So after opining last week on how the Braves' playoff struggles affect the way that I view this Hawks team, now it's time to pivot and make the case for why the Hawks won't make us miserable in May and June the way the Braves typically did in October. In other words, this is column where I talk myself into being optimistic. About an Atlanta sports team. In the playoffs.
1. The NBA playoffs are less random than the MLB playoffs.
A great baseball team usually wins a little more than 60% of its games. (100-62 translates to a .617 winning percentage.) A great basketball team usually wins about 75% of its games. (62-20 translates to a .756 winning percentage.) This stands to reason, as baseball is a low-scoring game in which a superior team can easily lose a game based on a variety of factors that have nothing to do with skill. Basketball is a high-scoring game in which a superior team will generally prevail. In other words, variance is higher in baseball. This is bad when your baseball team goes 104-58, as the '93 Braves did before losing the NLCS to the Phillies. This is good when your basketball team is on pace for a 66-16 record.
2. Playing at home is a bigger advantage in basketball.
Based on the fact that home teams in MLB win 53.9% of their games, while home teams in the NBA win 60.5%, it's fairly clear that playing big playoff games at home is a bigger deal in basketball. Jon Bois reached a similar conclusion when he crunched some numbers in 2011 and found that the effect of home court advantage in the NBA is almost twice that of MLB. The explanation for the existence of home court advantage, as described by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim in Scorecasting (see the first link in this section), is the effect of crowds on referees:
With the National Basketball Association, they detailed the following: "Home teams shoot more free throws than away teams-between 1 and 1.5 more per game. Why? Because away teams are called for more fouls, particularly shooting fouls. Away teams also are called for more turnovers and more violations."
Also, It turns out that offensive and loose ball fouls go the home team's way at twice the rate of other personal fouls. We can also look at fouls that are more valuable, such as those that cause a change of possession. These fouls are almost four times more likely to go the home team's way than fouls that don't cause a change of possessionThe chance of a visiting player getting called for traveling is 15 percent higher than it is for a home team player."
"Referee bias could well be the main reason for home court advantage in basketball. And if the refs call turnovers and fouls in the home team's favor, we can assume they make other biased calls in favor of the home team that we cannot see or measure."
By virtue of being an indoor sport, basketball crowds are louder than baseball crowds (the roof traps the decibels) and the fans are closer to the floor (and therefore, the referees). Thus, it would stand to reason that basketball refs would be more affected by cheering and booing than baseball umps. Keep that in mind when the Hawks play a big playoff game at Philips this spring.
3. Unlike the Hawks, the Braves forfeited one of their big advantages in the playoffs.
How did the Braves win 14 straight divisional titles? Ask most fans of the team and the first two words out of their mouths will be "starting pitching." The Braves had consistently excellent rotation depth, which meant that for 162 games over six months, they would trot out a quality starter for just about every game. In the playoffs, with rotations shortened, the Braves' pitching depth became a wasted asset. Force the Braves to play an opponent in an eleven-game series taking place over 12 days and Atlanta would have had a massive advantage because their fourth and fifth starters were typically much better than those of an opponent. Change the test to five games in seven days and the advantage goes away.
Take, for example, the 2002 Braves. That team went 101-59 and lost in the first round of the playoffs to the 95-66 San Francisco Giants. Home teams went 2-3 in that series, which illustrates the point that home field advantage does not matter much in baseball. The Braves' fourth starter that year was Damian Moss, whose ERA+ was 122. The Giants' fourth starter was Livan Hernandez, whose ERA+ was 89. In other words, the Braves' fourth starter was significantly better than league average, while the Giants' fourth starter was worse. Hernandez was only forced to start one game in the NLDS; Moss didn't pitch at all. (More on that in the next section.)
Unlike the Braves, the Hawks won't be checking their assets at the door when the playoffs start. The team plays the San Antonio Spurs style, a point that LeBron James noted immediately when the Hawks gave the Heat all they could handle early last season. As Danny Chau put it, "there just hasn't been much of an argument against the Hawks as a viable contender ... when a team is consistently identified as 'Spurs East,' validity is implied." There's no reason to think that Mike Budenholzer will be quoting Bill Beane's "my sh*t doesn't work in the playoffs" line because Coach Bud's sh*t has worked for years.
Additionally, playoff baseball (unlike basketball) is played in different conditions than the regular season. The weather is colder, which favors power pitchers. It's no accident that of the Braves' three Hall of Fame pitchers, John Smoltz - the hardest thrower of the three - had the most success in October. The format also favors teams with dominant closers, which was rarely the Braves.
There's no analog to these issues in the NBA. The game is played in the same conditions. The playoffs don't favor teams with particular assets and liabilities. At most, one can say that the pace in the playoffs gets slower and refs call fewer fouls, but there's no reason why the Hawks - a team with an outstanding half-court offense - would be hurt.
4. Bobby Cox's isn't on the Hawks' bench.
For the record, I love Bobby Cox. I grew up on the Braves being terrible, so I will never have anything but fondness for the guy who turned the team from one of the worst in baseball to one of the best, first as the GM and then as the manager. Bobby was an outstanding manager in the regular season. He kept an even-keel with his players, never overreacting to a particular win or loss. He would go to bat for his guys, as evidenced by all of those ejections.
However, those qualities that made Bobby a great regular season manager - patience and loyalty - made him a below-average playoff skipper. Take the aforementioned series against the Giants. Despite having an excellent fourth starter, Cox elected to go with a three-man rotation - omitting Moss - and gave the starting nod in Games 1 and 4 to Tom Glavine (September ERA: 4.83) instead of Kevin Millwood (September ERA 3.35). Cox's mistakes with respect to the rotation illustrated all of his playoff shortcomings: distrust of young players (Moss), favoring veterans (Glavine), not going with the hot hand (Millwood), and not using his assets properly (starting pitching depth). Cox made postseason blunders from the start of his time with the Braves (Charlie Leibrandt in relief) to the end (the painful Game Three against the Giants in 2010).
Budenholzer doesn't have a track record as a head coach in the playoffs, save for the Hawks' surprising effort in pushing the Pacers to seven last spring. However, he's given us plenty of indications that he will be an asset in the spring. He's not afraid to give time to young players when they deserve it, as evidenced by his handling of Dennis Schröder this year. More importantly, the team consistently gets good looks on offense when coming out of timeouts, a strength that was evident even in the team's worst loss this season and, even before that, when he produced "Coach Bud special[s]" in San Antonio. The notion of Budenholzer making a key late-game decision doesn't provoke the same feelings of dread that Cox's October gambits did.
So maybe my years of accumulated pessimism about Atlanta teams in the playoffs aren't warranted? Is it possible that one can be a Hawks fan and be optimistic about the spring?