Better Late Than Never: Using Statistics to Rank Every Playoff Team
If the Miami Heat win the 2011 NBA Championship, everything that we’ve come to know and love about basketball—that you’re only as strong as your supporting cast, that it takes more than one or two or three good players to win a title, that it’s a team sport—is wrong.
Miami boasts a "Big Three" as talented as any trio currently in the league. It’s supporting cast? Probably something that they’d rather not discuss. While LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh make up the most effective 1-3 in the league, everyone else on this roster is horrendous; I’d feel bad for the Heat’s core if I didn’t hate them in such a passionate way. So horrendous, in fact, that, statistically speaking, the Miami Heat are the second worst team in the 2011 NBA playoffs.
Using regular season statistics to compare all 16 playoff teams yielded interesting results, some surprising, others totally understandable. My method was relatively simple: Look at the Player Efficiency Rating (PER; for those that have a life outside of following sports statistics, it’s a conglomerate stat that can be used to evaluate how well a player plays despite actual playing time—15 is a league-average player, 20 is borderline All-Star caliber player and any player playing above 22 or 23 deserves heavy MVP consideration) of the top eight players (based on minutes per game) in every team’s rotation, and average them out.
Miami’s trio of LeBron James (PER: 27.3), Dwyane Wade (25.7) and Chris Bosh (19.4) constitutes the best "Big Three" PER in the league: The three have an average PER of 24.13. The next five players in their rotation boast numbers that reflect the lack of talent on this roster (outside of the aforementioned three): 9.48. That’s terrible. The team has a cumulative PER of 14.975, good for second-worst in the league.
I realize that statistics aren’t everything, that intangibles do play a role in how games are played, that predictions are stupid. Stats are the most objective way to forecast a team’s success, and the following list reflects nothing but numbers. I really wanted to see how the Heat as a collective unit would fare against other, more complete teams. Glad to say that they don’t measure up, at least on paper.
So no matter how many times ESPN talks about how good the Heat are, know that this is a team with three superstars and a bunch of D-Leaguers. And if they somehow manage to overcome the odds and win a championship, they will have successfully taken a crap on the notion of team basketball. If you are rooting for them and you live outside of Miami, you are a bad sports fan, and I hope to God that our paths never cross.
14. Philadelphia 76ers
Team PER: 14.16
"Big Three" PER: Andre Iguodola (17.3), Jrue Holiday (15.5) and Elton Brand (18.6) – 17.13
Rest of team: 14.74
Philadelphia is a young team, and definitely not ready to make any serious noise. As I write this, they just staved off elimination against the Heat, but make no mistake: They can’t win three straight against Miami (I hope that I’m wrong).
This team doesn’t need a lot of analysis; it wouldn’t be in the playoffs if they played in the Western Conference. The Sixers are a textbook one-and-done team: Good enough to make the playoffs (albeit in the weaker of two divisions), mediocre enough to do nothing.
13. Miami Heat
Team PER: 14.975
"Big Three" PER: LeBron James (27.3), Dwyane Wade (25.7) and Chris Bosh (19.4) - 24.13
Rest of Team: 9.48
Miami’s fate will be a testament to whether or not you can win in the NBA playing three-on-five. I don’t care what ESPN or Brian Windhurst tries to tell you: Joel Anthony is garbage. The only way that this team could feature more washed-up talent is by enlisting Flava Flav to announce the team before tip-off. Their roster includes such relevant names as Mike Miller, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Juwan Howard. Seriously: Juwan Howard. That fact in itself is a punch line.
But as much as I hate to say that, I know that the Heat will make some sort of a run, especially in the toilet-paper thin Eastern Conference. Put these guys out West and a team like San Antonio or L.A. or even Dallas makes them their prison bitch; as it stands, though, they have a relatively easy path to the Finals, where LeBron James and Dwyane Wade can conceivably become the first pair of teammates to average 50 points a game in a playoff series while Chris Bosh screams in excitement from the sidelines. Can’t stand Chris Bosh.
12. Indiana Pacers
Team PER: 15.05
"Big Three" PER: Danny Granger (17.9), Darren Collison (15.7), Roy Hibbert (16) - 16.53
Rest of Team: 14.16
Kinda like the Sixers. Not trying to say that this team defines "one-and-done" or "shouldn’t be in the playoffs," but it kind of goes without saying. I dunno, maybe they surprise the world or something. ESPN can run a segment about Indiana basketball, and we can get reminded about how much the sport is a part of Hoosier culture. That’d be refreshing and new.
11. Atlanta Hawks
Team PER: 15.15
"Big Three" PER: Joe Johnson (16.5), Al Horford (20.8), Josh Smith (19.3) – 18.86
Rest of Team: 12.92
I was kind of surprised to see Josh Smith post the numbers he did this season, but lo and behold, he’s the second-best player on the team. Atlanta currently holds a 3-1 series lead over Orlando, partially because of a couple of clutch (lucky?) shots by Jamal Crawford, but mostly because Atlanta’s perimeter defense is shutting down all of Orlando’s wings. Smith’s been a big part of that.
I don’t know what to think about this team. This core has been together for a while now, and it puts up numbers; Whenever I want to write them off, I’m reminded that it’s a relatively complete team with playmakers at every position. Joe Johnson is never going to be a superstar, but his best is on par with any elite player in the league.
If Atlanta surprises people and goes on a run, it’ll be a testament to the years that this team has spent playing together, not statistics. You know, intangibles. Grit. Clutchness. Other clichés. On paper, this team is simply okay.
10. New Orleans Hornets
"Big Three" PER: Chris Paul (23.8), David West (20.5), Trevor Ariza (11.4) – 18.56
Rest of team: 13.76
Who doesn’t want to see New Orleans upset the Lakers? Chris Paul played the game of his life in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago to shock the world, and the Hornets now head back to Los Angeles with the series tied 2-2. They definitely caught Kobe and Co. off guard. Paul is going to have to play out of his mind for the rest of the series, because he’s the only player on this team capable of creating shots for others. West is having a great year, but isn’t consistent enough to actually carry a team on his back and is currently injured.
With a player as talented as Paul, anything is possible. L.A. is really, really good though, and beating them four out of seven times seems like a tall task for a team giving Marco Belinelli serious playing time.
9. Denver Nuggets
Team PER: 15.63
"Big Three" PER: Nene Hilario (20.5), Raymond Felton (14.7), Danilo Gallinari (16) – 17.06
Rest of Team: 14.78
I kind of cheated here. While I normally consider every team’s "Big Three" to consist of the three most often-played players, Denver’s most frequently used player this year was Aaron Afflalo; Nene played the fourth-most on the team this year. Nene is the best player on this team. Someone had to go.
That Afflalo played so often should tell you quite a bit about the identity (or lack thereof) of this team entering the postseason. They are a team of quantity over quality, and actually feature the third-best 4-8 options in the entire playoffs.
They could get eliminated tonight, but there’s enough talent on this team to make me think that some form of a comeback is possible. J.R. Smith, in particular, should worry the Thunder. When he’s on, he’s one of the most explosive players in the league. We’ll see what happens tonight.
8 (tie). Boston Celtics
Team PER: 15.65
"Big Three" PER: Rajon Rondo (17.1), Ray Allen (16.4), Paul Pierce (19.8) - 17.76
Rest of team: 14.5
This team just keeps chugging along, doesn’t it? Kevin Garnett actually had the best season out of anybody on the team (PER of 20.7), but he spends a noticeably shorter amount of time on the floor than Rondo, Allen and Pierce. Still, this team boasts one of the best nucleuses in the league; in the last five minutes of a game, they should always feel confident. Rondo, Allen, Pierce, Garnett and Glen Davis are extremely formidable.
That being said, there’s a lot of mileage on the tires here, and their bench is pretty suspect. Without a consistently reliable scorer to spell Pierce and Allen, their starting five—even at their advanced ages—is going to have to shoulder a burden as heavy as they ever have. Five good players can be enough to win it all, but I wouldn’t count on it in this case. There’s just not enough here outside of what we already know.
8 (Tie). Orlando Magic
Team PER: 15.65
"Big Three" PER: Dwight Howard (26.1), Jason Richardson (13.3), Hedo Turkoglu (13.6) – 17.66
Rest of Team: 14.5
The Magic put up PER numbers identical to the Celtics, but make no mistake, these are two completely different teams. The Celtics are balanced, featuring All-Stars at four of the five positions on the court. Orlando, despite retooling its roster in such a dramatic way earlier in the season, is much more of a one-man show; there really isn’t anybody besides Dwight Howard that they can rely on night in and night out. Lots of good players, no great ones.
It should be noted, though, that Dwight Howard is having far and away the best season of his career. His offensive game finally seems to be catching up to his defensive game; don’t blame him for his team currently being at a 3-1 series deficit against Atlanta. Still, given the nature of the talent surrounding him (lots of good shooters), people in Orlando shouldn’t be hitting the panic button yet.
Like in 2009, this team could surprise a lot of people if they can get their outside shots to fall. I’d be very surprised if they lost to Atlanta. Not sure how far they go after that, but Dwight Howard is too good to fall in the first round.
7. Memphis Grizzlies
Team PER: 15.71
"Big Three" PER: Zach Randolph (22.7), Mike Conley (15.9), Marc Gasol (16.9) – 18.5
Rest of Team: 14.04
If this team wasn’t the Memphis Grizzlies, and if Zach Randolph wasn’t their best player, people would have recognized how good they were a while ago. Old habits are hard to shake, though, and it had to take a couple of hard-earned victories over the San Antonio Spurs to let the world know that, despite this team’s rather dismal history, the Grizz are on the upswing.
And good for them. After years of questionable personnel moves (still kind of unsure why they signed Iverson), they seem to have a solid foundation in place. I’m as surprised as anybody; look at Zach Randolph for example. A graduate of Jailblazer U. and one of the more heavily criticized members of the Knicks when he played in New York, his success story is one of the least likely that I can remember occurring in the NBA.
I doubt they beat the Spurs, but they definitely have my attention. Definitely one of the most intriguing teams to watch moving forward.
6. New York Knicks (who have since been eliminated)
Team PER: 15.86
"Big Three" PER: Amar’e Stoudemire (22.8), Carmelo Anthony (22.9), Chauncey Billups (19.1) – 21.6
Rest of team: 12.42
The Knicks are already booking flights to some exotic locations for the months of May and June, so it’s moot to argue their worth.
That being said, injuries were this team’s undoing; on paper, this is a team better than what their record would indicate. With Stoudemire and Billups gimpy throughout most of their first-round series against the Celtics, the fact that they got swept shouldn’t surprise anybody, because the rest of this team is weak. We were kind of robbed, though; were this team completely healthy, they could have seriously challenged Boston. Stoudemire and Anthony are incredibly dynamic scorers, and Billups still brings it. It would have been an entertaining series at the very least.
Not that I’d ever feel bad for the Knicks' fan base. Haha, you guys lost to Boston. I hope you’re mad about it.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder
Team PER: 15.99
"Big Three" PER: Kevin Durant (23.7), Russell Westbrook (23.6), Serge Ibaka (17.7) – 21.69
Rest of team: 12.58
You know what you’re going to get from Durant and Westbrook night in and night out, and the Thunder have a revolving door of exciting young talent capable of contributing big games to support the team’s established superstars. Ibaka is a difference-maker on the defensive end, but is athletic enough to create his own shots. James Harden is a monster, and potentially a future All-Star. Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefoloshia and Nazr Mohammed are all great supporting players.
OKC can win it all right now. It’s still incredibly young, but there’s enough diverse talent that it has to be considered one of the most balanced teams in the league. Seriously, who isn’t in love with this team? I wanna hang out and play video games and eat pizza with them.
4. Chicago Bulls
Team PER: 16.03
"Big Three" PER: Derrick Rose (23.6), Luol Deng (15.6), Joahkim Noah (18.8) – 19.3
Rest of team: 14.04
Not too sure that Rose deserves MVP over Dwight Howard, but he had an excellent regular season and hasn’t slowed down against Indiana (not the toughest of opponents, but still).
There’s more to this team than Rose, definitely enough to win the East. Boozer is the second-best offensive player on this team, and he should prove to be a reliable enough option to make them a serious threat to win it all. Luol Deng is inconsistent, but when he’s "on," the Bulls are practically unbeatable. And I kind of hate Noah, but he brings a lot to this team.
The Bulls deserved to be the No. 1 team in the East. There’s a lot of talent on this roster, and little to stop them from playing through June.
3 (Tie). Dallas Mavericks
Team PER: 16.26
"Big Three" PER: Dirk Nowitzki (23.5), Jason Kidd (14.5), Jason Terry (15.9) – 17.96
Rest of team: 15.24
As always, Dallas is a difficult team to gauge. They don’t have a player that can hang with Dirk production-wise (tall order considering the numbers he put up), but their supporting cast is amongst the most talented in the league. Players 4-8 put up the best regular-season numbers of any playoff team, so it’ll be interesting to see how far that takes them.
Jason Terry is an explosive scorer, Shawn Marion still does seemingly everything and Tyson Chandler is one of the best defensive centers in the league. There are a lot of weapons here, and if everyone plays up to their full potential, anything could happen. You’d have to assume that the Dirk Nowitzki era is going to begin to flicker and fade one of these seasons, but it hasn’t happened yet. Dirk still balls, Mark Cuban is still kind of a douche and the Mavericks are still as relevant as they were 10 years ago.
3 (Tie). Los Angeles Lakers
Team PER: 16.26
"Big Three" PER: Kobe Bryant (23.9), Pau Gasol (23.3), Lamar Odom (19.5) – 22.23
Rest of team: 12.68
Unlike Dallas, this is a team that relies on a handful of stars to overwhelm its opponents. The talent of their "Big Three" goes without saying, and we can’t forget how Andrew Bynum came along at the end of the year; their young center had a fantastic season, finishing with a career-high PER of 21.1.
With a team that features so much individual talent, it’s kind of surprising to find them ranked where they are. I’d expect them to be the No. 1 team, easily. They have the best frontcourt in the NBA; being able to rotate Gasol, Bynum and Odom is just unfair. Their bench is a bit weak after Odom, but that wasn’t a problem last year. Or the year before.
This team is talented and experienced. And motivated, probably. It would surprise all of no one if they won it all. Let’s just move on, because the next team is much more interesting.
2. Portland Trailblazers
Team PER: 16.4
"Big Three" PER: LaMarcus Aldridge (21.6), Gerald Wallace (19.0), Wesley Matthews (15.6) – 18.73
Rest of Team: 15
Told you. That Dallas series just got a bit more interesting (as if it wasn’t already), didn’t it? Seriously, look at this team’s top five: Aldridge, Wallace, Matthews, Brandon Roy, Andre Miller and Marcus Camby. Talent, talent, talent. And experience, too. And some more talent. This team can hang with anybody, a stark contrast to how they were looking before the trade deadline. Acquiring Gerald Wallace transformed a team on the decline into one of the most fascinating teams in the playoffs.
Seriously, try to name a weak link in this team. They have talented offensive wing players (Roy, Matthews and Wallace), one of which (Wallace) can team with Nicholas Batum to stifle any opposing wing players. Low-post offense is present with Aldridge, and Camby is still one of the best defensive-minded players in basketball. And Andre Miller continues to put up numbers despite his advanced age.
Considering the age of Camby and Miller, this team’s window is right now, and they’d better know it. They have the talent to beat any team in the league.
1. San Antonio Spurs
1. San Antonio Spurs
"Big Three" PER: Tony Parker (20.4), Manu Ginobli (21.8), Tim Duncan (21.9) – 21.36
Rest of team: 14.18
Shocker: Best team in the league has the best collective PER. I really hope that Memphis upsets them, but it seems unlikely. As always, San Antonio doesn’t rely too heavily on a single player, featuring three players with PER seasons above 20. It’s a formula that’s yielded championships in the past, and it should allow them to play deep into May. If they do end up losing, attribute it to a favorable matchup for Memphis (San Antonio is uncharacteristically weak down low, relying on a perimeter game more than I can ever remember), or complacency on the Spurs' behalf.
Time will tell if these projections are at all accurate; as I said before, these were regular season statistics, and the playoffs have proven to be unpredictable in the past. With only one series decided and a handful that could conceivably go either way, this has been an incredibly entertaining opening round. Let’s hope for more of the same. Except for the Heat; I want them to lose.