LeBron and the Playoffs

Much has been made recently of how the Heat are going to cruise through the regular season now that they have LeBron, Wade, and Bosh, and crush everyone in their path on the way to winning the championship.  A few posts on Dave Berri’s Wages of Wins blog compare the Heat to historically great teams, and suggests that they could win 70 or more games next year.  Other posts from the WoW network also suggest great things (make sure you check dates for the posts so you know what was known about the Heat roster at that point).  About the lowest number I’ve seen predicted for the Heat is 62 or 63 wins.

Of course, the regular season doesn’t matter, right?  The Cavs won 61 and 66 games the past two seasons; did you know that the 127 wins in two years is the highest total in the past 20 years besides the Bulls in the 90s and the Celtics in 2007 and 2008?  That is to say, there’s Jordan and the best team ever, then there’s LeBron’s Cavs along with maybe three other teams.  But the Cavs apparently weren’t good enough, so here we are in Miami.  So what are the chances of the Heat winning the championship?  It of course depends on how good you think they’ll be and who they face on the way.

First, let’s assume that the Heat next year are a typical East 1 seed and have a typical playoff run: they beat the 8 seed, the 4 seed, the 2 seed, then the Western conference 1 seed.  As my last post shows, that should happen about 42% of the time.  If you include plausible possibilities like the 5 seed upsetting the 4, or the 3 upsetting the 2, or the 2 or 3 seed making it out of the West, that probability will go up; it would be 56% if they faced the average East 3 seed and the average West 2 seed, for example.  So let’s say that if the Heat were a typical #1 and had a typical playoff run, they should win the title 50% of the time.  That makes them a strong favorite (since the other 15 playoff teams have to share the other 50%), but it’s just a coin flip overall.  This corresponds to the ‘low’ estimate of 60ish wins.

Of course, everyone thinks the Heat will be better than your average 1 seed.  Let’s look at two other possibilities with an average run: the Heat will be as good as the best team of the past decade (the 2008 Celtics by point differential, at 10.3; that team won 66 games) and the Heat will be the best team ever (the 1996 Bulls, with a differential of 12.3; that differential was matched by the 1972 Lakers, who won 69 games).  With an average run against the 8, 4, 2, and 1 seeds, their probabilities would be 75 and 88%, respectively.  I have to admit, those are higher than I thought they would be.  With the same caveat as the previous section, that some lesser teams might get into the mix, we can increase those numbers to about 80 and 90%.  So should we sign the Heat up for a threepeat, or unprecedented fourpeat?  Assuming they have the same probability each year, you have to raise those numbers to the third (or fourth) power: a team with a 10.3 differential each year for three years has a .8*.8*.8 -> 51.2% chance of threepeating, or a 41% chance of fourpeating.  If they can maintain the level of the best team in NBA history for four years, the numbers are 73 and 65.6%.  Those are scary-high, but not bulletproof: it also means there’s a 49% chance they don’t threepeat (at the 10.3 level).

Finally, let’s be a little more optimistic (assuming you aren’t a Heat fan) on the quality of the opponents.  Orlando has been a very strong 3rd and 2nd seed the past two years (they actually had the best point differential in the league last year), and just two years ago the Lakers were very strong with a differential of 7.7.  Additionally, Miami leapfrogging up to number 1 means that the 4 seed will likely be a team like Chicago, Boston, or Atlanta, who should be stronger than the 1.1 differential the East has provided on average the last seven years.  So let’s say instead of a -1, 1.1, 5.2, 6.6 sequence, the Heat have to go through a -1, 2.5, 6.5, 7 sequence to win the championship (we’ll still give them home court advantage, though).  The probability of that happening is 32, 69, or 84% depending on if you think the Heat will be very good, great, or best ever.  So even at the ‘great’ level, there’s a 30% chance they don’t win the title next year.  And that’s why it’s so hard to win the title: even if you’re a really good team, sometimes things don’t work out.  Unfortunately for the city of Cleveland, LeBron apparently thought his playoff exits were due to something more than luck.  Maybe that’s what I’ll look at next.

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2 Responses to LeBron and the Playoffs

  1. Good stuff Mr. Sportskeptic! I have added you to my Google reader thingy.

    I don’t know if you have read Arturo Galletti’s posts on the tendency for teams in the playoffs to constrict their roster and play their top players more minutes. I think this would make the Heat an even more likely success story. This also partially explains why teams that depend on several good players but not many great ones (Last years Cavs) don’t succeed as well as their efficiency differential suggests they should. There’s also that luck thing. And injuries (LeBron elbow).

    • Alex says:

      Hi Robbie – Thanks. I did see Arturo’s post and wasn’t 100% sure of what to make of it. It makes sense that teams shorten their bench and try to ride their best players, since there isn’t anything to save them for after the playoffs, but I don’t feel it should make a huge difference unless you have a very deep team playing a very top-heavy team. At any rate, my model should gloss over that since it doesn’t address individual players, unless the deep-but-unsuccessful-in-the-playoffs teams are prevalent enough to move the percentages around a lot. I’m personally more willing to believe that early exits, like the Cavs’, are due more to luck (or maybe Mike Brown not playing his productive bench guys), but I’d be open to a more thorough study of the depth idea.

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