Every April, basketball soothsayers break down matchup tendencies and salient statistics to sort out contenders from pretenders. These are tremendously informative, but they often overlook the simple yet powerful impact of injuries and trades. For instance, the 2004 Pistons flew under the radar because of a pedestrian win-loss record, yet after acquiring Rasheed Wallace in a midseason trade, they played at an all-time level en route to the title.
If you’ve read my historical series on the best players ever, you know that I account for these earth-shifting trades (or injuries) with the so-called “healthy” team standings. It’s a simple calculation that looks at performance only when certain players are playing, and adjusts for opponent point differential and home-court advantage. (NB: Opponent injuries are not accounted for.) For the playoffs, we’re less interested in best-case scenarios — Boston won’t have Kyrie Irving — and instead care about the roster that each squad totes into the second season.
Since adjusted point differential (SRS) is a better predictor of team success than win percentage alone, I tend to focus on that as the key performance indicator, especially in smaller samples. (Win percentage has has shown to improve predictability as well.) Most team results correlate heavily with the presence of their top three or four players (by minutes per game), although I typically like to compare teams with their top-five minute players to account for lineup synergies.
Without further ado, here’s how these full-strength standings look after the 2018 regular season. In certain cases, it made sense to filter by a team’s top-four players (or top-six). I’ve also included Oklahoma City with Andre Roberson (and Boston with Irving), even though neither unit is available for the postseason:
Houston jumps off the page, and their season would qualify as the sixth-best differential in history based on this list. (Last year’s Warriors were No. 1.) Most teams at that level win titles…unless there is another great team in their way. A healthy Golden State club qualifies as such a foil, but given Houston’s home-court advantage and their overall performance, they should be favorites.
The other head-turner is Utah. When superstars miss chunks of time and their impact is formidable, the unadjusted standings will mask just how dangerous their team is. Rudy Gobert posted one of the better with-or-without-you (WOWY) marks in NBA history this year, and without the Stifle Tower, an otherwise healthy Jazz team went 9-11 with an SRS of 0.9. With him, they’ve sniffed championship level play behind an all-time stingy defense.
Similarly, Philadelphia has been lights out with their stud big man Joel Embiid in the lineup, ticking along like a 53-win team in 51 healthy games this year. The Sixers seem to be improving too — cough, Ben Simmons, cough — and in 26 full-strength games since J.J. Redick returned on January 31, Philly posted a 5.9 SRS (around 3 points better than average on offense and defense) and went 19-7, hinting that they may be even more dangerous than the full-season results suggest.
New Orleans has only played 24 games with this group since acquiring Nikola Mirotic, but they’ve been a different team in that span. With a sample of that size, 95 percent of teams will fall within about 4 points of their season’s total, so there’s still uncertainty there, but the 18-6 record and fairly standard 3-point and free throw percentage suggests that they are primed for an upset.
As for the rest of the league, Toronto was healthy for most of the season and brings an unusually deep rotation into the postseason, so their regular season success might overstate their playoff prospects a touch. The Spurs and Curry-less Warriors could tangle in a tighter series than anticipated (even after a Game 1 blowout). Boston should still be a favorite over Milwaukee. And then there’s Cleveland. Here’s what the Cavs have done in the last few regular seasons (RS) and postseasons (PS) at full-strength:
They’ve cranked their offense to a fever pitch and played passable defense in their last eight playoff rounds. Yet this year, the offensive and defensive signals appear worse during the year. (Their fluid roster situation clouds up the picture this season.) There’s a precedent for improvement, but that was with an established group that harmonized immediately in the 2015 playoffs.
They do have LeBron James, and we know his defensive effort will improve and that he has another gear. But even upshifting the offense a bit won’t make them the type of challenger they’ve been in years past if the defense can’t tread water. Things have improved since the trade deadline, and Kevin Love’s presence should help, but I’m not sure it’s reasonable to expect Cleveland to contend with the top dogs this year.