1. #1
    Hman
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    The biggest dark horse contenders in the NBA restart 🏀

    The biggest dark horse contenders in the NBA restart

    ESPN PLUS ($ MATERIAL)



    Which teams could be dark horses in the 2020 NBA playoffs?


    The unusual format for this year's postseason -- coming after a break of more than 4Ĺ months caused by the coronavirus pandemic and with all games to be played without fans at a neutral site at the ESPN World Wide of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida -- presents the possibility of more upsets than usual.


    Which teams are poised to take advantage of the opportunity? Cue Katy Perry and Juicy J as we take a look at the possible dark horses.


    Dallas Mavericks

    No team benefits more from playing at a neutral site than the Mavericks, who were seventh in the Western Conference at the time play stopped and unlikely to climb into the top four. Point differential tells a very different story about Dallas, which was third in the West at 6.1 points per game -- far closer to the top two teams (the Los Angeles Lakers at 7.4 PPG and the LA Clippers at 6.5 PPG) than anyone else (no other West team has a point differential better than 3.7 PPG).


    Predictably, the Mavericks fit into both ways a team can underperform its point differential.


    First, Dallas has struggled in close games, going just 2-9 (.182) in contests decided by three points or fewer. No NBA team has as many losses by a single possession, and only the lottery-bound Atlanta Hawks (1-5, .167) have a worse winning percentage in such games.


    Second, Dallas has been excellent in lopsided games, winning 23 times by double digits, the league's fifth-highest total. And the Mavericks have been beaten by double digits only seven times, tied with three contenders (the Lakers, Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks) for fewest in the NBA.


    Maybe none of this will matter if Dallas matches up with the Clippers in the opening round, in which case the Mavs would be heavy underdogs despite relatively similar point differentials. The Clippers have more room for improvement by tightening their rotation in the playoffs, which would be difficult for the Mavericks to do because they've won more with depth than top-end talent despite Luka Doncic's improvement in Year 2.


    That makes the seeding games crucial for Dallas to move up -- or hope the Clippers fall out of second. Though the Mavericks are currently a game and a half behind the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder (who are tied for fifth), Dallas could credibly catch either of those teams or the fourth-seeded Utah Jazz (2.5 games up but playing without starter Bojan Bogdanovic in Orlando).


    In my latest simulations of the seeding games using ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM), the Mavericks finish seventh a little more than half the time (51%) but are slightly more likely to face an opponent other than the Clippers (48%).

    Houston Rockets

    Behind the Mavericks, the next-best team in the West as sorted by point differential is not the third-seeded Denver Nuggets (3.0 PPG) or fourth-seeded Jazz (3.1 PPG), but instead the Rockets, who are tied for fifth (3.7 PPG). Houston's record doesn't dramatically differ from the underlying results, but slight misfortune in terms of converting points to wins did have the Rockets in jeopardy of starting the playoffs on the road before the season was moved to Orlando.


    If we consider projected playoff rotations, Houston looks even stronger by virtue of focusing even more minutes on its core lineups, with All-Stars James Harden and Russell Westbrook flanked by strong defenders Robert Covington and P.J. Tucker. According to NBA Advanced Stats, lineups featuring those four players have outscored opponents by 9.3 points per 100 possessions this season. So it's not surprising that the Rockets' projected playoff rating using RPM puts them closer to the Lakers and Clippers than the rest of the West field -- including the Mavericks.


    Additionally, Houston's most likely first-round matchups look reasonably favorable. The Rockets split the season series with the Nuggets, but that includes two lopsided wins at home and a loss in Denver without Harden. Meanwhile, Houston has beaten Utah in each of the past two postseasons. Though the Rockets look dramatically different than this time last year after swapping out center Clint Capela for the smaller Covington, they've won two of three head-to-head meetings with Utah this season, losing at home on a buzzer-beating 3 by Bogdanovic -- who won't play in Orlando after wrist surgery. Houston faces either the Jazz or the Nuggets in slightly more than half of my simulations.


    The bigger question for the Rockets, given their urgency to win while Harden and Westbrook are still in their early 30s, is whether they can knock off one of the Los Angeles teams and return to the conference finals for the second time in three years.


    Houston's unorthodox lineups contrast with the Lakers' preferred ones, which feature two traditional bigs, and the high point of the Rockets' season was probably a win over the Lakers at Staples Center the night of the trade deadline. With Avery Bradley out, the Lakers are slightly less capable of matching up small with Houston if they're forced to do so.


    The Clippers have more stylistic flexibility than the Lakers, and the Clips cruised past the Rockets in Houston during their only meeting since the Capela trade. So ending up on the Lakers' side of the bracket might not be the worst thing for the Rockets.


    Philadelphia 76ers

    In some ways, the Sixers could hardly be called a dark horse. Only the Bucks entered the season with better championship odds in the East, and Philly was a popular pick to win the conference after adding Al Horford and Josh Richardson to create a giant starting lineup anchored by All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.


    Yet after a disappointing four months, the 76ers find themselves battling to avoid the sixth seed. Staying there might not be the worst thing for Philadelphia, which won three of four head-to-head meetings with the likely third-seeded Celtics. The Celtics don't have a good matchup for Embiid, who scored 38 points on 12-of-21 shooting in a December win at Boston. However, the Celtics can feel better about their chances after holding Embiid to 1-of-11 from the field in February's blowout home win.


    The safer play for the Sixers is to try to move up to fourth or fifth, which would likely mean facing the Miami Heat. The odds of that improved when the Indiana Pacers, currently tied for fifth with Philadelphia, lost guard Victor Oladipo for the restart. Now, the 76ers move up in 60% of simulations and face Miami 52% of the time.


    Without home-court advantage as a factor, Philadelphia would likely be favored over the Heat despite middling season-series results: After winning their first meeting, the Sixers lost the last three against Miami, two of them close but the most recent game in February a 31-point blowout. The Heat flipped the matchup by using zone defense to take advantage of Philadelphia's weak outside shooting. According to Second Spectrum tracking, Miami played zone on 102 of 383 defensive possessions against the 76ers (27%). By contrast, 19 other teams played 102 or fewer zone possessions all season long.





    As with Houston, Philadelphia would probably have to reach the conference finals to truly have what we would call a dark horse run in Orlando. I'm less optimistic about the Sixers' chances there. They beat both Milwaukee and the Toronto Raptors at home but lost each time they played those teams on the road. Furthermore, Philadelphia doesn't project to be as strong as those two teams, as rated by RPM, in terms of its playoff rotations.


    About that home/road split: The 76ers had the NBA's best home record at 29-2 while going just 10-24 on the road, a source of much consternation all season long. There's no reason to believe that difference was meaningful or that it tells us how Philadelphia might do at a neutral site. Historically, the only truly unique home-court advantages in the league are those caused by altitude for the Nuggets and Jazz.


    Since 1984-85, there have been six playoff teams that, like this year's Sixers, had a winning percentage at least .500 better at home than on the road. Because home-court advantage is on the decline, the most recent of them was the 1994-95 Orlando Magic. Those six teams went 20-10 (.667) at home and 10-21 (.323) on the road in the playoffs -- almost identical to the league's overall home (.670) and road (.330) playoff winning percentages over that span.

  2. #2
    packerd_00
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    Id say Rockets if I was picking between the outside teams. Harden is the x-factor for me, he needs to finally get his ass in gear and start showing up in the playoffs.

  3. #3
    Snowball
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    Why u say "Dark Horse", dats waysis !



  4. #4
    rm18
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    Tinted horse

  5. #5
    juicername
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    Quote Originally Posted by Snowball View Post
    Why u say "Dark Horse", dats waysis !


    Yes baller, I am also offended. Let's sue ESPN!

  6. #6
    Otters27
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    Nuggets

  7. #7
    pologq
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    if the bucks are slightly rusty or giannis is off i can see the heat making a run

  8. #8
    jjgold
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    Itís a whole new season nobody knows now and throwing corona who might get infected almost impossible to predict

  9. #9
    Mr KLC
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    The Thunder went 34-13 after starting 6-11 and had the third best record in the league since Thanksgiving.

  10. #10
    ThaTopMoron
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    the horse is dark because you don't see it coming till its too late!!!

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