When last we left the 2019-20 NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers were championship favorites — with the rival L.A. Clippers and the Milwaukee Bucks not too far behind — as teams prepped for the final 17 or so games in the regular season.
Then, the coronavirus put everything on hold for four months.
Only now is the sport gearing up for its return, with an ambitious plan to play the rest of the season in a “bubble” at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.1 Although playing sports during a pandemic will be a huge challenge, league commissioner Adam Silver recently said he feels “pretty confident” in the procedures he and his team have put in place. So with the restart schedule released late last week, we’ve relaunched our FiveThirtyEight NBA prediction model to forecast the mini-regular season finale, the play-in scenarios and, of course, the postseason.
As a refresher: These predictions are based on 100,000 simulations of the rest of the season and playoffs, using team ratings to generate win probabilities for each game. Those team ratings are determined by each player’s performance in RAPTOR — the Robust Algorithm (using) Player Tracking (and) On/Off Ratings — which measures his influence on offense and defense, and playing-time forecasts (including each team’s expected rotation and injuries). There are postseason adjustments for players who typically exceed expectations in the playoffs and a bunch of other bells and whistles you can read about here.
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Add it all up, and it gives a snapshot of where we think each team stands heading into the restart — which isn’t exactly the same as how things looked when the league hit the pause button. Let’s go through exactly what changed in the forecast between then and now.
Which teams look stronger on paper now?
As a side effect of the long layoff, a number of players have recovered from injuries that slowed them down or kept them out back in March. Among teams invited to Orlando, the Milwaukee Bucks (+74 rating points), Philadelphia 76ers (+66) and Portland Trail Blazers (+55) gained the most points in our talent ratings (which estimate the current state of each team). For the Bucks, the reason is simple: MVP front-runner Giannis Antetokounmpo has recovered from a sprained knee that was affecting him around when the break happened. Likewise, Portland will get back a healthier Jusuf Nurkić; Nurkić, whom RAPTOR considered an elite player last season but who hasn’t played yet in 2019-20, was set to come back in limited fashion in March, and our depth charts have him set to play normal minutes now.2 And for Philly, Ben Simmons should be at 100 percent again after a back injury had landed him on the injured list in February.
Most teams saw their ratings go up for similar reasons, with an extra few months helping banged-up players recover. Among teams not already eliminated, the next-biggest gains in talent rating were the Celtics (+26), Magic (+18) and Grizzlies (+16).
Whose playoff chances changed?
Although 22 teams will make the trip to Disney World, only 16 will make the playoffs — just like a normal postseason. The remaining eight-game regular-season slate will be used to whittle down the field, with a potential play-in tournament finishing that job if a conference’s No. 9 seed finishes within four games of the No. 8. Most of the remaining teams had already all but locked up their playoff status by March — back then, our model gave 15 teams a playoff probability of 98 percent or higher3 — but the final spot in the West was still legitimately up for grabs, with the Pelicans (60 percent), Grizzlies (15 percent), Blazers (14 percent), Kings (9 percent) and even Spurs (2 percent) in the mix when play stopped.
The revised schedule changed those odds quite a bit. The biggest winners of the new format are Ja Morant and the Grizzlies, whose playoff chances ticked up by 22 percentage points and now sit at 37 percent. The Wizards also went up 6 percentage points in their long-shot Eastern Conference playoff bid, bringing them up to 8 percent.
That means the biggest postseason downgrades came to the Pelicans (down 15 percentage points), who now have only a 45 percent chance, with the Nets (-5 percentage points), Blazers (-4), Kings (-2), Spurs (-2) and Magic (-1) dropping as well. New Orleans’s entire playoff bid was premised on having enough games with Zion Williamson (and an easy schedule) to chase down the Grizz. That last part is still true, but with 10 fewer games left to play, the Pelicans’ margin for error got much smaller.
What about NBA Finals and — especially! — title odds?
But enough about fringe teams that are battling for the right to be overmatched in the first round. Let’s talk about the contenders.
In terms of Finals odds, the biggest beneficiaries of the new format are the aforementioned Sixers, who gained 7 percentage points compared with their standing in March. That is essentially owed to an easy schedule and Simmons’s return to health. The third-year former No. 1 overall pick is one of the league’s most polarizing players, but RAPTOR still considers him extremely valuable (with the 30th-best per-possession rating of anyone logging at least 1,500 minutes). In turn, that change helped drop the Bucks’ chances of winning the East by 8 percentage points — though they remain conference favorites in our revised model, with a 36 percent Finals probability.4 When we re-ran the model, the Celtics‘ probability of making the Finals increased by a percentage point with a healthy Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown.
Out West, improved Finals odds belong to the Lakers (up 3 percentage points) and Mavericks (+1). L.A. will be without Avery Bradley for the restart — it signed J.R. Smith to pick up the slack, which should be fun — but the model has some Lakers rated higher than either Bradley or Smith actually gaining the missing minutes. Meanwhile, Dallas is a highly interesting team for its own reasons, led by Luka Dončić’s off-the-charts offensive stats. Both of those gains came at the expense of the Rockets (down 2 percentage points), Clippers (-1) and Nuggets (-1), though L.A.’s other top contender remains the second-most likely team to win the West, with a 38 percent chance to make the Finals.
Finally, we get to the championship probabilities. They changed in similar fashion to the Finals odds — the Sixers (up 4 percentage points) and Lakers (+3) gained, while the Bucks (-5) and Clippers (-1) lost ground.
|Finals Odds||Title Odds|
But overall, the NBA championship picture looks pretty similar to how it did back in March: The Lakers are still favorites, with the Clippers and Bucks sitting behind them. The Sixers have gained ground; the small-ball Rockets, Celtics, defending-champion Raptors (remember them?) and Nuggets are hanging around the periphery of the title race. We lost a few interesting storylines, though, and there is less certainty that we’ll end up with the true best team as champion.
There’s also no way to predict how the league’s bubble plan will fare when real people get placed into it and are expected to live their lives and play high-level basketball at the same time. But if the logistics work, the finish to this strange NBA campaign should be just as intriguing as promised at the start of the season, long before we knew what 2020 had in store for the world.
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