Bucks: Lucky or Good?
Three last second victories that could easily have gone the other way. Several blowout losses in which the team was noncompetitive. Are the Bucks an elite play-off team, or a mediocre team that has benefited from good fortune?
Bucks Headed for a Fall?
To this point, the Milwaukee Bucks have given up more points than they have scored. Most teams who give up more than they get have a below .500 record. Yet the Bucks are 14-9, well above .500. This is curious. Indeed the Bucks are the only team in the Association that has both a cumulative point deficit and a .500 or better record. Should we be worried?
The math says we should. The excellent website basketballreference.com has developed, or at least promulgates, a variation of the so-called "Pythagorean Thereom" (made famous by baseball stat geek Bill James) that they claim accurately predicts a team's won-loss record. The formula uses "points allowed" and "points scored" along with the multiple of 16 -- I'm not sure how they derived that multiple, but it seems fairly accurate. I went back over the Bucks entire franchise history and tested the formula against each season's final record. The formula held up very well.
In 16 of the 35 seasons, the formula was either dead-on accurate, or off by only one game. The formula was within six games in all but 6 of the seasons. The greatest inaccuracy occured during the 1978-79 season in which the team finished 38-44 while the pythagorean formula had them at 47-35, a nine game inaccuracy that translates into a 10% error.
This season the team has outperformed the formula by 3 games. The formula says the team should only be 11-12. That is a 13% error. The formula has never come close to suffering that large an error for an entire Bucks season. Bucks fans should be nervous. History tells us that sooner or later the team's record will move toward the predicted result.
The Ominous Case of the 2005 Washington Nationals
Consider the fate of baseball's 2005 Washington Nationals. At the All-Star break the team was 52-36. Everyone thought they were headed for the play-offs. Everyone except the stat geeks that is. They were unimpressed, screaming from the mountaintops that the Nats' record was an illusion that was soon to be exposed. You see, the Nats' Pythagorean record at the All-Star break was not even .500, principally because they were giving up more runs than they were scoring. The geeks saw this and knew the team's winning ways were soon to change. Indeed they did change -- dramatically. The team fell off the cliff in the second half of the baseball season with a record of 81-81, just as the formula expected.
Is a similar negative correction in Milwaukee's future? Probably. Logic says the Bucks simply cannot continue to be outscored by their opponents and still be as successful as they have been to date. It just doesn't happen. Don't get me wrong, I hope the Bucks will be that one team in a hundred that significantly outperforms the formula's predicted result. I just wouldn't bet a plug nickel on it.