Why are the Hornets so successful in close games?

Thursday, December 31, 2009
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com

ESPN.com writer John Hollinger, pro basketball’s preeminent statistical analyst, theorizes that when an NBA team wins a large portion of its close games during a given season, it’s incorrect to assume that the club’s success in the “clutch” is the result of savvy players or brilliant coaching strategy. The reason for Hollinger’s theory? Generally speaking, if you examine the historical data – as Hollinger has – NBA teams that compile an excellent record in games decided by three points or less during a given season tend not to sustain that close-game success rate in the ensuing seasons.

In other words, as Hollinger theorizes, if winning close games was the result of something other than luck, why wouldn’t the same teams finish with great records in one-possession games year after year? They don’t.

As a result, many basketball number-crunchers instead believe that whether or not an NBA team wins its nail-biters is actually dictated more by randomness and good or bad bounces, rather than something tangible or explainable. While I don’t doubt the validity of Hollinger’s argument on this subject (he cites an extensive amount of statistical evidence), how do you explain the New Orleans Hornets’ continued uncanny ability to prevail in closely-contested games? Although Wednesday’s 95-91 victory over Miami technically does not fit the statistical definition of a “close game” (because it was not decided by three points or less), it served as yet another example of New Orleans pulling out a victory in a game that could’ve gone either way.

If you go back through the four-plus seasons of the “Chris Paul era” of the franchise, the Hornets have been incredibly effective in close games. They’ve recorded an above-.500 record in games decided by three points or less within each of the five seasons (including a league-best 8-1 in 2008-09 and 3-1 so far this season), for a total record of 35-18. Keep in mind, that 35-18 does not even include several of the Hornets’ numerous overtime victories in which they ended up winning by a margin greater than three points.

New Orleans’ effectiveness in close games applies to an even greater extent to overtime, where the Hornets have gone a staggering 14-3 since Paul joined the Hornets in the 2005 draft. New Orleans also established an all-time NBA record by winning 13 consecutive OT games, from April 2006 through February 2009.

So while Hollinger’s theory about close NBA games may apply to most teams, it’s hard to believe at this stage that New Orleans’ good fortune in tight contests is based purely on luck. After 4 1/2 seasons of sustained and repeated positive results by the Hornets, here are a few factors that seem to contribute to New Orleans winning two-thirds of the time when games come down to the final possession:

1) A flawless decision-maker running the offense.
This one is so obvious it almost goes without saying: Having Paul making the decisions during close games is a huge advantage for the Hornets. As we’ve detailed on Hornets.com in the past, he has one of the best basketball IQs in the league. He always seems to be cognizant of time-and-score situations, something that is evident in how frequently he attempts to give the Hornets 2-for-1 possessions at the end of quarters.
Lately he’s become particularly adept at drawing shooting fouls in situations where he realistically has no business doing so. In the Minnesota game Dec. 4, he drew a three-shot foul on the Wolves’ Ryan Hollins at the end of a quarter, even though Paul was dribbling near the halfcourt line just before time expired. Against the Spurs in March last season, his heads-up play when San Antonio was trying to foul to stop the clock resulted in CP3 getting three free throws instead of two – and the additional charity toss proved to be a killer to the Spurs’ chances in that game. Paul is preternaturally gifted with quickness and athleticism, but at times the most effective weapon he’s had at his disposal has been between his ears.
2) Excellent results at the foul line.
With Paul, David West and Peja Stojakovic, the Hornets have had three of the NBA’s best free-throw shooters for the past four seasons. What makes Paul’s and West’s accuracy even more valuable is that they get to the line frequently. It’s one thing to have a few players on a club shoot over 80 percent from the foul line, but it’s another when those same guys are the ones who attempt a high volume of free throws.
Some teams have no choice but to run plays in crunch time through players who are not good foul shooters (Cleveland’s LeBron James, for example, shot 69.8 percent in 2006-07 before improving in recent seasons; Orlando’s Dwight Howard is a career 60.1 percent foul shooter), but the Hornets have the luxury of knowing that if the opponent decides to hack one of New Orleans’ primary offensive options, the result usually will be two points.
3) Players willing to take critical shots.
Paul, West and Stojakovic have each taken turns drilling game-winning or game-tying shots over the past handful of seasons.
West memorably canned three game-winners in the final seconds of games during the 2005-06 season. Paul was more of a facilitator than a shot-maker during close games early in his career, but since his All-Star debut in 2008, he has been more aggressive offensively when the outcome of games is in doubt.
Stojakovic has twice forced overtime with high-degree-of-difficulty three-pointers against Dallas over the past three seasons. Many people who follow the Hornets point to Stojakovic’s OT-forcing trey vs. the Mavericks as the turning point in New Orleans’ division title-winning 2007-08 season. He’s also hit a few other game-deciding hoops, including a turnaround 20-footer over Amar’e Stoudemire in Phoenix, during that same ’07-08 season.
I’m sure there are a few other possible factors behind why the Hornets perform so well in the clutch. I’d be glad to hear a few of your theories, although I’ve probably covered a lot of ground with this post.
Either way, the next time you hear a fellow fan rue what could have been after a narrow Hornets defeat (such as after their heart-breaking one-point defeat at Miami in November), remember this: They actually win a whole lot more of those kinds of games than they lose.