Pythagoras

By Alex Boeder

Pythagoras

Basketball owes the Bucks 38 wins.

Pythagoras said “there is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres.” And some 2,500 years later, there are still some meandering digits singing songs of forgotten loss and harmonizing ballads of renewal, dancing and bending around the universe on a slow track to Milwaukee.

Are we now starting to see spheres realign?

156 Game Losing Streak

The Bucks usually win – at least for the first 45 seasons or so. Since the franchise’s inaugural season in 1968-69, the team has compiled a regular season record of 1881-1725. That means they would have to lose 156 games in a row to break even overall, to have the look of what we call a .500 team. And while the Bucks are liable to a bout of inconsistency, dropping 156 in a row just does not feel as though it is in the cards, or the stars.   

Outscored, but Closer to #1 than #10

Consider: The Bucks are quite a bit closer in the standings to the top-seeded Heat (6.5 games behind) than they are to the 10th-seeded Pistons (8.5 games ahead).
So you may not have noticed that the team has actually been outscored this season.

Right: Opponents have scored more points than the Bucks so far. As such, the 25-21 team has a less flattering 22-24 Pythagorean record. And that is perfectly fair in the grand scheme.

Pythagorean Wins Explained

The team with more points at the end wins. Typically, this produces fair results. In the short term, you get one win for scoring more points over 48 minutes. In the longer term, throughout the course of 82 games, you assert even more dominant control over flukes, blessings, balls that lie. It all evens out – chance and luck cede to skill and logic. There is geometry in the humming of the strings.

And so without even looking at wins and losses, we can come pretty close to predicting how many games a team wins merely by looking at the number of points the team scores and allows over a period of time.

Enter Pythagorean Wins, which through a regression formula rooted in point differential provides an expected win-loss record for each team. Witness the technical definition via basketball-reference.

Here is how it would play out in real life: An 18-2 team that blows out 16 of its opponents and loses two close games would earn a better Pythagorean record than an 18-2 team that blows out two of its opponents and wins 16 close games. Which is nice, because the team with all the blowouts is probably better, and will probably finish the season with a better record.

Only, there is music in the spacing of the spheres. Sometimes teams play well but somehow manage to lose about 70% of those “50/50” games that come right down to the wire. Sometimes teams lose all of their overtime games, not because they forget how to play basketball late at night, but because they are a bit unlucky.

Bucks Historical Pythagorean Record

Based on the Pythagorean Wins formula for each individual season, the Bucks should have an all-time record of 1919-1697. That adds 38 wins to their actual 1881-1725 record.

Back to the chart at the top. In 44 seasons, the team has won more games than their Pythagorean record just 11 times. More than twice as often – in 25 seasons – they have won fewer games than their Pythagorean record. They won the same number of games the other eight seasons.  

Lost Seasons

Some of those 25 seasons were stranger and more frustrating than others.

2003-04

An even 41-41 record earned the Bucks the six spot in the East and a first round date against the Pistons. The bad news was that they ran into a team that transformed from very good in the regular season to completely dominant in the playoffs. The Bucks actually stole Game 2 in Detroit, but the Pistons went on to reel off three wins in a row – and then reel off three more series wins in a row, including a shocking 4-1 defeat of the Lakers in the Finals.

Then again, by Pythagorean standards, the Bucks were better (44-38) than their record (41-41) indicated, even finding some success after T.J. Ford’s season-ending injury. Meanwhile, the Hornets managed to grab the five spot despite being outscored overall during the season. By Pythagorean record, the Bucks actually would have earned the four seed and had home court advantage against the Heat in the first round, a team they defeated two out of three times in the regular season.

1978-79

Here is a wild one. The 38-44 Bucks finished seven games out of the playoff picture in what was a six team bracket at the time. Yet by Pythagorean standards, the Bucks were a 47-35 team. Compare that to the top-seeded 52-30 SuperSonics, who actually looked more like a 48-36 team by Pythagorean. Instead, the Bucks watched the playoffs from home and watched the SuperSonics cruise to an easy Finals win.

The Bucks easily outscored their opponents this season, so what exactly happened here? Well, they went just 11-18 in games decided by five or fewer points – that didn’t help. They also made a habit of blowing teams out, winning nine games by 20+ points, including a 59-point trouncing of the Pistons. Yet they only lost by 20+ points three times that season. There were plenty of signs that this team was better than their record, and Marques Johnson, Junior Bridgeman, and Brian Winters (with some new help from Sidney Moncrief) showed it one year later when they went 49-33 and pushed the SuperSonics to seven games in the Western Conference Semifinals.

2012-13 Pythagorean NBA Winners/Losers

Okay, so back to this season. Which teams are the most fortunate and least fortunate based on Pythagorean standards?

The Bucks have been fortunate, but they don’t make the top four. In fact, maybe the West is not quite as great as it may seem, as the four most fortunate teams so far are all from the West.

A couple of teams in the Northwest Division fighting for playoff spots have been outscored this season, but boast winning records: The 27-22 Jazz are four games better than their 23-26 expected record, while the 25-23 Trail Blazers are four games better than their 21-27 expected record.

Meanwhile, the Warriors are the darlings of the West, but their 30-17 record is a bit more flattering than their 26-21 expected record. And while the Kings have struggled, their 17-33 record is four games better than their 13-37 expected record.

Some of the lower tier teams in the East have not gotten many breaks. The 17-31 Raptors have a 21-27 expected record while the 18-31 Pistons have a 21-28 expected record. The 12-35 Wizards are not good any way you look at them, but their 15-32 expected record suggests they could have a few more wins. Finally, the surprising 26-23 Rockets actually have a 29-20 expected record.

Bucks Luck?

Given their relatively tough-luck Pythagorean history, we can live with a small bit of good fortune for the Bucks so far this season, but that still leaves the question: How are the Bucks winning the majority of their games despite being outscored overall?

First and foremost, they are winning close games. The Bucks are 8-4 in games decided by five or fewer points, and they are 9-6 in games decided by 6-10 points. Meanwhile, they have only won two games by 16+ points (coincidentally, one in a 104-85 victory against the defending champion Heat), but they have lost six games by 16+ points.

Normally, these numbers would not bode well for the rest of the season. It is difficult to continually win close games at such an impressive clip, and good teams are usually blowing out other teams, not getting blown out. So, is this sustainable?

Possibly. Things have changed a bit since Jim Boylan took over as head coach and inserted a new starting lineup – they have outscored their opponents by 26 points during a 9-5 run with Boylan at the helm. That margin still doesn’t predict quite that good of a record, but the team is outscoring their opponents recently.

In any event, it is not as though they are benefitting all that much anyway right now. The Bucks own the eighth best Pythagorean record in the East – and rank seventh in the real standings. Despite being outscored this season, the Bucks have stayed warm through winter. Listen to the rush on 4th St., and maybe you will hear music in the spacing of the spheres this spring. 

 




Alex Boeder

My passions? Writing and the Bucks, to start. So it is good to be here. I have reported on media row for just about every Bucks home game since 2009-10 – almost all of that time writing for BrewHoop. I have also written for the Milwaukee Brewers Baseball Club, SB Nation, ESPN Milwaukee, Slam Online, etc. You can follow me on Twitter @alexboeder or email me at adboeder@gmail.com.