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As the days grow short, an updated look at NBA playoff predictions

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The regular season is growing short, and the playoff race is looking a little different than expected.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

September Song by Willie Nelson begins:

“Oh, it’s a long long while

From May to December

But the days grow short

When you reach September”

The days are also growing short for this NBA regular season, with less than 20% of the games still to be played. As the games dwindle down to a precious few, this a good time to take a look at how our smart friends at fivethirtyeight.com see the season shaking out. As a reminder, 538 earned their fame by projecting elections, and have since applied their statistical prowess to sports, including the NBA.

Before the season, the 538 guys — like virtually everyone else — gave the Los Angeles Lakers the best odds of winning the championship. 538 had the Lakers with a 34% chance of making the Finals, and a 21% chance of winning it all. If that happens, the Lakers will win their 18th crown, breaking their tie with the Boston Celtics for the most in NBA history. (The Lakers’ 18 crowns includes four by the Minneapolis Lakers, in a state which actually has a lot of lakes.)

The Lakers’ season has not gone as they hoped, with injuries to LeBron James and Anthony Davis derailing their regular season, and also any hope of having home court advantage for the playoffs. Perhaps as a result, 538.com now has the Lakers with only a 7% chance of winning it all, behind five other teams. 538’s preseason number two seed — the Celtics — has also disappointed, despite not having near the injury woes of the Lakers or other squads. The Celtics are now ranked with the 8th best odds to winning it all, at only 2%. With their record at 32 - 28, I don’t think I would take the Celtics at 50 - 1. Unless they trade for LeBron, or McHale and Bird are walking through the door.

As I noted in my post about those pre-season predictions, the 538 folks were not at all bullish on the Nets:

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.)

It turns out that I should have taken that bet, if I could have actually gotten those odds in Las Vegas. 538 did not predict that James Harden would wage a personal tank-fest in Houston, forcing a trade to those Nets. Despite rarely having their new Big Three together on the court, 538 now ranks the Nets fourth overall, with a 28% chance of making the Finals, and a 13% chance of winning. (Yes, that means that 538 would favor the Western Conference champ over the Nets in the Finals.) Perhaps one of the reasons the statistics like the Nets is their ability to win while missing one or more of Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. For instance, on Friday night, Harden and KD were out, and Kyrie shot an incredibly bad 4 for 19 from the floor, including 0 for 6 from three — but the Nets still beat the Celtics 109 - 104.

With the Lakers now sixth, and the Nets fourth, who are 538’s top three? The Clippers are on top (31% chance to win it all), followed by the Jazz and DannyGreen’s 76ers. While the Clippers and 76ers were preseason favorites, the Jazz were not. 538 had the Jazz finishing 7th in the West, behind (among others) the Houston Rockets, who were picked to come in 4th in the West. This is where my preseason post was most prescient:

“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.”

The preseason predictions had the Spurs finishing with a 35 - 37 record, coming in 11th, missing even the play-in games, with a 31% chance of making the playoffs. (I am fairly certain 538 defines “making the playoffs” as surviving the play-in games.) Now the 538 folks have even less love for the Spurs, perhaps ignoring how wonderful the Fiesta uniforms look. (Logic over emotion.) The Spurs are predicted to finish 34 - 38, with only a 15% chance of making the playoffs. Unfortunately, that feels about right. But I will continue to watch the last precious games, hoping against hope, along with Willie Nelson and the rest of the true Spurs fans.

“And these few precious days

I’ll spend with you

These precious days

I’ll spend with you

These precious days

I’ll spend with you.”