NBA Playoffs Preview: Contender or Pretender?

Each year, the NBA regular season brings fans around the world an abundance of excitement and drama. On a nightly basis, we’re treated to breathtaking highlights, thrilling finishes, a never-ending rumor mill, and memorable performances from the league’s stars. #ThisLeague just doesn’t miss.

But 82 games later, we’ve finally made it to what really matters. With the NBA playoffs set to tip-off Saturday, there’s only one question that needs to be answered:

Who has a shot at hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June?

In the end, the 16 teams that will compete for the championship can be separated into two categories: “Contenders” who have a legitimate chance to win it all, and “Pretenders” who had nice regular seasons but won’t be able to keep up in the heat of the playoffs. We set out to find the historical data points that can be most useful in deciphering which teams have the best chance at making a run, and which teams may be going fishing early.

We looked at data from the last seven NBA regular seasons to identify traits that have set recent Contenders apart from Pretenders. For simplicity, we defined a “Contender” as any team that advanced to the Conference Finals or beyond, giving us a pool of 28 Contenders to scrutinize. Then, we tested seven different criteria to see which ones can most distinctly separate the Contenders from the Pretenders based on regular-season performance. Each criterion was a different “flavor” of a team net rating (i.e. the amount of points by which a team outscored their regular-season opponents on a per-possession basis, as derived from Synergy’s PPP stats) – with various filters applied to the regular season possessions being considered. These were the seven types of net ratings we tested:

1. Overall net efficiency (including all regular season possessions, no filters)
2. The last 20 games of the regular season
3. Half-court possessions only
4. Possessions initiated from 1-on-1 actions only (Pick and Roll, Post-Up, Isolation)
5. Games versus. top-10 opponents
6. Excluding garbage time (i.e. Including possession with point margin less than 10)
7. Most-used lineup from each team

For each potential criterion, we tried to define the relevant “Contender Zone”, by setting a threshold that would include 75% (21 out of 28) of the Contenders from the last seven years. For example, 75% of the recent Contenders had an overall net efficiency of +3.45 points per possession or higher. Ideally, our Contender criterion would be sensitive (consistently identifying Contenders) and specific (rarely mistaking a Pretender for a Contender). Overall net rating is a pretty solid way to separate Contenders from Pretenders – but we were interested to see if we could find an even better litmus test.

Looking across all the criteria, the only 2021-22 teams to fall into the Contenders Zone by all 7 standards were the Phoenix Suns and the Boston Celtics, perhaps signaling our eventual finals matchup. However, neither team’s road will be easy, as the Jazz, Heat and Sixers all qualified in six out of the seven criteria.

Somewhat surprisingly, the defending champion Bucks landed as Pretenders using five out of the seven approaches, while the team with the second-best record in the league, the Grizzlies, fell short in six out of seven. Both teams certainly have the talent to compete for a title, but recent history may not be on their side in 2022.

Here’s a deeper look at a few of the most interesting findings:

Overall Net Efficiency:

The first measurement we looked at was overall point margin per 100 offensive possessions, or a team’s overall net efficiency. The threshold to determine the “Contender Zone” was found to be +3.45 points per 100 possessions. 30 teams since 2014-15 that did not eventually make the Conference Finals finished the regular season with a net efficiency at or better than +3.45, meaning 16% of all Pretenders would actually appear to be Contenders based on this metric alone. The zone above the +3.45 mark did, however, include all seven of the eventual champions. So, while it may not be the best criteria to weed out the Pretenders, it still may identify one checkbox necessary to win it all.

There were six teams that finished the 2021-22 regular season with a net efficiency above +3.45, the Suns, Celtics, Warriors, Jazz, Heat and Sixers. The Mavericks and Bucks just missed the cut.

Excluding Garbage Time:

Next, we looked exclusively at possessions where the point margin in the game was less than 10 to exclude possessions during garbage time or blow outs. This proved to be an effective criterion for identifying Contenders. The threshold was found to be +5.00 points per 100 possessions, with two teams tying that mark, meaning 79%, rather than 75%, of the conference finalists since 2014-15 made it into the Contender Zone. On the flip side, only 10% of all non-conference finalists finished the season with a net efficiency of +5.00 or better when excluding garbage time minutes. This was the lowest percentage of Pretenders that qualified for the Contender Zone out of all seven tests (making this the most specific test of the seven we tried). All seven eventual champions since 2014-15 also landed above the +5.00 mark.

In other words, it’s the teams that can thrive in highly contested affairs that tend to have the most postseason success. Playoff games are often thrilling battles, with multiple momentum shifts, lead changes, and turning points. It’s in the thick of those moments that the best teams separate themselves. Do you have the timely shot-making to stretch a 6-point lead to 11? Can you get a big stop to halt an opposing team’s run? Can you hit free throws down the stretch? These are the type of the make-or-break situations that can guide a deep run or send a team packing early.

The Suns, Heat, Sixers, Jazz, Warriors, Celtics and Bucks all fall into the Contender Zone in 2021-22 based on this criterion. Phoenix leads the way in this category by a wide margin, finishing the regular season with a +10.1 net efficiency with garbage time excluded. That number is good for sixth among all conference finals teams since 2014, only trailing four different Warriors teams and the 2015 Atlanta Hawks.

1-on-1 Actions:

In the playoffs, the game typically slows down as teams rely more heavily on their primary ball handlers and shot creators to drive their offenses. We looked at whether net efficiency on plays initiated by a ball handler or post-up is a good indicator of deep playoff success. This criterion consisted of all possessions derived from pick and rolls, isolations and post-ups, including both individual scoring and passes out of these play types.

The threshold for the Contender zone was found to be +4.25 points per 100 such possessions. There were 28 Pretenders (15%) that qualified for the Contender zone based on this threshold, slightly fewer than the number for overall net efficiency. In other words, looking only at these play types might be a slightly better determinant of the eventual conference finalists. Six out of the seven champions landed in the Contender zone, with the lone exception being the 2021 Bucks.

Seven teams: the Suns, Celtics, Warriors, Jazz, Sixers, Mavericks and Hawks all finished the 2021-22 regular season with a net efficiency above +4.25 on these 1-on-1 actions, with Phoenix, Utah and Philadelphia leading the way.

The Suns’ offense is fueled by the two-headed pick and roll monster of Chris Paul and Devin Booker, as well as the efficient post-up game of DeAndre Ayton. On the other end, possible Defensive Player of the Year Mikal Bridges is one of the best 1-on-1 defenders in the NBA, capable of shutting down a healthy variety of scorers. The Jazz excel in this criterion because of their pick and roll machine, which scored a league-best 1.002 points per pick and roll possession, while the Sixers’ offense features two of the game’s best isolation and post-up engines in James Harden and Joel Embiid.

Half-Court Possessions Only:

Similar to the above criteria, this test also attempts to mirror the playoff style, which features a slower pace and a greater importance on half-court execution. Removing transition possessions doesn’t do much in terms of dividing Contenders and Pretenders, as 20% of the non-conference finalists still finished with a half-court net efficiency above the threshold of +3.0. However, this restriction is noteworthy because it results in one of three criteria in which all seven champions since 2014-15 are in the Contender Zone, along with overall net efficiency and excluding garbage time.

The teams with the highest net efficiencies in the half court this season were the Celtics, Suns and Jazz, who finished at +8.29, +8.22, and +7.25 respectively. Four other teams finished this season above the threshold of +3.0: the Warriors, Sixers, Heat and Mavericks. Is the future NBA Champion in that group?


The trends found in these seven criteria can help us predict some of the action we’ll see this spring and will certainly give us some things to watch out for as the playoffs roll on, but by no means do they tell the whole story. Take the 2019 playoffs, for example. Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Final series between the Raptors and the Sixers was tied at 90 in the final seconds before Kawhi Leonard’s fadeaway jumper hit the rim an improbable four times and dropped in, sending Toronto to the next round. In the Conference Finals, the Raptors needed double-overtime to take game 3 and avoid going down 3-0 to the Bucks, a deficit that has proven insurmountable throughout NBA history. Toronto went on to defeat Milwaukee, and then knocked off the Warriors in six games to claim the franchise’s first NBA Title.

All of that alludes to the fact that the NBA playoffs are unpredictable. They so often come down to one or two bounces, timely runs, or momentum-shifting moments. It’s what makes them so dramatically appealing, and why NBA fans will be glued to their couches for the next two months.

Who will be crowned the 2022 NBA Champion? Based on these carefully considered measurements, our best guess would be the Suns or the Celtics, but we won’t know for sure until the final buzzer sounds, so it’s probably best to just tune in and enjoy the show.


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