I’ve recently started to watch a lot more regular season basketball, and while it’s a lot of fun, it can be hard to know which stuff that happens in the regular season will affect the playoffs. So what stuff that happens in the regular season does matter? How is playoff basketball different from regular season basketball? Which teams are best suited to succeed in the playoffs? These are all questions I try to answer in this article.
Shape of the Game
The graphic on the left is showing the difference in play type frequency going from the regular season to the playoffs, with the 10 play types being defined by NBA.com, and pick and roll ball handler and pick and roll roller being added into one category. The graphic on the right is showing the different shot charts from the last two regular seasons and last two playoffs, with PPS1 equaling the points per shot from that zone in the regular season, Freq1 equaling the frequency of shots in that zone, and PPS2 and Freq2 represent the same things just for the playoffs. One thing to takeaway from these graphics is that isolation basketball becomes more common in the playoffs. Since teams start to switch pick and rolls more in the playoffs, this leads to more offense happening in isolation. Players that can score consistently in isolation become more important in the playoffs, while players that need the advantage created by the pick and roll to score are more likely to be slowed down come playoff time. The other big takeaway is that shots at the rim are harder to come by in the playoffs, as teams put much more emphasis on packing the paint and not allowing easy shots at the rim to happen, something that can be referred to as a “shrinking of the court”. Players that make the defense respect their outside shot are crucial to have in the playoffs, partly because as shown in the graphic, the percentage of plays that are spot ups increases in the playoffs, but also because they make life easier for their teammates by stretching the defense and giving their teammates more room to work with.
Who plays, and how much
Taking data from the last 3 seasons, the 30 players who played the most average minutes in the regular season averaged 34.39 minutes per game, while in the playoffs that number goes up to 37.5 minutes per game. It is not uncommon for a team’s best players to average 40 minutes or more a game over the span of the playoffs, which is something that doesn't usually happen in the regular season. I’m saying this to make the point that in the playoffs, having top end talent becomes more important than it is in the regular season. Not only do your best players play more minutes, but players on the edge of a team’s rotation, the 9th, 10th or 11th man on the team, will either not play at all or see less playing time. Another aspect of playoff rotations is when a role player for a team has been taken out of the rotation because they are hurting their team too much. This usually happens to a non-center who cannot make/take 3’s, so the defense isn’t guarding him from out there and he’s clogging up the spacing too much, or it happens to a player who is weak on the defensive end and is getting targeted so much there that the coach has to take him out of the rotation.
To talk about the importance of versatility in the playoffs, I want to look at Giannis Antetokounmpo. Giannis is one of the four best basketball players in the world, he is 6’11, incredibly strong, very fast, can handle the ball, a great finisher at the rim, a good passer, and is one the best defensive players in the world. He’s also not a good shooter, from 3 or from midrange. Given that he’s built like a Greek God, can run like a gazelle, and can handle the ball and pass, it might seem a bit unfair to criticize him. Unfortunately for Giannis, if you want to be the main initiator for a championship winning team, it becomes much harder to do so when you don’t have a consistent jumpshot. To compare I looked at some of the other best players in the world who have recently led their teams to championships, Steph Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Lebron James, and Kevin Durant. Using offensive LEBRON as a metric to try and estimate offensive impact, we can see that in the regular season, Giannis manages to have about the same offensive impact as the other players, but in the playoffs his impact falls off slightly while the others manage to all INCREASE their impact. The fact that Giannis cannot reliably shoot from the perimeter, while these others can, makes him less versatile as a creator, and it makes it easier for defenses to slow him down in the playoffs. A lot of talk has been made about teams building a “wall” against Giannis in the playoffs, where they drop off into the paint against him and dare him either to shoot, or pass to his teammates for them to make a play. The things Giannis does best, getting out in transition, putting pressure at the rim, become harder to do so in the playoffs, and his lack of an outside shot only makes it harder for him. Having a consistent jump shot is not just important for the sake of making jump shots, but it also makes it easier for a player to use his other offensive skills. If Giannis could shoot from the perimeter, then defenses would have to guard him more tightly out there, which in turn would make it easier for him to get to the rim. This isn’t to say Giannis isn’t a great offensive player in the playoffs, an O-LEBRON of 3.3 is still very good, it’s just that when the game is being played among the best players in the world, any weakness you have, or lack of versatility, will be used against you.
A best of 7 game series against the same team is fundamentally very different from playing the different teams in the league over the course of an 82 game season, and it asks something different from coaches as well. During the regular season, coaches may make adjustments from game to game, players will put some focus on the scouting report for the team they’re playing that night, but generally coaches like to have a well developed defensive scheme as their base, with some other schemes that they may sprinkle in over the course of the game. The nature of the playoffs allow teams to really focus on creating a game plan that tries to limit what their opponent does best. If a team does a good job of this, while it may work, the cost of putting a lot of energy and focus into limiting a specific aspect of your opponent’s game is exposing other vulnerabilities that your opponent can then take advantage of. It is then on the opposing coach to make adjustments when their usual game plan has been stifled, and while this in game problem solving happens in the regular season, in the playoffs it is happening much more often with much higher stakes. To give some examples, one coach who has been criticized for his lack of playoff adjustments is Mike Budenholzer of the Milwaukee Bucks, who last year during the regular season led his team to having a 102.5 defensive rating, which when compared to the league average put the Bucks as one of the greatest regular season defenses of all time. They made it to the second round of the playoffs, where they lost in 6 games to the Miami Heat while putting out a defensive rating of 110.4 in that series. Their regular season success was built on the back of playing in drop coverage defensively, which does a good job of protecting the rim, but allows teams to get good open looks from the 3-pt line and from the midrange. So when a good shooting team like the Miami Heat was able to take advantage of the Bucks game plan, the Bucks didn’t have an effective counter, and they lost the series. A series that was on the other end of the spectrum in terms of coaches making adjustments was last year's series between the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors, which had Brad Stevens of the Celtics coaching against Nick Nurse of the Raptors, a matchup that Ben Taylor of Thinking Basketball broke down really well in a video he did where he dubbed the matchup “the greatest chess match in NBA history”. The Raptors liked to play their bigs Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol in drop coverage, but Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, and their pull up shooting proved to be too tough of a matchup for Toronto’s bigs to deal with in drop coverage. So, Nurse responded by bringing his bigs to the level of the screen and having them trap or trying to switch them out of the action beforehand. Despite this, the Celtics continued to find success in the pick and roll, so Nurse had his team start to play zone defense. Eventually, towards the end of game 6, Nurse decided that his best counter to the Celtics pick and rolls was to play a “small ball” lineup that switched pick and rolls with OG Anunoby at Center. Stevens’ response was to have Jayson Tatum screen for Fred VanVleet’s man so VanVleet would switch onto Tatum, and the Celtics could have Tatum go up against VanVleet, Toronto’s smallest defender on the court. The matchup between Stevens and Nurse showed how important it is in the playoffs to be able to make adjustments, and then adjust even more when your opponent has a counter.
Now that I’ve set the stage on how playoff basketball is different from regular season basketball, I want to talk about the teams this year that I think are serious contenders. I’m only looking at the teams that I think will be favored to win their first round playoff matchup, and I’m talking about them by conference and in order of how high I think their chances are to reach the Finals.
Los Angeles Lakers
Reasons for Hope:
As long as LeBron James and Anthony Davis continue to play like 2 of the best 8 players in the world, which according to LEBRON, they rank #5 and #7 respectively, the Lakers should feel pretty good about their chances of defending their title. Despite missing Anthony Davis, one of the best defensive players in the world, for a good portion of the season, they still lead the league in defense with a defensive rating of 106.0. One of their offseason additions, Montrezl Harrel, has settled in nicely, averaging 21.4 PPG/per 36 minutes 66.8 TS% (true shooting percentage), the 5th best mark in the league.
Reasons to Worry:
In the offseason, the Lakers signed Marc Gasol and he has struggled to have the same impact as he had in Toronto. RAD, or regularized adjusted deterrence, which measures how much a player is deterring shots at the rim, had him as one of the better rim protectors in the league with a value of -2.67 (the lower the number the better). This year, it has fallen to 0.82. The Lakers have also struggled shooting from 3 this season, as they are taking the 4th lowest amount of 3’s per game, and they are making at a rate that is 21st in the league. Dennis Schröder, another of their offseason additions, has played well on the defensive side of the court, but he has struggled offensively, his eFG% (effective field goal percentage) has fallen to 47.7% after being at a career high of 51.3% last year. I do have concerns that Schröder will not be able to fill the playmaking void left by Rajon Rondo, who was huge for the Lakers last year in the playoffs, and put out a 36.2 AST% (assist percentage) in the playoffs (which is very good). Rondo provided some much needed playmaking outside of LeBron James for the Lakers, and time will tell if they sufficiently filled the gap he left. LeBron and Anthony Davis’ health are also a concern for the Lakers, as both are currently injured and the Lakers will need them both to be back and healthy to make a push for the title.
Los Angeles Clippers
Reasons for Hope:
The Clippers have Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, who are still really good at this whole basketball thing. With them two on the court this season, the Clippers have a +/- of 7.8. They are also one of the best shooting teams in the league, as they have 8 guys currently shooting 40% or above from 3, which is just insane. This has led their offense to having a 117.9 offensive rating, the second best mark in the league. The offseason addition of Nicolas Batum is looking like a smart move, as he is shooting the ball really well in LA, putting out an eFG% of 62.5 which includes shooting 44.01% from 3. Their Center rotation of Ibaka as a floor spacing rim protector, Ivica Zubac as a vertical threat who can also protect the rim, and Marcus Morris as a small ball switching 5 provides them with some nice versatility going into the playoffs.
Reasons to Worry:
The Clippers defense has struggled at times this season, putting out a defensive rating of 112.4, which is 18th in the league. They are also struggling to get shots at the rim, taking the 2nd lowest amount of shots within 5ft of the rim in the league. In the clutch, the Clippers have not been a good team, putting out a +/- of -1.3, which puts them among the worst in the league in these situations.
Reasons for Hope:
The Jazz are currently the best team in basketball, sporting the best record in the league to go along with a league leading +8.5 net rating. They’re getting it done on both sides of the court, as they rank 3rd in offense and 4th in defense. Rudy Gobert has been my defensive player of the year so far, as he continues to strike fear into anyone who dares to challenge him at the rim (unless it’s Joel Embiid) on his way to sporting a league leading 4.49 D-LEBRON rating. Mike Conley is playing like his old self, as he’s scoring efficiently with an eFG% of 56.7 and dishing out dimes with an AST% of 28.5. The Jazz continue to be great from 3, making the most 3’s per game in the league at a rate of 39.7%. Players like Bogdan Bogdanović, Joe Ingles, and Jordan Clarkson are all playing well and helping the Jazz be one of the deepest teams in the league, and the addition of Derrick Favors in the offseason has given them a solid backup center behind Rudy Gobert that they were missing last year.
Reasons to Worry:
Like I said in the paragraph above, the Jazz have been pretty clearly the best team in basketball this season, so why do I have them behind the two LA teams when talking about the playoffs? My first worry is that Rudy Gobert’s defensive dominance won’t sustain in the playoffs. His D-LEBRON from the past three playoffs is 0.83, a sharp drop off from his regular season numbers. I think part of the reason for this is that what Rudy does best, deter shots at the rim, becomes less important as teams are shooting less at the rim in the playoffs and instead shoot more from the outside. Another reason is that Rudy isn’t the most versatile big man, he’s unlike Anthony Davis and Bam Adebayo, who were both able to power their teams to the most recent finals partly because of their ability to protect the rim while also being able to guard on the perimeter. While he can move his feet better than a lot of big men, Rudy is not someone you want to be switching in pick and rolls and having guard wings and guards on the perimeter. I would feel a bit better about their defense if they had a really solid wing defender, and while Royce O’Neale can do a good job, the Jazz will run into Kawhi and/or LeBron in the Western playoffs, and I do worry that they won’t have a good answer for them. My other big concern for the Jazz is about Donovan Mitchell. Last year in the playoffs, Donovan Mitchell looked the part of an offensive star, shooting at a ridiculous TS% of 69.6 on 37 USG% (usage percentage). He’s fallen back to Earth this season, shooting at a TS% of 54.9. When games in the playoffs become tight and players are expected to make plays in isolation, I worry if the Utah Jazz will have the necessary star power to score efficiently in those situations, but Donovan Mitchell playing more like his 2020 playoffs self would alleviate those fears. Expecting him to get back to the efficiency he reached in the playoffs is unreasonable, but if he could find the middle ground between how he’s shooting this year and how he was shooting in last year’s playoffs, the Jazz will be a very dangerous team come playoff time.
Reasons for Hope:
Nikola Jokić. Big Honey has been one of the best players in basketball this season, as he’s making a case for best offensive player in the NBA. He’s second in LEBRON and scoring 27.2 PPG/per 36 minutes on 65 TS% while maintaining a 40 AST%. According to 538’s RAPTOR projection, he’s been the best player in the league, and is the main reason why the Nuggets have the third best full strength playoff rating to go along with the sixth best title odds according to 538’s model. Jokić isn’t the only reason the Nuggets have had the 4th best offense in the league as well as the sixth best net rating, as Jamal Murray has shot the ball much better as of late, shooting 47.7% from 3 after starting the year below 35%. As if they didn't have enough offensive firepower, Michael Porter Jr. has been great offensively this season, scoring 19.6 PPG/per 36 minutes on 64.5 TS%. However, the most important recent development for the Nugget’s title odds was them adding Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline. Since Jerami Grant left in the summer, they’ve been in need of a wing defender, and Gordon will fill that role nicely. 538’s model sees him as a valuable defensive player, as his defensive RAPTOR is 2.2.
Reasons to Worry:
Nikola Jokić? Before all of Denver and Serbia come for my head, just hear me out. Jokić isn’t a terrible defender, but he definitely isn’t a great one either. The thing that is most important for a Center to do defensively, protect the rim, is not something he does well. While his RAD value of -1.01 actually has him as a decent rim protector, he’s allowing opponents to shoot 64.2% within 6ft of the rim on him, one of the worst marks among centers in the league. This may all seem pretty unfair to Jokić, if he was a guard or even a forward this wouldn’t matter nearly as much. However, as you go up the positional spectrum, the importance of defense goes up as well, so having a Center that isn’t very good defensively makes it difficult to have a solid playoff defense. The Nuggets are 19th in defensive rating this year, and while the addition of Aaron Gordon should help that, even with Jerami Grant last year, the Nuggets were 16th in the league in defense with a defensive rating of 110.4 that then fell to 115.0 in the playoffs. As I’ll talk about with the Nets, the Nuggets might have so much offensive firepower that their shaky defense might not stop them from reaching the Finals, but when a team has considerable weaknesses on one side of the court, it puts a lot more pressure on the rest of their game to make up for it and in my view, just makes it a lot less likely that they will go deep in the playoffs.
Reasons for Hope:
The Suns have been great this year, sporting the 3rd best net rating in the league to go along with the 8th ranked offense and the 6th ranked defense. I actually had them above the Denver Nuggets before the trade deadline, but the addition of Aaron Gordon I think makes the Nuggets the more dangerous team come playoff time. Devin Booker has been fantastic this year, scoring 26.7 PPG/per 36 minutes on 59.9% TS. Chris Paul continues to play like one of the better point guards in the league, scoring at an efficient rate of 59.1% TS to go along with a 39.9 AST%. Mikal Bridges is developing into one of the better wing defenders in the league, and is also scoring at an insanely high 65.9 TS% to go along with shooting 41.6% from 3. The Suns are also one of the deepest teams in the league, as Dario Saric, Frank Kaminsky, Cameron Payne, Cameron Johnson, and Jae Crowder are all giving the Suns good minutes.
Reasons to Worry:
My biggest concern about the Suns comes from the Center position, where Deandre Ayton is currently occupying the starting role. I have serious doubts that Ayton will be able to hold up defensively in the playoffs, and while Dario Saric has played well this season at the 5, I don’t think he’ll be able to hold up athletically with the bigs the Suns will have to face in the playoffs. Another thing I’m thinking about in regard to the Suns, I wouldn’t really call it a worry, is whether Chris Paul and Devin Booker will be able to provide enough offensive firepower for the Suns to succeed in the late rounds of the playoffs. Maybe this unfair, since Chris Paul has consistently been one of the better NBA players in the clutch and Devin Booker has been having a great scoring year so far this season, but I do wonder if these two will be able to matchup with the likes of Kawhi/Paul George or LeBron/Anthony Davis and come out on top.
Reasons for Hope:
If the playoffs are about star power, then the Brooklyn Nets seem pretty well positioned to go far in this year’s playoffs. They have the best offense in the league with a 118.9 offensive rating. James Harden and Kyrie Irving are both having great offensive seasons, as they rank 5th and 6th in O-LEBRON, respectively. That is without even mentioning their best player, Kevin Durant, who they’ve been missing due to injury lately but was looking like his pre-Achilles tear self, scoring 29.2 PPG/per 36 minutes on 65.2% TS. As if they weren’t scoring enough points already, Joe Harris has been one of the best shooters in the league so far this season, putting up 7.8 3pt attempts per 36 minutes and making them at a ridiculous 50% rate.
Reasons to Worry:
The Nets have one big thing to worry about, and it’s their defense. They rank 25th in the league in defense, and it’s not really a surprise when you consider their personnel. Their best defender might be Kevin Durant, and while he can be a good defender, they could desperately use another good defender on the wing. Their Center position is also a bit of a mystery, as they have been starting Deandre Jordan, who can do a pretty good job of protecting the rim, but can’t really do much else on the defensive end. Jeff Green gives them an option as a small ball 5, and while his versatility is nice, he is not someone that can be relied on to protect the rim. Maybe the most interesting player in all of this is Nic Claxton, who has shown some ability to move his feet well on the perimeter, and can maybe fill the role of a rim protecting center that can switch onto the perimeter that I think the Nets could really use. As I mentioned with the Nuggets, struggling on defense puts a lot more pressure on your offense to score at an even more efficient rate to make up for your defensive deficiencies. Only three teams have ever won the title without having a top 10 defense, so while the Nets have the kind of star power and offensive talent to power them to a championship, having a below-average defense makes it so their offense has to be historically great if they want to win a title.
Reasons for Hope:
Last year during the regular season, the Milwaukee Bucks were by far and away the best team in basketball, they had the best net rating in the league by a wide margin, and they were having one of the best defensive seasons of all time. This year, they’re currently third in the East, their defense has fallen to being 9th in the league, yet I feel better about them going into this year’s playoffs compared to last year’s. Why? The two biggest things that I think sank the Bucks in last year’s playoffs was a bad clutch time offense and a lack of defensive versatility. They’ve taken steps to address both this year. As I mentioned earlier in the article, Giannis is not an ideal initiator in late game scenarios, so the Bucks have been putting the ball in the hands of Khris Middleton more in clutch situations. Yaron Weitzman recently did a great article over at 538 where he talks about how the Bucks are trying to switch up their late game offense, and he notes that Giannis has seen his USG% in clutch situations drop from 42.3% last year to 26.3% this year. They are running much more pick and rolls with Giannis as the screener and Middleton as the ball handler, and Yaron notes that Middleton is generating 1.00 points per pick and roll, one of the better marks in the league. On the defensive end, they are closing more games with Giannis at the 5, which allows them to switch and adds to their defensive versatility as it gives them a different option from playing Brook Lopez in drop coverage. Giannis has continued to play at an MVP level with a LEBRON of 5.99, the best mark in the league. I also think part of their struggles this year can be attributed to the fact they’ve been missing Jrue Holiday, their big offseason addition, for a large portion of the season. When Holiday, Giannis, and Middleton have all been on the floor together, the Bucks have had a solid +/- of 4.9.
Reasons to Worry:
Depth. The Milwaukee Bucks have the least amount of depth of any contender, and I don’t think it’s really close. In making the trade Jrue Holiday, they gave away Eric Bledsoe and George Hill, and they haven’t filled the void left by them. They’ve also been desperate for more depth in their froncourt, so I think the trade for P.J Tucker is a smart one as he is a good defender who can fit right in to the new switching scheme they’ve been implementing this season, but if he can't get his 3pt% up from the 31.4% mark that it is at right now, he may hurt their spacing too much in the playoffs to get a lot of playing time. Another thing that worries me about Milwaukee’s bench is that the two players who are shooting the best off of it, Byrn Forbes and Bobby Portis, are liabilities on the defensive end and I think both will be targeted defensively pretty often if they play a lot of minutes in the playoffs.
Reasons for Hope:
Before Joel Embiid’s injury, the 76ers were top of the East, in large part because Embiid was playing like an MVP candidate. He has a LEBRON of 5.74, good for 3rd in the league. Ben Simmons has been one of the best defensive players in the league so far this season, as his versatility on that side of the court has had a lot to do with the 76ers currently being the 2nd best defense in the league. Matisse Thybulle has helped a lot in that as well, as he leads the league in deflections per 36 minutes to go along with a pretty ridiculous 42 STL% (steal percentage). Tobias Harris has seen a big jump in efficiency from last year, as he has seen his TS% go up from 55.6% to 60.2%.
Reasons to Worry:
My biggest concern about the 76ers is that their best offensive players, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, who both like to play near the rim, will have a harder time impacting the game when the playoffs come around and the spacing becomes tighter. I think most teams will realize Joel Embiid cannot be guarded one-on-one in the post, so he will be doubled a lot and it will be interesting to see whether he will be able to make good passes out of the double team. Ben Simmons, whose usual USG% is 20.6, has seen it drop to 13.3% in clutch situations this season, as it becomes tougher for him to make plays in late game half court situations since he’s not a threat to score from outside. This makes Tobias Harris a really important player for the 76ers, as he is the perimeter player they will go to make plays late in games, and if he can play more like his 2021 self and not his 2020 self, I think they should be alright. One other thing that will be interesting to track in the playoffs is the playing time of Matisse Thybulle, someone I’m sure they would love to have out there for large portions of the game to defend the elite wings like Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, James Harden, and Kevin Durant that they will run into in the playoffs. The issue with this is that Thybulle is not a great shooter, he’s shooting 30.7% from 3 this season, so if defenses aren’t respecting his shot and he’s not making/taking 3’s, the 76ers can’t really afford to have someone clogging up their spacing even more when they already have Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid on the court.
Reasons for Hope:
After reaching the NBA Finals last year, the Miami Heat have had a slow start to the season, in large part because Jimmy Butler missed a lot of the first half of the season. Since coming back, Butler has played like an MVP candidate, as he is currently ranked 6th in the league in LEBRON, ahead of the likes of Steph Curry, Kawhi Leonard, and James Harden. Their other star, Bam Adebayo, has also stepped up his game this season, as he has seen his PPG/per 36 minutes rise from 17.1 last year to 20.2 this year, and this has come with a rise in efficiency, as he has a TS% of 62.4%, up from 59.8% last year. Despite their early struggles, the Heat have remained a good defensive team, as they currently rank 7th in the league in defensive rating. It’s easy to look at how the Miami Heat are playing this season, a record of 22-19, a net rating that is 21st in the league, and think that they’ve taken a step back and aren’t serious title contenders. I actually think the opposite, that if the East wasn’t considerably stronger this year, I’d feel pretty good about their chances to reach the Finals. The most important thing that will determine how much success they will find in the playoffs is the play of their stars, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, and if those two are going to play at an even higher level than they did last year, then the Heat should feel optimistic about their title chances.
Reasons to Worry:
The Heat have struggled quite a bit on offense this season, as they currently sit 25th in the league in offensive rating, which is less than ideal. Jimmy Butler’s absence early in the season explains part of this, but another reason is that Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro, who’s deadly 3pt shooting helped carry them to the finals, have taken a step back in that regard this season. Robinson, who was shooting 44.6% from 3 last year is down to 38.9%, and Herro has fallen from 38.9% last season to 33.3% this season. The loss of Jae Crowder as a stretch 4 who can guard wings has left a hole in their rotation that they’ve been struggling to fill, so hopefully for them the recent addition of Trevor Ariza can help to fix that issue.