With the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers taking the week off before their NBA Finals, it's time to brush up on how to use advanced stats to beat the NBA odds.
Jason’s record as of May 29: 80-83-5 ATS, 20-22 Totals, plus-0.15 units ML, 6-4 Series (plus-2.0 units)
Ladies and gentlemen, we're about to set another NBA record: Most days off before the NBA Finals. The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers won't tip off their championship series until Thursday (9:00 p.m. ET, ABC), which is okay with us – these guys need a break to recover from their assorted injuries and concussions. Good gravy, don't get me started on those concussions.
The rest of us can use the extended break to brush up on our handicapping. The NBA Finals will bring a boatload of casual bettors into the marketplace; it's their money that we're after, and we can sharpen our NBA picks by doing a better job of evaluating the two teams in question. Let's start by looking at some of the top stats gurus and see how they go about their business. First up: ESPN Insider's Kevin Pelton.
SCHOENE, How I Love You
Like many proponents of advanced statistical analysis, Pelton was inspired by Dean Oliver, author of the 2003 book Basketball on Paper and a key figure behind the “Four Factors” concept. Pelton moderated the forum at APBRmetrics (Association for Professional Basketball Research Metrics) and contributed to both Basketball Prospectus and 82 games. Pelton also worked for the Indiana Pacers as a consultant in 2010.
Pelton's most prominent contribution to advanced stats is his SCHOENE projection system. Modelled after Nate Silver's PECOTA system at Baseball Prospectus (and named after Russ Schoene, a reserve power forward for Pelton's beloved Seattle SuperSonics in the late '80s), SCHOENE creates baseline projections for players and teams by looking at their performances over the past three seasons, looking for similarities and weighing in factors like age and injuries.
So how did SCHOENE perform during the 2014-15 regular season? It was a bit bullish on the Cavaliers, projecting them to finish 68-14; instead, the Cavs went 53-29 (39-43 ATS) as they got off to a slow start. SCHOENE was also bearish on the Warriors, who went 67-15 (47-34-1 ATS) despite their 48-34 projection. But the system did quite well in projecting the Miami Heat (37-45 SU, 53-43-4 ATS) as a solid pick to go UNDER 44 wins – SCHOENE had the Heat at 34-48.
Projecting a team or player over an entire season is always difficult – there are so many variables that come into play, including injuries and trades. When it comes to betting against the NBA odds in single-game situations, Pelton's WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) is a useful metric that distills box-score stats to a single number that can be used for quick-and-dirty player evaluation. WARP doesn't reflect a player's defensive performance very well, but it does take important factors like usage, assists and offensive rebound rate into account.
While Pelton's WARP stats are proprietary, they've influenced the creation of similar metrics that are available for free on the Interwebs. For example, ESPN offers WAR (Wins Above Replacement), while Basketball Reference gives us VORP (Value Over Replacement Player). Let's take a moment to look at some of the key players in the NBA Finals and how they did in those categories during the regular season.
Golden State Warriors
Stephen Curry: 19.83 WAR (No. 1 overall), 7.9 VORP (No. 1)
Draymond Green: 14.74 WAR (No. 6), 4.4 VORP (No. 9)
LeBron James: 16.36 WAR (No. 4), 5.9 VORP (No. 5)
Kyrie Irving: 9.30 WAR (No. 27), 3.7 VORP (No. 18)
According to these metrics, there's a considerable difference between the two teams at the top of their talent pool. And that's while probably undervaluing Green's defensive contributions. Note that Golden State's Klay Thompson (9.75 WAR, 2.9 VORP) doesn't measure up to his All-Star status, although he's an improving player. More importantly for these Finals, Kevin Love (8.43 WAR, 2.5 VORP) won't be playing for Cleveland. That's like the Chicago Bulls losing Pau Gasol (7.73 WAR, 3.2 VORP). Adjust your NBA picks accordingly.