- Henry Abbott, TrueHoop, NBA
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The concept is simple: Get a bunch of real-deal hard-core basketball quantitative analysts together, and have them pick playoff winners, in a battle for pride. Against my mom.
The "Moneyball" movement in basketball has been picking up steam, which is great for analysts everywhere, but maybe a little tough on the Smackdown roster. The 2007 and 2008 champion, Basketball-Reference.com's Justin Kubatko, was taken out of the mix thanks to the work he does for the Trail Blazers (although his Basketball-Reference protégé, Neil Paine, is now in the Smackdown mix). Basketball Prospectus' Kevin Pelton, a mainstay, also works for the Pacers now, but they're nice enough to let him hang around.
Jeff Ma also consults for the Blazers sometimes. Ma is the notable whiz kid who famously led that MIT blackjack team on the mission that became the book "Bringing Down the House" and the movie "21."
Meanwhile, 2009 champion David Berri is all over the Web promoting his book about the foolish mistakes of professional sports executives. I've had a few e-mails from NBA front-office people eager to see him get his comeuppance.
Also in the mix is adjusted plus/minus expert Stephen Ilardi. And one contender is almost certainly the biggest name in hoops stat geekery: ESPN.com's John Hollinger.
This year, he'll be keeping an eye out for Haralabos Voulgaris. For many years Voulgaris made a tidy living using some of the world's most sophisticated quant analysis to beat oddsmakers. Now he has stopped gambling in the hopes of finding employment with an NBA team.
Welcome to the fourth annual TrueHoop Stat Geek Smackdown.
The rules are the same: Based on stats, hunches and anything else, each expert predicts the outcome of every playoff series as the rounds unfold. Each correctly picked series is worth five points. Correctly predicting the number of games is worth two additional points. The winner gets something bizarre and arbitrary to be determined later.
TRUEHOOP'S STAT GEEK SMACKDOWN SCOREBOARD
TRUEHOOP'S STAT GEEK SMACKDOWN SCOREBOARD: FIRST ROUND
Series Predictions (click on the links below to see picks for each matchup)
NBA FINALS: BOSTON CELTICS VS. LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Smackdown Breakdown: Celtics-Lakers
The Smackdwon, like the playoffs, have been all about the Celtics. Almsot nobody believed in them a few weeks ago, and yet here they are in the Finals.
One person who believed in them was Jeff Ma, and because of that, his title is already secured.
Everyone else is playing for second place, and in that the Finals round of the Smackdown can be a funny thing.
By and large, the picks in this contest are a reflection of the data. Most of the picks are heavily influenced by offensive and defensive efficiency, homecourt advantage, and maybe a few other ingredients like injuries and Vegas betting lines.
But it's about winning the contest, and in the Finals, some picks are made for strategic reasons within the competition.
Neil Paine's pick is all about that. "Do I think the Lakers will really win? Yes. But I also know that it's impossible for the cellar-dwellers (Bob & Henry's Mom) to tie me even if I get 0 points and they get the full 7 ... Meanwhile, if I make a correct pick and neither Hollinger, Berri nor Ilardi do, I can tie Hollinger for third place. So I'm going to do something really dastardly: I'm going to pick the team those three are unlikely to pick -- based on their previous picks -- since the reward (possibly tying for third) is far greater than the risk (if it fails, I still can't finish any worse than I am right now).
"That means I'm picking the Celtics to win it all (being a rabid Boston fan who watched nearly every C's game this season on League Pass just makes this a bonus). And why five games? Every set of numbers I run says that if the Celtics win, the most likely scenario will involve them taking advantage of the Finals' 2-3-2 format and capturing the series in 5 games."
Kevin Pelton is picking the Lakers, but with a lot of respect for the Celtics: "By now," he explains, "I'm convinced Boston is legitimate and that we didn't see the true Celtics team during the regular season (at least the last four months of it). The question then becomes whether that is enough to beat a Lakers team that is playing some pretty fair basketball itself and holds homecourt advantage.
"I think we've got a good chance of seeing the classic NBA Finals we anticipated when these two teams met two years ago and Boston won going away, which would be nice given how forgettable most recent Finals series have been. Still, I'm picking the Lakers to win it. I like the matchups for them at the defensive end of the floor. If they can hold Rondo in check, Boston may have a difficult time consistently scoring. The Celtics will cause their own issues with their defense, but even though they were less impressive in the regular season, I think the Lakers have better-rounded talent to beat the Boston defense than Cleveland and Orlando, who were ultimately forced to rely on flawed options.
"There is also, I must admit, a tiny bit of doubt about how long the Celtics can keep this up. They're coming off two difficult series and are playing Rondo 41 minutes a night and Allen and Pierce 38 apiece during the postseason. The Lakers aren't much more reliant on their bench, but the only player for whom fatigue should be any kind of an issue is Bryant. If this series goes the distance, that could work to the Lakers' favor."
David Berri is wrestling with how to assess the Celtics. He writes on his blog: "The model I employ considers only two issues: The efficiency differential of the two teams and who has homecourt advantage. This model led to my victory last year, and has correctly chosen the winning team in eleven of the fourteen series this year. And if we used this model for the NBA Finals, the Lakers would be expected to win in six.
"But the Boston Celtics are the Lakers' opponent. And twice the Celtics have won a series when the model said otherwise. In fact, the Celtics have defeated the two best teams from the NBA's regular season in the playoffs. So now I have a choice. I can stick with the model and pick the Lakers. Or I can remember the words of Stephen Colbert. In discussing George W. Bush, Colbert observed sarcastically that Bush "... believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man's beliefs never will."
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS: (4) BOSTON CELTICS VS. (2) ORLANDO MAGIC
Smackdown Breakdown: Celtics-Magic
Jeffrey Ma was the only contestant to pick the Celtics in the last round, and it served him well, so he's not stopping now: "Have to stick with the Celts here in a series where I expect the away team to have a lot of success. Orlando has not been tested yet this playoffs and I don't see its jump shooters making quite so many shots this time around."
Kevin Pelton isn't buying that. "No matter how well the Celtics have played in the postseason," he says, "the Magic are the better team. That was true during the regular season, during head-to-head matchups and even in the playoffs, given how Orlando has swept through the first two rounds. The Celtics' experience, toughness and ability to ugly up a game will make this a lengthy, hard-fought series before the Magic repeat as East champions."
"Boston's recent impressive run has me wondering whether it has set the clock back to Christmas Day," explains Paine, "when they beat the Magic at Amway Arena to take a share of the league's best record. Still, Orlando's opponent-adjusted efficiency differential in the regular-season (+7.12) was the NBA's best, dwarfing the Celtics' +3.37; the team with the better mark in that category traditionally wins the conference finals more than 70% of the time, and 78% of the time when the difference is as big as 3.75 in one team's favor (as is the case here). Boston will put up a good fight, but unless the Celtics can consistently play dominant D like they did on Christmas (and in the final three games of the Cleveland series), they can't take four of seven from Orlando."
"The Celtics may have reclaimed their Ubuntu mojo," writes Ilardi, "but the Magic (unlike the Cavs) simply have too many different weapons for Boston to contend with."
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS: (3) PHOENIX SUNS VS. (1) LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Smackdown Breakdown: Suns-Lakers
Jeffrey Ma, in a tie with John Hollinger for the lead heading into the conference finals, has a fairly conventional view: "As much as I like this Suns team, I just think the Lakers are too big."
Neil Paine has news. The Suns are bigger than the Lakers. Really! "Much has been made of the Lakers' size advantage," he writes, "but their minute-weighted average height in these playoffs (79.13 in) is actually less than Phoenix's (79.22)! No, this series won't be won because the Lakers tower over the Suns, it will be won by L.A. simply because the Lakers are better. They took 3 of 4 from Phoenix during the regular season and were especially dominant at Staples, where they outscored the Suns by 19.5 ppg.
"The key will obviously be Phoenix's defense -- the Suns were a weak defensive team during the regular season (23rd in defensive efficiency), but they did a great job of executing a game plan and stifling the Spurs' scorers in the last round. The only time the Suns beat L.A. this season, they held the Lakers to 1.06 pts/possession by giving Kobe his but taking away Gasol and Odom; meanwhile, L.A. scored more than 1.15 pts/possession in all three of its wins. Phoenix must prove it can consistently get stops or it will not win this series, because the Lakers are not a team you can get into a shootout with and win."
"If we look at just the second half of the season, the Suns were much better than the Lakers," writes David Berri. "And despite the Lakers' homecourt advantage, the second-half numbers say Suns in six. But the Lakers played much of the second half without Andrew Bynum. If we look at the first half -- when Bynum played -- the Lakers were the better team. Bynum is now playing, but he is hurt. So the problem someone has forecasting this series is guessing how much a hurt Bynum can contribute. There is some evidence he can help, and some evidence he won't. I am going to guess that Bynum will be able to play and do something against the Suns. And if that is the case, I think the Lakers can force a seventh game against Phoenix. Since that game will be played in L.A., I am going to take the Lakers to advance to the NBA Finals."
Adds Ilardi: "The Suns have been impressive this postseason, and the two teams are roughly even on paper (adjusted differential), but the Lakers' homecourt advantage should prove decisive."
ROUND 2: (4) BOSTON CELTICS VS. (1) CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
Smackdown Breakdown: Celtics-Cavs
"The question," says Berri, "is if Boston can replicate what we saw in the first half of the season. If that happens, this series can go to seven [and Boston might win]. If that isn't true, Cleveland takes it in four or five."
Paine writes, "Because their second half was so lackadaisical, the Celtics are better than the full regular-season numbers would have you believe. But the Cavaliers were consistently one of the two best teams in the NBA all season long, not just in fits and starts."
Pelton says, "The Celtics showed they have something left in the tank during their impressive win over Miami, and their frontline matches up well with Cleveland. Will that be enough to overcome LeBron James and company, presuming he's healthy? Probably not, but it should be enough for Boston to make things interesting."
Ilardi says, "Obviously, if LeBron's elbow injury turns out to be more serious than he's letting on -- e.g., if he ends up having to shoot left-handed for much of the series -- all bets are off. With a reasonably healthy LeBron, however, the Cavs are clear favorites: They have an adjusted differential edge of plus-2.1 (a margin that's arguably much higher in light of the midseason acquisition of Antawn Jamison and the resting of key starters down the stretch), not to mention the home-court advantage."
Ma is the outlier and, as it happens, a Celtics fan. "This is a total homer pick," he writes, "but I do like the way the Celts came out in the first round and I like their return to defense. I don't think any of the Cavs point guards can guard Rajon Rondo and as long as LeBron's injury affects his jump shot I think the Cavs will have trouble scoring. If Ray Allen can hit his open looks and KG can score enough, I honestly think the Celts can pull off the upset here."
ROUND 2: (5) UTAH JAZZ VS. (1) LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Smackdown Breakdown: Jazz-Lakers
"Point differential predicted the two upsets that transpired in the first round of the West playoffs, and Utah has a superior differential to the Lakers," says Pelton. "However, the difference is not really large enough to overcome homecourt advantage. Add in the fact that the Lakers have historically played well against the Jazz, including a 3-1 advantage in the regular season, and I think the Lakers are indeed the favorites -- if not prohibitive ones."
Ilardi thinks Jazz injuries are a big factor. "With both teams at full strength on a neutral court, the Jazz would have a slight edge," he says, "but the Lakers' homecourt edge and injuries to Utah's Mehmet Okur and Andrei Kirilenko (who may return, but won't be at full strength) tip the series in favor of LA."
"Utah actually had the better adjusted scoring margin during the regular season, +5.33 to +4.78," says Paine, "but the Lakers' homecourt advantage and ongoing questions about Andrei Kirilenko's health should give L.A. the edge, albeit a slight one."
Berri also thinks the Lakers will win a close series, even though the Jazz were convincing against the Nuggets. "Despite what I just saw, I still think the loss of Kirilenko weakens the Jazz," he says.
(7) SAN ANTONIO SPURS VS. (3) PHOENIX SUNS
Smackdown Breakdown: Spurs-Suns
"The history between these two teams makes for a fun storyline entering the series, but should the Spurs' past playoff success tell us anything about the outcome? I suspect not," says Pelton. "This series is close enough that I would probably be inclined to pick whichever team had homecourt advantage."
Paine says: "The Suns may have homecourt advagtage, but San Antonio was the better team during the regular season, and its series win over Dallas was more impressive than the Suns' uneven victory over the injury-riddled Blazers."
"Homecourt advantage is the issue," says Berri. "Before the season started I would have favored San Antonio. But Phoenix did play better this season. And Phoenix has homecourt. So I am taking Phoenix in seven."
ROUND 2: (3) ATLANTA HAWKS VS. (2) ORLANDO MAGIC
Smackdown Breakdown: Hawks-Magic
"Despite the Hawks' solid regular season," says Pelton, "every indicator points to the Magic winning with relative ease. Orlando has a superior point differential, was far stronger in the opening round of the playoffs and won the season series 3-1 -- those three wins coming by an average of 19 points and the loss by two points at Philips Arena."
"The Magic have a 6.5-point-per-game advantage at home against the Hawks, while the two are evenly matched when playing in Atlanta. Homecourt confers an advantage of roughly 3.2 points per game on average," says Ilardi. "If the Hawks maintain their focus, they could make this a long, interesting series, but I don't expect one."
Berri says it's "hard to have much confidence in an Atlanta team that struggled so much against a weakened Milwaukee team."
Paine points out: "Atlanta's lone win over the Magic this season came by two points when it held Orlando, a team that averaged 1.114 regular-season points per possession, to an uncharacteristic 0.943 points per possession. They'll have to do the same in every game of this series, because in their other three meetings the Magic eviscerated the Hawks at both ends, including holding Atlanta's second-ranked offense under one point per possession all three times. This is a second seed vs. a third seed, but this series looks like a mismatch."
(8) CHICAGO BULLS VS. (1) CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
Smackdown Breakdown: Bulls-Cavs
"Ignore the Cavs' LBJ-less April 8 loss," Paine writes. "With the best player in basketball wreaking havoc again for Cleveland, this is a pretty sizable mismatch. Bulls are barely a speed bump along Cavs' road to Round 2."
"Cleveland has a roughly eight points per game edge in adjusted team efficiency," Ilardi writes, "which actually underestimates the Cavs' true strength (as they rested key players down the stretch). This should be a Hobbesian series: nasty, brutish, and short."
"The only real chance Chicago has of sneaking a game or two in this series is if Cleveland struggles some trying to get Shaquille O'Neal back into the rotation," Voulgaris writes. "If I were Cleveland I'd keep O'Neal in mothballs and trot him out there in the conference finals against Orlando."
(7) CHARLOTTE BOBCATS VS. (2) ORLANDO MAGIC
Smackdown Breakdown: Bobcats-Magic
"Orlando was the best team in the NBA this season (according to efficiency differential), and in the second half its differential was 13.1 (that's a mark similar to what the Bulls posted in 1995-96)," Berri writes. "Orlando should advance easily."
"Orlando has the sharpest coach in the league, the best defensive player in the league and seems to understand better than most that a 3 is worth more than a 2," Voulgaris writes. "The lone advantage Charlotte might have in this series is Gerald Wallace vs. Rashard Lewis. Unfortunately for Wallace, after getting by Lewis he'll be faced with Dwight Howard in the paint."
"Congrats to the Bobcats for their first playoff berth," Paine writes. "But they can't hang with the dominant Magic, who led the entire league in opponent-adjusted scoring margin (edging Cleveland in the season's final week)."
"Orlando routinely destroyed the opposition down the homestretch this season (net point differential of over 12 points per game)," Ilardi writes, "and appears poised to ride its considerable momentum to a first-round sweep."
(6) MILWAUKEE BUCKS VS. (3) ATLANTA HAWKS
Smackdown Breakdown: Bucks-Hawks
"Even without Andrew Bogut, the Bucks' defense has been stout enough that Milwaukee should be able to find a win or two in this series," Pelton writes. "Winning the whole thing, however, seems too much to ask -- especially after the Hawks went into the Bradley Center and won last week."
"I'd have made this series near a pick 'em on a neutral floor if Andrew Bogut were healthy," Voulgaris writes. "Unfortunately, he isn't, and Atlanta has home-court advantage. Milwaukee should look to go small in this series playing Ersan Ilyasova at the 5 when Kurt Thomas comes off the floor. If they do that and shoot the 3 ball well they have a chance of making this a fun series."
"On the basis of adjusted net efficiency," Ilardi writes, "the Hawks have less than a three-points-per-game edge. But the loss of Bogut (the Bucks' best player on the basis of adjusted plus-minus) renders this a much more lopsided series. The Bucks might just be able to squeak out one win at home, but I doubt it."
(5) MIAMI HEAT VS. (4) BOSTON CELTICS
Smackdown Breakdown: Heat-Celtics
"This is the hardest series to forecast in the Eastern Conference," Berri says. "If we go with second-half numbers, the Heat should be favored. But I am going to stick with each team's differential for the season (even if I think that exaggerates the quality of the Celtics today). Of all my Eastern Conference picks, this one I would expect to be wrong."
"Boston has only a 1.5 points-per-game edge in adjusted net efficiency, and it faded badly down the stretch as the Heat surged," Ilardi says. "Nevertheless, the aging Celts trio of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett will benefit from the extended rest heading into the series, and should render Boston a more formidable playoff team than indicated by its regular-season record."
"Would you believe," Pelton asks, "the Celtics were the only team to sweep their first-round opponent in the regular season? Two of those games took place after Boston was first hit by injuries, so it's not entirely an artifact of the Celtics' strong start that seems decades ago. If Boston can contain Dwyane Wade, it should be able to survive this series, even if it's not pretty."
"Just how good is Dwyane Wade? Take a look at his supporting cast and get back to me," Voulgaris writes. "Miami basically played playoff basketball all season -- really minimizing possessions and protecting the ball. As bad as Boston has looked this year, unless Udonis Haslem can shoot around 70 percent on wide-open midrange 2s after Wade is doubled on the high screen roll, it'll be awfully tough for Miami to win."
"I just think this is a good matchup for the Celts," Ma writes. "Time to see if their season-long performance was disinterest, or age."
(8) OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER VS. (1) LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Smackdown Breakdown: Thunder-Lakers
"The Lakers," Voulgaris writes, "are probably the worst top seed the West has seen in a number of years. They are probably at best the third- or fourth-best team in their conference. Luckily for them they are playing an extremely young Thunder team that may have some trouble adjusting to the playoffs. OKC has a decided advantage at the PG position, and although Kevin Durant is by far their most valuable player, the play of Russell Westbrook and James Harden will likely decide the series. If Westbrook can abuse Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown (as he should) then this could and should be a long, tough series for the Lakers."
"Only four playoff teams posted a lower efficiency differential than the Lakers in the second half of the season," Berri writes. "But Oklahoma City was one of those four (the other three were Boston, Charlotte, and Chicago). So the Lakers -- even with Bynum out -- should advance. After the first round, though, life will only get harder for the Lakers."
Pelton says "Oklahoma City's defense, so stout most of the year, has slipped lately. In order to make up for that, the Thunder will need a big series from Russell Westbrook. It's a favorable matchup, but Westbrook has struggled in April."
Ilardi says there are two reasons this series won't be all that close: "(1) Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum will benefit from extended rest heading into the series; and (2) OKC has played hard on virtually every possession this season -- in contrast to many of its opponents; its regular-season efficiency might overestimate its strength versus other teams under playoff conditions."
(7) SAN ANTONIO SPURS VS. (2) DALLAS MAVERICKS
Smackdown Breakdown: Spurs-Mavs
"I think," Ma says, "this is the matchup the Spurs wanted."
On the other hand, it's not the worst news for the Mavericks. "The good news for the Mavs: They drew the second seed and have home-court advantage versus any West team not named the Lakers. The bad news? They face one of the top three teams in the conference in the first round. I think most would agree that the Spurs are one of the hotter teams in the West at this point. This series should be a good example of why the NBA is a matchup league and not a power-ranking league. Dallas' strengths match up pretty closely with the Spurs' weaknesses."
"This is a very tough series to call," Berri writes. "Dallas has home court. But San Antonio was the better team -- in terms of differential -- the entire season. I am going to give the edge to San Antonio, although my call requires that the Spurs win the last game of the series in Dallas."
Paine says the Spurs have "arguably the two best all-around players in the series in Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan."
"Dallas is not nearly as good as its record might suggest, as indicated by its rather mediocre team efficiency (only +2.72 points per game)," Ilardi writes. "In contrast, the Spurs have been outscoring opponents by over seven points per game down the stretch with a healthy Manu leading the way. They should be strong enough to overcome the Mavs' home-court edge."
(6) PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS VS. (3) PHOENIX SUNS
Smackdown Breakdown: Blazers-Suns
"Phoenix has been red-hot over the final 20+ games of the season (outscoring opponents by over 10 points per game)," Ilardi writes, who thinks the Blazers "may be lucky to eke out one win at home."
"Without Brandon Roy," Voulgaris explains, "it'll be extremely tough for the Blazers to win more than two games in this series. The acquisition of Marcus Camby has really helped Portland, but it is facing a very good team that is playing exceptionally well. The main weakness on this Phoenix squad is at center, but Portland doesn't really have anyone to exploit that too much."
"Strictly by the numbers," Pelton writes, "this is the series most likely to produce an upset, in large part because the Blazers took the season series 2-1. Brandon Roy's injury throws that for a bit of a loop, however. While Portland beat the Suns in Phoenix without Roy, his absence will make things more difficult on offense for the Blazers, and they'll need to score to keep up with the Suns."
"Amare Stoudemire is finally playing like the dominant force he should be," Ma says. "The Blazers just don't have enough offense to run with this Suns team."
(5) UTAH JAZZ VS. (4) DENVER NUGGETS
Smackdown Breakdown: Jazz-Nuggets
"If we look at the entire season, Utah posted a slightly higher differential than the Nuggets," Berri writes. "But Denver has home court, so it gets the nod. If we focus on the second-half numbers, though, I would pick Utah. Then again, Utah has two key players who are hurt. Then again, Denver may not have a healthy Kenyon Martin. Then again, Martin really isn't that productive. Then again oh heck, I am picking the Nuggets in seven. But this is a toss-up (then again, maybe it isn't)."
Ilardi wrestled with his Denver pick: "In light of the many nagging injuries to key players -- Kenyon Martin, Carlos Boozer, Andrei Kirilenko, Mehmet Okur -- this is a ridiculously difficult series to project. At full strength, Utah is the slightly better team (an advantage of about 1.5 ppg, and an even larger advantage based on recent play); however, Denver has the home-court advantage, it won the season series 3-1 and it's a bit less banged up heading into the playoffs."
"This is a tough series for me to pick," Voulgaris says, "mainly because I am somewhat in denial regarding just how much a bench coach is worth. Karl coached the Nuggets all year; they are playing a system he installed. Adrian Dantley has been a longtime assistant under Karl. How important could in-game adjustments and lineup-shuffling be? When you go from Karl to Dantley, apparently very important. Denver can and should win this series, whether it will is another story."
Pelton writes: "This series is similar on paper to San Antonio-Dallas in that the higher-seeded team won the regular-season series but has the weaker point differential. What makes the Nuggets seemingly riper for upset is the way the team has played since Kenyon Martin went down and George Karl left the bench. Martin is back now, but limited, and the thin Denver frontcourt will struggle to cover for him."
David Berri is an associate professor of economics at Southern Utah University and lead author of "The Wages of Wins."
John Hollinger writes for ESPN.com. He created the Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and several other statistical measures.
Stephen Ilardi is a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Kansas, a former statistical consultant to the KU men's basketball team under Roy Williams and an expert on adjusted plus/minus.
Neil Paine is the lead blogger for Basketball-Reference.com, where he works for two-time Smackdown champion Justin Kubatko. No pressure.
Kevin Pelton writes for Basketball Prospectus and moderates the APBRmetrics forum for statistical analysis discussion. He also covers the WNBA's Seattle Storm for wnba.com and consults for the Indiana Pacers.
Haralabos Voulgaris built one of the most powerful databases in sports, which he once used to gamble on basketball. He has stopped betting to pursue a career in an NBA front office. He'll replace Sandy Weil in the Smackdown.
My mom: She hasn't watched all that much NBA since "JeRomeo" Kersey retired.
Welcome to Year 3 of the TrueHoop Stat Geek Smackdown.