FiveThirtyEight is one of the best in the sports business industry at constructing realistic prediction models across all major sports. They just released their updated 2020-2021 NBA Predictions for the upcoming season, and the model is quite high on the Phoenix Suns.
How it works: (via FiveThirtyEight.com)
“These forecasts are based on 100,000 simulations of the rest of the season. Our player-based RAPTOR forecast doesn’t account for wins and losses; it is based entirely on our NBA player projections, which estimate each player’s future performance based on the trajectory of similar NBA players. These are combined with up-to-date depth charts — tracking injuries, trades and other player transactions — to generate talent estimates for each team. A team’s full-strength rating assumes all of its key players are in the lineup. A team’s current rating reflects any injuries and rest days in effect at the moment of the team’s next game. Elo ratings — which power the pure Elo forecast — are a measure of team strength based on head-to-head results, margin of victory and quality of opponent.”
Ultimately this is a very difficult task with how fluid NBA seasons can be due to injuries, suspensions, breakout seasons, trades, etc., and they do their best to take all of that into account with their RAPTOR and Elo forecasts.
In the RAPTOR player rating forecast they have the Suns ranked 9th, with a 75% chance of making the playoffs, a 7% chance of making the NBA Finals and a 3% chance of winning the NBA Finals. They also project Phoenix to have a +2.4 net rating and to finish with a record of 42-30.
To put things in perspective — at this same time last year — the Suns were given a 16% chance at making the playoffs by this model, with a less than one percent chance at reaching the finals or winning the finals. That is quite the massive turnaround. Receiving a bump of nearly 50% playoff odds increasing doesn’t happen overnight, but that’s just the effect of Chris Paul, Jae Crowder and the expected internal growth of this young core led by none other than Monty Williams.
The First 5 Games
Just for fun, I will quickly dive into their first 5 games and see what the model projects for their first stretch of the season.
vs. Dallas Mavericks — Suns 64%, Mavs 36%. Suns -3.0 favorites
@ Sacramento Kings — Kings 45%, Suns 55%. Suns -1.0 favorites
@ Sacramento Kings — Kings 46%, Suns 54%. Suns -1.0 favorites
vs. New Orleans Pelicans — Suns 68%. Pelicans 32%, Suns -5.0 favorites
@ Utah Jazz — Jazz 62%, Suns 38%. Jazz -3.0 favorites.
A 4-1 start to the season doesn’t sound bad at all, though it’s too bad the games aren’t played on the model simulation charts.
The Rotation + Net Rating Projections
Here they illustrate how they anticipate each player from the rotation to perform, ranked in order of their total minutes player, followed by net rating with their projection for their offensive and defensive ratings, followed by the team’s projected net rating.
At the end of the day, these models are never perfect and far from guarantee anything as we all know how grueling and unexpected an NBA season can be, but it’s nice to see the numbers like the Suns as much as most fans and experts tend to. This is a legitimate playoff contender with a chance to be a tough out in a series against anybody if at full strength, don’t let a few meaningless preseason games cloud that hype.
If you saw this image below two seasons ago when James Jones first took over as the interim GM, you’d probably laugh out loud. The progress he’s made in changing both the culture and the talent on this roster for the better is undeniable.