Updated: Jan. 24, 2006
Bucks aren't as good as standings indicate
By John Hollinger
It's funny how a single play can be so indicative of a season. On Nov. 12, Milwaukee's Maurice Williams heaved up a 3-pointer at the buzzer and drew nothing but net, handing the Bucks a shocking 103-102 win over Indiana after the Bucks had trailed by 14 points in the fourth quarter.
Mitchell Layton/NBAE/Getty Images
Maurice Williams has delivered in the clutch on a few occasions.
That game symbolized what has been a trend for both teams, though in opposite directions: the knack (or lack thereof) of winning close games. Milwaukee is a ridiculous 13-1 in games decided by five or fewer points this season, keeping the Bucks afloat in the playoff race and sending the folks at Elias scurrying toward the microfilm room. Meanwhile, Indy is only 4-8 in such contests. By contrast, the Pacers are 14-9 when the game is decided by double digits.
Ask the Bucks, and they'll tell you that confidence is the difference. "Being in those situations so many times gives you so much confidence," said the team's leading scorer, Michael Redd. "It started with our game against Philadelphia, we were in a close game and pulled it out [Bucks won 117-108 in overtime in their opener], and we kind of rode that wave through the season. The more times you do it, the more confidence you get."
Whether it's confidence or something else, it's helping the Bucks in the standings quite a bit. Through Tuesday, the Bucks are 21-19, half a game ahead of the Pacers. That might give you the impression the two teams are roughly of the same quality, perhaps even that Milwaukee is better.
Yet nothing could be further from the truth, as the Pacers amply showed in a 112-88 demolition of Milwaukee during the teams' rematch two weeks ago. Indiana, despite standing just a game over .500 at the midway point of the year, is one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. And Milwaukee, despite seemingly heading toward a playoff season, is actually no better than many clubs who appear destined for the lottery.
The latter conclusion might shock a lot of people, especially those on the shores of Lake Michigan, so let me explain my reasoning. It all starts with a tool I call Expected Wins. Expected Wins measures how many games a team can expect to win based on how many points it scores and how many it allows. It works off the "Pythagorean Projection" developed by baseball researcher Bill James (James, in turn, named it after a little-used Greek big man named Pythagoras who ran his own version of the triangle offense).
It turns out the relationship in basketball is similar to the one in baseball (Warning: Math approaching. If you require evasive action, go down a paragraph). To determine a team's expected winning percentage, take the points scored and raise them to the 16.5 power (i.e., multiply it by itself 16.5 times). That's your numerator. Then, in the denominator, raise the team's points scored to the 16.5 power, raise the points allowed to the 16.5 power, then add those two products. Finally, to convert from an expected winning percentage to Expected Wins, multiply by the team's games played.
Expected Wins = Games played * [Points16.5 / (Points16.5 + Points allowed16.5)]
Looking at Expected Wins, it's amazing how different the Central Division race looks. I've posted two sets of standings below. The first is the real standings through Sunday's games; the second is the standings using Expected Wins. As you can see, Indiana and Milwaukee diverge quite a bit.
Central Division Standings
Team W L
Detroit 34 5
Cleveland 22 17
Milwaukee 21 19
Indiana 21 20
Chicago 17 23
Central Division Expected Wins Standings
Team W L
Detroit 33 6
Cleveland 26 13
Indiana 23 18
Chicago 18 22
Milwaukee 15 25
The Pacers, who are behind the Bucks in the real standings, are comfortably ahead in Expected Wins. And using Expected Wins, the Bucks fall behind Chicago into the bottom of the Central Division. In fact, they don't only slip behind Chicago -- as the Expected Wins standings show -- they also take a back seat to Philadephia, Utah, New Orleans, Minnesota, Golden State, Washington, Orlando, Sacramento and Boston.
Yes, Boston. Overall, Milwaukee, with the league's 12th-best winning percentage, is just 23rd in Expected Wins, just a whisker ahead of Houston and Toronto.
Indiana, on the other hand, passes the Bucks, Nets, and Clippers once we look at Expected Wins, and nearly catches up to Cleveland and Miami. Throw in the fact that 23 of the Pacers' 41 games have been on the road, and nearly half have been against the powerful Western Conference, and it adds legitimacy to their claim of being an Eastern Conference contender even without Ron Artest.
I know what you're thinking: "But the good teams are the ones that win the close games." Actually, that isn't true -- the lucky teams win the close games. The good teams win by 20 and spend the final minutes cheering on little-used teammate Darko.
We know this for a couple of reasons. First, Expected Wins are a better predictor of future results than real win-loss records. Look at a few recent playoff series, for example. We'll start with the 2004 Pistons. They won 54 games in the regular season, the Pacers 61 and the Lakers 56. But in terms of Expected Wins, Detroit won 62, compared with Indy's 61 and Los Angeles' 54. Thus, their wins in the final two series were much less of a surprise than the standings indicated.
Similarly, Expected Wins proved a much better predictor than real wins in last season's Western Conference finals. The Suns had 62 Expected Wins, matching their real win total. The Spurs won only 59 games but had a league-best 66 Expected Wins. Viewed that way, San Antonio's five-game stampede wasn't such a shock.
There's another way we know the difference between real wins and Expected Wins comes from luck rather than skill: The same teams don't exceed their Expected Wins total from year to year, not even when their personnel is unchanged. If teams really "knew how to win close games," we'd expect them to repeat the feat from year to year. Instead, a team like Detroit can keep the same personnel for three straight seasons, but go from underperforming their Expected Wins total in 2003-04 to matching it in 2004-05 to greatly exceeding it this year; or in New Jersey's case, do the exact opposite between 2001-02 and 2003-04. In fact, no team has been able to exceed its Expected Wins consistently for a period of years. Thus, we're left to conclude that doing so is mostly luck.
Especially since we can't pinpoint one reason why the Bucks have fared so well in close games this year. "It hasn't been one thing," coach Terry Stotts said. "Sometimes it's timely shooting, timely defensive plays. Maybe a little bit of luck was involved, but I believe you make a lot of your own luck ... I look at it as a positive that you win games. Certainly they could have gone either way."
So unless you think the Bucks own some magic close-game elixir that will enable them to go 26-2 in those games this season, get ready for their results to mirror their Expected Wins record more closely. Although Bucks fans might take offense, they should just be glad those 13 wins in close games will be part of their record the rest of the way. If the Bucks go through their final 42 games playing like the 15-25 team Expected Wins says they are, they'll end up with 37 wins -- which might be enough to squeeze out a playoff berth in the perennially pathetic East. Had they gone a more reasonable 7-7 in those games, they'd be staring at 31 wins -- a one-game improvement on the year before.
Here's another reason the Bucks should care about Expected Wins. With the trade deadline looming, Expected Wins provides important information for Milwaukee's brass. The Bucks might look at the standings and think they're one player away from being a real threat in the East, but the standings are effectively lying to them. As a result, the Bucks shouldn't be making short-term moves that will cost them young players or draft picks because they're still among the league's weaker teams.
Similarly, Indiana is in a much stronger position than we might have thought. Looking at Expected Wins, it doesn't seem so unreasonable that the Pacers want immediate help in return for Artest instead of draft picks or developing players. Should injuries befall the Pistons, one could argue Indiana would be the one team most likely to benefit and end up winning a weakened Eastern Conference.
In sum, Expected Wins can tell us what the standings won't: that the Pacers are for real and the Bucks a mirage. Lady Luck has masked those differences so far, but there's no reason to expect Milwaukee's good fortune -- or Indiana's bad luck -- to continue.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. His book "Pro Basketball Forecast: 2005-06" is available at Amazon.com and Potomac Books. To e-mail him, click here.
How to win close games: practice, luck and 'mirage'
By Jim O'Brien
There is nothing more exciting in sports than the last possession of an NBA game when the clock is ticking down and everyone knows the game is going to be determined in the last few seconds.
The entire crowd is on its feet with anticipation. A night's work is riding on the last play. Huddles must be focused and there can be no time for uncertainty. When the players hit the floor, they have to know precisely what it is that they have to execute. At the same time, improvisation is a necessity because few plays work perfectly, and no matter how prepared a defense is it never knows exactly what may be coming.
It's a time when it's great to have a clutch player who will get it done for you night in and night out. And it's a nightmare when the guy is on the other side.
Michael Jordan was almost impossible to stop when one shot would determine the game. Just ask the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Larry Bird sat through a K.C. Jones huddle where K.C. drew up a play that would determine the outcome of the game. The story goes that he interrupted Coach Jones and said, "Forget that stuff, just get me the ball." They did. Guess who won?
Not every one has Jordan or Bird. But most teams have one or two guys who a coach will depend on in games determined in the last possession or two.
Offensive execution is of utmost importance in these situations. Every staff has to make sure ample practice time is given to be certain that their players get the job done at these crucial times. Much thought and preparation go into every aspect of end-of-game situations.
Many questions have to be addressed long before your team finds itself in a close game. There are so many potential scenarios that have to be talked out. Rarely should a coach go two consecutive practices without having a segment dedicated to preparing his team for this part of the game.
Every team I have coached really enjoys this part of practice. They almost enjoy it too much.
NBA players don't mind practice as long as you are keeping score and there will be a winner and a loser. In this segment of practice, you can play any number of mini-games.
A coach might say: White ball on the side, down two, five seconds to go, both teams in the bonus, each team has one 20-second timeout. The head coach will take one unit and one of his assistants will take the other. You run the play and see how it goes.
When the play ends, usually it takes a few seconds to shut up the winning team's trash talking, and then you have the players analyze what happened and talk out the situation. The more you do this, the better your team gets at end-of-game situations. You generally go through five similar situations in a 10-minute period of time.
Bill Russell told me that when he was coaching he spent an entire half of one practice running a single end-of-game situation, over and over, to make sure his team could run the play and all of its options in five seconds. You can bet that during the next close game, his team got it done.
One of the most humorous parts of every year is determining who on your team can throw a home run pass. This comes into play if you are at the end of a quarter and you are out of timeouts or or don't want to use one.
The keys are the accuracy and strength of the pass. To figure out who can throw it, I would line up everyone on the baseline and see who can hit the opposite backboard with a baseball pass.
They all think they are NFL quarterbacks. But most of these guys couldn't hit a billboard. I learned it is smart to do this at the end of practice. After certain players attempt this, everyone is laughing so hard you that you can't continue to practice.
A team's defensive plan is as important as the ability to score. Stopping the other team in end-of-game situations must be taught and practiced regularly. Never does a coach want to hear the excuse that "I didn't know what I was supposed to do." If you practice it, they will execute it.
One particular defensive situation is worth examining more closely.
When a team is up three points in the closing seconds, the commentators always wonder aloud whether the defense should foul and put their opponents on the line for two shots instead of allowing them a 3-point attempt.
It's a legitimate question with no simple answer.
First and foremost, if you are going to using fouling as a strategy, you have to teach your players how and when to foul.
For example, you're up three points with three seconds to play and your opponent is inbounding in the ball in the front court. Is this a good time to foul?
If you do attempt to foul, at least three things can go wrong.
One, you cannot foul before the ball is inbounded. If you do, the opponents go to the foul line for one shot and then get the ball out of bounds again.
Or, even worse, let's say Vince Carter gets the ball, and you're trying to defend him. If he catches it outside the 3-point line and starts into his shot and then you foul, then, oops, you could give up four points and lose the game.
Three, you might foul too soon. When is it "too soon"? Six seconds? Seven seconds?
There is no single answer, but if you foul too soon and they make the two free throws, then they are down one. From there, they can foul you as soon as you throw it in. Even if your guy makes both shots, they're still in the game. If he misses one or both, they might be able to advance the ball and win the game outright.
The bottom line is there are a lot of variables that go into every situation when the game is on the line. For that reason, many decisions are made before the season even starts, to limit the number of decisions that must be made later.
There are also at least a couple of elements that a team can't control. For one thing, the ball can take some crazy bounces as well. Also, officiating is a variable outside of a team's control.
Many of us have come to expect that officials allow a rougher brand of basketball in the closing seconds. The thought is the refs want the players to determine the outcome of the game. I favor this whether the league would admit it or not. We tell our players early in the season that the refs are not going to bail them out. Every veteran on your team will back you on this point.
In any case, the reality of the game is the best prepared team and/or the one with the most clutch players will usually be "luckier" than the opponent.
How a team fares in close games can often determine whether a team succeeds or fails over the course of the season. Just look at the Milwaukee Bucks. Their tough 95-92 loss Wednesday night to the San Antonio Spurs was their first loss in a game decided by six points or fewer. They had won 13 consecutive nail biters before dropping this one. Of those 13, nine had been decided by three points or fewer.
When you take into consideration their record stands at 19-18, you get a sense the success or failure of a season can rest on getting the job done at the end of the game. If they had won only half of those 10 games (decided by three points or fewer), the Bucks would be 14-23 and a long shot to make the playoffs.
Detroit is 4-0, and San Antonio is 6-1 in games decided by three points or fewer. This should be no surprise because they are the two best teams.
Golden State is hanging in the playoff race thanks partly to their 6-3 record in this category. Six of Portland's 13 wins are by three or under. On the other hand, Minnesota is 0-5 and Boston has dropped seven of 11 games decided by the three or fewer.
Last year, when I coached the Philadelphia 76ers, we were 10-4 in games decided by three points or fewer. If we had only won half of those games, we would have missed the playoffs.
It surprised me to learn prior to last season, Allen Iverson had not had a walkoff buzzer beater in his entire career. Thankfully for us, he rectified that early in the season.
His lack of success at the end of games might had something to do with the way opposing coaches guarded him at crunch time. When I coached against A.I. in previous years, when I was with the Celtics, we played a "mirage and five" on him. Five guys zeroed in on him and we played the other four Sixers with a mirage. In other words, we were not going to let him beat us.
This strategy can backfire, though. Two years ago, when I coached the Celtics, we had the Spurs down two in San Antonio with under five seconds to go. The Spurs took a timeout and advanced the ball into the front court. Some of our key players had already fouled out, and we knew that if the game went into overtime, the Spurs would hold the advantage.
Lester Conner, my assistant coach (now with the Bucks), kept saying, don't let them beat us with a 3, don't let them beat us with a 3. He must have said it five times until I turned to him and told him I heard him the first time.
I did not want the ball in Tim Duncan's hands. I told our guys to front him, and to prevent the lob, we put someone behind him. I was not going to let this game go into overtime.
It didn't. Stephen Jackson nailed a 3 to break our hearts. I did not sleep much that night.
There is nothing more exhilarating in coaching than being in a close game. And there's nothing more joyful than winning one, and nothing more painful than losing one.
Jim O'Brien, former coach of the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, writes regularly for ESPN Insider.
WHO INTERESTED THE SKINNY
Will Antonio Be An Ex-Knick?
Jan 25 - A Knicks official said yesterday that there continue to be whispers inside the organization that Antonio Davis will be released so he can sign with a contending team, reports the New York Daily News.
According to the newspaper, that scenario is unlikely to happen until after the Feb. 23 trading deadline, if at all. Davis, who was also coached by Larry Brown in Indiana, is one of the Knicks' few stable veterans.
"The last thing the Knicks want to do is to keep losing because the Bulls have their first-round pick," one league source told the newspaper. "Davis will keep them close."
WHO INTERESTED THE SKINNY
Cavs Want Another Point Guard
Jan 25 - The Cavaliers are apparently actively looking to add a point guard, reports the Akron Beacon-Journal. According to the newspaper, it seems GM Danny Ferry has come to some realization that Damon Jones isn't the complete answer behind Eric Snow.
Last week there were rumors out of Boston that the Cavs were asking about Marcus Banks.
past his prime
"When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at this rock perhaps 100 times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the 101st blow, it will split in two and I know it was not that blow that did it. But all that had gone before." - Jacob Riis
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