Every year I predict how the playoffs are going to go, for both the NHL and NBA. With the NBA regular season wrapping up last night, I can start with round 1 predictions today. The method behind the predictions are linked in the banner above, and a quick search on the website should get you plenty of previous results. But as a quick description, all I do is run a regression using home court and season-long point differential for each team to predict who will win and how many games it will take. This is extremely simple; it doesn’t take into account trades, injuries, the shortened bench, specific match-ups, or anything else. All it has is a point difference (home minus away) and home court. Yet it does pretty well; it would have won the ESPN TrueHoop Smackdown a couple times. Last year I had three different series picked as coin flips and came down on the wrong side of each, but if one or two of those go my way I come out near the top. So let’s see what we have in store this year.
Starting in the West, we’ll have the Thunder hosting the Rockets. The Rockets are a pretty entertaining team with a wide-open offense, but the Thunder are both entertaining and good. They led the league in point differential pretty handily and won the second-most games in the league. These two have played three times this year, with the Rockets winning one close game and the Thunder winning two blow-outs. Seems about right to me. With home court and a 5.7 point differential advantage, I have the Thunder winning the series 90% of the time, and the Rockets probably win one game although a sweep is the second-most-likely option.
The Spurs get the Lakers thanks to L.A. pulling out an overtime win on the last night of the season. Had they lost and Utah won, the Lakers wouldn’t have made it at all. Instead they get to face the third-best record (and differential) in the league without Kobe and who knows who else. The Spurs and Lakers have played three times this year, although one of those games was just a few days ago and the Lakers may not have been fully focused on winning. The Spurs won the other two games, although both were close. Despite that close record, the model has the Spurs winning the series 89% of the time and the Lakers win one game.
The Nuggets and Warriors seem like an interesting match on paper. Both are young-ish teams that have gotten some hype in recent years as teams on the move. The Nuggets get the extra attention of apparently not having a ‘superstar’, which makes it seem impossible that they would win 57 games. Yet they have, and although their point differential isn’t as good as the rest of the top of the West, they managed to draw the team with the worst differential on their side of the bracket. The model likes the Nuggets to win 85% of the time with the Warriors winning one. That matches up with the season series, which the Nuggets took 3-1 with the Warriors winning once at home by a point.
Our last match-up in the West is the Clippers hosting the Grizzlies. This was one of my toss-ups last year, where I took the Grizzlies with home court but the Clippers moved on in 7. This year it’s a little easier since the Clippers have home court and a better differential. They also took the season series 3-1. I have the Clippers moving on 76% of the time and the Grizzlies winning two games (a very narrow favorite over one game).
On to the East! We start with probable championship favorites the Heat hosting the never-exciting Bucks. There really isn’t much to say here besides this is the most lopsided match-up in the playoffs; the Heat don’t have the best differential in the league but it’s still 9.4 points better than the Bucks’. I’m taking the sweep.
Next we have some old-timey basketball as the Knicks host the Celtics. Storied franchises, etc etc. Unfortunately for the Celtics, they just aren’t the same team as they have been recently. They made the playoffs while playing .500 basketball and have the point differential to match (actually slightly negative; they were outscored on the season). The Knicks have actually been good though. I have them winning 86% of the time with the Celtics probably winning a game.
In the 3 versus 6 spot we have the Pacers hosting the Hawks. The Pacers actually have the same record as the 4-seed Nets, but they have a much better differential. The Hawks won more games than last year, but have a much worse differential. Otherwise I can’t see this as a very exciting series. The Pacers are a quality squad but mostly do it with defense; hopefully they’ll at least play at the Hawks’ pace so the games have some up-and-down to them. I have the Pacers winning 82% of the time with the Hawks winning one.
Finally we have the Jay-Z-less Nets hosting the Derrick Rose-less Bulls. The Bulls got the wrong end of that completely artificial comparison as Jay-Z doesn’t play basketball but Rose is almost certainly better than Hinrich and Robinson. Even still, the Bulls have a decent chance. The Nets are only kind of good, and the Bulls still played a bit over .500. The Bulls even managed to win the season series 3-1, although 3 of those games were close. And there’s always the chance that Rose will decide to play after all. But the model knows what the model knows, so I’m taking the Nets to win in 6; overall they should win about 70% of the time.
So there it is. The first round predictions are pretty chalky, which is typical. Only the two 4-5 series have a decent shot at producing upsets, although you never know. Winning 90% of the time means losing 10% of the time. Here’s hoping for an entertaining first round, if not necessarily a surprising one.