I don’t know if you have any faith in my “Team” and “Opposition” Win Score averages, and my uses thereof, but hear me out on this one. Suspend your disbelief for a second because I think I have an important historical point to make.
First, for the uninitiated, lets just say “Team Win Score” reflects something like “offense” and “Opposition Win Score” reflects something like “defense”. As background, the NBA Team Win Score averagefor this season was 43.78 per game (that, of course, would also be the Oppo Win Score average).
With that knowledge, here are the Team and Opposition Win Score averages for the two NBA Finalists this season, along with the percentage by which those respect averages are above the NBA average:
Boston Celtics: 45.12 (+3.0%) – 37.70 (+13.9%) Total: (+16.9%)
LA Lakers: 47.23 (+7.8%) – 40.12 (+8.3%) Total: (+16.1%)
First of all, if you go by “Win Score gaps” (the first number minus the second) or by Win Score total percentage above average (the number in the parenthesis), then these are two of the weakest combined NBA Finalists in quite some time. Here’s my Win Score analysis of the NBA Finalists from 1974-2007. I did it a couple of years back. Somebody correct me if I’m wrong, but it looks like you have to go all the way back to the 1979 NBA Finals to find two teams with Win Score Gaps of just +8.0 or worse.
The 1979 Finals are roundly considered the height of NBA mediocrity.
To find a pair of teams whose Team and Oppo WS percentages above average (again, the number above in the parenthesis) combined to 33.0% or less — if you discount the 1995 Finals (the Magic were +31% while the strange Rockets weren’t above average at all) — then once again you have to go back to that classic tape delayed NBA Finals matchup of 1979. That’s sobering. That Finals, reputedly, nearly killed the Association. You had the Stars and Stripes on the jerseys of one team and Gus Williams manning the point for the other, and weak play all around.
But at least it appears both teams are evenly matched, right? Yes and no.
Generally, when teams are evenly matched, it seems that the stronger defensive team will prevail. More importantly, history seems to suggest that an Oppo Win Score in the 30s is a crucial championship element. As you recall, only one team meets that criteria.
The last time a team with an Oppo Win Score in the 40s, like the Lakers have, won the NBA Championship (the last two seasons neither champ was in the 40s, the Celts were in the low 30s in ’08 and the Lakers were 36.23 in ’09) would be the Houston Rockets in 1995. But that season the Rockets opponent, Orlando, also had an Oppo WS in the 40s.
The last time a team with an OppoWS in the 40s beat a team with an OppoWS in the 30s was 1988 when the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Detroit Pistons in 7 games. But that Laker team had a TeamWS in the 50s. Meaning their offense was dominant. This Laker team doesn’t have that advantage.
If the Lakers want to look to historical precedent for comfort, I’d look to the 1982 NBA Finals. That season the two teams were evenly matched in terms of WSGap, yet the offensive team (LA Lakers) beat the slightly more defensive team (Phil Sixers). The same exact thing happened to the same two teams in the 1980 NBA Finals as well.
But my gut tells me the Celtics are probably not the semi-strong defensive team that those Sixer teams were. I think they might be closer to very strong. I think they are closer to the 33.12 OppoWS team that they’ve been thus far in the playoffs instead of the 37.70 team they were in the regular season. The Lakers OppoWS, meanwhile, has actually risen during the playoffs to 42.31, so I’d be hard pressed to make a similar argument for them.
One last thought. As I pointed out, this is the first time since 1979 that two teams have reached the NBA Finals with both having Combined Win Scores whose percentage above average did not exceed 20%. But that was a legitimate age of parity. This most certainly is not. So it stands to reason that one or both of these teams sandbagged the regular season. It stands to reason that one or both of them is actually legitimately stronger than their regular season performance suggests.
Based on playoff numbers, which team do you think that is?