Thursday, April 14, 2011

Playoff Predictions

The 2011 playoffs begin this weekend, so here are our quick thoughts:

Other than the Trail Blazers of 1977, no team has ever won the championship if its core players had not even won a single playoff series in prior years. (One could point to the 1980 champion Los Angeles Lakers featuring rookie Magic Johnson, but its other top players including Jamaal Wilkes, Michael Cooper, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had won a first-round series against Denver in '79. One could also look at the Celtics of 2008, who turned the previous season's 24 wins into a championship. But Pierce, Garnett, and Allen had all made it to the conference finals with different prior teams.) This is not a random correlation; beating the same opponent over and over, even as the opponent comes to know your strengths and weaknesses, is a learned skill. For that reason, I have a hard time seeing the Chicago Bulls or Oklahoma City Thunder winning the 2011 title. (The Bulls boast Boozer and the Thunder play Perkins, both of whom have seen playoff success before, but each of those guys is not among the respective team's top three players.) That is not to say that Chicago and Oklahoma cannot make the NBA Finals, but they will likely not win the big prize.

That leaves San Antonio, Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami, Boston, and Orlando as possible champs. Keep that in mind in reading the following predictions:


  • San Antonio over Memphis in six. The Grizzlies play difficult defense, but have no one big and strong enough to stop Tim Duncan. Look for Duncan to explode offensively, despite his relatively quiet season.

  • Los Angeles over New Orleans in five. Derek Fisher has a very difficult time defending speedy point guards like Russell Westbrook or Derrick Rose, but the Hornets' Chris Paul would be better termed "crafty" or "agile" rather than speedy. Paul's effectiveness depends on his ability to deliver the ball to finishers in the right place. The Lakers' set of big men should dominate the Hornets.

  • Dallas over Portland in five. Brandon Roy is a non-factor and Marcus Camby is perpetually injured. Even without Caron Butler, Dallas is far deeper than the Blazers.

  • Oklahoma City over Denver in five. Note that the Thunder are fully healthy, while Denver players Gallinari, Lawson, Afflalo, and Andersen are all recovering from injuries. Ty Lawson is too small and Danilo Gallinari too slow to deal with Westbrook and Durant.

  • Chicago over Indiana in four. The Pacers' starting unit features a rookie, Paul George, and two second-year players — Collison and Hansbrough. They will be smacked.

  • Miami over Philadelphia in four. Andre Iguodala might be able to adequately defend Dwyane Wade or LeBron James, but not both. And who will defend Chris Bosh? Not Elton Brand or Spencer Hawes. Philadelphia does not have the personnel to exploit Miami's weaknesses.

  • Boston over New York in five. If Shaquille O'Neal is healthy, he can play 20 minutes of dominant offensive basketball each game; no one on New York has the heft to defend him. Meanwhile, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Rajon Rondo should have the agility and know-how to defend the Knicks' three stars of Anthony, Stoudemire, Billups.

  • Orlando over Atlanta in six. The Magic's bench is weak: J.J. Redick is recovering from a groin injury, Gilbert Arenas is significantly slower than his old self, and their backup center is Earl Clark. Luckily for the Magic, Atlanta's bench is no better, even at full strength. If the Hawks play their centers (Jason Collins and Zaza Pachulia), they may have a chance against Orlando; if they play a guard-heavy (or Marvin-heavy) lineup with Al Horford at center, Dwight Howard should crush them.


  • Oklahoma City over San Antonio in six. Oklahoma's big men — Ibaka, Perkins, Collison, and Mohammed — are credible threats at either end against Duncan, McDyess, Bonner, Splitter, Blair. The Thunder have a wing stopper (Sefolosha) and two wing scorers (Durant, Harden) to throw at Jefferson and Ginobili. Meanwhile, Russell Westbrook should control his matchup with Tony Parker and George Hill. The Thunder could grab Game 1 in the SBC Center and then quickly seize a 3-1 series lead.

  • Los Angeles over Dallas in six. Dallas simply cannot contain the Lakers' stars defensively. Corey Brewer is too lithe and Jason Kidd too old to defend Kobe Bryant. Dirk Nowitzki is too weak and Tyson Chandler too slim to defend the Odom/Gasol/Bynum trio. I expect low-scoring games, mostly won by the gold team.

  • Orlando over Chicago in six. Joakim Noah is a very good player, but Dwight Howard is bigger and better. Ryan Anderson scored 28 points in an April 10th game against Chicago; he and Brandon Bass should put up numbers against Carlos Boozer. Without evidence, I believe Gilbert Arenas will explode in this series, exposing Derrick Rose's defensive limitations. Chicago has dominated in the United Center all year, so Orlando's best hope is probably to steal Game 5, then close things in a sixth game down south.

  • Miami over Boston in five. See my analysis of the Boston-NYK series above? Stopping James, Wade, and Bosh is a mite tougher than stopping Anthony, Billups, Stoudemire. Further, Erick Dampier and Joel Anthony should be able to quell the burbling fury of Shaquille O'Neal.


  • Oklahoma City over Los Angeles in seven. I did say that no team without a prior season's playoff series win can attain the championship, but the Thunder certainly can make the Finals. Oklahoma's superior depth (their eleventh man is Nate Robinson, while the Lakers' eleventh man is Devin Ebanks) should carry them through a difficult and long series, even without home-court advantage.

  • Miami over Orlando in six. Howard would dominate offensively, but Miami should be able to stifle the rest of Orlando's team on the offensive side, and when Miami gets the ball, no Magic perimeter defender can really stop them. In fact, the Magic don't have a perimeter defender.


  • Miami over Oklahoma City in six. Miami would have home-court advantage in this putative matchup. Dwyane Wade could pick up Russell Westbrook's dashing forays to the hoop, and LeBron James could stay with Kevin Durant's quick releases around the perimeter. Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka might neutralize Chris Bosh's offensive efforts, but Sefolosha is a bit too slight to do anything real against James and Wade when the latter guys get the ball. If Russell Westbrook is forced to help defensively against Dwyane Wade, then Bibby, Miller, or Chalmers could rain in three-pointers. This would be an awesome series, but I like the Heat to win the first of what could be many championships.
  • Friday, April 8, 2011

    Citizen Enforcement of the Rules

    In American law, private citizens' suits to enforce public rules are allowed (particularly in the environmental context) where the issues are particularly local and regulators are likely to be too far removed from the situation to reliably act. (This could be said about a variety of regulatory contexts, including finance, labor, agriculture, and so forth. One wonders, actually, why the US Congress has authorized citizen suits in environmental settings but not much elsewhere.)

    In Wednesday night's Charlotte-Orlando game, Bobcats guard Gerald Henderson Jr. decided that Dwight Howard's lollygagging at the free-throw line deserved sanction. Henderson used his fingers to conspicuously count seconds while Howard stood at the line: 1... 2... 3... up to 10. When Henderson hit 10, the referees whistled Howard for a violation of the NBA rule, thus nullifying his FT attempt. (Angered, Howard tossed a ball and earned a technical foul.)

    Orlando and its fans may loathe Henderson for being a jerk, but someone needed to prod the referees into action. As long noted, we at JPO want rules to be applied consistently, without regard for the identity or reputation of the players involved. If referees will not whistle Howard for his slow free-throw form, it is efficient for a guard like Henderson, who stands behind the line otherwise doing nothing while watching the FT, to incontrovertibly highlight the violation.

    The NBA has a long-standing practice of fining players or coaches who publicly criticize referees. It is fair to say that the NBA does not see a need for citizen patrolling of its regulators; rather, the NBA feels that the referees are sufficiently close to the action that they should be able to see all rule violations. (This is actually a plausible story; an NBA referee can catch a slow FT attempt or a "Jordan pushed off" moment more easily than a regulator in DC or Chicago can find contaminated effluent in rural Iowa. However, a fourth referee on the court would help matters.) Will Henderson now receive a fine for his implicit critique of the Wednesday officials? Seems that the league might lose credibility if Henderson is not fined.

    Thursday, April 7, 2011

    Not Yet Ultimate, They Are Still Warriors

    Fighting hard for playoff positioning, the Lakers exploded after the All-Star game, winning 17 of 18. Starting Sunday, though, Los Angeles dropped three straight games to teams of decreasing caliber: first Denver, then Utah, then Golden State.

    In last night's game against the Warriors, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol shot a combined 17-for-31, putting 43 points on the scoreboard. L.A. earned 27 free-throw attempts and rebounded the ball 47 times. Meanwhile, Golden State shot 39% from the field.... and the Warriors somehow won the game by 8 points. How did they do this? Golden State rebounded the ball 50 times, including 18 offensive caroms, enabling them to launch 93 shots. (Lakers' opponents generally average 12 offensive boards per game.)

    Golden State is so offensively prolific that an average defensive effort, plus a decent mess of ORB, can help them win a lot of games. (One night earlier, the Warriors thumped playoff-bound Portland by 21 points.) If rookie PF/C Ekpe Udoh becomes a reliable man in the painted area, Golden State can at least make the playoffs with its current roster. A defensively aware head coach could do very good things with the Warriors squad.

    Tuesday, April 5, 2011

    To enter the draft, or not?

    Butler coach Brad Stevens recently observed:

    Stevens wondered if the unclear situation might cause a reverse pendulum effect. If more players do not enter the draft because of the uncertainty, it could present an opportunity for others to leave early and benefit from a watered-down draft pool.

    “Does that make this draft weaker? Might,” Stevens said. “So you might be able to get drafted higher. Does it make it so that nobody wants to go out because they don’t want to sit out their whole senior year and not play basketball until February?”

    This presents a complicated situation of belief formation. The lockout news might persuade me to stay in college. But if I believe everyone else is staying in college due to the lockout, then perhaps I have extra incentive on the margin to enter the draft. But I know that everybody else is probably thinking the same way, so perhaps they all actually will enter the draft, and my original assumption about everyone staying in college is wrong. But wait!... if everyone is entering the draft after all, then perhaps I should stay in school. But if everyone else is thinking the same way, then doesn't that mean that everyone else is staying in college?

    Und so weiter.

    Of course, my paragraph above is a caricature: it is unrealistic to think that either every NBA-quality talent stays in college, or else every NBA-quality talent declares for the draft. A more realistic picture might also imply an equilibrium to this situation, i.e. an outcome where people are forming correct beliefs about their counterparts, and everyone is making good decisions based on those beliefs. The realism comes from considering heterogeneity among the would-be draftees. Maybe different players have different inclinations to enter the draft, based on their talent level, their college team's prospects, and their family's financial situation. Thus, the external shock of the lockout, though it touches all players, will affect different players differently: For some players, it might tip the difference from going pro to remaining a student. For other players who had previously decided that either staying in school or joining the draft was optimal for them, the lockout news might not shift their calculus. There is also heterogeneity in the players' reasoning ability; some will correctly think about how all the other potential draftees are thinking, and some will not. Some will correctly recognize such heterogeneity of thinking ability, and some will not. The secondary consideration of "How does this lockout news affect other players?" will thus have only secondary effects, and it is possible that, after a few players adjust their decisions, an equilibrium could be reached.

    College and law school graduates unlucky enough to leave school in 2008, 2009, or 2010 found themselves facing the worst job market since at least the 1970s, and without a good starting position, their long-term career prospects may be commensurately curtailed. Similarly, 2011 potential draftees have it bad, as a lockout will kill their first paychecks and, if the 2011-12 season is completely cancelled, force them to compete, as unproven talent, with 2012 draftees for 2012-13 roster spots. (The 2012 draftees have a similar problem, though they will likely get a full season's worth of paychecks.) Unlike "normal" graduates, though, NBA prospects have the option to stay in school at university expense for a couple more years until the storm abates. And even a couple months of a minimum-salaried NBA paycheck could more than pay the bills for most American families. As a specialized monopoly industry, the NBA is hardly a good facsimile of the rest of the US economy.