The Hidden Variable

Posted on 01/22/2015 by

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(Editor’s note: this is a companion piece to a video prepared by Coach Nick. It’ll be over at bballbreakdown soon. You get a sneak peek because I like you.)

“Random chance plays a huge part in everybody’s life.” – Gary Gygax

When we talk about sports, we spend a lot of time and energy arguing about the things we believe that players and coaches can and should change to improve their team’s chances. The narratives we expound are all fairly familiar, for example:

  • Player A plays with too much reckless abandon.
  • Coach B is running terrible offensive sets.
  • Player C needs to stop holding the ball quite so much.
  • Team __ needs to shoot more threes and less long two’s.
  • Player K hurts his team by shooting the ball so much and so inefficiently.

We spend a great deal of sweat equity on these fictional what-ifs. We care deeply as fans and analysts about things that in the larger scheme have no actual bearing on what happened on the court. Part of this, I believe, is driven by what makes sports fun.

The key to the fan experience is the feeling of belonging to something larger than yourself. We put a great deal of our identity into those pieces of laundry and hope is a large component of the equation. We want to believe that teams, coaches, and players are always in control of their own fate. It’s not ability and circumstance that determine the ultimate fate of your team but rather effort and guile. As rational people, we should know better but the inner child wants to believe in the inherent fairness of it all.

There’s a reason I get on my treadmill when one of my beloved teams is in a critical situation.

What we have a harder time with is giving the inherent inequities in sport their just due. Sports are an inherently unfair enterprise. As much as we’d like to believe that the best or most inherently “good” team carries the day, there are demonstrable biases that directly impact the outcome of games.

Chance is a part of sports as much as it is in life. Turns out, the basketball gods do play dice with the universe and their favorite way to do it is the unbalanced schedule.

We’ve talked about conference imbalance before.

West Rises

The balance of power in the NBA is anything but. That conference imbalance is how last season’s Indiana Pacers parlayed getting outscored in the second half of the season by a total of 10 points into a #1 seed and the conference finals while Phoenix outscored their opponents by 84 points in the same period and still stayed home.

To put this in perspective, a random West team playing a game at a neutral court versus a random east team would be favored by 4 points. That’s bigger than the standard 3 point home court advantage.

If we look at individual teams we get:

You’ll note that the top 15 in terms of average opponent strength are all West Teams.

Then of course we come to the (unfair) Home court Advantage. Some teams are really blessedly lucky.

Table showing estimated Home Court Advantage for the 2009/2010 season thru 2013/2014

The average advantage is right at +3 points for estimated Home court for the past five seasons. The Jazz and Nuggets, as is the norm historically for teams that play their games at altitude, dominate this ranking.

The way to read this chart is that the top five teams in terms of Home court (Jazz, Nuggets, Pacers, Clippers, and Warriors) get about four extra wins a year over the bottom five (Nets, Bulls, Sixers, Bucks, and Hawks). Teams that are high on this chart are generally overrated come playoff time and teams that are low are underrated as the Home court levels out significantly in the playoffs.

It’s actually very interesting that the top 15 on this list only contains 3 East teams (Pacers, Hornets, and Wizards).

The short of it is that if you understand the schedule you can spot the paper tigers (outside of them doing a GQ photoshoot) and the hidden lions of the NBA.

For this next bit, I’ll mention that I have a rather complicated matrix to dig out the Home Court and opponent adjustment in real time and project it for the rest of the season. Don’t worry to much about the specifics and just enjoy the meal.


Counter to conventional wisdom but somewhat logically, it’s the Lakers, Sixers, Knicks, Thunder, and Heat that have seen the hardest schedule. Not surprisingly, there has been a lot of missed expectations with these teams. The top five easiest is mostly the opposite with the Clippers, Wizards, Warriors and Blazers blazing a trail to the top of the league and the Nets and Pacers exceeding their admittedly low expectations. The Hornets are apparently worse than advertised.

As for the rest of the season? I bring tidings:

The Thunder will have to earn their way into the playoffs with the toughest remaining schedule. Thankfully for them, the Suns and Pelicans are also playing the regular season in Legend mode. The Hawks continues to be on the hard end of the spectrum.

The Raptors, Clippers, Wizards and Warriors continue to have calm water and clear skies ahead.

Let’s finish this out with some math to illustrate the magnitude of the schedule with some historically appropriate examples.

Schedule What-If Scenario Number #1: Golden State Sixers

The Warriors franchise owns three title banners. Two of those were won in the city of brotherly love. They also share their best player of all time (Wilt, of course) with the Sixers of Philadelphia. It’s not hard to imagine a world were the Warriors stayed in the Atlantic and the Sixers went to the City.

It would be worth it just for the Dr. J Golden State Sixers versus Magic’s Showtime Lakers in the 80’s.

It’s a very interesting what-if this season to switch these two teams. The Warriors are a league best 33-6 but give them the Sixers schedule and they’d be expected to be 29-10. That would still be good enough for the #2 seed in the East and the Atlantic division title. The Sixers would jump to 12-29 which wouldn’t really do much.

That Philly schedule would cost the Warriors another 3 wins this year.

Schedule What-If Scenario Number #2: Boston Lakers

I can’t really imagine that much purple and gold going over in Beantown but let’s go with it. Boston packs up Russell and Red and takes over California in 1961. Paul Pierce is chucking 30 shots a night in LA right now in that parallel world. The Lakers leave Minneapolis but go East for the history and passionate fans of Boston and fit right in to the underdog mythos fighting the evil turncoat LA Celtics and losing nobly.

Their win over the Knicks and then the Bucks in 71-72 is the stuff of Legend. Riley and Magic are Belichek and Brady before Belichek and Brady.

The what-if scenario here is much more fascinating for the Lakers (currently 12-30) who would be expected to be 15-28, tied for tenth in the East a three games back and looking at a much easier remaining schedule.

The despicable, imaginary, Los Angeles Celtics would be tanking. Evilly.

Schedule What-If Scenario Number #3: The Old School Charlotte Hornets

This one is downright cruel for the Hornets fans. What if the original Hornets never left and instead of the Charlotte Bobcats it was always the New Orleans Pelicans. Those bizarro Bobcats/Pelicans would be pretty irrelevant but the Chris Paul Charlotte Hornets? Not so much.

You could convince me that the Chris Paul led Hornets hoist a banner in 2008-9. The run ends though thru some bad management and the Paul trade still goes down (to the now LA Stars, hey, this is my fantasy).

Then Anthony Davis comes to town. The old school Hornets (whose parallel Pelicans are currently 20-21) would be about 22-19 as the old school Hornets and safely in the playoffs at the five in the Bizarro East.

Drive safely and watch out for parallel earth visitors.

-Arturo

 

 

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