NBA Coast-to-Coast (4/11/18)

By Frank Brank
NBA Coast-to-Coast breaks down trends in play and interesting tidbits in the NBA as they relate to team rankings, sports betting, and overall style of play. We may cover anything from recent trends in line movement to coaching rotations that may affect the outcome of games.

This week, we'll look at some things to look out for in the opening round of the playoffs.

LeBron's Takeover

It's time for the playoffs for Cavaliers, or as some would say, "time for LeBron to start trying." The narrative surrounding the idea that LeBron doesn't play as hard in the regular season is a bit tiring, but it's hard to deny his best basketball is played during the playoffs. However, we may be able to identify why his stat lines are so impressive.

Typically, over the last few years, the Cavs, as you could understand, have let the best player in NBA history take over games himself by throwing the playbook out of the window. That dependency comes with a noticeable difference in style of play. The offense slows down, the ball becomes stagnant, and LeBron takes over.

When we break down that style of play, there's a difference in pace from the reliance on LeBron James offensively. For example, the Cavs pace slowed to 15.1 seconds per possession in last year's playoffs compared to 14.9 seconds during the regular season. In 2016, their pace went from 15.6 seconds per possession to 16.2 seconds.

In terms of seconds, the difference may be quite small. However, the 2.5% slow down in pace comes with a large difference in game totals. Cleveland has played at 14.5 second pace this season, which we would anticipate to increase to 14.9 seconds. 0.4 second increase per possesion would accompany about a three point reduction in total points scored throughout the game.

The Pacers will be the unfortunate souls to handle LeBron's takeover in the first round after their remarkable season. The two teams have not played since January, but the game total at the time was 223. If you're looking back to January to make a comparison for this series, you may want to rethink playing the over if the total is adjusted down.

Granted, this new Cavs team plays much faster with much worse defense than previous seasons, but it doesn't change the likely result of LeBron rightfully putting his fate in his own hands.

The Meaning of the Eight Seed

The Denver Nuggest and Minnesota Timberwolves will play tonight for the right to face the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs. The good news for Minnesota is Jimmy Butler has returned to attempt to propel them into the playoffs. Since the Wolves have the opportunity to play their last game at home, they'll have the upperhand in tonight's game as small favorites. Thus, the question becomes who would the Rockets rather play.

Based on healthy rotations, our model has the Nuggets ranked #7 and the Wovles ranked #11 overall, which translates to Denver being about a point better on a neutral court. Given Minnesota is a favorite tonight, we'll start there.

Minnesota, according to our model, is about seven points worse than Houston on a neutral court. Hence, they'd only be expected to win about 26% of their games against Houston. Calculating that out to series odds, we'd anticipate the Rockets to win a seven game series against Minnesota 92% of the time. This seems like a death sentence to the Wolves, but we'll remind you that the odds are not 0%.

Given that we think Denver is about a point better than Minnesota, they'd hold a slightly better 30% chance to beat Houston in a given game. That will reduce the Rockets chances of winning a series, but not by much. The translation falls just 5% to 87% odds to win a series against the Nuggets. Though the Rockets will gladly take the 5% better odds to beat Minnesota, there's not a large enough difference considering their incredibly high odds.

Thus, oddly, the Houston Rockets should be rooting for the team favored to make the playoffs tonight, but neither team should impede them from moving on to the second round.