In the NBA, quantitative analysis has achieved certain landmarks. The analytical-minded are close to the centers of power on an increasing number of teams. The annual stat geek conference is nearly a must-attend for power brokers and has even spawned imitators.
But there is only one goofy contest in which real-deal analysts publicly compete against my mom. Since its 2007 founding, the contest has featured some of the best in the business, as evidenced by the fact that they keep getting hired away by NBA teams.
The 2007 and 2008 champion, Basketball-Reference.com's Justin Kubatko, was taken out of the mix thanks to the work he does for the Trail Blazers. (His Basketball-Reference protégé, Neil Paine, is now in the Smackdown mix.) Basketball Prospectus' Kevin Pelton, a mainstay, works for the Pacers now, and as they're in the playoffs, he's out of the Smackdown.
The 2009 champion, author and professor David Berri, returns to try to win back the crown he lost in 2010 to Jeff Ma, who isn't participating this year. Berri will be competing against longtime Smackdown participant and newish Phoenix Suns analytical consultant Stephen Ilardi.
Right now the hot hand among stat geeks (if you get that little reference, you're a geek, too) belongs to ESPN.com's John Hollinger; we'll see whether he can carry his regular-season success into the playoffs.
This year, there's a new trend worth noting: In asking around about who was doing the very best work in this field, a lot of the names that came up had some role in gambling. It's not hard to understand why. If you have statistical models that show who's going to win, why settle for a salaried job from a team when you can put those numbers to work on the betting market?
Last year, gambler Haralabos Voulgaris became the first gambler in the Smackdown. He fared poorly but is back to avenge his loss. And two new analysts come highly recommended. Benjamin Morris of Skeptical Sports writes a very interesting blog loaded with sophisticated insight. And in the decade since he got an Ivy League degree, he has earned most of his income wagering.
Then there's Matthew Stahlhut. Throughout last year's contest, he emailed me round by round with picks before each series started and before everybody else's picks were published. In a very professional way, he even talked a little trash. And, even though he wasn't really in the contest, he "won" it. He uses sophisticated models that he created (with the help of others) as a consultant for a gambling group.
The rules are the same as ever: Based on stats, hunches and anything else, each expert predicts the outcome of every playoff series as the rounds unfold. Each correctly picked series is worth five points. Correctly predicting the number of games is worth two additional points. The winner gets something bizarre and arbitrary to be determined later.
TRUEHOOP'S STAT GEEK SMACKDOWN SCOREBOARD
TRUEHOOP'S STAT GEEK SMACKDOWN SCOREBOARD: FIRST ROUND
Series Predictions (click on the links below to see picks for each matchup)
DALLAS MAVERICKS VS. MIAMI HEAT
Smackdown Breakdown: Mavs-Heat
David Berri fell with the Bulls. John Hollinger and Haralabos Voulgaris succumbed early to the wily charms of the Trail Blazers. Matthew Stahlhut dropped from contention by picking the Thunder over the Mavericks. For Neil Paine it was a double-whammy: The Nuggets and Bulls.
This year, three series shocked everybody: The Mavericks over the Lakers, the Grizzlies over the Spurs and the Hawks over the Magic. Everybody got all of those wrong.
But two contestants -- veteran Stephen Ilardi and first-timer Benjamin Morris -- picked the other 11 series correctly and are, therefore, the two remaining threats to take the Smackdown crown.
Thanks to picking seven of those series in the correct number of games, Ilardi brings a lead to the Finals, which creates a tactical dilemma. Both contenders favor the Heat. But if Ilardi can manage to pick the same team as Morris, Ilardi wins. So there's a lot to think about.
"The Heat," says Morris, "have a better record, home-court advantage, a better MOV [margin of victory], better SRS [simple rating system], more star power, more championship experience, and had a tougher road to the Finals. Plus Miami's poor early-season performance can be fairly discounted, and it has important players back from injury. Thus, my model heavily favors Miami in five or six games.
"But I'm sure Ilardi knows all this, so, since I'm playing to win, I'll take Dallas. Of course, I'm gambling that Ilardi will play it safe and stick with Miami himself since I'm the only person close enough to catch him. If he assumes I will switch, he could also switch to Dallas and sew this thing up right now. Game-theoretically, there's a mixed-strategy Nash equilibrium solution to the situation, but without knowing any more about the guy, I have to assume he'll play it like most people would. If he's tricky enough to level me, congrats."
"One could offer a coherent rationale for picking either team in this series," says Ilardi. "Dallas has played better than Miami in the postseason (i.e., at a higher adjusted efficiency); the Mavs won the regular-season matchup with the Heat 2-0; they are considerably deeper and much stronger at positions 4-9 in the rotation; and they have, in Dirk Nowitzki, the league's single most potent offensive weapon.
"On the other hand, Miami was the league's best team (with the highest adjusted efficiency) over the course of the entire season; it has home-court advantage in the Finals; and the recent return of Udonis Haslem provides a defender who can, in stretches, slow down Nowitzki to some extent. And did I mention that Miami has the actual Most Valuable Player (LeBron), along with two other guys who are arguably among the league's top 10? Although I would not be at all surprised to see Dallas continue its magical playoff run and find a way to pull out this series, I believe Miami's numerous advantages will ultimately prove decisive. And P.S., I'm hoping Ben Morris decides to stick with his numbers and pick Miami, as well!"
Neil Paine says the Mavericks are "a much better offensive team than the Bulls were, which offers hope for Dallas. Having said that, though, Dallas is not in Chicago's class defensively, so don't expect the Heat's offensive efficiency to be as low as it was in the conference finals. It's going to be an uphill battle for Dallas. The Mavs win this by playing above their heads on defense (approximating Chicago's work last round), executing on offense much more efficiently than the Bulls did, and winning at least one of the first two games in Miami. More likely, though, Miami's offense runs roughshod over the Mavs' D, the Heat use home-court to their advantage, and they make it 2-for-2 in the Finals versus Dallas."
"I hope it's not over," says Voulgaris, "but it likely is. Now that the Heat roster is healthy and has had some time to jell, I don't think there is any doubt that they are the best team in the league. Chicago led the league in wins this year, and it lost four straight, including two at home, to the Heat. Miami's big lineup of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh is too good. There isn't a lineup that can compete. They are a terror on defense and a nightmare to match up with offensively.
"Dallas is playing amazing basketball, it moves the ball, rarely takes a bad shot and has the best fourth-quarter scorer in the league in Dirk -- but I can't see the Mavs beating this Heat team. As much as I'd like to see the new and improved (quiet) Mark Cuban win a title, I don't see it happening this year, nor in the next five -- unless he buys the Heat."
(2) MIAMI HEAT VS. (1) CHICAGO BULLS
Smackdown Breakdown: Heat-Bulls
Four contestants are grouped within four points at the top of the leaderboard. They are Ilardi, Morris, Stahlhut and Berri. All contestants have picked the vast majority of series the same, but picking Portland over Dallas in the opening round tripped up the likes of Hollinger, Voulgaris and my mom, while Paine was stymied by picking the Nuggets in the opening round. Nobody predicted Hawks over Magic, Grizzlies over Spurs or Mavericks over Lakers -- so those upsets were huge for basketball but had no effect on this contest.
In short, just a couple of series have determined who is in position to win.
And now we get to the Eastern Conference finals, which will be the third in that list.
Three of the four leaders have made the identical pick -- Heat in 6. Berri, however, who's looking to regain the winner's spot he held two years ago, has picked the Bulls. That pick may well determine this year's winner. (Paine and my mom also selected Chicago and will move convincingly up or down the leaderboard with Chicago's fortunes.)
"Miami is a significant market favorite," says co-leader Morris, "but this series grades out pretty close. Chicago has home-court and a better record on its side, but the later you go in the playoffs, the more important factors other than win percentage become, and most of those favor Miami. After incorporating the playoff results so far, my generic model gives Miami a 53 percent chance of winning, and most of my more subjective (but still research-based) considerations -- best player on the floor, major free-agent acquisition(s), championship experience, better road record, etc. -- should only increase the Heat's chances.
"Usually, if I see a team that defends its opponent's shooting as well as the Bulls do, I think it's a fluke," says Stahlhut, who is two points out of first. "But the Bulls have a sustainable strategy that allows them to force their opponents to take low-percentage shots. They have strong interior defenders who allow a low conversion percentage at the rim, and they force their opponents into a high number of 10-to23-foot jumpers. And they execute this strategy all while defending the 3-point line very well both by allowing a low number of attempts and a low conversion rate. It's really beautiful to watch.
"When Miami is at its worst, it is very susceptible to this trap. But because the Heat score well at the rim, especially accounting for their ability to draw fouls, and because they shoot well from 3-point range, I expect them to score enough in this series to prevail.
"The key will be Miami's defense on Chicago. The Heat have excellent perimeter defenders who have the ability to play help defense on both post players and drives to the rim while maintaining good closeouts on 3-point shooters (except for Wade's well-known penchant for overhelping off the 3-point line). Because of Miami's excellent perimeter defense, it will be difficult for Chicago to score enough in this series to win."
"This is no matchup of one-dimensional teams," Paine says. "The Heat have the best offense, if you account for the playoffs, too, while boasting a top-five defense in their own right. And although the Bulls' full-season offense doesn't crack the top 10, they improved as the year progressed ... and they own the all-important home-court advantage. This looks to be a classic series that comes down to the final game."
"The problem for the Heat," Berri says, "is that Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem are really not available (and both are more productive than the non-Supermen who are playing). So I guess I am stuck with the Bulls. Perhaps, though, this is a good thing. My sense is that most people will like the Heat. And I need to have one pick that is different than most people if I am going to have any hope of moving up."
(4) OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER VS. (3) DALLAS MAVERICKS
Smackdown Breakdown: Thunder-Mavericks
"Overall, this series is incredibly close," writes Stahlhut, who suspects the Mavericks will win but picked the Thunder in an attempt to get ahead of the competition. "I have Dallas winning only 51 percent of the time, close enough to make a strategic upset pick.
"Rick Carlisle and his staff have done an excellent job designing defenses for the playoffs, but Oklahoma City presents a different challenge in that it doesn't have a strong post threat like Portland and L.A. did and gets the majority of its scoring from its perimeter players. For instance, James Harden will present a huge challenge to Jason Terry off the bench, as his size will be difficult for Jet to handle. Therefore, I expect Brooks to continue to use the Harden/Westbrook/Durant/Ibaka/Perkins lineup extensively, because that's probably the best matchup for anything Dallas can throw out. Moreover, Oklahoma City has a talented bench who will help offset the Mavs' heavy advantage in bench points that Dallas had in its series against the Lakers. Defending Dirk will be an issue in this series, as it has been in every series."
"Dallas tends to match up well against OKC," Ilardi says, "as the Thunder have not yet demonstrated an ability to limit the Mavs' Nowitzki-led offensive juggernaut. While it's certainly possible that OKC's recently improved interior defense -- and the emergence of fellow Jayhawk Nick Collison as an all-purpose defensive ace -- will allow the Thunder to remain competitive with the Mavs, I believe Dallas has the potential to make this a relatively short series."
Berri factors in how the teams have been distributing minutes in the playoffs and says after all that "the Thunder and Mavericks are essentially equal. The Mavericks, though, do have home court advantage. So I am picking Dallas to win in seven. Again, though, this is very close. Any of the four remaining teams in the NBA playoffs could appear in the Finals. And any of these teams could win the 2011 NBA title."
(8) MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES VS. (4) OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Smackdown Breakdown: Grizzlies-Thunder
"Oklahoma City has quality defenders with size to throw at Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, which will be essential in this series," says Matthew Stahlhut. "A key in this series will be the Grizzlies' ability to play defense without fouling. In their last three wins against the Spurs, Memphis gave up only 0.2 free throws made for every field goal attempt the Spurs took. Oklahoma City depends on the free throw line as a large part of their offense, both in the ability to get to the line and then convert once they get there. If the Grizzlies can play defense without fouling, they will take away a large source of points for the Thunder."
"Memphis led the league in points scored in the paint," points out Stephen Ilardi, "while OKC was below average in interior defense: a key factor in the Grizzlies' 3-1 series advantage this season. In fact, it's tempting to pick the Grizzlies to win this series (in six). However, the defensive equation has changed for the Thunder with the addition of Kendrick Perkins, in tandem with the steady improvement of Serge Ibaka, and their defensive play in the interior (together with that of the highly underrated Nick Collison) may emerge as the critical deciding factor in this series."
"The Grizzlies deserve substantial credit for beating a Spurs team that at one point looked like a potential all-time juggernaut," writes Benjamin Morris. "My generic model gives Oklahoma a 71 percent chance of winning, though adjusting for the Grizzlies stunning first-round upset tightens it up quite a bit. Unfortunately, even the most generous Bayesian revisionism (i.e., giving the Grizzlies full credit for the victory and the Spurs no blame for the loss) still leaves them a hair behind."
"Memphis," explains Neil Paine, "is actually a darned good team. OKC is better, of course, but not by the kind of huge margin you'd expect when facing an 8-seed that Shocked The World™ in Round 1. This should be one of those fun strength-vs-strength matchups, because OKC's calling card is its offense and the Grizzlies win with defense, and there's a good chance that it goes six or even seven games."
"When we consider seedings, Memphis defeating San Antonio is a very big upset," explains David Berri. "But when we consider the regular season productivity of the players each team employed in the playoffs, the difference between Memphis and San Antonio was not that great. The Grizzlies win was still an upset, but not nearly on par with Atlanta's toppling of the Magic. The Thunder's playoff roster is slightly better than the Spurs. And that means, they are better than the Grizzlies."
(3) DALLAS MAVERICKS VS. (2) LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Smackdown Breakdown: Mavericks-Lakers
"The players who held the Mavericks back this year -- Brian Cardinal, Ian Mahinmi, Rodrigue Beaubois -- are not playing in the postseason," points out David Berri. "And Dallas has been helped by the addition of Peja Stojakovic. So the postseason Mavericks are better than their regular-season performance suggests. I think Dallas can push the Lakers to seven games. But as that seventh game is in L.A., I am taking the Lakers.
"Though the Mavericks and the Lakers were both 57-25 in the regular season, this is a no-brainer: Never pick against a defending champion that is within five games of the league leader," writes Benjamin Morris. "Literally. Over the past 30 seasons, champs in that position have repeated nine out of 15 times, including five of nine when they didn't have the best record themselves. For comparison, teams with the best record who were not defending champions won 11 of 24 championships, and just four of 16 in years when any team was within five games of them. Even aside from that history, my regression model gives the Lakers about an 80 percent chance of winning the series."
"I would normally never pick a team to close out a series on the road," writes Stahlhut, "because it's rarely the most likely result. However, I had a hunch that the Lakers tend to close out teams on the road and, sure enough, they have closed out eight of their 12 series wins in the Pau Gasol era on the road. Obviously, that's not a significant enough sample to draw any serious conclusions, but I have a feeling that they are not going to let this series go seven, but are not disciplined/focused enough to finish it in five. Andrew Bynum is tough for Tyson Chandler to guard. For some reason, many analysts say that the Mavericks match up well with the Lakers because of their front line size. The problem is that it isn't the right type of size. Chandler is too skinny to guard Bynum and Brendan Haywood is too slow (Dirk Nowitzki actually is an acceptable post defender and does all right against Pau Gasol). In the matchups this season against the Mavs with Bynum in the lineup, the Lakers shot 73.2 percent at the rim (league average is 64.1 percent) and Bynum was 10-for-10."
(3) BOSTON CELTICS VS. (2) MIAMI HEAT
Smackdown Breakdown: Celtics-Heat
Just about everybody picked the Heat, but just about everybody expects a close series.
"This is the showdown we've been waiting literally all season to see," Paine says. "The Heat were shaky versus Boston for most of the regular season but did vanquish the C's 100-77 on April 10, a win that went a long way toward securing themselves home-court advantage in this very series. And I think that advantage will serve them well, because these teams are extremely evenly matched, and we could very well see this matchup go down to the final game. In the end, you have to play the percentages and go with Miami on the basis of superior power ratings and, perhaps most importantly, the home-court advantage."
"This series could easily go seven games," Ilardi says, "but the Heat were by far the better (i.e., more efficient) team down the stretch, and Miami dominated the last matchup with Boston three weeks ago."
"Including the playoffs, only one game separates their win-loss records," current leader Morris writes. "The Celtics have the stronger early-season performance, which, as a general rule, is more predictive of playoff results than late-season performance, and won the head-to-head matchup against Miami 3-1. There are some good reasons to question the reliability of Boston's first-half record (Perk's gone, Shaq's likely out or even more limited than usual, and Boston's late-season slump came at a time when those games really mattered), but my model gives the Heat just above a 60 percent chance of winning the series anyway. Also favoring Miami, I've been doing some research on teams that have improved their regular-season performance after making major offseason acquisitions, and it has at least tentatively confirmed my theory that they tend to outperform their records in the playoffs."
"Miami has a much more superior offense because of fewer turnovers, slightly better shooting and an excellent ability to get to the line," Stahlhut says. "Boston's defense is slightly better almost exclusively because of its ability to create turnovers. Teams that match up like Miami does here can expect to win the series about 70 percent of the time, and I expect Miami to prevail despite its lack of regular-season success against Boston."
(5) ATLANTA HAWKS VS. (1) CHICAGO BULLS
Smackdown Breakdown: Hawks-Bulls
"It's tempting to pick a Bulls sweep with Kirk Hinrich out," writes Stephen Ilardi, "but Jeff Teague is an underrated backup (albeit a bit foul-prone), and will prove to be a serviceable replacement."
"Atlanta's triumph in the first round highlights an issue I have with how people discuss the playoffs," says Berri. "Specifically, the randomness of a small sample is never considered in the analysis. Every outcome must have a tangible explanation. So when the Hawks win, people have to find some reason why Atlanta is the better team. Certainly for a few days Atlanta was better. But in evaluating everything we know, we need to look at the regular season, and we see that relative to the top playoff teams the Hawks are simply not as good -- even when we consider that teams play their best players even more minutes in the playoffs. Upsets are always possible, but Atlanta should not be favored over Chicago (even if Carlos Boozer isn't completely healthy)."
"My research suggests that teams that do significantly better in the first round than they are 'supposed to' actually do tend to exceed their regular-season-based expectations in later rounds as well," writes Benjamin Morris. "But in this case, the Hawks are desperately outclassed, and even after giving them a reasonable boost for their impressive win over the Magic, my model still gives them a less than 10 percent chance of upsetting the Bulls. Much less."
"Orlando's inability to hit a jump shot deprived us of a pretty interesting series," says Matthew Stahlhut. "Oh well. The only thing I can think of in Atlanta's favor is that Al Horford is a tough matchup for Chicago. Tom Thibodeau should try to get Horford in foul trouble early because Larry Drew will sit him (which is a horrible idea). The Hawks were fairly successful on the pick-and-roll against the Magic, but will have a much more difficult time in this series because of Chicago's superior ability to defend it. … I was shocked at how much I have Chicago favored in this series. I have the first game being lined at minus-9, which I thought had to be wrong. But I checked the market and that is pretty well in line with the consensus."
(8) INDIANA PACERS VS. (1) CHICAGO BULLS
Smackdown Breakdown: Pacers-Bulls
It comes down to efficiency, as in how many points a team scores per 100 possessions, compared to how many it gives up.
Berri explains: "Chicago has home-court advantage and an efficiency differential of 7.8. Meanwhile, the Pacers are the worst team in the playoffs with a differential of [minus]-1.1. This pick is easy."
Ilardi agrees but notes that the Pacers won an overtime contest between the two teams in the regular season and "may just be able to eke out another victory in the playoffs."
Paine notes that the season-long data is bad for the Pacers and that the recent trends are even worse: "The Bulls are the hottest playoff team, while the Pacers are perhaps the coldest. Oddly enough, Indiana is sort of a poor man's version of the Bulls (both teams are much better on D than O), but Chicago does both at a far higher level and should win this one going away."
(7) PHILADELPHIA 76ERS VS. (2) MIAMI HEAT
Smackdown Breakdown: 76ers-Heat
"I was extremely bullish in my Miami Heat preseason predictions," Voulgaris says. "They didn't come close to the 63 wins or so I thought they'd have, nor did they even finish the season with the league's best record. They did, however, have the league's best point differential and, at times, have looked like an extremely dominant team.
"Miami seems to have difficulty facing a very specific type of team. Unfortunately for Philadelphia, the 76ers aren't one of those teams."
"The Heat's struggles against the cream of the NBA's crop have been well publicized," says Paine, "but Philly is in the class of teams that Miami has dominated all season long. That the plucky Sixers even made it this far is impressive given their preseason expectations, as Doug Collins proved once again that he's the master of the Year 1 turnaround."
(6) NEW YORK KNICKS VS. (3) BOSTON CELTICS
Smackdown Breakdown: Knicks-Celtics
"Many people thought Carmelo Anthony would substantially improve the Knicks; that really didn't happen," Berri says. "The team's efficiency differential at the end of the season -- a 0.8 mark -- is not much different from what it was before Melo came to town. What has changed in the last few months of the season, though, is the play of the Celtics.
"Boston sent Kendrick Perkins to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic. Both of these players were below average with the Thunder, and both are below average with Boston. Furthermore -- and not surprising given the infusion of unproductive talent -- the Celtics' efficiency differential since the All-Star break has been only 2.5 (thanks to Arturo Galletti for sending me the post-All-Star differentials for each team). That suggests this series is going to be closer than the season differentials suggest. But although the gap is closer, I still am going to pick the Celtics to advance."
"For all the talk about losing Kendrick Perkins, a decline in offensive efficiency has been the bigger culprit in Boston's unspectacular play down the stretch," says Paine. "Luckily for the C's, a dose of Knick defense will cure what ails their O. The Celtics should prevail in a series where the hype outweighs the competitiveness."
"The Celts," Ilardi concludes, "may simply have too much ubuntu for the Knicks to handle."
(5) ATLANTA HAWKS VS. (4) ORLANDO MAGIC
Smackdown Breakdown: Hawks-Magic
Newcomer Matt Stahlhut brings something awesome to the Smackdown: some metrics that are very different from everybody else's. For instance, he says: "We have Orlando rated better than everyone else [in the East] and Atlanta worse than everyone else. So, even accounting for the 'Jason Collins Factor,' this should be an easy series."
Voulgaris says, "I am not convinced that Jason Collins will be able to handle Dwight Howard in the playoffs as well as he has in stretches of the regular season. I also feel like this series presents the biggest coaching mismatch of them all. I don't think Larry Drew has what it takes to make the types of adjustments needed to beat a coach as experienced as Stan Van Gundy."
Berri adds that "Atlanta has gone 3-1 against the Magic this year. And the trade the Magic made last December really didn't transform Orlando into a team that could contend with Chicago and Miami. That being said, the Magic's differential for the entire season is 5.8. And Atlanta's mark is [minus]-0.9. In other words, if it wasn't for the Pacers, the Hawks would be the worst team in the NBA playoffs. These numbers suggest that the Magic will be able to defeat the Hawks."
Ilardi finds it hard to be optimistic for the Hawks, who "have been in free fall for the past month but can give Orlando fits and should be able to pull out at least one win in this series."
(8) MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES VS. (1) SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Smackdown Breakdown: Grizzlies-Spurs
"A few months ago, this matchup would have been a breeze for San Antonio," Paine says, "but how quickly things can change. Paradoxically enough, Memphis has played much better ever since losing Rudy Gay for the year, while San Antonio has sputtered down the stretch (partly by design -- resting stars -- and partly because of uncharacteristically bad defense). Now, with Manu Ginobili's health in question, not only do the Griz have a good chance to win their first playoff game ever, but they could put some fear into San Antonio before it's all said and done."
"Since the All-Star break, the Spurs' efficiency differential is 2.8," says Berri. "And the Grizzlies' mark is 4.3 since the break (a mark achieved primarily without Rudy Gay). So this suggests the Grizzlies -- a team that has never won an NBA playoff game -- might defeat the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. Although I am tempted to make such a pick, I am going to guess that Manu Ginobili will eventually be healthy enough to make a contribution."
"This is a tough one," Voulgaris says, "because the status of Ginobili is still uncertain at the deadline for making the picks. If he is healthy, this series could be over in five. Memphis matches up pretty well against the Spurs, but it's a pretty big stretch to expect an inexperienced bunch like the Griz to win four out of seven versus the Spurs."
Stahlhut says, "Ginobili is one of the biggest difference-makers in the league. With full health, we expect the Spurs to prevail in the series 69.2 percent of the time, with Spurs in five being the most likely result. However, with Ginobili out, the series becomes essentially a coin flip."
(7) NEW ORLEANS HORNETS VS. (2) LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Smackdown Breakdown: Hornets-Lakers
"This series," Paine says, "is the West's most lopsided. Chris Paul is a phenomenal player, but after David West's injury, he seemed to strain under the crushing weight of single-handedly carrying the Hornets into the playoffs. As he goes, so will New Orleans' chances. And with the Lakers rounding into peak form (dodging the annual Andrew Bynum injury bullet -- for now at least), this is shaping up to be an easy series win for L.A."
"When the Lakers won 17 out of 18," Voulgaris says, "I didn't think there was any team in the league that could hang with them in a seven-game series. Then they lost five in a row and didn't look like they could beat anyone. I am not even clear what happened, but I am guessing that when the stakes are raised in the playoffs, we are much more likely to see the team that won 17 of 18 than the team that lost five in a row.
"The Lakers have had trouble defending quicker, more agile point guards. But Monty Williams has neutered Chris Paul to the point where I don't really see the Lakers having too much trouble in this series."
"Kobe and company have an uncanny penchant for snapping into playoff mode come mid-April," says Ilardi, "making the regular season look like an 82-game tuneup."
(6) PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS VS. (3) DALLAS MAVERICKS
Smackdown Breakdown: Trail Blazers-Mavericks
Voulgaris says he found himself rooting hard for the Lakers to beat Sacramento on the last night of the regular season, just to set up this matchup so he could gamble on underdog Portland. "Marcus Camby is a big factor in this series," he says. "When he is healthy, Portland matches up pretty well with every team in the Western Conference; it becomes a little more difficult for them when he is out. I am a pretty big fan of Portland's really big lineup and I feel like Dallas hasn't really established a set lineup or rotation. It's nice to have depth in the regular season, but Dallas went down the stretch mixing and matching lineups as though they were allergic to consistency."
"Portland's acquisition of Gerald Wallace has certainly helped the Blazers," Berri says. "And of all the teams that won 55 or more games this year, the Mavericks are the weakest. But I still think the Mavericks -- with an efficiency differential of 4.5 and home-court advantage -- are favored against Portland."
"The two are closely matched," says Ilardi, "and the Blazers actually outplayed the Mavs down the stretch ... but Dallas' home-court advantage may prove decisive."
"Despite accusations of 'softness,'" says Paine, "the Mavs have clamped down on D in recent weeks, and that newfound commitment to defense should combine with the home-court advantage to give Dallas an edge here, however slight."
(5) DENVER NUGGETS VS. (4) OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Smackdown Breakdown: Nuggets-Thunder
"This is the hardest series to call," Berri says, and it's hard to find anyone who disagrees with him. "Each team made a major trade this season. Each team got much better after the trade. The Thunder's post-All-Star break differential is 6.7. And that means the Thunder are comparable to the best teams across the entire regular season. The Nuggets' mark after the All-Star break, though, is 9.9.
"This mark ranks the Nuggets among the all-time great teams in NBA history. ... This puts me in an odd position. Do I take the Nuggets' performance without Melo -- across a relatively small sample of games -- as the true measure of this team's quality? Or do I argue that past performance of the players Denver employs is the best measure of performance? Given a choice, I am going with the larger sample."
"Unfortunately," says Ilardi, "two of the league's hottest teams down the stretch have to face each other in what promises to be a memorable first-round series. If Denver weren't banged up, it might even get the nod in this one."
"A lot of this series depends on Denver's health," Paine says, "because all else being equal, the Nuggets are the better team. On the day of the trade deadline, Denver and OKC were exactly equal by SOS-adjusted efficiency differential; since then, the Thunder have played well but the Nuggets have been the league's best team (yep, better even than Chicago)."
"Ty Lawson's injury is also a pretty big question mark for Denver," says Voulgaris. "If he isn't 100 percent or is out, it's going to be very difficult for Denver to win this series. Same goes for [Arron] Afflalo, who is an extremely underrated player. This series is probably one of the tougher series to call because it's unclear to me which lineups George Karl will actually go with. The Nuggets have a lot of options, especially at the wing, but despite their depth, [Kevin] Durant is a real tough cover for them. So OKC in six it is."
David Berri is an associate professor of economics at Southern Utah University and lead author of "The Wages of Wins."
John Hollinger writes for ESPN.com. He created the Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and several other statistical measures.
Stephen Ilardi is a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Kansas, a former statistical consultant to the KU men's basketball team under Roy Williams and an expert on adjusted plus/minus.
Benjamin Morris publishes original research and criticism on his blog Skeptical Sports Analysis. After graduating from Yale University with a double major in philosophy and English, he spent the better part of the past decade as a professional gambler.
Neil Paine is the lead blogger for Basketball-Reference.com, where he works for two-time Smackdown champion Justin Kubatko. No pressure.
Matthew Stahlhut, who graduated from St. Louis University School of Law in 2007, has been both an attorney and a statistical analyst for a group of sports gamblers. He also contributes to DenverStiffs.com.
Haralabos Voulgaris built one of the most powerful databases in sports, which he uses to gamble on basketball.
My mom: She hasn't watched all that much NBA since "JeRomeo" Kersey retired.