Mike Dunleavy

That Path to the Eastern Conference Finals

partingredsea08

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.

Path Opening for Wizards to Make Deep Playoff Run

Ariza dominating

As enjoyable as the Wizards-Bulls series has been so far (for Wizards fans, at least), there’s a tangible feeling that Washington has drawn to an inside straight. (That’s a fancy poker way of saying they’ve gotten lucky.) Yes, I’m aware the Wizards have looked good in the playoffs — teams look good when they win.

I’m also aware that the “experts” at ESPN and TNT (and elsewhere) have declared this Washington as a near-perfect squad with “no weaknesses.” But, much (most?) of the commentary has been a veritable catalog of cognitive biases. Over the course of six months and 82 games, the Wizards were average. A perfectly average team playing against their schedule would be expected to win 43-44 games. They won 44. That’s not a team without weakness — it’s an average team.

In the playoffs, they’re beating the Bulls — a slightly better than average team overall this season, but also a team with a major flaw: one of the league’s worst offenses.

Meanwhile, the Indiana Pacers have continued their post-All-Star break swoon and are struggling to keep pace with the sub.500 Atlanta Hawks. The Wizards should be favored against either team in a second round matchup. Which would put Washington into the conference finals against (probably) the Miami Heat.

It’s the 2013-14 NBA Eastern Conference, where being meh is good enough because nearly everyone else is meh-er.

In many ways, the Wizards this season are a fascinating experiment in perception. On one hand, there’s a solidly average regular season and no top-end production. On the other hand, there’s a likely first-round win against the Bulls and a good chance they make a run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Folks in the “they’re really not that good” camp can point to the historically weak conference and Indiana’s meltdown, which carved out the path. But…it’s not Washington’s fault their opponents suck. The only thing they can do is play their game and beat whoever’s put in front of them. Being average when others are bad might be a functional equivalent of being good.

For me, it’s clear that the Wizards are an average team that’s drawn a flawed opponent in the first round and has a very good chance of getting a flawed opponent in the second round as well. That said, being average this season and next is probably good enough to hang around in the playoffs for the next year or two before Washington’s older players decline and other teams rebuild sufficiently. Washington won’t be a realistic title contender (even if they make the Eastern Conference Finals), but it’ll be fun to see them playing in May.

In other words, have fun, but don’t go overboard revising conclusions drawn from six months and 82 games worth of data over a few weeks against a couple opponents. What would be cause for some revision? Beating the Heat and making it to the Finals.

At any rate, here are a couple looks at the Wizards-Bulls first round series through the first four games. First up, here’s Player Production Average. PPA is an overall evaluation stat I developed. It’s designed to credit players for things they do that help a team win and “debit” them for things that don’t — each in proper proportion. It’s a pace-adjusted, per minute stat that 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.)

Player TEAM G MPG PPA
Taj Gibson CHI 4 32.3 215
Trevor Ariza WAS 4 39.5 212
Mike Dunleavy CHI 4 32.3 168
Bradley Beal WAS 4 40.8 161
Martell Webster WAS 4 18.5 135
John Wall WAS 4 38.5 121
Trevor Booker WAS 4 24.5 99
Marcin Gortat WAS 4 36.8 86
Joakim Noah CHI 4 41.8 85
Carlos Boozer CHI 4 23.3 76
Nene Hilario WAS 3 34.7 74
Jimmy Butler CHI 4 43.8 70
Andre Miller WAS 4 10.8 63
D.J. Augustin CHI 4 29.5 43
Kirk Hinrich CHI 4 32.0 0
Kevin Seraphin WAS 1 1.0 0
Drew Gooden WAS 4 9.0 -33
Tony Snell CHI 4 10.3 -59
Nazr Mohammed CHI 2 2.5 -180
Al Harrington WAS 3 2.3 -346
Garrett Temple WAS 3 0.3 -1408

The top two producers have been Taj Gibson and Trevor Ariza. Mike Dunleavy’s high rating is largely a product of a single terrific game in a small sample size. Bradley Beal is having a good series. John Wall and Martell Webster have also been solid.

Folks have gotten excited about Nenê’s play, but the big man hasn’t really played all that well outside of game one.

Want to see why Chicago is struggling? Their only above average performers in these four games have been Gibson and Dunleavy. Noah, Boozer and Butler have been subpar. Augustin and Hinrich have been wretched — especially Hinrich who has given the Bulls 32.0 minutes per game of nothing.

Last, here’s a look at estimated wins added (call them eWins) for the series:

Player TEAM G MPG eWINS
Trevor Ariza WAS 4 39.5 0.68
Taj Gibson CHI 4 32.3 0.56
Bradley Beal WAS 4 40.8 0.53
Mike Dunleavy CHI 4 32.3 0.44
John Wall WAS 4 38.5 0.38
Joakim Noah CHI 4 41.8 0.29
Marcin Gortat WAS 4 36.8 0.26
Jimmy Butler CHI 4 43.8 0.25
Martell Webster WAS 4 18.5 0.20
Trevor Booker WAS 4 24.5 0.20
Nene Hilario WAS 3 34.7 0.16
Carlos Boozer CHI 4 23.3 0.14
D.J. Augustin CHI 4 29.5 0.10
Andre Miller WAS 4 10.8 0.05
Kirk Hinrich CHI 4 32.0 0.00
Kevin Seraphin WAS 1 1.0 0.00
Nazr Mohammed CHI 2 2.5 -0.02
Drew Gooden WAS 4 9.0 -0.02
Garrett Temple WAS 3 0.3 -0.03
Tony Snell CHI 4 10.3 -0.05
Al Harrington WAS 3 2.3 -0.05

This eWins approach uses total production to estimate each player’s individual share of team wins. It works reasonably well over the full season. For the series, it has the Wizards with a 2.4 to 1.7 eWins lead, which is reflective of a couple very close games (Washington’s overtime win in game two, and Chicago’s narrow game three victory.)