UPDATE: I tweaked things a little bit due to changes in point differentials from the last two days of the season. Everything below is up-to-date.
As of last night the Eastern Conference playoff bracket has been set. We have to wait a day or two for the West to shake out, but in the meantime let’s start on some predictions. I’ll be using my NBA playoff prediction model to pick the series winner and how long each series will go. To up the ante, I’ll make picks after each round, as in the TrueHoop Smackdown, and just predict the whole thing right now so that we can all look back and laugh at how badly things go wrong. The model works on point differential, which may change in the next two days, but probably not enough to change the predictions in any meaningful way.
Chicago – Indiana: Chicago makes a good case for being the best team in the league, sporting the second-best record (with a chance to catch the Spurs) and being tied for best differential in the league (with the Heat). Indiana makes a good case for being the worst team in the playoffs, with the worst record and worst differential (although they aren’t far behind the Hawks). As you might guess, the Bulls should move on easily. They have a 97% chance of winning, and will probably end the series in a sweep.
Miami – Philly: Miami can make a claim to being the best team in the league as well, based on point differential. They might also end up with home court advantage against anyone in the West besides the Spurs if they can get to the finals. Beating Philly shouldn’t be too tough. The Heat have a 92.8% chance of winning, most likely 4-0.
Boston – New York: Boston has looked terrible recently. Is that enough to give the Knicks a chance? The model is agnostic, by which I mean it only cares about performance over the whole season. So the answer is no: Boston should win 87.8% of the time, most likely 4-1.
Orlando – Atlanta: Usually a 4-5 match-up is a bit closer, and Atlanta in fact has a 3-1 record against Orlando this year. But that doesn’t seem to matter very much, and the East is basically four teams deep followed by a big drop-off. And, as mentioned earlier, the Hawks are far worse than their record indicates; they’ve actually scored less than their opponents over the course of the season. So Orlando wins 93.5% of the time, probably in a sweep (very close over 4-1).
The first round doesn’t appear to be very exciting. That shouldn’t be too surprising, since it’s hard for underdogs to win best-of-7 series. Also, as I said, the East is very top-heavy. On to the second round, which should be more enjoyable.
Chicago – Orlando: Chicago is two points better than the Magic, which gives them a 75.5% chance of winning (along with home court advantage). By this point Derrick Rose may have the MVP trophy in hand, so we can expect to hear all sorts of crazy stories about his magnificence for another few weeks. The series should go to 6 games.
Miami – Boston: Miami is also two points better than Boston, so the predictions are the same as for Chicago-Orlando. If you believe that Boston is significantly weaker since the trade, you can lower your expectations. I’m still going to go with the Heat 4-2.
Conference Championship: We should have the Bulls hosting the Heat. Since they have a slightly lower point differential, the Bulls have done themselves a big favor by having home court advantage. It gives them a 57% chance of winning the series, most likely 4-2. So I pick the Bulls to get to the championship series, where they’ll be the favorite to win it all even if they don’t have home court, which they most likely will. But the specifics on that will have to wait until the West bracket is set.