top 5 players on each team by minutes — thereby approximating their most frequent 5-man unit — and then sort by MSA%, the percentage of team MSA that each player took while on the floor:

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Championship Usage Patterns and “The Secret”

In basketball perhaps more than any other sport, the concept of team-building — creating a cohesive group that fits together and may be greater than the sum of its parts — is phenomenally important. In baseball, a sport dominated by one-on-one matchups, not a whole lot of consideration has to be made for how teammates work together; to make a great team, you basically grab the 25 best players you can, throw them together, and watch them produce. But in basketball, teammates have to work together while simultaneously “competing” for touches & shots. Throw together a baseball lineup of 9 guys who each create 100 runs, you’ll probably score 900 runs; throw together a basketball lineup of 5 20 PPG scorers, you probably won’t score 100 PPG. There’s no upper limit on the number of runs the baseball lineup can produce, but there is an upper limit to the points the basketball lineup scores, because teams are limited by a finite number of minutes in a game, and as a result, lineups are limited by a finite number of touches & shots to be allocated to the individual players.

That’s why a stat like Possession% (the % of team possessions a player uses while on the floor) is important in looking at how the pieces of a team fit together. A lineup of All-Stars would be interesting, but perhaps a less-talented lineup with one 26% usage guy, two 20% guys, an 18% guy, and a 16% guy would be even better if the All-Stars are not happy with the way they fit together or are unable to operate at peak efficiency in lesser roles, while the less talented lineup features players who are all at their optimal usage levels. The whole of the latter would be greater than the sum of the former’s parts.

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Finals Memories

Sometimes I mark the passage of time in my life by the sporting events that happened in a given year. Is that weird? Maybe so. But still, I’m prone to associating particular years with certain happenings from the world of sports — for instance, I hear 1997, I think of Tiger Woods’ historic victory at Augusta. 1998? Michael Jordan’s “last shot”. 1985? The start of the Celtics’ dominating run to championship #16. Oh, and I was also born that year, can’t forget that. But mostly I think of the Celtics.

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Early Fishin’ Trips… With the NBA’s Best Players

In the wake of an epic, unprecedented evisceration at the hands of Denver in Game 4 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals, Chris Paul and the New Orleans Hornets were finally eliminated from the playoffs Wednesday night with a 107-86 loss to the Nuggets in the Pepsi Center.

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