A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Guts & Domination Revisited: NBA ’10-11 Elite vs Elite Records

with 6 comments

With 4 of the top 8 teams playing against each other today, I thought it was a good time to look at how the top teams are doing against each other.  Here they are, with the explanation and takeway conclusions below.

What I Did & Why I Did It

-Compared games between the Top 8 teams in the league. This is a good cutoff both because these are the teams expected to get to the 2nd round, and frankly, the 9th best team (the Hawks) don’t feel elite to me. Know though, that had I included the Hawks, they’d have the least impressive “elite” records of the group.

-Early in the season basketball-reference did an analysis of the meaningfulness of winning close games vs not-so-close games, as well as winning against good teams vs winning against bad teams. It should be noted that his takeaway conclusion from it was that it was more important to decisively beat bad teams, than to win close games against good teams – and he used that to say there was really no basis for worry about the Heat losing to good teams. The analysis also showed though that the single most telling trend was winning decisively against good teams, so his was a statement really meant more about clutch-luck more than the importance of beating bad teams.

I took that analysis as a bit of an inspiration here except that I just looked at the truly elite teams, and that I broke down close and not-so-close games differently. b-r, called games decided by 5 or less close, and games decided by 9 or more not-so-close. Well, I don’t want ignore the 6-8 point margin games, and I also don’t have any particular use for creating a 3rd category. So for me, not-so-close games are those decided by 6 or more points.

The Takeaways

1. There seems to be an awfully high correlation between which teams are winning against other elites by significant margins, and which are not. I think the conclusion that we should care more about the significant margin games than the close games is fine – but clearly, it’s not very often that a team has a terrible record against elite teams in general, but looks good if you ignore the close games.

2. Clearly, the Spurs, the Mavericks, and the Celtics, come away here looking quite good. These are not teams just getting by winning close games. The Mavs and the Celtics in particular have played more games against the elites than anyone else, so they aren’t getting where they are simply because they’ve avoided the tough teams.

2. The Thunder look like a “happy to be here” team. They have established themselves as a 2nd round team, but whenever they go up against the true contenders, they are exposed.

3. The Magic should be encouraged. Despite their disappointing record (compared to their high expectations), when they face the big boys, they are not overmatched. Not even the elites have a reliable answer for Dwight Howard.

4. The Lakers don’t look good. I’ll have to look more into how they’ve done in previous seasons. This might be damning – but I have a hard time worrying too much about the two-time defending champs. Not that should be the title favorites right now, but there’s no team out there that I think the Lakers absolutely can’t beat in a series.

5. The Bulls‘ record doesn’t tell us very much other than we should take them significantly more seriously than the Thunder. Wait and see on these guys.

6. That leaves the Heat. Still don’t look that great. It’s true that going 2-3 in the “decisive” elite games is only 1 game below .500, so it’s certainly not the case that I think the Heat aren’t true contenders. They absolutely are. However, I think it’s quite fair to say that the Heat haven’t proven anything big yet against the other contenders.  They would seem to be in the same “wait and see” category as the Bulls.

I am a believer in SRS’ utility. I use it all the time in fact. However, I think anyone using at the Heat’s SRS along with their stellar record the last couple months to say that the Heat have figured everything out that they need to is fooling themselves. Simply put, this is not a team that can reasonably be claiming to coast to a strong-but-not-amazing record, and after now falling to 0-3 against the team that ended LeBron & Wade’s post-season last year, I have no doubt that the Heat themselves no that.

6 Responses

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  1. Fascinating research and it does provide comfort to Magic fans that they have a shot.

    I ran the numbers on the lakers against the other members of the top 8 during the RS by SRS from 08-10. The 08-10 lakers did much better against elite teams than this squad.

    2008: Lakers 12-11 + 0.565
    2009: Lakers 15-6 + 6.33
    2010: Lakers 11-11 even point differential

    What I find interesting is the decline from 09 to 10. As someone who believes the 09 lakers > 10 lakers this conforms to my view. Still, I also expected the 08 lakers to look better than the 10 lakers and they look identical.

    The other thing that would make me nervous if I was a laker fan is something I read another sportwriter point out. This team is basically at their ceiling. They haven’t had any injuries to Gasol, Kobe, or Odom. Bynum did miss a bunch of games but that was during their easy part of the schedule. The only important games he missed were the two Chicago games.

    I doubt there are any trades coming for LA. So unless they pick it up there quality of play significantly a three-peat will be very difficult.


    February 13, 2011 at 7:58 pm

    • Thanks, and nice addition with your comment.

      What’s definitely the case is that the ’09 Lakers were the most tuned in. The way the ’10 Lakers though played starting with the 2nd round seemed just as impressive though.

      I still can’t get too worried about the Lakers – but it’s hard to see them as clear favorites at this point. Your point about the Lakers largely being at their ceiling is also a good one, and a reason why the Celtics just impress the heck out of me.

      Matt Johnson

      February 15, 2011 at 12:01 am

  2. I was hoping someone had done this analysis, so thanks on that. Agree with your conclusions, although a couple of things make me wonder –

    The wait and see Bulls have been under the radar most of the year. Their 9-5 record (now) was compiled mainly without 1 of their big 3 on the floor, and 8-0 since Boozer’s integration into the line up is noteworthy – even if it’s all at home.

    Not ready to put the fork into the Lakers just yet… Having watched Phil win championship after championship since 1991, makes me uncomfortable writing them off. It almost feels like the Bulls 6th championship year. That team sleep walked through the regular season, had some bad losses, people were starting to wonder about them.

    I’d be interested in seeing how each of the teams have done based on the definitions of domination/stomp/skate in the original analysis.



    March 2, 2011 at 9:13 am

    • Glad you liked it!

      Good observation on the Bulls. I’m surprised I didn’t notice that long winning streak for them. Home or not, that ain’t easy.

      Re: Lakers. That sleepwalking thing has happened to some degree with every title the Lakers have won after the first Shaq-Kobe title, so it’s definitely wise to keep an eye on them.

      I’ll follow up this analysis at year’s end. If I have enough time, I’ll have both the details I did this time, and the one’s in b-r’s analysis.

      Matt Johnson

      March 3, 2011 at 1:15 am

  3. […] chart of how the elites have done against each other. (My original table from last month was in the Guts & Domination […]

  4. […] about this. He responded my first post analyzing how elite teams (top 8 in the league) were doing against each other before the all-star break noting that while the Bulls overall record was nothing terribly […]

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