It’s an interesting NBA statistical trend — how many 15 points blowout wins a team gets a season is a better indicator of how they will do in the playoffs than how many less-than-5-point wins they gutted out.
It’s counter-intuitive, good teams are supposed to win close games, right? We’ve been told that forever. But it’s not really true over a long season. Put simply, better teams tend to have more blowout wins, not win a bunch of close games.
Which brings us to the Miami Heat. They are facing a lot of “what’s wrong with them?” questions after their 6-4 start. Of the four losses, three are by 5 points or less to good teams (Jazz, Celtics and Hornets, the fourth loss was by 8 to the Celtics). They have had blowout wins over the Magic, Timberwolves and the Nets twice.
Over at Basketball-Reference, Neil Paine asked a good question (based on a classic Football Outsiders study): What team is more likely to win deep in the playoffs, one with lots of close wins against good teams or one with a lot of blowouts of bad teams?
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.”
Just a little something for Mark Cuban to chew on as he enjoys the Heat’s early season struggles.