Nba nerd

The Good, The Bad, The Lucky, and The Wolves

Today, I fixed something that's been nagging me (and many of our readers) for a bit. If you take a look at any team's stats tables (for example, Minnesota here), you'll notice that there is an "Expected Wins" area in the bottom right. Up until today, this was zero for every team, thanks to a bug in our software that I've only just corrected (yay, day jobs!).

Since the above paragraph would make for a very boring article, I took the liberty of compiling the differences between the total wins produced by each team's players (the "expected wins" value) and each team's actual wins, and then sorting them by "luck". Which gives us a handy table:

Team Wins Produced Actual Wins Lucky Wins
10.4 15.0 4.6
28.0 31.0 3.0
16.9 19.0 2.1
25.1 27.0 1.9
17.3 19.0 1.7
20.3 22.0 1.7
36.6 38.0 1.4
23.6 25.0 1.4
27.7 29.0 1.3
38.8 40.0 1.2
42.0 43.0 1.0
41.3 42.0 0.7
39.5 40.0 0.5
33.8 34.0 0.2
38.0 38.0 --
26.2 26.0 -0.2
10.7 10.0 -0.7
23.9 23.0 -0.9
20.1 19.0 -1.1
27.7 26.0 -1.7
30.1 28.0 -2.1
25.4 23.0 -2.4
35.9 33.0 -2.9
19.9 17.0 -2.9
41.1 38.0 -3.1
35.3 31.0 -4.3
39.0 34.0 -5.0
25.5 20.0 -5.5
27.2 21.0 -6.2
35.0 27.0 -8.0

Of course, what's being captured here isn't really luck at all; it's just the delta between what the wins produced model says about the strength of a team and the actual outcomes. For instance, the Sixers look very lucky because the algortihm looks at MCW's wins produced and averages it over all of his minutes. But what's far more likely is that certain players played very well early on (like MCW) and had a decent/high WP48 at the beginning of the year, and have been awful recently. But unlike wins produced, actual wins can't be negative. In other words, if a player plays like LeBron James for 5 games, and his team wins 5 games, then plays like Bargnani for 35 games, his total wins produced aren't going to stay positive, and the team will look luckier than its WP48, when what really happened wasn't that the team was lucky to win 5 games despite his poor play, but instead that the team was just lucky to get 5 games of solid production out of that player. The difference is subtle but the distinction is important.

Or in other other words, looking at season averages is not going to do a great job of explaining why a team lost any particular game, or even a stretch of a few games. Which, of course, is why we watch the actual games instead of just consulting spreadsheets.

Still, it's nice to think the Timberwolves are "really" a 35-win team and "should be" in 6th place in the West. Or...wait, that's not ****ing nice to think about at all. I'd rather go with my current theory: that playing JJ Barea more than Ricky Rubio in the fourth quarters of close games explains a hell of a lot about why you are 1-15 in close games, and that, Mr. Adelman, if you lament the lack of ball movement, yet you play JJ Barea lots of minutes and hope that the ball moves, I have a definition of insanity that you might want to consider.

I have a similar post that may go up for wagesofwins but the injury to Pekovic and the lack of perimeter play(i.e. major minutes to Brewer and Barea) are keys to their bad fortune. They should look at the Dleague and the incoming draft. I made suggestion of Patrick Christopher who is shooting the lights out in the Dleague. Niels Giffey is great shooter for Uconn but you never know if players are getting the best advisement on coming out of college. I would start playing Shabazz slightly more, which Adelman has done. He's young and limiting his minutes might be good for a player expected to be horrible.
Is your model properly accounting for defense?
I recognize some pretty bad defensive teams in the "unluckiest" teams by this list: Knicks & Kings - bad defense+good offense.
On the other end, the "luckiest" teams contain some teams with good defense and bad offense: Memphis & Bobcats.
This is just an eyeball test, but maybe you could run a regression between the "luck" score and the defensive rating of a team, or maybe the discrepancy between the defensive and offensive ratings of a team.
Bubba, I think you raise an excellent, excellent question, but it still wouldn't necessarily address the Minnesota scenario since their current defensive rating is good for 9th in the league according to The Wolves are legitimately that bad at losing close games, and that explains just about 100% of the negative luck wins. Again, to ascertain the actual reasons that they're losing close games we'd have to actually watch them instead of just looking at the box score.

But since I thought you raised a good question, I went and looked at the "negative-luck" teams on and compared their offensive and defensive ratings. While I liked your theory, it turns out it's probably not accurate. Golden State and Toronto, both of which are towards the bottom of that list, both have better defenses than their offense, in fact. I'm not going to do a full-on regression, but simply on the basis of what I looked at I'm pretty confident that if there's a correlation it'll probably be a tiny one overall.
I'm regretting the use of "luck" because that isn't really what's being captured here at all.

It's similar to point differential; The Wolves have a big positive one, which usually correlates to a winning record. But there differential is big because they have blown out a lot of teams (they lead the league in 20+ point victories). So a lot of their high production minutes came at times when it didn't matter. Given that, is the fact that they have lost a lot of close games really "unlucky"? Or is it just that their team isn't built well to handle pressure situations?

The same can be said for wins produced -- the numbers are totals. Again, totals and averages are not going to do a good job of explaining a few losses here or there. That's why we watch games.
You should call it unexplained wins. That should be relatively neutral and imply something model-extrinsic going on.

Poor coaching (especially in the form of minutes allocation) could be a legitimate source of outperformance to the downside.

But you are right about the T-Wolves. Something suggestive is going on there, as the record in close games is moving beyond luck and into "something causal is happening here".
The "unlucky" teams seem to be the teams with a high amount of 3 point jumpshooting spamming going on. High value shots but creates a higher volatility. Golden State and the Wolves can blow teams out when shots are falling, leading to high point differentials. That's my first glance guess.

Wolves are definitely a weird case. Having watched a lot of games featuring future Laker star, Love, I notice things like Brewer getting most of his points from Love outlet passes - shots that don't likely come at end of close games when teams are more careful about turnovers. Kevin Martin gets the ball a lot more in crunch time (, and perplexing Barea crunch time minutes noted in this article.
The discrepancy here comes from the more intangible factors of winning and losing as described above (coaching, minute allocation, consistency etc.) An inherent weakness in all per minute statistics is just that, all minutes are not created equally. The minutes of the Timberwolves rotation specifically distort the Wolves perceived strength. With such an unproductive second unit and perplexing minute allocations especially in the 4th quarter we see large scale effeciencies from the Timberwolves. But as Patrick described we have J.J. Barea often receiving 4th quarter minutes.

Also analyze Adelman's substitution pattern. The Timberwolves are playing their most productive players less than other teams with a different rotation pattern. For those who follow the Timberwolves closely, maybe Patrick can attest to this, like clock work Love plays the first 14 minutes of the game then a short stint at the end of the first half. This same pattern is repeated in the second half allowing Kevin Love, the Timberwolves far and away most productive player to be averaging close to 7 minutes per game in the 4th quarter. Comparatively less than other "superstars" do for their teams.

Forth quarter minutes are the most important minutes of the game. Yes two points in the second quarter are worth just as much as two points in the fourth, but most people who are basketball enthusiasts can agree with this statement for one reason or another.

In my opinion a rotation change and overall different rotation allocations by Adelman would make the biggest difference.
There are a couple of perplexing things about Adelman's rotations:

1) he plays Love and Rubio long in the first quarter
2) he stays with the second unit very long into the second quarter (it's not uncommon for Rubio to come back in with 4 minutes left in the 2nd)
3) he goes very deep into his bench in the second quarter, often having no starters out there at all (this is perplexing given he has the worst bench in the league)
4) he again plays Love and Rubio long in the third, and often plays Love VERY long, sometimes not subbing him out until the 4th.
5) he likes Barea more than Rubio in the fourth, despite the fact that everything Barea does, even when he is "good Barea", is antithetical to the system Rick wants to play.

The last point is truly amazing to me. Barea is terrible at getting the ball to Love in the high post (one of Adelman's staples, getting the ball to a high post passer to initiate the offense), he's worthless at the elbow hand-off action that works so well with Rubio/Martin/Brewer and Love, and he's not very good at pitching to the outside when he drives. In other words, he isn't good at any of the things that Adelman traditionally wants his players to do. So....why is he out there?

Now, Rubio has faults; he doesn't finish well at the rim, he gambles a little too much on defense, and he sometimes tries to force it too much on offense.

But he's a great rebounder, decent defender, and the offense works best with the ball in his hands because this mitigates the fact that he doesn't shoot well (much the way it works for Rondo). He's also pretty good at moving off the ball in that elbow action with Love that Adelman's offense is set up to run.

Barea paired with Martin becomes even worse. Neither are good at moving the ball and since Barea isn't good at using the ball within Adelman's scheme, when he DOES give the ball to Martin, it's usually when Martin is on the wing, and we get Hero ball. Love doesn't score nearly as well in the fourth quarter as he does in 1-3, and I think this has a ton to do with the Wolves having two guards who essentially abandon the offensive scheme in the 4th and just play ISO-ball.

And I get that some players are like that. They're trying to make plays, and that's how they respond to pressure. I DON'T get why Adelman continues to put such players in the game in situations like that.
Regarding Barea's excessive minutes allocation, particularly during the fourth quarter: I am always surprised by how fans of American pro sports ignore the impact that ownership makes on a team. Clearly there are lots of owners who meddle, and meddling is bad, very bad. We generally blame a team's management for signing Player X to an unconscionably large contract, and we disregard the possibility that Player X was signed because the meddling owner instructed management to sign him. I look at John Hammond's outstanding track record in the draft, and then I look at the godawful contracts handed out by Milwaukee, and the godawful trades. What gives? I suspect that meddling by ownership is the answer.

My point is that maybe Minnesota's owner, who is an old rich white guy, loves Barea for stupid reasons ("He is scrappy!"), and insists that Barea get lots of playing time, particularly in the fourth quarter, since he is perceived as being "clutch." Just a theory.

Regarding one poster's comment about Kevin Love being a "future Laker": I am surely not the only person who thinks this will NOT happen, am I? The Lakers organization is a joke, plus, guys do not want to play with Kobe. I expect the Lakers to be shockingly awful for the foreseeable future. Plus, what can the Lakers offer Minnesota, when Love is inevitably traded in Feb 2015? Nick Young? Jordan Farmar? The Lakers have close to zero desirable assets. I wish the "Kevin Love, future Laker" narrative would stop!
Robbie - I highly doubt that an owner would get down into the nitty gritty of how many minutes a bench player should be averaging in a given quarter (with the possible exception of Mark Cuban as I could very well see him doing exactly that). If anything, it's shocking how disjointed some organizations are. There have been plenty of examples of teams where a GM drafts/trades a guy and the coach decides he simply has no use for him and benches him. Likewise, I can swear I've seen cases where GM's have made trades because particularly crappy players were getting overplayed. The point I'm getting at is that most coaches seem to have ultimate authority when it comes to minute allocation, even above and beyond the whims of other high-ranking organization members like the GM. I would be shocked if an owner would get into it with a coach over minutes being doled out to some bench player (again, with the possible exception of Mark Cuban. Maybe even Dan Gilbert, since he's a little fiery).
It's interesting to think about the "lucky wins" and massive blowouts. Early in the season, a number of 76ers were playing great, and they did actually "earn" their wins. Then they started doing silly things like giving their opponents 39-point HALFTIME leads, producing wins in bunches of large negative numbers. Were they lucky because everyone was playing great at the same time, or was there a discrete reason for their absolute free fall?

MCW did get hurt, at one point they were like 11-11 with him and 1-10 without- maybe they got used to playing without a real PG and the team completely fell apart- similarly, the Jazz were 1-14 until Trey Burke got healthy enough to play 30+ minutes and since have been 19-22. Maybe sub-sub-sub replacement level point-guard play absolutely murders an NBA team now because of the hand checking rules and the importance of dribble penetration. It's one thing to have Andrea Bargnani on your team not rebounding or shooting efficiently to finish possessions. It's quite another to not possess a single player who can initiate offensive sets. Neither of these rookies are amazing, but their teams had absolute train wrecks as backup PGs.
I actually doubt Cuban would tinker at that level, with regard to the Mavs. He seems to have legitimate faith in Carlisle (justifiably compared to some of the lower tier coaches), and I suspect his influence would be exerted by changing personnel if he was unhappy (either players or coaches/GMs).

A lot of the new wave GMs seem similar: they want the coach on the same page and aware of the analytics, and if they aren't onboard, they get the ax (look at the Hollins situation), rather than minute tinkering by front office types in-game.
@Patrick, wasn't that Einstein quote a reference to the then emerging field of quantum mechanics, which Einstein rejected ("God does not play dice w/the universe")? If so, it's Einstein who was insane for believing that doing the same thing over and over would result in the same results.

@Robbie, why do you think the Lakers would have to offer anything to the Wolves? All the have to do wait and offer money to Love. Course Dolan fucked that strategy up and Jimmy Buss seems to be cut from the same cloth.

Personally, I think Love winds up in LA, but with the Clippers. It seemed like I could see the wheels in his head during the all-star game and the message they were grinding out was "so this is what it would be like to play for the Clippers".
Regarding anyone who thinks that the "lucky" or "unexplained" wins are due to the perceived ineptitude with which Wins Produced supposedly handles defense: you're incorrect.

At the team level, Wins Produced is a direct translation of Offensive and Defensive Efficiency, and so the "Wins Produced" column in this chart captures all defensive efficiency, whether it's the product of Rebounds, Team Chemistry, or Lucky Shoes. It's only in crediting individual players to come up with their individual Wins Produced that we lose the Lucky Shoes effect.
The Einstein quote is about... well it's not Einstein's.

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