Kevin Pelton, SUPERSONICS.COM
| November 9, 2006
Through five games, the Seattle SuperSonics have the same identical 1-4 record they sported this time a year ago. In the big picture, however, their starts could not possibly have been more different. A year ago, the Sonics were reeling after suffering their third straight loss by at least 25 points. This year, the Sonics have been in every game they've played in the final minute, but have seen all four close games end in losses, culminating in Hedo Turkoglu
's game-winning fadeaway jumper with 0.4 seconds left last night in Orlando.
According to data provided by Basketball-Reference.com, the Sonics poor luck in close games is relatively unprecedented in recent NBA history. Over the past five seasons (2001-02 through 2005-06), 20 teams started the year 1-4. Of those, none outscored their opposition in those games, as the Sonics have (they are +2 on the season compared to their opponents). The best of these teams in point differential, the 2002-03 Miami Heat, was outscored by 15 points over the first five games.
"It was a lucky shot, you know."
By contrast, the 2005-06 Sonics were outscored by 96 points in their first five games - the second-worst differential of any team in the five-year span (the 2001-02 Chicago Bulls were outscored by 111 points).
The large gap between the Sonics performance in terms of point differential and their lone win is rare. On average, teams with the Sonics +2 point differential would win 2.6 of their first five games. That difference is matched by only one team over the last five years, the 2002-03 Washington Wizards, who outscored their opponents by 34 points in the first five games but won just two of them.
Those Wizards, like most of the other teams whose point differential dramatically exceeded their early-season record, boosted it with one blowout win. That's not true of the Sonics, who have simply seen several close games go the other way, causing them to question whether fate is against them.
"We're very unlucky right now," Sonics forward Rashard Lewis said. "Every game we lost, we haven't been blown out. Every game was a close game and a lot of those were controlled by us and I think we gave some of those games away."
"I feel frustrated certainly," said Sonics Coach Bob Hill, "but I feel a little snake bitten perhaps."
"That is two nights in a row getting a 3 sunk on us in the closing seconds," said Ray Allen. "It is painful to lose games like that, but you have to get right back up and get on the horse again for the next game."
Even Turkoglu admitted, "It was a lucky shot, you know."
The good news for the Sonics, besides the fact that their luck can't get any worse, is that history indicates their performance in close games - especially this early in the season - is not a strong indicator of their overall performance.
The notion that points scored and allowed are a better way to measure a team's performance than its record dates back to pioneering basketball sabermetrician Bill James and was later transferred to basketball, where the effect is not quite as strong but still apparent.
"The statement 'good teams win the close games' does tend to be true," concluded a CourtsideTimes.Net study last season, "but a much stronger statement is 'good teams win the blowouts.'"
While the Sonics can improve their execution in late-game situations - "You have to rebound," said Allen Wednesday. "You have to execute your plays on offense and you have to take care of the ball. So far, we haven’t done a good job of it." - in close games, a single shot or single play can be the difference between winning or losing, despite the fact that chance plays such a large role in the outcome of the play. That's true of Turkoglu's shot or Allen missing a rare pair of free throws late in the loss at Miami. Change those plays, and the Sonics start to the season looks dramatically different.
The Sonics aren't the only Northwest Division team learning that lesson. The Denver Nuggets, last year's Northwest champs, have started 0-3 with all three losses coming by three points or less.
Even for teams who played worse than the Sonics in their first five games, a 1-4 start has hardly been a death knell. Of the 20 teams over the last five years who started 1-4, six made the postseason, including two of the four teams with the best point differentials in their first five games.
"I say we’re going to win one sooner or later, we just have to keep playing," Hill said he told his team yesterday.
At this point, there's no other attitude to have.