Pythagoras Strikes Back

Maybe the most famous non-traditional stat is Bill James’ Pythagorean theorem or expected win percentage. James looked at how runs scored/allowed related to win percentage, and found that you can better approximate how a team will perform year to year by looking at runs scored/allowed than their actual win percentage. By using a team’s expected win percentage, you can identify teams that have been “lucky” or “unlucky” by looking at how their actual win percentage differs from the expected win percentage.

At the top of the lucky pile are two darkhorse contenders on the 2007 season. The Utah Jazz have been a pleasant surprise with the West’s second best record. Unfortunately for Mormons & uranium miners alike, the Jazz’s expected win percentage says the team is no better than 5th. Utah has been fabulous on offense, sporting the league’s 2nd ranked defense behind efficient shooting (51.2% eFG 5th) and strong glasswork (32.6% oREB% 1st). However the Jazz have been merely 21st on defense. They’re the worst team in the league in allowing opponents free points (33.0 FT/FG 30th), which should come to no surprise to those with Jerry Sloan posters on their walls. The Jazz have ranked no better than 25th in that category in the last 7 years, and have finished last or next to last in 5 of those seasons. Talk about the no-layup rule.

Just like Utah in the West, Orlando is an unexpected playoff candidate sitting in second in the Eastern standings. However like the Utah Jazz, Orlando doesn’t have the point differential to make one think that they’re likely to stay there. The Magic are 16-10, despite being outscored by 5 points on the season. Unlike Utah who is having problems on the defensive end, Orlando isn’t getting it done on the offensive end. The Magic are dead last in the league in turnovers (19.5 TO% 30th), and their young star is the main culprit. Dwight Howard averages 3.8 turnovers per 40 minutes, and ranks 10th in John Hollinger’s turnover ratio. Howard isn’t the only problem, as Hill, Nelson, Arroyo, Milicic, and Bogans all average 3.0 turn/40 or more. Combined, the only Magic tricks these players are performing is the old “let’s make our possessions disappear.” That particular trick seems to have been mastered by the ’77 Nuggets (21.4 TO%) who was coached by Larry Brown. Maybe Brown being awoken in the middle of the night by repeated nightmares of that offense throwing the ball out of bounds traumatized Larry and sent him on a 25 year journey to get basketball teams to “play the right way”? Who knows?

While their poor expected win percentage doesn’t doom either of these teams, it does help expose a flaw in each of them. As the season goes on expect one of two things to happen. Either these teams will find a way to address these issues, or their actual win percentage will start to match their expected win percentage.

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Mike Kurylo

Mike Kurylo is the founder and editor of His book on the 2012 Knicks, "We’ll Always Have Linsanity," is on sale now. Follow him on twitter (@KnickerBlogger).

14 thoughts to “Pythagoras Strikes Back”

  1. Point differential is essentially the best way to gauge the quality of a team, so it’s amazing to take a glance at the standings and see that the runaway leader in this category are the San Antonio Spurs.

    At +9.7 ppg, the Spurs are almost 30% ahead of the second place team, the Suns, who are at +6.9.

    If you put the Spurs through the Pythagorean computer, their expected win percentage is an eye-boggling .935!!!!!

    The Spurs, by that metric, should be 23-2 right now, which would put them on pace to win 77 games and obliterate the Bulls record.

    If the luck evens out for the Spurs, we’ll be writing columns about them in the Spring calling them one of the greatest teams ever. Yet because they still have an excellent, but not extraordinary, win-loss record, we haven’t taken the time yet to appreciate them.

  2. Mea cupla. I did the math wrong.

    The Spurs should have a .806 expected win percentage, which would suggest a 20-5 record,
    and a 66-win season.

    Certainly impressive. It would be the best mark of Duncan’s career, but it doesn’t begin to approach the 72-10 Bulls.

  3. Thanks for the stats page!!

    Wooooo-hooooo!! My Chicago Bulls have the highest expected win percentage in the East – and that was prior to beating the LA Lakers by 5 last night!!!

    All the stars are aligning for the Bulls. How about an NBA Finals appearance (Chicago-Phoenix would be awesome) and a top 3 pick in the deepest NBA Draft in years??

    Sorry to gloat. Isiah outplayed John Paxson so often ON the court – and then Pax de-pants Isiah in the boardroom. Sweeeeet.

  4. Larry, our Bulls have to improve at winning the close ones. The reason for the disparity is the games they let get away: they never should have lost the Sacramento game, and to a lesser extent, the Rockets/Nugs/Laker games. Win three of those four, and the winning percentage is on line with the expected percentage.

    The better news? They’ve won two close ones in a row, without relying on Gordon chucking 20-footers to put teams away. Not that Big Ben hitting two free throws to send a game to OT is a nicer alternative, though. :)

  5. I don’t trust this stat. If a team doesn’t blow teams out very well there expected win % will be worse. At the end of the day, whether it be by 60 or on a running lay-up by Stephon Marbury it counts as exactly 1 win.

  6. Hudson – a sign of a good team isn’t how many 1 point games they win, but how often they just blow their opponent out of the water. With the NBA FG% near 50% you figure the 1 point games are luck at best.

  7. If anyone is watching tonight’s Charlotte-Knicks game, remember this from 2 nights ago:

    “Did anyone else go ballistic when the game was tied in regulation, and Crawford pulls up for a 3?

    That drives me absolutely nuts, and Jamal does it all the time. You need 1 point. Move in 6 feet & take the 18 footer! Or drive & try to draw a foul. A three point shot is about the worst shot you can take in that situation.”

    So what does Jamal do in the closing seconds of regulation? Take a foot on the line 2 pointer. Drive me nuts. N-V-

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