The following post was largely inspired by Jeremy Britton.
The Golden State Warriors started the season on a roll, going 17-8 in their first 25 games. But since that time, the Warriors have gone 10-9, and that has prompted comments like the ones written in Rusty Simmons’ article for the San Fransisco Chronicle, after the team had lost two games in a row:
“We know who we are, and we know what we have to do to win ballgames,” Warriors head coach Mark Jackson said. “Somehow, with a lack of size on the floor at times, we’ve found a way to be very successful during the course of the season. It’s a fact that we can get it done.
“When we don’t, it’s not due to a lack of size. It’s because of a lack of effort and commitment.”
— The Warriors have allowed consecutive opponents to corral at least 16 offensive rebounds. Only four of their first 41 opponents had done that.
— The Warriors have allowed consecutive opponents to grab at least 56 rebounds. Only two of their first 41 opponents had done that.
— The Warriors have allowed consecutive opponents to score at least 27 second-chance points. Only two of their first 41 opponents had done that.
Now this was before the Warriors ended up winning their game in Toronto, but fans of the Warriors will probably not be assuaged by one victory against a team with such a poor reputation, even if it was on the road. With a 27-17 record, the Warriors are still the 5th seed in the West — after missing the playoffs for 17 of the last 18 seasons, why are Dubs fans unhappy after two losses?
The casual perspective
To find out the answer to this, one must understand psychology. Humans have a tendency to see patterns in randomness. People love to assign significance to natural disasters, objects that resemble famous people, or random events. When a team is losing, something must be causing that losing; if a winning team suddenly loses a few games in a row, there must be a problem that needs addressing. Coaches, pundits, and fans want there to be something that can explain why the Warriors lost two games in a row, even if there is no easily identifiable cause. Because of this, they will go looking for answers already in the mindset that something needs fixing, instead of looking at results and seeking objective signs of abnormally poor play.
Furthermore, people love to believe in a just world. The Warriors lost because they aren’t good, and something is wrong with them. When the Warriors put together two consecutive victories, they will have won because they are good, and the issues will have been fixed (even if the fix is temporary). We also like to make the fundamental attribution error — the Warriors lost because they were lazy and didn’t put forth enough effort. It had nothing to do with the fact that they were placed in situations where losing was the most likely outcome.
The stathead perspective
When we consider these recent Warriors’ losses from a statistical perspective, two points immediately come to mind: sample size and point differential.
The problem with using two games to evaluate the quality of the Warriors is that a sample of two games is not big enough to tell us about the quality of a team. Over two games, things that have a small effect over the course of the entire season — acute injuries, suspensions, strange minute allocations, the location of the game, who the opponent is, the amount of rest of players and opponents — can have a large effect. Two games make up just under 2.5% of the entire season! It’s best to consider small stretches of games as being part of a larger picture. Even the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls — who set a record by going 72-10 during the regular season — lost two games in a row, to the Nuggets and Suns. And the Nuggets and Suns had even worse records than the Bulls and Bucks when they played the Warriors this season (the 1995-96 Nuggets were 18-26 at the time; the 1995-96 Suns were 20-24).
Another thing to consider is point differential, which is a better indicator of the quality of a team than win-loss record. As Patrick Minton of the NBA Geek has pointed out, the Warriors have won about 3 more games than we would expect given their point differential. This means that a few consecutive losses or a bad stretch might simply be the random fluctuation of a team that is worse than it appears. We should also take into consideration the fact that the Warriors played on the road against one team with a better point differential, and on the road against another team with a relatively similar point differential. Losing those two games was certainly possible.
The truth to all of this lies somewhere in the middle. The cold-hearted stathead will say that the Warriors lost games that no one should be surprised they lost. And yes, there are trends and good reasons they lost (for instance, David Lee, the All-Star, played terribly in the two game skid). The point is that it is far easier to overreact and to create false narratives. The harder route is to take a deep breath and see if there’s a real reason to worry. And I’d argue that barring Steph Curry’s ankles, Warriors fans really shouldn’t be that worried.