How Good NBA Teams Lose And Bad Teams Win

There are, at present, three NBA teams that are indisputably good in the sense that they win at least 75 percent of the time, the bar a team needs to clear to go 62-20 or better; the Boston Celtics (18-3), Houston Rockets (15-4), and Golden State Warriors (15-5).

There are also three teams in the Association that are so utterly putrid that they are on pace to win 20 games or fewer over an 82-game season; the 3-14 Chicago Bulls, 4-16 Atlanta Hawks, and 5-15 Dallas Mavericks.

But if the best teams always won and the worst teams always lost, those records would be more lopsided than even Boston or Chicago have done this year. So let’s see if there’s something that stands out among the 12 wins and 12 losses that these teams have put up against the best or worst their records have to show and see if there are any commonalities not only within the small sample for each team, but for good and bad teams as a whole.

Stats are via Basketball Reference and are current through games of November 25, 2017.

BOSTON: Get Marcus Smart Shooting

Smart is having a disastrous year offensively. He’s shooting .291/.250/.764 for an eFG% of .349. That is the fourth-worst eFG% in the league (ahead of Quincy Pondexter and Paul Zipser of the Bulls and Smart’s own teammate Shane Larkin) out of the 276 players qualified for the scoring title.

Now, Smart can be reliably counted upon to lay a lot of bricks, but the more he shoots, the more detrimental it is to Boston’s offense. If you’re defending the Celtics, this is how you take them out of their offense. Smart was 5-of-16 in the season opener against Cleveland, 4-of-13 when the C’s dropped to 0-2 against Milwaukee, and 3-of-9 when the 16-game winning streak ended in Miami.

But then again, don’t do what the Pacers did on Saturday night, when they let Smart have whatever he wanted and he dropped 7-of-8 on them in Boston’s 10-point win.

Smart was inactive in Boston’s 21-point win over the Knicks on Oct. 24, and he took only three shots (missing all of them) when the Celtics beat Sacramento by 27 on Nov. 1.

Now, this isn’t to say that Smart’s not a good basketball player; indeed, he is a fantastic lockdown defender, one of the best in the league. But get him thinking he can play two ways and you give yourself the best chance to beat the Celtics.

Houston Rockets: Make Them Die by the Sword

The Rockets’ team three-point shooting in each of their four losses:

9-of-28 (23.7 percent, 98-90 vs MEM)
14-of-38 (36.8 percent, 103-89 at MEM)
13-of-47 (27.7 percent, 115-107 vs PHI)
12-of-39 (30.8 percent, 129-113 vs TOR)

Oh, and that second Memphis game, where they shot decently from three? They were 15-of-39 (38.5 percent) on two-point shots and 29-of-77 (37.7 percent) overall.

Houston is a shooting team. When their shots are falling, they win; when they aren’t, they lose.

Which is also how San Antonio disposed of Houston last year in the playoffs; the Rockets shot 22-of-50 (44 percent) and 19-of-43 (44.2) in their two wins.

Their combined three-point shooting in the four losses? 31.1 percent (50-of-163.)

When a team lives and dies by the three, perimeter defense is everything.

GOLDEN STATE: Win the Turnover Battle

The Warriors vs. their opponents, by turnovers in their five losses:

HOU: 17-12
MEM: 17-14
DET: 25-13
BOS: 15-15
OKC: 22-16

So four games where they lost the turnover battle and the fifth game was a nail-biter (and one that was primarily won for the Celtics by the referees, who awarded Boston 38 free throws to Golden State’s 19.)

And in case you may be wondering, Marcus Smart was 0-of-7 in that game.

So we’ve seen that…well, the good teams don’t have a lot in common when they lose. One team, you force their worst shooter to take more shots. Another, you just hope they’re having a bad night and help yourself with aggressive perimeter defense. And the third, you put pressure on the passing lanes and use their ball movement against them; a team that racks up lots of assists risks lots of turnovers.

So there’s no one way to beat a good team, but there’s three ways to beat three good ones.

Now then, on to the flip side of the coin, where we sort through the trash:

CHICAGO: Get Hot From Three, Or Else Hope Your Opponent’s Even Worse Than You Are

Chicago has one win over Atlanta, a game in which the Bulls played badly (36 percent shooting, 21.9 percent from three) but the Hawks played worse (39.5 and 39.3, but they committed far more fouls, allowing the Bulls to shoot 28 free throws to their 13.)

The Bulls also dominated the boards 62-40 in that game, as Lauri Markkanen, David Nwaba, Justin Holiday, Denzel Valentine, and Robin Lopez all had at least eight rebounds; Chicago had 18 offensive boards to Atlanta’s seven.

In other words, a bad game between trash teams and someone had to win and it turned out to be the Bulls.

The other two games, against the then 6-2 Orlando Magic and the serviceable Charlotte Hornets, were more straightforward. Chicago shot 14-of-29 (48.3 percent) and took more free throws (12 to 5) than the Magic did, and against Charlotte, the Bulls were 17-of-34 (50 percent) from long range, winning despite being on the wrong end of a 34-13 free throw disparity. Chicago won purely because they took more shots thanks to extended possessions, “team turnovers”, and the like; they attempted 91 shots to Charlotte’s 81 and 34 threes to the Hornets’ 21.

But the big takeaway here is that to beat anyone besides the league’s other bottom feeders, the Bulls need to get hot from three; as long as you keep the ball away from open shooters on the perimeter, you won’t get embarrassed against these guys.

ATLANTA: Beat the Bad Teams (part deux) Or Make Good Teams Play Like Bad Teams

The Hawks own wins over Dallas and 5-14 Sacramento, the latter a 126-80 drubbing for the ages. They beat the Cleveland Cavaliers when LeBron James played well and the rest of the Cavs played like a G-League team, and they beat the Knicks by winning the turnover battle 20-9 to survive a Triple 20 from Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Courtney Lee.

Atlanta is a bad team among bad teams. Even the Bulls beat them, because of all the teams in the NBA, the Hawks are the biggest “play semi-competent basketball and you’ve got these guys” squad. They’re 2-7 and home and 2-9 on the road, and they play at a fast enough pace (98.0, 13th in the league) that you’ll get enough possessions to keep them from grinding you out.

So for the Hawks to win, they have to play a near-perfect game and hope the other team screws up the way the Knicks did or that the other team is legitimately terrible (Cleveland was cringeworthy behind LeBron before they pulled it together and went on a winning streak.)

DALLAS: Play Solid Team Defense

The Mavericks are 17th in Defensive Rating even as they’re 27th offensively and 28th in winning percentage. They play a slow pace (23rd in the league), which maximizes their strengths of being able to hold a line in NBA trench warfare. This is also how Utah is 9-11 without Gordon Hayward or Rudy Gobert; they’re basically “Dallas but better”, 26th in pace and seventh in Defensive Rating.

Consider the score in their five wins:

MEM: 103-94
@WAS: 113-99
MIL: 111-79
@MEM: 95-94
OKC: 97-81

Now consider opponents’ field goal percentage. Respectively:

45.8, 42.7, 37.8, 45.7, 36.3.

So Memphis shot 45.7 percent or so against them, but in those games, the Mavs won the turnover battle (17-11 and 17-8), taking advantage of the extra possessions. Plus, the Grizzlies shot a horrible 24.1 percent (7-of-29) from three in the second game.

Rick Carlisle has the corpse of Dirk Nowitzki, the criminally overrated Harrison Barnes, a rookie guard who’s even worse on offense than a certain pile of Number Two in Los Angeles (Dennis Smith Jr., dead last in the league in Offensive Win Shares), and a G-League team around them.

Yet he’s squeezed five wins (including three of their last four and the fourth was an overtime loss against Boston, and you guessed it, Marcus Smart was 3-of-15 as Dallas nearly won) out of this lot.

If the Mavs ever figure out how to play offense, they might yet turn this season around; after all, 9-11 is good for the eight seed in the West right now, so they’re only four games out despite being in dead last.

So do the bad teams make any sense either? Nope. One team that catches fire from three. One team that just sucks but can’t lose them all; when they have a bad enough opponent, they win almost by default. And one team with a league-average defense that just can’t score.

So have we learned anything from this? Sure! We’ve learned that there’s more than one way to success in the NBA…and there’s more than one way to catastrophic failure. The league is called a “pick and roll league” or a “copycat league” or a “pace and space league”, but the simple fact remains that there are no magic bullets and no surefire roads to ruin.