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Pythagorean wins is a formula that converts points scored and allowed into a predicted winning percentage. The results can show, among other things, teams that over/under perform, win/lose many close games, or just experience good/bad luck.
To predict an NBA team’s winning percentage, the following calculation is performed:
(Points Scored^16.5) / (Points scored^16.5 + Points allowed^16.5) = Winning Percentage
This article will focus on the NBA teams with the most total wins over the last four regular seasons (Lakers-236, Celtics-234, Magic-222, Spurs-221, Mavericks-213). The last four seasons are used because:
- Stan Van Gundy’s tenure in Orlando started four years ago (LAL, BOS, SA same coach all four years too)
- Rick Carlisle has coached the Mavericks for three of the last four seasons
- The stars (Howard, Bryant, Duncan, Nowitzki, Garnett, etc.) played with same team entire span
This piece counts a close game as any contest with a final margin of three points or fewer (one possession). A blowout is any contest with a final margin of fifteen points or more (five possessions).
Only the Timberwolves (do they even count?) have fallen short of their Pythagorean win total by a greater margin than the Orlando Magic over the last four seasons. During the same span, Orlando never finished a season with more actual wins than Pythagorean wins.
The Dallas Mavericks check in on the other end of the spectrum as they exceeded their Pythagorean win total by a greater margin than any other team (10). As I mentioned in a Hoopdata article, some of the Mavericks’ success can be attributed to their record in close games (34-18). The Mavericks’ scoring differential predicted 203 wins over the last four years, but they actually won 213. On the other hand, Orlando’s scoring differential predicted 232 wins, but they actually won 222.
The Lakers amassed the most regular seasons win during the period, but their Pythagorean win total was equal to Orlando’s. In other words, they were victorious 14 more times than Orlando even though their scoring differentials indicated the same number. The Spurs collected just one fewer win than Orlando, but their scoring differential indicated 14 fewer wins.
Close games and blowouts
Teams that win fewer games than expected often struggle in close games, but Orlando actually won 56% of these contests. Even though they had a decent winning percentage, they won just 24 close games during the span, almost exactly the NBA average.
In Game 2 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron James made a memorable three-pointer to give Cleveland a one-point victory over Orlando. Did this mean Cleveland was definitely the better team that night? Nope. A victory by a few points is often influenced heavily by chance, and a victory by a lot can show one team was clearly better that night.
If you subscribe to that notion, Stan Van Gundy keeps has led some great Magic squads. Orlando’s propensity to blow out opponents is unmatched. Heck, they have won 28 games by 25+ points over the last four years!
Predictably, the Mavericks recorded the best winning percentage in close games and the worst winning percentage in blowouts. The Magic won 29 more blowouts than the Mavericks, and Orlando lost 12 fewer blowouts. Unbelievable.
The Lakers made it to the Finals three times, mixed in two world championships, and posted the most total wins in the NBA over the last four years. They were arguably the best team in the NBA during the time frame, yet they won 18 fewer games than Orlando by blowout and were crushed by an opponent four more times.
How can a team come up short every year?
Orlando’s style of play lends itself to a high scoring differential. In each season of the Van Gundy era, Orlando has finished either 1st or 2nd in three-point attempts per game, and they own four of the NBA’s top ten all-time marks for three-point attempts in a season. And if you’re going to spend more time downtown than Pacman Jones, you better make a few shots. Only five teams in NBA history have made more than 800 three-pointers in a season, and three of those teams were coached by Stan Van Gundy in Orlando. Teams that shoot a lot of three-pointers are prone to some serious volatility, but the rewards can be priceless.
And more, the Magic are terrific on defense. In 2009 and 2010, Orlando was the best unit in the NBA and they finished in the top 5 in Van Gundy’s other two seasons. Dwight Howard is the NBA’s most dominant defensive force, and opponents cannot attack the rim with him patrolling the paint. Shots at the rim are made more frequently than any others, and Orlando holds opponents to very few close attempts.
In conclusion, Orlando will inevitably make a ridiculous number of shots beyond the arc in some games. When their outstanding defense is entered into the equation, they stand to win a bunch of blowouts. In addition, even if their three-point shots don’t fall, their great defense will prevent them from getting blown out. I don’t believe the Magic underperform. I don’t believe Stan Van Gundy is a choke artist, even though it seems like he needs an inhaler in every close game, and it doesn’t appear the team has received terrible luck. When a team can combine occasional great shooting with constant great defense, they have recipe for racking up a plethora of Pythagorean wins.