Through games of January 14, the 2022 NBA season is effectively at its halfway point. Only three teams—Chicago, Denver, and Toronto—have not yet played their 41st game, while Memphis and Sacramento have played 45 contests, most in the league.
Some teams have grossly underachieved so far, perhaps none more so than the 15-28 Indiana Pacers, whose Net Rating stands at just minus-0.9 even after Boston and Phoenix slaughtered them this week.
But perhaps more interesting is the list of teams at the other end of the scale, teams whose records on the court are better than their records on the stat sheet, a possible sign that they may be headed for a vicious fall in the second half of the season.
Indeed, there are two teams right now with four more wins than their Net Rating says they should have. Over a full season, that’s an eight-game differential, which would put them on the cusp of the most overachieving teams in NBA history.
Washington Wizards: 22-20 Record, 18-24 Expected Record, -1.9 Net Rating
The Wizards started 10-3. Since then, they’re 12-17. And in terms of the math, they’re not even that good. Prorated out to 82 games, their expected record is more like 35-47.
They’re 5-11 in games decided by double digits, the first sign of a team that’s not as good as its record.
They’re 8-2 in games decided by just one possession, and before they lost to Chicago by one point on New Year’s Day, they’d been undefeated at 6-0 in such games.
Great teams win big and lose close. Bad teams win close and lose big. The Wizards are 22-20 and already eighth in the East, required if the season ended today to win a play-in game in order to get into the playoffs.
Come April, they’re likely to be on the wrong side of the 21-22 11th-placed Celtics and watching the play-in games on TV.
Chicago Bulls: 27-13 Record, 23-17 Expected Record, +2.6 Net Rating
The Bulls are the eighth-best team in the entire NBA and fourth in the East (behind Cleveland, Miami, and Milwaukee in that order) by Net Rating. They’re not a bad team masquerading as a good team.
What they are is a second-round out masquerading as a Finals candidate.
The biggest alarm bell for Chicago is their tendency to get their butts kicked by top-tier teams.
They’ve played Golden State twice and lost by a combined 68 points, contributing in the process to the Warriors’ league-leading Net Rating.
Brooklyn clobbered them by 26.
Miami whupped them by 26.
Cleveland smacked them by 23.
And in one of those “why’s Indiana so close on point differential for such an awful record?” games, the Pacers beat Chicago by 32.
Meanwhile, most of Chicago’s big wins came from beating up bad teams; they’re 3-6 in games decided by 20 or more, and those three victims were Detroit, Orlando…and Brooklyn, because the Nets make no sense.
That’s what you expect from second-round out-caliber playoff teams, though. They take care of their business during the regular season, then when the level of competition steps up and they get into a battle against the legitimate title contenders, they’re outclassed and get bounced.
The Bulls are the East’s top seed right now, but unless they keep up their overachieving ways (or stop getting their butts kicked by good teams), they’re headed for a fall in the playoffs.
This has actually been a relatively calm year for NBA statistical weirdness. The Pacers are headed for all-time levels of underachievement, and Cleveland is right behind them at a four-game differential between their actual and projected record. The Cavs, in fact, are the top team in the East in terms of Net Rating.
But for the most part, there just aren’t many teams that are performing so far above or below their record as to say “this team is due for a big move in the standings in the second half.”
What we’ve seen in 41 (or so) games is what we can expect to see, barring injury or major roster moves at the trade deadline, over 82 games.