The NBA is a league where point differential is the single strongest predictor across an 82-game season of success and failure. 30 points is worth a win (give or take, and adjusted for pace, but it’s right around 30.) Which is to say, for every plus-one in point differential over a season, it’s good for about 2.7 wins.
Every major advanced stat that deals with wins (from playoff-odds projections to Estimated Wins Added/WAR) is based on this principle. Which, in turn, creates a simple maxim. If you want to win lots of games, you need to win by big margins, and when you lose, you don’t get blown out.
On one end of this, you’ve got the Houston Rockets, who in 24 games so far in this season, are 20-4 and outscoring their opponents by 11.2 points per game.
On the other end, there’s the 5-20 Bulls, giving up 9.9 more points per game than they score.
And in the halls of ignorance, where the “eye test” still holds sway and where people like Charles Barkley can continue to spew ignorant dross like the idea that “Analytics only works when you have Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant,” there is this pervasive idea that the great teams win the close games (and we presume they mean they do this at a greater clip than their record as a whole, because really, the 2016 Warriors and 1996 Bulls didn’t really lose much to anyone.)
Indeed, everyone seems to focus on the games that LeBron James loses by tight margins, somehow suggesting that if the Cavaliers or Heat had Michael Jordan, then MJ would win those games and win eight titles where James only has three, never mind that Jordan never had a rec league team put around him like the one LeBron had in Cleveland when the Spurs swept the Cavs in the 2007 Finals.
My point is this. The ’96 Bulls went 5-3 in games decided by three points or less, the games where a made shot would win a game they were losing or a misfire when all they needed was a defensive stop would propel their opponents to a win.
Of course the Bulls lost three games by a single point! If you were a team that could beat Chicago, you couldn’t just run them off the floor the way you can with the 2018 edition (this year’s Bulls are 2-3 in one-possession games but 1-9 in games decided by double-digit margins, exactly what you’d expect from a catastrophically bad basketball team.)
So let’s use last year’s full-season data and see if we can draw some conclusions from it, shall we?
The Great Teams
Right at the top, you see the biggest example of this theorem.
The Warriors, 67-15 and NBA champions, went 3-4 in one-possession games.
In double-digit margin games? 48-6.
Their Finals opponent, the Cleveland Cavaliers, went 3-4 in one-possession games as well. And lest anyone question the team’s grit and ability to tough out a close game and all that eye-test stuff, one of the wins was on Christmas Day against the Warriors, 109-108. They were just far better when they jumped out in front and stayed out in front.
In fact, Cleveland’s 15 double-digit losses in 40 games said more about the ultimate expectation of them when they came out of the East and got destroyed in the Finals than the close losses did.
Golden State’s Western Conference Finals opponent, the San Antonio Spurs, are another example of a team winning big and losing close. Gregg Popovich’s team went 61-21 overall and lost only eight games by double digits. A team led by the likes of Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, and the championship pedigree of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili knows how to win, and when Coach Pop rests his guys, the bench picks up on that need to throttle the opponent and then does so.
Their close-game winning percentage? They went 8-5. Which over an 82-game season is a 50-32 pace. Their double-digit wins? 32-8, 80 percent of their games, a 66-16 clip. The further out the margin, the better the winning rate, as one would expect from a good team.
So for Golden State, we have winning percentages going from .429 to .762 to .889 in games decided by one possession, other single-digit margins, and double-digit blowouts.
For San Antonio, it was .615, .724, and .800.
Cleveland was a weaker team; their numbers reflected that, as they went from .429 up to .657 and then back down to .625. If we operate on the belief that if great teams win big and lose close and bad teams do the opposite, then middling teams should have their fortunes decided in the middle of the scoreboard? That’s another test for another day, but it’s worth pointing out that a Finals team was still 3-4 in close games and 25-15 in blowouts.
Does anyone seriously think they were worse teams because they were weaker in close games?
The Horrible Teams
At the other end of the scale, let’s look at the lottery squads. Brooklyn, Phoenix, and the Lakers lost 62, 58, and 56 games, respectively.
The Nets were 3-6 in skin-tight games, 9-26 in the “mid-sized” games, and 8-30 in blowouts; their winning percentages were .333, .257, and .211 as you went up the scoreboard.
The Suns? They only had seven double-digit wins. They were 9-4 in one-possession games and 7-32 in blowouts, finishing 8-22 in all other games.
That gives them an ascending-margin win percentage of .692, .267, and .179.
And the Lakers?
Well, they were a bit of a strange case, as they were 2-4 in one-possession games. When things went sour for LA, they did so in a hurry and with devastating effect.
They also had 15 double-digit wins, but they were also a .500 team as late as Nov. 30 (when they were 10-10) before they lost 12 of 13 and started tanking in earnest.
On the one hand, they’re the exception that proves the rule, but on the other hand, they were also a team that had a pair of extended stretches, one in which they went 1-12 and another in which they lost 18 out of 20, and they were beaten by 20 points or more a staggering 15 times while only winning by that margin or better twice.
So what have we broadly shown here? Well, we’ve shown that great teams win big and lose close. We’ve shown that bad teams gut out close wins on nights they’re not getting murdered.
And we’ve shown that the higher the margin of victory or defeat, the more good teams’ winning percentage tends to rise while bad teams’ winning percentage falls.
So there you go. You don’t need grit to win. Unless you suck. Then it’s the only thing that can save you.