For Most NBA Teams, The Season Is Basically Over When You Wake Up Christmas
By:
Gradelo Staff
3 weeks ago
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(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks and Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans should already know they are not winning an NBA title in 2018. And it isn’t 2018 yet! (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

On Christmas day ABC begins its coverage of the NBA. This has become a tradition, with network television waiting until the NBA season is about 35% over before it finally starts covering the league. With nearly two-thirds of the season to play it seems like there are still plenty of stories that have yet to be told.

While there are certainly some stories to be told, the big story has probably already been written. By Christmas morning, we tend to already know which NBA teams are championship contenders and which teams are already waiting for next year. And we also know that those "waiting for next year" are the vast majority of the league.

How do we know this? A very simple statistical relationship tells the story. Basketball-Reference will tell you the standings on any particular day in each season. Using this feature, I collected each team’s point differential (i.e. the difference between points scored and points surrendered per game) on Christmas morning from 2006 to 2016 (2011 was skipped due to an NBA lockout). I then looked at how well each team’s Christmas morning point differential predicted the team’s final regular season record. The results indicated that 79% of the variation in final records could be explained entirely by Christmas morning point differentials. Of the 300 teams examined, 64% had a final record that came within five wins of what you would forecast on Christmas morning. For 90% of the teams, the final record was within ten wins of what was predicted.

Consider for a moment all that is not being considered by this simple model. After Christmas teams will make trades. Coaches will be fired. Injuries will happen and players will come back from injuries. And despite all these events, we have a very good idea on Christmas morning how each team’s season will end by just looking at each team’s point differential.

To put all this in perspective, I looked at how well a Major League Baseball team’s run differential (i.e. the difference between runs scored and runs surrendered per game) on June 5th (roughly the 35% mark in the season) explained a team’s final winning percentage. For baseball from 2007 to 2016, only 52% of the variation in final winning percentage can be explained by a team’s run differential on June 5th.

So in baseball, we really can’t be quite as sure about how most teams will finish when the season still has about two-thirds of the games still to be played. How come we know so much about NBA teams on Christmas morning?

The key issue — I believe — is the size of the pool where teams search for talent. In basketball, most players are unusually tall, with most NBA players are 6’3” or taller. But in the population, more than 97% of adult males are shorter than 6’3”.  And 7’0’’ athletes are immensely rare. When a pool of talent is relatively small, some teams will be able to employ amazing players. But other teams will be forced to employ less talented players.  And when the less talented play the amazing…. well, the results end up being quite predictable (I made this point in the New York Times about 10 years ago). No matter how much you practice or how much coaches yell, if the tall people your team employs aren’t that great your team is simply not going to win much. And by Christmas morning, we can generally see the quality of the tall people on each team.

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(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks and Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans should already know they are not winning an NBA title in 2018. And it isn’t 2018 yet! (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

On Christmas day ABC begins its coverage of the NBA. This has become a tradition, with network television waiting until the NBA season is about 35% over before it finally starts covering the league. With nearly two-thirds of the season to play it seems like there are still plenty of stories that have yet to be told.

While there are certainly some stories to be told, the big story has probably already been written. By Christmas morning, we tend to already know which NBA teams are championship contenders and which teams are already waiting for next year. And we also know that those “waiting for next year” are the vast majority of the league.

How do we know this? A very simple statistical relationship tells the story. Basketball-Reference will tell you the standings on any particular day in each season. Using this feature, I collected each team’s point differential (i.e. the difference between points scored and points surrendered per game) on Christmas morning from 2006 to 2016 (2011 was skipped due to an NBA lockout). I then looked at how well each team’s Christmas morning point differential predicted the team’s final regular season record. The results indicated that 79% of the variation in final records could be explained entirely by Christmas morning point differentials. Of the 300 teams examined, 64% had a final record that came within five wins of what you would forecast on Christmas morning. For 90% of the teams, the final record was within ten wins of what was predicted.

Consider for a moment all that is not being considered by this simple model. After Christmas teams will make trades. Coaches will be fired. Injuries will happen and players will come back from injuries. And despite all these events, we have a very good idea on Christmas morning how each team’s season will end by just looking at each team’s point differential.

To put all this in perspective, I looked at how well a Major League Baseball team’s run differential (i.e. the difference between runs scored and runs surrendered per game) on June 5th (roughly the 35% mark in the season) explained a team’s final winning percentage. For baseball from 2007 to 2016, only 52% of the variation in final winning percentage can be explained by a team’s run differential on June 5th.

So in baseball, we really can’t be quite as sure about how most teams will finish when the season still has about two-thirds of the games still to be played. How come we know so much about NBA teams on Christmas morning?

The key issue — I believe — is the size of the pool where teams search for talent. In basketball, most players are unusually tall, with most NBA players are 6’3” or taller. But in the population, more than 97% of adult males are shorter than 6’3”.  And 7’0’’ athletes are immensely rare. When a pool of talent is relatively small, some teams will be able to employ amazing players. But other teams will be forced to employ less talented players.  And when the less talented play the amazing…. well, the results end up being quite predictable (I made this point in the New York Times about 10 years ago). No matter how much you practice or how much coaches yell, if the tall people your team employs aren’t that great your team is simply not going to win much. And by Christmas morning, we can generally see the quality of the tall people on each team.

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