Commentary

PER Diem: May 12, 2009

Ranking the remaining seven playoff teams. Can anyone beat the Cavs?

Updated: May 12, 2009, 3:20 PM ET
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

LeBron JamesScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesAfter going 8-0 in the first two rounds, LeBron's Cavs appear to be heavily favored to win the title.

I've talked for much of the season about the renaissance in the Eastern Conference. In head-to-head play, the East had a better record than the West for the first time since the pilgrims landed, and three of the league's top four records belonged to Eastern Conference outfits.

So it is a bit jarring to do my playoff rankings today and find that, with one exception, the East hasn't reached nearly the heights we'd thought. Nearly every Western team still alive was peaking heading into the postseason, while most of the teams in the East had the opposite problem. As a result, the Western playoff gauntlet looks much, much tougher these days.

To showcase my point, it's time to bust out those playoff rankings. I rated the remaining seven teams in the postseason field in a method similar to my Hollinger Power Rankings, except with a little special sauce added.

First, I included only games since Feb. 10. Why then? Because between the injuries to Kevin Garnett, Andrew Bynum, Jameer Nelson and Tracy McGrady, that's when the landscape completely shifted for most of the remaining playoff teams; Dallas and Denver can also make the argument that they're very different teams than they were before the All-Star break, as can already-departed clubs like Chicago, Portland and San Antonio.

Second, I eliminated games in the final week that didn't mean anything, such as Cleveland's home loss to Philadelphia on the last day of the season. Didn't matter to them, so it's not going to matter to me either.

Finally, I included all the playoff games, with an adjustment for the opponent and home-court advantage.

The result? Midway through the second round, it appears that the top seed in the West (Los Angeles) has a much tougher road to the Finals than the top seed in the East, Cleveland -- as if the first two rounds weren't easy enough for the Cavs.

Let's take a closer look at the contenders, ranked by adjusted scoring margin (adjusted for opponent and home court, per the specs above):


7. Dallas (+4.12 points per game)
No surprise that the Mavs are seventh on this list; what is surprising is how close they are to the Magic and Celtics. Dallas played much better after the break than before it and performed well in its first-round dispatch of the Spurs as well. Even against the Nuggets, the Mavs haven't been terrible -- both losses in Denver were competitive going into the fourth quarter, and the series might be tied 2-2 right now if not for the unfortunate non-call at the end of Game 3.


6. Orlando (+4.41)
Um, yes, this surprised me, too. Orlando kept winning after losing Nelson, but they were doing it much less impressively. The Magic's average scoring margin in meaningful games after the break was only +3.9, and their playoff performance hasn't improved on that standard one iota. Even if you take out the three games before the Rafer Alston trade, the Magic are only +5.8, a far cry from the +8.5 the Magic posted in their first 50 games.

Orlando's playoff run didn't do much to dent that impression. Though it has mildly exceeded expectations in its first two playoff rounds, the Magic are staying alive mostly because they played a weak Philly team in the first round and drew the injury-riddled Celtics in the second.


5. Boston (+4.50)
Even Garnett-less, the Celtics have managed to hold up pretty well, and if they can reach the Eastern Conference finals it would be a pretty impressive title defense given all the injuries. Boston's first-round series against Chicago was a bit deceiving -- the Bulls were much better after the break than before, and despite the perceived closeness, the Celtics outscored Chicago by 30 points over the course of the series. My computer's expectation was only +21, so the series actually helped Boston's rating slightly.

This ranking is also interesting, of course, because it basically sees Boston and Orlando as being dead even. If so, the Celtics' home-court advantage in the seventh game could prove decisive; either way, the potential for another barn burner along the lines of the Chicago series seems high.


4. Houston (+6.44)
Five Western Conference teams played far better over the final weeks of the regular season than at any other time -- Houston, Denver, Portland, Dallas and the Lakers. Portland actually had the NBA's best point differential after Feb. 10, so for Houston to take the Blazers out in six games was hugely impressive from the computer's standpoint. (I actually didn't know this until I ran these numbers, but it makes me feel less bad about riding the Blazers' bandwagon so heavily entering the postseason).

Against another mighty opponent in Round 2, the Rockets have again held their own thus far. The loss of Yao Ming reduces their chances a bit -- I wrote yesterday that they played very well without him last season, but it's obviously a stretch to say he won't be missed -- but Houston has acquitted itself very nicely over the past several weeks, and one other data point tells us we shouldn't count the Rockets out just yet.


3. Los Angeles (+7.17)
What's worse -- Houston with Yao, or the Lakers playing without Lamar Odom and with the ghost of Andrew Bynum? L.A.'s second half of the season wasn't as good as its first, plainly, and the expected booster shot from the return of Bynum hasn't provided the expected results. Now, the Lakers are suddenly facing a best-of-three series with their third-best player possibly out, against an opponent who is peaking at exactly the right time.

L.A. is still a slight favorite based on scoring margin, but that's it -- a 0.73-point advantage on a neutral court. L.A. also has the crucial home-court advantage in its favor for a seventh game; in addition, it's possible Odom will play after all. Nonetheless, there is nothing to suggest the Lakers will have it easy in Round 2, and as of today they'd be the slimmest of favorites in the conference finals. Speaking of which ...


2. Denver (+7.50)
The Nuggets' defeat Monday night temporarily stopped their tidal wave of momentum while exposing the one chink in their armor -- frontcourt depth -- that might derail them in the conference finals. Minus Chris Andersen, Dallas repeatedly got to the basket and scored or drew fouls, which produced a wildly entertaining game but isn't a formula for extended playoff success.

Based on these ratings, if Denver were to play the Lakers in the conference finals, it's about as close to a dead heat as you can get -- though Denver would be favored on a neutral court, L.A. would be expected to outscore Denver by one point over the seven games thanks to its home-court advantage in the seventh game.

A Denver-Houston series wouldn't shape up as being quite as tight because of the Nuggets' home-court advantage in such a pairing, but it's still hardly decisive -- in that scenario, Denver would expect to outscore the Rockets by 10 points over seven games.


1. Cleveland (+9.12)
Welcome to the Cleveland Invitational, ladies and gentlemen. Yes, the Pistons had given up and the Hawks had injuries, but the fact is the Cavs have won eight straight playoff games by double figures. In this case it's a continuation of the Cavs' strong finish to the season, and it doesn't appear either Boston or Orlando has the goods to make them sweat much in a conference finals.

Cleveland also has home-court advantage going for it in the final two rounds, so at this point the Cavs have to be considered a heavy favorite to win the championship. They're playing the best basketball, have the best draw, have home-court and have the best player. They still have to play the games, of course, but the skids have already been greased. While the likes of Denver or L.A. could give them a tough fight in the Finals, at this point it appears that the only team that can beat Cleveland is Cleveland.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.