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The Stats Behind The Starts

Bad Men, Bad Takes – Season 1

“Without statistics to back it up, you’re just another flog with an opinion”.

I’m not 100% certain who first said this. I personally first heard it said on sports radio here in Australia a number of years ago, but can’t recall the host’s name. Yet, the briefest of google searches points to legendary engineer W. Edwards Deming being the man who may have provided the inspiration for the quote. Either way, it remains as true today as it did when Deming was born in 1900.

The NBA season is a marathon, not a sprint – this much we know. People are quick to jump on or off the bandwagon of the hottest and coldest teams in the league based on their win/loss record, and base their opinion on whether a team is ‘good’, or ‘bad’, solely on this metric. Ask anyone who actively follows the league and has done so for a number of years, however, and they will tell you that this is a highly flawed system for grading the performances of a team.

While it stands to reason on the surface that good teams win games, and bad teams lose games, this isn’t always the case. Put simply, good teams can lose games, and bad teams can win games.

Below, I’ll take a look at a several teams, and delve deeper into the numbers, to see who is over-performing, on par, and under-performing, based on the statistics.

Dallas Mavericks:

The Mavericks are the ideal team to delve into to begin.

Currently holding a record of 5-3, Dallas are sitting pretty as the third seed in the Western Conference. A team that made the post-season and took Conference Finalist the LA Clippers to seven-games in the opening round, the Mavericks possess, on paper, everything you need to be a good team.

They have a superstar talent in Luka Doncic. They also have shooters to surround Doncic with in Tim Hardaway Jr, Reggie Bullock, Jalen Brunson, Kristaps Porzingis and Dorian Finney-Smith. They have an experienced Head Coach in Jason Kidd and an owner who is willing to spend whatever it takes to be successful. Everything, on paper, agrees with the Mavericks record and indicates they are a good team.

The deeper stats tell a different story, however.

Dallas’ overall win/loss record is hiding the fact they are a below-average team on both sides of the ball. Their offensive rating of 101.8 is ranked 27th in the league, while their defensive rating of 106.9 is good enough for just 16th. This means their net-rating is -5.1, which places them well and truly in the bottom third of the league, coming in at 25th place among their peers.

While Jason Kidd has helped Dallas improve defensively, their offense has suffered. Credit: Sportscasting.

Are alarm bells starting to ring yet?

New Head Coach Jason Kidd has improved the Mavericks defensive rating from last season under Rick Carlisle, but has done so seemingly at the expense of their high-octane offense, which was setting records during the 2019-2020 season.

Dallas has been able to rack up wins during the early part of the season due to their soft schedule compared to that of their rivals, as well as by relying on the brilliance of the aforementioned Doncic. Doncic’s magic may not be enough to continue this trend, however, as the Mavs will face the Bulls and Nuggets, as well as the Suns and Clippers twice each, in a two-week stretch from November 11-25.

VERDICT: Over-performing.

Memphis Grizzlies:

The Grizzlies, like the Mavericks, are also 5-3 on the season, good enough for 4th in the Western Conference.

Again, on paper, they have everything you need to be a successful team. They have an elite ball-handler in Ja Morant (who’s early season play sees him feature on my MVP Guest List), and a big who is elite at setting screens to help get him open, both on and off the ball, in Steven Adams. They also have a capable side-kick in Jaren Jackson Jr, and solid role players such as De’Anthony Melton, Desmond Bane, Kyle Anderson, Xavier Tillman and Ziaire Williams.

And yet, again, like the Mavericks, the stats tell a different story to that of their place in the overall standings.

Ja Morant’s MVP form may be hiding some issues for the Grizzlies. Credit: Beale Street Bears

The one saving grace that Memphis has is that their offense is firing on all cylinders. With an offensive rating of 109.8, the Grizzlies form appears to be slightly more sustainable than that of the Mavericks. Their defensive rating, however, sits at 112.6, which is dead last in the league, and provides enormous cause for concern.

The Grizzlies’ schedule thus far has been a bit tougher than Dallas’, however, and they have notched impressive wins over Golden State and Denver twice within their opening eight games. This make me think the success the Grizzlies have seen thus far has a greater chance of being sustainable going forward. The reality is, however, if you have the worst defence in the league, it’s an up-hill battle that will eventually catch up with you.

VERDICT: Over-performing.

Toronto Raptors:

The Raptors are the lone Eastern Conference representative on this list, and given pre-season expectations were set very low, present a unique case to be analysed.

With a 6-3 record through their opening nine games, Toronto have surprised many, including the entire BMBT office, to currently sit 4th in their Conference. We have known Nick Nurse is a great Head Coach since he lead the team to a Championship a few short seasons ago, and we have also known there is talent on this roster in the form of Pascal Siakam and Fred Van Vleet.

What we hadn’t accounted for is the explosion of OG Anunoby up to 20ppg with 1.6 steals, and rookie Scottie Barns to be putting up 18.1ppg and 8.9 rebounds through the first seven games of his career.

Scottie Barnes (4) has helped the Raptors off to a great start this season. Credit: Sportsnet Canada

Delving deeper into the stats for Toronto paints a very pleasant picture. The team’s fast start looks to be largely down to some stellar defensive efforts, their 102.4 rating on that end of the floor good enough to be 6th in the league. Their offensive rating of 107.4 also places them in the top half of the association, ranking 14th. Their net ratings of +5.0 places them 6th as well.

The Raptors have had a relatively soft schedule thus far, but have also proven their mettle in recent wins over fellow Eastern Conference high-risers New York and Washington. When the schedule tightens up, I’d expect their win total to flatten out a little, but considering this hot start has been without Pascal Siakam, and the fact the Raptors can afford to drop down the defensive rankings and still be an above average team, this appears to be sustainable.


Phoenix Suns:

The reigning Western Conference Champions have looked indifferent to start the season.

Their 3-3 record has kept them in the 8th seed in the Western Conference, but more was expected from a team who looked unstoppable in the post-season and rode a wave of momentum all the way to the NBA Finals.

On the surface, things look good. Devin Booker is still scoring well and Deandre Ayton continues to haul in rebounds. Chris Paul continues to rack up assist numbers as seen by his recent overtaking of Steve Nash and Mark Jackson to claim third on the NBA’s all-time assist leaders tally, and all of the major players who helped the team excel last season have played the heavy majority of games.

Chris Paul and the Suns run to the Finals last season hasn’t carried over into the new season. Credit: Bloomberg

So why such a mediocre record?

A deeper look offers numbers that give an insight that differs from the takeaways the individual players’ numbers do. Firstly, the Suns ranked in the top 10 last season in both offensive and defensive rating, specifically 7th at 116.3 and 6th at 110.4 respectively. This season, however, the team has failed to find the same cohesion, with their offensive rating of 104.4 placing them in the bottom third of the league at 20th, and their defensive rating of 107.6 good enough for only 19th.

The Suns’ schedule hasn’t been overly difficult thus far, either. Wins over the Lakers, Cavaliers and Pelicans were all expected prior to the season. The issue has come with losses to Denver, Portland and Sacramento, none of whom have a winning record.

The Suns have all of the talent but can’t seem to put wins on the board. The worst part? They sit in the middle of the pack in terms of wins and losses, despite their ranking suggesting their record should be even worse.

VERDICT: Over-performing.

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