Posted by Neil Paine on November 16, 2010
The Miami Heat have been under fire recently for dominating weak foes and losing close games against good teams. The conventional wisdom is that this reveals a major gap in Miami's armor -- they just can't close the deal against stronger opponents.
Is this really true, though? And does it even matter?
In 2005, our friend Aaron Schatz wrote a piece for Football Outsiders called "Guts and Stomps", wherein he tested the same phenomenon in NFL football. Guts are close wins against good teams; stomps are blowouts of bad teams. As it turned out, the team with more regular-season "stomps" (that's big wins vs. bad teams) tended to win the Super Bowl and the conference title game more often than the team with more "guts", the team with more "skates" (close wins over bad teams), and even the team with more dominations (big wins vs. good teams). In other words, being like the Heat -- winning big over bad teams and not being able to close the deal against good opponents -- was actually predictive of Super Bowl success!
Does this hold for the NBA? 3 of the Heat's 4 losses have been by 5 or fewer points against a good team, so I considered a "gut" to be a win by 5 or less against a >.500 team. Likewise, all of Miami's wins have been by 9 or more (and all but one has been against losing teams), so a "stomp" would be a win by 9 or more against a <.500 team. Finally, "skates" are wins by 5 or less against a <.500 team, and "dominations" are wins by 9 or more against >.500 teams. Which category is more predictive in the conference finals or NBA Finals?
Since the merger, here are the Finals & Finals + Conf. Finals series records of the teams superior in each category:
|Category||Finals||Finals + CF|
In the NBA, dominating good teams is clearly the best indicator of postseason success. Teams that had more regular-season dominations (big wins over good teams) won 64.8% of their "final four" series, including 73.3% of their Finals matchups. But the second-most predictive attribute of "final four" success was having more stomps -- that is, destroying the league's weaker teams. And having more stomps was actually a better indicator of success than having more guts (close wins against good teams), just like Schatz found in football.
In other words, it looks like this criticism of Miami has no basis in reality. And in fact, their inability to close the deal against good opponents actually appears to say less about their chances of a deep playoff run than their ability to manhandle poor teams. As Schatz writes in the intro of every Football Outsiders Almanac: "Championship teams are generally defined by their ability to dominate inferior opponents, not their ability to win close games."