Worst of the Best?

Published: March 28, 2009

There is a lot of negativity floating around about the Hornets right now, particularly after some of the bad losses they’ve suffered the past couple weeks.  I’ve seen comments about firing Byron Scott, comments hoping that Peja will be so injured he’ll retire and fix the Hornet’s cap problems for them.  I’ve seen declarations that the Hornet’s won’t get out of the first round, and some worrying that the Hornets will completely fail over their last 11 games while Phoenix will suddenly become fearsome and the Hornets will fall out of the playoffs altogether.

One of the more interesting comments I’ve seen is about the Hornets being the  Worst of the Best, i.e. of the playoff contenders in the Western Conference, the Hornets are the weakest.  While I’m not about to concede that with Dallas and Phoenix floating around, but it’s pretty close to being dead on.  Most statisticians find that there is a stronger relation between point differential(points per game vs. points given up per game) and playoff success than there is record and playoff success.  It’s a pretty straightforward measure, when I made a table sorted by differential for the Western Conference Teams, it becomes pretty clear that the Hornets have definitely not been top 6 material:

Team Point Differential Record Current Seed
Los Angeles Lakers +7.9 58-14 1st
San Antonio Spurs +4.0 48-24 2nd
Portland Trailblazers +3.9 45-27 5th
Houston Rockets +3.8 47-26 4th
Utah Jazz +3.6 44-27 6th
Denver Nuggets +3.1 47-26 3rd
New Orleans Hornets +2.3 44-27 7th
Phoenix Suns +2.1 40-32 9th
Dallas Mavericks +1.5 43-29 8th

As depressing as that may seem, last night before the Knicks game Byron said “I’m comfortable with my guys right now.  If Peja and Tyson come back we’ll be pretty dangerous.”

Now sure, you can dismiss that as the optimism required of a coach, but there is a reassuring kernel of truth in there.  Peja and Tyson Chandler may not have had the best seasons even when they were healthy, but it is results that matter.  When the Hornets have had all five members of Byron Scott’s preferred starting five of Tyson Chandler, David West, Peja Stojakovic, Rasual Butler and Chris Paul, the Hornets have gone 20-4 while posting a point differential of +6.7 points per game.  [Update] I just realized it should be 19-5, with a differential of 5.9.  Sorry about that.  My point is still valid.

Now, I won’t claim from that stat that the Hornets are the 2nd best team in the West – because other teams, notably San Antonio and Utah, have all missed major players for significant periods of time, and unlike Houston with Tracy McGrady, they should have those players available for the playoffs. There is little question those players would improve those teams point differentials, so while I’m not comfortable claiming the 2nd spot for the Hornets – if Tyson and Peja come back(big if), I’m pretty comfortable putting the Hornets in the top 4 of the West.

So before we dismiss their chances, let’s see how things turn out.  There could be some surprises come playoff time.

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