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Contender vs. Pretender: Finding the Formula for an NBA Finalist

Now that the playoffs are finally set in stone, let's take a look at past seasons and what their respective Finalists looked like on paper. Using that knowledge, we'll define each of this year's teams as either Contender or Pretender.

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

A Trip Down Memory Lane

As we settle in for what I truly believe will be one of the best NBA postseasons in the past decade, let's take a look at what past Finalists have looked like, what makes them tick. After piecing apart what the playoffs determine to be the league's best two teams, maybe we can pick out a few contenders and pretenders from the 16 teams left standing. This IS Grizzly Bear Blues, so in Part 2 we'll also emphasize the Grizzlies' potential this year and whether or not Grit ‘n Grind will ever grind out a Larry O'Brien trophy.

In this table, I've recorded the regular season statistics for the NBA Finalists over the past 10 seasons. The (eventual) Champion is listed first, and the averages of the two are also displayed. Many more stats are shown than I'll use in our discussion so that interested fans can draw their own conclusions as well. If you want the straight talk, feel free to skim through the history lesson right on down to the analysis.

Warning: Dangerously high level of numbers ahead, detour recommended for the stats-adverse

Season

Team

Win%

FG%

3P%

eFG%

OREB%

DREB%

REB%

13-14

SAS

75.6

48.6

39.7

53.7

22.7

76.4

50.6

MIA

65.9

50.1

36.4

55.4

20.6

73

47.8

AVG

70.8

49.4

38.1

54.6

21.7

74.7

49.2

12-13

MIA

80.5

49.6

39.6

55.2

22.2

73

49

SAS

70.7

48.1

37.6

53.1

20.5

74.9

49.3

AVG

75.6

48.9

38.6

54.2

21.4

74.0

49.2

11-12

MIA

69.7

46.9

35.9

50.5

26.6

73.9

51.1

OKC

71.2

47.1

35.8

51.6

27.8

72.1

51.4

AVG

70.5

47.0

35.9

51.1

27.2

73.0

51.3

10-11

DAL

69.5

47.5

36.5

52.5

24.1

74.8

50.4

MIA

70.7

48.1

37

52.4

25.2

75.5

51.8

AVG

70.1

47.8

36.8

52.5

24.7

75.2

51.1

09-10

LAL

69.5

45.7

34.1

49.6

27.6

74.4

51.2

BOS

61

48.3

34.8

52.2

22.8

73.8

49.1

AVG

65.3

47.0

34.5

50.9

25.2

74.1

50.2

08-09

LAL

79.3

47.4

36.1

51.3

29.4

73

51.4

ORL

72

45.7

38.1

52

24

75.9

50.7

AVG

75.7

46.6

37.1

51.7

26.7

74.5

51.1

07-08

BOS

80.5

47.5

38.1

52.2

26.6

74.4

51.9

LAL

69.5

47.6

37.8

52.5

26.3

73.4

50.8

AVG

75.0

47.6

38.0

52.4

26.5

73.9

51.4

06-07

SAS

70.7

47.4

38.1

52.1

24.2

75.7

51

CLE

61

44.7

35.2

48.4

29.7

75.8

52.2

AVG

65.9

46.1

36.7

50.3

27.0

75.8

51.6

05-06

MIA

63.4

47.8

34.5

51.7

26.7

76.4

52.6

DAL

73.2

46.2

37.4

49.5

31.8

72.2

52.4

AVG

68.3

47.0

36.0

50.6

29.3

74.3

52.5

04-05

SAS

72

45.3

36.3

49.2

29.1

73.6

51.3

DET

65.9

44.4

34.5

47.2

31.2

73

52.3

AVG

69.0

44.9

35.4

48.2

30.2

73.3

51.8

And a few more...

Season

Team

Off RTG

Def RTG

Net RTG

TO Ratio

Pace

PIE

PPG

13-14

SAS

108.2

100.1

8.1

14.8

97.07

55.5

105.4

MIA

109

102.9

6.1

15.8

93.26

53.9

102.2

AVG

108.6

101.5

7.1

15.3

95.2

54.7

103.8

12-13

MIA

110.3

100.5

9.8

15

92.97

56.4

102.9

SAS

105.9

99.2

6.7

15.1

96.36

55.1

103

AVG

108.1

99.9

8.3

15.1

94.7

55.8

103.0

11-12

MIA

104.3

97.1

7.2

16.1

93.66

55.3

98.5

OKC

107.1

100

7.1

17

95.68

54.2

103.1

AVG

105.7

98.6

7.2

16.6

94.7

54.8

100.8

10-11

DAL

107.6

102.3

5.3

15

93.4

53.8

100.2

MIA

109.3

100.7

8.6

14.9

93.2

55.6

102.1

AVG

108.5

101.5

6.95

15.0

93.3

54.7

101.2

09-10

LAL

105.9

101.1

4.8

13.9

95.24

52.9

101.7

BOS

105.4

101.1

4.3

15.8

93.84

54

99.2

AVG

105.7

101.1

4.6

14.9

94.5

53.5

100.5

08-09

LAL

109.8

101.9

7.9

13.8

96.93

54.7

106.9

ORL

107.2

98.9

8.3

14.8

94.59

54.5

101

AVG

108.5

100.4

8.1

14.3

95.8

54.6

104.0

07-08

BOS

107.6

96.2

11.4

16.3

93.3

58.1

100.5

LAL

110.3

102.8

7.5

14.3

98.01

55.1

108.6

AVG

109.0

99.5

9.5

15.3

95.7

56.6

104.6

06-07

SAS

106.7

97.4

9.3

15

91.97

56.9

98.5

CLE

102.6

98.9

3.7

15.2

93.2

52

96.8

AVG

104.7

98.2

6.5

15.1

92.6

54.5

97.7

05-06

MIA

106.4

101.7

4.7

15.4

93.81

53.8

99.9

DAL

108.7

101.9

6.8

14.9

90.33

55.1

99.1

AVG

107.6

101.8

5.8

15.2

92.1

54.5

99.5

04-05

SAS

104.9

95.8

9.1

15

91.42

56.5

96.2

DET

102.8

97.9

4.9

15.2

89.83

54.2

93.3

AVG

103.9

96.9

7.0

15.1

90.7

55.4

94.8

RTG - Points scored (Off) or allowed (Def) per 100 possessions

TO Ratio - Number of turnovers per 100 possessions

PIE - Super secret NBA stat; measures how much "stuff" a team does in a game (i.e. their total points, rebs, assists, etc. out of the total points, rebs, assists, etc. in the game)

Okay, end of detour. Lot of memories condensed down to a lot of numbers right there. And so many trends! It's like Christmas morning for the NBA Stats geek among us. Some of the biggest and most consistent similarities between all these amazing teams that I personally noticed (there are surely many, many more):

A Wannabe NBA Finalist Should Have....

  1. A regular season win percentage of > 69.5%.
  2. A field goal percentage of > 47% lately. The league is shooting much better all-around compared to a decade ago. To contend today, one must shoot the rock well.
  3. A 3-point percentage of > 36%. This one varies pretty greatly but it's trending upwards and even still there will be some serious hockey stick graph action if the Warriors make it to the Finals.
  4. An effective field goal percentage of >50%. Today's contenders look a little more efficient than that and the table clearly shows how much more effective today's teams are at scoring points compared to the early 2000's squads.
  5. Rebounds. Just some, no specific numbers or quality. Just able to get rebounds.
  6. Over 100 points per game lately. Overall it's kind of all over the place, but something clicked back in 2007 when teams decided that the century mark was a nice, even target.
  7. Less than a million turnovers. NBA Finalists really haven't reached a secret consensus or received a memo on what they should be doing in this regard.
  8. An offensive rating of > 105.
  9. A defensive rating of less than 101, but if a team wants to get a little cute and slack off on defensive, eh. Boys will be boys.
  10. A net rating of > 6-7 lately. In the past, 4's and 5's would have sufficed but no more! Pure domination is the name of the game these days.
  11. A slow-ish pace. In reality this is another range, true slow ball at 93 possessions per 48 minutes up to a "hyperdrive" 97 possessions per 48 have both done the trick at different times.
  12. A team PIE of >54.5. Pie is good, by extension so is PIE.

The East

Cutting out the "it varies" scenarios, we're left with nine concrete "rules". Using those, let's look at the 16 teams who will be fighting for the Championship in a week. First up, the Eastern Conference:

Team

Win%

FG%

3P%

eFG%

OREB%

DREB%

REB%

ATL

73.2

46.6

38.0

52.7

21.4

73.4

48.2

CLE

64.6

45.8

36.7

52.0

26.8

74.7

51.1

CHI

61.0

44.2

35.3

48.9

27.0

74.4

51.3

TOR

59.8

45.5

35.2

50.8

25.6

73.3

49.5

WAS

56.1

46.2

36.0

49.9

24.9

77.3

51.7

MIL

50.0

45.9

36.3

49.9

25.4

73.3

49.5

BOS

48.8

44.3

32.7

48.9

24.7

75.0

49.5

BKN

46.3

45.1

33.1

49.1

23.9

73.7

48.9

Average

57.5

45.5

35.4

50.3

25.0

74.4

50.0

Team

Off RTG

Def RTG

Net RTG

TO Ratio

Pace

PIE

PPG

ATL

106.2

100.7

5.6

14.7

96.3

54.0

102.5

CLE

107.7

104.1

3.7

14.9

94.8

51.4

103.1

CHI

104.7

101.5

3.3

14.5

95.4

52.9

100.8

TOR

108.1

104.8

3.2

13.4

95.4

50.6

104.0

WAS

101.8

100.0

1.9

15.5

96.0

52.5

98.5

MIL

100.5

99.3

1.2

17.2

96.5

51.1

97.8

BOS

101.7

103.1

-0.4

13.9

98.4

49.8

101.4

BKN

101.9

105.0

-3.1

14.4

95.0

48.0

98.0

Average

104.1

102.3

1.9

14.8

96.0

51.3

100.8

Take a quick look back at the historical criteria for a Contender if you need to. What you'll find is that, give or take a few decimal places, there aren't a lot of "well-rounded" Contenders coming out of the East. It does bring up one trend that will also be present in the even more brutal Western Conference- this season has been insane! Teams are playing much better in many regards but with that general increase in quality has come a decrease in disparity. Only one team from the East and one team from the West has a win percentage > 69.5%. The recent decrease in disparity makes for a pretty graph that highlights the trend:

A visual depiction of the very definition of "trend"

So part of the problem with trying to highlight Contenders vs. Pretenders based on historical data is that this league is a much different scene compared to years past. That's why many of the criteria have the "lately" caveat to them. And here's how each Eastern Conference playoff-bound team fares in the face of these criteria:

Criteria

Qualifying Teams

1

Win %

ATL

2

FG %

ATL, WAS

3

3P %

ATL, CLE, WAS, MIL

4

eFG %

ATL, CLE, TOR

5

Points per game

All except WAS, MIL, BKN

6

Off RTG

ATL, CLE, CHI, TOR

7

Def RTG

ATL, CHI, WAS, MIL

8

Net RTG

None

9

PIE

None

Long story short, only Atlanta and Cleveland qualify in at least 4 categories (7 and 4, respectively). That supports the season-long narrative we've heard coming from the East: "It's going to be either Atlanta or Cleveland." Injuries, matchups, etc. all play a part in how a team will fare in late April but I think it's safe to say that Atlanta and Cleveland are the only two Contenders out of this bunch of Pretenders.

The West is the Best

And next on stage, the Western Conference:

Team

Win%

FG%

3P%

eFG%

OREB%

DREB%

REB%

GSW

81.7

47.8

39.8

54.0

24.1

74.5

50.1

HOU

68.3

44.4

34.8

51.2

26.8

72.9

49.9

LAC

68.3

47.3

37.6

53.3

22.8

75.7

49.8

POR

62.2

45.0

36.2

50.8

24.2

76.2

50.7

MEM

67.1

45.8

33.9

48.9

24.7

75.3

50.1

SAS

67.1

46.8

36.7

51.7

23.4

77.3

50.9

DAL

61.0

46.3

35.2

51.5

23.6

72.2

47.8

NOP

54.9

45.7

37.0

50.1

27.1

75.1

51.1

Average

66.3

46.1

36.4

51.4

24.6

74.9

50.1

Team

Off RTG

Def RTG

Net RTG

TO Ratio

Pace

PIE

PPG

GSW

109.7

98.2

11.4

14.4

100.7

56.9

110.0

HOU

104.2

100.5

3.7

16.7

99.3

50.9

103.9

LAC

109.8

103.0

6.9

12.7

97.0

54.0

106.7

POR

105.5

101.4

4.2

14.0

96.5

52.2

102.8

MEM

103.1

99.9

3.1

14.0

94.2

53.0

98.3

SAS

106.2

99.6

6.6

14.4

95.9

54.5

103.2

DAL

107.2

103.7

3.5

13.2

97.4

52.1

105.2

NOP

105.4

104.7

0.7

14.1

93.7

50.8

99.4

Average

106.4

101.4

5.0

14.2

96.8

53.1

103.7

First I'd like to point out another fact that supports the "West has been way better than the East" narrative and even the argument for putting the best 16 teams in, regardless of conference. The average stats from the playoff teams in both conferences:

Conference

Win%

FG%

3P%

eFG%

Net RTG

PIE

PPG

East

57.5

45.5

35.4

50.3

1.9

51.3

100.8

West

66.3

46.1

36.4

51.4

5.0

53.1

103.7

This.

A topic for another day however. Getting back to picking out some Contenders from the West, here are the historical criteria again with the teams that make the cut:

Criteria

Qualifying Teams

1

Win %

GSW

2

FG %

GSW, LAC, SAS

3

3P%

GSW, LAC, POR, SAS, NOP

4

eFG%

All except MEM

5

Points per game

All except MEM and NOP

6

Off RTG

GSW, LAC, POR, SAS, DAL, NOP

7

Def RTG

GSW, HOU, MEM, SAS

8

Net RTG

GSW, LAC, SAS

9

PIE

All except MEM

As expected, there are a lot more high-quality squads in this bunch. First off, round of applause to Steve Kerr and his team here in the front row who have scored a perfect 9/9 on the exam. In this classroom analogy we've got a grumpy Popovich sitting right behind Kerr bearing a scowl after getting only 8/9 himself. Overall here's what the results look like:

Team

Number of Criteria

GSW

9

HOU

3

LAC

6

POR

4

MEM

1

SAS

8

DAL

3

NOP

3

Pour out a little for the Grizzlies who will have to defy nearly every trend to make it to the Finals this season. But breaking trends might be a consistent theme this postseason as the Warriors themselves don't fit every criteria for a classic Contender. They went 9 for 9 in these categories but also play much faster than what we've seen in the past (they'd be the first Finalist with a Pace over 100 possessions per 48 minutes).

Needless to say, if the final week's seeding madness didn't reveal it already, things are topsvy-turvy in the West. The "better" teams are dispersed throughout the seeding ranks which should make for plenty of first round "upsets" and all-around great series. If we're going to do the less-than-enviable task of ruling OUT some Western Conference teams, then let's get to it.

Callbacks

Unlike the East, there are four teams in this conference who fulfill at least four criteria (Golden State, San Antonio, Los Angeles, and Portland). Based on recent injuries, form, etc. I'm going to go ahead and say the true Contenders from the West are the Warriors, Spurs, and Clippers. The rest of the lineup contains some top-notch Pretenders and this has certainly been a season for the ages in many respects so breaking the mold wouldn't be too farfetched.

This year's playoff lineup is an eclectic bunch of athletic beasts and coaching masterminds all going head-to-head for the chance to take home the most important trophy in the NBA. There can only be one Champ and if the past is any indicator of the future, we've gotten a glimpse at the possible Finalists who will emerge from the chaos.

In summary, I can only see Atlanta or Cleveland coming out the East while in the West things are much cloudier. If the regular season hasn't weakened the West and set the stage for a few upsets, then Golden State, San Antonio, or Los Angeles will likely be one of the lucky two playing into June. It's going to be an entertaining ride nonetheless and it all begins this Saturday!

P.S. Stay tuned for the Grizz-centric edition of this Contender vs. Pretender series, fans might find some more hope and good news there.