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Playoff Odds: Who's in, who's out?

November 19, 2010
ESPN INSIDER JOHN HOLLINGER
If you could pick only one of them, which do you think is more likely to make the playoffs: Indiana or Oklahoma City?



Seems obvious, doesn't it? The Pacers are a fairly uninteresting collection of B-list talent and haven't made the postseason since the last time Tony Parker was single, while the Thunder entered the season as the darlings of the league and boast two All-Star-caliber perimeter players in Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. At 7-4 against the Pacers' 5-5, Oklahoma City also has a better record. The Thunder, it seems, are the obvious choice.



Not so fast.



Play out the season based on the results of games to date, adjust for the massive disparity in strength between the two conferences, and you reach a surprising conclusion: Indy's odds of qualifying for the playoffs appear to be significantly better than the Thunder's.




That's the result of our simulation of the rest of the season using the Playoff Odds tool, which launches for 2010-11 today. The method, if you'll recall, is that we play out the rest of the season 5,000 times and tabulate the results, using the current Power Rankings as our base to set the odds of any individual game.



We also allow for home-court advantage, and this early in the season we use a "regression to the mean" component; that way we tend to avoid overrating a team based on a particularly hot or cold start. (If we didn't do this, we'd find ourselves saying things like, "Based on its 10-0 start, Team X appears likely to win 75 games.")



Of course, there will always be factors for which the computerized method can't compensate. Portland, for instance, projects to have a 70.5 percent chance of making the postseason, but that's based on a Power Ranking largely built with Brandon Roy in the lineup. If he can't participate in their final 69 games, one presumes the Blazers' odds diminish substantially.



Here's another common occurrence that throws people when they look at the playoff odds: Often, a conference will have more than eight teams -- or fewer than eight teams -- with better than a 50 percent chance of making the playoffs. This is perfectly logical mathematically -- in fact, you could have all 15 teams in the conference with better than 50 percent odds, since if the games were completely random, each team's odds would be 53.3 percent. As long as the percentages add up to 800 in each conference and no single team has more than 100, any split of the odds among the 15 teams is kosher.



Thus, the current situation we have in the East, where only seven teams project as likely to make the playoffs. This doesn't mean that the East will have only seven playoff teams (although I'd heartily support such a resolution), but rather that the probability of attaining the last spot is split nearly evenly among several fairly awful teams.



As for the Pacers and Thunder? Here's how the Playoff Odds see it: Thanks to the Pacers' easier schedule in the Eastern Conference, the Pacers and Thunder project to finish the season with identical 41-41 records. And since the projected playoff cut-line is at 37 wins in the East but 44 wins in the West, that translates into much better postseason odds for the Pacers.


Indy qualified for the postseason in 67.4 percent of our simulations, with the No. 7 seed its most likely landing spot. Oklahoma City? The Thunder made it only 43.2 percent of the time, with ninth place their most frequent endpoint. Even if a team projected to finish ahead of them (such as Portland) falls off the pace, the Thunder have to hold off three other challengers in Houston, Memphis and Golden State, all of whom project to win at least 38 games.



In contrast, the three teams projected to share No. 9 in the East -- Toronto, Detroit and New York -- average only 34 wins in our simulations. So the Pacers have a great deal more wiggle room than the Thunder.



We see this happen every season in the two conferences, when Western Conference teams enter the lottery and not the playoffs because they have the bad luck to play in the West instead of the East. This doesn't mean Indiana is a better team. Although the current Power Rankings would make Indiana a slight favorite on a neutral court, that's unlikely to hold up all season. But the Pacers don't need to be better; in fact, they can be substantially worse, because they're in a much easier neighborhood.


So, as strange as it sounds, the Pacers are in a much better position to make the playoffs than the more celebrated Thunder squad, based on how they've played to date.

A few more questions on the Playoff Odds:



Why so conservative?



You'll notice that no teams project to win 60 games and only five project to win more than 50. This results from two phenomena. First, the regression-to-the-mean component mentioned above is a factor. It will become less of one as the season goes on, but for now it retains a healthy skepticism that any team is as good (or bad) as we've seen so far.



Second, however, is an important trend that I haven't seen folks account for: The bottom-feeders have become a lot better, and those wins have to come from somewhere. Last season New Jersey and Minnesota combined to win 27 games between them, and five other teams lost at least 55 games.



This year? Only four teams project to lose more than 50, and none appear headed anywhere near the abysmal orbit the Nets and Wolves occupied a year ago. The worst projected records belong to Minnesota and Sacramento, both at 24-58; that's twice as many games as the Nets won in 2009-10.



We're likely to see some movement toward the poles as the year goes on and the regression-to-the-mean component fades away, but it still stands to reason that the standings will be more compressed than those of other recent seasons. It's difficult to have a bunch of 60-win teams unless there are some equally awful teams to offset them at the bottom.



How do the Heat project so well?



Miami is "just" 7-4, but the Heat own the league's best Power Ranking thanks to what is far and away the NBA's best scoring margin. Additionally, based on Power Rankings, Miami has already played two of the three toughest games on its schedule (at Boston, at New Orleans).



In their final 71 games, based on current Power Rankings, they have two toss-ups (at Boston, at Lakers) and will be favored in the other 69. That's how we arrive at Miami going 51-20 the rest of the way and landing a game ahead of Boston for the East's top seed.



New Orleans ahead of the Lakers?



The Hornets have placed extremely well in the early going, but naturally we should be skeptical about whether they can keep it up.



While New Orleans projects to beat out the Lakers for the West's top seed by two games, in this case what the computer doesn't know may be of crucial importance: Namely, that L.A. has been playing without Andrew Bynum, and its defense has suffered as a result. I still expect the Lakers to be the West's No. 1 seed when all is said and done.



Of more interest, perhaps, is the striation we're seeing in the West. Only New Orleans and San Antonio have established themselves as potential foils for L.A. After that is a morass of five teams projected to win 44-48 games, followed by early disappointments like Oklahoma City, Houston and (arguably) Memphis. The West remains the deeper, better conference, but at the top the East may be more powerful.



Who are the mortal locks?



You'll see some teams listed with odds at 100 percent, which obviously conveys a greater deal of certainty than you might think since we're still in the first month of the season.



Two notes on those situations: First, a team can miss the playoffs in up to two of the 5,000 simulations and still show up as "100.0" because we round to the first decimal.



Second, we run 5,000 simulations ... not a million. There are any number of ways a team like, say, Miami, could miss the playoffs, but most of them appear to be unlikely in the extreme. So we can't say, definitely, that the Heat are 100 percent certain to make the postseason until they've mathematically clinched. We can say, however, that they're within rounding-error distance.



Thus far we have only three cases where a team's playoff odds are better than 99.5 percent: Boston, Miami and New Orleans are the lucky trio who can feel free to start printing playoff tickets. Boston can take comfort in a top-four seed, too, as the Celtics have a 99.6 percent shot to win the Atlantic Division (The Celtics project to win it by 23 games and be the division's only playoff team).



On the other hand, three teams are basically out of it already. In the West, the Clippers, Kings and Timberwolves appear to have virtually no chance at the postseason, with a combined 0.6 percent probability that any of them make it.



That may seem especially harsh with the Kings (3-7), given that a Houston team with a worse record still shows a 35.2 percent probability. But Sacramento has played the league's easiest schedule thus far -- their opponents have a .374 opponent winning percentage when not playing the Kings -- and played six of its 10 games at home. Houston, in contrast, has played one of the NBA's toughest slates.



The Kings sit at 28th in the Power Rankings after a miserable home loss to Team Mozgov on Wednesday and would likely need to get well over .500 to make the postseason. Thus, the piddling 0.2 percent chance this morning's Playoff Odds give them seems entirely appropriate.

PROJECTED ODDS EASTERN CONFERENCE
  1. Miami
  2. Boston
  3. Orlando
  4. Chicago
  5. Milwaukee
  6. Atlanta
  7. Indiana
  8. Charlotte


PROJECTED ODDS WESTERN CONFERENCE
  1. New Orleans
  2. LA Lakers
  3. San Antonio
  4. Utah
  5. Dallas
  6. Portland
  7. Denver
  8. Phoenix