Mapping 2011 NBA Playoffs: Heat, Lakers Most Balanced Contenders

Illustration by Tom Ziller

As our field of 16 teams for the 2011 NBA Playoffs has been set, we can take a look at just what we have in the gross. As the week wears on and specific first-round matchups and paths to the NBA Finals are uncovered, will be digging into each one. (We've already begun, with the Bulls-Pacers face-off in the East.) But in a more general sense, where do these teams lay heading into the second season?

I used an old standby for a macro view of the contenders (and the Pacers): a scatterplot map of offensive and defensive efficiency. The best teams score much more efficiently than their opponents. This is pretty simply represented as efficiency differential, but in order to show how teams succeed and which contenders have the best balance, we keep offense and defense separate.

With offense plotted on the x axis and defense on the y, here's what our map looks like, using data through Sunday's games. 



As you'd expect, most of the playoff teams find themselves trending toward Awesome! Corner, the top-right area. Much of the rest of the league is sprinkled among the left half, bottom half and, in many cases, the bottom-left Quadrant of Misery. Thankfully, no playoff teams -- not even the Pacers -- find themselves in the Quadrant of Misery this season. (It does happen, and the Hawks -- the Hawks, a No. 5 seed -- come close.)


We can glean a few things from this type of presentation.

* The Heat and Lakers are balanced. Miami had the best balance factor (square root of offensive rating over average times defensive rating under average), and L.A. followed. This means that Miami gets nearly equal contributions from its offense and defense. Among the top seeds, Boston is least balanced team, with a killer defense and below-average offense. The Nuggets and Thunder are also unbalanced, but the other way with good offenses and poorer defenses. The Knicks are wildly imbalanced, with a strong offense and abysmal defense.

* Balance isn't everything -- the 2008 and 2010 Celtics, the former of which won the title and the latter a Finals bid, proved that. On raw efficiency differential, the Heat and less-balanced Bulls lead the way at +8. While Miami gets it done on both ends, Chicago counts on an extraordinary defense to buoy its offense, which is just slightly better than average. Following the Heat and Bulls, the Lakers (+6.6), Spurs (+6.5) and Celtics (+6) chase. The Magic (+5.7) and Nuggets (+4.9) are the only other teams that look to be in the title conversation, which might what Mavericks (+4.2) or Thunder (+4.1) fans want to hear.

* The first-round possibility with the most tug-of-war vibe could be Celtics vs. Knicks, given Boston's awesome defense and the Knicks' crazy offense. Thunder-Grizzlies and Grizzlies-Spurs are similar possibilities, though less wild in the spread.

* Based on this exercise, visually-speaking, four teams stand out from the pack in terms of title favorites: Heat, Bulls, Lakers and Spurs. What a final four that would be.

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