What is more important in the NBA today: beating all your opponents by 20 points or continuously finding ways to win close games? It’s an argument that has been around in all sports in the country for years now, and it has jumped back into the spotlight recently. The main reason why is with stat-man extraordinaire John Hollinger controlling the numbers over at ESPN.
In his daily power rankings based on a team’s portfolio for the entire season with extra importance to their most recently played games, the results are often a bit off-center. For example, Cleveland fans may remember when the Cavs dropped down to three behind both Utah and Los Angeles a month ago. Now, the big controversy is whether the Dallas Mavericks belong in the NBA’s top tier of teams.
Just yesterday, Hollinger ranked the Mavericks 13th in the league despite their league-tying 13-game winning streak. The problem that the stats found with this team was not that they were not finding ways to win games, but that it was not pretty enough. Meanwhile, both Orlando and Milwaukee shot up the rankings with their respective win streaks.
With the Sloan Conference last weekend, statistics are coming to the main frame of all the different aspects of the game of basketball. The nice resource Basketball-Reference.com had an entire recap of the discussion topics from that weekend while Twitter was ablaze with all the reports updating from the conference.
All joke aside about statisticians needing to watch the game, they always do have some good arguments. From introducing the NBA world to plus/minus, PER and others, it has revolutionized the way teams and fans evaluate their favorite players. Alongside this, there are always limitations to how much information statistics can tell us about about sports.
When it comes down to basketball, the diff is just so little of a percentage that it hardly matters. All teams in the NBA average in the 91-111 range for points scored and points allowed with Cleveland leading the league with a +7.1 average differential. New Jersey is in the entire opposite spectrum with a -10.1 differential per game.
Thus the difference between the best team and the worst team in the league is 17.2 points per game, or considering the NBA league average of 100.1 points per game, only 17.2%. This is telling in that even with a margin of three points separating the differential between team’s average scoring, it is only just a few percentage points of the overall total scored by the league on average.
In my mind, Hollinger is promoting the distortion of statistics by utilizing small sample sizes and only differential/strength of schedule to evaluate teams. Certainly a team is always gunning for a good win, but is there really that much of a difference between a 15 point win and a 21 point win in the short run? Orlando blogger Ben Q. Rock posted this on his Twitter page earlier this week:
ORL’s margin during its 7-gm streak: +131. DAL’s margin during its 13-gm streak: +100. As @johnhollinger has written, differential matters.
In response, the differential matters when paired with other statistics around the game and over a longer sample size. One can argue based on those statistics that maybe Dallas is playing some tougher teams, maybe Orlando’s schedule finally got easier, or maybe even Dallas rests it’s starters in the fourth quarters of their many, many consecutive victories.
Going back to the story at hand, the Dallas Mavericks carried their 13-game winning streak back home last night to take on the New York Knicks. Dallas had given the Knicks a loss by nearly 50 points a few weeks back, so it was entirely expected that they would set the league’s longest win streak this season. That was until New York led by 25 at the end of three quarters en route to a 128-94 road upset.
The statisticians will yell that they were right all along about Dallas not being as good as advertised, but in the end, the Mavs are right up there with the Nuggets for second place in the Western Conference. There can be no true conclusions drawn from their winning streak alone but it must be placed in the context of their entire season at large. Certainly, that loss stinks to New York, but the team still has the power to re-group in plenty of time for a successful playoff run.
Hughes to Charlotte: Your other NBA news for the day is the signing of Larry Hughes by the Charlotte Bobcats. Traded by the Knicks to the Sacramento Kings in the T-Mac deadline deal, he has been a free agent for the past three weeks before finally finding his new home.
While it is amazing to consider the fact that the Web site HeyLarryHughesPleaseStopTakingSoManyBadShots.com still exists for all of his many teams over the years, he now joins the fierce Bobcats. This is a team that has been annoying to the top two teams in the league all season long while being incredibly inconsistent across the rest of the NBA.
There is not much of a ceiling for this signing because of the players already on that Charlotte roster. The only problem with that assessment is that the Bobcats already are over-utilizing their only stars (over 40 minutes per game for both Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace). Hughes can provide a decent lift on the bench, although everyone in the world knows how inefficient he will probably be in this role.
Either way, it seems that the Bobcats finally put on a good enough winning streak to avoid the Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs. Matched up as a #6 or #7 seed, it would take an absolutely spiritual act for them to eventually face Cleveland in the playoffs. Hopefully, Hughes doesn’t find a way to mess up that fact either.
(Photo credit via Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE)