NBA

And Then There Was One

The inevitability of an Eastern Conference Finals matchup between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Toronto Raptors is increasingly prevalent as the NBA Playoffs descend upon us. FiveThirtyEight‘s RAPTOR forecast is one of few projections in which the aforementioned series isn’t expected to occur; the model favors the Boston Celtics (it is worth noting the scrapped Elo forecast paints Toronto as the title favorites, although it’s reimplementation as a secondary forecast increases the noise surrounding it). Basketball-Reference recognizes Milwaukee and Toronto as the likely Eastern Conference Finals pairing. My own (unpolished) projection model paints Milwaukee as the conference favorites with Toronto as a steady second. The plethora of predictions, projections, and information to base them on strongly implies the likelihood of the potential series, and as a result, it’s a matchup worth examining.

I issued a poll on Discuss TheGame, a sports social platform, in which users would vote for the team they predicted would win the Eastern Conference this season. Milwaukee maintains a relatively strong 57% of voting shares, followed by Toronto (39%), with the other 4% allocated among the remaining contenders in the Eastern Conference, like Boston and Philadelphia. It’s a seemingly valid representation of the perceived playing field, although the depths of these stances reveal a clearer picture. If one were to question the individuals, the result would be a strong following of Toronto. Despite the general advantage toward Milwaukee in the eyes of the people, Toronto gained a solid foundation of supporters on Discuss TheGame. It was the revelation of this, as someone who sees the Bucks as strongly advantageous, that prompted my writing of this article. Today, I’ll explain my reasoning toward the Milwaukee Bucks as the eventual sole remaining team in the Eastern Conference.

To understand the deficiencies of Milwaukee in the team’s previous Playoff series against Toronto, we must take a trip into the past. More specifically, May 19th of 2019. 

2019 Eastern Conference Finals

Milwaukee, the foremost regular-season team of the year, was positioned to advance to the NBA Finals after the first two games of the series. The team was maintaining a stellar +31 cumulative point differential and required a mere two wins to conclude the series. It was the aforementioned date, May 19th, at which point Milwaukee’s season fell apart. Toronto proceeded to win four consecutive games en route to one of the largest upsets of the year. Milwaukee’s proficiency in the regular season begot the notion, for it was worse than the 50th percentile outcome. Examinations of the six Playoff games may draw out crucial information on how Milwaukee’s performance wavered, and how a potential matchup could end in the team’s favor. 

Series Analysis

I’ll use last year’s Eastern Conference Finals to estimate how the Bucks’ deficiencies affected the outcome of the series. To determine the “winning formula” for Milwaukee in the series, I’ll plot the correlation between several descriptive statistics and cumulative performance from the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals.

Dean Oliver’s “Four Factors”

Dean Oliver’s “Four Factors” are an assortment of descriptive statistics to model the offensive and defensive proficiencies of basketball teams. The measurements account for scoring efficiency (eFG%), limiting turnovers (TOV%), offensive rebounding (ORB%), and free-throw frequency (FTr). I’m taking note of the four factors due to a multiple linear regression I ran in which the factors were input values to estimate ORtg and DRtg for teams using regular-season data from the 1973-74 season to the 2019-20 season. The four factors were strongly predictive toward team offensive and defensive proficiency, posting adjusted Pearson correlations of 0.986 and 0.989, respectively. I duplicated the same process for Milwaukee in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals, and the results were similarly promising.

  • 0.996 adjusted R^2 to predict Milwaukee’s rORtg
  • 0.982 adjusted R^2 to predict Milwaukee’s rDRtg

Due to the strong correlation between the four factors and Milwaukee’s relative performance, as well as the aforementioned regression accounting for more than four decades, it’s likely Milwaukee’s scores in the four statistics during the Playoffs will play a large role in claiming a Finals berth. Next, I’ll account for Milwaukee’s changes from the regular season to the Playoffs by calculating the difference between the team’s four factors from the regular season to the second season.

  • 55.0 eFG% –> 49.1 (-5.9%)
  • 12.0 TOV% –> 10.4 (-1.6%)
  • 20.8 ORB% –> 23.1 (+2.3%)
  • 19.7 FTr –> 23.4 (+3.7%)

Milwaukee’s alterations in the four factors don’t seem to align with expectations at a first glance. The team actually improved in three of the four statistics. However, there may exist a rational ground to explain this occurrence. During my aforementioned regression, I assigned weighted values to the factors, assuming I had 100 percentage points to allocate, to estimate the importance of the factors. Efficiency accounted for 67% of importance to the regression, making it the distinct leverage point toward offensive proficiency. Therefore, if Milwaukee aims to dethrone Toronto as Eastern champions, the most important aspect of the four factors the team needs to improve in is scoring efficiency. The differential in eFG% last year was significant, a near 6% drop. Part of the anomaly might’ve been Toronto’s excellent defense (-7.1 rDRtg in the series) as a result of “The Wall,” a crescent-shaped alignment of defenders in the paint to eliminate some of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s paint presence. 

If Milwaukee is to minimize efficiency woes against Toronto in the Playoffs, the team would’ve likely displayed improvements in, specifically, eFG% from last season to now. Milwaukee posted a 55.0 eFG% in the 2019 regular season, the highest score in the Eastern Conference. The team did improve on last season’s score, finishing the 2020 regular season with a 55.2 eFG%. It’s an improvement, although, at a first glance, it may not be enough to overcome the original drop-off in scoring efficiency. Milwaukee’s offense actually regressed in the past year; the team’s ORtg/A of 113.9 in 2019 followed with one of 112.7, a notable reduction. The other half of the equation we have to address is Toronto’s defense. Toronto administered one of the greatest Playoff defenses in league history last season (~ 9 rDRtg), and the year-to-year regular-season differences don’t work in favor of Milwaukee. Toronto’s DRtg/A of 108.4 last season was quickly followed by one of 106.1, a two-point improvement from last year. 

Toronto held opponents 1.5% lower than league-average in scoring efficiency last season, a mark replaced with 2.7% this season. Additional consideration can be placed in the opposing offensive quality Toronto faced in the last two seasons; the team played against an average -0.4 rORtg last year, a score followed by -0.2 this year. Toronto has limited opponent scoring efficiency to a higher degree while facing tougher opponents. Initially, these points don’t seem to advance Milwaukee’s case, and on their own, it doesn’t. However, there’s one factor we haven’t accounted for yet: luck. Toronto’s defense was historically-great last season, although a portion of it can be attributed to luck. The Raptors were an effective team in limiting opponents’ eFG% in 2019, as the aforementioned 1.5% mark indicated, but they limited the Bucks’ eFG% nearly four times greater (5.9%). Toronto’s rDRtg was slightly less than three times greater in the Playoffs than the regular season last year, an increment that doesn’t situate with the eFG% limitations.

Therefore, Milwaukee’s efficiency drop was, in part, due to poor luck as well as Nick Nurse’s “wall.” It’s likely the wall alone wouldn’t have limited Milwaukee’s scoring efficiency to as high a degree without significant luck. It’s now an appropriate point at which I’d like to introduce the closeness of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Despite the four-game win streak and six-game closure, the series was won on the margins. Toronto outscored Milwaukee by one point per 100 possessions. If we substitute Milwaukee’s 5.9% drop-off in scoring efficiency with Toronto’s regular-season limitations of eFG% last year, the former team would’ve been in a position to win the series. Two of my viewpoints play a role in my favoring of Milwaukee, one being the “luck” factor and the other being the instability of historic play. The latter relates to teams’ difficulties in replicating historically-great performances from season to season. For example, the 2004 Pistons, the greatest Playoff defense ever, had an ~ 11 rDRtg in the Playoffs, a figure they didn’t come close to maintaining in the following seasons. Historic trends state the same will occur with Toronto.

During the time in which I’ve analyzed the potential matchup between Milwaukee and Toronto, the Net Rating of the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals has been stuck in my head. Milwaukee was notably inferior last season, improving in NRtg/A by roughly +1.5 points, and it required the second-greatest Playoff defense in league history to outscore them by a single point per 100 possessions. Since then, Milwaukee has systematically improved while Toronto lost arguably the greatest wing defender of the current era. Adding in the “luck” factor and the instability of historic play, and I see a reasonable case in which Milwaukee reverses their scoring efficiency woes against Toronto in an upcoming Eastern Conference Finals.

Toronto’s Offense

Up until this point, the topic of conversation solely revolved around Milwaukee’s offense and Toronto’s defense. However, the inverse is equally important: how will Toronto’s offense perform against Milwaukee’s defense? At first glance, Milwaukee has some notable advantages. The team has improved its DRtg/A from 106.2 to a league-leading 103.7. Milwaukee currently possesses the foremost defense in the entire league by a wide margin; the runner-up in the statistic (Toronto) is more than two points behind. Conversely, Toronto’s offense has regressed. The team’s ORtg/A of 113.8 last season dropped to 112.0 this season, a significant decrease (likely) due to the loss of Kawhi Leonard. Although Leonard was likely never capable of anchoring a great offense during his time in Toronto (his passing was inadequate with the Raptors), he was the driving force on that side of the ball last year. Although some of Toronto’s key players like Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, and Fred VanVleet have improved their situational value in Leonard’s absence, it hasn’t shown any improvement in cumulative performance.

Milwaukee’s defense is tailored to exploit Toronto’s weaknesses. According to NBA.com, Toronto was one of the least-efficient teams in the paint (59.1% on attempts within 5 feet). On the other hand, Milwaukee is the foremost interior defensive unit in the league; they permitted the lowest FG% from within 5 feet of any team. Milwaukee isn’t especially proficient at limiting opponent three-point efficiency; the team held opponents 0.3% lower than league-average from long-range. Toronto is in the 87th percentile in three-point percentage among teams. However, as coach Mike Budenholzer and Milwaukee’s defensive schematics have taken note of, the most valuable shot in basketball is close to the basket. By limiting the efficiency and frequency of these attempts, Milwaukee has evolved into the greatest defensive team in the NBA. This strategy, as stated by the contemporary coordinations of the game, should serve well in any situation. If we take note of solely “input” statistics, or the stats that account for the “hows” in Milwaukee’s defense and Toronto’s offense, the former team garners stronger advantages.

Additionally, if we view the grander view of events through cumulative performance statistics, Milwaukee’s defense is further poised to contain Toronto’s offense. During their sole season with Kawhi Leonard on the roster, the Raptors outscored an average team by 113.8 points per 100 possessions. The aforementioned drop paints Toronto as less than one standard deviation greater than league-average. Although the team’s players who were on the roster last year have grown and developed in their own rights, their isolated value remains relatively stagnant compared to their situation value. The loss of Kawhi Leonard diminished Toronto’s regular-season offense, and last year’s Playoff offense was nothing special with him. Playing against a team of Milwaukee’s defensive caliber, putting forth an offense like Toronto’s, isn’t likely to garner strong results unless an offense is great, an asset Toronto lacks. Milwaukee’s defense, as stated earlier, is one of the most ameliorated units in the NBA relative to last season, and Toronto’s modest Playoff offense isn’t in a position to instill a strong impression on Milwaukee’s new and improved defense. 

Although a more firm supporter of Milwaukee, I see a rational argument in Toronto’s favor. Nick Nurse’s “wall” (partially) contained Giannis Antetokounmpo, although the most devastating effect was Milwaukee’s mediocre distance scoring, an asset forced to work more rigorously in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Toronto has permitted the lowest three-point percentage of any team this season. However, the Greek Freak is vastly superior to last season and Toronto lost two of the team’s key perimeter defenders (Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard). Budding star, OG Anunoby, is now available for them in the second season, yet it’s unlikely he’ll fully replicate the value those two provided last year. Add in Milwaukee’s invigorated defense and the instability of historic play (as well as the Bucks’ heightened distance scoring) and the evidence in Milwaukee’s favor is prevalent to me. Recently, in place of my “ChromCast” Playoff forecast, I retrodiction-tested NRtg/A scores for teams to estimate how well they match up against postseason opponents. Using this method, Milwaukee stands a 65% chance of winning a series against Toronto, and it’s a figure that largely aligns with my own thoughts. Therefore, Milwaukee is my foremost prediction to remain the sole team standing in the Eastern Conference this year.

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