Does Point Differential Mean Dallas Mavericks Are Doomed to Early Exit?

Alex McVeighSenior Analyst IMarch 4, 2010

DALLAS - FEBRUARY 20:  Guard Jason Terry #31 of the Dallas Mavericks takes a shot against Mario Chalmers #6 of the Miami Heat on February 20, 2010 at American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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In today's modern sports age, statistics are increasingly affecting how we examine players, teams, and, especially, legacies.

Baseball stats prove to be the most effective, since baseball is essentially a series of one-on-one matchups, so the results can be distilled easier. 

For basketball, it's a young science, but people like the good folks at the basketball prospectus and ESPN's John Hollinger are endlessly tinkering with formulas to try and express a player's value numerically. 

While the stats are generally interesting, there is always a line between stats and what actually happens. People like Shane Battier or Shawn Marion this year don't fill up the stat sheet, so they are much harder to assign a value to. 

One of the flaws I find with people who are geared specifically towards stats is that the numbers sometimes show things that are patently false if you are watching the game. For example, adjusted plus-minus showed earlier in the season that the Nuggets were better without Carmelo Anthony. As any fan of basketball knows, that simply isn't true, so the numbers must be adjusted. 

I always find John Hollinger's work to be interesting, but I think his reliance on numbers is flawed, too.

For example, his stats find that Dwyane Wade's Finals play was undoubtedly the best Finals performance by any player, ever. 

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While Wade certainly got the job done, his camping out at the foul line is far less impressive than Jordan's exploits in '98, Tim Duncan's in the early part of this decade, and several of Bird and Magic's Finals in the '80s. 

Anyone who has been watching basketball since the All-Star break can see that the Dallas Mavericks are on quite a tear. They've reeled off nine straight victories, beating teams like the Lakers, Magic, and Hawks, and they have recaptured the second seed in the West. 

However, according to John Hollinger's numbers as of March 4, the Mavericks are 14th in his power rankings, behind the Heat, Bucks, Trailblazers, Celtics, and Suns, among other teams. 

Anyone who has been watching basketball of late knows that the Mavericks are better than the five teams I named above.

The Heat are even below .500!

Is Hollinger seriously suggesting that the Mavs, who play in the toughest division and conference in the league and are 41-21, are really worse than the 30-31 Heat?

Hollinger's main reason for putting the Mavs so low is their point differential, which is not very impressive. 

Hollinger said in a chat today that, "Scoring margin is a better predictor of future success than win-loss record."

If you go by that, Dallas is 8th in the West in point differential. Every other Western playoff team has a better point differential than the Mavs. 

If you've been watching them this year, you know that the Mavs have been skating by the skin of their teeth. They've tied an NBA record with 10 straight one-point victories in a row, and they haven't won by huge margins much this year, save for the massacre of the New York Knicks a few weeks back. 

Does This Really Mean the Mavericks Are Worse Than Their Record?

Looking back over the last decade, point differential really has been a pretty good indicator of postseason success. 

Out of the last eight NBA champions, three of them had the best point differential in the league, five had the best in their conference, and none of them were lower than a three-seed in the playoffs. 

Interestingly enough, in 2002-03, the Mavericks had the best point differential in the league, but they fell in six games in the Western Finals. 

And remember when everyone was talking about how weak the East was a few years ago?

Those seasons perfectly coincide with the times when half of the East playoff teams had a negative point differential. In 2006-07, no one in the East had a differential over 5 PPG. 

The San Antonio Spurs feasted on point differential, as in 2006-07 and 2004-05 they were tops in the NBA in point differential. The Celtics were the same way in 2007-08. 

Point differential is interesting because defense is a big part of it. Just ask the Suns how winning games by the score of 120-115 worked out for the in the postseason. 

So the Mavericks, who at plus-2.3 (the Thunder and Portland are tied for seventh with plus-3.0), aren't looking too hot by those numbers as they head to the playoffs. 

Now, one could argue that of the 62 games played thus far, 52 of those were done with far different pieces than they have now. 

In the 10 games since the trade, the Mavericks are at plus-5.1, which would be good for second in the West, ahead of Denver and Utah (the three and four seeds) and behind the Lakers. 

So maybe this recent run has just brought the Mavs up to where they should be, since the post-trade numbers seem to match up to where the Mavs are in the standings. 

But winning close games is a mixed blessing. 

Conventional wisdom tells us that the more you let teams hang around, the more likely they are to come back and bite you. Do the Mavericks really want to be eking out games against the Spurs, Suns, Jazz or Nuggets, not to mention the Lakers?

On the other hand, a win is a win. And a close win gives the Mavericks a certain confidence that they can, in fact, close out games. 

That's what burned them in the 2006 Finals. And it burned them a lot last year. But this season, aside from the OT loss to New Orleans in November (when the Mavs bricked three FTs in the final minute, any one of which would have iced the game), they've closed games out well. 

Maybe the confidence to ice games is what the Mavs really need, far more than blowing out teams. 

Crunch-time essentials, like nailing clutch free throws, are more mental than physical. And if the Mavs have a season behind them where they've pulled out these types of games, maybe they'll nail those clinching free throws without choking. 

Does point differential matter all that much?

Having a good one certainly does, as the point differential leader has gone at least to the conference finals every year this decade, with the exception of the Spurs in 2004 (the series that featured the Derek Fisher buzzer-beater in Game 5), who lost in the second round. 

While I don't think the Mavs' point differential woes doom them as much as Hollinger seems to, it is a question headed into the home stretch.

Clearly, point differential isn't the only factor to consider, but it certainly helps. There have been plenty of big trades in the NBA over the last decade (though the last one was pretty lopsided), but the final numbers don't lie. 

But if the Mavericks can continue to put up the same post-trade numbers for the rest of the year, then Hollinger, not to mention the rest of the league, might be in for a shock. 

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