Catching Up With The NBA

CATCHING UP IN THE NBA WITH ONE OF OUR FAVORITE STATS

Obviously March Madness has been getting the bulk of coverage here in the NOTEBOOK this month because it's one of the greatest shows in town in the whole sports world. We'll get back to college basketball coverage soon (Thursday for the NIT Finals, Saturday for the NCAA's Final Four). Today, we have a chance to get caught up with the NBA as we prepare to transition to pro hoop heavy coverage starting next week.

You regulars know that we like checking in periodically on a very simple stat that helps take the pollution out of your newspaper standings. It's simply WINS minus HOME GAMES PLAYED. In pro basketball and pro baseball, the schedules rarely balance out except at the very end of the season when everyone has played their full slate of games. Whenever you check in, some teams have benefitted from home heavy schedules, while others have been penalized for road heavy schedules. If you don't make allowances for that, your handicapping choices are going to suffer.

We're going to have fascinating playoff races this year in both the Eastern and Western Conferences. Let's see how those races stack up RIGHT NOW in this pet stat of ours. Note that all records are through the games of Monday Night because of publication deadlines. Typically we'll go division by division with this stat. But, today, let's just look at the playoff races. We'll stack the contenders in one group, the also-rans in another...

EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF PICTURE
Chicago +15
Miami +13
Indiana +7
Atlanta +7
Orlando +6
Boston +2
Philadelphia 0
Milwaukee 0
New York -1

Things get jumbled up a bit from the actual race once you adjust for the home/road splits. Of course, the East is ALREADY going to be jumbled because the eventual Atlantic Division champion could get a #4 seed even if they have a record that ranks down at #6 or #7 in actuality. If you win your division, the worst you'll get is a fourth seed.

Philadelphia is the big story above, and also in the above paragraph! Their current record isn't good enough to get them the #4 seed that's projected by most websites. And, it's a home-heavy record that overstates how good the team probably is. The Sixers are a borderline playoff team by this measure...just one that obliterates bad teams before losing to good teams. Too many people got on this bandwagon early. Too many people are still on it!

We should note that New York is playing better right now than this full season measure would suggest. Given recent road wins at Indiana and Philadelphia, you get the sense that the Knicks would be an upper division squad if Mike Woodson had been the head coach all season. Injuries will be a monkey wrench they have to deal with in this last month. Amare Stoudemire may be done for good. Jeremy Lin is apparently day-to-day. Carmelo Anthony strained his groin while carrying the offense on his shoulders in their Monday Night win over Milwaukee.

Up at the top, Chicago and Miami are so far clear of the field that you have to assume they're going to eventually meet in the Eastern finals barring injuries. Being better than everyone AND having home court advantage is a big deal in the postseason. We do think the playoff race is going to be fascinating. The playoffs themselves in the East may be less so unless Chicago and Miami suffer misfortune with one of their stars.

EASTERN CONFERENCE ALSO-RANS
Cleveland -7
Detroit -7
Toronto -8
New Jersey -9
Washington -14
Charlotte -15

We won't say much about the lousy teams today, and we won't devote much time to them when we get heavier into the pro picture down the home stretch. The race for draft lottery position could be a lot of fun to watch though. Tanking has gotten worse than ever...and the sweet spot for tanking is still a few weeks away!

WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF PICTURE
Oklahoma City +11
San Antonio +10
LA Lakers +6
LA Clippers +3
Memphis +3
Dallas +2
Utah +2
Houston +1
Denver 0
Phoenix 0
Minnesota -1
Portland -1

What a mess this is! There are several "playoff caliber" teams in the West, but not enough room for all of them. Let's break those down into more digestible hunks:

Championship Contenders: Oklahoma City, San Antonio, LA Lakers

Those first three teams on the list are most likely to survive the Spring barring injuries. San Antonio has the right mix of  lineup quality and veteran presence. Oklahoma City may be about to explode onto the championship picture this year in a way that sets the tone for the next several seasons. The Lakers are borderline to us in terms of going the distance. But, Ramon Sessions is such an upgrade at point guard that they should probably in the discussion. Things haven't been as bad this year for the Lakers as naysayers have been suggesting. And the team just got better.

Best of the Rest: LA Clippers, Memphis, Dallas, Utah

Memphis is seeing things come together at the right time in terms of health. They had an impressive win on the road against the Lakers Sunday night...so impressive that it immediately reminded everyone of what a force the were last year in the postseason. In a week or two, we may have Memphis up in the first group!

The Clippers may have peaked too early...and the team has apparently forgotten how to play defense. Vinny Del Negro is a proven quantity in terms of NOT being somebody you'd have confidence in through the playoffs. The Clippers can win one round, but we're not optimistic about them going deep just yet.

Dallas just doesn't have the magic right now that they enjoyed last year. Tyson Chandler deserved a lot more credit than he got last year for making the Mavs champions. Now he's serving a similar role in New York. We're just not seeing anything from Dallas lately that would suggest big things are ahead for the second year in a row. Utah is a nice hustling team that will add flavor and spice to the postseason if they earn a bid. They're not ready to be in the discussion yet.

Probably Irrelevant: Houston, Denver, Phoenix, Minnesota, Portland

We'll use the hedge on Denver because they've been playing shorthanded lately. They're much more dangerous if Danilo Gallinari is able to go at full speed. And, we'll use it with Phoenix because they've been on fire for a few weeks in a way that looks relevant. They're not just beating up on bad teams. For now, both of those teams are probably similar to Utah in terms of adding flavor to the playoffs but not being around late enough to matter.

Houston's just kind of there at the moment. Portland may already be tanking because they'd rather get a decent draft pick than lose a first round series to a Western power. You should consider Portland in the also-ran category even if the full season math doesn't put them there at the moment.

WESTERN CONFERENCE ALSO-RANS
Golden State -4
Sacramento -6
New Orleans -14

These teams are part of the race backwards rather than the race forwards.

The data you saw today will definitely play a role in our thinking as we attack the Wednesday NBA card. Games of interest include: Orlando at New York, Utah at Boston, Chicago at Atlanta, and Phoenix at the LA Clippers. Thursday's TNT doubleheader is a great one, with Dallas at Miami followed by Oklahoma City at the LA Lakers.

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