The predictive power of the 20-game NBA brand

On Monday night, the NBA crossed the quarterfinal mark of the 2021-22 regular season. While there is nothing inherently magical about the 20-game mark the San Antonio Spurs will become the last team to reach it on Thursday, this is the point where this season’s results have historically been. become as predictive as our preseason expectations.

Already, some of the league’s biggest surprises have started to return to the field. After starting 10-3, the Washington Wizards have lost five of their last eight games. Defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, who started 6-8 as he battled absences for multiple starters, caught up to the Wizards in the standings with a seven-game winning streak.

Meanwhile, the Western Conference’s top three seem reasonably established with the Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz at a higher level than anyone in the middle-heavy West.

Nonetheless, the first month and a half of the new season still left enough time to change our opinions on a handful of teams.

Based on the predictive power of team stats at the same time in previous seasons, let’s take a look at the biggest drivers so far, including a top seed who has seen his projection drop from his preseason tally. almost twice as much as any other team in the league.


Predicting future NBA victories

First, let’s look back over the last 82 seasons of games to see how quickly the team’s performance is stabilizing. Specifically, considering the seasons from 2012-13 to 2018-19 (the last 82-game schedule before this one), I looked at how a handful of metrics explained what would be a team’s record for the rest of the year.

Of the three performance measures this season, winning percentages to date are generally the weakest predictors, especially at this point in the campaign. As is generally the case, the point differential explains better how often a team will win matches than how often it has won in the past, as it explains dominance in unbalanced matches and is not as affected by close wins or losses.

We can improve the point differential slightly with a timeline adjusted score that incorporates the location of the game and the opponent.

Finally, a team’s over / under wins in preseason has a slightly different relationship to the future record. Unlike the other metrics, which get stronger with larger sample sizes until around mid-season, the preseason total starts at its peak of predictability and declines from there. This makes sense considering that roster changes and injuries over the course of the season will change the true capacity of teams from what is planned for the year.

As noted, these lines meet shortly after the 20-game mark – the point at which this season’s results become a better predictor than the preseason totals.

If you are looking to make predictions about a team’s record for the remainder of the season, the best method is to combine the preseason total with the adjusted standings from the calendar to date. (Since differential and winning percent are similar metrics, they don’t add much to the projection.) We can then compare those projections to the team’s preseason total and see which ones improved the most. their outlook.

Here are the five most important changes: two positive and three negative.


Expectations were reasonably high for the Warriors heading into the season, in part because of something that hasn’t happened yet: Klay Thompson’s return after more than two full seasons lost to injury.

Golden State’s total (48.5 wins) was tied for seventh on William Hill’s Caesars Sportsbook. Still, the Warriors managed to improve it the most over any team by posting the league’s highest schedule-adjusted score, even with the easiest NBA schedule before Tuesday’s loss in of a confrontation with a Phoenix team who have won 17 in a row.

At the very least, Golden State has jumped into the top row of contenders in the West. And if Thompson can get back somewhere close to his old level, the Warriors could easily end up favorites to win the conference.


Compared to the other surprising teams in the East (Washington, Chicago Bulls and Charlotte Hornets), the Cavaliers stand out because expectations for them were much lower at the start of the season. Cleveland’s total of 26.5 victories suggested another wrestling season for the lottery position. Instead, the Cavaliers are still a game above .500 and there’s nothing hit and miss about their point differential (plus-1.0 per game) or their schedule (harder than. the average so far).

The odds of Cleveland making the playoffs are still low. The second biggest boost to their preseason tally leaves the projected Cavaliers to win just 42% of their games going forward, which would put them around a total of 37 wins. In what looks like a competitive East, that might not be enough for a place in the play-in tournament. That shouldn’t take away the excitement for Cleveland’s future with third overall pick Evan Mobley looking like a future franchise presenter.


On the surface, the Grizzlies appear to be on track for another season in the play-in tournament or better with an 11-10 start. Under the hood, however, Memphis fundamentals show cause for concern. The Grizzlies’ minus-4.4 differential ranks 12th in the West, ahead of the rebuilding Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder and the shorthanded New Orleans Pelicans.

In particular, Memphis cannot stop anyone. The Grizzlies have been surprisingly competitive in defense with a first-year head coach (Taylor Jenkins) and a young team in 2019-20, placing 14th in defense, and soared to seventh last season as they moved up. qualified for the playoffs. Considering the roster’s limited turnover, it’s shocking that the Grizzlies have fallen to last in defensive odds.

Memphis should benefit from a weaker opponent shooting the rest of the season. Opponents are shooting 55.4% on non-paint attempts after factoring in the added value of 3s, the league’s highest score according to the Second Spectrum tracker. Still, opponents are still getting better shots against the Grizzlies than last season, and the team’s ability to force turnovers and grab defensive rebounds has diminished.

As a result, Memphis plans to win only 45% of their games in the future, a mark that ranks 10th among teams in the West. The Grizzlies should still be safe in the play-in, but may have to hit the road for their opener this time around.


As in Memphis, Dallas’ point differential (minus-2.4, ninth in the West) tells a different story than the team’s 10-9 record. The Mavericks have just four double-digit wins, tied with the Grizzlies for the seventh lowest total in the league, and have been crushed twice (by 26 points in their season opener in Atlanta and by 31 in Denver).

Dallas’ problems are coming to the other end of the field. While the team’s defense has remained in one place (21st in the defensive standings) under new coach Jason Kidd, the powerful offensive attack led by Luka Doncic over the past two seasons has worn off. The Mavericks are in a disappointing 19th place in terms of offensive ratings and Doncic has a career low 0.530 live-shoot percentage.

Compared to other teams on the wrong side of this list, Dallas has an easier fix if Doncic gets rid of his slow start and sprained ankle that recently sidelined him three games to play at a level again. All-NBA.


And this is where we hit the big one. The Lakers have seen their projection drop from their preseason tally almost twice as much as any other team. Again, the Lakers’ 12-11 record hides just how poorly they have played to date. First, the Lakers are one of those six teams with fewer double-digit wins than the Mavericks and Grizzlies. The Sacramento Kings’ breakout on Tuesday was their third of the season, putting them ahead of the only teams with rookies in key roles (the Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder and Orlando Magic). This helps explain why the Lakers were outscored by 1.6 points per game.

Second, it flies in the face of the league’s second easiest schedule to date, with 14 home games and just nine on the road. To be on track for the kind of record their preseason tally (52.5 wins) presaged, the Lakers would have to be one of the best teams in the league to date. Instead, after considering their schedule, they performed like one of the worst.

The caveat here is health. The Lakers have gone 7-4 in all 11 games LeBron James has played so far and have yet to see newcomers Trevor Ariza and Kendrick Nunn adjust for a game, forcing them to rely more on their limited depth and centers than expected.

On the flip side, the Lakers’ projection above 0.500 going forward (0.519) depends on their preseason total. If we relied instead on pre-season statistical projections, our outlook would be much bleaker. FiveThirtyEight’s projections had the Lakers 42-40 heading into the season and had already lost six wins at 36-46 on average before Tuesday’s announcement that LeBron is in NBA health and safety protocols, another blow. hard for the Lakers forecast.

I think the safest thing to say about the Lakers at this point is that they have the widest range of potential finishes of any team in the NBA. If LeBron gets and stays healthy and Russell Westbrook enjoys the same physical improvement over the season that we’ve seen over the past couple of years, there’s still a possibility the Lakers will become the title contenders we’ve been waiting for.

If James continues to struggle with injuries and the Westbrook-Anthony Davis duo remain ineffective without him, it’s also realistic that the Lakers won’t make the playoffs.


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