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FiveThirtyEight’s 2015-16 NBA Forecast

Here at FiveThirtyEight HQ, we’ve been pretty excited about the upcoming 2015-16 NBA season.

OK, that’s a bit of an understatement.

For starters, we rolled out CARMELO,1 our system for predicting the career of every NBA player, and we’ve been encouraging all who will listen to check out their favorite player’s projection. (Yes, our friends and families have asked us to stop.) We also used CARMELO to preview all 30 NBA teams.

In each of those previews, we listed a “projected record” for the team in question to get a sense of what their fans should expect this year. But the trouble with writing these previews over such an extended amount of time is that we didn’t really get a chance to run the numbers for every team all at once. And if we had, injuries and transactions would have rendered those projections out of date by now.

So to our eagle-eyed readers: Yes, we know, the projected wins for each team did not perfectly average 41-41 across the entire NBA.2 We also didn’t adjust the numbers for strength of schedule. But we have now. Here’s an overview of each conference’s projected standings, which takes into account CARMELO’s ratings and each team’s schedule.3

EASTERN CONFERENCE

SEED TEAM DIV OFF NBA RK DEF NBA RK TOT WINS
1 Cavaliers Central +8.2 1 0.0 18 +8.1 63.2
2 Celtics Atlantic +2.0 8 +0.4 15 +2.4 49.2
3 Bulls Central +0.1 15 +2.0 4 +2.1 47.8
4 Hawks Southeast +0.7 11 +0.6 11 +1.3 45.7
5 Raptors Atlantic +0.7 12 +0.1 16 +0.8 44.5
6 Wizards Southeast -1.7 21 +1.5 7 -0.3 41.0
7 Hornets Southeast -1.0 17 0.0 17 -1.0 39.4
8 Pacers Central -1.2 19 -0.2 19 -1.4 37.7
9 Heat Southeast -0.3 16 -1.3 24 -1.6 37.7
10 Pistons Central +1.2 10 -3.1 27 -1.9 36.6
11 Magic Southeast -1.4 20 -0.7 21 -2.1 36.1
12 Bucks Central -3.3 26 +0.7 9 -2.6 34.4
13 Knicks Atlantic -3.5 27 -2.9 26 -6.4 24.8
14 76ers Atlantic -6.7 30 -0.8 22 -7.5 22.0
15 Nets Atlantic -3.8 28 -3.9 29 -7.7 21.7

The East is still the inferior conference — the average NBA team would stand to gain about two extra wins by moving from West to East. How much is two wins worth? It’s nothing to sneeze at, but it also isn’t going to make or break a team’s fortunes. The top-ranked Cleveland Cavaliers, for instance, would still be projected to win more than 60 games if they were given the schedule of a typical Western Conference team.

Then again, the Cavs have a rare stockpile of talent by the standards of the East — we think they’re far and away the best team in the conference. That’s not exactly a bold prediction; perhaps more interesting is the No. 2 ranking CARMELO bestows on the Boston Celtics, who finished last season with the eighth seed in the East. Boston’s scoring attack wasn’t very good last year, but CARMELO thinks the team’s turnaround will be fueled by major improvements on the offensive end.

As for the rest of the conference, the Atlanta Hawks’ projected decline — from 60 to 46 wins — might surprise their fans, but because many of last season’s stars are expected to regress to the mean, CARMELO thinks they’ll take equal steps backward on offense and defense. Along the same lines, the Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets are projected to fall out of the playoffs (particularly Brooklyn, who we project to be in the East’s cellar), while CARMELO calls for the Charlotte Hornets to ascend to the postseason after sitting it out last year.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

SEED TEAM DIV OFF NBA RK DEF NBA RK TOT WINS
1 Warriors Pacific +3.0 5 +5.0 1 +8.1 61.3
2 Thunder Northwest +6.1 2 +0.5 13 +6.6 58.0
3 Spurs Southwest +2.3 7 +4.2 2 +6.4 57.1
4 Clippers Pacific +4.0 4 +1.9 5 +5.9 56.1
5 Rockets Southwest +4.0 3 +0.6 10 +4.7 52.6
6 Grizzlies Southwest +0.6 13 +3.1 3 +3.7 50.5
7 Pelicans Southwest +2.3 6 -0.6 20 +1.8 44.9
8 Jazz Northwest +0.5 14 +0.8 8 +1.3 43.8
9 Kings Pacific -1.0 18 +0.4 14 -0.6 38.3
10 Suns Pacific -2.6 24 +1.9 6 -0.7 38.2
11 Mavericks Southwest +1.4 9 -1.9 25 -0.6 38.0
12 Trail Blazers Northwest -1.8 22 +0.6 12 -1.3 36.2
13 Nuggets Northwest -4.3 29 -0.9 23 -5.2 26.3
14 Timberwolves Northwest -2.6 25 -3.1 28 -5.7 24.9
15 Lakers Pacific -1.9 23 -4.8 30 -6.7 22.1

In the West, the Golden State Warriors are once again our pick for No. 1 in the conference. But beneath them, there are some shake-ups: The Oklahoma City Thunder, who finished out of the playoffs last season after an incredible spate of injuries, are right back near the top of the standings, as are the new-look San Antonio Spurs. Those teams push the Los Angeles Clippers down to No. 4, highlighting just how stacked the West continues to be.

CARMELO also thinks the Houston Rockets will fall from second to fifth in the conference, thanks to a declining defense. And it forecasts an extreme decline for the Portland Trail Blazers — without LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland is projected to drop from fourth in the West to 12th. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the playoff picture, our numbers call for the Dallas Mavericks to cede their No. 7 slot from a year ago to the Pelicans, while the Utah Jazz and (shockingly) the Kings battle over the conference’s eighth and final postseason berth.

As mentioned above, the West figures to once again dominate the East. While the Cavaliers project as the NBA’s most talented team (by fractions of a ratings point over the Warriors), each of the next six best teams are in the West, as are six of the seven teams we project to win 50+ games. But there might be slight hope for improvement in East-West relations: CARMELO thinks the East will gain five total wins on the West, compared to last year’s split between the conferences.

No matter what happens between the conferences, though, we think they’ll be represented again in the Finals by the Cavaliers and Warriors come next June.4 And we’re really looking forward to seeing how their paths potentially take them there.

Footnotes

  1. Short for, ahem, Career-Arc Regression Model Estimator with Local Optimization.

  2. They came close; on average, we were about 0.9 wins too high per team.

  3. Our original predictions have a .996 correlation with these updated ones, so very little changed when we plugged our talent ratings into the 2015-16 NBA schedule. Unsurprisingly, the main difference came between conferences, where the same amount of generic talent in the CARMELO model will buy you more wins in the East than the West.

  4. Cleveland has a much higher probability of getting there.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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