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FiveThirtyEight’s predictions may leave the Spurs wishing they were in the East

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Their predicted record would be good enough to make the playoffs — if they weren’t in the Western Conference.

San Antonio Spurs v Houston Rockets Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Now that the presidential election is over, our mathematically-inclined friends over at fivethirtyeight.com have moved beyond analyzing presidential polling data to something much more important — the NBA. 538 has now released their predictions for the 2020-2021 NBA season, and they do not have much love for the Spurs. We will get to that in a moment.

At the top of the heap, the 538 folks, like most other experts, have the defending champion Lakers. 538 predicts that the Lakers will win the Western Conference regular season, with the best odds of making (34%) and winning (21%) the Finals. Those last two numbers are interesting, as they indicate that if the Lakers make the Finals, 538 favors them to beat whichever team comes out of the East — 21/34 or 61%. This is also true for the Clippers, 12/21 or 57%.

Most of the other predictions I have seen also have the Lakers on top, both because they are the defending champs and because of their off-season moves. The one outlier is John Hollinger at The Athletic, who predicts that the Lakers will come in fourth in the West (in the regular season). He is concerned about the Lakers’ lack of depth, the carryover wear and tear from the Lakers’ short off-season, and the lack of depth after their two stars. Once again, we all wonder who will be the Lakers’ third best player, or how they will handle any injury to Anthony Davis or LeBron James. Of course, if those two are healthy and rested for the playoffs, even Mr. Hollinger will likely give the Lakers a strong chance to repeat as champs.

Despite all we hear about the strength of the West, 538 ranks the top of the Eastern Conference as somewhat stronger. After the Lakers at the top, 538 has Eastern teams at 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 7th and 8th (Celtics, 76ers, Bucks, Heat, and Raptors, in that order).

Somewhat surprisingly, 538 has the Kevin Durant / Kyrie Irving Nets, whom many see as title contenders, all the way down at 13th, with only a 1% chance to win it all. Perhaps the 538 algorithm has trouble dealing with a team whose best two players missed all or most of the prior season. Or perhaps the algorithm recognizes that the track record of players coming back from an achilles injury, like Durant, is not strong, especially the first season after the injury. (By the way, if I could get the Nets at 100 - 1, I would take that bet.)

The difference in the strength of the two conferences is most telling at the bottom of the rankings. 538 has six teams from the East as the six worst teams in the NBA. This will help all the better teams in the East, as they will be able to fatten up on those weaker teams, or rest their better players for those games, while the better teams in the West will face tougher challenges from the bottom of the conference.

538 has the Spurs as better than the weakest Eastern teams but not good enough in the West. To wit, while the Spurs are predicted to have the same record as the rebuilt Atlanta Hawks (35-37), the Hawks are seen as twice as likely to make the playoffs (65% - 31%). With the same record, 538 predicts that the Hawks 35-37 record will be good for 8th in the East, while it’s only good enough to place the Spurs at 11th in the West. Put another way, having all the terrible teams at the bottom of the conference helps both the top teams in the East and the mediocre ones. Somebody has to make the playoffs, and the Sucky Six in the East aren’t likely to do so.

The Spurs have no such luck in the West. In order to get into the top 8, the Spurs have to “pass” the young and talented Pelican and Timberwolves. Even if they do that, they then need to somehow beat out perennial playoff teams such as the Trail Blazers (picked 8th in the West) or Jazz (picked 7th) or the upstart and improved Suns (a surprising 5th). Of course, if the Rockets (predicted to be 4th in the West) trade James Harden — or his antics lead to a Rocket implosion — perhaps that will open up a playoff spot for a worthy team. (I recognize that the Spurs only need to make it to the 10th spot to qualify for the “play-in” games, but that is a tough and likely “one and out” scenario.)

One final comment: While predictions are fun to play with, they are only predictions. Predicting a team’s final regular season record before a single game has been played is impossible.

Indeed, predicting a single game’s outcome is difficult. Games are often decided by a bad bounce or call, a player getting unexpectedly hot (or cold), or a three-pointer that rims in or out. Now multiply that by 72 games.

Most importantly, the better team does not always win. As noted in my summary of the Spurs’ pre-Bubble season last year, the Spurs beat many of the league’s best teams (the Bucks, Clippers, Raptors, Celtics, Jazz, Mavericks, Rockets) while losing to some terrible teams, including most of the Sucky Six, with losses to the Cavs, Pistons, Wizards and Bulls, and two to the Hawks, who won only 18 other games. With results like those, those who attempt to predict any team’s exact record over 72 games have more courage than I do.