The Formula: Champion’s Edition – The East


It’s that time. In the NBA, the cream is rising to the top, all teams are settling into the grove of the season, jockeying for the playoffs is heating up, and the hardcourt warriors are strapping on the armor, sharpening the elbow spikes, and calibrating their 3 point shooters, all eyes locked on the playoff battles coming in the months ahead. With 30 games to go, there are hundreds of variables deciding who plays who in the playoffs, and almost every GM will spout the optimistic clap trap if asked about his teams chances at winning some games in the playoffs.

Realistically though, there are a mere handle of contenders; I actually made the case against some teams as legit threats to win it here on this very site, HERE. Enough about those have-nots, because after hours of tortuous clicking, scrolling, scribbling, and drinking fruit punch, the patterns began to emerge, the code is cracked. What does it take to be a champion in the NBA? Is it the high powered offense? Sorry, D’antoni, no. Is it the league’s best player? A smothering defense? Seeing as Lebron James spent 7 years running with a Cleveland Cavaliers squad that stifled fools but won zilch, that’s not the answer. Predicting playoff success is a lot like chumps trying to pull Excalibur out of that stone and freeing Hansel and Gretel; many try, but there CAN ONLY BE ONE (wait, I think that’s not…never mind).

The point is, as nebulous as the championship formula is, by examining some characteristics of past champs, we can pull some cues out of their performances and project which squads have a serious shot at winning it all come June. I’d like to tip my cap to the esteemed Jared Wade, who’s excellent piece on the ongoing MVP race (if you haven’t seen it, check it HERE) sparked my imagination, leading me to this monstrous boondoggle. So here it is, the wanna-be definitive Championship prediction blueprint. Do not be alarmed, my prognostication isn’t some scary magic, it’s just math and facts- shoddy, basic math and muddy, half-hearted facts. When you win wads in Las Vegas based on my unimpeachable logistical maneuvers, I expect a my cut.


I admit I was slow to warm up to idea of advanced stats, aka “nerd basketball”. I mean, if Player A is scoring 26 with 8 dimes, and player B is giving you only 18 with 9 boards, we all know that Player B can’t hold A’s jockstrap, Player A is the MAN, right? Well, no, not right. Not even close. Thanks to advanced statistics, like ESPN’s John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER), and statistician Dean Oliver’s Offensive and Defensive Ratings, we have can get a much clearer, more meaningful look at players’ performances, regardless of pace or era. I won’t bore you with the minutiae of these (since I clearly don’t really know them myself), but take a look HERE for a better explanation of PER, and HERE for the O and D rating explanations. Using a combination of my own criteria, PER, and Offensive/Defensive Ratings of the past 13 NBA champions, I’ve come up with some key points to bringing home the Big One.

Let’s begin, shall we? As I’ve said before, the LeBron bashers who shout indignantly that “HE COULDN’T GET IT DONE ON HIS OWN” are off base; NO ONE got it done on their own. Looking at the past 20 champs, we see that every winning team had at least one high level star (not necessarily SUPERstar) quality player with them:

  ’10 Lakers ’09 Lakers ’08 Celtics ’07 Spurs ’06 Heat
Player 1 Bryant-27/21.9 Bryant-26.8/24.4 Garnett-18.8/25.3 Duncan-20/26.1 Wade-27.2/27.7
Player 2 Gasol-18.3/22.9 Gasol-18.9/22.2 Pierce-19.6/19.6 Gin’bili-16.5/24.1 O’Neal- 20/24.4


  ’05 Spurs ’04 Pistons ’03 Spurs ’02 Lakers ’01 Lakers
Player 1 Duncan-20.3/27. Billups-16.9/18.6 Duncan-23.3/26.9 O’Neal-27.2/29.7 O’Neal-28.7/30.2
Player 2 Ginobili-16.0/22.3 Hamilton-17.7/16.8 Parker-15.5/16.5 Kobe’-25.2/23.2 Kobe’-28.5/24.5


  ’00 Lakers ’99 Spurs ’98 Bulls ’97 Bulls ’96 Bulls
Player 1 O’Neal-29.7/30.6 Duncan-21.7/23.2 Jordan-28.7/25.2 Jordan 29.6/27.8 Jordan-30.4/29.4
Player 2 Kobe’-22.5/21.7 Robinson-15.8/24.9 Pippen-19.1/20.2 Pippen-20.2/21.3 Pippen-19.4/21


  ’95 Rockets ’94 Rockets ’93 Bulls ’92 Bulls ’91 Bulls
Player 1 Olajuwon-27.8/26 Olajuwon-27.3/25.3 Jordan-32.6/29.7 Jordan-30.1/27.7 Jordan-31.5/31.6
Player 2 Drexler-21.4/22.1 Thorpe-14/16.1 Pippen-18.6/19.2 Pippen-21/21.5 Pippen-17.8/20.6


As you can see, only one of the last 20 teams to win it all wasn’t equipped with a proper Robin to ball with Batman, the 1994 Houston Rockets who trotted out Otis Thorpe as Hakeem Olajuwon’s 2nd in command. I chalk title up to 1) Hakeem being at the height of his incredible talent and 2) the league having a sucking vacuum left where Mike had been; teams had been gearing up to face a Jordan/Pippen perimeter attack, then BAM he’s gone, and Hakeem’s Rockets were the exact opposite, making them extremely tough to play. The ’08 Boston team and the ’04 Boston team don’t quite fit the archetype, either. While the top 2 players on both of those teams don’t quite stack up to the juggernauts on other winning squads, the fact that their OTHER pieces are higher quality than their counterparts offsets the lack of a Dominant Two Guys.

Photo: AP/Lucy Nicholson

For instance, in 2002, the LA Laker’s Shaquille O’neal had a PER of 29.7, and Kobe’ Bryant weighed in at 23.2, both robust numbers (Hollinger sets the league average at 15.0). However, that team’s top 6 players, including Shaq and Kobe, had a combined PER of 105 (averaging 17.55 each), with Rick Fox bringing up the rear at 11.3-that’s 2 guys with 50% of that total. In contrast, the ’04 Pistons saw all 6 of their top players notch a PER between 13.3 (Tayshaun Prince) and 18.6(Chauncy Billups). Boston of 2008 was like that Detroit 2.0; it’s top 4 were Rajon Rondo (15.6), Ray Allen (16.4), Paul Pierce (19.6), and Kevin Garnett leading the way at 25.3. I call this the Boston Corollary (here’s where you say,“Wait, Detroit did it first; shouldn’t it be the PISTON Corollary?”. To which I say, write your own joint if you wanna start naming corollaries). 

What else does an O’Brien trophy winning group look like from a PER and Offensive/Defensive Rating standpoint?

Top Six-

Since a strong starting 5 is vital to any championship aspirations, and there’s actually an award for being a productive 6th man, I did something a little different. Instead of using the team stats for Offensive and Defensive Efficiency Ratings, I focused on the top 6 players (by minutes played) on the teams that won and lost the last 13 Finals (plus, full disclosure, after setting out to cover 20 years, I just got exhausted with it and cut it back. Don’t judge me). And so on the title winning teams from 1998 to 2010:

  • The top 6 had a combined PER of 103.4 throughout the regular season, averaging 17.2 per player; once the playoffs star, that efficiency dropped to 98.8- 16.4 each. The main man racked up a PER of 26.1, jumping to 26.3 in the playoffs, while the low guys average 10.3 throughout the 1st 82, then dropping to 9.7 in the playoffs. Shaq was the Big Efficiency in 2000, posting a PER of 30.6, then 30.5 in the playoffs. New-found respect is to be had for Tim Duncan for leading the ’05 Spurs over the Pistons, dragging Bruce Bowen and his 5.4 (!) PER along with him.
  • The Winning team had an average Offensive Rating (points scored per 100 possessions) league ranking of 7.5 (this year, the offensive rating would be 107.2, right between Phoenix and Houston) and a Defensive Ranking of 4.5 (again, this year the defensive rate would be 100, right behind the New Orleans Hornets and just ahead of Orlando) championships. The difference between how low their actual Defensive Rating (the lower the better) and their Offensive Rating (more points scored per 100 possessions) is 7.2. So in Essence, the Team Champ looks like this:


Team X  
Off Rtg 107.7 (7.5th )
Def Rtg 100 (4.5th)
Diff 7.2
Top 6 PER
Player Batman 26.1
Player Robin 21.3
Player A 14
Player B 14
Player C 14
Player D 14
TOT: 103.4 17.2


  • The Finals victims numbers still look great; they made it that far, right? The losing top 6 carry a PER of 98.3 throughout the regular season, actually jumping to 98.8 once the games “matter”. Losing big guns churn along at an efficiency of 22.7, headlined by Dirk Nowitzki’s sterling 26.8 PER during his 2006 Mavs’ campaign wigh ended in agonizing defeat at the hands of Dwyane Wade-n-Shaq led Miami Heat. The weak link on the second place teams sit at 12.5, dipping to 10.7 in the playoffs (held down by Sasha Pavlovic puking up a PER of 6.7 in the Cavs 2007 run).
  • Predictably, the losing squad lags behind the victors in both O and D rating league rankings; they rank 10.6th offensively and 6th defensively, with only 5.1 points separating their O Rating and D rating.


ALL of these numbers mean nothing without some context. Let’s see how the 16 teams currently on pace for the playoffs stack up.

Eastern Conference

Boston Celtics 38 – 12, 1st
Off Rtg 108.2 (12th)
Def Rtg 100.4 (2nd)
Diff 7.8
Top 6 PER
Kevin Garnett 21.2
Paul Pierce 20.1
Rajon Rondo 18.6
Ray Allen 17.8
Glen Davis 13
*Marquis Daniels 11.8
TOT: 102.5 17.1

*Daniels is injured; next 2 in minutes are Nate Robinson (PER 10.8), Shaq (PER 17.3). Boston looks a lot like a real world Team X.

Miami Heat 37 – 14, 2nd
Off Rtg 111.3 (3rd)
Def Rtg 102.8 (5th)
Diff 8.5
Top 6 PER
LeBron James 27
Dwyane Wade 25.3
Chris Bosh 19.3
James Jones 11.9
Carlos Arroyo 9.8
Joel Anthony 7.3
TOT: 100.6 16.8

While the top 3 are excellent, the weak Next 3 will be their undoing. Solid.

Chicago Bulls 34 – 5, 3rd
Off Rtg 106 (19th)
Def Rtg 99.6 (1st)
Diff 6.4
Top 6 PER
Derrick Rose 22.7
Luol Deng 15.2
Taj Gibson 13.8
Kyle Korver 12.8
Carlos Boozer 21.4
Ronnie Brewer 12.6
TOT: 98.5 -16.4

*Injured Joachim Noah’s PER is 19.8; If he returns to form, Bulls have one of the bet trios, by PER, in the league. Their low O rating is offset by a stellar D rating.

Atlanta Hawks 33 – 18, 4th
Off Rtg 107.7 (14th)
Def Rtg 105.4 (13th)
Diff 2.3
Top 6 PER
Josh Smith 19
Al Horford 22.5
Joe Johnson 19.3
Mike Bibby 11.7
Jamal Crawford 16.2
Marvin Williams 13.9
TOT: 102.6 17.1

Nice balance at the top, but Mike Bibby is a Derek Fisher level weak link without a Kobe’ and Pau level set behind him. The completely average O and D rating, plus the tiny O/D rating differential spell irrelevance.

Orlando Magic 32 – 19, 5th
Off Rtg 108.6 (10th)
Def Rtg 102.5 (4th)
Diff 6.1
Top 6 PER
Dwight Howard 25.2
Jameer Nelson 15.8
Brandon Bass 16.7
JJ Redick 13
Jason Richardson 13.5
Hedo Turkoglu 13.7
TOT: 98.2 16.36

With no one on his team approaching his PER of 25.2, it’s obvious Howard doesn’t have the prerequisite help necessary; Hakeem Olajuwon he is not. He’s an elite player away.

NY Knicks 25 – 24, 6th
Off Rtg 109.7 (8th)
Def Rtg 109.4 (23rd)
Diff 0.3
Top 6 PER
Ray Felton 17.3
Amare’ Stoudemire 23.5
Wilson Chandler 15.8
Landry Fields 13.9
Danilo Gallinari 16.2
Toney Douglas 13
TOT: 99.7 16.6

Not bad offensively, but no #2 with Amare, shoddy defensive rating, and the miniscule differential say all that needs to be said. Definitely not a threat.

Philadelphia 76ers 23 – 46
Off Rtg 106.1 (18th)
Def Rtg 105.4 (12th)
Diff 0.7
Top 6 PER
Jrue Holiday 15.1
Elton Brand 19.1
Andre Iguodala 18
Thaddeus Young 17.7
Evan Turner 9.9
Louis Williams 18
TOT: 97.8 16.3

Strong at the guard spots, but the disappointing Evans and that ridiculous O/D rating differential, plus just not being very good, dims any light from Philly. With no PER above 20, and so-so D rating, the 76ers are far from contenders.

Indiana Pacers 20 – 27, 8th
Off Rtg 103.7 (24th)
Def Rtg 104.5 (8th)
Diff -0.8
Top 6 PER
Danny Granger 17.5
Mike Dunleavy Jr 14.5
Darren Collison 16.3
Roy Hibbert 15.5
Kareem Rush 10.9
James Posey 8.4
TOT: 83.1 13.85

As the only team in the Eastern Playoff picture with a NEGATIVE O/D rating Ratio, they might as well book they’re deep sea fishing trips for the 2nd week of the playoffs.

So far, judging from the past 13 years, only Boston looks like a real world beater. Tomorrow we’ll check how the Western Conference stacks up to the Efficiency Challenge.

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