This season, the Bulls, Heat, Thunder, and Spurs finished top four in the both of ESPN’s Power Rankings, had the best four records, and were far and away the best four teams in SRS (a fancy version of point differential). In fact, the difference in SRS between the #1 Bulls (7.42) and #5 Sixers (3.59), 3.83, is bigger than the 3.82 difference between the #5 Sixers and the #20 Bucks (SRS of -.23).
With that said, none of those top teams is perfect. In the rest of this post, I’ll compare each of the elite four to a core member of the Fantastic Four, as well as identify each team’s fatal flaws and (non Big 4) formidable foes using Dean Olivers’ Four Factors as the foundation for my analysis.
The great Dean Oliver identified the four most important factors that contribute to winning, each of which can be applied to both offense and defense. They are: 1) How efficiently a team shoots from the field and how well they prevent the opponent from doing so (eFG%), 2) How well they control both the offensive and defensive glass (OReb% and DReb%), 3) How well a team forces turnovers and fails to turn the ball over themselves (TOV%), and 4) How often a team takes and makes free throws and how well they prevent the opponent from doing so (FT/FGA%).
San Antonio Spurs
Fantasic Four Comparison: “Mister Incredible.”
Fatal Flaws: They don’t force turnovers
Formidable Foes: Memphis Grizzlies
Wikipedia says this about Mr. Incredible: “a scientific genius…serves as the father figure…and is ‘appropriately pragmatic, authoritative, and dull.'” Sounds like the Spurs. It has been well-documented that this year’s Spurs aren’t the defensive monster they were in years past–they were 16th in opponents’ eFG% and were 25th in forcing turnovers. The Grizzlies are the most fit non-Big-4 team to take down the Spurs. Although they don’t exploit the Spurs’ weaknesses, they mitigate their strengths; the Grizzlies have the defensive tenacity to disrupt San Anotnio’s turnover-free/pick-and-roll/space-and-shoot offense and were able to beat the Spurs last year without Rudy Gay.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Fantasic Four Comparison: “The Human Torch”
Fatal Flaws: Turning over the ball; forcing turnovers; defensive rebounding
Formidable Foes: Memphis Grizzlies (again)
The Thunder embody many of the same traits as “The Human Torch.” The Human Torch can both fly and produce fire and is, according to Wikipedia, “a typical adolescent — brash, rebellious, and affectionately obnoxious.” The Thunder are also athletic and explosive, with a special ability (see: Westbrook and Ibaka) to maintain appeal through their demonstrative swagger. That said, their youth also manifests itself in their propensity to commit turnovers, where they ranked worst in the league this season. The Thunder were also 23rd in both defensive rebounding and forcing turnovers. The Grizzlies, who took the Thunder to 7 games last year without Rudy Gay, are well-suited to exploit these weaknesses; they were the best team at forcing turnovers and were top 3 in offensive rebounding.
Fantasic Four Comparison: “Invisible Woman”
Fatal Flaws: Turning over the ball; conceding too many open threes
Worthy Foes: Boston Celtics
The story of the Miami Heat is still being written, but so far it has mirrored that of the Invisible Woman. Her character, says Wikipedia, was frequently portrayed as “a damsel in distress during the team’s early adventures,” only later becoming “a more powerful member of the Fantastic Four, and the team’s second-in-command.” Likewise, the Heat’s reputation–fair or not–paints them as a team lacking the killer instinct and helpless under pressure. On a more tangible level, the Heat ranked just 24th in protecting the ball and failed to defend the three-point line, where they gave up the 5th highest 3pt% and 4th most three-point attempts. If the Celtics, who were 7th in 3-point percentage and 4th in forcing turnovers, can control the pace and the space of the game, the Heat once again might be “Invisible Women” under playoff distress. It also deserves mention that the Celtics were 3-1 (although the final win doesn’t really count). In the two meaningful wins, the C’s won by 19 at home and by 8 on the road.
Fantasic Four Comparison: “The Thing”
Fatal Flaws: Creating offense; forcing turnovers
Worthy Foes: Philadelphia 76ers
“The Thing” has both Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose in him, if that’s even possible. He has a “short temper, and caustic sense of humor…He [is the] most lovable group member: honest, direct and free of pretension.” I’ll leave it you to determine which part is Noah and which is Rose. The Bulls are the only Big 4 team playing their “worthy foe” in the first round, and the series is tied 1-1 after Philadelphia routed the Bulls in Chicago. The Bulls struggle to create offense; they ranked 14th in eFG% and 26th in FT/FGA% and those numbers were likely lower without Rose. And despite their second-ranked defense, the Bulls ranked 26th in forcing turnovers. I’ve read many analysts claim that the Sixers don’t match up well with the Bulls, but I don’t buy it. The Sixers were the best team at protecting the ball and won’t give the Bulls any transition baskets, which will be a problem for a Chicago team that struggles to create offense without Rose. Compounding the issue for the Bulls’ offensive woes is the Sixers’ third-ranked defense. Lastly, it should be mentioned that while Chicago is an elite offensive-rebounding team (1st), the Sixers ranked fourth in defensive rebounding, potentially nullifying the Bulls’ biggest advantage.
What do you think about the Big 4, Fantastic Four, and Fatal Flaws? 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.