A League of Their Own
The current prevailing opinion is that there are three clear cut NBA Championship contenders?Spurs, Mavs, and Suns?with the rest of the league on the outside looking in. We as objective analysts make our living proving popular opinion wrong?except when it?s exactly right on the money.
The Spurs, Mavs, and Suns really are the three best teams in the league. How do we know this? We could point to Win-Loss record, but that?s somewhat subject to randomness at this point. In other words, it?s subject to luck and luck is neither an indicator of quality, nor has any ?predictive? worth. Instead, we?ll look at the expected win percentage calculated from the margin of victory for each team. Much has been written about using expected wins to predict which teams have been under or over performing their actual records. In fact, this metric is actually a better tool for simply judging a team?s quality in the first place since it takes into account every single play of the season and does not overvalue a lucky bounce or two.
The Spurs (+8.8), Suns (+6.9), and Mavs (+6.8) rank first, second, and third in win margin, respectively. All three have been relatively healthy, but more importantly, they each have a track record of success. These are three of the top five teams for the last several years running. But saying they are the best three does not speak for their quality. These three teams are quite a bit ahead of the next contenders, the Rockets (+5.6) and Bulls (+5.0), who are themselves far ahead from the next grouping of teams. It?s not just that one team is better than another, it?s that they are significantly better than the next?not only are they the best, they are the best by a mile.
This bunching at the top is no surprise. Last season had the same results. The Spurs (+6.8), Pistons (+6.7), Mavs (+6.1), and Suns (+5.6) finished at the top of the league in win margin, with a considerable drop to the fifth best team, and eventual NBA Champion, the Heat (+3.9).
The Gold Standard
Look at those win margins again: +8.8, +6.9, +6.8. Which of those three does not belong? If the Spurs, Suns, and Mavs are the three best teams in the league, it?s certainly not a case of take your pick for which one these is the NBA?s gold standard. That distinction belongs to the Spurs (+8.8) and to the Spurs alone.
In fact, one could argue that the NBA title picture should say Spurs, then everyone else. The Spurs rank first the way Tiger Woods is ahead of Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, or how Spitzer won the gubernatorial election, or how Ali beat Sonny. The Spurs are two points per game ahead of the Suns, which translates to four wins in the final standings. Two points and four wins doesn?t seem a lot, and it shouldn?t if we?re talking about average to above average, since it?s relatively easy to improve a team from forty to forty-four wins. But it?s considerably more difficult to get an already elite team into another stratosphere of competitive value, to go from sixty-two to sixty-six wins.
Think of the improvement with the analogy of PER. For a player to improve his rating from the league average, 15, and get to above average, 18, is relatively easy?but it?s considerably more difficult to go from a MVP-level season, 27, and genetically morph into Michael Jordan, 30. This is actually exactly what the Spurs have done. And they?ve done it with excellence on both sides of the court.
Characteristically, the Spurs rank second in the league in Defensive Efficiency, behind Houston, who has a mediocre offense. The Spurs also rank fourth in Offensive Efficiency behind the Suns, Wizards, and Pistons. The Wizards are as bad at defense as they are good in offense. The Piston?s slip in defense pushes them to merely above average. The Suns are a good, but not great, defensive team, which coupled with their league-leading offense, is enough to make them the second best team in the league behind the Spurs. For the record, the Mavs are sixth in offense and fifth in defense, so they?re no slouches either. They?re like the Spurs-lite?the less filling, low-calorie version.
The Spurs are not getting much press at the time since they haven?t had a double-digit win streak, and are basically under-performing their expected wins, but nonetheless, if you?re looking to find a team to top your power rankings, make a stop at the Alamo.
The Best Spurs Team Ever
The Spurs are currently outplaying their opponents at the rate of +10.0 points per one-hundred possessions?that?s not good, it?s scary. There are about fifty games left to be played, but at this pace, this years version of the Tim Duncan’s Spurs would be the first to have better than a +10.0 in efficiency. We are looking at possibly the best Spurs season ever. And mind you, the man has already won three championships.
The lowest spread for any Duncan non-rookie season was +6.3, which put them on pace for 57 wins. Of course, that?s one of the years they won the Championship, beating the Nets in six games. The Spurs best regular season was +9.6 in ?00-01. They were expected to win 63, only won 58, then they were swept out of the conference finals by the Lakers, whose only playoff loss that year came in overtime of Game 1 of the Finals to Allen Iverson?s Sixers.
Tim Duncan?s San Antonio Spurs?point differential per 100 possessions
?06-07: +10.0 (through 33 games)
Subjectively, this outstanding quality is hard for us to notice because the Spurs are always an excellent team. It?s easy to notice the change from bad to good, or to see that the acquisition of a new player has had a positive effect on a team. What we don?t often notice is the ascent from elite to absolute, relentless powerhouse.
Year after year the Spurs produce at an incredibly high level, with machine-like consistency, led by one of the greatest players of his generation, who also happens to have almost no marketable personality to speak of. In a very real sense, we take them completely for granted.
A lot could change in the next fifty games. Just because they?re on pace to be a team for the ages, of course, doesn?t mean they?ll finish this way. Blowouts do have more effects on the numbers. But then again, winning by a blowout (and not losing by blowout) is a good indicator of a quality team. And, of course, as evidenced by previous Spurs seasons, having an outstanding regular season win margin doesn?t guarantee you the championship. It just makes you the favorite.
Michael Zannettis has a Masters in Public Policy and writes regularly on his blog, www.michaelzannettis.com, exploring topics such as politics, science, humor, and what young people do with their free time. His first full-length manuscript, ?At the Feet of Giants?, is currently in search of a publisher. He lives in Astoria where he often dramatically reenacts the Larry Johnson four-point play at the local playground.