The Bucks Are Playing Better Than Their Record
Here is the full list of teams that rank in the top-10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency: Warriors (second and second), Spurs (fifth and fourth), Clippers (sixth and tenth), Bucks (eighth and ninth), Jazz (ninth and third).
This is encouraging.
In short, while the Bucks are 16-16, they do not have the profile of a 16-16 team, a .500 team.
According to Net Rating (per stats.nba.com), which is based on how many points a team scores and allows overall, the Bucks grade out as the eighth best team in basketball.
|1||Golden State Warriors||34||29||5||1642.0||113.1||101.0||12.1|
|3||San Antonio Spurs||34||27||7||1637.0||109.9||101.6||8.3|
Another way to look at this (the way that basketball-reference looks at it), is what they call an Expected Win-Loss Record (or Pythagorean record), which again, is based on how many points a team has scored and allowed overall. By this measure, the Bucks have a 19-13 Expected Win-Loss Record, and again, that would be the eighth best in the NBA. (Also worth noting: They have played an almost exactly league-average strength of schedule, and have played two more games at home than on the road.)
The Bucks have a +80 scoring margin after 32 games. With that firmly positive differential in mind, you would think the team would have better than a 16-16 record to show for it. Yet they are in fact 16-16, and actual wins and losses are what matter.
Nevertheless, Net Rating is typically the best predictor of actual team record, and the greater the sample size, the more closely they will align. For example, last season, the teams with the 10 best net ratings also finished with the 10 best win-loss records.
|1||San Antonio Spurs||82||67||15||3941.0||108.4||96.6||11.8|
|2||Golden State Warriors||82||73||9||3976.0||112.5||100.9||11.6|
|3||Oklahoma City Thunder||82||55||27||3966.0||109.9||103.0||6.9|
Indeed, over the past three seasons, every team in the top 10 of Net Rating has won at least 48 games.
To get a bit more specific, in each of the past four seasons, one team has posted a Net Rating of 3.3, like the Bucks have right now. Here is how they fared.
- Hornets (2015-16) – 3.3 Net Rating – 48-34 record
- Bulls (2014-15) – 3.3 Net Rating – 50-32 record
- Suns (2013-14) – 3.3 Net Rating – 48-34 record
- Rockets (2012-13) – 3.3 Net Rating – 47-35 record
All of this is to say that these things usually even out. If you keep outscoring your opponent overall to the extent the Bucks are, the wins usually come.
Earlier in the season though, you tend to see more noise in the numbers, and more disparities between expected records and actual records. The Hawks, for instance, have been outscored on the whole this season, and they have a -1.1 Net Rating, which is 16th best in the league. But the Hawks are 18-16, with the Bucks looking up at them in standings. Meanwhile, you may have thought the Timberwolves looked better than their woeful record indicated when they beat the Bucks over the weekend. And indeed, based on their Net Rating of -1.7, they are just behind the Hawks and Pacers, just barely below average.
So, back to the Bucks. How do they not have a winning record? Well, they are 0-2 in overtime, 3-8 in close games (decided by six points or fewer), and have more blowout wins than blowout losses. Part of this is on a lack of execution down the stretch and not purely the whims of randomness at the end of games. Perhaps surprisingly, the Bucks boast the sixth best Net Rating in the NBA during fourth quarters this season.
|5||San Antonio Spurs||34||27||7||408.0||110.5||104.0||6.6|
|7||Oklahoma City Thunder||34||21||13||408.0||104.9||102.0||2.9|
|8||Golden State Warriors||34||29||5||408.0||105.1||102.4||2.6|
But they rank dead last in the NBA in Net Rating in the Clutch. Which is to say, if the Bucks can simply play in the clutch like they do the rest of the time, more of the close games will start to tilt their way.
After the Bucks alternated going to Giannis, Jabari, and Dellavedova in a few clutch situations early in the season, Jason Kidd mentioned in post-game pressers that he wanted to give different players a chance to see what they could do. The Bucks have the luxury of trying different things, seeing what works and what doesn’t, particularly during what remains a developmental season. If they figure it out sooner rather than later (and if a few bounces go their way), they have a real chance to make the playoffs and even push into the 4-6 range in the crowded middle of the Eastern Conference.
What they are hinting at though is something bigger, something that is closer to making a run at the top eight in the NBA, rather than the top eight in the East.