The Story is Probably the Same in Miami

The Miami Heat went to New York last week and walked away losers.  For the third time this season, Miami lost consecutive games.  And now, the team only ranks 5th in the NBA in winning percentage and point differential.

The Heat have won the last two NBA titles and the the last three Eastern Conference championships. The losses to both the Knicks and Nets, though, might lead some to wonder if the Heat’s dominance is nearing the end.

Or perhaps it’s a different story.  Perhaps – as Ethan Sherwood Strauss argues – the Heat are just coasting in the regular season.  After all, the third best team in the East – in terms of point differential – is the Toronto Raptors.  And after the Rudy Gay trade, we KNOW  the Raptors are really just tanking the season.

So are the Heat in decline?  Are they coasting?

To answer these questions, let’s look at some numbers.  We begin with efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency).  This season the Heat have a 6.4 differential.  To put that in perspective, here is what Miami has done since LeBron came to Miami:

  • 2010-11: 8.0
  • 2011-12: 6.3
  • 2012-13: 8.4

These numbers suggest that the Heat’s mark this year is not much different from what we saw in 2011-12, when the Heat won a championship.  Of course, the Heat are not quite as good as we saw last year (when they also won a title) and in 2010-11 (when they didn’t win the title).

When we turn to the individual Wins Produced numbers (which are based on offensive and defensive efficiency), we can see the players who are responsible for the team’s success.

Miami Heat

Minutes

WP48 12-13

Wins

Projected*

WP48

Wins

Difference**

across 82 games

LeBron James

1323

0.334

9.2

0.345

9.5

0.7

Dwyane Wade

942

0.223

4.4

0.214

4.2

-0.4

Mario Chalmers

910

0.112

2.1

0.154

2.9

1.8

Chris Andersen

612

0.206

2.6

0.229

2.9

0.7

Ray Allen

854

0.143

2.5

0.134

2.4

-0.3

Chris Bosh

1102

0.104

2.4

0.085

2.0

-1.0

Norris Cole

944

-0.044

-0.9

0.070

1.4

5.0

Rashard Lewis

666

-0.014

-0.2

0.085

1.2

3.0

Michael Beasley

438

-0.113

-1.0

0.093

0.8

4.1

Shane Battier

621

0.135

1.7

0.022

0.3

-3.3

James Jones

66

0.006

0.0

0.163

0.2

0.5

Roger Mason

220

0.079

0.4

0.025

0.1

-0.5

Joel Anthony

37

0.112

0.1

-0.004

0.0

-0.2

Udonis Haslem

245

0.114

0.6

-0.106

-0.5

-2.5

Summation

24.0

27.4

Summation per 82 games

53.1

60.6

7.5

- all of the WP48 numbers come from boxscoregeeks.com.  * – Wins Projected is based on last year’s WP48 and this year’s minutes **- Difference across 82 games is simply [WINS – WINS Projected] * 82/37.

Not surprisingly, the key player is LeBron.  Of the Heat’s 27 wins, 9.5 can be traced to LeBron.  Beyond King James, the Heat are getting 12.4 wins from Dwayne Wade, Mario Chalmers, Chris Andersen, and Ray Allen.  That means that all but five of this team’s wins are linked to just these five players.

What is interesting (perhaps only to me) is that this quintet was expected to produce most of the team’s wins.  Had these five played as well as they did last year they would have combined to produce about 21 wins this year.  So the top players on the Heat are essentially the same.

And these top players do not include the name “Bosh”. Each of these five has also done more than Chris Bosh in 2013-14. Last season Bosh was essentially an average NBA player.  This year he is somewhat below average.  And just like last year, he is not one of the big reasons why Miami is successful.

There is one last story in the above table.  As a team, the Heat are doing slightly better than we would expect given what all these players did last year.  Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem are offering less.  But Norris Cole, Michael Beasley, and Rashard Lewis – three below average players this season – are just not as bad as they have been in the past.

All of this seems to paint a clear picture. The Heat don’t appear to be coasting.  And it is not clear this team has really slipped that much.  This is still a dominant NBA team.

So what should we make of the Heat’s recent trip to New York?  It is important to remember that no NBA team wins or loses all their games.  And as Dean Oliver noted in Basketball on Paper, streaks happen.  More specifically – as Dean noted – there is a 90% chance that a team with a winning percentage of 0.300 will win three consecutive games at some point in a season.

Or if a team has a 0.700 winning percentage (Heat are currently at 0.730), there is a 90% chance the team will lose three straight at some point.

If the Heat lose Wednesday night, that will mark three straight losses.  And if that happens, we might hear people argue this team is indeed slipping (or coasting badly). But I think the evidence suggests the Heat are still the Heat.  They may not win it all in 2014, but they are still very, very good.

Let me close with one more comment on streaks.  Dean provides a table on page 70 of Basketball on Paper.  This table reports the probability that teams of various different quality levels will have streaks of various lengths.

To illustrate, here are some recent streaks in the NBA:

  • The Kings have won three in a row
  • The Brooklyn Nets had a five game win streak broken on Saturday night
  • And after an overtime win on Monday, the Knicks have now won five in a row

If each of these teams were 0.400 teams, there would be a

  • 99.5% chance the team would have a winning streak of three games at some point
  • 87% chance the team would win four games in a row at some point
  • 55% chance the team would win five games in a row at some point

All of these teams are currently close to a winning percentage of 0.400.  So these streaks may not mean any of these teams are dramatically better.

Of course, if they keep winning these teams will stop being 0.400 teams.  And then, of course, we can start to think these teams have truly changed.  But one streak doesn’t tell us that change has already happened.

- DJ

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