Beyond the record: what can we make of early team performances?


It’s only been five games but, in a sense, these are the games that we learn the most about what to expect from the team. The most pleasant surprise has certainly been Richard Jefferson. After a productive preseason, Dejuan Blair has struggled early and the jury is still out on Tiago Splitter and Tony Parker. Obviously, we shouldn’t make too much of this limited sample, but which details warrant more or less attention?

3-point percentage is one of the most important factors to winning any basketball game. The team that shoots the higher percentage from beyond the arc wins about 70% of the time. However, 3-point percentage is the least reliable box score statistic from game to game.

The typical team shoots 36% from deep, but 10% of the time teams shoot better than 50% and nearly 12% of games teams shoot less than 20% from beyond the arc. This suggests we should be especially wary when we see that the Lakers are shooting 45% from deep or that the Thunder’s 3P% is just 19%.

(As a side note, the high variability of 3-point accuracy has the effect of bringing winning percentages closer to average. Taking more 3-pointers against better teams, or when trailing, increases winning percentage more than attempting 3-pointers against worse teams or when leading.)

Opponent Free Throw Shooting

Besides 3-point shooting, it is easy to see that statistics such as opponent free throw percentage are largely a product of luck (meaning that a team can do little to control how accurate their opponents are from the line.) However, this statistic has a real impact on wins and losses.

Surprisingly, opponent free throw percentage does not appear to be entirely attributable to luck. Teams that commit many technical fouls should be expected to have higher opponent free throw percentages. Perhaps some defensive teams also target poor free throw shooters more than others. In fact, opponent 3-point percentage is no more consistent than opponent free throw percentage from year to year. The following table shows how predictable team statistics are using team statistics from the prior year.

Team stats - year to year predictability

Team StatCorrelationSlope

Keep in mind that player minutes are about 65-70% similar from year to year, on average.

The slope is the percentage of last year’s data that should be used to best estimate the respective statistic. (The remaining percent is applied to a figure approximately equal to league average in this instance.) For example, if a team shoots 80% from the line when league average is 75%, we would expect them to shoot about 78% the next year (80%*56% + 75%*44% =77.8%).

Based on the above table, defensive 3-point percentage, defensive free throw percentage and team three point percentage are the most dependent on random fluctuation from year to year.

The variability in game to game statistics tells a similar story. Using credibility assuming a normal distribution, I estimated the slopes of each statistic for each game. If we divide all figures by 63% (not too far from the percentage of common minutes from year to year), the estimates are reasonably close to those in the first table.

Team Statistics - Credibility by game

Nxt Yr/63%92%61%99%89%95%79%80%82%96%88%99%

NBA 2001 early season ratings

Therefore, using the above results and information courtesy of, we can take a closer look at which teams have played the best so far over the early season.

Team Performance through 11-06-10

TmGWLORtgDRtgSRS3P%Opp 3P%Opp FT%Luck - MarginLuck - ScheduleLuck - ShootingLuck - TotalPrj Wins*

*Projection assumes teams continue to perform at current standard.
“SRS” – Simple Rating System from This is basically scoring differential adjusting for strength of schedule.
“Luck – Margin” – Wins – Pythagorean Expectation based on scoring margin
“Luck – Schedule” – Pythagorean Expectation – Expected wins using SRS
“Luck – Shooting” – SRS win expectation – Expected wins removing 75% of the differences from average for opponent 3P% and FT% and 33% of the difference between team 3P% and average

In the early season, Atlanta has benefited most from factors that are not likely to continue. As of Sunday morning, The Hawks record is perfect thus far at 6-0 (Note: Yeah, they lost to Phoenix yesterday… this was written before that), but they have picked up approximately 1.4 wins more than their scoring margin dictates (scoring margin is a much better predictor or future wins than win/loss record) and 1.4 additional wins due to a soft early season schedule. As their SRS indicates, the Hawks are much closer to average than perfection.

Houston has suffered the most from poor luck thus far, losing 1.6 games more than their scoring differential suggests, 1.2 due to a difficult early schedule and 0.5 from “unlucky shooting.” At this point in the season, one could argue that Houston at 0-5 has played better than Atlanta at 6-0!

Spurs evaluation

The Spurs have four wins in five games, which is nearly one more than their scoring differential would suggest. Obviously, I doubt that many would expect the Spurs to continue winning 80% of their games and finish with 66 wins. Their scoring margin expects them to finish with around 51 wins, which is more reasonable. However, the Spurs have been particularly hurt by their opponents shooting 42% from long range (compared to 34% from last year). After accounting for team schedule and “lucky shooting” the Spurs are playing like a team projected to win in the neighborhood of 57 games.

One positive factor that this estimate doesn’t account for is the future presences of Matt Bonner and Tiago Splitter (in more meaningful roles, anyway). On the negative side, RJ will certainly regress from his 60% 3-point percentage and his 68% 2-point accuracy. However, his free throw and 3-point rates are encouraging. I like that the Spurs seem more committed to involving him on the offense. George Hill has also managed to get to the line frequently in his limited minutes thus far.

Keep in mind that the 57 “projected wins” for the Spurs is not really my best expectation, but rather a measure of how well they have performed to this point. If, for simplicity, we use the credibility factor for Margin at 5 games in table 2; we can see that 5 games are approximately 37% credible. Therefore, if we assume 41 wins for all teams at the beginning of the year, we now have enough information to project the Spurs to win approximately 47 games. (0.37*57+0.63*41) A better estimate would start with a projection at the beginning of the year, but would require a completely different credibility factor.

It is interesting that the Spurs have seemed to have shifted their focus more to offense thus far this year after being such a defensive force in years past. The Spurs offensive rating has improved from 9th to 5th, while their defensive rating has fallen from 8th all the way down to 17th. Their rank in pace has jumped from 20th to 7th. Most alarmingly, the Spurs, ranked right near the top (5th) in opponent efficient field goal percentage in 2010, now rank 27th. If we assume the same 3-point percentage the Spurs allowed last year, the Spurs would improve to 18th.

Tim Varner mentioned to me in a conversation that Spurs’ team defenses have started very poorly historically, steadily improving throughout the year. He suggested that Coach Pop’s complicated defensive schemes typically take longer for players to learn. Although I’m not sure how significant this learning curve is, it at least seems like a plausible factor to me.

Despite the defensive concerns, there are positives to take from the Spurs early early performances. Expect the shooting rates to even out in the long term, but pay greater attention to changes in team and player approach. And remember, a game or two could still change the perspective rather significantly at this point.

  • Hobson13

    Spurs defense is bad, but their offense is great. That’s been us in a nutshell so far. Despite our 4-1 start, we’ve actually had some injury concerns, but the injuries are amongst the younger players. Hill missed a bit of time and Splitter is still several weeks away from being in NBA game shape. Of course Bonner has been out for 4 of the 5 games. Once these players are healthy and playing their role, it will significantly improve our team.

    In my view, by FAR the biggest reason for our quick start has been due to the performances of our big 4. Last year, Manu took months to look this good. RJ has been RJ and was key in our last two wins and although Tim and Tony have been a bit inconsistent, when they have played well, they have been unstoppable. Of course we haven’t exactly played the Lakers and Celtics every game either. However, I don’t hold that against the Spurs. We need to beat the easier teams early in the year in an effort to weld this group together. We can play the big boys later in the year when we have come closer to incorporating our young pieces.

    Really, besides Anderson and Neal, our young guys either haven’t played well (Blair) or have missed time due to injury (Hill and Splitter). Much depends upon these 5 players if we are to make a serious playoff push, but I think they will impress once they are playing at 100% capacity.

    Anyway, let’s hope we can find some defense and beat the Cats tonight. A 5-1 start would be big for this team.

  • td4life

    We have 3 more games in our soft opening schedule. Aside from getting 3 wins, I will like to see how well we are getting at limiting turnovers, and improving our defense. Also, I am really looking forward to seeing more great play from RJ, he will not continue to hit nearly everything, but a great 8 game start will make me extremely happy. I believe in the big 3 already, so the main players I’m anticipating watching tonight are Anderson (especially in matchups with Jackson or Wallace), Hill, and most of all, Mr. Blair.

    I see this 3 game stretch as quite important, because we should start to look like a lot more than a D’Antoni team one week from now.

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  • bduran

    I would think that using last years wins or expected wins based on point differential would be a better starting point.

    Then we’d get something like (.xx*55+(1-.xx)*57) giving us about 56 wins. That seems reasonable especially since there were no major roster changes.

    Right now we’re a good offensive team and an average defensive team. This will definitely win us some games, but obviously the D needs to improve. Luckily, it looks like we will end up with a good record regardless, so there is still plenty of time to improve.

  • VP of Common Sense

    My thoughts:


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  • joshmbp

    what is this tony isnt playing well stuff? hes gotten double digit assists how many times? he never does that. he also CARRIED us in overtime vs the Bteam rockets lol. Personally i think he looks better this year than he has in a long long time.

  • joshmbp

    also is there a way to look at the stats of the bench defense vs the starter defense? ill bet part of our slow defensive start is due to pop having to integrate neal, anderson, and splitter all to our defense.

  • ITGuy

    @VP of Common Sense
    ditto for me!

    At the end, the only stat that will matter (to me anyway) is if we have 4 rings or 5.

    Go Spurs Go!!

  • Rick Ashford

    The “Tony isn’t playing well” comes mainly from watching him. He’s not getting buckets in the same way that we’re used to seeing him do it.

    He’s blown layups, looked slow, and looks like he’s forgotten how to dribble. I don’t ever remember him getting stripped as often as he has in this early part of the season.

    He has been managing to get points, and he’s gotten double-digit assists, but, to me at least, he’s looked pretty ragged as he’s doing it.

    Granted, if he’s still getting the results, that’s great since he should be even better as he rounds into form over the course of the season. I fully expect the turnovers to go down and for him to sharpen up as we go along.

  • Rick Ashford

    By the way, I strongly suspect that before long we’re going to see the switch where Manu and Blair move to the bench, while McDyess (or Splitter) and Hill move into the starting lineup.

    McDyess or Splitter will probably depend on Splitter’s conditioning level, and whether Pop wants to Tim to be the option down on the block (McDyess), or to operate out of the high post (Splitter) to save the wear and tear on his body.

  • td4life

    Tony’s assist numbers are gonna be noticably higher in a fast-paced offense, as the offense has so many more possessions. And also get a small boost whenever RJ is hitting everything he throws up there, as has nearly been the case so far.

    But, that said, Tony should have a good year… I’d look more at his shot and free throw numbers to improve than his passing, but if he’s ever gonna become a smart, veteran facilitator now would be a good year to expect to see that from him.

  • rob

    56 – 57 wins. Off the top of my head that’s what I projected for this year barring injury to one of the big 3. And by all accounts that would be a successfull season.

    “Tim Varner mentioned to me in a conversation that Spurs’ team defenses have started very poorly historically, steadily improving throughout the year.”

    This is true. Their defense usually doesn’t start getting into playoff shape until February. If the team can manage to pull out a few more close wins before that…their chances of winning more could possibly increase.

    To me their biggest test(s) will come in how they play frontcourt talented teams. That should give us an idea of how they might do in the playoffs.

  • Jim Henderson

    Interesting, but obviously this is too small of a sample size to be highly indicative, even when trying to adjust for other factors like strength of schedule, etc. For example, Miami has won 4 of their five games against crappy teams, with a scoring margin of +20. Thus the SRS measure is highly skewed at this point of the season, and the Heat have had an overall weak schedule, which included a couple of outliers (Boston, and a comatose Magic team in that game). I suppose one could include the upstart, but still relatively unproven Hornet team as well (a loss). As a result, Miami’s projected wins are positively skewed because of a misleading scoring differential at this early point in the season (against Philly, Wolves, & Nets twice). Miami has only beaten one good team so far, a hyped up 1st home game against a Magic team that is psychologically unpredictable under “high attention” circumstances, as last season’s playoff performance attests to.

    I’d like to revisit this at the end of January. We’d get a more accurate picture at that point.

  • Gebo

    Mcdyss is playing great. This is the first time I can remember him starting off this strong. In the past (at least in my mind) he has always saved his best play for the last third of the regular season and the playoffs. It did my heart good to see Mcdyss and Grant Hill play so well in the recent Phoenix game. Old injuries be damned.
    If Blair does’t improve his play Splitter is going to steadily take minutes away from him as he rounds into shape. I don’t feel good about saying it, but if Anderson/Neal keep hitting shots and George Hill keeps missing them they are going to eat into his court time. With the old guys, the new guys, and the hurt guys we are doing very well to be 4-1. I’m proud of them.

  • miggy

    About winning by playing scrubs. I remember how the 49ers used to build up their winning percentage by whipping up on their conference powder puffs. It translated into 4 Super bowls during the Montana era. I wonder how playing and winning in a powder puff conference translates into winning in the playoffs. I know the Spurs have not been in this situation, but it seems like the East produced the Pistons and the Heat championships playing in their prospective powder puff conferences in the 2000’s. Are playing against inferior foes and winning against those inferior teams good for your team or bad? I guess that is my question. It may just come down in the end to coaching.

  • Tim in Surrey

    @Gebo – This is the first time ANYONE can remember Antonio McDyess starting off this strong! He’s famous for starting slowly and only rounding into form around February. In 2005, there was very little press about his play for the Pistons because he started so slowly. But if you remember that series, he was by far their best player in June. When I see double-doubles from Antonio in November, I start to look for other signs that the end of all things might be upon us…

    @miggy – It’s really not the same situation as in the NFL. Almost all of the NBA champs of the last 20 years have come from a much tougher Western Conference, aside from Michael Jordan’s Bulls (whom I think we can all agree were an entirely different story). Of the other 14 teams to win championships in that span, 11 were from the West: LA won 5 titles, the Spurs won 4, and the Rockets won 2. Additionally, three of the West teams that didn’t win, the ’96 Sonics, ’97 Jazz, and 2007 Mavericks, had the three best records of any teams NOT to win a title. And for more than a decade in the 60s and 70s, the Lakers dominated a much weaker Western Conference but only won a single title. Of course, most of those losses were to the other big outlier in NBA history, Bill Russell’s Celtics. But at the time, everybody thought it was significant that even when the Celtics didn’t make the finals (in ’67, ’70, ’72, and ’73) the Lakers STILL only won once.

    So the general trend throughout NBA history has been that the team from the strongest conference usually wins the championship (unless Michael Jordan is on the other team).

  • Rick

    Interesting look at the start. As teams round out and focus on weak areas (D) I think the faster starters will be able to tweak other areas sooner.
    Thanks for the insight.

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