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It Is Time Once Again For Math To Tell Us Which Underperforming NBA Teams Are Truly Crud

Stephen Maturen/Ronald Martinez/Fernando Medina/Getty Images

True stat boys know by the changing of the leaves, and certain other seasonal indicators, that this NBA season has already passed the all-important coefficient of determination threshold for Win Percentage and Net Rating. Pathetic casuals may have an automatic reminder on their Google calendar, or may consult an almanac. Disgusting "true hoopers"—the absolute lowest class of basketball observers—may not even know what is meant by "coefficient of determination." Duh, they say, which is how they start most of their sentences. Duh, what are the coaffection of deregulation, please explain it to me, duh, my children are starving because I cannot add two numbers, please help me. These people have no business even knowing what basketball is, let alone playing it with more skill and intuition than I perform any action known to man. Sickening.

I will now once again waste valuable minutes of my life explaining the coefficient of determination, but this is the last time! Mathematics tells us that there is an amount of basketball that a team must play before its accruing statistics can be expected to correlate strongly with how that team will perform in the future. There is a precise point where the sample size becomes large enough that what has happened can inform expectations of what will happen. Have you got it now, you clod? You ape? It's now or never, you pea-brained asshole.

For some basketball statistics, the point of maturation—the moment when the statistic becomes predictive of future results—is rather far along in the season. For example, nearly a third of a team's 82-game regular season must pass before its three-point shooting percentage has filtered out enough randomness to tell us with reasonable accuracy how good that team is at shooting threes. On the other hand, for a number of basketball statistics, the point where they begin to reliably show ability is surprisingly early. Pace—the number of offensive possessions that a team uses per 48 minutes of basketball—describes what a team is doing, rather than what has happened, after just four games. Free-throw rate—how many free throws a team attempts per offensive play—matures after just five games. Here's the big shocker, for a brainless worm such as yourself: Net Rating (the points a team generates per 100 possessions of offense minus the points they allow per 100 possessions of defense) and Win Percentage (self-explanatory) mature after just eight games. Eight games! You could and possibly even should simply stop the whole regular season after eight games and declare a champion. Congratulations to the 2022–23 Milwaukee Bucks for going 8–0 and winning another title! Wow!

Unfortunately, the numbers after eight games do not predict with perfect accuracy how a team will fare over the remainder of the season, as we learned last year with the crudtacular Boston Celtics, who, ah, made the NBA Finals. Krishna Narsu, the math-knower who worked out these coefficients of determination, is careful to note that these thresholds merely describe the point in the season when a statistic has filtered out enough noise to begin to reflect ability. A team that sucks over their first eight games might not suck six months later, but after eight games of sucking, the sucking is no longer meaningless; it in fact means there is good reason to worry that the sucky team simply sucks. Narsu explained to Defector Tuesday that it is possible to "stabilize most of these metrics" in order to make them even more reliable, but that this would be somewhat more complicated. In order to spare the underpowered brains of our readers, I immediately turned and, screaming, took a running leap into a body of running water.

It is time now to apply high-level math that some of us have already deeply internalized in order to understand which of three underperforming Western Conference would-be contenders are huge disgusting frauds. Let us examine their cases individually, and apply mathematics with the precision of a brain surgeon, who instead of a scalpel wields for some reason a calculator:

Minnesota Timberwolves

The Numbers

Win Percentage: .429 (6–8)
Net Rating: –1.1 (21st)

What The Shit?

The Timberwolves held on for dear life Sunday as an out-of-body Darius Garland single-handedly brought the Cavaliers storming back for what was very nearly a stirring come-from-behind victory. The narrow win ended a three-game Minnesota losing streak and gave the Wolves their first victory over a serious NBA team since at least October 28, and possibly of the season: In 13 games before this one they'd beaten only the tanking Thunder, the tanking Spurs, the tanking Rockets, and the horrendous Lakers. In seven games against teams that neither are desperate to lose nor employ Russell Westbrook, the Wolves are 1–6 with a point differential of minus–59.

Nothing seems to be working real well. The offense is congested and the defense is a mess. Zach Lowe had a funny section in a recent column tracking how often and how spectacularly Karl-Anthony Towns flubs his assignments defending the pick-and-roll, and noting how badly Minnesota's defense is getting "roasted" whenever Towns plays without Rudy Gobert behind him to clean up his messes. But therein lies the rub: The Wolves are a staggering 14 points better per 100 possessions on offense when Gobert sits, which is about three points greater than the gap between the best offense in basketball and the worst. Even with all this "roasting" going on, when Gobert sits the Wolves are only about two points per 100 possessions worse on defense this year than they were last year, when they won 46 games and finished the regular season with the inside track on the Western Conference's seventh seed. Two points is a not-insignificant gap, but their non-Gobert players would be right to wonder how much of that performance decline comes down to role and assignment confusion in a system reconfigured around Gobert's specific strengths.

Minnesota's chemistry is shitty, the vibes are awful, and they've played what several formulae agree is one of the league's easier schedules. Even without the infallible judgment of the Coefficient of Determination, you have to worry that the Minnesota Timberwolves are in big trouble.

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

The good news is the Timberwolves are a respectable eighth in team effective field goal percentage, a stat that adjusts a team's shooting percentage to account for the relative value of three-pointers, and which becomes predictive of future performance, according to MATH, after 12 games.

The bad news, here, is that it took me a discouraging length of time to find any statistic that matures within 14 games that is not deeply pessimistic about these Timberwolves. But there are worse statistics to hang your hat on than one that says that you are good at maximizing the value of your shots. Towns has always been an offensive monster in this way; Gobert, too, despite having the shooting range of a sickly infant, reliably puts up gaudy EFG numbers by being super-efficient right around the basket. In fact it's reasonable to hope that Minnesota's efficiency will improve from here, as Anthony Edwards does more dunks, D'Angelo Russell escapes his early-season funk, and the Timberwolves gradually figure out how to become minimally functional on offense with their two centers on the floor at the same time.

One Rude Note To Upset Timberwolves Fans

The Timberwolves have not won a playoff series since 2004, and to acquire Gobert this offseason—a player who is actively torpedoing their offense—they sent five future draft picks and four solid rotation players to a Utah team that today is about six points better than them by Net Rating. Here you will note that those are two distinct rude notes. I'm sorry! It's just that both of those provide important context for understanding the whole Timberwolves project, and where it stands today. I realize that was very painful, and I'm sorry.

Hmm, here is one more: The Timberwolves rank ninth from the bottom of the league in three-point rate, and third from the bottom in opponent's three-point rate, stats which become predictive of future performance after four and seven games, respectively. That's, ah, super duper the opposite of what you want to see. Here you are screaming and gesturing about how actually that was two more rude notes. I'm sorry!

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

Are The Timberwolves Crud Or What?

Narsu says that he might not normally worry about a team integrating a new player with as particular a role as Gobert's, except that the Wolves have bad vibes. And they do! There is no statistic for vibes, but such a worrying statistical profile for such a talented team is a sure sign of rotten chemistry. Narsu feels it's "too early to panic," but if you are a Wolves fan you have to feel right now that your team is giving off strong crud energy. The math is not yet fully conclusive, but the signs are discouraging.

Golden State Warriors

The Numbers

Win Percentage: .429 (6–8)
Net Rating: –0.5 (20th)

What The Shit?

The Warriors won the Finals in impressive fashion last season, thumping the young and talented Celtics in six games to secure the fourth title of the Stephen Curry–Klay Thompson–Draymond Green era. Then they overhauled the roster around their core, jettisoning steady veteran role players in order to create space in their rotation for a handful of hotshot youths who figure to factor into the next era of Warriors basketball.

There were always going to be growing pains, but I'm not sure anyone expected as bumpy a start as this one. Golden State's experienced and savvy veterans reliably win their minutes, and the dopy understudies reliably do not, which is not in itself noteworthy. What is noteworthy is how ill-equipped the Warriors are to remove even one of their core guys from the floor. The defense is six points worse per 100 possessions without Green out there to anchor it; the offense is an appalling, unsurvivable 19.3 points per 100 possessions worse without Curry out there to warp the floor. They drop 11.9 points of Net Rating when Andrew Wiggins sits; they're 12.3 points worse without Thompson, who has had a fairly rotten start to the season, efficiency-wise; and they drop an appalling 24.7 points of Net Rating when they spell blue-collar-ass Kevon Looney.

The mix is off, such that exciting and talented young players are sucking mondo ass. Super-cool backup Jordan Poole rules very much, but so far this season the Warriors have an offensive rating of 104.4 during his minutes, a full point shittier than the league-worst performance of the dreaded Los Angeles Lakers. Jonathan Kuminga was a very promising rookie last season and played some respectable minutes early in Golden State's playoff run; this season, the Warriors have won Kuminga's minutes in exactly two of the 11 games he's played. I am certainly not going to allege that James Wiseman is a good NBA player, but he was not so long ago the second overall pick in an NBA draft. So far this season, he is by a wide margin the worst player to sniff a role in Steve Kerr's rotation, a lost and unplayable mess at both ends. The Warriors recently demoted Wiseman to the developmental league, because using him in their rotation these days is like firing dog turds from a t-shirt cannon at his poor beleaguered teammates.

Last season the Warriors were middling offensively but defensively excellent; this season they are marginally better on offense but are one of the five or six worst defensive teams in the league. They cast off some very decent veterans during the offseason, yes to save loudmouth owner Joe Lacob some cash but also with the reasonable expectation that these ballyhooed youths were ready to function, like, at all with important rotation jobs. So far that appears to have been a pretty significant miscalculation. The stench of crud lingers in the air in Golden State's glitzy new arena; the question today is whether that's because they are butt now or because they failed to do the necessary deep-cleaning after having twice hosted the Sacramento Kings.

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

The Warriors are a terrific second in the league in three-point attempt rate, a statistic that measures how many of the most valuable shot type their offense generates per 100 possessions, and which gains predictive powers after just four games. The Warriors are shooting a very respectable 37.3 percent on those shots, good for sixth overall, and there's a good chance that number will improve as the season progresses, provided Thompson's career-worst 35.1 percent accuracy from deep represents an early season aberration and not the inexorable cruelty of time's passage.

One Rude Note To Upset Warriors Fans

The Orlando Magic, Charlotte Hornets, and Detroit Pistons are a combined 8–33 this season against all NBA teams that are not the Golden State Warriors, and are a combined 3–0 against the Golden State Warriors, with a plus–22 point differential. Disgraceful and disgusting.

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

Are The Warriors Crud Or What?

They don't have many impressive wins yet, and that winless five-game swing out East was a big ol' disaster, but this team won a dang title back in June, and they've got all the same core guys. Sad as it is to say, there's a non-zero chance that just being rid of Wiseman will solve a lot of their problems. They've also won three of four, and Curry appears to be every bit as good as ever. Narsu cautions here that the Warriors may need to swing a trade in order to rejoin the contenders, feeling that they are "just so thin" and that a team "needs to be top-three in its conference" in order to be a true contender, which frankly sounds worryingly like the talk of a dreaded casual. Nevertheless, Narsu agrees that of these three teams, the Warriors are the likeliest to find their form and depart eventually from the zone of crud.

Los Angeles Lakers

The Numbers

Win Percentage: .231 (3–10)
Net Rating: –6.0 (27th)

What The Shit?

The Lakers opened the season with a five-game losing streak, dropping close home games to the Clippers and Blazers and dumping lopsided road losses to the Warriors, Nuggets, and Timberwolves. It was possible to believe, then, that the Lakers just needed to shift some things around—maybe get Westbrook settled in a bench role, maybe settle on a fifth starter, maybe figure out what human-trafficking cartel could be bribed to abduct Kendrick Nunn to remotest Greenland—and the star power of LeBron James and Anthony Davis would carry them to success. They even won two straight at the end of October, fun and encouraging victories over solid Western Conference foes. Nice!

Then they lost another five straight, all by double digits, to drop to 14th in the Western Conference. James hasn't been healthy, Davis is rickety and unreliable as ever, and the bench is an absolute mess. The Lakers still can't shoot for shit, coming in dead last in the league in three-point accuracy while sliding precipitously in attempts rate, from near the top of the league to now 27th, at just over 30 a night. Their roster is an abomination: They need big nightly contributions from underpowered meme-sweetheart Austin Reaves, Wizards cast-off Troy Brown Jr., and development-league non-standout Matt Ryan in order to cobble together remotely coherent lineups. They need Wenyen damn Gabriel to back up Anthony damn Davis. They need spacing and points—points—from Patrick Beverley.

Rookie head coach Darvin Ham is putting on a brave face, but this is as miserable a situation as there is to be found in the NBA this season. The grim-faced, despair-soaked Lakers make the insanely poisoned Nets look like a happy-go-lucky toddler's birthday party by comparison.

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

Reader, I want you to know that I really tried. The absolute best I could come up with is turnover percentage, which is a statistic that measures how many offensive possessions end in a turnover, and which becomes predictive of future performance after 10 games. The Lakers rank 13th in turnover percentage, which you will note is not especially encouraging, but this is a team that does basically nothing else at a league-average or better level of proficiency.

Perhaps the single most encouraging number associated with the Lakers is six, which is the number of months left before the expiration of Russell Westbrook's contract.

One Rude Note To Upset Lakers Fans

Only the Detroit Pistons create fewer points from their shots this season than the Los Angeles Lakers, but because the Pistons are so much better than the Lakers at generating free throws, Detroit—by record the second-worst team in basketball—outscores the Lakers by nearly three points per 100 possessions. Needless to say, it should not be possible to be worse at scoring points in a basketball game than the Detroit Pistons while employing LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

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

Are The Lakers Crud Or What?

Let me turn this question around, in the manner of all Smart and Fearsome Debaters: Do you dare to say that the Lakers are good? The team with the third-worst record and the fourth-worst Net Rating in the league? Narsu, a man of facts and logic and science, is unequivocal. "The Lakers flat-out suck," he says, and unfortunately the math is every bit as unforgiving. Are you prepared to argue with numbers, which after all form the fundamental language of the universe? Is that the kind of person you want to be? With your one life? One who says to Math Itself that in fact your perception is a superior predictor of future events? How embarrassing. How sick. The Lakers are crud.

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