When the playoffs started, the top contenders in the West were believed to be the LA Lakers and San Antonio Spurs. Those teams, though, are already out playing golf. The two teams that have survived – the Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder – were not counted by many to be title contenders when the season started. But each is now on the verge of advancing to the NBA Finals. At this point, which team has the best shot to take this next step?
The method employed to pick these series considers two factors: Regular season efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) and home court advantage.
Across the entire regular season, Dallas had a differential of 4.53 and the Thunder had a mark of 3.91. And since Dallas has home court advantage, this should be an easy series to call.
Then again, as I noted before the playoffs started, “The Thunder’s post-All-Star break differential is 6.7. And that means the Thunder are comparable to the best teams across the entire regular season.” The Thunder made an important trade in mid-season, so their improvement was not unexpected. Since this team has clearly improved, it must mean the Thunder are the obvious choice.
Then again, I have been arguing since the end of the first round that we should also consider which players are actually playing in the playoffs. The following table reports how many wins each team could have expected in the regular season given the allocation of minutes in the post-season (and performance in the regular season).
To put these numbers in perspective, the same exercise repeated for Miami and Chicago revealed that the playoff rosters employed by the Heat and Bulls would project to win 64.9 and 67.0 games across a complete season. So both the Heat and Bulls appears to be better than the Western Conference Finalists, but the difference is not very large. And that means, calling the NBA Finals is going to be difficult.
Of course, the NBA Finals are not nearly as difficult as the Western Conference Finals. As one can see, the Thunder and Mavericks are essentially equal. The Mavericks, though, do have home court advantage. So I am picking Dallas to win in seven.
Again, though, this is very close. Any of the four remaining teams in the NBA playoffs could appear in the Finals. And any of these teams could win the 2011 NBA title.