The NBA shouldn’t be that hard to predict. 5 franchises have won 26 of the last 30 championships. 7-game playoff series limit the effect of randomness. And David Stern decides well ahead of time how everything is going to play out. Still, sometimes a season like ’10-’11 creeps up and blindsides you. Who predicted the Mavericks winning the title? Derrick Rose winning MVP? The Lakers winning 4 playoff games? I looked back on the accuracy of season previews to try to figure out just how much we really know about this league, and an interesting pattern emerged.
I compiled ESPN’s preseason picks for NBA champion and MVP for each year since the ’05-’06 season, the first that they started using expert panels in their season previews. These panels are useful because they reveal not only the consensus favorite but also who else experts considered to be in the running. In 3 of the 6 seasons I looked at, the experts successfully predicted the champion, as the eventual champion received (or tied for) the most votes from the panel:
2006-2007:Spurs (Champions) – 5 Suns – 5 Mavericks – 4 Heat – 2
2008-2009:Lakers – 3 Spurs – 1
2009-2010:Lakers – 12 Cavaliers – 4 Magic – 2 Celtics – 1 Spurs – 1
In the other 3 seasons, not only were the eventual champions not the most popular pick, but they weren’t picked by a single one of the experts on the panel.
2005-2006 (Heat):Spurs – 12
2007-2008 (Celtics):Spurs – 8 Suns – 5 Mavericks – 2 Rockets – 2 Pistons – 1
2010-2011 (Mavericks):Heat – 12 Lakers – 12 Celtics – 1
When predicting an MVP, there were 2 seasons when the preseason favorite won:
2008-2009:LeBron James – 3 Chris Paul – 1
2009-2010:LeBron James – 12 Dwight Howard – 3 Kobe Bryant – 2 Dwyane Wade – 1 Chris Paul – 1 Carmelo Anthony – 1
There was one season when the MVP was predicted by one voter, but not by consensus:
2006-2007:LeBron James – 7 Dwyane Wade – 5 Kobe Bryant – 2 Tim Duncan – 1 Dirk Nowitzki (MVP) – 1
And finally there were 3 seasons when the MVP was not predicted by anyone:2005-2006 (Steve Nash): LeBron James – 5 Tim Duncan – 4 Ron Artest – 2 Kobe Bryant – 2 Shaquille O’Neal – 2 Tracy McGrady – 1
2007-2008 (Kobe Bryant):Kevin Garnett – 7 LeBron James – 3 Steve Nash – 2 Dwight Howard – 2 Baron Davis, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Yao Ming – 1
What I find really uncanny is that the experts whiffed on the NBA champion in exactly the same years that they whiffed on the MVP: 2006, 2008, and 2011. They’re great at predicting the run-of-the-mill seasons, but when it comes to predicting change, they’re just as clueless as the rest of us. It’s not hard to weigh a pack of contenders and figure out which one has the best shot of winning the title. But when there’s a new entry to the field, like the Celtics in 2007-2008, those comparisons become much more difficult.
In predicting the champion and MVP for this season, then, it would seem to help first to distinguish what type of year we’re going to have. With a shortened schedule and little time to rest, there is bound to be some chaos. But save for Chris Paul, the NBA’s elite are fairly well settled, and no young phenom appears poised to break out and impact the year’s narrative the way Derrick Rose did last season. After last year’s free-for-all, we have a pretty good idea of who the major players will be this time around. The logical thing would be to defer to the experts and anoint the Miami Heat and Kevin Durant favorites for the major honors. But keeping the possibility open that we do have another tumultuous year, each member of the AGR team will make a case for one championship candidate and one MVP candidate that absolutely none of the experts are calling.
We know the Clippers will be good. With two once-in-a-generation talents at point guard and power forward, the second round of the playoffs looks like a good bet. But that doesn’t factor in the big unknown of how the Clippers’ roster will look come playoff time. They’re sitting on ridiculous depth in their backcourt, with Eric Bledsoe, Mo Williams, and Randy Foye all fighting for minutes behind Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups. They also have $13 million in cap space. So as of now, the Clippers have a fighting change of challenging the Thunder out West. But they can afford to hold on to their trade assets as they watch the Lob City experiment develop, then pull the trigger for the missing ingredient of a title challenge–most likely a defensive-minded combo forward. Factor that in, and their ceiling becomes much harder to predict.
The Spurs are simultaneously a known product and an utter mystery. While we feel like we know what we’re getting with their Big Four (Popovich, Duncan, Ginobili, Parker), we also forget that the Spurs have morphed from being a slow, more defensive team to a faster, more offensive team (last season they had the 2nd-best offense, 11th-best defense, and the 14th-fastest pace). Likewise, it is difficult to know what to make of the Spurs’ first-round exit last year. With the best record and second-best SRS in the West, San Antonio seemed poised to knock out a Rudy Gay-less Grizzlies team. The Grizz franchise had never won a playoff game and their hopes hinged on Zach Randolph, who himself had never won aplayoff series and hadn’t tasted the postseason since ’02-’03. Spurs advocates (like myself) point to Manu’s injury in the series, but the truth is that he played 5 games and recorded the most Win Shares of any Spur in the series (even among those who played 6 games). It is anybody’s guess how the Spurs will perform this year, but we do know that Popovich coached them to victory in the ’98-’99 lockout season. With their pedigree and potential, they are as likely as any team to surprise the world, especially coming out of this year’s wild West.
In the NBA, the general rule of thumb is that you can’t win a championship without a superstar leading the team. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a championship squad that doesn’t feature multiple superstars. Sure, AI, LeBron and Dwight dragged teams to the Finals, but none of them has won a ring. However, there has been one exception to this rule in the past 10 years: the ’04 Pistons. For this reason, I predict the Denver Nuggets to take the League by surprise and win the title. Not unlike the Pistons, this team offers a balanced offensive attack. With Ty Lawson running the break like his life depends on it and Nene being a monster inside, I can see this team doing very well. In a shortened season with a compressed schedule, injuries are more likely. Luckily, the Nuggets are so deep that they could still easily get out of the first round with any one of their starters out. With visiting teams on tired legs sucking air in the Mile High City, don’t be surprised to see this squad racing its way to the Larry O’Brien.
David: Dwight Howard
What if I told you there was a 3-year reigning Defensive Player of the Year, who since 2007 hasn’t posted less than .200 Win Shares per 48 minutes, who was runner-up for MVP last year, who nobody is calling a contender for this season’s award? Sure, Dwight Howard is batting his eyelashes at other teams, but so did Kobe Bryant before the 2007-2008 season. You know, the one when he won MVP. Sure, Kobe Bryant got unexpected help in the form of Pau Gasol, and the Magic don’t have much trade bait to improve Howard’s supporting cast. A more likely scenario is that the Magic will trade Howard rather than letting him walk for nothing. And whoever gets Howard is poised for a swift leap into title contention–the kind of leap that attracts MVP votes.
Izzy: Dwyane Wade
The MVP is about great players, but it’s also about season-long and career-long narratives. Steve Nash wasn’t the best player in the league during his MVP runs, not with his pace-inflated numbers and average defense. But he improved himself and his team enough to surprise voters and steal a couple Mo Podoloff trophies–once the surprise wore off the following season, despite improved stats from Nash, the media was ready to anoint a new MVP. Likewise, Derrick Rose was the surprise star and humble face of the new-school Bulls (and the NBA). Playing for his hometown team and injecting a sexy athleticism and creativity into an otherwise boring offense, Rose’s story and visual play was enthralling enough for fans and media to forget that the Bulls’ success was primarily due to their defense (which is actually a weakness of Rose’s, and a specialty of Tom Thibodeau and the supporting cast). This season? If the Heat are among the top teams, and especially if LeBron or Bosh suffers an injury (or if Wade plays through injury), look for the media to give Wade his first regular-season MVP instead of a two-time winner in LeBron. Durant has his best years ahead of him and as Wade turns 30 this month, the media might dole out one of those B.S. “career-achievement”awards before it seems entirely inappropriate.
Jesse: Derrick Rose
Preseason predictions for MVP often disregard the incumbent, and this is especially true for Rose this year. This means nothing; no one predicted him to win it last year, either. The Bulls are only going to be healthier and better this year, and team success is perhaps the most reliable predictor of MVP consideration. As he continues to dominate his competition, voters will stay enchanted with Rose, whose leadership skills help him stand out in a crowd of perceived glory-chasers.
Are we in for another unpredictable year? Who are your dark horses for this season? Comment on the article or e-mail us at AGRbasketball (at) gmail (dot) com. Don’t forget to follow @AGRbasketball on Twitter and to like us on Facebook.