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 Basketball-Reference.com 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 Basketball-Reference.com 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.