The Mavericks and Pythagorean Wins

by Matt Scribbins 21. June 2011 08:33

You can follow Matt Scribbins on twitter @mattscribbins

 Pythagorean wins

A great predictor of NBA playoff success is regular season point differential. The key word is predictor, and sometimes predictions are wrong. If you are a believer in the wonders of point differentials, Dallas just became one of the most improbable championship teams since 1990.

Pythagorean wins is a wonderful statistic that converts scoring differentials into a predicted win-loss record. The statistic can show, among other things, teams that over/under perform, win/lose numerous close games, or just experience good/bad luck.

The 2011 Dallas Mavericks were a team who dominated in close games, and their Finals opponent was lambasted all season for their perceived inability to do the same. The Mavericks’ scoring differential indicated they should have won 53 games, and Miami’s differential indicated they should have won 61. In reality, the Mavs won 57 games, and the Heat won 58.

I went through the data from every Finals matchup since 1990 to highlight some trends:

1990 - 2010  (excluding 1999)

 

Champs

2nd Place

AVG Actual Wins

60.2

56.95

AVG P Wins

59.75

56.85

 *1999 is omitted due to shortened season*

2010-2011 Regular Season

 

Miami

Dallas

Actual Wins

58

57

P Wins

61

53

The Mavericks finished with four fewer Pythagorean wins than the average 2nd place team, and the Heat outdid the average champion by one Pythagorean win.  Clearly, the Heat matched more closely the profile of teams that hoisted the trophy, and the Mavericks had a profile similar to a runner-up. In fact, the 1997 Utah Jazz, who lost in the Finals to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, are the only runner-up to post more Pythagorean wins than the 2011 Miami Heat.


To the Overachievers Go the Spoils

Biggest Differences

 

Winner

Loser

P Wins

1995

Houston

Orlando

-12

2011

Dallas

Miami

-8

1994

Houston

New York

-7

2006

Miami

Dallas

-6

 The two recent series between the Mavericks and Heat crowned the team who actually had considerably fewer Pythagorean wins. The only other recent champions to record fewer Pythagorean wins than their Finals opponent are the ’94 and ’95 Rockets and the ’01 Lakers. The Rockets repeat team actually posted the fewest actual wins (47) and Pythagorean wins (47) of any champion since 1990.

 

They Did it Their Way

Rank Among Champs (1990-2011)

Actual Wins

15*

P Wins

17*

O Rating

9*

D Rating

19

EFG%

2

TOV%

14*

ORB%

23

FTR

14

OPP EFG%

18*

OPP TOV%

19*

DEF REB%

3

OPP FTR

9

 

* Indicates tie

The chart paints a fairly clear picture: the Mavericks were one of the most successful shooting teams in recent history. EFG% is considered the most important of Dean Oliver’s Four Factors, and the Mavericks were utterly dominant by this measure. The aforementioned ‘95 Rockets were the only unit to shoot better than the ‘11 Mavericks. Conversely, the defense for Dallas ranked just 18th among recent champions in opponents’ EFG%.

The Mavericks found themselves in the latter half of the pack in other important categories too (offensive rating, defensive rating, TOV%, etc.). However, rule changes and styles of play make some comparisons less than ideal.

 

Everything is Bigger in Texas

Year

Team

Margin

2003

Spurs

10

1994

Rockets

8

2011

Mavericks

7

 

Next, let’s take a look at Pythagorean win – actual win margin. The Mavericks exceeded their Pythagorean win total by four victories, and the Heat fell three games short of their Pythagorean win total (4- -3 = 7).

The only two champions since 1990 to experience a larger positive margin represent the other points of the Texas Triangle. The 2003 Spurs had three more actual wins than Pythagorean wins, and their Finals opponent, New Jersey, had seven fewer. In 1994, the Rockets had five more actual wins than Pythagorean wins, and their opponent, the Knicks, fell short of their Pythagorean win total by three games. 

Margin doesn’t appear to tell us very much as 11 champions since 1990 have had a positive number. The largest negative margin (-9) belongs to the 2004 Detroit Pistons, who crushed the Lakers quest for a four-peat. The Lakers outperformed their Pythagorean record by four victories, and the Pistons underperformed theirs by five wins.

 

“Houston, we have a lot in common.”

The 1995 Houston Rockets and the 2011 Dallas Mavericks shared many characteristics during their championship season. Both Texas teams featured underrated foreign superstars and faced a Finals opponent that had a significantly better scoring differential. Also, they prevailed in the Finals over teams from Florida that featured all-time great players in the midst of their peaks.

 

O Rating

EFG%

OPP EFG%

OPP TOV%

OPP FTR

2011 Mavs

109.7

0.525

0.488

0.130

0.206

1995 Rockets

109.7

0.529

0.489

0.139

0.199

The Mavericks made their money by making a historic percentage of their shots, but the ’95 Rockets are the only champion who manufactured a better EFG% during their regular season.

Do you remember the Mavericks relatively poor performance in opponents EFG%? Well, the Rockets were one of the only recent champions to post an inferior percentage.

 

Hoarders: NBA Edition

Scoring differential (Pythagorean wins) has historically predicted winners of the NBA Finals at an extremely high rate. Additionally, teams with a great record in close games have met their Waterloo before grabbing the trophy. In 2011, these scenarios were reversed and a team with a superb scoring margin was beat by a group who consistently eked out close victories.

We can speculate about some factors that probably influenced the Mavericks record in close games. For example, it is not uncommon during the regular season to see talented teams coast through 43 minutes of a game and then turn on the jets to shatter an inferior opponent (just watch the Timberwolves). Games like these would result in a win for Dallas, but the margin of victory would not reflect their true talent level. Reducing a game to five minutes of fury seems like a risky strategy, but it may be a sage, energy saving approach for a veteran team like Dallas.

Using the championship teams as a point of reference, let’s examine records in games decided by two points or fewer since the Mavericks Finals appearance in 2006.

Games Decided by 2 Points or Fewer (07-11)

 

Win

Loss

Win %

Mavericks

32

14

69.6%

Spurs

21

15

58.3%

Lakers

20

20

50.0%

Celtics

21

26

44.7%

It seems like the Mavericks have consistently won games in situations where other teams’ fates are basically decided by the flip of a coin. How did they do it?

The Mavericks appeared to utilize unprecedented information to build their title team. Mark Cuban said on his blog on October 10, 2010:

“The input of numbers into building a team is diminishing and being displaced by non traditional qualitative factors (…) You can try to understand both coaching and chemistry, and we continue to experiment with new ways to do so, but you can’t quantify either (...) Of course there are other elements that we are rapidly expanding at the Mavs that go into our team-building methodology, but I’m keeping all that to myself.”

He really is. Henry Abbot’s recent post on Truehoop discussed three vital members of the Mavericks staff (assistant coach, psychologist, and analyst). Roland Beech, the team’s analyst and founder of 82games.com, frequently discusses strategy with the coaching staff and even gets the privilege of sitting behind the bench during games. As influential as Beech is, the team’s psychologist and unheralded assistant coach may have equally impactful roles.

The Mavericks reached the mountain top with a progressive route, and it is a sure bet that other NBA teams will try to emulate their strategy. We don’t know for sure what the Mavericks do behind the scenes, but a championship banner in American Airlines Center will prove their efforts were worthwhile.

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Comments

6/21/2011 9:56:53 AM #

pingback

Pingback from sports-reference.com

Basketball: The Mavericks and Pythagorean Wins »  Stathead  » Blog Archive

sports-reference.com

6/21/2011 10:19:19 PM #

Greyberger

Great read.  Wish somebody would do an overview look at the Mavs vs. Pyth expectation compared to other teams since 2007.  The Mavericks are consistently getting more wins out of slimmer margins, it seems, but more perspective is needed to say for sure.

Greyberger United States

6/23/2011 11:13:20 AM #

Rex

For the Mavs regular season stats, the games without Nowitzki should probably be thrown out.  Then I bet their championship starts to look a lot less improbable.

Rex United States

6/23/2011 11:13:38 AM #

Rex

For the Mavs regular season stats, the games without Nowitzki should probably be thrown out.  Then I bet their championship starts to look a lot less improbable.

Rex United States

6/23/2011 11:14:02 AM #

Rex

For the Mavs regular season stats, the games without Nowitzki should probably be thrown out.  Then I bet their championship starts to look a lot less improbable.

Rex United States

6/23/2011 11:14:15 AM #

Rex

For the Mavs regular season stats, the games without Nowitzki should probably be thrown out.  Then I bet their championship starts to look a lot less improbable.

Rex United States

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