After sweeping the New Orleans Pelicans out of the first round of the playoffs and generally dominating the NBA all season long, it is no surprise ESPN's Basketball Power Index gives the Golden State Warriors the best odds of winning the NBA Finals at 38 percent.
What is surprising, however, is that the the San Antonio Spurs have the next-best odds at 29 percent despite having yet to emerge from the first round.
San Antonio would then have to face the gauntlet known as the rest of the Western Conference playoffs, and still the BPI gives them better odds than LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers to win it all. Why is this, when the BPI gives the Cavaliers a 50-percent chance of getting through the much softer Eastern Conference and to the Finals? And why do the Spurs have a 76-percent chance in a hypothetical Finals matchup against the Cavaliers?
The answer to these questions has two parts: ability and experience.
BPI rates the Spurs as the third-best team in the league this season behind the Warriors and first-round opponent Los Angeles Clippers. The Warriors' BPI of 9.1 is dominating and means the Warriors should beat an average NBA team by about nine points in a typical game. The Clippers are a distant second in BPI at 6.8.
To put the difference between the Clippers and the Warriors into context, the difference between the top two teams in BPI is similar to the difference between the Clippers and the Houston Rockets, who are fifth overall. The Spurs are right behind the Clippers at 6.7, have a top-10 offense and the second-best defense in the league.
Meanwhile, the Cavaliers are fourth in BPI at 5.0, and while they have the second-best offense in the league, their defense has been below average all season. So the difference in team quality is, based on BPI, real; the Spurs are a better team, though really only slightly better.
The Spurs are 1.7 points ahead of the Cavaliers (smaller than the difference between the Clippers and the Warriors) and does not seem to justify casting the Spurs as far more likely than the Cavaliers to become the champions.
This is where part two, experience, comes into play. The BPI model used during the regular season is different from the model used during the playoffs. The playoff model includes experience, because playoff experience does matter.
While this is not a revolutionary statement, the data explains how that experience comes into play and affects the outcome of games.
Experience matters in close games. Based on 10 years of playoff data, teams with more experience are more likely to win close games -- a trend that has continued this season. So far in the playoffs, there have been 10 games that went to overtime and/or were decided by six points or less, and the more experienced team has won seven of those games.
This is where the Spurs have a decisive edge. The average player on the court for the Spurs at any given time has over 3,000 minutes of playoff experience. In fact, the typical player on the court for the Spurs has 200 more minutes of playoff experience than the typical player for the next two most-experienced teams, the Cavaliers and the Grizzlies, combined. And in the two close games that the Spurs and Clippers have played this post season, the Spurs have won both.
Experience does not overcome all, as the Dallas Mavericks were the second-most experienced team heading into the post season. The Mavericks had a per-player edge in experience over the Houston Rockets of over 600 minutes, but the Rockets had an edge of 1.1 in BPI and bounced the Mavericks in five games.
Additionally, the Warriors' lead in BPI over the Spurs is enough to overcome the over 2,000 minutes per player advantage the Spurs have in experience, giving them a slight edge in a potential playoff matchup.
But playoff experience does matter when teams' general abilities are close and they are likely to play close games/ The experienced team is often better at closing in those tight situations -- and that edge combined with their high ability, gives the Spurs the advantage over every other team other than the Warriors.