Breaking Bad: the Quest to Win Games We’re Supposed To

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Published: February 8, 2015

I received a tweet today asking whether Pelicans fans would ever truly know how the team would perform in a given game. It’s an interesting question, because despite a couple of obvious winning correlates (shooting, home games), the Pelicans have sort of been all over the map this year. They can beat anyone and they can also lose to anyone.

But that’s the beauty of the NBA: the best team doesn’t win every night. We aren’t the only good team to lose to a bad team. You can chalk it up to poor fortune, poor coaching, or poor effort, but whatever the reason is, the best team does not win every night. Should we have beaten the Knicks on the road? Sure. They suck. But it’s an 82 game season and you’re bound to lose to a worse team now and then. However, that doesn’t mean that runs of losses to bad teams are meaningless.. we just need some sort of idea of what to expect. We talk about how we “should do” on a road trip or a homestand.. but what is our baseline for this expectation? As long as we are without a proper benchmark of how the team should perform versus opponents of various skill levels, we are throwing out expectations without any concrete evidence. So I decided to establish a benchmark by looking at the past 5 seasons + the current season.

The Test

Since our fans (and I) are obsessed with making the playoffs (which will likely take between 45 and 50 wins), I decided to pluck a particular group of teams from the previous seasons. The hypothesis here is that the Pelicans are a 45-50 win team, so their performance should be compared with 45-50 win teams from past years. Yes, I am aware that we are currently on pace for 43, not 45 wins**. I don’t know if we truly are a 45-50 win team, but that’s sort of the purpose of this exercise.

I then compiled these teams’ records vs. the bad teams in the NBA. Any team that had 32 or fewer wins was considered a “bad” team. This is a somewhat arbitrary designation, but I had to do a cutoff somewhere, and it seemed like an appropriate spot.

The Results (Records vs. Teams With 32 or Fewer Actual/Projected Wins)

Playoffs

Mean: 78%
Median: 76%

It appears that teams in the 45-50 win range do a very good job of beating bad teams, as they typically win just over 3 of 4 games. These aren’t elite teams, so they pad their win totals by beating the cellar-dwellers.

The results are clear: relatively speaking, the Pelicans have performed badly against bad teams. Some of this should be expected, as the Pelicans are projected for fewer wins (43) this season than any of the other teams in the table. But at a closer glance, their win percentage is actually much closer to the mean/median than you’d think: had they won 2 more of these games, they would stand at 74%, which is just a smidge below the mean/median. This is a fairly sizable portion of a small sample to be tweaking, but it illustrates an important point: though the Pelicans are underperforming vs. bad teams, they aren’t really that far from where they’re supposed to be. The outcries resulting from these losses are most likely derived from the glimpses of brilliance that have been seen versus great teams; after all, the Pelicans are 6-4 in an insane division and 19-13 in a tough conference. But isn’t it possible that they are simply over-performing versus good teams? If the Pelicans “should have won” 2 more games versus bad teams, is it not possible that they should have won 2 fewer versus the good ones? It is always about the aggregate, not any individual game, and maybe the Pelicans are what their record says they are: a good team that is a couple of small tweaks away from being a playoff caliber team.

 

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