A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

2010-11 NBA Predictions: The Championship

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Since this blog starting out pretty much at the beginning of the basketball season, I’ll spare the world an exhaustive look at each team in the league, and just answer the big question:  Whose left standing at the end?

We’re largely seeing a debate between Miami and the Lakers, with the occasional shout out to the CelticsThe GM’s took gave a strong majority to the Lakers.  The ESPN writers had the Lakers and Heat in a dead, well, heat.  The debate between those two teams itself is drawing people to meta-analysis, which if you know me, you know I can’t stay out of.

Silver Screen and Roll wrote an article essentially saying that this difference of opinion is about the war over advanced stats.  Stat geeks vs old school guys.  He points out that the GMs are mostly old school, and then breaks down the ESPN writers based on their affiliation with modern stats.  He then caps it all of preparing us for a potential Armageddon where we can definitively say who was right or wrong because now LeBron doesn’t have weak teammates as an excuse for losing out to Kobe’s Lakers.

Alright so, I’ve got a variety of problems  with this but he does have some interesting thinking here that isn’t entirely wrong.  The correlation between stat geeks and picking the Heat is real.  The big problem is though, that I don’t think the correlation is due to stat geeks simply assuming that you can combine great players and automatically have a good team.  Rather, I’d say that this is more about how the two sides think generally.

Why Pick the Lakers?

Choosing the Lakers is the safe choice, and by that I mean, it’s the one you can make that no one will ever be able to say you were crazy to make.  You’re basically picking things to stay as they were, not forever, just for one year.  You can make this pick, and if the Heat do win, well hey, you didn’t say they’d never win, you’re just surprised the team gelled so fast.  You can do similar things with the Magic and the Celtics.  And of course, if the Lakers fall apart, it’s pretty unlikely you won’t have an excuse for it.  Kobe gets hurt or all of a sudden shows his age?  Nobody’s going to fault you for that.

Additionally there’s the matter that of the 4 teams really being mentioned, only the Lakers are in the West.  So you’ve got the Lakers effectively getting a bye into the championship, whereas in much less certain who will come out of the East.   People apply the general probability there, and pick the team with the easy road.

Why Pick the Heat?

From the other side, I’d say people are typically asking the question, “Why would I think the Heat wouldn’t work?”, and they aren’t coming up with any answer they like.  This isn’t about just throwing good players together and having the team do well immediately.  This is about a core of 3 players who have already played together before successfully, and went into this with their egos checked at the door.  Yeah, it might take them some time to gel, but realistically, how long?

Pause for a second.  The most dominating season over the past few years came with the completely changed Celtics in their first year together.  The Shaq-Kobe Lakers’ best record came in Phil’s first year there.  The Nash Suns started out 31-4 in their first year together.  When we see teams able to gel essentially immediately, is it really reasonable to expect that a team that’s capable of gelling won’t do so after 90+ games?

If someone actually sees a fatal flaw with the Heat, that’s different.  The obvious thing that comes to mind is that the Heat’s strength is on the perimeter, whereas as the Lakers (and Magic) have the advantage in the paint.  The Heat’s strength is probably going to be on offense, whereas all three of the other clubs are better on defense.  These are important things to consider when evaluating the Heat.  At the same time, you can create a dynasty based primarily on as strong perimeter (the Bulls), and the modern NBA defense is based less on an amazing big man, and more based on smart team play and effort.  People reluctant to damn the Heat’s potential tend to have this among other things on their mind.

Don’t forget about…

The Celtics I think are being gauged about right.  They proved last year that they aren’t dead yet, but we also have good reason to expect that they aren’t going to live that much longer in their current form.  The big buzz coming out of the Celtics camp right now is that Kevin Garnett is healthy “for the first time in years”.  Of course, if Garnett actually starts playing like it’s 2007 again, this Celtic team could become the title favorites very quickly.  Personally, I’ll believe it when I see it.  I expect a modest decline for them this year, not necessarily record wise, but I doubt they’ll look as good come playoff time as they did last year.

The Magic on the other hand, I’m really surprised how little attention they are getting.  None of the GMs picked them to win, none of the ESPN writers picked them to win.  This to me is just crazy.  It’s as if people developed a narrative after the series against the Celtics series that the Magic just don’t have what it takes – which is about the opposite of how I felt.  It’s easy to see Boston up 3-0 and conclude the series wasn’t close, but Boston could have easily been down 2-1 at that point if not for the team essentially acting like boneheads, and Orlando won the next two games before the Celtics finally finished them off at the last game in Boston.   Jameer Nelson makes better use of Dwight Howard when he’s clearly available for an easy score, Magic probably win the series.  Ditto if Vince Carter’s mistakes go away.  I understand that you can’t just assume those issues will go away – but I watched the series through that lens, and it felt to me that if the Magic can just figure out one or two things, they become the team to beat for many years to come.

Have people really thought this through?

Now here’s the thing that really gets me:  People pretty much know that the Lakers and the Magic will be good, and if you asked them about the difference between those teams, I think they’d all say it’s very small.  Yet if you look at the Eastern Conference predictions from ESPN writers, the Heat kill the Magic.  Even taking out the guys picking the Heat for the title, taking just the guys predicting the Lakers as champs, the Heat kill the Magic.  Assuming this is actually reflective of the general population of old school Laker-pickers, they aren’t picking the Heat to fail, or be mediocre.  They are picking the Heat to be fantastic, but just fall short of the Lakers.  I don’t see any rational defense for this.  The Heat have the talent – they’re either going to be phenomenal, or extremely problematic.  The latter doesn’t mean I think they’d miss the playoffs, but that Eastern Conference is ridiculously tough.  No, I don’t think the Heat can win it unless they really gel, and if they gel enough to clearly surpass the Magic, that’s almost certainly going to be enough to surpass the Lakers too.

I’d say we’ve got here another case of playing it safe.  People who don’t want to pick against the Lakers or against the Heat, this gives them the way to do it, but renders their prediction pretty much incoherent.

My Prediction

Teams most likely to win:

1) Miami Heat

2) Los Angeles Lakers

Teams most likely to get to the Finals:

1) Los Angeles Lakers

2) Orlando Magic

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Written by Matt Johnson

October 29, 2010 at 2:20 pm

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