Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Before you crown Cleveland

Let me tell you something. During the regular season, and so far in the playoffs, Cleveland has been a better team than Orlando. They've had a better record, a better efficiency differential, and any look at the stats currently available lead to only one reasonable conclusion -- that the Cavaliers are more likely to win the Eastern Conference than the Magic are. The Cavs are playing with a better starting hand.

Part of the reason I like to focus on matchups in playoff series is because I still believe they're important. But another reason is because there is actually a discussion to be had. I'm sorry, but claiming that the "better" (in terms of efficiency differential or won/loss record) team will win, and then if they don't, blaming it on luck? I'm not insisting it's wrong -- my day job as a statistician doesn't really allow me to go that far -- but I will say: that is boring.

So, let's talk about matchups. Among his many skills and talents, Lebron James has a remarkable ability to get into the low paint on offense, and finish once he's there. The stats at 82games bear it out, as does the Hotspot map:

Recall my own writings on offense and defense in the "low paint" from earlier posts. Lebron took nearly 40% of his shots from that area, and converted at a close to 70% rate. Cleveland's offense relies on that efficiency to generate points and create opportunities for the rest of the team. Any team hoping to slow them down needs a way to challenge him near the rim without collapsing and leaving wide open spot-up shooters. And it just so happens, the Magic have someone who can help with that.

Three games isn't enough to prove anything one way or the other, but what we've seen of Lebron vs. the Magic has been telling. The splits show that he has shot worse percentages (47% eFG%, vs. 53% for the season), but luckily I can dig even deeper. As it turns out, when Dwight Howard was on the court, Lebron took 63 shot attempts, but only 7 of those (11%) came in the low paint -- this is a far lower rate than what he was used to over the season (this speaks well not only for Dwight's help defense in the halfcourt, but the Magic's transition D also; it probably also has something to do with Lebron perhaps choosing to shoot 3's when he was hitting them). Lebron is actually a decently effective, if streaky, midrange shooter -- the thing is, at that range, he is human. You can beat a human in basketball. All told, Lebron hit 28 of his 63 shots when Dwight Howard was on the court, resulting in 61 points. 61 points on 63 shots comes out to an eFG% of 48%, which just isn't enough for Cleveland to win regularly. It's not just the points lost on his attempts (after all, if he shoots his season average, he scores 67 points on those shots -- 6 points over 3 games isn't a huge change), but the opportunites that don't open up for guys whose job it is to shoot wide open shots without having to put the ball on the floor.

Orlando struggled with Boston. Boston is a hell of a team, though, even though they were greatly diminished by injuries. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen can shoot mid-range shots off the dribble more efficiently than anyone on Cleveland's roster. These things matter.

The Lebron-Dwight matchup at the rim isn't the only story of this series. But I don't want to pretend it's completely unimportant. It will be important for Cleveland's offense for their bigs to move effectively without the ball and find open spots either at the basket or on the perimeter, while Dwight Howard is focused on helping on Lebron. If Ilgauskas (and Joe Smith) is hitting consistently from outside, or Varejao is finding open lanes to the rim, then the Cavs should be pretty efficient offensively. But those things are not guaranteed. The big takeaway for me: you give yourself a chance when Lebron produces like a human (still a star, but not an otherworldly one).

So let's give Orlando more of a chance than all of these people. Not because they're all wrong, but because I hope that the playoffs are about more than 7 flips of a weighted coin, weighted for the team with the better efficiency differential over the course of the season. There is something unsettling about the unanimity in favor of the Cavs. Like everyone is overlooking just how brilliant the Magic D is, or how dangerous the mismatches caused by Turkoglu and Lewis can be when the Magic are on offense. Forget all of the drivel about killer instincts and having a closer and this and that. The Magic have gotten this far against far tougher competition than Cleveland. Now is when they show us who they are, whether they have the instinct, whether they can get it done. We can't assume failure before they've even begun. Bollocks to conventional wisdom, Vitamin Water, ESPN, and even my beloved stats people. I'm picking the Magic in 6.


  1. Well, you deserve some commendation for this one. I was interested by the unanimity of picks in favor of the Cavs by casual fan and expert alike, but I must admit, I too was within their ranks. Great foresight, thus far.

  2. You, child, who are so gifted and sagacious and wise: is it possible that you have not realized the extent to which these primitive villagers have exaggerated your gifts, have transformed you into something you know too well you are not? Surely you have seen that they so revere you precisely because they themselves as too unwise to see your limitations? How long before they, too, see what you have seen when gazing deep inside yourself? Surely it has occurred to you. Surely one such as yourself must know already how terribly fickle the affections of a primitive Third World village can be. But tell me, child: Have you begun yet to be afraid? Have you begun yet then to plan for the day when they wake to a truth you already know: that you are not half so complete as they believe? That the illusion these children have of you cannot be sustained? Have you, for example, thought yet to break off and secrete a portion of their lavish offerings against the day they awaken to what you already know you are, and turn fickly against you, and then because of their own turning become disorientated and anxious and blame you further for it, see you as the thief of their peace and began to fear you and hate you in earnest and before long perhaps even cease to bring you offers in the hope that you will starve or slink off like the thief they now you believe to be?