Hoosiers or Hawkeyes?
As March Madness approaches, the college basketball world becomes obsessed with bubbles and resumes. Furman or Florida? How do we decide which of these teams with vastly different resumes and circumstances deserve the opportunity to dance? One common way to differentiate teams is to examine not just quantity of wins, but quality of wins. So, Hoosiers or Hawkeyes?
Take the Indiana Hoosiers. The season has been a struggle for them, and as of Wednesday they had only 15 wins on the season. But a deeper dive into their schedule shows numerous quality wins, from Marquette to Louisville, versus Michigan State and Wisconsin, and finally Michigan State again. The Iowa Hawkeyes on the other hand, have racked up 21 wins in the same difficult conference. But who have they beaten? Well, they did get the Iowa Daily Double, beating both Northern Iowa and Iowa State. But they've routinely lost to the good teams on their schedule, and after losing to Wisconsin by 20 last night, have now lost three in a row.
What's my point?
The Phoenix Suns had 15 wins as of Wednesday, as well. Last season's Suns won 21 games. But after the recent victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, when the Suns rallied twice for perhaps their most impressive win of the season, it occurred to me that this year's team seemed to be playing much better against quality teams than last year's version.
Are the 2018-19 Suns the Hoosiers to last year's Hawkeyes? After diving into the schedules, I was blown away. Not only are the Suns much better against quality opponents than last season's team, they actually perform better and are more competitive against elite teams than poor teams!
First I compared the Suns performance against the top 8 teams by wins and the bottom 8 to see if there was anything to this idea. It turns out that the Suns have a 4-17 record vs the top 8 teams in the NBA, compared to a 5-9 record vs the bottom 8 teams. That seemed promising, so I compared it to last year. Last year the Suns were a woeful 1-23 against the best teams in the league, and a stunning 13-8 against the bottom of the league. Turns out they were beating up on the Little Sisters of the Poor, but getting killed every time they played a decent team. They had 9 wins alone against the Mavs, Grizzlies and Kings. Notice also how many more games last year's team played against bad teams (21 last year, 14 this year). That will be fixed over the next month, as the Suns schedule noticeably weakens.
A deeper dive shows that this Suns team is truly more competitive when playing good teams.
I define "winnable games" as games in which the Suns either won the game, lost in overtime or lost by 5 points or less. Going back to last year, the Suns had two winnable losses vs the bottom 8 and three versus the top 8. Overall that team was competitive in 15 of their 23 games against the bottom 8, but only 4 of 23 against the top.
This year's Suns have only lost one close game to a bottom 8 team, an overtime loss to Washington. They have actually won 5 of their 6 winnable games against the bad teams, but only 6 of the 14 games were winnable (43%).
Meanwhile, they've managed to put themselves in a position to win often against the best teams. We know they beat the Bucks twice, Denver once and Boston once. But they've also lost in overtime to Boston, lost by 2 to Toronto, by 4 to Denver, and by 5 to Philly (twice) and Indiana.
In all, the Suns have played winnable games in 10 of their 21 games against the best teams in the NBA (48%). Throw in the recent 10-point loss to Golden State, in which they led by 6 midway through the 4th quarter and without Devin Booker, and the Suns have been competitive in more than half of their games against the elite in the NBA.
My takeaway on this is that the Suns have struggled from inconsistent effort and focus, a common trait among young teams, but that this team has shown it has the ability to play with anybody on any given night. This is a much more talented team than last year, but it has been plagued by horrendous roster construction and the difficulties adapting to a new head coach. Even an incremental addition like Tyler Johnson has the team looking like a legitimate NBA team.
This ability to compete toe-to-toe with the best the NBA has to offer should make the jump quicker and higher if it finally receives the missing pieces needed to compete.
It also means that when choosing Suns games to watch the rest of the season, don't sleep on games like Portland and Houston.