- Neil Paine
It's no big secret that the Miami Heat are, and have long been, favorites to win the 2013 NBA championship.
Before the year started, the defending champs were our Summer Forecast's consensus title pick; during the regular season, they had the league's best record (66-16); in the playoffs, they have the best point differential (plus-126) of any team. If the Heat ultimately prevail, they'll pretty much have done it as wire-to-wire title favorites.
But these measures all paint with extremely broad strokes. We know that metrics like win-loss record and point differential generally do a good job of characterizing a team's overall strength, but they're hardly infallible. Many years, some team manages to slip through the cracks and defy both advanced and conventional notions of who the top contender should be.
For this reason, comparing teams to their most similar squads from the past is an intriguing way to mine the data for under-the-radar contenders who might be undervalued by overall metrics.
Using the Four Factors (key indicators identified by ESPN's Dean Oliver as the most important component metrics for team success), we can compare each active team to its most similar conference finalist since the 1973-74 season.
If a team's most comparable historical teams tended to win the NBA title, like those of the 2011 Dallas Mavericks (whose closest statistical cousins included the title-winning 1994 and 1995 Houston Rockets, in addition to the 1988 Los Angeles Lakers and 2007 San Antonio Spurs), they probably have a set of strengths that help make them more than what initially meets the eye. (In Dallas' case, these were a strong shooting differential from the floor, good defensive rebounding, and a foul-averse defense.)
And if not -- like the 2011 Miami Heat team Dallas defeated, for whom zero of its 10 most comparable teams were champions -- it could be a red flag to watch as the playoffs roll on.
Let's take a look at the four remaining teams and analyze exactly which teams possess the DNA of an NBA champ and those that do not. You'll be surprised -- being an overwhelming favorite means very little.
Neil Paine analyzes the four conference finals teams and looks at which team most resembles past NBA champs.