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Heat may not be favorites for NBA Championship

Posted by Andrew Mooney  April 22, 2013 11:20 AM

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After closing the season out on a 37-2 tear and finishing with a league-high 66 wins, the Miami Heat are generally considered the presumptive favorite for the NBA Championship. Vegas certainly agrees with this sentiment; vegasinsider.com currently has Miami at 1-to-2 odds to repeat, with the Oklahoma City Thunder a distant second at 5-to-1 odds. But is it fair to so preemptively crown LeBron James and crew for the second year in a row? When digging into the numbers a little more, the supremacy of the Heat is not nearly so obvious.

When one witnesses Russell Westbrook jacking a long pull-up two in transition, the first word to come to mind is not “efficiency.” Yet the Thunder offense was nearly as efficient as Miami’s in 2012-13, scoring 112.3 points per 100 possessions compared to 112.4 for the Heat, according to Basketball Reference. One reason for this is the Thunder’s ability to both get to the free throw line and convert attempts there; OKC was second in the league in free throw attempts and first by a significant margin in free throw percentage at 82.8.

The Thunder are also a vastly underrated defensive team, allowing 102.6 points per 100 possessions this season, good for fourth-best in the NBA and 1.1 points fewer than the Heat. In choosing to keep Serge Ibaka over James Harden this past offseason, Oklahoma City retained one of the league’s most formidable defensive front lines in Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. Ibaka blocks 7.4 percent of opponents’ two-point shots while on the court, leading the league in that category among power forwards.

In the regular season, the Thunder owned the NBA’s top point differential, outscoring opponents by 9.2 points per game, over a point better than the Heat’s 7.9 per-game differential. So how is it that Miami finished six games better in the standings than Oklahoma City? Part of the reason is the teams’ respective records in close games; the Thunder were 4-5 in games decided by one possession, while the Heat were 9-3. If a few more bounces go OKC’s way late in some of those games, the gap between the teams begins to look much slimmer.

I see a bet on Oklahoma City at the present odds having significant positive expected value; certainly their odds at a title aren’t 50 percent lower than the Heat’s, which is how the teams’ chances are currently priced. The Thunder must travel a much more difficult road through the Western Conference to get back to the Finals, but once there, they should perhaps be considered the favorite over anyone they might meet—and that includes Miami.

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Stats Driven is powered by David Sabino, who over the last two decades has been a source of statistical analysis on the pages of Sports Illustrated, New York Times, and Chicago Tribune. David has written about all seven recent Boston-area championships for Sports Illustrated Presents commemorative issues, was the creator of such long time features as SI’s Player Value Ranking, NBA Player Rating and long running fantasy football and baseball columns.

He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrated’s 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.

Now living in Marblehead, he’s focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.

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