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Do the Clippers have the D to contend?


VIDEO: NBA Action: What makes the Clippers tick

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The Los Angeles Clippers are in a unique position. They’re the only team that won a playoff series last year and is set to hold home-court advantage in the first round this year.

Note: Winning the Northwest Division guarantees the Blazers a top-4 seed, but they wouldn’t have home-court advantage against a lower seed with a better record (like L.A. has right now).

The Clippers are also the worst defensive team among Western Conference playoff squads. They rank 18th in defensive efficiency through Wednesday, having allowed 103.1 points per 100 possessions.

For the fourth straight season, the Clippers have a top-five offense. But each of the last two seasons, the they’ve complemented and elite offense with a top-10 defense. This year, they have not. They’re below average on D, with the sixth biggest regression on that end of the floor from last season to this one.

History tells us that you need a top-10 defense to contend for a championship. The Clippers play the Sixers on Friday and have two more games against the Lakers, but that’s probably not enough to get them near the top-10 by April 15.

So where have the Clippers fallen off? The numbers point to 3-point defense and an inability to keep their opponents off the free throw line.

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The 3-point defense had nowhere to go but down after ranking No. 1 last season, and it’s been better (fewer attempts) since the All-Star break. The free throws continue to be a problem. The Clippers have given up 19.2 points per game at the free throw line, 2.0 more than the league average. Take away those two points per game and they’re a top-10 defense.

The Clippers’ defensive system puts pressure on both their bigs and their perimeter players. They bring the bigs out high to defend pick-and-rolls…

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This scheme usually takes the ball out of the ball-handler’s hands. Opposing ball-handler’s have passed the ball on 68 percent of ball screens that the Clippers have defended, the highest rate in the league, according to SportVU.

But the scheme, in turn, puts pressure on the Clippers’ wings, who have to help on the opposing big when he rolls to the basket. And if he catches the ball, those wings are often in a position to do nothing but foul or concede a layup…

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If the ball doesn’t go to the roll man, that guy who was helping on the roll now has to close out on the perimeter to both contest a shot and contain a drive…

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And if the drive isn’t contained, the pressure goes back to the bigs to defend both the driver and his own man.

Other teams employ a similar scheme. The Miami Heat often suffocated their opponents with it when they had LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on the wings. But when the Heat’s defense wasn’t on point, it could be broken down by teams that passed the ball well (see Spurs, San Antonio).

The Clippers don’t have James or Wade. They have J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers trying to help on those rolls, recover out to those shooters, and contain those drives. And those guys aren’t quick enough or disciplined enough to do all that on a high level and on a consistent basis.

The opponents’ free throw rate has been highest with the Clippers’ reserves on the floor. When it comes to both the opponent free throw rate and overall defense, there’s a big gap drop-off when at least one of their starters takes a seat.

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And that goes back to the big issue regarding the Clippers. Their starting lineup is among the best in the league, while their bench (especially with Crawford out) is a liability. The roster moves of team president Doc Rivers are going to test the patience of head coach Doc Rivers when his reserves are on the floor in the playoffs.

Chris Paul isn’t worried too much about where his team stands defensively in the regular season, believing that, once the postseason begins, it’s all about matchups.

“When you get to the playoffs, all of the other stuff that you did during the season goes out the window,” Paul said Wednesday. “All of those stats ain’t going to mean nothing if you’re playing against a team that you can never beat.”

The Clippers have played all of their fellow Western Conference playoff teams pretty evenly. And they have a top-10 defense against four of the seven, including the team – Portland – they’re currently in position to face in the first round and the team – Golden State – they’d most likely face in the conference semifinals if they got there.

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But history disagrees with Paul. In the last 37 years (since turnovers started being counted in 1977), only one team has ranked as low as 18th defensively and reached The Finals. That team was the 2000-01 Lakers (defending champs at the time), who ranked 19th defensively, flipped the switch once the playoffs began, and went 15-1 with the best defense in the postseason.

The Clippers don’t have championship experience on which they can fall back. Nor, does it seem, do they have a defense on which they can rely.

In MVP chatter, touches speak loudly

VIDEO: James Harden explodes for a career-high 50 points on Thursday

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – You often hear broadcasters say that Player X needs to touch the ball on a critical possession down the stretch. And when they need a big bucket, most teams do just put the ball in their best player’s hands and tell him to go to work.

But that player will be on the floor for about 70 possessions per game and more than 5,000 possessions over the course of the season. In the past, we’ve measured how well a team performs when a player is on or off the floor. And now, SportVU’s player tracking cameras can tell us how important it is that a player actually touches the ball.

For example, here are the top six MVP candidates, with their team’s efficiency when they touch the ball (in the frontcourt), when they don’t touch the ball, and when they’re off the floor…

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For all six, their presence on the floor is pretty darn important to their team’s offense. But while the other guys also need to touch the ball, the Cavs’ offense is potent whether LeBron James touches it or not.

The Clippers have the No. 1 offense in the league (by a hair over the Warriors) and Chris Paul obviously deserves a ton of credit for it. The difference between L.A.’s efficiency on possessions he has touched the ball (116.0 points per 100 possessions) and on possessions he has not touched it or been off the floor (98.3) is the largest in the league among players who have been on the floor for at least 2,000 offensive possessions. It’s a crowded field, but Paul has a legit MVP case.

Davis, of course, can’t just bring the ball up the floor like the rest of these guys can. (Well, maybe he could, but he has yet to unleash that facet of his game.) He’s touched the ball on only 53 percent of the Pelicans’ possessions while he’s been on the floor. That ranks 118th among 218 players who have been on the floor for at least 2,000 offensive possessions and, obviously, last among the six guys we’re focusing on.

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In fact, there are 36 power forwards and centers, led by Blake Griffin at 68.0 percent, with a higher touch percentage than Davis. Kris Humphries (56.1 percent) has been more likely to touch the ball on a Wizards possession he’s been on the floor for than Davis has been to touch it on a Pelicans possession.

Pelicans coach Monty Williams acknowledged the challenge of getting the ball to Davis as much as he needs it before a game last week.

“That’s why it’s difficult at times,” Williams said, “for him to have the kind of night [43 points, six assists, 17-for-23 shooting] like he did [in Milwaukee on March 9], because he can’t get the ball in an out-of-bounds situation, bring it up and go to work.

“We have made more of a focus to get him the ball, but we also don’t want to exhaust it so much that nobody else gets a rhythm. And I think he likes it that way, because it keeps teams off-balance at times.”

Some more notes from SportVU’s touch-no-touch numbers …

  • John Wall leads the league in touch percentage at 89.4 percent. He touches the ball in the frontcourt on nine out of every 10 Wizards possessions he’s on the floor for. Not coincidentally, he leads the league in time of possession per game.
  • Stan Van Gundy likes to have the ball in the hands of his point guards. Brandon Jennings is right behind Wall at 88.9 percent and third on the list is D.J. Augustin (Detroit minutes only) at 87.9 percent. Reggie Jackson touched the ball on just 70 percent of Thunder possessions, but has touched it on 87 percent of Pistons possessions he’s been on the floor for.
  • Robin Lopez is last in touch percentage, having touched the ball on only 33.5 percent of the Blazers’ possessions he’s been on the floor for. He’s followed by Andre Drummond (33.9 percent), Anthony Morrow (35.7 percent), Bojan Bogdanovic (35.9 percent) and Andre Roberson (37.9 percent). Those poor Thunder wings.
  • With Danilo Gallinari on the floor, the Nuggets have scored 112.7 points per 100 possessions when Gallinari has touched the ball and only 91.3 when he hasn’t. That’s the largest discrepancy among players who have been on the floor for at least 2,000 possessions and it requires further examination. Gallo hasn’t shot the ball particularly well and his teammates haven’t shot it particularly well off his passes either.

Schedule says Thunder have edge on Pelicans for playoff spot


VIDEO: Pelicans GM Dell Demps assesses his teams hopes for a playoff berth

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – With just 30 days to go in the 2014-15 season, the battles for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference and the last two spots in the East have never been tighter.

After losing in Dallas on Monday, the Oklahoma City Thunder have a half game lead on the New Orleans Pelicans for eighth in the West. The Pelicans have the tiebreaker with a 3-1 head-to-head record, but the Thunder have an easier remaining schedule, with more home games, fewer back-to-backs, and fewer games against teams with winning records.

Here’s an updated look at remaining schedules for the entire Western Conference …

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Here’s an explanation of the “Adj.,” column, which starts with the opponent NetRtg for each game and makes the following adjustments:

  • plus-2.6* for a road game.
  • minus-2.6 for a home game.
  • plus-2.6** when the team is playing the second night of a back-to-back and the opponent isn’t.
  • minus-2.6 when the opponent is playing the second night of a back-to-back and the team isn’t.

* Home teams have outscored road teams by 2.6 points per 100 possessions this season.
** When one team played the night before and the other didn’t, the rested team has been a plus-2.6 this season.

A couple of notes on the West:

  • Mathematically, the Phoenix Suns still have a shot at a playoff spot. But the toughest remaining schedule in the league is enough to dismiss them. They’re 1-5 against teams currently over .500 since the All-Star break and play 12 of their final 14 games against that group.
  • The L.A. Clippers just finished a stretch where they played 17 of 21 games against teams that are currently over .500. They’re rewarded with the easiest remaining schedule of the 10 teams that have a shot in the playoffs. They’re currently in seventh place, but are just a half game out of fifth and are 24-4 against teams that are currently under .500.
  • The Grizzlies still have some work to do to hold on to the No. 2 seed. They have just a one-game lead in the loss column over the Portland Trail Blazers, who have an easier remaining schedule.

Here’s the remaining schedules in the East …

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  • The Boston Celtics, Charlotte Hornets, Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat are all tied with 36 losses, and they all have relatively tough schedules remaining.
  • None of the four have more home games than road games remaining.
  • The Hornets play more losing teams than winning teams, but also have the most back-to-backs remaining in the league, starting with Tuesday’s visit to the Clippers after Monday’s drubbing in Utah.
  • The Pacers and Celtics have the most momentum of the group, but also have the toughest remaining schedules. Both Boston (3-2) and Indiana (4-2) do have winning records since the All-Star break against teams with winning records, though.
  • The most home games remaining should be an opportunity for Brooklyn to get back in that 7-10 mix, but the Nets are a league-worst 3-11 at home in 2015.
  • Don’t hand the Cleveland Cavaliers the No. 2 seed just yet. The Toronto Raptors are only a game behind in the loss column, play 12 of their final 15 games against teams under .500, and are 25-7 against that group so far.
  • An easier remaining schedule should give the Chicago Bulls an edge over the Washington Wizards in the race for the No. 4 seed (and home-court advantage in a first-round matchup). They’re currently tied in the loss column, with Chicago holding the tiebreaker edge (better conference record, with a 2-2 tie in head-to-head meetings).

The kings of late-clock situations


VIDEO: Kyrie Irving’s Big Night

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – As Kyrie Irving went off for a career-high 57 points on Thursday, he got some help from LeBron James in the Cavs’ 128-125 overtime win in San Antonio.

James’ 31 points included three 3-pointers (on three attempts) in the fourth quarter and overtime. The second one gave them the Cavs lead for good in the middle of OT, and the third was the dagger with 32 seconds left.

All three of those threes came in the last six seconds of the shot clock, when James is used to shooting. For the second straight season, James leads the league in shots taken in the last six seconds of the clock, according to SportVU.

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Most of the guys on the list above haven’t shot particularly well in the last six seconds of the clock. As was noted in last week’s story on the Warriors’ pace, shooting and efficiency go down with the expiration of the shot clock.

But there are some guys who have shot well late in the clock. Stephen Curry has an effective field goal percentage of 65.7 percent on shots in the last six seconds of the clock, highest among 173 players who have attempted at least 50 late-clock shots. He’s actually shot better in the last six seconds of the clock than he’s shot in the first 18. Of 188 players who have attempted at least 300 *initial-possession shots, only 24 have shot better in late-clock situations.

* Initial possession = Not after an offensive rebound.

But Curry gets almost all of his work done early in the clock. Of those 188 players, Curry has taken the lowest percentage of his initial-possession shots in the last six seconds of the clock. The anti-Curry is Norris Cole, who has attempted 25.3 percent of his initial-possession shots in the last six seconds, playing for two teams that rank in the bottom five in pace.

Irving, meanwhile, is one of six guys with an effective field goal percentage of 50 percent or better on at least 100 late-clock shots.

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You could say that he’s the King of Late Clock.

One Stat, One Play: Spurs will make you put the ball on the floor


VIDEO: One Stat, One Play: Spurs limit the catch-and-shoot

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The San Antonio Spurs are coming alive.

The champs have their second-worst winning percentage of the Tim Duncan era, but have won six straight games to move up to sixth place in the Western Conference. With the team’s top four perimeter players all shooting better than 50 percent during the winning streak, the Spurs’ offense has been the sharpest its been (112.6 points scored per 100 possessions) since early December.

The Spurs still rank outside the top 10 in offensive efficiency for the first time in six years. Their shooting has dropped off both in the paint and from 3-point range.

Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard have both dealt with injuries and taken steps backward on that end of the floor. And Boris Diaw hasn’t provided his usual brilliance off the bench.

But the Spurs have been getting the job done defensively all season. They rank in the top five in defensive efficiency for the third straight season and 14th time in Duncan’s 18 years in the league. No other franchise has ranked in the top five more than seven of those years.

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One reason the Spurs are so good defensively is their ability to limit their opponent’s catch-and-shoot jumpers. They allow just 21.2 per game, the fewest in the league.

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Effective field goal percentage drops significantly when you can make your opponent put the ball on the floor, mostly because your pushing him inside the 3-point line. But catch-and-shoot jumpers are also better shots (for the offense) from a pure make-or-miss perspective.

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The Spurs limit their opponent’s catch-and-shoot opportunities in a few different ways…

  1. They pressure the ball, making it tougher to make a direct pass to an open shooter.
  2. Their bigs hang back on pick-and-rolls, so that their teammates don’t have to help much on the roll man and can stay at home on the shooters.
  3. They close out aggressively, but at an angle to keep the ball away from the middle of the floor, where more passing lanes are available.
  4. If there is any help on pick-and-rolls, it doesn’t come out of the strong-side corner.

The video above is the latest installment “One Stat, One Play,” a look at a possession from Sunday where the Spurs prevent a Bulls catch-and-shoot jumper with a lot of the principles listed above. Chicago shot just 3-for-13 on catch-and-shoot jumpers in the Spurs’ win.

The Spurs put their six-game winning streak on the line against the visiting Cavs at 9:30 p.m. ET on Thursday in the second game of TNT’s doubleheader. Cleveland doesn’t shoot a lot of catch-and-shoot jumpers as a team, but Kevin Love and J.R. Smith both rank among the league leaders.

One Stat, One Play: Russ in transition


VIDEO: One Stat, One Play: Westbrook in transition

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Russell Westbrook‘s game was already ridiculous, but he’s taken things to a new level in the last few weeks.

Westbrook won Western Conference Player of the Month honors by averaging 31.2 points, 9.1 rebounds and 10.3 assists in February. And after missing a game to recover from a broken face, he put up 49 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists in his first game of March, an overtime win over the Sixers on Wednesday. It was his fourth straight triple-double and it made him the league’s leading scorer at 27.0 points per game.

The highlight of Westbrook’s performance was a coast-to-coast drive for a two-handed flushafter a timeout. It was Russ at his best, getting the ball on the defensive end of the floor, taking off in a full sprint, and not slowing down until he’s thrown down a vicious dunk.

Those were two of Westbrook’s 16 fast break points against Philly. Of the 25 other teams who played on Wednesday, only eight of them had as many fast break points as Westbrook had himself.

The 16 boosted Westbrook’s average to 7.8 fast break points per game, by far the highest average for any player since 1996-97 (when we could start tracking fast break points).

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The video above is the latest installment “One Stat, One Play,” a quick look at Westbrook in transition.

It starts with defense. The Thunder rank 11th in defensive efficiency, but second in opponent field goal percentage. They force missed shots better than any team but the Golden State Warriors.

Westbrook rebounds a lot of those missed shots. He’s grabbed 15.6 percent of available defensive rebounds, the highest rate of his career and a rate which ranks third among point guards who have played at least 1,000 minutes.

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And when Westbrook gets the rebound himself, the break has started before his comes back down. So get your butt back on D and hope you can slow him down.

Westbrook takes his triple-double streak and his transition game to Chicago at 8 p.m. ET Thursday for the first game of TNT’s double-header.

One Stat, One Play: A defensive lineup in Cleveland


VIDEO: One Stat, One Play: Cavs Starting 5

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Thursday’s Warriors-Cavs game on TNT (8 p.m. ET) is a matchup of the two best starting lineups in the league.

Golden State’s starters have been fantastic all season, leading them to a league-best 44-10 record and top-two rankings in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Cleveland’s starting lineup has been together for just six weeks, but it’s been the league’s best lineup that has played at least 200 minutes.

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Like the Warriors’ starters, the Cavs’ group has been great on both ends of the floor. But the defense has been more important. Cleveland has been a bottom-10 defensive team all season, but they rank 13th since LeBron James returned from his two-week break on Jan. 13.

James has come back with more energy on both ends of the floor. And the addition of Timofey Mozgov have given the Cavs some much-needed rim protection.

Since he arrived from Denver, opponents have shot just 45.0 percent at the rim when Mozgov’s been their to defend it, a mark that ranks sixth in the league and is down from 48.8 percent in his 35 games with the Nuggets.

And Mozgov’s presence has allowed his teammates to defend the perimeter better. Cavs opponents have shot less and worse from 3-point range since James’ return, especially against the Cleveland starters.

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The video above is the latest installment “One Stat, One Play,” a look at a defensive possession where the Cavs are active, aggressive on the perimeter, and on a string, forcing a 24-second violation out of the Washington Wizards.

The Cavs still have a long way to go defensively. They still rank 22nd through Wednesday. But with how good their offense has been (it ranks No. 1 since James’ return), a little improvement on defense can go a long way.

There are a lot of reasons to watch Warriors-Cavs on Thursday. And the success of both starting lineups should have you tuning in right at 8:00.

Heat, Thunder could benefit from easy remaining schedules


VIDEO: GameTime: Will the Thunder make the playoffs?

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The unofficial second half of the season gets underway Thursday night with a TNT doubleheader featuring four Western Conference teams looking to improve their position in the standings.

With about 2/3 of the season complete and 432 games left to play, there’s still much to be determined. It will mostly be determined by how each team plays, but also by who each team plays and where each team plays.

With that in mind, we have a breakdown of each team’s strength of schedule going forward.

First, a little explanation. Basic strength of schedule looks at the cumulative record of a team’s opponents. To get a little more advanced, we can look at the average NetRtg (point differential per 100 possessions) of those opponents. A team’s point differential is more indicative of future success than its record.

But there are other factors to how easy or difficult a team’s schedule is. There’s home vs. away and there’s back-to-backs, both for the team and their opponents.

We can account for those by adjusting the opponent’s NetRtg in either direction…

  • plus-2.6* for a road game.
  • minus-2.6 for a home game.
  • plus-2.3** when the team is playing the second night of a back-to-back and the opponent isn’t.
  • minus-2.3 when the opponent is playing the second night of a back-to-back and the team isn’t.

* Home teams have outscored road teams by 2.6 points per 100 possessions this season.
** When one team played the night before and the other didn’t, the rested team has been a plus-2.3 this season.

So the toughest game a team could play would be vs. the Warriors (+12.3) at Oracle Arena (+2.6) on the second night of a back-to-back, when the Warriors didn’t play the night before (+2.3). Nine different teams, including the Spurs on Friday, play such games.

The easiest game would be vs. the Sixers (-10.3) at home (-2.6), with rest and with Philly playing the second night of a back-to-back (-2.3). Three teams — Miami, Denver and New York — play such games.

There’s some math involved, but it’s not too complicated. With that in mind, here’s a look at the Eastern Conference, sorted by average adjusted opponent NetRtg (toughest schedule at the top, easiest at the bottom), but with traditional measures of strength of schedule as well.

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A couple of notes on the East…

  • The Cavs not only have the toughest schedule in regard to the records of their remaining opponents, they’re also on the road for 16 of the 27 games, including 14 of the next 19. That could make it harder for them to make a run at the No. 2 seed.
  • No team in the league has more remaining road games than the Raptors (18).
  • Of the six teams that have a shot at the last two playoff spots, Charlotte and Detroit have the toughest schedules, while Miami and Indiana have the easiest.

Here’s the West…

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  • The Mavs play the toughest set of opponents, but a lot of them will be on the second night of a back-to-back.
  • The Grizzlies have the most remaining back-to-backs. Two of the 10 will finish with visits to the Clippers.
  • The Warriors’ 21 games against teams currently over .500 are two more than any other team has.
  • The Thunder not only have Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and some pre-break momentum, but they have an easier schedule than both Phoenix and New Orleans in the battle for the eighth playoff spot. They have the most home-heavy remaining schedule in the league.

If you added a recency factor and used numbers from after Christmas instead of the whole season (which would account for improvement from the Hornets, Pistons and Thunder and regression from the Heat, Kings and Lakers), the schedule would look even easier for Oklahoma City. It would look tougher for Chicago and Washington.

One Stat, One Play: Mid-range Aldridge


VIDEO: One Stat, One Play: Aldridge from mid-range

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The mid-range shot is the worst shot on the floor, worth only 0.80 points per shot across the league. A bad 3-point shooter (30 percent) scores as many points per shot as a good mid-range shooter (45 percent).

No player takes nearly as many mid-range shots as LaMarcus Aldridge, who has led the league each of the last three seasons.

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Aldridge doesn’t shoot mid-range shots well enough for them to be an efficient option by themselves. But the Blazers have been one of the league’s best offenses over the last three years, combining Aldridge’s post-up game with Damian Lillard‘s playmaking and the most prolific 3-point shooting outside of Houston.

Most of the time, the Blazers enter the ball directly to Aldridge in the mid post and let him go to work one-on-one. According to SportVU, Aldridge leads the league in isolations this season.

But the Blazers can get Aldridge better looks by putting him on the move, with Lillard drawing the attention of the defense and getting it to Aldridge in his comfort zone (the left side of the floor) with space.

The video above is the latest installment “One Stat, One Play,” featuring a couple of plays where the Blazers do just that. According to SportVU, Aldridge has shot 53 percent off the catch and 45 percent on uncontested jumpers, but just 41 percent off the dribble and 34 percent on contested jumpers this season.

The Blazers host the Phoenix Suns in the second game of TNT’s doubleheader (10:30 p.m. ET) on Thursday.

Pacers could take advantage of rough Eastern Conference


VIDEO: Recap: Rodney Stuckey scores 22 points as the Pacers defeat the Knicks

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – In the Western Conference, the Phoenix Suns, New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder are fighting for the final playoff spot. And, unless the Dallas Mavericks continue to slide, two of those teams will miss the postseason.

Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, we’re going to have two playoff teams out of a group that includes …

  • The 20-25 Miami Heat, who are missing Dwyane Wade for the next 2-3 weeks.
  • The 19-27 Charlotte Hornets, who have the league’s worst offense outside of Philadelphia and are without Kemba Walker until at least mid-March.
  • The 18-27 Brooklyn Nets, who are looking to trade their three highest paid players and are 3-17 against teams currently over .500.
  • The 16-28 Boston Celtics, who have already traded two of their three highest paid players and just lost to the 8-37 Minnesota Timberwolves.
  • The 17-30 Detroit Pistons, who are 0-3 with a 20-point loss to the Sixers since losing Brandon Jennings for the season.
  • The 17-31 Indiana Pacers, who rank 28th offensively and are 2-8 in their last 10 games, with losses to the Sixers, Wolves, and Hornets.

Oof.

The good thing about the East is that there’s some fresh blood at the top. The top six teams in the standings won a total of one playoff series last year, so we’re going to have a lot of new faces in the conference semifinals.

But who will take those last two playoff spots? The numbers could help us with the forecast.

First, with apologies to Bill Parcells, let’s accept the notion that the standings don’t tell us everything about how well or how poorly a team has played.

Point differential is a better predictor of future success than wins and losses. And there’s a formula to calculate how many wins a team should have (“expected wins”) based on their point differential. That formula says that both the Pacers and Celtics should have about three more wins than they do.

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Indiana has a better NetRtg (point differential per 100 possessions) than Brooklyn, but is 2 1/2 games behind the Nets in the standings, in part because the Pacers are 11-18 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes, and the Nets are 11-11.

The Celtics, meanwhile, have the eighth best NetRtg in the East (just a hair behind the Heat), but are 8-16 in close games.

Among the group of teams listed above, the Pistons, Heat and Hornets have played the toughest schedule thus far. But the Celtics aren’t fare behind. And going forward, the schedule favors the Pacers.

Indiana actually has more games remaining vs. teams that are currently at or above .500 than vs. teams that are below. But they have six more home games than road games and have 13 games left against teams that are playing the second night of a back-to-back.

When you adjust for those situations, the Pacers have the easiest schedule of the six teams that have between 17 and 20 wins in the East …

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Of course, the Pacers are just 9-12 at home and just 4-7 against teams on the second night of back-to-back. As noted above, they’ve lost to both the Wolves and Sixers this month.

But when you take into account some bad luck in close games and a favorable future schedule, they have a decent chance of moving up from 12th to seventh or eighth.