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How Telling Is a Team’s Record vs. Elite Teams?

Posted by Neil Paine on February 14, 2011

Despite their high overall marks, apparently neither the Lakers nor the Heat can beat the league's other so-called "elite" teams. Miami is just 6-9 this season against teams in the top 10 in W-L%, and 0-6 against top-5 teams. The Lakers are barely better, going 6-7 vs. top-10 squads and 2-6 against the top 5. Here's a summary of the other teams in the top 10 by either W-L% or point differential:

Team Ovr W% Ovr PD W% v Top10 W% v Top5 PD v Top10 PD v Top5
San Antonio Spurs 0.833 7.26 0.688 0.600 4.72 5.75
Boston Celtics 0.736 6.60 0.632 0.667 2.72 3.44
Miami Heat 0.722 7.83 0.400 0.000 -0.64 -0.60
Dallas Mavericks 0.704 3.04 0.632 0.556 0.45 0.90
Chicago Bulls 0.692 5.79 0.571 0.571 -1.06 -2.14
Los Angeles Lakers 0.691 6.53 0.462 0.250 -1.53 -5.14
Oklahoma City Thunder 0.642 1.74 0.471 0.300 -2.44 -6.75
Orlando Magic 0.625 5.46 0.368 0.417 -0.18 1.82
Atlanta Hawks 0.623 1.32 0.231 0.143 -9.23 -11.80
New Orleans Hornets 0.589 2.29 0.476 0.500 -2.10 -4.27
Denver Nuggets 0.564 2.73 0.412 0.400 -0.18 -1.44
Memphis Grizzlies 0.536 1.45 0.421 0.429 -1.68 -3.63
Philadelphia 76ers 0.481 1.33 0.250 0.222 -4.21 -9.60

The conventional wisdom tells us that this is going to be a problem for Miami and L.A. come playoff time. But is that actually true? Do teams with better records vs. the NBA's top teams win postseason series more often?

Here's the breakdown since the merger (1977-2010):

  • The team with the better regular-season WPct vs. top-5 teams won the series 65.9% of the time.
  • The team with the better regular-season WPct vs. top-10 teams won the series 71.8% of the time.
  • The team with the better WPct vs. teams outside the top 10 won the series 73.2% of the time.
  • The team with the better regular-season pt diff vs. top-5 teams won the series 69.1% of the time.
  • The team with the better regular-season pt diff vs. top-10 teams won the series 73.0% of the time.
  • The team with the better pt diff vs. teams outside the top 10 won the series 71.7% of the time.
  • The team that played Game 1 at home won the series 74.1% of the time.

In other words, knowing how a team performed vs. elite teams actually tells you less about who wins a playoff series than a team's record against all teams, even non-elite teams. Team records vs. the cream of the crop certainly sound meaningful, but when it comes to predicting success or failure in the playoffs, you'd be better off knowing how they did against the entire league.

UPDATE: Here's the same study, but with 1st-round games removed and the results split up by which team had the home-court advantage in the series:

Win%
Superior in... Home Road
w%-v-top5 76.0% 27.3%
w%-v-top10 75.5% 30.6%
w%-v-other 76.5% 35.3%
pd-v-top5 76.9% 34.8%
pd-v-top10 76.9% 38.5%
pd-v-other 77.1% 38.8%

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41 Responses to “How Telling Is a Team’s Record vs. Elite Teams?”

  1. P Middy Says:

    Team peaking during the playoffs makes a big difference in the championship each year.

  2. Scott Says:

    The problem is that there are more games played against teams outside the top 10 and more games means more data means a more accurate picture as to how good the team is. Comparing record against the top 10 teams and bottom 10 teams might be more useful/reasonable/telling.

  3. Alex Says:

    Ive always wondered who comes up with these cliches, throw this one in there with champions win close games and defense wins championships.

  4. Raj Says:

    Neil- great stuff. Quick question- could you run these numbers with regards to overlaps? Specifically, I'm interested in knowing the series winning % of teams that have Game 1 at home but which also had worse regular season WPct/worse pt differential vs. top 5 teams than their opponent? I'm curious since there's a decent chance that Miami will have home court if they play Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals but will also have had worse record/pt. diff vs. top 5 teams than Boston did.

  5. Matt Says:

    I'd like to see the playoff data after removing first-round matchups. To me, prior performance against elite (top 10) teams becomes more relevant when you are looking at two elite teams against each other, and that mostly happens in the second round and beyond.

  6. Kevin Pelton Says:

    Neil, is it possible to account for home-court advantage in this study by breaking up the records of teams with and without it? Right now, I think much of what we're seeing is that record against non-elite teams is more likely to get you HCA because, as noted, there are more of those games.

    When I looked at this issue earlier this season, I did find some value to record vs. elite teams when I controlled for overall performance.

  7. Nick Says:

    I think this just proves something that people say all the time: in the NBA the best team always wins. There are very few "upsets" in the NBA. It's pretty much true to form. There's no 6th seed winning the Superbowl. In a 7 game series in the NBA playoffs...the team that had the best record in the regular season is the overwhelming favorite (unless the 2 records are very close)

  8. Neil Paine Says:

    OK, I can remove 1st-round games and separate things out by home/road. Is this what you had in mind:

    Situation Win%
    Home had better w%-v-top5 76.0%
    Road had better w%-v-top5 27.3%
    Home had better w%-v-top10 75.5%
    Road had better w%-v-top10 30.6%
    Home had better w%-v-other 76.5%
    Road had better w%-v-other 35.3%
    Home had better pd-v-top5 76.9%
    Road had better pd-v-top5 34.8%
    Home had better pd-v-top10 76.9%
    Road had better pd-v-top10 38.5%
    Home had better pd-v-other 77.1%
    Road had better pd-v-other 38.8%
  9. Neil Paine Says:

    Actually, that might be better displayed this way:

    Win%
    Superior in... Home Road
    w%-v-top5 76.0% 27.3%
    w%-v-top10 75.5% 30.6%
    w%-v-other 76.5% 35.3%
    pd-v-top5 76.9% 34.8%
    pd-v-top10 76.9% 38.5%
    pd-v-other 77.1% 38.8%
  10. huevonkiller Says:

    Basically, if the Heat can get homecourt they're in a much better position?

    That's exactly what I think. Even though Miami lost the first two games to Boston (vastly different team though), they lost a toss-up yesterday and they should be favored on their homecourt. If they don't go some ridiculously terrible percentage from the three point line, the game is theirs.

  11. P Middy Says:

    Oh yeah. If you're Miami, it's ALL about home court. They definitely need to finish ahead of the Celtics. Winning 4 in Boston is REALLY, REALLY hard.

  12. huevonkiller Says:

    I'm biased but I think they'll take a game in Boston anyway, for good measure.

    Hopefully it won't come down to that, but Spoelstra needs to look at that third quarter tape.

  13. EvanZ Says:

    Was it Reggie Miller who was calling the BOS-LAL game the other day? Whoever it was, he was all over Boston's jock in the first half, praising their efficient offense. By the 4th quarter, he was like, where are these guys going to get their offense from?

    These guys say whatever makes sense at the moment, without really considering that they might have to change their opinion a few minutes later (or assume their audience won't remember, anyway).

    Glad Neil did this study, as I had the same thought over the weekend when I heard that stuff about record vs. top teams. Guess what? It's hard to beat good teams, whether you're a bad team or another good team.

  14. Anon Says:

    "I think this just proves something that people say all the time: in the NBA the best team always wins"

    It's actually more like half of the time.

  15. Jay Says:

    I think how you finish the season is important, i.e., getting hot at the right time. Perhaps somebody can do a historical study of a team's winning % for the last 10 or 20 games and see if there is a correlation to playoff winning %.

  16. KevinG Says:

    "By the 4th quarter, he was like, where are these guys going to get their offense from?"

    Well, to be fair, the Celtics were missing West, both O'Neils, Erden, Daniels and, for the most part, Robinson. And Pierce was coming off a bout of the flu and now is apparently battling foot and hand problems. The bench was Davis and Wafer, period.

    No wonder they got tired.

  17. Jeff Fogle Says:

    Neil,

    What does your data specifically say about playoff performances of teams with poor regular season records vs. elite?

    Cleveland's 0-6 and 6-9 marks are striking many as being well below standards for a champion. Is that true? How many teams with 33% or below marks vs. top five, and/or maybe less than 50% vs. top 10 have gone on to win championshps? What is their record on a series by series basis? What are the normal standards for champions in those categories based on your research?

    Thanks in advance if you have a chance to answer...

  18. Matt Johnson Says:

    "In other words, knowing how a team performed vs. elite teams actually tells you less about who wins a playoff series than a team's record against all teams, even non-elite teams."

    Let's relate it back to the guts & stomps. In that study you found that when you compared decisive victories, it was more meaningful to beat the good teams than the bad ones. So it seems likely what what you're talking about here is simply due to the fact that there's more close games between elite teams, which throws a bunch of noise into the equations.

  19. Suga Shane Says:

    What you should look up is how regular season head-2-head records carry over into the playoffs.

    For example, if a team gets swept in the regular season, do they ever win a post season series?

  20. anon x 2 Says:

    Better win% isn't enough. If a team won 55% vs 50% vs top 5 or top 10, it's really not any different.

    What I think would be important to see how teams with win% below say 35% against the top 5 or top 10 teams do in the playoffs when matched up against a team that has a win% greater than 45%. Not sure what the threshold should be, but just pointing out a better direction.

    And of course, only include 2nd round and up.

  21. anon x 2 Says:

    For more clarification, the same can be said of PD. Teams with +3 and +3.2 PD aren't really any different so there's no reason to compare them.

    Now, if team A is +3 against top 5 teams and the other team is -1 against top 5 teams, I'd much rather look at those results when matched up.

  22. Kevin Pelton Says:

    Thanks for the followup, Neil. I'm not sure what about our methods meant we came up with somewhat different results.

  23. huevonkiller Says:

    To sort through the noise, I'm only really interested in how the Heat are doing since December. That's when the trio reached more stable levels individually.

    When all 3 were Healthy, they've been 30-3. With two toss-up losses to top 5 teams. And a bad loss to the Clippers they later blew out.

    Not so bad looking then right? I can see why playoff basketball is different for some teams. How the main core is doing is much more important, as well as comfort with each other.

    They also have games against the Spurs, Bulls, and one more against Boston left. More information to take in certainly.

  24. Nick Says:

    Honestly, the Heat/Celtics game was pretty much decided by poor officiating. If LeBron tried covering Rondo the way Rondo was covering LeBron (The guy was clearly fouled on virtually every possession) The ensuing retaliatory screens led to a 5 point Celtic advantage were the direct result of this. In a series, that would usually last a game, if that.

  25. mcbeef Says:

    It'd be nice to see the finals and eventual champion teams using this same criteria.

  26. KevinG Says:

    "The ensuing retaliatory screens led to a 5 point Celtic advantage were the direct result of this."

    Oh come on. Nobody held a gun to Wade's head and forced him to run at Garnett like that. He lost his cool and the Heat paid the price.

    And both screens were perfectly legit. the refs got all three calls correct- the two non-calls on the piledriver picks and the flagrant on Wade.

    And show me where Rondo fouled LeBron. I missed that one.

  27. Ben Says:

    KevinG, you may disagree with the assessment of Rondo's defense of James, but surely you know what Nick is talking about if you watched the game. Jeff VanGundy was (loudly) saying the exact same thing.

  28. AYC Says:

    Little guys get more leeway when they cover much bigger players. Again, Lebron's lack of a post game costs his team. I think Wade has struggled this year against the Celts because he plays off the ball, and the C's defense doesn't let anybody run on them. In a perfect world, Lebron would develop a post game and Wade would handle the ball more. But LBJ wants to continue pretendng he's a guard. This won't work against elite defenses.

  29. Anon Says:

    "Again, Lebron's lack of a post game costs his team."

    I know that LBJ didn't play well in that game, but really?

    Wade hasn't played a good game offensively against Boston all season. At least Bosh and LBJ can say the same - all three of those guys need to give good production to win against the C's.

  30. Anon Says:

    The other issues in that game as well were poor three-point shooting and turnovers. So two out of the Big Three were subpar and the Heat's usually good shooting role players had issues from long-range (Eddie House and Mike Miller). Ah, but that's right - when the Heat don't win, it's on LeBron.

    And the inability of basketball fans to use their reason, continues...

  31. AYC Says:

    Anon, you've read enough of my posts to know I have nothing against Lebron. I think he's the best player in the league in fact. But his game has a serious limitation that good defensive teams have been exploiting in the postseason for several years now; LBJ is built like Karl Malone, but he doesn't take advantage of that size in the half-court like he could. Now, if he played with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, that wouldn't be a big deal. But MIA has a thin front-line and no inside game. Their transition game is the best in the league, but playoff basketball is half-court basketball. Given his size, it makes more sense for LBJ to be the one playing of the ball, not Wade.

  32. AYC Says:

    PS Don't you think lack of a post game might make it easier for the Celts to defend the 3pt line? The Heat don't have anybody to pull the defense in. The last two teammates as good as LBJ and Wade played together was Shaq and Kobe; those guys had different skillsets which complemented each others. Wade and Bron, on the other hand, have redundant skillsets; they are both ball-dominating wings. Since Wade isn't capable of growing 5-6 inches, Lebron needs to be the one who who changes his game. I reject the notion that Lebron doesn't need to improve just because his stats are already great

  33. Ryan. Says:

    "but when it comes to predicting success or failure in the playoffs, you'd be better off knowing how they did against the entire league."

    Yeah............

    Depending on who they're playing.

  34. KevinG Says:

    "eff VanGundy was (loudly) saying the exact same thing."

    I heard Van Gundy. And I also heard Jackson disagree with him.

    So who was right? I think Jackson was.

  35. Anon Says:

    "But his game has a serious limitation that good defensive teams have been exploiting in the postseason for several years now..."

    These teams give EVERY star fits though.

    Also, none of this excuses Wade's play.

  36. KevinG Says:

    Wade had a pretty nice game tonight, even if he did take some pretty bad shots and Miami blew a huge lead.

  37. huevonkiller Says:

    #35

    Right, was a post game really the problem that day? I think the Heat should put Wade on Rondo, and play off him like Kobe does. Also Chris Bosh was in a flow, they do not get him enough touches sometimes.

    Overall I would say the 3 point shooting was atrocious, and bricking wide open jumpers cost them that game. Unlike the Cavs who can't defend, the Heat heat's defensive prowess what will get them over the top if they have homecourt.

  38. huevonkiller Says:

    *the Heat's defensive prowess is what will get them over the top if they have homecourt.

    They could also do without that Flagrant foul in the third quarter.

  39. danico Says:

    i think three point shooting was terrible because House, Miller and Jones were 1/10 combined from behind the three point line. They should do better than that.
    I like the idea of Lebron developping a post game but does he have time to try it before the playoffs ??? he's been pla

  40. danico Says:

    he's been playing all season like a point guard i don't if he can do that

  41. ItsMe Says:

    Jackson didn't disagree. He specifically said Rondo gets away with non calls on lebron because he's the smaller guard. He just gave the reason for van gundy claiming that rondo fouled lebron several times.
    Also, you can't say that the two screens were legit and the refs got it right for giving wade a flagrant. Wade didn't extend his arms while KG clearly leaned into miller. If it was a clean screen, it should have just been a hard foul on wade. The refs knew they blew it and called a flagrant to keep it from escalating.