Differential Rating: 3rd Quarter Report

Will the Spurs and Thunder fight again for the right to meet the Heat? - Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Which teams have improved and which have fallen back in the race to win a ring?

Introduction

For those needing some background on this running series, please refer to last May's introductory 32-year statistical survey, part one and part two of this season's first quarter report, and part one and part two of this year's mid-season report. The introductory survey showed a pretty consistent separation between contenders and pretenders for the NBA championship as delineated by the top-eight and the bottom twenty-two teams in end-of-regular-season offensive-efficiency (OE)/defensive efficiency (DE) differential (OE-DE). The idea for running a follow-up series for the 2012-13 campaign was to look at the evolving nature of differential as a season progresses to see if one could perhaps identify a smaller group of "true contenders" earlier on than at the end of the regular season.

Third Quarter Results

Take a moment to look at the following table, which ranks the top-eight in differential (OE-DE) through the first three quarters of this season. The table below shows season-to-date games played by each team (GP), win/loss record (W/L), efficiency differential score (EDS), EDS movement since mid-season (↑/↓), offensive (OE) and defensive efficiency (DE) scores, strength of schedule (SOS), and power ranking (PR).

DR Team Conference
GP
W/L
EDS
↑/↓
OE
DE
SOS*
PR
1st Thunder Western 59
43-16 10.9 +0.1 110.4 99.5 0.504 1st
2nd Spurs Western 61
47-14
9.7 +0.9 107.4 97.7
0.497 2nd
3rd Heat Eastern 58
44-14
9.2
+1.8 110.5 101.3 0.506 3rd
4th Clippers Western 62
43-19 6.8
-2.8
106.5 99.7
0.505 4th
5th Pacers
Eastern 60
38-22 5.5
+3.0 101.0 95.5 0.487 6th
6th Knicks
Eastern
57
36-21 4.9
-1.2
108.2 103.3
0.483 9th
7th Nuggets
Western 61
39-22 4.4
+1.5 106.9 102.5 0.510 7th
8th Grizzlies
Western 58
39-19 3.6
+1.5 100.8 97.2
0.510 8th

*Keep in mind, SOS numbers are not apples to apples for both WC and EC teams. These numbers should generally be adjusted higher by some unknown factor for WC teams (or vice versa lower for EC teams), mainly because the East simply has weaker teams on average.

Through Q-3, the Thunder has held onto to the number one spot, and the Nuggets have remained stuck in the seventh position. The other six spots saw some movement, with the Spurs moving up one spot to number two, the Heat moving up one spot to number three, the Clippers dropping two spots to number four, and the Knicks moving down one spot to number six. Meanwhile the previously upstart Warriors crashed out of the top-eight to 14th, and the Grizzlies have now resumed their top-eight ranking, finishing out Q-3 in the last spot at number eight. And finally, the Pacers made a big move, rising from nine all the way up to number five.

The following table shows those teams ranked 9-12 in efficiency differential through the first three quarters of the season. In my view, these are the only other teams that at least on the surface still have a remote shot at cracking into the top-eight by season's end.

DR Team Conference
GP
W/L
EDS
↑/↓
OE
DE
SOS*
PR
9th Rockets Western 61
33-28 2.8 +1.6 107.5 104.7 0.517 5th
10th Lakers Western 60
30-30
1.9 -0.8 105.4 103.5
0.513 12th
11th Bulls Eastern 60
34-26
1.3
-0.9 99.9 98.6 0.497 10th
12th Hawks Eastern 59
33-26 1.2
+0.5
102.5 101.3
0.485 13th

The Rockets moved up to 9th from 12th, the Lakers dropped from 6th to 10th, the Hawks moved up from 14th to 12th, and the Bulls hung on to the 11th spot. The Rockets and Hawks are the only teams in this group with a positive EDS trend from mid-season, and both have favorable schedules heading down the back stretch. On the other hand, the Lakers have now won 13 out of their last 18 games, while the Bulls have the 4th ranked team in defensive efficiency and are hoping for a miracle finish with Derrick Rose in toe.

Strength of Schedule

Heading into the final quarter of the season, I looked at the remaining schedules to get a feel for how tough the road might be for each of the 12 contestants. The following tables show the twelve top-ranked teams in efficiency differential, followed by each team's home games remaining, road games remaining, games against +.500 opponents, the percentage of home games out of their total remaining games, and the percentage of games against +.500 opponents out of their total remaining games.

Rank Team Home
Away
+.500
% Home
% +.500
1 Thunder 9
14 11 39 48
2 Heat
12 12
8
50 33
3 Spurs
14 7 13 67 62
4 Clippers
11 9 8 55 40
5 Pacers
10 12 10 45 45
6 Knicks
11 14 15 44 60
7 Nuggets 13 8 10 62 48
8 Grizzlies 10 14 11 42 46
9 Rockets 12 9 8 57 43
10 Lakers 10 12 10 45 45
11 Hawks 13 10 9 57 39
12 Bulls 10 12 9 45 41

Green = highly favorable remaining schedule

Yellow = highly unfavorable remaining schedule

Here's another simple breakdown in strength of remaining schedule for the teams in the top 12 in differential. As a rough metric, I've given one point for home games and subtracted one point for playing a +.500 opponent. The current conference seeding is in the second column.

Team Conf. Rank
SOS Metric
Heat 1
+4
Hawks
4
+4
Bulls
6 +1
Pacers
2
0
Knicks
3 -4
Clippers
3 +3
Nuggets 5 +3
Rockets 8 +3
Spurs 1 +1
Lakers 9 0
Grizzlies 4 -1
Thunder 2 -2

The following are the likely/possible playoff teams that are not in the top twelve in differential: Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Utah Jazz, and Golden State Warriors. Despite their likely playoff status, given the poor efficiency differential through Q-3, these teams have a very miniscule chance at this late date of cracking the top-eight by season's end.

Playoff Prospects

What does this remaining strength of schedule data say about each of these teams' prospects for improving their differentials or improving/maintaining their current playoff seedings?

Below are the 9th through 12th ranked teams in efficiency differential, followed by the record they would need to produce over their remaining games to get to 47 wins. What is so magical about 47 wins? Well, no team in the last 33 years has ever won a title with a regular season win percentage of less than .573 (that one outlier being the 1995 Houston Rockets. And this year probably won't be the year that low W/L threshold will be breached.

DR
Team
Needed Record
9 Rockets 14-7
10 Lakers 17-5
11 Hawks 14-9
12 Bulls 13-9

As you can see, the Rockets and the Lakers have some serious work to do record-wise. Even if they did crack into the top eight in differential, their inferior win/loss record might effectively disqualify them from true contender status. Personally, I don't think either of these teams will get there (probably miss in both differential, and in W/L record). And then if you look at the Hawks and Bulls, they're both going to have to rather suddenly (over the next 20 games) nearly triple their current EDS score to try and catch a gritty Grizzlies team, assuming Memphis does not fade from here on out (a prospect I don't expect). That could be a mighty tough task indeed, even with the notable schedule advantage for the Hawks. While I don't completely count out any of these four teams quite yet, I think it is highly probable that at the end of the third quarter, we now have in place the top-eight contenders that will head into the playoffs at season's end - all with at least a detectable shot at winning it all (though the precise order will likely change some, and the top three will be much more highly favored than the bottom three).

Finally, below is a table of the top-eight in differential that shows the progression in EDS for each team from the first through the third quarter of this season. What do these trends tell us about each of these teams? Does this table say anything about positive or negative momentum? Does it suggest anything about whether a team might be "peaking" too early, or too late? If you had to predict, how do you think each of these teams' EDS will fare through the fourth quarter? Please share with us what you think in the comments section below at the end of this report.

Team EDS(1)*
EDS(2)
EDS(3)
Thunder 11.2 10.8 10.9
Spurs 8.6 8.8 9.7
Heat 5.9 7.4 9.2
Clippers 7.9 9.6 6.8
Pacers Ranked 15th 2.5 5.5
Knicks 9.3 6.1 4.9
Nuggets Ranked 14th 2.6 4.4
Grizzlies 5.8 2.4 3.6

* I did not record Q-1 EDS for teams that were not in the top eight. The eighth place team had an EDS of 4.3; therefore, it's safe to assume that both the Pacers and Nuggets have shown a positive EDS trend throughout the first three quarters (e.g., the 14th & 15th ranked teams at the end of Q-2 had differentials of 0.7 and 0.2 respectively).

Editor's Note: Check back later this week for Part II.

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