Overachieving and Underachieving NBA Teams Through the Season's First Quarter
The NBA season started a couple weeks earlier than we're used to this year, in order to stretch out the games and reduce back-to-backs. One thing that has resulted from that change is that we have a bigger sample size to take stock of at the Thanksgiving holiday, when the NBA stops for a day to catch it's breath (and eat some turkey).
Each team has played between 16 and 19 games, which is pretty darn close to 20, which is roughly a quarter of the 82-game schedule. All that is to say, let's call this roughly the quarter mark of the season.
We all know that a team's win-loss record is not the best way to analyze its strength or relative success, since factors like schedule, rest, point differential, and so on play a role. One way to analyze how good a team has been playing that's a little less anecdotal is by using nERD, our proprietary metric.
Team nERD is a team ranking on a scale from 0-100 (with 50 as the league average), that is meant to be predictive of the team's ultimate winning percentage, based on efficiency factors. For example, the Golden State Warriors currently lead the league in Team nERD at 79.9, meaning they're playing like a team that would end an 82-game season with a 0.799 win-loss percentage -- roughly a 66-16 record by year's end. Their actual win-loss percentage with a record of 13-5 is 0.722, which means they are actually playing 7.7% (+0.077) better than their current record suggests.
If you look at our weekly power rankings, you'll notice that some teams are playing better than their win-loss records would have you believe, while others are playing worse. In other words, some teams have a big gap between their actual win-loss percentage, and their implied ultimate percentage via nERD.
Here is a ranking of those differentials, listed from the teams who are playing better than their records suggest, all the way down to those who are actually playing worse than you might think based on their simple win-loss totals:
|Rank||Team||Record||Win-Loss %||nERD||Implied Final %||Difference|
|1||Oklahoma City Thunder||8-9||0.471||65.7||0.657||0.186|
|3||Los Angeles Clippers||6-11||0.353||47.5||0.475||0.122|
|6||Golden State Warriors||13-5||0.722||79.9||0.799||0.077|
|10||Portland Trail Blazers||10-8||0.556||58.8||0.588||0.032|
|13||Los Angeles Lakers||8-11||0.421||43.9||0.439||0.018|
|19||San Antonio Spurs||11-7||0.611||53.8||0.538||-0.073|
|20||New Orleans Pelicans||10-8||0.556||47.3||0.473||-0.083|
|23||New York Knicks||10-7||0.588||49.8||0.498||-0.090|
The team that stands out the most here is the Oklahoma City Thunder, who currently sit at eighth in the Western Conference with a record of 8-9 but come in fifth in our NBA team power rankings with a nERD of 65.7 (which also places them third in the West, trailing only the Warriors and Houston Rockets).
The Thunder have essentially lost small and won big all season, as evidenced by their fifth-ranked margin of victory at 5.35. They are currently the only team in the Association with a positive point differential but a record below .500.
Despite being 8-9, the Thunder are actually playing like a team that would finish an 82-game season with a winning percentage of 0.657, which roughly equates to 54-28. You can also see the difference between their current win-loss record and reality in their Pythagorean win-loss record (expected win-loss total based on points scored and allowed) of 12-5.
Simply put, the Thunder are better than we think. They might be a wolf in sheep's clothing right now.
Some other things worth noting:
The Cleveland Cavaliers (11-7), Minnesota Timberwolves (11-7), New York Knicks (10-7), Philadelphia 76ers (10-7), Milwaukee Bucks (9-8), and New Orleans Pelicans (10-8) are all teams playing above .500 that actually grade out as sub-.500 teams according to our metrics.
The Sacramento Kings (5-13) are somehow even worse than their record suggests. nERD implies that they're playing like a 10-72 team.
The 16-3 Boston Celtics should come back down to earth a little now that their winning streak is over, as they're playing more like a 57-25 team than the 69-13 record that they're on pace for.
The 11-6 Detroit Pistons probably aren't for real. They're still projected to go 43-39 over a full season -- a step up from last year's mark of 37-45 but a far cry from the 53-29 record that they're on pace for.
The Utah Jazz are the most realistic team in the league, with only a 0.5% difference between their current win-loss percentage (0.421) and what nERD projects their ultimate win-loss percentage to be (0.426).
Keep on eye on these trends as the season progresses, as some teams could see their current win-loss records regress closer to their projected ones once more games are played.