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NBA Playoffs 2011: Rest Or Rust?

Ask Dirk Nowitzki in recent years and you would have gotten the same answer over and over again: He rather stays on the court than getting some extra rest. Just like this year when the Mavericks decided to give Jason Kidd some rest down the stretch but rolled on with Dirk. Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs started last year to sit out Tim Duncan in back-to-back games. And he also gave Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker two games off at the end of the season as soon as the first seed in the West was cemented. They were eliminated in the first round, the Mavs are on the move ever since.
But now Dirk has no choice. He has to sit. They finished the Los Angeles Lakers way too early. But does rest hurt or help a team in the next round of the playoffs? We'll take a look at historic stats now starting with the '84 season. Since then the playoffs are played with 16 teams and through 4 rounds. This kind of extends the conversation in this excellent piece by tcat75.

Only minutes played in the playoffs count in. So we'll skip the first round as all teams play the same amount of minutes in their first round series. Starting with the second round there can actually be a discrepancy in minutes played in the playoffs since both teams come out of different first round series, obviously. This is the big picture:

Playoffs Rest Or Rust Since 1984

I factored three advantages into the analysis: The Home-Court-Advantage (HCA), advantage in minutes played (MinPl) and advantage in Overtimes played (OTs). First you see the impact of the three factors alone. It is followed by a set of four combinations of the three factors. "HCA or MinPl" is read "The percentage of series won by teams that had the advantage in either home-court or minutes played." The meaning of "HCA and MinPl" for example is "The percentage of series won by teams that had the advantage in both home-court and minutes played."

First of all you'll notice that home-court advantage is the most important advantage one team can hold. It'll win you 76.02% of all series through all rounds. Interestingly the home-court has the fewest advantage in the Conference Finals. But this is explainable. In the first round the talent-margin between the home-court team and their opponent is rather big because of the seeding. This year we've had two surprising upsets in the first round with the Atlanta Hawks and the Memphis Grizzlies and still the home teams nearly matched the average with 75.00% (6 of 8 series won). In the Conference Finals the talent-margin is not that big and so the home-court advantage has less impact. In the Finals, although arguably the two best teams match up against each other, home-court is a major factor again.
Minutes played and OTs played are strong advantages too, but are boosted due to the fact that in most series the team with the advantage in minutes played or OTs played was the team with home-court advantage as well. An interesting fact is that in a Finals series in which one team held the advantage in OTs played, this team won 90% of the series (18 of 20). But again: 16 of them also held the home-court advantage.

Let's talk combinations: If rest gave you a higher probability of winning a series than home-court alone, then the combination of either home-court or minutes played should beat simple home-court. And it does. In the Conference Finals a team that held either the home-court advantage or the advantage in minutes played, won 83.93% of the series (47 of 56) and 63.66% of the games in the series (205 of 322). This is a huge bump to home-court alone. You'll only win 39 out of 56 series with the home-court advantage alone. Add OTs played to the mix and you'll win 50 of 56 series in the Conference Finals.

The "and"-combinations give a quick view over the probabilities when two or more advantages actually applied for one team. In series in the Conference Finals the team that held the advantage in home-court, minutes played and OTs played has won 12 of 14 series and 51 of 77 games in the series. Statistically 233 fewer played minutes (one game = 240 minutes or 5 players * 48 minutes) translated into 1 more win in the series. If the Thunder can close out the series tonight without further OTs, they will have played 340 more minutes than the Mavericks (1 game plus 4 OTs).
Don't get too confused that these values are actually lower than the values in the "HCA or MinPl or OTs" row, because the series that have been won without home-court advantage are included there as well. But these are the more precise values for the scenario the Mavericks will face in the Conference Final.

So if holding the home-court advantage rest will raise your probabilities to win the series in any round. That's good news. But as we've learned yesterday, the Mavs won't have home-court advantage in the Finals if they manage to advance. But even without home-court rest will help you. Teams that held neither home-court nor the advantage in minutes played are 18-86 (17.31%) in the series. Teams that held the advantage in minutes played are 19-43 (30.63%). You should notice that the advantage in minutes played will double your probabilities in the NBA Finals. From 3 of 18 (16.67%) to 3 of 9 (33.33%). The Miami Heat in 2006 had played fewer minutes than the Mavericks coming into the NBA Finals.

This year, the Heat have played 25 minutes more this offseason so far. One Overtime. So for the Mavericks it will not only be a battle for wins but also a battle for rest. Don't worry Dirk. The numbers say it will help you!