Numbers reveal a different story about the Heat
John Schuhmann, Nov 25 2010
To celebrate Thanksgiving, the Numbers Game has a variety of statistical dishes from around the Eastern Conference...
Miami's 8-7 record is a mirage
The Miami Heat have lost three straight games and at 8-7, they're easily the biggest disappointment in the league. At this point, everyone wants to diagnose the Heat's problems and wonders if Pat Riley's getting ready to push Erik Spoelstra aside. But are the Heat really doing that bad?
If you go by winning percentage, the Heat are the 13th best team in the NBA. And yes, it's wins and losses that determine playoff position and home-court advantage in the postseason. But when it comes to point differential, Miami ranks third in the league, outscoring their opponents by 8.6 points per 100 possessions. Only the Lakers (+10.6) and Spurs (+9.1) are better.
The issue, of course, is that the Heat have won a bunch of blowouts and lost a bunch of close games. Their eight wins have come by an average of 18.4 points, while their seven losses have come by an average of just 6.4.
While both their offense and defense have been deficient at times this season, the Heat are the only team in the league that ranks in the top five on both ends of the floor. Through Wednesday, they have the fourth best offense, scoring 107.6 points per 100 possessions, and the fifth best defense, allowing 99.0.
Based on their point differential, using a standard formula for expected wins, the Heat should be 11-4 and tied with the Celtics for first place in the Eastern Conference. No team in the league has a bigger discrepancy (in either direction) between their point differential and their actual record.
The roster has its flaws, obviously. And Miami' playoff success will be determined in part by how well they match up with their opponents. But no matter who they play, the Heat will have matchup advantages of their own, as well as the talent to overcome their flaws. And the truth behind their 8-7 record is not that they're a mediocre team, but that they're a very good team that has had some bad games.
Sorting it all out
We knew that the Eastern Conference would be top-heavy, with three elite teams and maybe only five or six teams deserving of playoff spots. And the first four weeks have done nothing to dispel that idea.
The Celtics and Magic, as expected, are at the top. The Heat are underachieving, but we know they're relatively fine. And the Bulls, after a 2-3 start, already look like the fourth best team in the conference as they wait for Carlos Boozer to return from his hand injury.
Beyond that? Only the Indiana Pacers have played like a playoff team. The New York Knicks have won five straight games and sit at 8-8, but they've played by far the easiest schedule of the 11 teams not named in the paragraph above.
After the Knicks you have seven teams that have at least five wins and at least eight losses. Then you have the 3-12 Sixers, who have the worst record in the East, but have played a pretty tough schedule and have the 11th best point differential in the conference.
Using strength of schedule and point differential, we can get a better feel for which of the bottom 11 teams in the East have really performed best. And what we find (see table) is that the Pacers are indeed for real, the Knicks are taking advantage of a weak schedule, and the Wizards' record is inflated by their two overtime wins over Philly.
These numbers are in no way saying who is going to make the playoffs. But they ought to offer some comfort to fans of the Bucks or Bobcats.
Cleveland not getting it done on either end
We knew that the Cleveland Cavaliers would suffer a major drop-off from last season's 61 wins. But they really shouldn't be this bad. At 6-8, the Cavs sit in eighth place in the East, but based on point differential, they're the fifth worst team in the NBA. All of their wins have come by single-digits, with two coming by just two points.
The thought process behind predicting that the Cavs would make the playoffs was a belief that they would be a pretty good defensive team. They have most of the pieces back from last year's seventh-ranked defense and Byron Scott has coached some excellent defensive teams in both New Jersey and New Orleans.
But only two teams (Oklahoma City and Charlotte) have regressed more defensively from last season than the Cavs have. We knew they would take a huge step backward on offense (and no team has regressed more on that end), but they haven't been able to maximize their potential because they haven't been getting it done defensively either.
Cleveland currently ranks 19th in the league defensively, allowing 105.5 points per 100 possessions. If they're to have any chance of making the playoffs, they need to be in the top 10.
One way they can improve is to do a better job of getting back in transition. Using a simple formula (opponents' fast break points divided by opponents' steals), Cleveland has the fifth worst transition defense in the league.
A lesson in advanced statistics, courtesy of the New Jersey Nets
If you were to go by standard statistics, you would think that the Nets are a pretty good defensive team. They're allowing just 95.9 points per game, the eighth fewest in the league. But that number is more about the Nets' pace than the quality of their defense. The Nets play at the slowest pace in the league, just 90.8 possessions per team per 48 minutes.
If you were then to look at opponents' field goal percentage, you still might think that the Nets are decent defensively. Their opponents are shooting 44.6 percent from the field, the 11th lowest mark in the league. But that doesn't tell the whole story either.
One of the problems is that the Nets force the fewest turnovers in the NBA, just 12.4 per 100 possessions, which is more than three fewer than the league average. So they allow more shots (from the field or the line) to be taken than other teams do.
The other problem is that the Nets' opponents attempt 30 free throws per 100 possessions, the sixth most in the league. And trips to the line are more efficient than shots from the field.
In reality, the Nets have the 17th best defense in the NBA, allowing 105.2 points per 100 possessions. It's an improvement over last season, but it's not as good as it may seem.