There are two interrelated maxims in basketball that tend to determine whether or not teams win games over the course of an 82-game season.
One is “great teams win big and lose close.” If a team’s regularly getting blown out, chances are good that they suck. But if it seems the only way to beat them is to win by one or two possessions and survive their best player missing a potential game-tying or game-winning shot at the buzzer as fans go wild that “we knocked off the mighty (whoever)”? Well, that “whoever” sounds an awful lot like the Golden State Warriors or Michael Jordan‘s old Bulls teams, doesn’t it?
Which, by happy coincidence, brings us to the other professional team His Airness is famously associated with.
No, not the Washington Wizards, you dingbat. The team he owns, the Charlotte Hornets.
Last year, Charlotte outscored their opponents by 0.3 points per game. With a point differential like that, they should’ve gone 42-40 rather than the 36-46 record they put up.
And who knows? Depending on which six games they won, they could’ve snuck into the playoffs; the Wizards went 43-39 for the 8 seed but if Charlotte had beaten them?
In 2016-17, the Hornets outscored their opponents by 0.2 points per game. Their record? 36-46. Sound familiar?
Now, in 2018-19, Charlotte is 6-5…and outscoring opponents by 7.9 points per game, a record so strong that it corresponds to a 62-20 record (the simple methodology here is that for every +1.0 on point differential, on average a team tends to win 2.7 games. There’s a lot of complicated math that’s beyond my mere wordsmith’s mind to get to grips with, but it’s a solid rule of thumb rooted in “30 points equals one win over 82 games.” 82 divided by 30 and rounded to one decimal place is 2.7.
The Hornets should’ve won three-quarters of their games, which would make them 8-3 or even 9-2.
And if you guessed that four of their five losses were by four points or less while five of their six wins were by double digits, including three wins by at least 29 points…well, give yourself a cookie.
So why are the Hornets so putrid in close games? What separates them from a team like the Indiana Pacers, who are 13-2 in games decided by three points or less since they traded for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis before the 2017-18 season?
And don’t say the Pacers are overachieving; their own point differential this year calls for a 53-29 record, exactly the pace they’re on at 7-4 in the actual standings heading into Wednesday night’s game against Philadelphia.
The Hornets have just basically broken this otherwise solid measure of basketball prowess by tending to shoot their wad in one or two big blowouts rather than distributing the numbers fairly evenly across the season.
Last year, they had a game where they just plain murdered the Memphis Grizzlies 140-79, a 61-point shellacking that singlehandedly skewed their point differential for an 82-game season by 0.7 points.
They similarly annihilated Orlando late in the year 137-100, then beat a Pacers team that had nothing to play for on the last day of the season 119-93, the 26 points being about the 0.3 points a game they finished on the plus side of the ledger.
But except for a 28-point loss to Boston on the last day of February, they never just plain got pantsed. So despite ten more losses than wins…they were a textbook good bad team.
Back up to 2016-17 and what do you see? They went 0-6 in overtime, but at one point they walloped the Raptors 113-78 and disemboweled the Magic 121-81. That’s 75 points in two games, a nearly one-point swing in two wins out of 36.
And except for getting mollywhopped (yeah, I’m breaking out the thesaurus here) by Atlanta on the last day of the season 103-76, they never suffered the truly grim humiliation that they dished out.
So here we are in 2018-19. The Hornets are 6-5. They’re winning big and losing close. They look like the ’96 Bulls on some nights but never look like the 2012 version of themselves.
We’re watching Charlotte break analytics. We’re watching a streaky team put up big nights amid mediocre performances.
We’re watching the best bad team in basketball.
And when the hard reality that you can’t win half your games by 30 points sets in, we might just be seeing another 36-46 season from these guys as Kemba Walker, Marvin Williams, Nicolas Batum, and all their friends make advanced stats folks scratch their heads and eye test guys point out the obvious; night after night they’re just not a powerhouse.
We’ll need a bigger sample size, but for now it’s the +7.9 that looks wrong, not the 6-5.