Posted by Neil Paine on June 1, 2010
You might think the most similar Finals matchup to this week's upcoming Celtics-Lakers showdown is the one that took place between the same teams just two years ago. After all, most of the cast of characters is exactly the same as it was in '08, with the primary superficial differences being that Andrew Bynum is available for L.A. this time, Rajon Rondo has improved from a role player to a legit star for Boston, and Ron Artest was added to the Lakers in
Trevor Ariza's Vladimir Radmanovic's place.
However, the 2010 versions of both teams are actually dramatically different from their '08 incarnations when you look at their offensive & defensive performances relative to the league. To study this, I wanted to look at how said performances stack up to those of past NBA Finalists, and what the most comparable historical matchup is to this year's Lakers-Celtics duel. In order to measure offensive and defensive efficiencies for teams that played before 1973-74 (when the league didn't track the necessary data to calculate possessions), I had to develop a way to estimate possessions used from the stats that were kept back to 1951 (before 1951, they didn't even track rebounds!). I found that the best formula to predict a team's possessions used from the basic team totals that existed going back to 1950-51 was this:
Possessions ~ =-4.05*Wins - 3.96*Losses + 0.97*FG + 0.75*FGA + 0.70*FTA - 1.37*OReb + 0.53*TotReb + 0.31*Fouls - 0.50*Points +0.19*Opp. Pts
Amazingly, for full seasons this equation can predict most teams' possessions within +/- 104 of their actual total.
Armed with these estimates, I can now calculate offensive & defensive efficiency rates for every team in the NBA from 1951-2010. I can also compare those rates to the league average using what's called a z-score, or the # of standard deviations above or below average the team was in a given category. As an example, here are the best offenses and defenses of all-time (regular season + playoffs combined) using z-scores & the estimated efficiencies:
|All-Time Best Offenses||All-Time Best Defenses|
|2007||Phoenix Suns||10182||8775.7||116.0||3.25||1993||New York Knicks||9315||9409.9||99.0||2.72|
|2005||Phoenix Suns||10734||9245.7||116.1||2.92||1984||Milwaukee Bucks||9952||9693.9||102.7||2.31|
|1971||Milwaukee Bucks||11237||10385.1||108.2||2.72||1963||Boston Celtics||10437||11799.9||88.5||2.24|
|2010||Phoenix Suns||10753||9241.6||116.4||2.59||2004||San Antonio Spurs||7771||8211.1||94.6||2.19|
|1982||Denver Nuggets||10729||9463.4||113.4||2.56||1965||Boston Celtics||9669||11360.6||85.1||2.14|
|2004||Dallas Mavericks||9124||8231.5||110.8||2.49||1962||Boston Celtics||10489||12120.7||86.5||2.13|
|1975||Houston Rockets||9389||9015.3||104.1||2.40||1975||Washington Bullets||9700||10395.6||93.3||2.13|
|1987||Los Angeles Lakers||11826||10204.9||115.9||2.34||2008||Boston Celtics||9712||9633.4||100.8||2.11|
|2004||Sacramento Kings||9575||8677.1||110.3||2.33||1970||New York Knicks||10712||11259.6||95.1||2.08|
|2006||Phoenix Suns||11030||9748.3||113.1||2.31||1952||Minneapolis Lakers||6276||7742.7||81.1||2.06|
|2009||Phoenix Suns||8974||7845.5||114.4||2.13||1990||Detroit Pistons||9952||9779.1||101.8||2.05|
|1988||Boston Celtics||11074||9655.8||114.7||2.12||2003||New Jersey Nets||9198||9374.3||98.1||2.04|
|1998||Seattle Supersonics||9198||8125.0||113.2||2.07||1964||Boston Celtics||9382||11140.7||84.2||2.02|
|1996||Chicago Bulls||10378||8925.2||116.3||2.02||2007||Cleveland Cavaliers||9353||9320.3||100.4||2.00|
|1985||Los Angeles Lakers||12096||10552.3||114.6||2.01||1999||San Antonio Spurs||5617||5914.5||95.0||1.99|
|1978||San Antonio Spurs||10032||9395.3||106.8||2.00||2005||Detroit Pistons||9476||9485.3||99.9||1.99|
|1995||Seattle Supersonics||9444||8142.5||116.0||2.00||1989||Utah Jazz||8518||8283.9||102.8||1.98|
|2004||Seattle Supersonics||7964||7289.2||109.3||1.99||2000||Los Angeles Lakers||9807||10111.8||97.0||1.97|
|2002||Dallas Mavericks||9501||8602.3||110.4||1.98||1989||Detroit Pistons||9843||9566.1||102.9||1.96|
|1997||Seattle Supersonics||9535||8331.9||114.4||1.94||2008||Houston Rockets||8090||7985.3||101.3||1.94|
|1951||Rochester Royals||6930||7595.4||91.2||1.93||2002||Miami Heat||7276||7359.3||98.9||1.93|
|1993||Phoenix Suns||11813||10403.0||113.6||1.92||1959||Boston Celtics||9183||10757.3||85.4||1.93|
|1986||Los Angeles Lakers||11235||9921.6||113.2||1.86||1957||Boston Celtics||8258||9839.1||83.9||1.92|
|1994||Phoenix Suns||9940||8867.8||112.1||1.85||1994||New York Knicks||9696||9729.0||99.7||1.92|
|1962||Cincinnati Royals||10314||10483.5||98.4||1.84||2004||Detroit Pistons||8765||9161.8||95.7||1.92|
Given those two metrics, we can now measure which NBA Finalists are the most similar in both quality and offensive/defensive balance to this year's participants using least squares:
Bizarrely, neither team is truly similar to their 2008 incarnation; instead, they're actually fairly similar to each other! The 2010 Lakers are an above-average but hardly historically strong offensive team (+0.49) and a very good defensive one (+1.10); the 2008 Lakers were a very good offensive team (+1.31) and an above-average but hardly historically strong defensive one (+0.54). In other words, L.A. has totally flip-flopped its strengths since '08, becoming a defense-first team with merely a decent offense instead of an offense-first team with merely a decent defense. Meanwhile, Boston's split didn't change like the Lakers' did -- they simply got a lot worse in each area. In 2008, Boston had a very good offense (+1.06) and one of the greatest defenses of all time (+2.11); this year, they have a fairly average offense (+0.21) and a very good but not historically dominant defense (+1.23). This is clearly not the matchup that we saw two years ago.
OK, so which matchup is it most similar to, then? Again, let's turn to least squares, using all 4 participant's z-scores as the inputs:
|Year||LAL Equiv||Offense||Defense||BOS Equiv||Offense||Defense||Diff||Winner|
Of the top 25 most similar Finals matchups, the Lakers' equivalent won 13. However, only one matchup was extremely similar: the 1954 face-off between the Syracuse Nationals (2010 equivalent: Los Angeles) and the Minneapolis Lakers (2010 equivalent: Boston).
The Lakers were trying to wrap up their 3rd straight NBA title and their 5th NBA/BAA crown in 6 years, but even though they had home-court advantage, they should have been seen as underdogs, since Syracuse's SRS was a full point and a half better than Minneapolis'. The Lakers won Game 1 at home, 79-68, but the Nats responded by stealing Game 2 62-60 when Paul Seymour made a game-winner with 7 seconds to play. As the series shifted to Syracuse, George Mikan dominated Game 3 en route to an 81-67 win, but the Nationals tied the series with an 80-69 win in Game 4. The turning point was Game 5 in Syracuse, as the Lakers took a 3-2 lead with an 84-73 victory that pushed 'Cuse to the brink. Jim Neal's game-winner with 4 seconds left sealed a 65-63 Syracuse win and forced a 7th game, but Minneapolis prevailed 87-80 in the deciding matchup, securing the championship in what was their final season together before Mikan retired and the NBA's first dynasty broke apart. For their part, Syracuse would bounce back and win the title the following season in another 7-game classic. Given the parallels, it wouldn't be surprising to see the 2010 Celtics prevail in what could be their veterans' last dance -- much as their 1954 equivalents in Minneapolis did -- and watch the talented Lakers be in the thick of things yet again in 2011, just as Syracuse responded in 1955.
Or, these current teams could always write their own chapter in history. Either way, we'll find out starting on Thursday...