To the extent that competitive balance matters (and its importance tends to be overstated), the NBA has a competitive balance problem. As we detail in The Wages of Wins, relative to MLB, NFL, and the NHL; winning percentage (once one controls for schedule length) has a wider dispersion in the Association. And while competitive balance has improved in baseball, football, and hockey over time; the NBA’s level of balance has remained relatively poor (by the way, yesterday this issue was discussed at Slate.com — the NBA discussion starts around the 15 minute mark)
Again, the impact competitive balance has on league revenue has been overstated in the past. Still, if you think this is important, the 2009-10 season is going to disappoint. Having examined each team in the NBA, I think the 2009-10 season is going to be remembered as “The Year of the Super Teams” (or some such title).
If we go back to 1973-74, in only three seasons did the NBA have more than two teams win 60 or more games.
2008-09: Cleveland (66), Lakers (65), Celtics (62)
1997-98: Chicago (62), Utah (62), Lakers (61), Seattle (61)
1996-97: Chicago (69), Utah (64), Miami (61)
And if we consider teams that have won 75% of their games (62 wins or more), there never has been a year where more than three teams surpassed this mark.
This could all change in 2009-10. When we look at how the best teams in the NBA improved this past summer, it seems likely that more than three teams will surpass the 75% mark in 2009-10.
The identity of these teams will be noted in the following preview. Before we get to the preview, though, let’s quickly review the assumptions and qualifiers (mostly borrowed from a past forecast of an NBA season).
Assumptions and Qualifiers
If you know WP48 (Wins Produced per 48 minutes) and how many minutes a player plays, then you know Wins Produced. And as noted many times here, Wins Produced and actual wins are quite closely related (which is not surprising, since Wins Produced is based on the link between wins and offensive and defensive efficiency).
In looking at the past it’s easy to see a player’s Wins Produced (well, easy in the sense that it can be done). When we look towards the future, though, calculating Wins Produced becomes a challenge. First of all, we don’t know future productivity. Yes, there is a strong link between past and future per-minute performance (for veterans, the link is weaker for rookies). But it’s not a perfect link. In other words, players can get better (or worse).
Then there is minutes played. I have not modeled minutes played, so for these I have to make an educated guess (with the emphasis on “guess” not “educated”).
All that being said, I did go through each team’s roster and made an effort to forecast the next season. This forecast looks at past performance, but also considers factors like injury, improvement due to age, declines due to age, coaching, etc… (i.e. things that can alter performance).
The following is an estimation of where each team will finish (given the team’s roster at the start of the season. Teams are listed in four groups: Lottery Team, Playoff Team—Likely First Round Exit, Playoff Team – Possible Second Round Exit, and Title Contender. A Lottery Team is expected to win less than 30 games. Those expected to exit in the First Round are expected to win between 30 and 45 games. Second Round teams should win between 45 and 55 games. And Title Contenders should exceed 55 wins. These are obviously rough approximations, but should give an idea of where each team is likely to finish (given their current roster).
The Eastern Conference
Here is how I see the Eastern Conference unfolding:
Lottery Teams: The New Jersey Nets and the New York Knicks are the two teams in the Eastern Conference that I don’t think have a very good chance of making the playoffs. So fans of these teams might want to pay attention to college basketball (and what happen internationally) and start thinking about the 2010 draft (and the 2010 free agent market). Update: As noted by Daniel, only the Nets need to look forward to the draft. Utah has the Knicks’ 2010 first round pick.
Possible Playoff Team — Likely First Round Exit: For the following teams I can come up with a scenario where they make the playoffs (some of these scenarios are more plausible than others), but I don’t think they are good enough to secure the fourth or fifth seed in the playoffs (seeds six through eight play Cleveland, Orlando, and Boston in the first round and therefore get to go home after the first round). Charlotte, Detroit, Miami, Indiana, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Toronto each have a team that could win between 30 and 40 games (and some might push over 40 while others will fall a bit short of 30). From this list of seven teams, I expect three will fill in the lower seeds in the Eastern Conference playoffs (and again, lose in the first round). The identity of these three teams is difficult to ascertain, and mostly depends upon how specific players recover from injuries.
Possible Playoff Team — Possible Second Round Exit: The winner of the playoff series between the fourth and fifth seed gets to advance to the second round, where that team will likely lose to Cleveland, Orlando, or Boston. There are three teams that I think are the most likely contenders for those two playoff spots: Atlanta, Chicago, and Washington each have a team that seems likely to win between 40 and 50 games. This is probably good enough to surpass the previous listing of teams, but nowhere near good enough to catch the elite in the conference.
NBA Title Contender: Cleveland has added Shaquille O’Neal, Jamario Moon, Anthony Parker (and maybe Leon Powe); Orlando has added Vince Carter (and enough frontcourt talent to play Rashard Lewis at small forward some of the time); and Boston might get Kevin Garnett for the entire season (and might have lost Glen Davis for awhile – which is probably a positive). Each of these teams dominated the Eastern Conference last year, and each is probably better in 2009-10. If each of these teams surpasses 62 wins — and one team from the Western Conference does teh same — then 2009-10 (as noted above) is a special year. Given the dominance of these teams it seems unlikely that any will fail to reach the second round. Unfortunately, for at least one of these teams, the second round is as far as they will get. Yes, 2009-10 is a season where we KNOW before the season starts that a truly dominant team – and I think Cleveland, Orlando, and Boston in 2009-10 could rank among the all-time great teams – will fail to reach the conference finals. This is bad news for one of these teams, but very good news for fans of the NBA.
This is how I see the Western Conference unfolding:
Lottery Teams: If you are a fan of Memphis, Minnesota, Oklahoma City, and Sacramento, you probably already know that the next big event in your team’s history is likely to be the 2010 NBA draft lottery.
Possible Playoff Team — Likely First Round Exit: The most productive player in the NBA is Chris Paul. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have most productive teammates. Consequently, although I think New Orleans will make the playoffs, I don’t think they should expect to go beyond the first round. I do expect, though, that the Hornets will be at least the seventh seed (and maybe the sixth seed). Who will be the eighth seed? Golden State – at least before Brandan Wright was injured – has a shot (Corey Maggette is again listed on the Yahoo.com depth chart at power forward). The LA Clippers also have a shot (at least, if Blake Griffin comes back soon). And Phoenix also has a chance. But I think the favorite for this slot is Houston (which means that Bill Simmons and I agree on something).
Possible Playoff Team — Possible Second Round Exit: For Denver and Utah, it seems more likely that each will exit in the first round. But it’s possible that each team could pull off a first round upset and advance to the second round. To go further, though, seems less likely (at least to me).
Western Conference Title Contenders: Note the label change. I think the NBA championship will be won by Cleveland, Boston, or Orlando. But only one of the Eastern Conference titans will appear in the Finals. Who will this team play? The Western Conference Champion will probably be Dallas, the LA Lakers, Portland, or San Antonio. Dallas and San Antonio have to continue to get production from relatively ancient players. The Lakers need Andrew Bynum to produce. And Portland’s efforts are going to be hampered by the injury to Nicolas Batum.
Obviously I think these four teams will comprise the entire population of the second round in the West. And just as obviously, at least two of these teams will not leave the second round. But one of these teams should reach the NBA Finals (where again, I think they will probably lose).
It does seem quite possible that at least one of the four best teams in the West will win at least 62 games. And so it’s possible at least four teams (Cleveland, Orlando, Boston, and at least one Western team) will win more than 75% of their games; making the 2009-10 the year of the Super Teams. So the NBA will continue to be competitively imbalanced. But I expect interest in the Association to remain strong. At least, given my interest in writing about this sport, I certainly hope that is the case.
One last note in closing… there certainly will be surprises in 2009-10 (remember, players in the NBA are generally consistent, but performance can change). So some teams will do better or worse than forecasted. But unlike baseball and football, one can really know quite a bit about outcomes in the NBA before the season even starts. This means teams identified as “lottery teams” should not expect to morph into this year’s New Orleans Saints or Colorado Rockies. And the title contenders –barring major injury – will not become this year’s Tennessee Titans or New York Mets. In sum, the NBA – relative to baseball and football – is much more predictable (just not perfectly predictable).
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Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.
Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:
Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.