Welcome to the 2021-22 NBA season, folks! And welcome back to FiveThirtyEight’s NBA forecast, which is based on our RAPTOR player ratings.
Before we get into the results of this year’s model and how our forecast sees the battle to dethrone the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks playing out, let’s quickly address a few of the changes made last year to explain whether they’re sticking around.
The initial version of the projections used an alternative version of RAPTOR called PREDATOR,1 which down-weighted “lucky” events like opponent 3-point shooting in order to be more predictive. But testing before the 2020-21 season found that RAPTOR outperformed PREDATOR, so RAPTOR was used for both the player projections and the team forecasts. That change has been made permanent, as have two others: the blending of a team’s Elo rating with RAPTOR’s talent metric (based on the RAPTOR projections of the players in its rotation, adjusting for injury), with Elo weighted by how much of it was built up by players currently on the roster; and the slowing-down of in-season talent adjustments for players who have logged fewer than 1,000 regular-season or 750 playoff minutes. However, the full version of our home-court advantage adjustment has been restored after it was docked to 75 percent for last season when games were played in front of reduced-capacity crowds (or no crowds at all).
Without further ado, let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference, where our defending champions reside.
How our model is predicting the East
Preseason predicted standings for the NBA’s 2021-22 Eastern Conference, according to FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR-based forecast
|Proj. Record||Chance to…|
|Rk||Team||Current Rating||Wins||Losses||Make Playoffs||Make Finals||Win Title|
The Bucks are favored to repeat, and our model predicts they will also capture the No. 1 seed in the conference by four games over the next-closest competitor. (The Bucks have by far RAPTOR’s highest full-strength roster rating for both the regular season and the playoffs.) Milwaukee was given the fifth-best title odds both in last year’s preseason prediction model and the pre-play-in games version before eventually slaying its playoff demons and defeating the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals.
The model does not know that Ben Simmons hates his team and the entire city of Philadelphia hates Ben Simmons, but we do, so after Doc Rivers said “who knows” when asked whether Simmons will play, we assigned him 50 percent of his minutes for the season. Even then, the model sees the 76ers as the second-best team in the East, in terms of win-loss record, point differential, chance at winning the conference and chance of winning the title. It’s worth noting that last year’s model loved the Sixers as well, and we know how that worked out. The Hawks, Nets and Celtics join those two teams in what amounts to a fairly clear top five. The Hawks have the best projected regular-season record among the trio of teams behind the top two, but the worst conference and title odds.
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The model’s current operating assumption is that Kyrie Irving plays in 0 percent of regular-season Nets games, because that is the current state of affairs after the Nets announced earlier this week that Irving cannot play for them until he gets vaccinated.2 If he were to play half of this season’s games, for whatever reason, the Nets’ title chances would jump from their current 8 percent to 12 percent. We’re hedging our bets some by guessing that he’ll be back for half of his minutes during the Nets’ playoff games, should they get that far.
The model sees the rest of the conference divided into three clumps of teams. The Heat, Pacers, Knicks and Raptors are all projected to finish at .500 or better, and they all have at least a 50-50 shot of making the postseason. That means the model is predicting that at least one .500-or-better team does not make the playoffs in the East. Only four teams with .500-or-better records in the East have missed the playoffs since the league expanded to 30 teams prior to the 2004-05 season.3
RAPTOR has the Bulls and Wizards fighting for the final spot in the East’s play-in tournament, with the Hornets having an outside shot of nabbing that slot as well. And finally, the Cavaliers, Pistons and Magic check in with little to no shot at postseason play, instead competing for ping-pong balls with the teams at the bottom of the West.
Speaking of …
How our model is predicting the West
Preseason predicted standings for the NBA’s 2021-22 Western Conference, according to FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR-based forecast
|Proj. Record||Chance to…|
|Rk||Team||Current Rating||Wins||Losses||Make Playoffs||Make Finals||Win Title|
Let’s start with the Lakers. The model does not like this version of the team. L.A. has the ninth-best projected record in the conference, which would have the Lakers once again competing in the play-in tournament. The reason behind that: RAPTOR views LeBron James and Anthony Davis as the only net-positive players on the roster during the regular season.4 The model is particularly low on Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, who are projected to play sizable roles. It’s notable that L.A. is given a better chance of postseason success than its projected win-loss record and point differential would suggest — and that’s largely due to the presence of James and Davis.
We next have to address the Warriors, who are projected to finish worse than they did last year and miss the play-in tournament entirely. And that’s not because the model isn’t accounting for Klay Thompson playing games. It’s actually the opposite.5 RAPTOR penalizes players who suffer Achilles tears, as Thompson did prior to last season. Throw in the fact that he was already coming off a torn ACL prior to that, and the model now views him as a net-negative player. The model views the Warriors, like the Lakers, as being chock-full of negatives, with only Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Gary Payton II (The Mitten!) grading out as net positives, among the team’s projected rotation players.
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Now we can get to the top of the conference. RAPTOR sees the Jazz and Suns once again nabbing the top two seeds in the West, with 54-28 and 53-29 records, respectively. Utah has a slightly better projected point differential, while Phoenix has the slightly better odds of advancing to the NBA Finals.
Each team is largely running it back with last year’s group, so it makes sense that they would again take up residence at or near the top of the bracket. Interestingly, Utah swapping out backup center Derrick Favors for the Rudy Gay-Hassan Whiteside duo actually works against the Jazz in the model due to the combination of Favors’s strong RAPTOR ratings and Whiteside’s very poor ratings; but the move for Gay was a change the Jazz likely made for stylistic reasons, so that they have a small-ball option when the playoffs roll around. In any event, the Jazz still have considerable depth on the wings, and RAPTOR expects the usual strong performances from Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley. Phoenix’s projection, meanwhile, is driven by extremely strong depth: Seven different Suns have positive RAPTOR ratings, led by the star backcourt duo of Devin Booker and Chris Paul, and followed closely by Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, along with Cameron Payne, Jae Crowder and Cameron Johnson.
The next tier of teams consists of the Nuggets, Mavericks, Trail Blazers, Pelicans and Clippers, who are separated by a total of four wins and have better than 77 percent odds each of making the playoffs. There’s no definitive timeline for Jamal Murray’s return to the Nuggets’ lineup, but we’re guessing that he’ll be back on March 2, and his assumed presence gives the Nuggets a sizable edge over the Mavs-Blazers-Pellies group in conference odds.
Dallas’s strong projection is owed largely to Luka Dončić but also to the team’s surprising depth: RAPTOR has each of Kristaps Porziņģis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith, Dwight Powell and Jalen Brunson as net positives, with several other players coming relatively close. New Orleans’s strong projection is similarly driven by a superstar (Zion Williamson) and strong depth, with six rotation players rating as positives.
The Grizzlies also have six rotation players rated positively by RAPTOR, but the model does not look as highly on Ja Morant as it does on Dončić or Williamson, so it has Memphis in the play-in tournament. The Timberwolves, meanwhile, are driven to their play-in spot mostly by Karl-Anthony Towns, with a bit of help from D’Angelo Russell and Patrick Beverley. Anthony Edwards has a positive offensive RAPTOR rating but is still pegged as a negative defender.
The Spurs and Kings sit just behind the Warriors, with minimal but not de minimis postseason odds. They are each projected to finish at least four games back of the No. 10 seed, so there is some ground to make up. Meanwhile, the Rockets and Thunder are projected to own two of the three best odds in the lottery.
The last thing to address is a pair of oddities in the championship odds portion of the projections.
The most notable thing there is the Clippers, who are considered Western Conference favorites and have the league’s second-best shot at a title despite being projected for only the seventh-best regular-season record in the West. That’s because the current (and official) version of the projections includes Kawhi Leonard returning to the lineup on March 1 after partially tearing his ACL in June and undergoing surgery in July. Four to six months of recovery is a typical timeline for this kind of injury, but Leonard has a history of taking, shall we say, longer than expected to return from injury. So is a return this season something we can bank on?
If Kawhi does not play at all, L.A.’s odds would drop precipitously: The Clips’ regular-season record would dip to 45-37 and their point differential to plus-1.6, and their odds of making the playoffs (69 percent), advancing to the finals (6 percent) and winning the title (2 percent) would all take a considerable tumble. There is not one specific team that would benefit from the Clippers’ odds dropping, as several teams would simply gain 1 percentage point in the championship odds column.
Lastly (and most importantly for long-suffering people like me), for the first time in the history of FiveThirtyEight’s predictions, the New York Knickerbockers (!) have title odds that are not pegged at “less than 0.1 percent.” Julius Randle and company are one of the league’s deepest teams with nine positively rated players6 and are accordingly given a 0.6 percent chance of hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy. There is a 1 in 166 or so chance that I will see you all at the parade.
Neil Paine and Jay Boice contributed research.