This weekend, yes, this freaking weekend, marks the start of the 2022-23 NBA playoffs.
And while many people will spend hours arguing on Twitter why their favorite team is poised for a deep playoff run because they watched 13 of their 82 games and thought the club looked unstoppable, we are going to take a more empirical look at things.
We are going to use the numbers to help us get a sense of who looks good and who doesn’t. Do you know why? Because, unlike human beings, the numbers account for every possession.
So without further ado, let’s dig into the data.
Inside Our NBA Projection Model
To help us get a sense of how the league hierarchy looks as we get set to begin the game’s second season, we are going to use our in-house NBA playoff projection model.
This model calculates each team’s chances of making it to the semifinals, conference finals, NBA Finals and winning the title outright.
These calculations are based on 5,000 simulations of the playoffs and incorporate our adjusted team rating metrics (so, adjusted team rating, adjusted offensive rating and adjusted defensive rating) we discussed in our NBA study before the regular season began.
The model also accounts for recency bias (so, it gives more weight to teams that enter the postseason playing well rather than those who stumbled their way toward the finish line) and for how well teams performed against other good teams (because in the playoffs you typically have to beat them).
Eastern Conference Projections
Let’s get things started with the Eastern Conference.
Here’s what our model projects each team’s chances are of advancing to the semifinals, conference finals, NBA Finals and winning the title altogether.
As I’m sure you can tell, there’s a lot to unpack here.
First off, many people are probably wondering why the Milwaukee Bucks – the team with the best record in the NBA – have lower chances of winning the NBA title than both the Boston Celtics (who open with the Atlanta Hawks) and Cleveland Cavaliers (who open with the New York Knicks).
Despite Milwaukee having the better record, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and the Celtics own the best adjusted team rating (ATR) of any team in the league (7.70 points per 100 possessions better than the league-average club this season). Our model views them as the favorite to take home the Larry O’Brien Trophy by a pretty wide margin, as their 30.5% title is 17% higher than the team with the second-highest odds (spoiler alert: said team is in the Western Conference).
With that in mind, the Celtics are enormous favorites in the first round, but the model leaves the door slightly more open for the play-in tournament winner between the Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls to pull off an incredible upset. It projects the Heat as a slight favorite in tonight’s play-in game, with a 55.0% chance of beating the Bulls.
As for Donovan Mitchell and the Cavs, they actually have the second-highest ATR in the league (4.89). As we highlighted in our recent look at adjusted offensive and defensive ratings, the model gives them credit for being a balanced team on both sides of the ball. Also, they perform very well against other high-level opponents. So don’t be surprised if they end up upsetting Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in the semifinals (they would play each other there if both teams win their first-round series).
The model is also bullish on the Knicks’ chances of upsetting the Bucks in the semifinals, as it gives them the highest chance of advancing to the conference finals of any team outside of the top-four seeds.
However, despite being higher on their odds against the Bucks, our projections give the Knicks about the same chance of beating the Cavaliers as the Brooklyn Nets do of beating MVP candidate Joel Embiid, James Harden and the Philadelphia 76ers.
This might just say more about how highly the model views the Cavaliers.
Western Conference Projections
With the East out of the way, let’s move on to the other side of the bracket.
Here’s what our model thinks each team in the Western Conference’s chances are of advancing to the semifinals, conference finals, NBA Finals and winning the title.
Surprise! The team with the highest odds of winning the title in the Western Conference is neither the Phoenix Suns nor Denver Nuggets, but the rag-tag Memphis Grizzlies.
It is a testament to Ja Morant and the Grizzlies’ depth that their win probability is so high. Memphis is the favorite in the conference despite having to endure this postseason without key cogs Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke.
Also interesting is the fact that both the Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings are strong favorites to win their respective first-round matchups, despite the Los Angeles Lakers surging since the All-Star break (they have the greatest leap in ATR since the break of any team in the league) and the Golden State Warriors getting back key contributors Andrew Wiggins (sixth on the team in DRIP) and Gary Payton II (fifth) to join Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
Still, the model sees LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Los Angeles as a formidable opponent for the Grizzlies, making their road tougher than some other teams in the West. That’s why Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and the Suns have a slightly higher chance of making the NBA Finals, but the Grizzlies have a better chance of winning it.
Our projection has Minnesota Timberwolves advancing 60.0% of the time against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the final play-in matchup in the West. It also gives the Timberwolves a puncher’s chance of advancing further than that and knocking off the top-seeded Nuggets.
One more thing to note: Between the Lakers, Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers, it appears the model is the most skeptical of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the Clippers’ chances of making it out of the first round – only giving them a 30.5% chance of doing so.
What Does This All Mean?
These probabilities are not the be-all-and-end-all of playoff analysis (frankly, no singular data point is). They are just another tool in our interpretation toolbox. An astute fan will blend these projections with the other pieces of data and film we have available and form a postseason hypothesis from there.
With that said, it is notable how heavily our model favors the Celtics. Of the 5,000 postseason simulations we ran, 1,525 of them came back with them as the 2023 NBA champions.
It is also worth bookmarking the model’s view on the Cavaliers and the Grizzlies – two teams that have been overlooked by the general public because of their youth, injuries and other strong teams in their conference. We’d do well to keep an eye on both of them.
Overall, we may have run 5,000 simulations, but there’s nothing like seeing the real deal play out in real time. We’ve given you all the data you’ll need to prepare for the big dance. Now, let’s sit back and watch the magic unfold.
For more NBA postseason previews, be sure to check out our articles on teams that look the most like past conference finalists heading into the playoffs and the case for every play-in team to steal a playoff series.