With the regular season winding down, teams are preparing themselves for perhaps the most unpredictable playoffs ever. The 4th and 12th seeds in the West are separated by only four games, and the East possesses numerous titans in addition to a few fearsome dark horses. As a result, the conference winners futures market is impossibly murky based solely on the eye test.
Can simple statistical trends break through the fog? I wrote this article last March using two team stats, and it predicted four teams to make the NBA Finals based on recent trends: Suns, Warriors, Jazz, and Celtics. Discount Utah (who were clearly a regular season team), and that’s two out of three correct!
The first metric is regular season Net Rating, which is the difference between points scored per 100 possessions (Offensive Rating) and points allowed per 100 possessions (Defensive Rating). It essentially broadly measures how prolific a team has been when adjusted for pace.
The second metric is regular season Net eFG%, which is the difference between eFG% and opponent eFG%. Per Basketball Reference, eFG% “adjusts for the fact that a 3-point field goal is worth one more point than a 2-point field goal. For example, suppose Player A goes 4 for 10 with 2 threes, while Player B goes 5 for 10 with 0 threes. Each player would have 10 points from field goals, and thus would have the same effective field goal percentage (50%).” The formula for calculating it is the following: eFG% = (FG+(0.5*3PT)) / FGA.
Next, simply find the two numbers for every team and plot them on a chart to see where they stand.
Recent Conference Finalists & Winners Trends
Because eFG% rewards three-pointers, it wouldn’t be relevant to seek trends during eras that didn’t value them. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and the Golden State Warriors first displayed the devastating potential of high volume threes during the 2014-15 season, so making the 2015-16 season the first data point is logical since franchises had the off-season to redesign their rosters.
Therefore, the chart below contains regular season Net Rating and regular season Net eFG% for every team that made the Conference Finals starting with the 2015-16 season. Green teams won the NBA Finals, red teams lost in the NBA Finals, and black teams lost in the Conference Finals.
Every single Conference Finalist was positive in both metrics, although the 2020 Denver Nuggets and 2018 Cleveland Cavaliers were close calls. There are also two significant clumps:
- Clump A = around the 2-4 Net Rating / 0-2 Net eFG% range
- Clump B = around the 6-8 Net Rating / 3-4 Net eFG% range
8 of the 11 teams in Clump A didn’t make the NBA Finals, and the three that did lost. Meanwhile, 9 of the 15 teams in Clump B made the NBA Finals with six of them winning it all. And then there are the 2016 and 2017 Warriors, who stand alone in terms of regular season domination.
The strongest trend? 15 of the 16 teams that made the NBA Finals had at least a 2 Net Rating and 2 Net eFG%. The one outlier was the 2018 Cleveland Cavaliers, who survived two Game 7s and needed LeBron James to average a near 30-point triple double. If the only trend-breaker is a team led by at worst a top three player of all time, that’s encouraging for the prediction strength.
With these trends in mind, who qualifies for a Finals berth this season?
2022-23 Contenders & Pretenders
There are still around eight games left for each team, but their profile will essentially be the same at the end of the regular season. Because the trade deadline completely altered the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets, their metrics post trade deadline will solely be considered. It sacrifices accuracy because of the smaller sample, but it wouldn’t be logical to use the Durant-Irving numbers to mostly judge Brooklyn.
San Antonio, Houston, Detroit, and Charlotte are also mathematically eliminated from the play-in, so they will not be present in the filtering process.
To start, since no team has made the NBA Finals with either a negative Net Rating or negative Net eFG%, who can immediately be eliminated from the race?
- New Orleans Pelicans
- Oklahoma City Thunder
- Utah Jazz
- Portland Trail Blazers
- Brooklyn Nets
- Miami Heat
- Atlanta Hawks
- Toronto Raptors
- Indiana Pacers
- Washington Wizards
- Orlando Magic
After the first step, half the league is out of the running. The Miami Heat are the biggest shock considering they were one bounce away from a trip to the NBA Finals last year and effectively own the same roster. They fell from a 4.5 Net Rating and 2.3 Net eFG% last season to a negative mark in both metrics this season though, and the eye test backs up this plunge. Other notable eliminations include the Toronto Raptors, Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets, and New Orleans Pelicans. A healthy Pelicans squad assuredly wouldn’t be here, but injuries happen and it’s unknown whether Zion Williamson can return.
Now that the filter removed the glaringly unworthy, let’s look at the remaining teams compared to the NBA Finalists since the 2015-16 season. The green teams won the title while the red teams lost. The blue lines also indicate the 2 Net Rating and 2 Net eFG% thresholds, which were established earlier as the strongest trend for predicting conference winners.
The Mavericks, Bulls, and Timberwolves easily fall short, which is expected given their rosters are not championship material. The Knicks, Lakers, and Kings seem to be a piece away, and the chart corroborates that statement as well. The biggest omissions were the Clippers, Grizzlies, Suns, and reigning champs Warriors.
Kevin Durant only playing three games for Phoenix means their placement isn’t trustworthy though. In addition, the Grizzlies likely finish in the desirable rectangle if Steven Adams doesn’t miss two months. Therefore, the Suns and Grizzlies are still teams to watch. But the Clippers and Warriors? It doesn’t look good, especially with Paul George’s injury.
Based on recent Net Rating and Net eFG% trends, the following franchises are qualified to reach the NBA Finals: Boston, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Denver. However, using the Clump B range from the previous chart as a measuring stick only leaves the Boston Celtics standing. It’s interesting that the East claims four of the five teams, which is a testament to the Western Conference’s depth. Overall, is the method perfectly precise at predicting the conference winners? Of course not – injuries and trades can alter a team’s standing, and there has only been eight years of data since the three-point revolution. The outlook is promising though, especially at examining dark horses and separating contenders and pretenders.
NBA Finals Best Bets
Given the data, which futures bets hold value?
Boston Celtics To Win NBA Finals (+350 MGM)
The Celtics are the cream of the crop according to recent Finals trends. They rank top five in both Offensive and Defensive Rating, possess the deepest bench in the league, and own perhaps the highest degree of lineup versatility. Their roster is littered with two-way stars, hyper-focused veterans, and an abundance of high-pressure playoff experience. Plus, they have tremendous chemistry with each other. And while Cleveland is a threat, Boston likely avoids having to battle Milwaukee or Philadelphia until the Conference Finals.
Boston Celtics vs. Denver Nuggets NBA Finals (+1000 FD)
The Nuggets graded as the best in the West per the two metrics, and they won’t face any true titans in the West like Milwaukee or Boston. Denver’s biggest weakness is their bench; they have the best Net Rating in NBA history with Jokic on the court and the third worst Net Rating in NBA history with him off the court (per Cleaning the Glass). The playoffs mean a shortened bench and increased starter minutes though, which will help protect against this significant flaw. Denver also likely captures the 1st seed and home court advantage, where they are 31-6 with a 10.6 Net Rating.
Boston Celtics vs. Phoenix Suns NBA Finals (+950 FD)
Phoenix possesses no chemistry, injury concerns, and won’t have home court. However, Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton and a slew of solid role players can reach the Finals based on sheer talent. Those four have only played 62 minutes together, but they posted a monstrous 34.6 Net Rating. That success is obviously unsustainable; however, they looked utterly dominant and presented themselves as serious title contenders according to the eye test. If they avoid injuries, Phoenix is neck and neck with Denver as the favorite to emerge.