Striking Gold in the Alamo

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)
?05-06: +8.0
?04-05: +9.1
?03-04: +8.3
?02-03: +6.3
?01-02: +7.1
?00-01: +9.6
?99-00: +7.0
?98-99: +8.9
?97-98: +4.8

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,, 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.

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19 thoughts to “Striking Gold in the Alamo”

  1. thank you sir, that was enjoyable and informative. why more people can’t conduct simple analysis and share it in an equally simple way is perplexing.

  2. Great article. There might not be many replies since there’s nothing controversial, but please give us more of these posts.

  3. ” . . enjoyable and informative.”
    “Great article”.

    You guys got to be kidding.

    Maybe I’ll get banned from the board for this, but I think all this over-analysis is meaningless (i.e some coaches run up scores more than others) and BORING. You want to know who the best teams are, then look at the records and see the games.

    Turn the sound off and watch the games. You’ll know who’s good and not.

  4. big fella – that’s a great contribution.


    sorry for the triple post – i didn’t think it was going through.

  5. over analysis? this is analysis, period. if you prefer getting your info from espn’s bobblehead dolls and charles barkley, be my guest.

    and if you are so sure that a teams current record is fully indicative of their abilities, get back to us in a month when the bulls are leading their division and the spurs have the best record in basketball.

  6. Case in point. The Mavs-Spurs game last night was a spellbinding. I had the sound off and it was basketball ballet – Passing to find the open man, high percentage shots, great hustle, and minimal turnovers, the way the game should be played. Great game. Mavs win by one in the last second.

    When that game ended, I turned on the Knicks-Seatle game which was just beginning. . . and tuned it off midway through the second quarter. When I clicked off the tv I said outloud, “I can’t watch this shit”. My girl turned to me and said, “I thought the knicks are your favorite team”. I replied, “they are, but they suck.”

    I know the Knicks won handily, but what slop. Selfish, poor shot selection, minimal passing to find the open man, rediculous turnovers, and general undiciplined play characterize their style of play.

    No sound, forget the scores. I don’t need statisticians telling me which are the best teams in the NBA.

    In the end, the Mavs beat the Spurs by one point, and the Knicks won by twenty one. What does that tell you. Not much.

    Generally, in any sport, the team that wins the championship is usually considered the best team, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes, a great team just gets cold in the playoffs, but everyone still knows they really are the best team. Why?, because everyone witnessed their play all season, not because of any particular statistic.

    Turn this message board into a lot of hypothetical statistical analysis, and watch how quickly everyone dissappears – even the guys who posted above who say they love the article.

  7. the reason the above article is silly is because no real title contender is trying their hardest for 48 minutes game in and game out in the first 40 games. margin of victory for those teams is irrelevant, it’s about trying to win as many games as possible while conserving as much energy as possible. we all know the Spurs are great, but if they have to beat both Phoenix and Dallas, it’s going to be tough.

    analysis along these lines is silly in the West, but impossible in the East. teams like Detroit and Cleveland are giving sporadic quality efforts, because there’s no reason to do anything more. Detroit learned their lesson last year, they pushed so hard during the regular season that they burned out in the playoffs. the above type of pseudo-analysis at this point in the season last year would have told us that Detroit would crush San Antonio in the Finals. pointless…

    and to the above post, you needed to watch those games to tell you San Antonio and Dallas were better than the Knicks? the Knicks happened to play one of their best quarters of the season in the first last night, they looked awesome.

  8. It’s 2007, right?

    Not 1987?

    Just checking, because when I see someone disputing point differential (which is one of the most fundamentally basic basketball statistics out there), I get confused.

  9. yep, it’s 2007. maybe you need to look a little deeper, my man, because looking at point differential alone leads to inane gems like this:

    “The Spurs rank first the way Tiger Woods is ahead of Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els”

    um, Dallas has won in San Antonio three times in a row now.

  10. here’s my analysis of what we’ve learned so far this season that we didn’t know in the offseason, in terms of a potential 2006-2007 champion:

    1) San Antonio (my preseason pick, over the Cavs), Dallas and Phoenix are still all roughly equal. the only development here is that Amare is most of the way back, although still not quite the explosive leaper he was pre-surgery, he’s fit in very well with his new teammates. the #1 seed in the West is important, as it likely means that that team will only have to play one of the other two in the playoffs. the top seedings in the East are pretty irrelevant, the top teams there seem more focused on pacing themselves, especially Detroit and Cleveland.

    2) Miami’s taking this coasting thing to a new level, and have their work cut out for them to even make the playoffs at this point. they have five games left on this current West Coast trip, and if they don’t win any of those, they need to go 30-15 to get to 43 wins. it’s still doable, but it’s getting harder.

    3) Detroit doesn’t miss Ben Wallace much.

    4) if Arenas keeps playing MVP-type ball, Washington is the team no one wants to see in the Eastern playoffs.

    that’s about it, we’re still very early on, in terms of meaningful games for the top teams.

  11. hoolahoop: Some people like to enjoy the game on multiple levels. This site/article is clearly geared for those that enjoy the statistical aspect of analysing the NBA along with the asthetic beauty of the game. I wouldn’t ban you, unless you were disruptive, and I’ll guess that you won’t be coming back much since the articles bore you.

  12. I know about Pythagorean win%, it’s flawed for baseball and decidedly more flawed in hoops.

    my point is people need to look more at the specifics of situations.
    Dallas has gone 27-3 since their 0-4 start, including two wins in SA, plus they knocked SA out of the playoffs last year. that one purely factual sentence renders the above article entirely pointless.

  13. correction: it’s not flawed for baseball, it’s relevance is just overrated by sabermetricians. it is semi-interesting in baseball, though.

    but I’ll stick with my contention that looking at point differential for the first 40 games of an NBA season will tell you nothing anyone paying attention to the league doesn’t know already. and in fact, it can lead to a decidedly flawed thesis like the one above.

  14. jon, I don’t see how those facts makes the “article entirely pointless.” Take this paragraph:

    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.

    Yup the Spurs have been good for years now. They have a 2-time MVP on the roster. And it’s true that most people take the team for granted.

    I don’t see anything in your statement that invalidates any of these points.

  15. they’ve been the consensus favorite going into both last season and this season, who’s taking them for granted? they’re dull as hell to watch, and most people wish they would go away already and let Dallas and Phoenix inherit the West, but no one paying attention doesn’t think they’re a serious title contender.

    the above article combines a healthy dose of common knowledge with an overreliance on numbers to produce a decidedly flawed conclusion, that San Antonio is quite a bit better than both Dallas and Phoenix. well, no, as we saw again soon after this was published. if you feel compelled to defend it because it’s on your site, fine, but that doesn’t make it a worthwhile piece.

  16. 17 days later, how silly does this look now? overrating “point differential” made this writer think that San Antonio was head and shoulders above Phoenix and Dallas, and in reality it seems like the exact opposite is true. still a long way to go, just saying, since people took issue when I raised similar points earlier.

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