Markov Simulation: NBA Playoffs

With the NBA Playoffs set to get underway, we take a quick look at the probabilities for each team becoming the NBA Champions. Common consensus would place any combination of the five strongest teams: Golden State – Houston – San Antonio versus Cleveland – Boston. But the question is how likely? To answer that, we take a look at the teams’ rankings over the season and their resulting schedule.

Using the metrics developed for the NCAA Playoff determination, we are able to build a strength of opponent. These metrics focus on player injuries, head to head wins, location and duration of rest for each game, and smoothing of games, weighting more recent games compared to previous games. Due to this, we see that the Golden State Warriors get a correction for Kevin Durant’s injury and Clevelan’d slight tumble in scores for their second half woes (and eventual loss of first place in the Eastern Conference).

Currently the playoffs looks like this:

Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 10.46.28 AM

NBA Playoff Schedules, image courtesy of ESPN.

Let’s quickly break down each series and identify the highest probability paths for each team.

Boston Celtics (53 – 29) vs. Chicago Bulls (41 – 41)

Predicted Winner: Boston Celtics in 6 Games (Probability of Winning: 62.2435%)

The Boston Celtics finished on a strong note, capturing the Eastern Conference while the Cleveland Cavaliers tumbled after back-to-back losses to the Atlanta Hawks. Therefore the Celtics pick up home-court advantage all playoffs long and get the Chicago Bulls in the first round.

The Bulls have strong guard play from Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, a solid scorer at the wing with Jimmy Butler, and tough interior presence with Robin Lopez. However, that’s the end of the Bulls roster; when compared to the Celtics’ roster. Nikola Mirotic is going to be a critical player in this series in an attempt to spread the court and allow Wade and Butler to have space to slash and drive to the hoop.

The Celtics, on the other hand, have one of the top scorers in the league with Isaiah Thomas and one of the best coached big men in the game with Al Horford. Combined with Horford, Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk will provide problems for the Bulls in the interior.

The key to this series for the Celtics will be to limit Mirotic’s shooting and keep the Bulls out of the paint. In doing these two things, the Bulls will be forced to put the ball into Wade’s and Butler’s hands and force them to create every shot. With age going against Wade, this will force Chicago to go to their bench: Jerian Grant and Michael-Carter Williams. The key players to do this will be Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder.

Key Players: Nikola Mirotic (CHI), Avery Bradley (BOS), Taj Gibson (Neither)

Note: Why is Taj Gibson a key player? He’s large part of the reason that the Bulls went 2-2 against the Celtics this year. He was traded mid-season, leaving Lopez to be alone against the Celtics.

Washington Wizards (49-33) vs. Atlanta Hawks (43-39)

Predicted Winner: Washington Wizards in 6 Games (Probability of Winning: 57.7457%)

The Washington Wizards are one of the best home teams in the NBA and have a home-court advantage over the Atlanta Hawks in their first round match-up. One the flip side, the Hawks come in storming back to gain hold of the fifth seed over the Milwaukee Bucks, thanks in part of a home-and-home sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Starting the season 9-2, the Hawks looked great; but promptly followed that up with a 1-10 run to find themselves at 10-12 a quarter of the way through the season. Shortly thereafter, the Hawks sent shooter Kyle Korver to the Cavaliers in an attempt to re-tool the Atlanta roster in hopes of sparking their offense. The Hawks received Mike Dunleavy Jr, Mo Williams, and a future first round pick; effectively signaling the season was not going to be for a championship run.

Meanwhile the Wizards flourished with John Wall setting the case for being an honorable mention in the MVP race. Wall is the heart of this team and opens the court up for Bradley Beal, a player who need to step up in this series for the Wizards to move on.

The Wizards are 3-1 over the Hawks this season but the games have been vastly different over the season. The Hawks, with an ever changing line-up has used different starting line-ups for each game. Had Korver for some, missed Millsap for the last. This series will be an interesting one as the keys for the Wizards will be adjustments and controlling the guard play. With a Hawks team that has a huge variance in its play-making capability (read that as inconsistent) we will be unsure if Millsap will shine, or Howard will dominate the boards, or Schroeder can free himself at top. Therefore the Wizards’ Scott Brooks will have to adjust game plans over the course of the series, even during mid-game, to control the pace for the Wizards.

Key Players: Paul Millsap (ATL), Dwight Howard (ATL), Marcin Gortat (WAS), Bradley Beal (WAS)

Wall is going to shine in this series. This game will be determined by Gortat’s adjustment in the post with Mahinmi being out and Beal’s ability to shoot, forcing one of the best defenses to stretch thin.

Toronto Raptors (51 – 31) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (42 – 40)

Predicted Winner: Toronto Raptors in 7 Games (Probability of Winning: 52.3298%)

The Milwaukee Bucks are the upset special in this round of the playoffs. Despite being a 6 seed in the East, the Bucks have the best chance of being a low seed team (6 through 8) of stealing a series and advancing to the second round.

The Bucks, anchored by Giannis Antetokounmpo, are going to have to push the Toronto Raptors in transition. Antetokounmpo stretches the court and allows for Khris Middleton and break-out rookie Malcolm Brogdon to open for their mid-range attack. Middleton, not known for being a top-tier player but able to do all the small things to make good plays on both the offensive and defensive side of the court; and is a big reason why the Bucks are in the playoffs this season, will be one of the X-Factors in this series.

The Raptors are seen as much better on paper with DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry as one of the best back-court tandems in the Eastern conference (behind pretty much only John Wall and Bradley Beal in Washington). The Raptors will be fine at the guard position and will beat the Bucks by using their big man, Jonas Valanciunis, against Greg Monroe and Thon Maker.

What’s key for the Bucks? Antetokounmpo and the Bench. With players such as Teletovic, Dellavedova, and Thon Maker, the Bucks have a solid eight-man rotation (we haven’t mentioned Tony Snell or Jason Terry). This rotation will allow the Bucks to press the Raptors into an up-tempo game and force the back court to win the game. While DeRozan and Lowry are solid scorers, the Raptors will need the front court to step up.

Cleveland Cavaliers (51 – 31) vs. Indiana Pacers (42 – 40)

Predicted Winner: Cleveland Cavaliers in 5 games (Probability of Winning: 75.7830%)

Cleveland is the best team on paper, but aimed to rest players late in the season, costing them first place in the Eastern Conference. Despite being a two-seed, the Cavs are still the best team in the East with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love.

The Pacers are led by Paul George, and that’s all about it. George is one of the premier players in the league, and has a strong supporting cast in Monta Ellis, Myles Turner, Jeff Teague, and Thaddeus Young. Teague, Ellis, and Young have been solid contributors in the past to help propel teams into the playoffs, but they are not a solid match for the Cleveland line-up and depth.

Key Player: Paul George (IND)

This series is going to be about Paul George. Indiana does not have enough firepower to stop the Cavaliers in this series. If the Pacers are going to win, it’s going to be on the heroics of their premier player. The rest of Indiana will require intense ball pressure while clearing Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love from the paint for rebounds. That’s a tall order.

Golden State Warriors (67 – 15) vs. Portland Trailblazers (41 – 41)

Predicted Winner: Golden State Warriors in 5 games (Probability of Winning: 85.7895%)

Portland looks like they squeezed in over Denver to grab the eighth seed; and despite Damian Lillard’s claim of taking the series in six games, the Trailblazers are in trouble. The Warriors have the best team in the league with defending two-time MVP Stephen Curry, and two of the top defenders in the league with Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Not to mention, they have a healthy Kevin Durant back just in time to make their run through the Western Conference.

The Blazers went 0-4 against the Warriors this season and have match-up problems galore. After dumping Mason Plumlee to the Nuggets, the Blazers became a slightly weaker in the rebounding game; now relying on Al-Farouq Aminu and Meyers Leonard. This will be a problem against the Warriors’ Green, Durant, and JaVale McGee.

Key Players: C.J. McCollum (POR), Al-Farouq Aminu (POR), Evan Turner (POR)

Here the key players come down to the starters for the Trailblazers. If they are to play basketball reminiscent of their run to capturing the Northwest over the previous two years (51-31, 44-38); then the Blazers have a chance to stealing a game in Oakland and fighting for three more at home. But at their current pace, we are discussing stealing one home game.

How to beat the Warriors… To beat the Warriors teams must bump on off-ball screens while on defense, harass shooters with physical play, and attack Steph Curry with the ball. Curry, actually one of the slowest on-ball defenders in the league, will pick up fouls (proven not only by spatio-temporal stats but by play by Westbrook last year, Harden this year, and Cleveland in the 2016 Finals). By physically pounding the Warriors and pushing them an extra foot out of their comfort zone, the Warriors become frustrated and fail to execute their game plan properly.

The Warriors do make adjustments, such as in the Oklahoma City Western Conference Finals last year, Klay Thomspon was on-ball defender on Westbrook. OKC ran either a single screen or a Horns offense, forcing the screen defender to hedge onto Westbrook. With a roll from the screener, Thomspon was forced to roll off Westbrook. Over 80% of plays used Curry’s defender as the screener, forcing Curry onto Westbrook. Westbrook scored on nearly 90% of these plays in the first 4 games of the series. Afterwards, the Warriors managed to rotate by hedging an extra defender, allowing for Thompson to rotate underneath the screen and pick Westbrook back up.

Los Angeles Clippers (51 – 31) vs. Utah Jazz (51 – 31)

Predicted Winner: Los Angeles Clippers in 7 games (Probability of Winning: 51.9838%)

This series is the most intriguing as the upstart Utah Jazz have the best chance of causing an upset in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. This series is the break-out series for Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert; the latter being my selection for defensive player of the year.

The Los Angeles Clippers have a formidable starting five, highlighted by the three superstars of Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, and DeAndre Jordan. With J.J. Redick stretching the court, the Clippers have one of the best teams in the league on paper. However, hampered by injury and inconsistency, the Clippers only won 51 games. Yes… only 51. These Clippers should have won closer to 60 games, securing at least third in the conference.

Due to the inconsistency all season, the Clippers play disjointed games of strong offensive play to mildly confused hero-ball (pass the ball to Griffin and watch). The X-Factor in this game is no longer the players, but rather Utah’s coach Quin Snyder.

The Jazz picked up George Hill, who is looking like his prime when playing with the Indiana Pacers of a couple years back. Snyder will play off Hill’s experience and help build the game plan around Hill, allowing for Hayward to disrupt opponent’s plans by his mid-range play-making on offense and hands-in-the-passing-lane defense.

If I were to pick an upset, this would be the one to pick; with Milwaukee right after. The Clippers will do their usual damage with Lob City and gaudy three-point shooting (Griffin hit how many three’s this year?!?!). But the Jazz will play steadily and stay in every game; putting pressure on a team that was considered, when healthy, a viable threat to de-throning the Warriors.

Houston Rockets (55 – 27) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (47 – 35)

Predicted Winner: Houston Rockets in 6 games (Probability of Winning: 72.3547%)

The Oklahoma City Thunder should not have made the playoffs with a winning record. On paper, OKC is a 7th/8th seed with no more than 42 wins. However, with Triple-Double machine Russell Westbrook, steady center Steven Adams, and solid shooter Vic Oladipo, the Thunder transformed into a one-man wrecking crew,

That said, Westbrook goes against James Harden, the other MVP candidate of the league. Harden, coming off an amazing turn-around season from last year’s 8th seed bust of a season, is looking to run the table in the Western Conference this season under Mike D’Antoni’s high-octane offense.

While the Rockets are known for terrible defense (giving up 110 points a game), they aim to outscore you in massive, demoralizing runs. This is led by Harden, but backed up by Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, and Eric Gordon. The Thunder has solid defensive players in Westbrook, Andre Roberson, and Adams; but that’s about where it ends. Playing Enes Kanter extra minutes will play well into Houston’s hands as the center is unable to make defensive plays.

Hence the key to this game is simple: slow down the Houston attack and make them take an extra pass. In doing this, the Rockets will rely on Harden more. It’s been shown time and time again that hero ball never ends well for teams in the playoffs and by forcing the Rockets to play hero ball, the Thunder have a fighting chance of taking this series. The reason? Westbrook is the league MVP. It’s not official… but by the numbers, there’s no better player than Westbrook right now. And if this series truly goes to 1-on-1; expect the Thunder to grind out a series win.

If not, expect the Rockets to dispatch the Thunder relatively quick.

San Antonio Spurs (61 – 21) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (43 – 39)

Predicted Winner: San Antonio Spurs in 6 games (Probability of Winning: 64.1415%)

The San Antonio Spurs are still one of the elite teams in the league. This is in due part to the emergence of Kawhi Leonard over the past few seasons, and the steadiness of role-players such as Patty Mills and Danny Green. With additions such as LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol over the past two seasons and one season, respectively, the Spurs are a 2-seed for great reason.

Behind Coach Popovich’s plan of high screen roll, kick-out and slash basketball, the Spurs have befuddled defenses what is nearing on generations of basketball. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies have familiar faces, such as Vince Carter, Zach Randaolph, and Marc Gasol. With a healthy Gasol, the Grizzlies are once again a dominant force in the Western Conference. Memphis contributed 2 of San Antonio’s 21 losses this season in a 2-2 season split.

The Grizzlies still have an uphill battle against the Spurs, unfortunately, as the key to the Grizzlies will lie in Mike Conley’s hands. Conley is the de facto leader of this squad, despite the plethora of aging talent on this roster. Conley will need to keep that steady hand while allowing the star players to continue to do their job. If the Spurs manage to bottle up Conley, expect these games to get out of hand quickly.

Six games may be being generous to the Grizzlies.

Second Round:

In the second round, instead of giving several in-depth match-ups, we will just yield the probabilities of winning for each team.

Most Likely Match-Ups:

Boston Celtics over Washington Wizards in 7 games. (Potential Upset)

Cleveland Cavaliers over Toronto Raptors in 5 games.

Golden State Warriors over Los Angeles Clippers in 6 games.

Houston Rockets over San Antonio Spurs in 7 games.

Probabilities of Winning Second Round:

Here, we applied the Markov Simulation based on our models described above. In this case, we have the following probabilities for each team winning making their respective Conference finals:

  • Boston Celtics: 35.6858%
  • Washington Wizards: 29.2068%
  • Atlanta Hawks: 18.1514%
  • Chicago Bulls: 16.9560%

This means that the Celtics have the best chance of winning their first two rounds overall. However that second series against the Wizards, as a potential match-up, will actually have the Wizards almost at 50%; meaning the Wizards have a really good chance at making the Conference Finals.

  • Cleveland Cavaliers: 52.3805%
  • Toronto Raptors: 20.0837%
  • Milwaukee Bucks: 17.3167%
  • Indiana Pacers: 10.2191%

Here, the Cavaliers have the easiest path to the Conference Finals. The exciting match-up would be to see the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round. However, there is no team that provides a viable test to the Cavaliers. Outside of an injury, expect the Cavaliers to roll through the first two rounds.

  • Golden State Warriors: 64.9275%
  • Los Angeles Clippers: 16.0431%
  • Utah Jazz: 14.0014%
  • Portland Trailblazers: 5.0280%

The Warriors are in the same boat as the Cavaliers. The Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers pose match-up problems for the Warriors; particularly in the post position with Gobert and Jordan, respectively; however the back court and wing positions occupied by Curry, Thompson, and Durant are just too much for most teams.

  • Houston Rockets: 42.2339%
  • San Antonio Spurs: 33.9829%
  • Memphis Grizzlies: 13.9746%
  • Oklahoma City Thunder: 9.8086%

This is going to be a two-horse race between the Spurs and Rockets. And at that point, the Rockets currently edge out the Spurs overall. We will revisit this in the second round of the playoffs.

Conference Finals

The only major question marks in the Conference Finals are 1) whether the Rockets or the Spurs will play the Warriors and 2) Will the Celtics get upset by the Wizards? There’s a lot of assumptions to get to this point, but these are the high probability events and the big questions that pop up. In this case, the simulation even agrees that this is going to be another Warriors – Cavaliers match-up. Here are the probabilities of winning the Conference Finals:

  • Eastern Conference:
    • Cleveland Cavaliers: 33.9653%
    • Boston Celtics: 18.0328%
    • Washington Wizards: 13.5947%
    • Toronto Raptors: 9.3428%
    • Milwaukee Bucks: 7.6239%
    • Atlanta Hawks: 7.1084%
    • Chicago Bulls: 6.5330%
    • Indiana Pacers: 3.7991%
  • Western Conference:
    • Golden State Warriors: 43.8026%
    • Houston Rockets: 20.2039%
    • San Antonio Spurs: 15.2596%
    • Los Angeles Clippers: 6.6890%
    • Utah Jazz: 5.5560%
    • Oklahoma City Thunder: 2.6546%
    • Portland Trailblazers: 1.3757%

NBA Finals

Finally, the probability of winning the NBA Finals is still favoring the Golden State Warriors. We will revisit these probabilities in the coming weeks as the playoffs play out. For now, here are the probabilities of every team winning the NBA Championship:

  • Golden State Warriors: 32.8821%
  • Cleveland Cavaliers: 15.2062%
  • Houston Rockets: 13.0686%
  • San Antonio Spurs: 9.4151%
  • Boston Celtics: 6.4028%
  • Washington Wizards: 4.3278%
  • Los Angeles Clippers: 3.3855%
  • Utah Jazz: 2.7196%
  • Toronto Raptors: 2.6138%
  • Memphis Grizzlies: 2.1113%
  • Milwaukee Bucks: 1.9795%
  • Atlanta Hawks: 1.8348%
  • Chicago Bulls: 1.6492%
  • Oklahoma City Thunder: 1.1114%
  • Indiana Pacers: 0.8062%
  • Portland Trailblazers: 0.4861%

So what do you think? While now posting a day late (due to writing out all the match-ups and seeing this from a coaching and numbers perspective), how are the games starting to shape up? Do you agree with the analysis? Go against? Think that another team has a better chance? Sound off in the comments below! Also, the Markov simulation code is available. Feel free to shoot me a message for a copy.

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