A month after the NBA season tipped off with a five game Christmas present to fans everywhere, we have hit the quarterway mark. Let’s look at point differential as a predictor of which teams will play better from here out and which ones may tail off.
Ordinarily point differential is a good predictor because good teams rarely get blown out so they tend to have better differentials than bad teams which are on the wrong side of crooked numbers a lot. But this season may be different. The shortened training camp and the compressed schedule mean that some good teams, most notably the Utah Jazz and the Dallas Mavericks, were victims of early blow outs before they could gel. And differential may suffer as an accurate predictor since many teams are punting games early. However, that could work both ways.
Anyway, enough caveats on to the evidence. Point differential suggests that four teams, the Philadelphia 76ers, the Boston Celtics, the Minnesota Timberwolves, and the New Orleans Hornets, will play better from here out.
I’m a big believer in the 76ers, but I think differential overrates their performance. If the Sixers won-loss record equaled their differential they’d be 15-2 and en route to one of the best records in NBA history. What differential can’t see is that the Sixers have had an easy schedule so far. Once the Miami’s, Chicago’s and OKC’s of the world show up on the slate, it might be a different story. I think the Sixers are an elite team, but not a historically good one.
The Boston Celtics appearance on this list surprised me, but it’s a reflection of expectations. The Celtics have been a championship contender for five years, but they aren’t this year. Yet their losing record is softened by a positive point differential, which suggests that 7-9 actual record should be 9-7. The C’s have faced a tough schedule, so far, so I think point differential is right. The catch is that a 9-7 winning percentage translates into 46-36 in an 82 game season and a 37-29 record this season. In other words, that’s a playoff team, but not a contender for the title.
Minnesota’s presence on this list doesn’t surprise me a bit. They are in a murderously difficult division and under Rick Adelman, the NBA’s most underrated coach (more on that next dispatch), and have played well. As the supporting cast behind point guard Ricky Rubio and forward Kevin Love solidifies, I expect that they’ll find their way into the black and playoff contention.
The Hornets presence on this list didn’t surprise me either. On their current eight game losing streak, they have lost only once by double digits and they have lost three games in a row by two points each. They are team snakebite of the first fourth of the season. If Xavier Henry, who makes his Hornets debut tonight, can build on the promise he showed in his rookie season with the Memphis Grizzlies, then the Hornets can find their way out of deep lotteryville and toward respectability.
Three teams, the Indiana Pacers, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and Sacramento Kings, are outperforming their differential-based won-loss expectations.
As a fan in general of ensemble teams (more on that later this week), I was thrilled by the Pacers fast start (11-5 vs. a differential prediction of 9-7), but their lack of offensive firepower,(they are 18th in Offensive Rating) may doom them to second tier playoff team rather being a member of the Eastern Conference elite.
I expressed my reservations about Oklahoma City, which via differential is only 12-5 rather than 14-3, earlier and they remain; they are a mediocre defensive team (13th in Defensive Rating) that is flattening opponents with a ferocious attack. With their youth and star power, they’ll probably continue to clobber opponents in the regular season, but I wouldn’t pencil them in the Finals yet. This looks like a team that can be had in the postseason.
The Sacramento Kings are a whopping three games ahead of their differential prediction, 6-12 versus 3-15, and this may be a case of reality checking in ahead of theory. The Kings have been a much better team under new coach Keith Smart (.364 winning percentage) than they were under Paul Westphal (.286 winning percentage), and their key young players, especially DeMarcus Cousins has begun playing much better ball. I suspect their differential will begin to conform to their real numbers. Usually it’s the other way around as the season wears on.