Too Many Teams Getting WORSE!

by Jeff Fogle 21. January 2011 00:17

I enjoyed reading the latest from Bill Simmons, regarding how the All-Star game is potentially shaping up as one for the ages. It's funny, because I had been thinking the exact OPPOSITE about how the season was unfolding. Who really matters right now outside of the Lakers, Spurs, Celtics, and Heat? Orlando might, but they have to re-establish that they're going to matter after drifting a bit off the radar. When you crunch the numbers, it's kind of amazing how many of last year's playoff teams have gotten worse.

I went and grabbed final margin differentials from last season and compared them to this season. I'm using point differentials rather than efficiency because impressions of teams are typically based on what we see on the scoreboard rather than how those scores pro-rate to 100 possessions. The Lakers and Spurs are clear favorites right now to win the West come playoff time. Here's how the other six teams from last year's Western brackets have fared...

Utah: +5.3 last year, +2.1 this year (-3.2)
Phoenix: +4.9 last year, -2.3 this year (-7.2)
Denver: +4.1 last year, +3.1 this year (-1.0)
Oklahoma City: +3.5 last year, +1.5 this year (-2.0)
Portland: +3.3 last year, +0.5 this year (-2.8)
Dallas: +2.7 last year, +2.4 this year (-0.3)

All six are worse this year to varying degrees. Dallas may get its head above water if Dirk Nowitzki can stay healthy. But, Oklahoma City lost its defensive mojo and doesn't look like they're going to get it back. Denver doesn't feel like a real threat given "As Carmelo Turns." Utah isn't giving Kobe Bryant nightmares. Phoenix and Portland don't seem to even matter any more given their travails.

Over in the East, it's Boston and Miami who are expected to battle for the conference crown come springtime. Some of their brethren...

Orlando: +7.5 last year, +5.0 this year (-2.5)
Cleveland: +6.5 last year, -11.3 this year (-17.8)
Atlanta: +4.7 last year, +2.8 this year (-1.9)
Milwaukee: +1.7 last year, -1.7 this year (-3.4)
Charlotte: +1.5 last year, -3,4 this year (-4.9)

The other playoff team last year was Chicago, who has made a big step forward this season. Have they stepped up to Boston caliber? No, which means nobody's taking them seriously yet in the championship picture.

Milwaukee was one of the great stories of the 2009-10 campaign. They've disappeared. Atlanta is hanging in there, but seemingly not as scary. Orlando is obviously dangerous. Are they dangerous enough? 

There are some teams further down the ladder who are moving in the right direction and creating the potential for compelling storylines. The New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers happened to be doing that in major media markets, which is good news for the league. But, it's not like those guys are going to be big stories once the championship is on the line in a few months.

It's a great year if you like watching highlight reel dunks and amazing individual efforts from superstar athletes. That could set up a historic All-Star game. If you're more into studying things from the team level, it feels like four contenders,...maybe eight or nine teams who will represent without embarassment in the playoffs...with everyone else hanging around until the labor situation gets sorted out.

Transition Points

*Dallas fell from 12 of 26 on treys to 7 of 22 while dropping an 82-77 decision in Chicago Thursday Night. Tired legs may have been a problem on the boards. Dallas was outrebounded 51-41 on night two of a back-to-back after beating the Lakers at home Wednesday.

The Bulls won again without Carlos Boozer. And, we saw a great defensive effort again from the team with the top defensive efficiency in the league. It's a Superleague win for Chicago, who moves to 6-8 against the top 12 teams in the league as we identified them a few weeks ago. Dallas falls to 11-7 in that subset.

*D.J. Augustin scored a season-high 31 points to lead Charlotte to a 100-97 win over Philadelphia. The 23-year old point guard from Texas may have benefitted more than anyone from Larry Brown's depature. You're probably aware that Brown can be particularly tough on young players.

Augustin's shot attempts in 7 games before Brown's departure:
6-8-12-8-19-8-8 (median 8)

Augustin's shot attempts since Paul Silas took over: 
15-14-12-10-17-11-12-12-11-10-16-13-17 (all double digits)

Augustin's Monthly Averages

November: 12.5 points, 7.7 assists, in 34.1 minutes per game
December: 13.9 points, 4.3 assists, in 33.1 minutes per game
January: 17.8 points, 7.5 assists, in 35.4 minutes per game

Brown left with three games to go in December.

We can't forget that Charlotte has been through a relatively soft schedule recently, which makes it easier to improve your stats. But, Augustin did have 19 points and 6 assists in 31 minutes at Boston back on 1/14. He's only 23...

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1/21/2011 3:15:02 AM #


This comparison is half season to previous full season. Understandable, but it raises a question that can be examined.

Using these files for all of last season
and the last half of the season
it appears the positive point differential for good teams increased in the second half of the season (especially for the top 4) and the negative point differential for the weak teams also increased.  If that happens again it will reduce a number of the rises and fall at least a little. There are still movers including 5 big movers (more than 3 points)  but I thought I would mention this detail.

Crow United States

1/21/2011 3:45:18 AM #


I saw this related article that has an even broader historical perspective.

Crow United States

1/22/2011 1:21:13 AM #

Jeff Fogle

Thanks for posting those crow. Took me awhile before I could run through the data. Looks like some teams heading in either direction, but with bigger jumps forward than backward. So, we may see a few of the teams I've been disappointed with step forward. But, it's also possible some of the success stories start to back off a bit to save themselves for the playoffs (as Boston did last year). I'm always concerned about second half "surges" that come at the expense of bad teams going through the motions rather than what might be considered true improvement. Let's keep an eye on that in the coming months to see who's getting better and who's just clamping down on the have not's...

Jeff Fogle United States

1/22/2011 2:02:16 PM #


When looking at the margin of victory it is a "zero sum game", meaning that any decrease in margin of victory for the better teams comes at the expense of decreasing the margin of loss for the bad teams.
I think one of the major stories this season isn't that many of the playoff teams have regressed (I personally don't think the drop off has been significant) but instead their simply aren't as many completely awful teams in the league that aid the margin of victory stats by constantly getting blown out.  Last year teams like the Clippers and Warriors were easy walk-overs... not this year.  The Clippers look like a legit .500 or better club lately (too bad they started 5-21), the Warriors are only a couple of game below .500.  Minnesota last year was threatening to become one of the worst teams in NBA history and while they are still not great, they are certainly improved.  The Hornets are another team that was bad last year (injuries were key) but this year they are looking like a potential top 4 seed.

I just don't see as many easy games as last season as their are more teams that are pretty close to .500 (especially in the West).

Walter United States

1/22/2011 6:46:09 PM #

Jeff Fogle

Agree with you Walter about the lower half getting better in the West. Think there's room for it all to be true...where the lower half got better, AND many of last year's playoff teams got worse.

If it was just a case of lower teams improving, and last year's playoff teams standing pat, we wouldn't have seen the Lakers move up to +7.0 from +4.7 (at the time I grabbed the numbers), or SA move up from +5.1 to +8.0.

Utah lost Boozer, who's hard to replace with equal value. Portland's had myriad injuries. Denver's had distractions. Phoenix has fallen off the map. Oklahoma City lost their assistant coach in charge of defense, and their defense has dropped quite a bit. Let me run some defensive stuff

OKC: 8th in def. eff. last year, 16th now
Utah: 11th las year, 17th now
Denver: 16th last year, 22nd now
Phoenix: 19th last year, 30th now

SA and Dallas are about the same as last year, the Lakers are better (vs. a soft first half schedule though), Portland has maintained its defense with the injuries but fallen from 7th to 14th on offense. The lower half of the West improving didn't hurt "everyone's" defense.  

So, I think we're seeing the lower half get better, AND many of last year's contenders get worse--rather than just seeing margin averages drop only because the lower half is better...if that makes sense.

Thanks for posting your thoughts. Very much appreciated.

Jeff Fogle United States

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