The Dallas Mavericks won 67 games last year. Generally when teams win this many games the franchise gets an NBA title. The Mavericks, though, were bounced in the first round by the Golden State Warriors.
This year the Mavericks started out 9-2, which would put them on pace to win 67 games again. And then the Mavericks played the Pacers, Bucks, and Wizards – three teams that are not going to win an NBA title this year — and proceeded to lose three straight. Does such a streak suggest a problem in Dallas? Has the window closed on this team? Should Mark Cuban focus all his energy on buying the Cubs and winning a World Series?
Before we get too excited about three games, let’s remember the wisdom of Dean Oliver. Dean makes the following observation in Basketball on Paper: There is actually a 90% chance that a 0.300 team will win three in a row sometime in a season.
See, even bad teams will win three in a row. And conversely, good teams can lose three in a row.
This is a point that needs to be emphasized. In sports we tend to focus on what just happened. But evaluating a player or a team requires that we take a look at the big picture. We don’t focus on one play, one stat, one game, or one week. No, to get a sense of how “good” or “bad” a player or team is we need to consider all that has happened over a period of time.
So let’s take a step back and look at what the Mavericks have done this season (yes, I know, this is still too small of a sample). As I have done each time I looked at a team this season, I am going to offer two projections. The first assumes the players on the team will perform as they did last year. The second will look at what will happen if the players on the team keep playing as they have this season. Each perspective is offered in Table One.
If each player on the Mavericks maintained his per-minute performance from last year, this team would be on pace to win 55 games. Given what these players have done this year, this team is on pace to win 53 games. In sum, this team hasn’t really changed.
Luck and Dampier
Wait, that doesn’t make any sense. This team won 67 games last year. Clearly something changed.
To understand what’s different, we need to take another look at those 67 victories. When we look at efficiency differential (offensive efficiency – defensive efficiency), we see that the Mavericks had a mark of 7.8 last year. This translates into 61 wins, not 67 victories. In other words, the Mavericks 67 wins were a bit of a mirage last season. Yes, they were good, but not that good.
Of course, 61 still trumps 53 or 55. Where did the other wins go?
The key is the injury to Erick Dampier. In 2006-07 the Mavericks allocated 79% of its minutes at power forward and center to Dirk Nowitzki, DeSagana Diop, and Erick Dampier. This year, because Dampier has been hurt, the team has only given 72% of the minutes at the four and five spots to these three players. If these players each played as well as they did last year, and we simply return to the allocation of minutes we saw in 2006-07, the Mavericks would be projected to win 58 games this season.
In sum, there have basically been two changes in Dallas. Dampier got hurt and the team is now getting the number of wins from its efficiency differential that you would expect. So if you are a Mavericks fan, don’t panic. Your team is still good.
Can Dallas Finally Win a Title?
Is this team good enough, though, to win a title? That’s not quite as clear. When the season started I said the following teams would make the playoffs in the West: San Antonio, Phoenix, Dallas, New Orleans, Utah, Houston, Denver, and the LA Lakers. After a few weeks, here are the top eight teams in the West: San Antonio, Phoenix, Utah, Dallas, New Orleans, Denver, LA Lakers, and Houston. In essence, the Western Conference is falling right in line with what you would project before the season started (of course, don’t ask me about the East).
For one of these teams to wins a title it’s going to have to defeat three teams out West, and then defeat the Eastern champ (who will probably be Boston). For any team, that’s going to be difficult. We do know that one of the eight teams I mentioned will come out of the West. Dallas has a better chance than most, but probably not better odds than San Antonio or Phoenix. In sum, this could still be the Mavericks year. But just like last year, life would be so much easier if the Mavericks could move the city of Dallas to Rhode Island.
Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.
Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:
Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.