Forget Predictable: Projecting These Playoffs Is Anything but Formulaic
NBA

Forget Predictable: Projecting These Playoffs Is Anything but Formulaic

We’ve simulated the NBA postseason 100,000 times using adjusted team ratings and other data. The model has no feelings, so we have no problem making judgments on where it could hit and miss in its projections.  


Welcome to the playoffs, sort of! 

After 72 grueling games that featured COVID interruptions, plenty of five-games-in-seven-nights stretches and enough appearances of DNP-Rest in the box score that it’s time to consider if he might be worthy of a max contract, we’ve eliminated 10 teams from the championship chase. 

Four more will follow in the next 72 hours or so with the league’s play-in format, and by Friday night we’ll have an official 16-team field set. The NBA playoffs tend to be more chalk than chaos, but nothing seems certain as these playoffs get underway. 

The betting favorites to emerge from the East are the second seed, which has had its three superstars on the floor a grand total of eight times totaling 202 minutes. The favorite out West is some combination of Staples’ Center’s favorite roommates – take your pick between the fourth-seeded team that collapsed in the bubble last summer and the defending champs that still need a win in order to have a chance to repeat. 

Depending on if the Los Angeles Lakers join the field, the West’s historically good top seed or surprisingly good No. 2 will be first-round underdogs – something that hasn’t happened for a 1 or 2 seed since at least 1988.

We’ve run 100,000 simulations of the playoffs using the previously mentioned adjusted team ratings to determine which clubs are most likely to emerge from the play-in, who should get out of the first round, and ultimately, who figures to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Which of those projections makes sense? What seems to be a bit of a stretch? And how do the computers really feel about LeBron James and Anthony Davis? 

Let’s start by looking at the title chances for the top 16 teams (including play-in projections).

NBA Title Chances (Based on 100,000 Simulations)

TeamChampionship %
Utah Jazz36.7
Philadelphia 76ers13.8
Phoenix Suns9.8
Milwaukee Bucks8.4
Los Angeles Clippers7.3
Brooklyn Nets6.5
Denver Nuggets 5.7
New York Knicks2.6
Portland Trail Blazers2.3
Atlanta Hawks1.9
Los Angeles Lakers1.5
Dallas Mavericks1.2
Golden State Warriors0.9
Miami Heat0.7
Boston Celtics0.5
Washington Wizards0.2

That’s right: 205 times out of 100,000, Mr. Walking Triple-Double leads the Wizards(!) to the title. Things get weird when you repeat them 100,000 times.

Adjusted team ratings (ATR) only look at what we’ve already seen, and though it weights recent performance heavily, that 20-23 record over the past three months has LeBron and AD facing an uphill climb in these simulations. Your thoughts on these projections, Mr. James?

“Listen, it doesn’t matter to me if I’m a six seed or a three seed or a two seed, eight seed,” James told The Athletic’s Joe Vardon after Sunday’s win in New Orleans. “If I come into your building for a Game 1, I can be very challenging.”

I mean, he’s not wrong. Let’s dive into whether the Lakers are actually a VERY SERIOUS threat, along with the rest of the play-in drama. 

10) Charlotte Hornets at 9) Indiana Pacers

When: Tuesday, 6:30 p.m. EST

Regular Season Series: 2-1 Hornets

ATR Says: Pacers win 66.9% of the time

Bold Prediction: Domantas Sabonis puts up his 10th triple-double of the season

The Pacers started the season with a ridiculously good starting five of Sabonis, T.J. Warren, Myles Turner, Malcolm Brogdon and Victor Oladipo. But only Sabonis remains healthy and Oladipo is rehabbing elsewhere these days, which led to an uncomfortable amount of Oshae Brissett and Edmond Sumner. Caris LeVert, who has averaged 20.7 points in 35 games with the Pacers, is out because of health and safety protocols. Only the Nets and Wizards lost more wins due to injury this season than Indiana, so it’s hard to find much reason to trust what’s left of the Pacers.

The Hornets can relate, having gone six weeks without Rookie of the Year favorite LaMelo Ball, missing Malik Monk for two extended stretches and now playing without Gordon Hayward since early April. They’ve lost 15 of their last 21 and are 25th in net rating (minus-5.5 per 100 possessions) in that span. Terry Rozier can get hot and has hit some ridiculous clutch shots this season, but it’s hard to picture Charlotte stringing together wins to get in.

ATR Confidence (Out of 10): 6

8) Washington Wizards at 7) Boston Celtics

When: Tuesday, 9:00 p.m. EST

Regular Season Series: 2-1 Celtics

ATR Says: Celtics win 60.7% of the time

Bold Prediction: Jayson Tatum goes for 43, but it’s not enough

From 3-12 to the playoffs? That’s where Russell Westbrook and the Wiz are trying to go, and they’ve won 17 of 23 with Mr. Triple-Double leading the way. Bradley Beal has been awesome as well, though he’s nursing a hamstring injury. 

The Celtics are heading the other direction, having dropped nine of 13. Jaylen Brown is out for the season, Kemba Walker is ailing and it’s difficult to imagine last season’s Eastern Conference finalists making a run even if they make it through this week. Jayson Tatum can put this team on his back for a game or two, but the Celtics are 0-6 against the 76ers and the Nets. Neither top seed will bat an eye at this version of Brad Stevens’ team coming to town.

Brooklyn, at least, won’t get a chance to. Give me the star power of Wizards-Nets in Round 1.

ATR Confidence: 2

10) San Antonio Spurs at 9) Memphis Grizzlies

When: Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. EST

Regular Season Series: 2-1 Grizzlies

ATR Says: Grizzlies win 63.9% of the time

Bold Prediction: Desmond Bane hits four 3s off the bench

The NBA’s two most tired teams will see who runs out of gas first. The Spurs and Grizzlies each played 39 games after the All-Star break, tied for the most in the league. Aside from the presence of five-time championship coach Gandalf the Grey, the Spurs don’t resemble anything close to a group that will be wearing important rings anytime soon. They’re a bottom 10 team defensively and overall since March 1 and just outside the bottom 10 in points per 100 possessions in that stretch. They take the fewest 3s in the league, so the single-game variance of getting hot from deep isn’t a fear. 

Memphis is sixth in adjusted defensive rating (ADR) on the season, has an elite rebounder in Jonas Valanciunas and can ride Ja Morant’s offensive creativity around a healthy supporting cast. This is not an elite shooting team, and Jaren Jackson Jr. hasn’t shot it well since he returned, but they don’t need to be lights-out if they’re humming defensively. 

Roster quirk: Gorgui Dieng, now a Spur, put up 34 points as the Grizzlies swept a back-to-back in San Antonio earlier this season with Valanciunas out. He’s been borderline unplayable with the Spurs, but they’ve occasionally had to play him.

ATR Confidence: 8

8) Golden State Warriors at 7) Los Angeles Lakers

When: Wednesday, 10:00 p.m. EST

Regular Season Series: 2-1 Lakers

ATR Says: Lakers win 59.7% of the time

Bold Prediction: Steph Curry has his first double-digit assist game since February 19 but is held under 25 points

Alright, we’ll say it: This is the most anticipated play-in game in league history (sorry, 2020 Blazers-Grizzlies). Not since the 2018 Finals has so much been on the line between Steph and LeBron. 

When James and Davis share the court, the Lakers have had a plus-12.6 net rating. That’s really good! It just so happens that they’ve only done so for 601 minutes spread over 27 games this season. That’s just 35 minutes more than they played together in the bubble playoffs when the two stars were a combined plus-14.8. You may have heard, but that ended really well for both of them.

Curry got all the attention for his offensive outbursts this season, and the league’s leading scorer deserves every bit of it, but these teams both hang their hat on defense – the Lakers are first and the Warriors fifth in ADR. James Wiseman and Kelly Oubre Jr. got hurt in mid-April and Golden State has been crushing it on D ever since, ranking second in the league with a 105.2 defensive rating while winning 14 of its last 19 games.

The Lakers blew a 19-point lead at home against the Warriors at full strength in January, then crushed Golden State twice without Davis in February and March, leading by 35 in both wins. 

There are some reasons not to believe in the champs. LeBron is dealing with a rare nagging injury, Davis always seems to be an awkward landing away from missing significant time and they’re a little bit too reliant on Dennis Schroder for offense at times. But when they’re locked in, they’re the best defensive team in the league and the favorites to win the title again. The path isn’t going to be easy, but 1.5% is much closer to Andre Drummond’s chances of hitting a 3 than the Lakers’ true probability to repeat.

ATR Confidence: 9.5

We’ll likely see Wizards-Nets in Round 1, but let’s pretend that the current 7 and 8 seeds both advance in each conference. That would leave us with these matchups.

Chances of Favorite Advancing (Based on 100,000 Simulations)

MatchupProjected WinnerProjected Win%
Jazz-WarriorsJazz84.9
Suns-LakersSuns68.1
Nuggets-Trail BlazersNuggets60.3
Clippers-MavericksClippers67.1
76ers-Wizards[no-pill]76ers83.5
Nets-CelticsNets72.0
Bucks-HeatBucks72.7
Knicks-HawksKnicks54.0

Let’s take a closer look at the four series that are already locked in and where at least two upsets could be possible. 

3) Milwaukee Bucks vs. 6) Miami Heat

Regular Season Series: 2-1 Bucks

Bold Prediction: Jrue Holiday makes his case as the best defensive perimeter player in … well, at least this series

The Bucks could have laid down and given the Heat a good chance to wind up in the 4-5 matchup when they met in Milwaukee on Saturday. Instead, they played their starters while Jimmy Butler sat because of a lower back injury. It was the third game Butler missed in the season series after he wreaked havoc on both ends in the Heat’s stunning five-game dispatching of the Bucks in the second round in the bubble.

That series spurred Milwaukee to add Holiday, and it’ll need him to be a difference maker if it’s going to make noise in these playoffs. Holiday, Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo played 62 minutes together against the Heat in their regular-season series and posted a plus-13.1 net rating.

They’ll have to contend with Butler again now, but this is going to be a series geared around which team can outscore the other. Miami beat the Bucks in the playoffs thanks largely to its D, but it’s gone 18-8 over the last 26 games while posting the league’s third-best offensive rating (117.5) over that span. Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson have started to shoot like they’re back in the bubble, and this is very much a team no one should want to face.

Milwaukee doesn’t seem to mind. That might be crazy, but perhaps the Bucks will benefit from being the under-the-radar third seed in these playoffs as opposed to the pressure-cooker they faced as the East’s head honcho in the last two. Having Holiday should help.

The Pick: Bucks in 6

ATR Confidence: 8

4) New York Knicks vs. 5) Atlanta Hawks

Regular Season Series: 3-0 Knicks

Bold Prediction: Knicks fans get really tired of Clint Capela by Game 3

The playoffs are back in the “Mecca of basketball,” and MSG should get a healthy dose of fans back in the building for the team’s first postseason games in eight years.

This worked out quite well for the Knicks, who clinched home-court advantage on the final day of the season, avoided the Bucks and Heat, and got matched up against a team they swept in the regular season. Most Improved Player shoo-in Julius Randle was a revelation in his second season in New York, but he especially lit up the Hawks, dropping 40 on them twice and finishing with a 28-17-9 line in the other one. The Knicks were 10th in ATR and had the league’s third-best net rating (plus-8.0) while closing the season on a 16-4 tear. Alec Burks, one of the most underrated players in the league when he’s healthy, is back.

Bring on the Sixers, right? Another chapter in the storied New York-Philly sports rivalry for Amazon’s incoming CEO to get worked up about!

The Knicks shot the lights out from 3 (47.8%) and the Hawks were ice cold (33.7%) in the season series. While that’s what Tom Thibodeau’s team does, to a large extent, it’s still facing what I’d say is a pretty significant talent disadvantage from top to bottom in this series.

Bogdan Bogdanovic missed one meeting in the regular season and didn’t play much in another. DeAndre Hunter and Danilo Gallinari missed two each. They’re all healthy now. Capela grabbed 52 rebounds in the three regular season meetings and should be a force on the offensive glass in this series. We haven’t even mentioned Trae Young, who will think he’s the best offensive player in this series and quite possibly is right.

Atlanta’s presumed starting lineup of Capela, Bogdanovic, Young, Kevin Huerter and John Collins only played 112 minutes together this season. The Hawks had a plus-25.9 net rating when they did, and that should be too much firepower for even the gritty, overachieving Thibodeauers to handle.

The Pick: Hawks in 6

ATR Confidence: 4

3) Denver Nuggets vs. 6) Portland Trail Blazers

Regular Season Series: 2-1 Nuggets

Bold Prediction: This series is awesome and features at least one buzzer-beater

Mike Malone let Nikola Jokic finish what he started in his presumed MVP campaign, putting the big guy out there for 17 minutes Sunday in Portland, his 72nd start in 72 games.

It was a contest the Nuggets were better off losing, and they did, helping the Trail Blazers avoid the play-in game and helping themselves avoid the Lakers. But even though both teams should be relatively pleased about what transpired on the last day of the regular season, this series should be the most competitive of perhaps any we see in the playoffs.

Portland is going to put Jokic in a ton of pick and roll, and while the Serbian fares reasonably well when he drifts out to the perimeter, the Blazers are the most efficient pick-and-roll ball handler scoring team in the league (1.00 points per possession). 

Terry Stotts’ crew has been the best team in the league over the last three weeks, posting an NBA-best plus-12.3 net rating during its 10-2 final stretch. That includes a comically good 122.9 offensive rating and a defense that went from ‘Whoa, That’s Bad’ to ‘Hey, It Could Be So Much Worse.’ Norm Powell is proving to be a perfect third option behind Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic will be out to prove that he, and not Jokic, was truly the best Nuggets rookie from the class of 2014.

OK, so Nurkic actually thinks his old buddy probably deserves the MVP. And Jokic will need to be every bit of his do-everything self if the Nuggets are going to win this series without Jamal Murray.

There are other health concerns for Denver. Will Barton hasn’t played in a month. PJ Dozier has missed the last seven games. There needs to be some secondary shot-making for the Nuggets outside of Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. Markus Howard and Austin Rivers are not exactly reliable third and fourth options.

Denver has overcome so much all season, and Jokic has made everyone in his orbit better. But when rotations shorten in the playoffs, the Nuggets better hope they have a top eight that includes Barton, Dozier and the oft-injured Monte Morris. These teams went seven in the 2019 second round before Portland escaped in the Mile High City. I’d bank on history repeating itself here.

The Pick: Blazers in 7

ATR Confidence: 2.5

4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. 5) Dallas Mavericks

Regular Season Series: 2-1 Mavericks

Bold Prediction: The Clippers we were promised two summers ago finally show up

Basketball’s great enigma for the last two seasons, the Clippers have gone from The Team That Feared No One to The Team That Out-Tanked Houston and Oklahoma City to Avoid the Lakers’ Bracket. And even that wing and a prayer is entirely dependent on LeBron and Co. taking care of business Wednesday.

But Ballmer’s Boys got what they wanted, which apparently was a first-round rematch with the same Mavericks team they beat in six in the bubble. Kristaps Porzingis exited that series halfway through with a meniscus injury and, though he’s healthy as of this writing, that’s subject to change by the time you read the next paragraph. 

Catch the Mavericks on the right night and you’ll be convinced Luka Doncic is leading this team to a title in the next few years. Their 12-4 closing stretch featured back-to-back wins over the Lakers, a 30-point whipping of the Warriors, a double-digit comeback in Miami and a balanced effort to beat Brooklyn. They also lost twice to the Kings and were run off the floor in Memphis.

When you’re reliant on Tim Hardaway Jr. to shoot 40% from 3 on nearly 8.0 attempts per game, it’s uncertain how seriously you can be taken as a contender. 

The Clippers had their moments in the regular season, but Kawhi Leonard seemed to lose his shot a bit in the last few months while battling a foot injury. Paul George also struggled with a foot injury and his shot late in the season, but he’s still a two-way force who should be eager to erase his bubble failures. When Leonard and George shared the floor in 2020-21, only Rudy Gobert and Joe Ingles shared a better net rating among players to play at least 1,000 minutes together than their plus-17.6.

There’s no excuses for the Clippers in this series. Doncic might get the Mavs a game, but if Los Angeles has legit championship aspirations, this shouldn’t be more than a gentleman’s sweep.

The Pick: Clippers in 5

ATR Confidence: 10

The Eastern, Western and NBA Finals

So how’s it all going to shake out?  

We only ran one simulation: The Nets beat the Sixers in the East finals, the Clippers survived the Blazers in the West, and Brooklyn’s Big Three hoisted the trophy after toppling L.A. in six.


Data modeling by Matt Scott. Design by Matt Sisneros.