Clippers’ 12-Game Win Streak Not As Impressive as Thunder’s

Not all win streaks are created equally. The Clippers and Thunder have both achieved 12-game win streaks in the early 2012-2013 regular season, and I explain why you should be more impressed with one than the other.

I awoke Saturday morning with Stephen A. Smith screaming at me through the television set, and it bothered me.  Not necessarily because Stephen A. screamed at me (apparently he has his personal volume setting at 11 all the time), but because of what he screamed about: that the Los Angeles Clippers should be considered contenders in the West.

That sentence sounds wrong.  Have the words “Clippers” and “contender” ever been used in the same sentence?  But it’s hard to deny when the Clippers have been on a 12-game win streak, and counting.

Having not seen too many Clipper games lately, I checked the data to see how impressed I should be.  And to put the streak into context, I compared this current 12-game streak to another 12-game streak in the early part of the 2012-2013 regular season by last year’s West champions, the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Clippers played weaker teams

My first question: how good were the teams that the Clippers beat?  Apparently, not very.  Here are the opponents’ median win percentage as of December 22, 2012:

  • Clippers: 36% (median opponent’s win pct)
  • Thunder: 49%

The Clippers clearly played a lot of bad teams, including the dysfunctional Sacramento Kings twice.  Switching the perspective, we can also say that the Clippers didn’t play any good teams, having only played three teams with an above .500 record.

In comparison, the Thunder played five teams above .500, including San Antonio and Atlanta, both currently above .600.  The remaining games were split evenly between very bad teams (New Orleans, Sacramento, Charlotte) and average teams (Philly, Lakers, Utah).

There’s no doubt the Thunder played, and beat, better teams.

The Thunder had better wins

Though the Clippers’ menu of opponents wasn’t impressive, perhaps how badly they beat those teams could be impressive.  The conventional way to measure this would use margin of victory, and by this metric, the Clippers looked very good.

  • Clippers: +14 points (median margin of victory)
  • Thunder: +10.5 points

And if for some reason, you’re afraid of using medians instead of averages, even the average margin of victory would favor the Clippers:

  • Clippers: +14.8 points (average margin of victory)
  • Thunder: +13.8 points

However, I’ve never loved margin of victory as a metric, because you’re only looking at a single point of the game to judge and analyze a game in its entirety.

Maybe we can find a better metric.  Instead of looking only at the margin of victory occurring at the 48th minute of each game, what if we also looked at the score margin at the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd minute of the game, all the way up to the 48th minute?  Averaging across all 48 scoring margin snapshots within a game, we can capture not only IF the team won, but HOW convincingly the team controlled the game.

By extension, we can figure out which 12-game streak was more impressive by comparing each team’s scoring margin over the 12 games.  Here are the median game scoring margins for each streak:

  • Clippers: +4.9 points (median scoring margin)
  • Thunder: +7.8 points

This metric tells us that the Thunder tend to lead their opponents by nearly 8 points at any given point during a game, which is about 3 points better than the Clippers.  Not only did the Thunder play better teams, but they seem to command a game more convincingly too.

This wouldn’t have been apparent if you looked only at margin of victory.  This metric, which I’m internally calling “Naive Game Margin”, does a good job of deemphasizing analytically weird events like when tight games get blown open in the final minutes, or when a team comes back from a huge deficit in garbage time, but never had a realistic chance to win (gamblers like to call some of these situations “backdoor covers”).

The Clips had a couple games where the margin of victory disguised what really happened, like this 19-point win over the Raptors that was pretty close for the first 3 quarters, or this 18-point win over the Suns the night before that followed a similar script.  (Side note: since when did the NBA start scheduling back-to-back home games?)

By throwing out margin of victory, you find that the Clippers actually played in more close games than the Thunder, with 7 of the 12 games having a Naive Game Margin below +5.2 points.  The Thunder only had 3 games like this, meaning they controlled the other 9 the games during the streak pretty convincingly.

Don’t call the Clippers contenders… yet

While both teams possess lengthy winning streaks, Oklahoma City’s was more impressive because they beat better teams, and beat them more convincingly.  You probably shouldn’t call the Clippers contenders for the reasons described in this post.  But even more simply put, they haven’t beaten anyone very good over those 12 games.  The Derrick Rose-less Bulls were probably their most formidable opponent.

But that doesn’t mean the Clippers aren’t contenders.  It just means they haven’t proven it yet.

In college football, people had historically discounted 12-game undefeated winning streaks from non-BCS conference teams like Boise St., Hawaii, and TCU for the same reason: they hadn’t beaten anyone good.  Yet in the NBA, it seems we’re quicker to anoint a team as a contender after a long winning streak, without considering who they played, let alone how they won.

I find the double-standard very interesting.  But unlike college football, we’ll get proof at the end of the season if the Clippers actually become contenders.

PS: During the writing of this article, the Clippers pounded the Suns to extend the streak to 13 games.  Some people were not impressed.

Clippers’ win streak

DateOpponentNaive Game MarginMargin of Victory
2012-11-28vs. MIN-0.56
2012-12-01vs. SAC20.935
2012-12-03@ UTA-6.01
2012-12-05vs. DAL12.822
2012-12-08vs. PHO3.418
2012-12-09vs. TOR4.619
2012-12-11@ CHI3.25
2012-12-12@ CHA5.16
2012-12-15@ MIL14.926
2012-12-17@ DET3.312
2012-12-19vs. NO10.416
2012-12-21vs. SAC9.412

Thunder win streak

DateOpponentNaive Game MarginMargin of Victory
2012-11-24@ PHI4.27
2012-11-26vs. CHA29.145
2012-11-28vs. HOU10.222
2012-11-30vs. UTA8.312
2012-12-01@ NO13.721
2012-12-04@ BKN5.56
2012-12-07vs. LAL8.76
2012-12-09vs. IND2.911
2012-12-12vs. NO-3.34
2012-12-14vs. SAC10.510
2012-12-17vs. SA6.614
2012-12-19@ ATL7.38

Sidenote: Yes, you can have a negative Naive Game Margin but still win the game.  For example, you can lose for most of the game, but pull it out in the end, like the Clippers did vs. Utah on Dec. 3.

NBA Standings, Visualized Over Time

You can now find the latest NBA standings on Vorped.  But big deal right?  You can get the same info on hundreds of sites.

In addition to your basic tabular-and-sorted-by-best-team standings, I tried to put my own spin on it.  So I created an interactive chart plotting each team’s win/loss record or win percentage over the course of the season.  It’s just a run-of-the-mill line graph, or time-series graph, but I hope that the interactive elements make this a little more useful than what’s currently been done.

Some features:

  • Split the line graph into multiple line graphs, broken out by conference or division.  This creates a small multiples graphs, sometimes also known as panel or Trellis graphs, allowing you to compare subsets of teams by their logical conference/divisional affiliations.

  • Change the time component from games played to date played.  Not all teams play the same number of games at each point during the season.  This feature lets you control that, so for example you can find teams with high winning percentages that haven’t played many games (“paper tigers”).
  • Hover over a line to show the associated team.  Or, click on the line to keep the team line highlighted.  Showing all team names on each graph made the visualization too chaotic.  By taking the labels off the lines, I lost some clarity in the graph, but also I found myself exploring the teams that I would normally skim over in a standings table, like the Bucks or the Bobcats, but who have had interesting journeys that I would have not otherwise have seen.  And for your mobile/tablet folks, clicking on lines gives similar functionality to hovering over lines.

The visualization isn’t as clean as I first envisioned, but I still believe it provides some additional insight I had never gotten before.  My favorite feature is the breakout on divisions, where I learned the Warriors are right on the heels of the Clippers for first in the Pacific.  Really?  Who knew?!

My second favorite feature is to toggle the time dimension between date played and games played.  Date played looks like chaos, while changing to games played seemingly creates order out of it.

Please let me know what you think, and if this presentation can be done better, (and oh yes, it definitely can be).

NBA Standings – Table and TIme Series Visualization