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At Least One Of These Struggling Eastern Conference Teams Truly Stinks. It’s Math!

Maddie Meyer/Mitchell Leff/Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Eight Eastern Conference teams currently have more wins than losses. Conveniently, the same eight teams have positive net ratings, the difference between the points they score per hundred possessions and the points they allow per hundred possessions. It's a fun, idiosyncratic group, improbably featuring the Cavaliers, Knicks, and Wizards, all at the same time. Weird! Troublingly, the group does not include the 2020 conference finalist Boston Celtics, who fortified last season's playoff roster with several key additions; it does not include the 2021 conference finalist Atlanta Hawks; it does not include the Milwaukee Bucks, who are the actual defending NBA champions. It brings me no pleasure (in fact it brings me great pleasure) to report that at least one of these three teams is a big old fraud. Possibly all three!

Right now you are rudely handwaving this away, muttering things like "small sample size," "new players," "early season adjustments," and "no one pays attention to this shit before Christmas." Horse feathers! For you see, my argument is sheathed in the cold, hard, impregnable armor of mathematics. Some early trends turn out to be anomalies, yes, but math and science tell us, unexpectedly and counter to the conventional wisdom you foolishly expressed mere moments ago, that a fair number of a season's overall contours are predicted by what happens over each team's first 10 games. Or, anyway, that was the finding of BBall Index hoops-knower and math-doer Krishna Narsu, who at Nylon Calculus in 2019 worked out a formula for determining when a team-level statistic—say, Pace, or Free-Throw Rate, or Rebound Percentage—starts to accurately reflect a team's "true and expected performance level." It involves a math concept called the coefficient of determination; a quick internet search, which certainly did not at all cause my eyes to cross and warm sludge to drip from my ears, tells us that the coefficient of determination "provides a measure of how well observed outcomes are replicated by the model, based on the proportion of total variation of outcomes explained by the model." Yes, yes, just as I am always saying.

Not all stats reach the threshold where, as Narsu describes it, "the skill outweighs the noise," on the same timeline. Pace, for example, is reliably established after just four games. Opponent Three-Point Percentage, at the other end of the spectrum, hasn't filtered out enough of the noise of random hot-shooting performances until 33 games in. This makes some sense, when you think about it: Pace usually reflects a team's preferred style of play, something they will naturally try to express as early and often as possible; Opponent Three-Point Percentage, on the other hand, is vulnerable to Ricky damn Rubio entering a fugue state in his team's 11th game of the season and going 8-for-9 off the bench. It takes a long time for such a stat to go from telling you what has happened to you to telling you what you are doing. The Knicks' current low ranking in Opponent Three-Point Percentage right now tells you mostly that Ricky Rubio was touched by an angel; a month from now, if they're still in the bottom quarter of the league, that might mean they just stink at contesting three-pointers.

Win Percentage and Net Rating are interesting in that they want to tell you an awful lot more than a lot of the granular stats that go into a team's performance and results. In their own ways, these stats want to tell you whether or not a team sucks mondo ass. You would think, therefore, that their coefficient of yadda yadda would, ah, mature (?) later in the season, after injuries and rotations and various attacks from Ricky Rubio have been integrated and normalized. Not so! Turns out, every NBA team has already passed the point in the season where Win Percentage and Net Rating start to gain traction as indicators of future performance. According to Narsu's calculations, after just eight games we have learned enough from a team's record and its Net Rating to start to worry about their underperforming, sub-.500 asses. This is obviously a long way from perfect as a predictor of how a season will shake out—Narsu cautioned Defector Wednesday that early season statistical trends are "less meaningful for teams who are super injured"—but for the most part we are beyond the threshold where this stuff can be waved away as too fleeting to be representative. If you stink at the 10-game mark, there's a reasonable chance that you just stink.

Which brings us back around to the current Eastern Conference standings, and the Atlanta Hawks, the Boston Celtics, and the Milwaukee Bucks, three teams with win percentages below .500 and negative net ratings. As we have established, math strongly suggests that at least one of these teams is a true doodoobuttnik. But which? Let us examine their cases individually:

Milwaukee Bucks

The Numbers

Win Percentage: .455 (5–6)
Net Rating: –0.9 (19th)

What The Shit?

The Bucks narrowly defeated the 76ers in Philadelphia Tuesday night to capture their fifth win of the season and move into sole possession of ninth place in the Eastern Conference. Wow! A road win over the mighty 76ers! To this I say: Fiddlesticks! The players listed in Philadelphia's inactives Tuesday night (Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, Seth Curry, Ben Simmons, Matisse Thybulle, Isaiah Joe) would beat the players listed in Philadelphia's starting lineup Tuesday night (Andre Drummond, Paul Reed, Tyrese Maxey, Shake Milton, Furkan Korkmaz) by 80 points. The Bucks needed Philadelphia's ragtag crew to run out of steam in the fourth quarter in order to escape with a win they did not especially deserve. That the Bucks are managing some injuries of their own (Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Donte DiVincenzo) only goes so far when they still have Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday. It is disgraceful for the defending NBA champions to slink away with a narrow win over that 76ers team! Disgusting.

But there's information we use to heap scorn and contempt on a team, and then there's information we use to determine whether their present, deeply shitty form will hold over the course of the regular season, and as men and women of science we must never confuse the two. The Bucks are a respectable if uninspiring 17th in offensive rating and a respectable if uninspiring 18th in defensive rating despite having had Lopez in their lineup for just one game and Middleton for just six. Those minutes are going to the likes of Jordan Nwora and Semi Ojeleye, players who can help out here and there on one end of the floor or the other, but absolutely not both. The one time the Bucks were fully healthy this season they beat the hell out of the Nets, in Brooklyn, and very much looked the part of a reigning champ.

One Encouraging Stat That Has Already Crossed The Coefficient of Determination Threshold

The Bucks attempt the fifth most three-pointers per game, at a rate of 44.4 percent of their total shot attempts, good for seventh across the NBA. Three-Point Attempt Rate needs just four games to filter out enough random noise to gain predictive value; having a promising shot profile would seem to suggest an offensive turnaround once some combination of Lopez, Middleton, and DiVincenzo—all capable shooters and floor-spacers—return to action.

One Rude Note To Upset Bucks Fans

The Bucks have one (1) win over a team that anyone would consider "good." They beat the Nets on opening night. Their other wins were over the horrid Pistons, the thoroughly mediocre Pacers and Spurs, and the utterly ravaged Sixers. They lost by 42 to the Heat, for crying out loud.

One Cherry-Picked Highlight To Reinforce My Half-Baked Notion Of Their True Form

Are The Bucks Crud Or What?

Narsu highlighted to Defector that the Bucks are one of those teams where, because "they've suffered a ton of injuries," you could reasonably expect things to move from where they are at the 11-game mark. Middleton should be back soon; less is known about Lopez's condition following a back injury, but either of these guys returning should make a big difference, at both ends of the court. Also Giannis is still a monster. As he showed Tuesday night, he can still will the Bucks to victory over a shitty opponent. To me it seems that the Bucks have a very solid chance of recovering from the crud zone.

Atlanta Hawks

The Numbers

Win Percentage: .333 (4–8)
Net Rating: –4.3 (25th)

What The Shit?

The Hawks lost in Utah Tuesday night, 110–98, to drop to 0–3 on their current road trip out west, with a game left in Denver Friday night before they head home for a nice and needed five-game home stand. The optimist will note that all their losses are to teams ahead of them in the standings. The pessimist will note that when you are ranked 13th in the Eastern Conference, as the Hawks currently are, there are very few teams who are not ahead of you in the standings.

Even without a coefficient of what-have-you to back this up, you should be alarmed about a team with playoff aspirations that looks up three weeks into the regular season and finds that they have the sixth-worst net rating in the league and the 27th-ranked defensive rating. Last season the Hawks finished a serviceable 18th in defensive rating, a minor miracle on a team giving major minutes to all of Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, Lou Williams, and Danilo Gallinari. The crew this season is largely the same, but the results are, so far, profoundly different. For one thing, they're not treading water on that end quite as successfully during Young's minutes: Through 12 games the Hawks are an impossible-seeming 15.3 points per hundred possessions worse on defense with Young on the court than off. Gross!

Their offense has also slipped, from the top 10 last season toward the middle of the pack. I prefer to believe this is because a lot of Young's foul-hunting dark artistry has been neutralized by new rules emphases, because that has a pleasant ring of cosmic comeuppance. You are free to construct your own competing narrative if that's what suits you. It's worth noting here that the second half of last season really was an outlier for the Hawks during the Trae Young era; their numbers so far this season look remarkably like those of his first two seasons. Again I say, make of that what you will!

One Encouraging Stat That Has Already Crossed The Coefficient of Determination Threshold

The Hawks are a surprising fourth in turnover percentage, a stat that by Narsu's calculations ceases to be total baloney after 10 games. Young is averaging a career-low 3.7 turnovers per game, although it must be noted here that he has turned the ball over at least six times in three of their last six games. Still, you would expect Atlanta's offensive rating to improve if their possessions continue to produce a healthy ratio of shots and free throws to turnovers.

One Rude Note To Upset Hawks Fans

The Hawks are an alarming 25th in three-point attempt rate, despite being loaded down with capable shooters. Young is averaging a career-low 8.7 attempts from deep per hundred possessions. As much as I am a fan and admirer of Nate McMillian, old-fashioned offense has always been a feature of his teams. Atlanta's offense has sagged to 13th in efficiency this season. With their defense in shambles, a low-wattage, blue-collar offense will have them lottery bound in no time!

One Cherry-Picked Highlight To Reinforce My Half-Baked Notion Of Their True Form

Are The Hawks Crud Or What?

It's hard to believe a team capable of making the conference finals one year could become poop the very next without a major internal shakeup of some kind. Narsu, ever the optimist, argued that "in their defense, they've faced one of the hardest schedules in the league." Fair enough! Here I will point out that the mighty Washington Wizards have played just as hard a schedule and managed a 7–3 record, despite several untimely injuries. It must be said that a lot will need to improve for the Hawks to turn their season around. Their defense sucks shit and their offense, as presently tuned, may not have the juice to make up the difference. You've got to feel that there's a very solid chance the Hawks are crud.

Boston Celtics

The Numbers

Win Percentage: .400 (4–6)
Net Rating: –1.8 (20th)

What The Shit?

The Celtics opened the season with consecutive losses, followed that up with consecutive road wins, then dropped three in a row and had a little internal crisis. They held their next two opponents to a combined 157 points to steady the ship, then dropped a heartbreaker in Dallas on a Luka Doncic buzzer-beater. They are currently 11th in the East.

The vibes aren't great. Marcus Smart complained publicly that teammates Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Green don't pass enough for the team's other capable scorers to make a real impact. Normally you would not expect such a call-out to happen so early in a season, and especially not for a veteran team used to competing together, but perhaps Marcus Smart is a man who understands the significance of this coefficient of defenestration business!

The Celtics are 22nd in offensive efficiency but a workable 12th on defense. Unfortunately, Offensive Rating crosses the threshold after just 13 games, whereas Defensive Rating is still noisy and unreliable until game 17. Therefore you must conclude that the Celtics are truly screwed. Screwed!

One Encouraging Stat That Has Already Crossed The Coefficient of Determination Threshold

The Celtics are second from the bottom of the NBA in defensive free-throw rate, the measure of how often a team sends its opponents to the stripe. They foul a lot, and their opponents shoot lots of free throws, which in general is bad for a defense. But this is supposed to be encouraging! Yes, as a Wizards fan I find this very encouraging.

One Rude Note To Upset Celtics Fans

The Boston Celtics have engaged in conversations with the 76ers revolving around Simmons and expressed interest in the 6-foot-11 guard, sources tell The Athletic. Talks have been fluid with no traction as of yet, those sources say. Any potential Simmons deal with the Celtics would have to include All-Star forward Jaylen Brown, an ascending talent who is in the midst of another career season, averaging 25.6 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists.

Shams Charania, The Athletic

One Cherry-Picked Highlight To Reinforce My Half-Baked Notion Of Their True Form

Are The Celtics Crud Or What?

Even Narsu can't hide from this one, noting that though the Celtics "also haven't been fully healthy," they've "mostly played with their best players" en route to their current predicament. Unfortunately the Celtics have a poor Win Percentage and a negative Net Rating, and therefore are crud. It's a matter of numbers and formulas, and beyond the powers of man to influence. Take it up with math.

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