2013 NBA Playoff Conference Championship Predictions

I was out of town for a long weekend, so I’m a bit behind here on the predictions.  The quick recap of Round 2: the Heat won as expected, the Pacers won their series with the Knicks in what was a crucial pick for the Smackdown contest (one in which I took the wrong side), the Spurs took out the Warriors in a battle of wisdom versus youth, and the Grizzlies took out the Westbrook-less Thunder.  On to the Conference Finals!

We’ll start with the Heat and the Pacers.  These two have a nice recent history which you can read about roughly everywhere.  Unfortunately for the Pacers, they simply aren’t as good as the Heat.  They’ll try to win by making the game slow and ugly and hoping that Wade is still beat up and making the rest of the Heat feel that way.  I don’t think it’ll happen though.  With a 3.9 point differential advantage in the regular season, the model has the Heat winning 82% of the time with the Pacers taking one game (narrowly favored over two).  The Smackdown picks for this series aren’t up yet, so I don’t know if I have any ability to make up ground with this pick.

In the West we have the Spurs and Grizzlies back at it as well.  The Smackdown consensus here is a close one despite the generally better play by the Spurs in the regular season.  That leads to a model prediction of the Spurs taking it in 6, winning 73% of the time.  If that happens, I’ll catch up a little bit as two people in the contest took the Grizzlies and the rest (with one exception) took the Spurs in 7.  That being said, I’m pretty much out of the contest as I went the wrong way with the Knicks-Pacers series and the model didn’t know that Russell Westbrook was injured.

As a side note, the model can provide a little bit of insight into Westbrook’s value.  All the model does is take the difference between two teams’ regular season point differential, combine it with home court advantage, and predict who should win and in how many games.  The Thunder finished the regular season with the league’s best point differential at 9.2.  The Grizzlies finished with a good-but-not-great 4.1.  We can maybe say that Memphis’ number should be a little different since they made the Rudy Gay trade partway through the season.  According to NBA.com, the Grizzlies were a 5.0 team in the back half of the season (the Thunder were a 10.1 team, but we’ll ignore that since I don’t remember them making any particular moves).  According to the model, a 9.2 team with home court playing a 5.0 team should win 83% of the time, and the 5.0 team should win once or twice.  Instead, the Grizzlies won in 5.  Acknowledging that these are probabilistic estimates, and so the Grizzlies winning was in the initial prediction (it should happen 17% of the time even with the Thunder at full strength), how low do we need to knock the Thunder’s point differential to get the Grizzlies winning in 5 as a likely outcome?

If we make them even, the Thunder should still win 57.6% of the time, probably in 6 games.  So let’s say that isn’t close enough.  If we make the Thunder a point worse than Memphis, they win 50% of the time, most likely in 6 games.  To make Memphis favorites, we have to make the Thunder over a point worse than Memphis.  The model doesn’t really like the away team to win in five games (six games is always preferred until a sweep becomes more likely), but it seems fair to say that the Grizzlies would need to be at least three points better for the outcome we saw to be a fairly plausible one out of the options.  That implies that the Thunder played like a team with a differential of only 2 or 3, and the loss of Westbrook cost them 6 or 7 points per game.

That’s a rough estimate; we know that Ibaka had a rough series, for example, and there’s also a trickle-down effect in that not only did Westbrook not play, but it means that his backup played more and his backup’s backup played more.  Those factors make Westbrook look better than the outcome directly suggests.  Westbrook’s value may also differ based on his team; he’s obviously fairly integral to the Thunder’s offense, but somewhere else he may be less valuable.  But all in all it seems fair to say that Westbrook is probably worth at least 4 points per game to the Thunder and maybe as many as 6.  That’s a pretty good number.

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