||Expected '98 Record|
1. Estimate all players' levels of performance.
The individual offensive and defensive ratings that you can see at each of the team pages relate directly to how often a team wins. I have used them to successfully predict games before.2. Estimate the playing time to be earned by all players.
Certain players just don't fit within a system or don't get along with their coach. Cedric Ceballos is one of those players who can drive opponents crazy with his ability to score, but his defensive lapses also drive his coaches crazy. Overall, Ceballos' teams have done better with him on the court than with him sitting (or with him waterskiing), but he is beginning to look like a journeyman because of chronic problems with teammates and coaches.3. Determine the influence of the coach.
The hard part, however, is predicting when injuries occur. There was no way, for instance, to predict that San Antonio would lose 62 games last year. The odds of David Robinson missing the entire season were very low. The odds of him missing the entire season and Sean Elliott missing a large portion of the season were even lower.
This is as hard as predicting injuries. A coach is evaluated almost entirely on whether his team performs better than it "should". Basically, if a team does better than We The Experts think it should, We The Experts ignore the possibility that We The Experts are idiots and throw praises to the coach.4. Make sure that competitive balance is maintained.
I have made limited efforts to truly characterize the contributions of coaches (for example), but for coaches who work with the same players every year -- like Jerry Sloan in Utah -- I don't believe that there is any way to know if he is doing a good job or if it is just the talents of Stockton and Malone.... Not to mention Phil Jackson.
After all the previous steps, it is still possible that the average predicted record is not 0.500, as it should be. If this condition -- known as competitive balance -- is not met, then there is absolutely no way that the prediction can be completely right. Further, when competitive balance is not maintained, it probably means that some bias in the prediction exists, such as believing the hype behind rookies. Finally, there are college kids who can prove that a prediction where the average is 0.500 is generally better than a prediction whose average is not 0.500. A good way to check this is by looking at the previous years' records and applying the Power of Parity to make a projection. This method assures an average of almost 0.500 and is something I relied upon a lot.
In the predictions shown here, I feel comfortable in handling steps 1 and 4. I definitely fudge a bit when it comes to estimating playing time and the effects of coaching.
The teams that appear destined to fall off include the Knicks, the Hornets, and the Timberwolves, all of whom don't have the talent to match the hype. The Bulls, Jazz, and Heat will also suffer more losses because of injuries to Scottie Pippen, John Stockton, and Alonzo Mourning, respectively. The Bulls were able to handle injuries in previous years, but they seem to be more frequent now. The Jazz simply have no one who can back up Stockton. The Heat got a bit lucky last year to win so much on the road, a lot of that due to the intimidating presence of Mourning on the defensive end.
On the way up are Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston, Milwaukee, and -- of course -- San Antonio. Though I really don't like the addition of Brian Williams in Detroit, Grant Hill keeps getting better. Allen Iverson showed incredible improvement in his sophomore year at Georgetown and I expect to see it in Philadelphia. Boston still has rotten talent, but Rick Pitino's system works even with rotten talent. Milwaukee just seems ready to gel with a number of pretty good players who should settle into their roles. San Antonio simply has the Admiral back, plus Tim Duncan has looked good in the preseason.
Regular season records are a good indicator of quality, but they aren't necessarily the best indicator of success in the playoffs. I am thinking of teams that save themselves for the playoffs. The Houston Rockets definitely did this last year, though it only helped against the Seattle SuperSonics and not against the Utah Jazz. Experienced teams like the Rockets, the Jazz, the Bulls, and the Knicks, who also can be susceptible to injury may end up with records that don't adequately characterize their top level of performance.
These are the teams that should be expected to be threats in the playoffs even if their regular season records disappoint somewhat. In particular, Michael Jordan, with Pippen out for a while and nothing left to prove during the regular season, has little reason to carry his competitive fire so fiercely through the regular season. Teammates who have been spoiled by success in the postseason could easily be put off by harsh words from Jordan when they know that the playoffs are when it counts. This doesn't mean that they're right to take it easy during the regular season, but it is tempting for them to do.
If Chicago does indeed falter a bit during the regular season, the Miami Heat are my favorites to win the title. There are some statistical indicators that the Heat will struggle somewhat, but they picked up some talent that should help come playoff time. The biggest reason I don't have their record up at around 60 wins is that Mourning is out for two to three months and there is no one who can replace him.
At the end, a healthy Bulls team is an easy pick. But whether the Bulls will be healthy is not an easy pick. Look for Pat Riley to take advantage if the Bulls are not at the top of their game.