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Which Team Played Better Heading Into the NBA Finals?

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A lot of discussions circle around the question whether the Miami Heat or the Dallas Mavericks had the tougher road to the Finals this season. Most people tend to pick the Heat here. The Mavericks played an overrated Portland Trail Blazers team (overrated because most of the analysts clearly underrated the Mavs because of their recent playoff performances), caught the Lakers at a point where Kobe Bryant probably wasn't at 100% and Andrew Bynum announced trust issues and took advantage of the inexperienced core of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Meanwhile Miami in the 76ers beat a team that's on par with Portland, stomped an extremely formidable Celtics team and had not that many troubles with the NBA's No.1 defense and the MVP.

At least that's what they say.

My personal take before looking into the case was this:

  1. There is no way you can put Philadelphia on the same level as Portland. They split the season series, but he 76ers were the 8th seed in the easier Conference (East) while Portland went 6th in the West. Portland won 7 more games and almost every Power Ranking and statistical metric ranked them above the 76ers. Not to mention that Portland acquired Gerald Wallace on the deadline and made a respectable run heading into the playoffs.
  2. I don't see why the Celtics should be ranked over the Lakers either. Both teams clearly weren't the same teams that dominated their Conferences after the trades that sent Pau Gasol and Kevin Garnett to them in 07/08. Lakers may have had trust issues, but the Celtics were handicapped as well. The quality of their front line decreased a lot with the trade of Kendrick Perkins and the unstable health of Shaq. And what about an one-armed Rondo? No I don't see it.
  3. While the third matchups between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Chicago Bulls tend to go the Bulls way, these two teams have more in common on a closer look. Coming into the Conference Finals both had yet to prove that they can beat one of the experienced (former) powerhouses. The Bulls beat the Indiana Pacers and Altanta Hawks, two teams that weren't projected to go anywhere deep, and struggled in more than one game in each series. The Thunder went up against the Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies and I would rank both teams ahead of Indiana and Atlanta. Both the Thunder and the Bulls then suffered from their inexperience especially in crunch time against the Mavs and the Heat. So given that the Thunder might have had the more difficult road to the Conference Finals I think the gap between them in terms of being the stronger opponent closes a bit. I would still give the Bulls the edge here, but not by a wide margin.

Summing this up I thought that the Mavs performance in the playoffs should have been more impressive. So I set up a little calculation.

Every team went into the playoffs with their regular season Efficiencies and so you can some sort of calculate how the series should turn out for Team A (and Team B if you switch OffEff and DefEff) using this formula:

OffEff = (Team A OffEff + Team B DefEff) / 2
DefEff = (Team A DefEff + Team B OffEff) / 2

These are the projected Efficiencies for both teams before the series. Of course it never turns out that way. So we compare the projected Efficiencies and the actual Efficiencies after the series to determinate how much a team has improved their play to win the series:


Projected Actual Change
Team OffEff DefEff OffEff DefEff OffEff DefEff
ATL 104.05 107.47 100.26 102.37 -3.63% -4.75%
BOS 107.49 102.53 109.34 98.98 +0.71% -3.46%
CHI 107.50 102.10 108.46 100.23 +0.89% -1.83%
DAL 108.38 106.92 112.51 106.28 +3.81% -0.60%
LAL 108.09 105.27 113.09 104.69 +4.63% -0.55%
MEM 106.64 108.42 105.59 102.16 -0.98% -5.77%
MIA 108.65 104.82 109.34 100.74 +0.64% -3.89%
OKC 109.68 109.28 108.55 103.45 -1.03% -5.33%

What you can see here is that in the first round every team that has won its series played better defensively than they were projected while the Grizzlies, Thunder and Hawks are the only teams that didn't meet the expectations on the offensive end. With the change percentages and the original Efficiencies from the regular season we can now calculate new Efficiencies which represents the actual teams strength in that series. These are the Efficiencies which would have produced the exact outcome of the series:

Team OffStr DefStr Diff
ATL 102.31 101.92 0.40
BOS 107.01 96.81 10.20
CHI 109.29 96.81 12.48
DAL 113.79 104.39 9.40
LAL 115.99 103.76 12.23
MEM 106.61 98.85 7.76
MIA 112.40 99.46 12.94
OKC 110.10 101.39 8.71

We will do that for every round of the Conference Semis and Finals as well, but we will now use the adjusted Efficiencies (the teams actual strength in the previous series) to project the outcome:


Projected Actual Change
Team OffEff DefEff OffEff DefEff OffEff DefEff
CHI 105.60 99.56 108.77 100.56 3.00% 1.00%
DAL 108.77 110.19 115.93 100.06 6.58% -9.19%
MIA 104.70 102.84 107.49 102.53 2.66% -0.30%
OKC 104.70 103.66 109.57 105.34 4.65% 1.62%


Team OffStr DefStr Diff
CHI 112.46 97.81 14.65
DAL 120.95 94.26 26.69
MIA 115.40 99.16 16.24
OKC 114.97 103.07 11.90


Projected Actual Change
Team OffEff DefEff OffEff DefEff OffEff DefEff
DAL 112.22 104.35 114.81 110.44 2.31% 5.84%
MIA 106.45 105.99 102.23 99.72 -3.96% -5.92%


Team OffStr DefStr Diff
DAL 123.54 100.35 23.19
MIA 110.82 93.30 17.53

How do these numbers help us determinating who played the stronger opponents and, overall, played better in the playoffs? Based on Efficiencies, Portland was the slightly better team in the regular season. They own an Differential advantage of +0.10 over Philadelphia. Now let's get to the opponents in the Semis: Lakers and Celtics. Going into the playoffs the Lakers held the advantage in Efficiency Differential by +0.78. After the first round they raised that advantage to +2.03, because they did relatively better against the Hornets than the Celtics against the Knicks. Before the third round the Bulls held the advantage in Strength Differential at +2.75. Adding up, the Heat played Opponents with a Strength/Efficiency Differential of +26.47, the Mavs +25.85. So the Heat played the stronger opponents, but let's be fair: This is virtually a tie.

You can also see that the Mavericks raised their offensive production through all rounds based on the projection. And that even after that huge Game 4 of the Lakers series which bumped the numbers. In that series they did 6.58% better on the offensive end and 9.19% on the defensive end. That led to a very optimistic projection in the Conference Finals which the Mavericks couldn't meet. Defensively they played 5.84% worse than projected against the Thunder. Miami on the other hand could raise their defense through all series but lost some of their offensive production against the Bulls defense.
The Mavs end up with an Offensive Strength 123.54 and a Defensive Strength of 100.35. Miami: 110.82 and 93.30. This basically is what you've been told before the Finals. It's Dallas Offense vs. Miamis Defense and both numbers are beyond impressive. Overall though, the Mavs take the lead here. They own a Strength Differential of 23.19 vs. Miamis 17.53. So they outplayed their opponents more than Miami did. Notice that these "Strength" numbers aren't the actual Efficiencies for both teams. Mavericks own an Offensive Efficiency of 114.27 for the playoffs right now i.e. But they played like a team with an Offensive Efficiency of 123.54 against their opponents if you project the outcome of a series with the above formula.

So I was right: The performance of the Mavs in the playoffs has been more impressive thus far. This is basically the same approach Wayne Winston used here to predict the outcome of the NBA Finals. He has the Mavs as 65% favorites.