Fluke or Flake?
Which of the league’s worst crunch-time teams is better positioned for a change of fortune?
It is widely accepted that point differential—or net rating, which is pace-adjusted point differential — is a better predictor for future performance than current records. Every final score has its own narrative but, over a large sample, teams that win big generally maintain their success better than teams that win close. Inversely, teams that lose heartbreakers normally prove to be less flawed than teams that get blown out.
This can be backed up statistically, but it can also be understood logically. Basketball games are a collection of roughly a couple hundred possessions. The better a team is, the more likely it is to succeed (be it with a stop or a score) on each given possession.
But a couple hundred possessions is an arbitrary number. It is also a small one, given the microscopic gap between good and bad NBA teams. A typical 50-win team will outscore opponents by about four points every 200 possessions, while a 50-loss team will be outscored by that same margin.
In other words, a deviation from the average of just three possessions can be the difference between winning and losing, even for teams that are seen as existing in different stratospheres.
Over the course of a season, this will roughly average out. But “roughly” does not mean there cannot be a significant deviation. A team with a plus-4.0 net rating is not going to win 35 or 65 games, but it could win anywhere from 45 or 55 based on how its successful possessions are distributed.
That does not mean that luck is the only factor in determining how a team performs as compared to its point differential. Winning close games is largely random, but it can also be indicative of certain roster traits and coaching strategies. The same is true for losing, which is what we are focusing on here.
A third of the way into the 2017–18 season, there are two teams with records far below what their net rating suggests—the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder. A deeper look, however, reveals that one of these teams is more due for a turnaround than the other.
Record: 13–15 (19th in NBA)
Net rating: 3.0 (7th in NBA)
In each of Quin Snyder’s first two years in Utah, the Jazz finished with a positive net rating and losing record. The two numbers came together last year (Utah was fifth in both record and net rating), but now the gap is bigger than ever.
It is not hard to figure out why 2016–17 was an outlier. Snyder’s egalitarian motion offense gets the most out of his personnel, but when defenses clamp down late in games, the gaps start to close. Outside of San Antonio, even the most ball movement-heavy teams rely on isolations and pick-and-rolls down the stretch. Last year was the first time since the Jerry Sloan era that the Jazz had guys — Gordon Hayward and George Hill — with the ability to create shots for themselves and others out of simple actions.
With Hayward and Hill moved on, the Jazz now rely on Rodney Hood, Donovan Mitchell, and Ricky Rubio to run the show in crunch time. All three players have intriguing skill sets, but present limitations that defenses can exploit.
Mitchell and Hood are both dangerous pull-up shooters, but neither can pressure the rim the way Hayward could. The 21-year-old Mitchell has a better chance at becoming that guy than the 25-year-old Hood, but he’s not there yet.
Rubio is a terrific facilitator, but he simply cannot score. The best defenses play him accordingly from the jump, but many are slow to react. After watching him dime up Rudy Gobert and Joe Ingles for three quarters and pass up every open shot, even lower I.Q. defenders start to get the message.
Part and parcel to this is the other reason that the Jazz struggle late: Their defense becomes less special.
Defense is about scheme, effort, and physical ability. Utah is mediocre physically (they have good size but below average athletes), but excellent in terms of scheme and effort. When more athletic teams up their defensive intensity, this advantage starts to shrink.
Meanwhile, as other teams go to isolations, on-ball defense becomes more important. Utah’s guys are great in Snyder’s system, but Hayward and Hill were the Jazz’s best wing and point guard stoppers, respectively.
Until this team can improve its one-on-one play on both ends, it is destined to lose more than net rating suggests it should.
This, however, does not mean that the Jazz leave wins on the table. There is no way to get more out of this roster than Snyder does, only less.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Record: 13–14 (18th in NBA)
Net rating: 1.4 (10th in NBA)
When looking at the Jazz’s quarter-by-quarter breakdown (I swear, this is about the Thunder), a strange trend emerges.
For all of the late-game struggles I just detailed, Utah actually has the NBA’s best fourth-quarter net rating (12.6). This would suggest that I’m full of s**t, but there is another explanation.
First of all, “the fourth quarter” is not a synonym for “crunch time.” In fact, most coaches play their bench more in the fourth quarter than they do in any other.
Starters, by definition, are always on the floor to begin the first quarter. With rare exception, the same is true coming out of halftime. Most coaches generally have their best players rest at the beginning of the of the second and fourth quarters; keeping them fresh for crunch time and allowing them to play max minutes (since players are naturally fresh to start each half, resting them from roughly the midpoint to the 3/4 point of each half is logical).
When those stars are set to re-enter midway through the fourth, many games are already decided. This is why starters play even less in the fourth than the second.
Long story short, Utah’s excellent fourth-quarter net rating is more about its depth and garbage-time excellence than its crunch time performance. In “clutch” time (five minutes or less, five-point margin or less), the Jazz are minus-13.9 in net rating.
Okay, back to the Thunder. Their crunch time struggles (minus-14.9) have been well-publicized, but they are the league’s second-best first quarter team at plus-11.0.
They drop to a still-strong plus-5.8 in the second, but they plummet to minus-9.7 in the third—with the exact same lineup that they start the first quarter with. It is impossible to find a pattern here, or at least one that makes sense.
Further clouding the matter is last season. The Thunder were the NBA’s second-best clutch team in 2016–17, going 47–35 despite getting outscored overall.
As frustrating as the turnaround may be for the Thunder, it is a relatively good sign. Utah’s net rating is explained so perfectly by their rotations, personnel, and history that it is far less likely to be random than OKC’s.
Another two factors suggest that the Thunder might get back on track: their talent and their roster turnover.
Russell Westbrook’s best teammates last year were Victor Oladipo and Enes Kanter. While their respective breakouts in other cities this season raise questions about Westbrook as a player, neither guy has close to the shooting or shot creating talent possessed by Paul George and Carmelo Anthony.
Of course, “only one basketball” is more than a cliche. We saw LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh struggle to adjust through the first month of their first season together (going 9–8 through 17 games), and OKC’s three former № 1 guys seem to have similar growing pains.
That doesn’t mean that a 21–1 stretch is right around the corner, nor does it set the stage for four consecutive finals runs and two titles. Bosh’s ball-dominant habits did not run as deep as Anthony’s, and even his adjustment was plenty hard. George has never been a super willing passer, whereas Wade was an ace distributor even when he was “the guy.”
The biggest difference is between James and Westbrook. The former being the all-time “makes everyone around him better” guy and the latter being where talented role players go to die (Oladipo, Kanter, McDermott, Domantas Sabonis, Kevin Martin, Anthony Morrow, Jeremy Lamb, Kyle Singler and Dion Waiters are just a few of the guys who have had some of their worst years next to Russ).
Things should get better in Oklahoma City. They have the one-on-one players that Utah lacks, the weird quarter-by-quarter fluctuations that hint at randomness, and the recent track record to prove clutch play is possible with their strategy and their superstar.
How much better things get will depend on that star — and his new star teammates — making some fundamental changes.
Statistics courtesy of www.nba.com.