Somehow, after giving us hope and then ripping it away multiple times over the last few weeks, last night's win over the Clippers has put us in real playoff position -- one and a half games out from the Lakers for the 8th seed and one win down from the Jazz. Luckily, the Mavs are streaking, competing with and beating higher seeded teams and generally looking way more competent with each game while the other two teams in the race are collapsing. The Lakers are on a losing streak (despite the last win against Minnesota), and they just lost their only perimeter defender to an injury and got back Pau Gasol, who's still nowhere near his best, and who really complicates D'Antoni's plans more than he helps them. Then the Jazz are also on a losing streak, and just seem to have forgotten how to play any semblance of playoff level basketball while all their young players look like they've hit a wall.
Things appear to be looking up. But what exactly are the Mavs' odds?
Here's a fascinating tidbit: John Hollinger keeps a running breakdown of the playoff odds for all the teams in the league based off of his power rankings, and Hollinger's program predicts that the Lakers, Mavs, and Jazz will end the season in a three way tie.
So that's an intense projection: Hollinger knows his Basketball stats. If the season ended in a three way tie for the 8th seed, Utah would get the playoff spot since they beat both the Mavs and Lakers two out of three times this season. But how likely is it that the tie actually happens? How does Hollinger's projection work?
The idea is that Hollinger runs a computer program that creates a probability distribution for every game left in the schedule based off of the current power rankings. So when the Spurs play the Suns, for example, the odds of the Spurs winning is really high, but not guaranteed. Then his program simulates every game hundreds and hundreds of times given each distribution which results in the most probable end-of-season record. Things like back-to-backs are factored in, and advanced team stats are taken into consideration in the power rankings that the distribution is based off of.
So, according to John Hollinger, the Jazz get the 8th seed. Even if the projected win/loss doesn't pan out though, he gives the greatest odds of landing the 8th seed to the Lakers, with a 42% chance of success. But even the nature of the distribution admits that there's PLENTY of room for error. So what exactly are the Mavs up against? What do we have to do to beat the odds?
Here's what the projection seems to more or less predict when you look at the schedules: the Mavericks beat every team with a worse record plus the Lakers on their way to being 41-41 for the season. The Lakers do the same but lost to the Mavericks to also end at 41-41. The Jazz also beat everyone with a worse record than them and, yup, also end at 41-41. So, basically the Mavs just have to beat one team who's better than them to make the playoffs, presuming neither the Lakers or Jazz do the same. So maybe the Mavs should win two, just for good measure. Or, the Lakers and Jazz just have to lose one game to someone worse than them. That's literally all it takes.
Some good news: Tomorrow the Mavs face off against the Pacers. A team with a better record who qualify for the "need to beat" category. Then we play the Bulls, who also qualify. But both have better records in the East and I would venture to say are not even any better than we are. The fact that both are extremely defensively oriented gives me pause against the gung-ho fire-away Mavs, but I still think that both are shockingly winnable games. And NEITHER the Lakers or Jazz face off against more than one Eastern Conference team with a better record for the rest of the season. Meaning that we have the schedule-based edge on being better-than-expected for the rest of season.
More good news: I think Hollinger overrated the Lakers on his power rankings. He has them a few spots ahead of us, at number 12. But Metta, the team's ONLY source of perimeter D (given Nash's inability to defend and Kobe's reckless over-gambling/laziness on that end this season) is now out for a while, and Gasol has come back in. As much as I love Pau, he's really been nothing but a disruption to the Laker's rotations this season, and I suspect that will be especially true with Metta out. Plus, I think that Hollinger expected the Lakers to bounce back rather sharply from their losing streak (regress back to the mean, if you will), but I think that the losing streak was them returning back to normal form, especially with the rotation turmoil. I'm prepared to see a less-than-expected end to the season for them.
The Bad news: The Jazz are another story. I think Hollinger has honestly underrated them, with them sitting at a paltry 18th in the standings. I think a lot of people have interpreted the Jazz's recent play as being a total collapse, which is possible, but I expect to see a return to form in the last couple days. The Jazz's play of late reminds me a lot of the defense/cohesiveness related struggles from the Warriors and Kicks this season, and both teams have bounced back to at least some degree of success. We can probably expect the same from the Jazz, and their schedule is at least as easy as the Mavs' is in terms of purely winnable games, if not a little easier (though the original projection expects that). The good news is, there aren't really any teams on the Jazz's docket that they can upset -- there's no way they're gonna beat the Thunder. But the odds that they're gonna lose unexpected games is fairly low too, in my opinion. But who knows, they could have totally collapsed and I could be dead wrong. There's always a chance. With this type of postulating, a big chance, actually.
So looking at the projections, the odds that the Mavs can win one or two unexpected games are relatively high, the odds the Lakers might lose a few more are also relatively high, and the Jazz look to more or less stay put at .500. But that's all we need. That gets a Playoff seed. We have a serious, serious case to be made for making the playoffs.
But getting anywhere in the playoffs? Different story. I'd just be thrilled to see the Mavs get there.
Of course, all of this is sketchy at best. Who knows, maybe the Lakers offense finally fires on all cylinders with Metta gone to stop holding them back, and they start torching defenses to the extent that their defense doesn't matter, Rockets style. Maybe the Jazz just totally plummet the bottom. Maybe the Mavs cool down.
The point of this analysis isn't to set anything in stone or make serious predictions. But it's to say that, despite everything, somehow, as if by magic, we're right there. Lets go and take it.