Why I'm spurning the Spurs

May, 20, 2008

SOMEWHERE IN THE AIRSPACE BETWEEN NEW ORLEANS AND ATLANTA -- With the flight gods blowing up my usual chat schedule, I thought I'd address a couple topics that have come up repeatedly in my mailbag and, presumably, would in the chat as well.

For starters, I've been swamped with email from Spurs supporters questioning my motives. Inevitably, fans of some teams come to feel that I (or other writers) have some kind of vendetta against their favored club. Since emotions run highest at the start of the year and at the end, this is when those sentiments tend to be strongest.

Anyway, Spurs fans think that since I picked them to lose in the first two rounds that I must harbor some vast reservoir of ill will toward the team. Or perhaps they just feel betrayed, since I picked San Antonio last year, and the year before that, and the year before that.

As much respect as I have for what the Spurs have done and continue to do, I saw the Phoenix and New Orleans series as essentially 50-50 propositions with a slight edge going to San Antonio's opponents. Obviously, it didn't work out that way. As I noted at the beginning of the Western Conference playoffs, this was a year in which it was going to be easy to be wrong a lot, and actually I'm pleased to get out of Dodge with those two as my only blemishes in the West thus far.

On a similar note, Spurs fans seemed to think my writing two columns on the Hornets from Monday's Game 7 was the result of my Spur-blindness. Actually, it was my assignment -- Marc Stein handled the San Antonio side of things.

Oh, and there's one other thing that has Spurs fans upset …

Lakers in 5?

The hardest part of picking a series isn't the winner but the games. Essentially, there are two different questions at play -- one is what the average expectation is, and the other is what the most likely outcome is. Those two questions often don't produce identical answers.

For example, in a series where the better team also has home-court advantage, the most likely outcome is that they'll win in 5 -- taking three at home and one on the road. Having three of the first five at home makes this outcome very possible even in scenarios where you wouldn't normally think one team would win 80 percent of the games.

That said, it's not much more likely than the home team winning in six or seven, and the cumulative probability of those two outcomes is much greater -- it really depends on whether they can get a split out of Games 3 and 4.

We saw this twice in the earlier rounds with series that seemed fairly evenly matched -- San Antonio-Phoenix and Detroit-Orlando -- just as we did last year with both Utah-Golden State and San Antonio-Utah. In each case, once the favorite got a split on the road it was over faster than anyone expected.

As a result, it's much easier for a series to end in five games than most believe. So if you're trying to predict the most likely outcome, L.A. in five makes sense. That's what I was gunning for.

But if you're picking along a continuum from "Lakers in four" to "Spurs in four" and looking for the median outcome, L.A. in five is laughable -- it's skewed way too far to the L.A. side. Lakers in six or even seven makes a lot more sense in that event. If you allow that there's some percentage chance of San Antonio winning outright, and just a very small chance of a Laker sweep, than even if there's a large chance of L.A. winning in five, it wouldn't be enough to make it the "average" outcome of the series.

Alas, in the spirit of the Stat Geek Smackdown, I'm trying to peg the games exactly. And my chance of doing that is better if I go five games, even if I don't think the disparity between the teams is as large as that prediction suggest.

So why do I hate the Spurs?

I don't. Really. But as to why I'm off the Spur bandwagon in the first place, the answer is the same reason I was on it the past three years -- point differential.

San Antonio's average scoring margin this year was much worse than in previous season at +4.8 points per game; by comparison, the Lakers were +7.3. That's proven to be a better indicator of future success than win-loss record. The Spurs' margin was similar to the Hornets' (+5.3) and Suns' (+5.0) in the first two rounds, which is what made those series toss-ups in my estimation. In the case of L.A., it's not. And if you only include the 36 regular season and playoff games in which L.A. had Pau Gasol, their margin balloons to an impressive +10.3 (and their record an equally impressive 30-6).

The playoffs have given us similar results. San Antonio was +0.0 against the Hornets and +0.8 against the Suns, while the Lakers were +13.3 against the Nuggets and +3.0 against the Jazz. Since Utah was, in my estimation, the strongest threat besides L.A. to win the conference, (and had the West's second-best regular-season victory margin at +6.9), the latter number is especially impressive.

So that's how I ended up with L.A. in five. It could just as easily be six or seven. But I do expect the Lakers to win.

CP3 for MVP?

Interestingly, Laker fans are also convinced I hate their team (which makes for an interesting dilemma in the conference finals -- how will I root against both sides?)

In this case, it was the first time I've ever been flooded with emails about a player I didn't mention in a story. When I nominated Chris Paul as MVP of the playoffs last week, the Kobe fan club was furious. How could I overlook his 33.3-6.8-6.3 averages?

In this case, it was just that Paul had been so unbelievably good in his first 10 playoff games. And he did against better defenses -- Dallas and San Antonio were eighth and third, respectively, in defensive efficiency during the regular season, while Denver and Utah were only ninth and 12th.

Obviously, what happened since I wrote the story tilts the scales towards Kobe, and if I were writing the story today he'd be the choice. But at the time, Paul's case was the strongest. If Lakers fans weren't watching the Hornets-Mavs series, that ain't my problem.

On the 0-21 (uh, make that 1-22) mark

Based on the emails, several fans seemed confused by I stat I brought up last week mentioning that teams which lost the first two on the road, won the next two at home, and had a negative scoring margin through four games were 0-21 since the NBA-ABA merger. Folks wrote in talking about Utah-Houston a year ago or the Lakers-Spurs series in 2004, where teams came back from 0-2 down to win.

However, those series weren't part of the 0-21 -- the key qualifier was that the team without home court had to have been outscored over the first four games. The teams who did manage to outscore their opponent had a much better mark, winning nearly 40 percent of their series -- including the 2007 Jazz and the 2004 Lakers (and, on the losing side, the Cavaliers this week).

At any rate, it's now 1-22. Utah fell to Los Angeles, as the rule predicted, but San Antonio defied the odds by outlasting the Hornets Monday night. Inevitably, somebody was going to break the rule, just as it's inevitable that somebody will eventually come back from 0-3 down. It's a credit to the Spurs' resilience and adjustments that they were first.

Incidentally, San Antonio is now the seventh team to come back from a 2-0 deficit in the past five years … after it only happened seven times in the previous history of the NBA. Much like the question of home-team dominance in the second round, one wonders if there's an underlying cause.

Certainly having so many more best-of-sevens is a factor -- stretching out the first round in 2002 more than doubled the number of seven-game series each year from 7 to 15. The fact we're in an era of relative parity may be another -- there's no Jordan or Russell, or even a Bird-Magic duopoly, lording it over the league at the moment. At any rate, it appears being down 2-0 isn't quite the death sentence it used to be.

Celtics in 7?

Finally, I've been told there's a playoff series going on in the East as well. This was a tough one to predict. Before the playoffs I would have said the Celtics and not thought twice about it, but Boston's struggles in the second round against Cleveland obviously are worrisome.

The Celtics were outscored on the series and in truth were lucky to survive; they squeaked by in three of their four home games and absorbed a 108-84 beating in Game 3. That this happened against a team with a fairly unimpressive resume -- Cleveland was itself outscored on the season and didn't exactly dominate its first-round match-up against Washington -- makes you wonder if the Celtics are leveling off at the worst time.

For now, I'll stick with Boston. A lot of the evaluation depends on how much of that series you think was the Celtics playing worse, how much you think was the Cavs playing better, and how much you think was random noise.

My instinct is that it was more a case of Cleveland playing better, as the assorted pieces of the midseason blockbuster trade finally gelled and the Cavs could take advantage of being able to play LeBron nearly the entire game. So my thinking is the Celtics can use the home-court edge to outlast one more opponent and win the conference -- though I'm guessing they'll need a road win this time.

But if I'm wrong and it was a case of Boston declining, then the Celtics are toast.


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