The top three teams in the NBA this past season were Boston, the LA Lakers, and Detroit. Whether we look at won-loss record or efficiency differential, these three teams were clearly the best.
The Fourth Best Team in 2007-08
But who is number four? If we look at won-loss record we see two teams with 56 wins (San Antonio and New Orleans). And we see two more teams with 55 victories (Houston and Phoenix). But efficiency differential tells us that it’s the Utah Jazz – who won 54 games last year – that ranks just behind the big three.
Utah’s mark of 7.15 was just behind the Lakers differential of 7.35. And the difference between Jazz and the Pistons (Detroit’s differential was 8.17) was actually smaller than the gap between the differential of Utah and New Orleans (the team with the 5th best differential last year).
In spite of this mark, though, Utah tends to be ignored when people get around to listing the NBA’s elite teams. For example, Houston – the team Utah eliminated in the first round of the 2007 and 2008 playoffs – seems to be more frequently listed as a potential NBA contender (this is just my impression).
As a new resident of the state of Utah I can tell you why the perception of the Jazz seems to fall short of Utah’s actually production. Clearly, because Utah is not a major media market, the nation’s sports media discounts the achievements of the Jazz. At least, that’s what every team in a smaller market claims when it’s slighted (or just thinks it is slighted) by the national media. I heard these arguments when I lived in Detroit, Nebraska, Colorado, Iowa, and even Bakersfield, California (damn, I got to quit moving).
Counting Top Players
Whether or not the perception of Utah matches its performance is open to debate. The actual performance of this team last year, though, is far more certain. The Jazz were one of the best teams in the NBA. And when we look at Wins Produced, we can see which players were responsible for this outcome.
An average NBA player posts a WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] of 0.100. When we look at Table Two, we see that Utah employed five players – Carlos Boozer, Deron Williams, Ronnie Brewer, Andrei Kirilenko, and Paul Milsap – who exceeded the average threshold. Three of these players – Boozer, Williams, and Brewer – topped the 0.200 mark. As I have noted in the past, a team of 0.200 players would be expected to win all of their games. In essence, such players could be thought of as perfect (although obviously all players still make mistakes).
When I looked over Utah’s roster I wondered how many other team could boast such a collection of top talent. With this thought in mind I looked at the players who logged at least 1,000 minutes for a single team in 2007-08. From this list of players, I then counted how many 0.200+ players (WP48 in excess of 0.200) and 0.100+ players (WP48 in excess of 0.100) each team employed. The results are reported in Table Three
Table Three ranks teams first according to the number of 0.200+ players on a team. It then looks at the number of 0.100+ players. What stands out when you look at this table is that except for the Philadelphia 76ers, the 16 playoff teams in 2008 finished in the top 16 in Table Three. In sum – and this is not a shocking finding – top teams tend to employ the largest number of very good players.
When we look over the specific teams in Table Three, we are not surprised to see the Celtics lead the field. The Mavericks, Lakers, and Jazz should actually be thought of as tied, since Devin Harris was traded for Jason Kidd. In other words, the Mavericks never employed six +0.100 players at one time this past season.
Looking Forward in Utah
Looking back at the Jazz, we see that with respect to 0.200+ and 0.100+ players, only the Celtics looked like a clearly better team in 2007-08. If we look forward to 2008-09, though, we should first note that Kirilenko’s career WP48 mark stands at 0.262. And Brevin Knight, the latest edition to the team, has a career mark of 0.160. Furthermore, Mehmut Okur and Matt Harpring also have career averages in the 0.100+ range (0.138 and 0.132 respectively).
So if these players post career average marks in 2008-09, and the remaining Jazz do not change from the 2007-08 level of production, the Jazz will have four 0.200+ and eight 0.100+ players. In sum, Utah would look like a very serious contender in 2009.
If we break it down by position, we see that the Jazz – if Okur returns to his career average – have an above average player at every position in the starting line-up. The weakness last year was at back-up point guard and back-up center. The addition of Knight appears to correct the back-up point guard problem. And in the draft, the Jazz selected center Kosta Koufos. Although Erich Doerr’s analysis doesn’t indicate that Koufas will help much, at least an effort was made to shore up a team weakness.
Losing the Last Game
Even if the Jazz are still stuck with Jarron Collins in the front-court, though, Utah looks like a formidable team. Unfortunately, it also looks like Utah is once again destined to fall just a bit short.
To put the “once again” in perspective, we need to remember that the top five teams – in terms of efficiency differential – since 1973-74 (the first year we can calculate differential) were the Chicago Bulls of 1995-96 (13.00 differential), the Chicago Bulls of 1996-97 (11.61 differential), the Boston Celtics of 2007-08 (10.95 differential), the Chicago Bulls of 1991-92 (10.64 differential), and the Utah Jazz of 1996-97 (9.39 differential).
Yes, the Jazz of 1996-97 were one of the top five teams since 1973-74. But it could not win an NBA title because in the finals it faced a Chicago Bulls team -with Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, and company – that was one of the top two teams since 1973-74.
I fear the same scenario will play out in 2008-09. We should expect the Jazz to be one of the top teams in the league. But I can’t see this team passing the Lakers or Celtics in 2009. So although Utah has assembled an impressive roster – perhaps the most impressive edition of this franchise since 1996-97 – the fate of this team will probably be similar to what we saw in 1997. Utah will win a mess of games, only to lose the last game it plays in the 2009 playoffs.
Although this will make people in Utah sad, it should not detract from the fact that one of the very best teams in the NBA is in Utah. And that should (probably won’t, but it should) get some attention from the national sports media.
And I am not just saying all this because I really like living in Utah.
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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.