Miami Heat

If there’s one thing the NBA blogosphere doesn’t need, it’s another post overanalyzing the Miami Heat and trying to figure out what’s wrong with them. That’s why this isn’t one of those posts. In fact, I’d like to make the case that the Heat are playing a lot better than most of you probably think, and at this point in the season, their biggest problem is that they’ve been unlucky.

It’s safe to say that anyone who claimed before the season that the Heat would get off to a 10-8 start with all three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in the lineup would be called a hater by most knowledgeable fans. But that’s exactly what has happened and it’s created a maelstrom of panic and finger-pointing in South Beach while many of the rest of us revel in Nelson Muntz style schadenfreude. The theories for why they’re underachieving compared to expectations include poor chemistry, subpar coaching,  lack of work ethic and the possibility that LeBron, Wade and Bosh might just be overrated. There might be something to all of these theories, but what if I told you that the Heat actually deserve to be 13-5 based on their performance so far?

Pythagorean wins is a formula invented by legendary baseball statistician Bill James to estimate how many games a baseball team “should” have won based on the number of runs they scored and allowed. Since the goal in baseball is to score more runs than the opposition, this formula can be used to show how lucky or unlucky a team has been based on whether its Pythagorean win-loss record is above or below its actual record. It can also be used to predict how a team will perform going forward based on the theory that luck tends to even out over time. Basketball analyst Dean Oliver — author of the 2004 book “Basketball on Paper” — later adapted James’ formula to calculate the expected wins of NBA teams based on points scored and allowed. This formula is explained on as: Games * (Team Points14 / (Team Points14 + Opposition Points14)). Various stats experts use different numbers for the exponent (John Hollinger uses 16.5) but we’ll stick with 14 because I haven’t found a compelling reason why that doesn’t work.

Here are the actual win-loss records and the expected win-loss records of the all the NBA teams so far this season, based on the calculation for expected wins and ranked from “luckiest” to “unluckiest”.

If we can read anything into these numbers (and the fact that the league totals for actual wins and expected wins even up makes me think this isn’t complete quackery), it’s that the Heat have been playing better basketball than their record indicates. They’re actually fifth in the NBA in point differential so far this season, averaging 6.2 points more than their opponents. Conversely, the Oklahoma City Thunder are the biggest overachievers so far this season, with three more wins than their expected win total with a point differential of just 0.2 that ranks them 13th in the league.

Many of you will likely respond to all this numerical rationalization by saying, “So what? In the big pictures, real wins and losses are all that really matter and the Heat aren’t getting it done.” It’s hard to argue with that statement. But I think these numbers predict that the Heat’s final winning percentage will be closer to their current expected win% of .722 (final record of 59-23) than their actual win% of .556 (46-36). Fifty-nine wins isn’t close to 70 wins, but it’s certainly not a disaster and it would most likely give them no worse than a third seed in the Eastern Conference.

If the Heat do end up in the 60-win range at the end of the season, you can expect NBA commentators far and wide to offer their theories on how and why the Heat “turned it around” to rescue a season that had previously appeared to be turning into a disaster. If you made it to the end of the post, you can tell your friends how you saw it coming.

Comments (25)

  1. I think I speak for everyone when I say, “Yeah but still…”

  2. I dunno… The Miami Thrice were parading before the season started and talked about being the best NBA team ever…

    In the end, the Heat aren’t winning this yr or any yr as long as the Miami Thrice are intact.

  3. @cdtf – so you’re saying “yeah but still” then? In the end indeed.

  4. decent point, much has been made of the Thunder’s exploits in close games this season. hollinger always points out that close games are usually pretty flukey and point differential is a better indicator of success. in the end i think that, given how weak the east is, combined with the celtics relying on a team of 40 year olds to stay healthy, the heat should be just fine.

  5. @CDTF: How does pre-season parading and believing they could be the best team ever contradict what Scott is saying here?

  6. But shouldn’t the strength/quality of opponent factor in? The Heat are 1-7 against opponents with winning records, and 9-1 against opponents with losing records. To me, that doesn’t say “fluke,” that says “trend.” Now I’m sure the Heat will get better, and they’ll start winning some against better opponents (and there are enough crappy teams to get plenty of Ws against)… but surely the lack of “quality” wins is troubling for a team with championship aspirations.

  7. @gazelle – the heat aren’t as deep a team as the celtics, and their current injuries are hurting them more then any other team right now. 2nd the heat have injury prone players, wade has missed large chunks of seasons in the past and so has bosh, so to assume that a team of “40 year olds” from boston won’t stay healthy is rediculous, boston stayed healthy last year so why not this year?!!

    @scott carefoot – the heat have only beaten ONE team with a winning record!! That says a lot more then what your theory suggests, they are simply not a good fit chemistry wise, and lebron do not compliment each other, the Heat are all hype! They haven’t backed up anything they’ve said yet all season.

  8. Josh: Those records indicate they’re not playing at a championship-quality level right now, which nobody disputes. But wins against losing teams count as well. Three of the Lakers’ five wins have come against opponents that currently have losing records, but I’m assuming nobody is reading much into that.

    Four of Miami’s losses have been by five points or less. They lost to the Hornets by three after they had a lead going into the final minute, they lost to the Jazz by two in OT thanks to Millsap’s unbelievably fluky 46-point performance, and they lost to the Grizzlies by two on Rudy Gay’s buzzer-beater. Call it karma if you want, but they simply haven’t been getting many breaks up to this point.

  9. The Heat will improve. They’re still new to one another, and their 4th and 5th best players (and there’s a massive dropoff after their top 5) are hurt.

    But who cares if they can beat a few bad teams by 30 point margins, when all that really matters is for them to beat good teams by as few as a single point? They need to close out those games.

    Let’s see them close out a series of impressive wins against high-quality Eastern teams (Magic, Celtics, Bulls, even Indiana!) before we extrapolate all kinds meaning from stats that suit arguments.

  10. All this shows that the heat lose close games, and win blowouts. That when a game comes down to heart and fight, they mathematically don’t have it.

    Like a certain baseball player who gets tons of hits when they don’t matter.

    Birds of a feather.

  11. There is no theory that luck tends to even out over time, unless you mean the Gambler’s Fallacy, which as its name suggests is not much of a theory. After only nineteen games, I’m not sure statistics like these can tell you much. At this point, the most telling thing to do is just to watch the team, and so far the Heat have looked pretty bad.

  12. They beat up on bad teams and struggle to close out games against good ones. Point differential doesn’t matter – they can’t stop teams that can execute in the 4th and teams with good defenses. They deserve the record they have, and they will continue to struggle without glue guys like Haslem to do the little things these superstars refuse to do.

  13. Jim Leyland once said something like losing a bunch of close games is a sure sign of a bad team.

    Hollinger’s a quack. All this says is they can blow out bad, undisciplined teams but can’t beat good ones… which is all that really matters. I’ve watched a few Heat games where they were getting beat by double figures for almost the entire game, only to bring it close to have in last minute garbage time. Is there a stat for “percentage of game in the lead”? Or a “percentage of game in the lead” that weighs the extent of that lead? That seems like a more telling stat.

  14. Congratulations, Johnny33, for putting basically 90% of all possible basketball cliches in four short lines.

  15. Jim: Your post is an example of how people will believe what they want to believe regardless of reality. A-Rod’s supposed non-clutchness is a fabrication. He’s a career .290 hitter in the postseason with a .396 on-base percentage and a .528 slugging percentage. Derek “Mr. Clutch” Jeter is slightly higher in batting average (.309) but has a lower career post-season OBP and SLG. And let’s not forget A-Rod’s 2009 post-season when the Yanks won the world series thanks in large part to his .365 average and six homers in 15 games.

    LeBron, on the other hand, definitely has something to prove in “games that matter”. But we’re a long way from that point and that’s not what this post is about.

  16. Jim: Congratulations. After reading your post I am considering quitting sports forever. The general intelligence of this post and comment thread has dropped considerably upon your inclusion.

    On a serious note, I do not know why I go into sewers and am surprised when there is trash. And boys and girls: If Jim Leyland says it, it must be true.

  17. The Heat had a decent stretch at the beginning of the season with three huge blowout, vs. Orlando, Phoenix, and Minnesota. Their win differential has declined ever since. If point differential isn’t holding steady for them, I don’t see any reason to treat it as a reliable predictor. To me, those blowouts are starting to look like outliers.

  18. I meant point differential, not “win differential”…

  19. i’m pretty sure the reason the actual and expected wins and losses for the league even up is because there’s always a winner and always a loser. Hence 259 games played equals 259 wins and 259 losses. Always.

  20. Miami is losing games – but they are ALWAYS still in it at the middle of the 4th. So… this team is ok. If they are still good when they suck, just wait until they start to figure things out…

  21. Scott – I will give you 2009. A-Rod was fantastic and I can’t deny it. But your reliance on stats does not, and never will, show the kinds of hits that Jeter gets and has gotten throughout his career. what being a winner or a loser is.

    I actually do hope that LeBron comes around. I think it’s a shame what’s been done to what’s probably the greatest basketball talent ever.

    He’s like Mike Tyson in the Don King years, without ever having had a Cus D’Amato to teach him what it takes to be a champion.

    I’ll shut up now before Chris bullies me more.

  22. Does anyone else notice that this list could be confused with a “Most Popular Teams” list from top to bottom.

    The Thunder and ‘underdog’ Cavaliers up the op with teams like the Heat, Clippers and Raptors far below.

  23. amazing recreation of a Michael Jordan commercial using NBA 2K11. This time, it’s the “Maybe It’s My Fault” commercial, with a reference to the mash-up with LeBron James’ now infamous “What should I do?” commercial thrown in at the end.

  24. That is a very well structured argument based on proven mathematical indicators and a solid methodology… but, I’m going to side with the more holistic analysis based on my careful examination of youtube mixtapes, NBA Live 2008 and an unqualified psycho analysis of the big three that I read at the Bleacher Report.

  25. So much for those blowouts starting to look like outliers… Oops…

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