That Path to the Eastern Conference Finals

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In my last post, I alluded to a kind of parting of the seas for the Wizards in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The reasoning is pretty simple: the Wizards should be considered strong favorites over either the Pacers or the Hawks. That’s right, either.

If this was a “normal” NBA season, Washington would be a heavy underdog to the top seeded Pacers. But, if this was a “normal” season, the Wizards wouldn’t have been the fifth seed with 44 wins, Atlanta wouldn’t have been in the playoffs with a sub-.500 record, and Indiana wouldn’t have disintegrated over the last two months of the season (and wouldn’t have had to fight and claw to get to a seventh game against such a pedestrian opponent).

This is an abnormal season, though, and the weak Eastern Conference coupled with the stumble-bum Pacers at the top have given the Wizards their best chance of reaching the NBA’s final four since…1979.

That the Wizards would be favored vs. Atlanta is unsurprising. The Hawks weren’t much good during the regular season. They struggled after center Al Horford tore a pectoral muscle (again), and limped into the playoffs. The Pacers need a bit more explanation — which I provided nearly a month ago when I wondered whether Washington should tank for seventh so they could face Indiana in the first round.

If you want more detail, please click and read on that link. The upshot is this: since the All-Star break, the Pacers have been a very different team. They’ve actually had a negative scoring differential, which is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen for an extended stretch from a highly seeded team. Indeed, since the All-Star break, the Pacers have had the scoring differential of a 34-win team (over an 82-game schedule), just one game better than the eighth seed Hawks. Over that same time frame, Washington’s differential was that of a 52-win team.

Don’t go getting too excited about that differential: the Wizards played an incredibly easy schedule after the All-Star break. Still, it’s illustrative of the significant changes in the Eastern Conference. Since that All-Star break, the Wizards had the third best efficiency differential of the East’s playoff teams. The Pacers had the second worst.

So, what are the odds? Applying a combination of full season numbers, post All-Star break numbers, and playoff performance, I estimate Washington having the following chances of beating these possible Eastern Conference playoff opponents:

  1. Indiana — 64%
  2. Miami — 27%
  3. Toronto — 50%
  4. Chicago — 100%
  5. Washington — 0%
  6. Brooklyn — 67%
  7. Charlotte — eliminated
  8. Atlanta — 81%

The odds will fluctuate a bit after that seventh game, but the fundamental point remains: Washington is in a terrific position to reach the Eastern Conference Finals. Getting farther is a dicier proposition, especially if they end up facing Miami.

Round One Wrap-Up

The 4-1 first round win over the Chicago Bulls is done, but there are still a few points worth making. While there’s been some chatter about how flawed the Bulls are (including by me), Chicago actually looked pretty strong entering the post-season. It’s trademark defense was excellent down the stretch, and its offense was about average. The Eastern Conference team with the best efficiency differential after the All-Star break? The Bulls.

Washington’s first round victory wasn’t a case of getting a crappy opponent, it was a case of the Wizards outplaying a decent team. Give credit where it’s due: a big reason the Bulls looked so bad is that the Wizards were on their game.

Finally, here’s a look at the Player Production Averages (PPA) for the series. PPA is an overall rating metric I developed that credits players for things they do that help a team win, and debits them for things that don’t. It’s a per-minute stat that’s pace-neutral, accounts for defense, and includes a “degree of difficulty” factor based on the level of competition a player faces while on the floor. In PPA, 100 = average, higher is better, and 45 = replacement level. (Don’t pay much attention to the extreme scores at the bottom of the table — tiny sample sizes don’t mean much of anything.)

TEAM Player GMS MPG PPA
CHI Taj Gibson 5 30.8 210
WAS Trevor Ariza 5 39.0 193
WAS Bradley Beal 5 41.0 152
CHI Mike Dunleavy 5 32.6 139
WAS Trevor Booker 5 24.2 134
WAS John Wall 5 38.6 128
WAS Martell Webster 5 18.0 113
WAS Nene Hilario 4 35.8 107
CHI Joakim Noah 5 42.0 97
WAS Marcin Gortat 5 36.0 97
CHI Jimmy Butler 5 43.6 88
CHI Carlos Boozer 5 24.2 58
CHI Kirk Hinrich 5 33.4 22
WAS Andre Miller 5 10.4 10
CHI D.J. Augustin 5 28.2 5
WAS Kevin Seraphin 1 1.0 0
WAS Drew Gooden 4 9.0 -35
CHI Tony Snell 5 9.2 -47
CHI Nazr Mohammed 2 2.5 -189
WAS Al Harrington 3 2.3 -364
WAS Garrett Temple 4 0.3 -1889

Interesting that the most productive player in the series was Taj Gibson, who played just 30.8 minutes per game. Meanwhile, Chicago started Carlos Boozer and played him 24.2 minutes per game despite production that wasn’t much better than replacement level.

Also interesting to me is how the production numbers differ from popular perception. One “experts” poll named Nenê as Washington’s first round “MVP.” When it comes down to doing the things that cause teams to win, he rated sixth best for the Wizards — behind Ariza, Beal, Booker, Wall and Webster.

In total, eight players rated “above average” in this series. Six of those players wore Wizards uniforms. While Gibson was good throughout the series, the only other Bull above average was Dunleavy, and most of his production came in a single game.

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