Evaluating The Playoff Race At All-Star Break Through Four Factors: Eastern Conference

We’re at the halfwaypoint, and some things we know, and some things we think we know. We think we know how good the Cavs, Lakers, and Nuggets are. We know how bad the Nets are. We know that the Western playoff race will likely come down to the end. We know the Hawks have the Celtics number, and the Magic have the Hawks number, and everyone has Golden State’s number. What we don’t know is just how good the playoff teams are, and if their record is befitting their performance. So I decided to take a look.

For this little exercise, I wanted to examine both playoff races with regards to the Four Factors. The goal was to see if the order in which teams stood at the All-Star Break was indicative of how their statistical performance has been in each of the factors Dean Oliver identified as most important. I decided to use differential on each measure as a means of saying “If they’re winning more than they’re losing, then they should be outperforming their opponents in the four factors via differential.”

We’re beginning with the Eastern Conference. I’m excluding the Bucks, though they’re still very much in the race.  I included more teams in the Western race because all are considered contenders for the playoffs and the Bucks are still considered a longshot, but I might do a follow-up with all of the teams in the conference. All data from HoopData.com.The regression line is mostly meaningless, but I wanted to include it in case you were curious. No refunds, rebates, or exemptions. Some restrictions may apply. Click on each image for the bigger version. Let’s start with eFG%, the factor Oliver and most stats artists think is most relevant (usually weighted really heavily):

You notice that gigantic plummet off a cliff on the left-hand side? Get used to it. My worst fears about the Hawks are brought about by this series of charts. Atlanta is a massive dip below the rest of the teams at the top, coming in at fifth in the East in eFG% differential. Miami was well below their current position before this little romp they’ve been on, by the way, forcing me to redo all the work I’d done just before the All-Star break. I don’t trust them, but for now I’m stuck with them as a highpoint on the graph. If this doesn’t tell you how bad Toronto’s defense is, very little else will (but don’t worry, we’re getting there). Boston’s margin has to make the Celtics’ fans feel a little better, though I have to wonder how this would look if we only factored their differential against playoff teams.

Next we turn to Turnovers, that which coaches hate. Turnover Ratio is the percentage of possessions ending in a turnover. Or as I like to call it, giving Mike Conley the ball.For this analysis, I reversed the plus/minus for each team. For example, if you have a negative TOR, that means less of your possessions result in a turnover, if you have a positive TOR, more do. I wanted to reflect higher=better, so I reversed the polarity, so to speak.

RUH-ROH. If you buy into the idea that you can’t rely on turnovers to win games, and you own a Hakws or Heat jersey, you might want to hold off on reserving PTO for the parade. Cleveland’s mark here is really stunning, while Boston’s is not nearly as terrible as you might anticipate given their woes in this category. Just two teams are in positive numbers for TOR, they both play in the Southeast division, and they’re both doubted as contenders.

Next we have offensive rebounding rate, which from my perspective, is more important in preventing than creating. What I mean by that is in Basketball on Paper, Oliver did an analysis on which of the factors corresponded to winning percentage, and DRR was relatively low. It’s less important that you create defensive rebounds or offensive rebounds, as you prevent offensive rebounds. I know that sounds kind of silly, like if you’re not allowing ORR, you’re creating DRR, but that’s not always the case, like with the ball being knocked out of bounds, etc.

That’s right, Boston, Toronto crashes the offensive glass better than you do. Eee. Charlotte is relying on this to a large degree, and that makes sense with the scrappy nature we identify with them. Here again we see Atlanta performing below where you see the other top teams, though they are better than Boston.

How about Free Throw Rate? Getting to the line is pretty important for playoff teams. Impacts the other team’s depth, controls pace, etc. It’s the lowest of the four factors, but we’ll take a look anyway.

Oh, Atlanta. This is getting a little ridiculous. For those of you keeping track, that’s Atlanta 1, Four Factors 3. Charlotte’s performance here is a little awe-inspiring. An interesting note, here, though. Both Cleveland and Orlando are bottom five in Free Throw Percentage, except the Magic are also 26th in opponent free throw percentage. So Orlando is fouling the getting fouled more than they’re fouling, but they can’t hit free throws, but their opponent can’t either. And regarding Miami: insert 2006 Finals joke here.

Okay, so there are your four factors. Now, I wanted to take a look at their cumulative status.

CAUTION: WE’RE HEADING INTO RELATIVELY MEANINGLESS ANALYSIS WATERS HERE. BE ADVISED! KEEP ALL HANDS, FEET, AND OTHER OBJECTS INSIDE THE BOAT. DO NOT FEED THE CONJECTURE FISH.

One of the big things with Four Factors is that they’re not created equal. If you hit a higher percentage of your shots than the other team, you’re going to win a lot of the time. I know, this is groundbreaking stuff. But I did want to see what it looked like when you combined their differentials, since they’re all constant across teams.

AGAIN, THIS MEANS LARGELY NOTHING, IT’S JUST KIND OF NEAT.

And now, Orlando fans do a little dance. The MASSIVE crash for Atlanta and Boston here are really worrisome. We’re approaching “Are they vulnerable to a first round exit” levels if you go by this data alone (which of course, you shouldn’t, because going by just stats is missing worlds of other perspectives and trying to see the Alps through a microscope. There’s a lot out there. Miami’s another worry spot, and Charlotte all of a sudden looks like a really tough out, simply because they do basketball things really well.

I wanted to examine one other set in this format before I called it a day, so I looked at efficiency differential and offensive versus defensive efficiency. Here’s each measure separately, on one graph.

And here’s where Charlotte goes into the hole. Not only are they well below where they should be offensively, the gap between their offensive and defensive efficiency is remarkably small. So for all that four factors work they get done, it’s not translating into points on either side of the ball.  And Miami is pretty much the opposite. Despite the fact that they do very little well in the four factors sense, they get a lot of points and don’t give up that many. And oh, man, Chicago.  Toronto’s deficit between the two should normalize as the season continues provided they keep playing at the level they’re at. It’s important to note that only one team in the East is worse defensively than Atlanta right now, but that only two are better offensively. And Cleveland really is that good.

So what does their differential in efficiency look like?

Boston is a game back of Atlanta in the standings. Atlanta has won four games over Boston. This trend looks a lot different if the two are reversed. That’s what matchup advantages can do for you. Toronto looks rough here, predictably, and Miami looks really pretty good, which is largely in contrast to the four factors analysis. It’s hard to look at this chart and not recognize that the Bulls are still in pretty bad shape.

I’d like to make it clear that these graphs are simply ways of looking at information we know. They don’t definitively tell us which are the best teams in the playoff race, nor do they discredit what we’ve seen with our own eyes. Atlanta is playing remarkably well this year, but this gives me pause when I look at their playoff chances. This doesn’t factor in Boston’s melting chemistry or how old they look on the floor, and it’s impacted by Toronto’s early woes. I also think there may be better ways to interpret or examine the data, and I leave it to you to expound on those in the comments.

Western Conference coming soon.

Matt Moore

Matt Moore is a Senior NBA Blogger for CBSSports.com's Eye on Basketball blog, weekend editor of Pro Basketball Talk on NBCSports.com, and co-editor of Voice on the Floor. He lives in Kansas City due to an unbelievably complex set of circumstances and enjoys mid-90's pop rock, long walks on the beach and the novels of Tim Sandlin.