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Most Similar NBA Finalists & Finals Matchups

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
Year Team Pts ePoss eORtg Offense Year Team oppPts ePoss eDRtg Defense
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:

Year Team Offense Defense Diff Result
2010 LAL 0.49 1.10
1974 BOS 0.33 1.10 0.02 W
1994 HOU 0.41 0.94 0.03 W
1980 PHI 0.32 1.04 0.03 L
1953 NYK 0.67 1.05 0.04 L
2001 PHI 0.26 1.08 0.05 L
1954 SYR 0.77 1.09 0.08 L
2003 SAS 0.72 1.26 0.08 W
1990 POR 0.26 1.29 0.08 L
2006 MIA 0.20 1.08 0.08 W
2010 BOS 0.21 1.23 0.09
2009 ORL 0.58 1.43 0.12 L
1954 MNL 0.21 1.44 0.19 W
1998 CHI 0.67 1.51 0.20 W
1975 GSW 0.77 0.70 0.25 W
1960 BOS 0.41 1.61 0.26 W
1992 POR 1.01 1.05 0.27 L
1973 NYK 1.00 0.94 0.29 W
1977 POR 1.05 1.03 0.32 W
1968 BOS -0.05 1.33 0.34 W
Year Team Offense Defense Diff Result
2010 BOS 0.21 1.23
1990 POR 0.26 1.29 0.01 L
2006 MIA 0.20 1.08 0.02 W
2001 PHI 0.26 1.08 0.03 L
1974 BOS 0.33 1.10 0.03 W
1954 MNL 0.21 1.44 0.04 W
1980 PHI 0.32 1.04 0.05 L
1968 BOS -0.05 1.33 0.08 W
2010 LAL 0.49 1.10 0.09
1994 HOU 0.41 0.94 0.13 W
2004 LAL -0.13 1.07 0.14 L
1969 BOS -0.08 1.54 0.18 W
2009 ORL 0.58 1.43 0.18 L
1967 SFW -0.19 1.10 0.18 L
1960 BOS 0.41 1.61 0.18 W
1976 BOS -0.28 1.23 0.24 W
1953 NYK 0.67 1.05 0.24 L
2003 SAS 0.72 1.26 0.26 W
1998 CHI 0.67 1.51 0.29 W
1954 SYR 0.77 1.09 0.33 L

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
2010 LAL 0.49 1.10 BOS 0.21 1.23
1954 SYR 0.77 1.09 MNL 0.21 1.44 0.12 MNL
1953 MNL 1.07 1.01 NYK 0.67 1.05 0.60 MNL
1994 HOU 0.41 0.94 NYK -0.08 1.92 0.60 HOU
1998 UTA 1.03 0.69 CHI 0.67 1.51 0.75 CHI
1990 POR 0.26 1.29 DET 0.28 2.05 0.76 DET
1969 LAL 0.87 0.42 BOS -0.08 1.54 0.78 BOS
2003 SAS 0.72 1.26 NJN -0.03 2.04 0.79 SAS
2002 LAL 0.70 1.75 NJN -0.21 1.64 0.80 LAL
2009 LAL 1.31 1.31 ORL 0.58 1.43 0.90 LAL
2004 LAL -0.13 1.07 DET -0.11 1.92 0.96 DET
2001 LAL 1.25 0.49 PHI 0.26 1.08 0.99 LAL
1975 GSW 0.77 0.70 WSB 0.31 2.13 1.06 GSW
1958 STL 0.29 0.34 BOS 0.13 1.91 1.10 STL
2006 DAL 1.40 0.52 MIA 0.20 1.08 1.20 MIA
2005 SAS 0.86 1.75 DET -0.24 1.99 1.32 SAS
1974 MIL 1.62 1.33 BOS 0.33 1.10 1.35 BOS
1955 FTW 0.84 0.21 SYR -0.46 1.33 1.38 SYR
1978 WSB -0.39 1.16 SEA -0.57 1.33 1.41 WSB
1973 LAL 1.33 0.91 NYK 1.00 0.94 1.45 NYK
1979 WSB -0.18 1.72 SEA -0.49 1.63 1.48 SEA
1970 LAL 0.50 0.37 NYK 0.90 2.08 1.74 NYK
1986 BOS 1.39 1.72 HOU 0.44 0.51 1.76 BOS
1967 PHI 1.72 0.72 SFW -0.19 1.10 1.84 PHI
1977 PHI 0.97 0.16 POR 1.05 1.03 1.86 POR
1992 CHI 1.40 1.76 POR 1.01 1.05 1.92 CHI

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...

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23 Responses to “Most Similar NBA Finalists & Finals Matchups”

  1. AHL Says:

    Shouldn't the 1998 teams be switched? :)

  2. Neil Paine Says:

    Out of fear of Kobe hate mail, I will abstain from comment. :-)

  3. AYC Says:

    Celts in 6; Rondo wins finals MVP....

  4. sidole Says:

    Seems like a Boston sweep,Kobe will shoot around 35%.Rajon for finals MVP having averaged a trip/doub.

  5. PKY Says:

    How about throwing the regular season numbers out the window and using only the playoff numbers prior to the finals, since this year's Boston regular season performance is different from their playoff run?

  6. Mohan Says:

    I think in essence you should mention that Artest replaces from Radmonovich from that 2008 team as ariza played a miniscule role in those finals.. and Artest is a huge improvement from Vladrad...

  7. dquinn Says:

    Good stuff! Love the fact the old Celtics rate well defensively.

    In your formula, do you estimate offensive rebounds in years where it is not known? If so, what % of the total are you assuming are offensive?

    Thanks

  8. Neil Paine Says:

    Mohan - Good point; Artest literally took Ariza's place on the Laker roster, but in terms of the 2008 team's minutes, he's taking all of Radmanovic's and also eating into some of Odom's.

  9. Neil Paine Says:

    Dquinn - I should have noted this, but I'm assuming 30% of total rebounds are offensive for years where the data is missing. (Justin does this in his pre-1974 PER estimate: http://www.basketball-reference.com/about/per.html)

  10. zorza Says:

    Since the 95-96 Chicago Bulls hold the best regular season record at 72-10, I would have expected them to be at the top of both lists, since they had won the most games and lost the fewest...however my understanding of statistics is meager...I guess in my mind the win/loss record should be weighted more?

  11. Gerrit Says:

    Neil,

    In this post you show the Celtics as having the better defense. But in the preview post you show the Lakers as having the better defense. Which is it?

  12. Neil Paine Says:

    Gerrit - This post uses combined regular season + playoffs data, while the preview post just uses regular-season numbers. I haven't run the numbers yet to adjust for playoff SOS, but playing Phoenix definitely made L.A.'s playoff numbers look worse.

  13. Neil Paine Says:

    Zorza - W/L isn't explicitly factored into the "best offenses & defenses" table, but there's an extremely strong relationship between offensive & defensive ratings and team winning %, so it's implicitly in there. The '96 Bulls were neither the best offensive nor the best defensive team of all time, but they combined offense and defense better than any other team ever:

    Year Team W L Win% Offense Defense Comb
    1996 Chicago Bulls 87 13 0.870 2.02 1.67 3.70
    1971 Milwaukee Bucks 78 18 0.813 2.72 0.69 3.40
    1997 Chicago Bulls 84 17 0.832 1.76 1.48 3.24
    2009 Cleveland Cavaliers 76 20 0.792 1.41 1.83 3.24
    2008 Boston Celtics 82 26 0.759 1.06 2.11 3.17
    1992 Chicago Bulls 82 22 0.788 1.40 1.76 3.16
    1986 Boston Celtics 82 18 0.820 1.39 1.72 3.11
    1970 New York Knicks 72 29 0.713 0.90 2.08 2.99
    1991 Chicago Bulls 76 23 0.768 1.75 1.23 2.98
    1974 Milwaukee Bucks 70 28 0.714 1.62 1.33 2.94
    1972 Milwaukee Bucks 69 24 0.742 1.80 1.03 2.83
    1987 Los Angeles Lakers 80 20 0.800 2.34 0.48 2.82
    2007 San Antonio Spurs 74 28 0.725 1.24 1.58 2.82
    1994 Seattle Supersonics 65 22 0.747 1.67 1.13 2.80
    1972 Los Angeles Lakers 81 16 0.835 1.80 0.98 2.78
    1976 Golden State Warriors 66 29 0.695 1.24 1.47 2.71
    1980 Boston Celtics 66 25 0.725 1.82 0.89 2.71
    2007 Phoenix Suns 67 26 0.720 3.25 -0.55 2.70
    2009 Los Angeles Lakers 81 24 0.771 1.31 1.31 2.62
    2005 San Antonio Spurs 75 30 0.714 0.86 1.75 2.61
    1984 Boston Celtics 77 28 0.733 1.07 1.52 2.59
    1981 Milwaukee Bucks 63 26 0.708 1.42 1.17 2.59
    2010 Orlando Magic 69 27 0.719 1.59 1.00 2.58
    2001 San Antonio Spurs 65 30 0.684 0.93 1.62 2.56
    1997 Utah Jazz 77 25 0.755 1.24 1.26 2.51
    1995 Seattle Supersonics 58 28 0.674 2.00 0.50 2.50
    1981 Philadelphia 76ers 71 27 0.724 1.08 1.42 2.49
    1997 Seattle Supersonics 63 31 0.670 1.94 0.54 2.47
    1978 Portland Trail Blazers 60 28 0.682 0.77 1.69 2.46
    1999 San Antonio Spurs 52 15 0.776 0.46 1.99 2.45
    2002 Los Angeles Lakers 73 28 0.723 0.70 1.75 2.45
    1995 Utah Jazz 62 25 0.713 1.34 1.10 2.44
    1975 Washington Bullets 68 31 0.687 0.31 2.13 2.44
    1967 Philadelphia 76ers 79 17 0.823 1.72 0.72 2.44
    1989 Cleveland Cavaliers 59 28 0.678 0.91 1.49 2.40
    1986 Milwaukee Bucks 64 32 0.667 1.03 1.37 2.40
    2002 Sacramento Kings 71 27 0.724 1.20 1.20 2.40
    2007 Dallas Mavericks 69 19 0.784 1.61 0.78 2.39
    2008 Detroit Pistons 69 30 0.697 0.69 1.68 2.37
    1985 Los Angeles Lakers 77 24 0.762 2.01 0.35 2.36
    1990 Detroit Pistons 74 28 0.725 0.28 2.05 2.33
    1989 Detroit Pistons 78 21 0.788 0.37 1.96 2.32
    1989 Phoenix Suns 62 32 0.660 0.94 1.38 2.32
    1986 Los Angeles Lakers 70 26 0.729 1.86 0.46 2.32
    1985 Milwaukee Bucks 62 28 0.689 0.64 1.68 2.32
    2009 Boston Celtics 69 27 0.719 0.87 1.43 2.30
    1973 Milwaukee Bucks 62 26 0.705 1.19 1.11 2.30
    1981 Boston Celtics 74 25 0.747 1.23 1.06 2.29
    2002 San Antonio Spurs 62 30 0.674 0.92 1.36 2.28
    1983 Philadelphia 76ers 77 18 0.811 1.36 0.92 2.28
  14. Jason J Says:

    I believe those '96 Bulls have the highest average margin of victory ever. If I'm not mistaken the '97 Bulls have the second highest. Part of the reason for that is that the league was fairly top-heavy at the time (and if you look at other teams with total wins in the high-60s that tends to be true as well), but ironically that '96 team lost to expansion Toronto Raptors. One out of ten total losses came to a bottom feeder.

  15. Neil Paine Says:

    I should do a post on "worst losses by a dominant club"... Everybody has to lose sometime, and for a force of nature like those Bulls, any loss is probably a "bad loss". But some are more embarrassing than others.

  16. MCT Says:

    Looking at the teams near the top of each "All-Time Best" list, most were very good teams, and/or had a reputation as a very good offensive or defensive team (even if some couldn't put both sides together, and therefore may not have been a great team overall). One team jumps out at me as not obviously fitting this criteria, though: the '75 Rockets, who are #7 on the All-Time Best Offense list. They were a little before my time, but I don't remember ever seeing them identified as an offensive juggernaut. They had a .500 record. In terms of raw points scored, they ranked 6th in a 18-team league. They did have Rudy T. and Calvin Murphy; they seem like they would have been a pretty good offensive team, but not neccesarily a historically great one. What's the backstory that makes them rank so high?

  17. Jason J Says:

    That poor '94 Sonics team... it is both impressive and sad that they rank so high on that list...

    Quick question: if the Sonics don't fall to Denver in the first round, do they beat Houston later in the playoffs? They did in '93. Kenny Smith has a theory that in the playoffs in the early 90s the Suns always beat the Sonics, the Sonics always beat the Rockets, and the Rockets always beat the Suns, and that it was more about matchups than overall talent between those clubs.

  18. Neil Paine Says:

    The 1975 Rockets had a slow pace, which hurt their PPG numbers. They had the league's best regular season Offensive Efficiency that year, 2nd in FG%, 2nd in FT%. In the playoffs, their offense was ridiculous, 8 points/100 possessions better than the league average. With a better defense, that team would have been dominant.

  19. Neil Paine Says:

    Rock, Paper, Scissors... I wonder whether we can ID specific "rock-paper-scissors" matchup situations in the past from the season series between teams? Could be an interesting post at some point.

  20. Brian Says:

    So Neal, according to your math, in the last 6 years The Phoenix Suns have had five of the ten best offenses in league history. And seeing as how Steve Nash is the common denominator in all of this; that would make Steve Nash the greatest offensive player in NBA history. Really?

    I'm a Phoenix resident, and I've been shaking my head at Steve Nash's greatness for six years. I've always thought he might be one of the top ten offensive players of all time, or even top five. But the best? I'll have to think about it. What does your math say?

  21. Ryan Says:

    I uploaded the Bulls' '96 loss to Toronto a couple years ago, here's my YouTube highlight-cap:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EruzMMs6wTM

    Sorry the quality is so poor, I uploaded it before YouTube allowed HD/HQ videos.

  22. Larry Says:

    Neil thinks nash is one of the greatest offensive players of all time, i don't know but those numbers are bull to me....it proves nothing. nash never made it to a finals, never will win a title and can't guard anyone.

  23. Neil Paine Says:

    Brian - It's not that simple, because the Suns' performance also had to do with the system, the coach, the supporting players, etc. But yes, regardless, Nash is one of the greatest offensive players of all time.

    And to Larry, I'm not really sure why Nash's individual defensive shortcomings and a lack of team championships -- again, because he and his teammates have been subpar defensively -- would have any bearing on his offensive ability...