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Interview With Neil Paine Part III

"It's interesting, when we ran ... if you can recall, in some of the stuff we've been running in simulating the series. The away team, as the team that doesn't have the home-court advantage in the beginning of the series, has a greater probability of winning in 6 games than they do in 7, which seems like a weird circumstance because you would think the underdog would need as many games as possible to pull the upset. Because home court is so important in the NBA, if Orlando is able to win in L.A. at least once, if not twice, then they position themselves to win in 6 really more often than they would win in 7. That's the key to any series."

-- Neil Paine, Basketball-Reference


In continuing with previewing the NBA Finals matchup between the Orlando Magic and the Los Angeles Lakers, I was able to speak with Neil Paine of Basketball-Reference over the phone yesterday. Our conversation was a good one so I'm going to split up the interview into two parts (Part IV will be revealed tomorrow). 


In Part III of the Q/A, Paine offers his opinion about the Magic as he continues to watch the team play, previews and talks about the series between Orlando & Los Angeles, reveals series probabilities with the 2/2/1/1/1 and 2/3/2 formats, etc. 




Click after the jump for the full transcript. 

Dwight has been able to take his game to another level during the postseason for the Orlando Magic. Will the Lakers' contingent of big men be able to neutralize Howard a bit? It should be noted that Dwight Howard played well in the regular season against Los Angeles. Will he be able to continue his success in the Finals?

Yeah, I think so. I don't think he's going to score 40 points again or whatever. I mean, he may. I see a lot of similarities between Cleveland's big men and the guys that L.A. are throwing defensively at least against him because I know that L.A. is not going to hit the boards as hard as say, Cleveland did. I don't see any reason why Howard can't dominate. 


It's a similar series, really, in a lot of respects because insert Kobe for LeBron. Also, they have shooters like Vujacic and people like that around the outside. Obviously Gasol is more talented than anybody that Cleveland can throw and so maybe that's the x-factor in the series. But yeah, I think that Howard has got some distinct advantages inside. I don't think anybody will be able to push him out of the paint. 


Derek Fisher has struggled mightily in the postseason. If he is unable to step his game up against Orlando, how much of a problem will that be for Los Angeles? One would presumably see more of Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown, if that occurs. If so, does that help the Lakers? What does that mean for the Magic?

Well, to answer the first part of your question, it's obviously going to be important to them for him to get on track again. If you look at the way Mo Williams underperformed, any time that your point guard, especially when you're playing alongside a transcendent talent like Kobe and LeBron, is unable to really hit the shots that you're expecting him to hit, then you're going to have some difficulties winning. 


But I don't know if Phil Jackson is going to move away from him. He's shown an inclination, that stubbornness over many years and especially in this postseason, to just continue to go with his guys and not really deviate from it because Shannon Brown played really well, at times, during the Denver series and maybe deserved some more playing time. But like you said, Fisher kept starting and kept starting and didn't really play that well. I think they made it out as an aberration, also, because he's a guy that's proven the ability to make those shots, play within himself inside the offense, so it all just depends on whether or not he makes the shots. It's kind of hit-or-miss with him sometimes.


Yeah, I was watching the Denver series a little bit and it was remarkable how well Brown was playing, yet the limited minutes he kept receiving despite the fact. That's why I asked, because I was curious to see if Phil Jackson would stray away from that a little bit but as you said, he's been so stubborn for so long and he's won 9 titles, so you can't really fault the guy for not going away from what works for him. 

Well, also, that stubbornness can be a flaw for him because if you recall the Celtics series last year. There were at times when they were able to push the pace and they were able to disrupt things but he continued to not push the pace deliberately, almost, and he got out-coached. If you would have ever thought that Doc Rivers was going to out-coach Phil Jackson, I would have said 'you're out of your mind' but he got out-coached in the Finals last year. 


I think there is a lot of hubris on the part of Phil Jackson and a lot of arrogance and maybe that's how he's gotten to where he's gotten because he's a fantastic coach and a great manager of personalities, especially. But I think at times he's preoccupied with "I'm going to do it this way because this is the way I've always done it and I'm not going to change and we're just going to live and die with what I do" so that could be a weakness or a strength, depending on the way you think about it. 


With Van Gundy, I think he's a lot more flexible with how he operates. People were saying that the sky was falling when Jameer Nelson got hurt, right, if you recall back then. He was able to get Alston, plug him in, not really miss a beat almost. They're different players but I thought that was going to be the death knell for Orlando with being able to integrate a new guy after what, 2 months, or something and just plug him right in and not really change a thing.  


I don't think Phil Jackson would be that quick to be able to handle that, you know what I mean. 


I think most people, when they take a look at the general checklist - guards, forwards, centers, the coaches - most people presumably would give the checklist to the Lakers for coaches, but do you think that's not correct? Do you think the Magic do present ... wouldn't it be, at least, a push or maybe an advantage for the Magic, given that Van Gundy is a bit more flexible?

Yeah, I think it is a push right now. There are some things that Phil Jackson does better than him and he's obviously the master of the psychological game and motivation but Van Gundy is a fantastic coach. Probably one of the most underrated ones, at least before the playoffs were going on, in the league. Going into the season, I don't think anybody was really talking about him as a potential Coach of the Year candidate. I mean, he didn't win the Coach of the Year. 


Mike Brown, the Coach of the Year, got thoroughly outclassed by Van Gundy. It was embarrassing. If I were a Cavaliers fan, I would be embarrassed. 


How do you see Orlando stacking up against Los Angeles? Could you describe some of the matchup problems both teams may have to deal with in the series? 

Well, you talk about the length and the size of the swingmen, Lewis and Turkoglu, and they're going to be faced with Odom, someone that ... Cleveland didn't have an Odom-type that could defend and play multiple positions so I think that mitigates some of the changes between Cleveland ... which was basically take LeBron, surround him with some guys that can shoot and some guys who can rebound who are really not really great players and see what happens ... whereas with LA., you got Kobe, but then you also got Gasol, who's better than anybody in the frontcourt for Cleveland, and you also got Odom, who's if not better but at least more versatile than anybody Cleveland had so I don't think it's going to be as clear-cut a matchup problem as Orlando figured into Cleveland. 


I think Orlando matches up well ... point guard, obviously, because you talked about Fisher struggling and the triangle doesn't really care about point guards in a traditional sense, they just have them out there as shooters. Kobe is the best player in the series, but LeBron was the best player in the series when they played the Cavs and it didn't really even matter. 


The good news or the bad news, depending on how you look at it, is you don't even have to clog the lane against Kobe ... while he's capable taking it to the hole, he likes to take those mid-range shots. That's his bread and butter. When he gets hot from the mid-range, there's not much you can really do about it. You can throw 2 or 3 defenders ... there were times when J.R. Smith and some others guys, who are not really bad defenders ... I know that Denver sometimes gets a bad rap defensively. They had guys right up in his face and he was just knocking down crazy shots. There's always that factor that Kobe is probably more capable in the last second or the last minute of the game of just going into that Michael Jordan mode, where I'm going to score over whoever you have.


That's definitely an advantage that Los Angeles has that Cleveland didn't have is, what are you going to do against Kobe in the last seconds of the game, if it comes down to a situation where its close and as you saw, in the end of the Cleveland games, a lot of those games were close and only a few were really outside of the realm of a comeback at the end of a game, but at the same time, Orlando does have the best defense in the league. A lot of people, who don't follow the per possession numbers, don't know that.


I know that Dwight, many times, has said he's been really pissed off that the national media has turned a blind eye to Orlando just because it's not Kobe or LeBron, it's not a big-market team, Dwight is seen as a goofy and an affable player, and so on and so forth. 

He's seem more as a dunker and kind of a David Robinson-type, than a true superstar, but when he's doing what he did in Game 6, I mean you can't stop him. There's nothing you can do. He's just so big, and quick, and strong, and he dominates. It was interesting that the two #1 picks in 2003 and 2004 went up against each other in the Conference Finals and it's kind of, probably, the two best prospects we've had in the game in the past six or seven or eight years. 


I mean, Chris Paul was probably ... he wasn't really recognized at the time as being having the potential but LeBron was touted as being the next Michael Jordan since the time he was 14 years old and Dwight Howard ... I went to high school in the Atlanta area and he was a huge deal when he was in high school. It was like this guy is, if not the next Shaq, at least the next Hakeem or David Robinson or someone like that.


It seems that when Lamar Odom goes, so go the Lakers and they become an extremely difficult team to beat. How much of an impact do you see Odom having for Los Angeles, and do you think Orlando will be able to neutralize him a bit?

He's probably, other than Kobe, the most important player in the series. I mean, Cleveland didn't have anybody like him, who can defend against a wide range of positions. I don't really know what the conventional wisdom is with him. I think a lot of people thought that he was a failed superstar and how he's, kind of, a second banana, a third banana, and just a guy. But he's really good. If you look at the adjusted plus/minus numbers, I know they aren't the be all, end all numbers, but Lamar Odom has a huge impact. As you said, as he goes, when he plays well, everything goes right for the Lakers. 


I don't think he was playing that well early in the playoffs. That's was when they had their struggles and people chalked it up to effort. I think a lot of it was ... the Lakers did not take their opponents as seriously as they probably should have. I can't imagine anybody not taking the Rockets seriously. Artest is a damn good player. Odom is right up there in terms of impact so I think he's going to have the biggest impact on the defensive end by doing things that Cleveland didn't really have anybody that could do. Lamar Odom is 6'10'', he's versatile, he can play multiple positions so I'm not so sure, Bynum being out of it right now, that they wouldn't be just as well to bench him, start Gasol at the five, and Odom at the four, and see what happens. 


When you look at the roster dynamic of the Magic, it's an eclectic group of guys because they are so interchangeable. You alluded to this early, when Orlando lost Jameer Nelson, everybody thought that was it and that was a wrap. Credit Otis Smith for going out and trading for Rafer Alston, you plug him in, and there you go. Jameer and Rafer are two different players, with Jameer being the superior player. 

Spacing, probably more so for Orlando than any other team in the league, is the key to their offense. If they don't get that spacing and get their shooters camped out and have the teams respect that, then they're not going to be able to click with Howard inside. I mean, it's a great team. The more I watched the Conference Finals, I was like man ... this was the type of team I built in video games like NBA 2K or something like that, where there was one dominant big guy and surround him with shooters on the outside. I never really thought they could pull it off in real life so I've been impressed. The more I see, the more I like the Magic. 


When watching them play, from an advanced statistical perspective, it's a dream because you got your big guy. We always talk about the value of threes and how more teams are harping on the three-point shot because it's a very successful way of winning basketball games. I mean, take a look at Orlando, they have the perfect mix. They have the dominant big guy that can dominate in the paint and command double and triple teams but they also have shooters that can keep defenses honest. The beauty of the Magic's offense and what really makes it tick is the pick & roll. The pick & roll is the most lethal weapon that the Magic have because so many players can execute the pick & roll with Orlando. I can be Rafer/Dwight, Hedo/Dwight, Turkoglu/Lewis, it's endless. 

At that point, you're forced to pick your poison. You can switch, you can go under. It's just impossible to defend when they're doing well and you know, the Lakers are not as good defensively than Cleveland ... not by a long shot. Aside from the advantage of having Odom being able defend to some guys, I don't know how they're going to be able to stop that. Orlando didn't play as well in the regular season offensively as they have been during the playoffs but if they play like they did against Cleveland offensively, and with their defense, they're going to win. 


I look at the numbers, based on the point differential, which we know is flawed at times, for the most part ... over the course of the season and past seasons has proven to be a reliable predictor of the future. Even someone like yourself can't object to the idea that, in terms of point differential, the Lakers did better in past seasons than Orlando. On paper, they have more talent ... in terms of the aggregate talent, I think L.A. has an edge. It's not a huge edge but it's there. Kobe, like I said, is the best player in the series. I don't think anybody is going to be able to stop him. 


But at the same time, there's those things that don't happen on paper, which we're still trying to work out. Like the chemistry, like the way certain combination of players work together. That was, kind of, what we saw in the Conference Finals was that Orlando has great combination of players that work off each other, they got that great synergy with the pick & roll, like you said, with spreading the floor and dumping it to Dwight and seeing what happens after that. They can't really be accounted for. If we're talking intangibles, that's definitely an advantage for Orlando because there are times with L.A. ... there are times when Kobe willfully doesn't take command of the offense because he wants to show how egalitarian he is. It seems that he willfully passes up on situations. I think the Magic have the better chemistry than the Lakers do. 


Some of the intangibles, like what Hedo Turkoglu brings to the Magic, you can't track with numbers. He's a 6'10'' small forward that can handle the point. There's nothing, statistically, that can point that out. You just have to look for it. Even though the numbers may say Hedo is an average to an above-average player from a statistical standpoint, there's no denying how much of an importance he is to Orlando because he makes it all go. He makes the pick & roll work, he's able to space the floor, and there's just things that numbers can't show. There's where observation has to come into play. 

That's the thing. That's really why the holy grail is where we want to get ... in terms of being able to pick a player's impact that goes beyond the numbers. The more I really learn, over the process of time, adjusted plus/minus and really learn to replicate it myself, the more I think that's the wave of the future because you can potentially point out a lot of the things you're talking about, especially with combined with Synergy ... the video technology that breaks things down by types fo players. I can only dream of the situation where we can say the plus/minus of the Magic on plays in which Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkgolu run the pick & roll is x and when it's Rafer Alston, it's y. Based on the personnel, we can look at the numbers. 


Sample size is the great problem. I know we'd love to rack up tons of samples but you can't. We can't have guys locked in a gym and have them run the same play over and over again against the "the average opponent". I would love to do that, maybe one day when we get holographic technology, we can simulate it. We're not there yet. 


With your prediction, I know you've said Lakers in 6.

I probably should have said Lakers in 7. Now I feel like Orlando, the way they dismantled Cleveland, and the way L.A. still has that tendency to slack off at times, I should have said L.A. in 7 but what you're going to do. I'll stand by the 6, though. 


I saw Hollinger said L.A. 6. 


Yeah, he said L.A. in 6. Pelton said Lakers in 6. You're fine. You got people that know what they're talking about, so I definitely respect their prediction. I will say this, it's going to be three outcomes ... Magic in 6, Lakers in 6, or Lakers in 7. 

It's interesting, when we ran ... if you can recall, in some of the stuff we've been running in simulating the series. The away team, as the team that doesn't have the home-court advantage in the beginning of the series, has a greater probability of winning in 6 games than they do in 7, which seems like a weird circumstance because you would think the underdog would need as many games as possible to pull the upset. Because home court is so important in the NBA, if Orlando is able to win in L.A. at least once, if not twice, then they position themselves to win in 6 really more often than they would win in 7. That's the key to any series. 


It actually doesn't become more or less magnified, that was another thing that we find out, because the 2/3/2 format in the Finals is supposed to theoretically extend an underdog's series for ratings purposes. Stern didn't come out and say that, but we're all being real here, that's what it's about. It actually doesn't really change the underdog's probability of winning. You would think that it does, but the probability of winning a 7 games series in a 2/2/1/1/1 format is exactly the same as it is, at least when looking strictly at the probability of the formulas ... as it is from a 2/3/2 format, which is bizarre. I don't know if it works out that way in real life. 

Unfortunately, at Sports-Reference, we don't have playoff data, at least in terms of game-by-game box score data dating back past 1987, but we're working on it. We're trying to get other ones earlier than that. We'll have to run a study at some point  to see if that's actually true, but if you believe in the rules of probability, then it works out the same. It's the same equation. 


Part IV of my interview with Neil will be unveiled tomorrow. Stay tuned.