DATA DEPENDENT: Making sense of the NBA Eastern Conference’s messy middle.

The Eastern Conference in the NBA is a big, hot, confusing mess. That’s a good thing. There are 5 games separating the 1st place team, the Philadelphia 76ers from the 4th place Boston Celtics. After that, there’s a veritable glut of teams vying for Boston’s slot, all separated by a handful of games. One loss can send a team tumbling four places. Alternatively, one win can catapult them up from a play-in position to a guaranteed play-off spot. In all, there are 8 teams in the shuffle, a mix of under and over-achieving teams.

First let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference standings and the number of games behind:

  1. Phladelphia 76ers (–)
  2. Brooklyn Nets (0.5 GB)
  3. Milwaukee Bucks (2 GB)
  4. Boston Celtics (5 GB)
  5. Toronto Raptors (5.5 GB)
  6. New York Knicks (5.5 GB)
  7. Miami Heat (6 GB)
  8. Charlotte Hornets (6.5 GB)
  9. Indiana Pacers (7 GB)
  10. Chicago Bulls (7 GB)
  11. Atlanta Hawks (8 GB)
  12. Washington Wizards (8 GB)
  13. Cavaliers (9 GB)
  14. Magic (10 GB)
  15. Pistons (13.5 GB)

If the regular season were to end today, the top 10 teams would play in the postseason with the injury-plagued Hawks downwards looking in. The 2021 NBA play-ins for the Eastern Conference would feature the Raptor playing the Bulls and the Hornets facing the Pacers. Remarkably, the New York Knicks would be the sixth seed. Unfortunately for their fans, there’s still another half a season to go so there’s sufficient opportunity for the “James Dolan Knicks” to rear its ugly head.

In fact,’s visual 2021 NBA Divisional Odds Tracker pretty much predicts the eventual appearance of the Bad News Knicks. Not only that, the tracker suggests that the teams like the Celtics, Heat, and Raptors — essentially three struggling organizations that have made deep playoff runs (and one championship) in the past few years — will pull themselves together in the second half.

So how to make sense of the Messy Middle Teams in the Eastern Conference?

In trying to separate the wheat from the chaff, the first thing I considered was each team’s NetRTG, which takes into account Offensive Rating (OffRTG) and Defensive Rating (DefRTG). It essentially measures points scored vs points allowed per 100 possessions. You figure, a team’s gotta score more than their opponent to win. Also, smaller NetRTGs represent smaller margins of victory which tends to work against teams since it opens up the possibility of loss. In the Eastern Conference, the standings according to Net RTG look like this:

  1. Milwaukee Bucks (+6.4)
  2. Brooklyn Nets (+4.5)
  3. Phildelphia 76ers (+3.3)
  4. Toronto Raptors (+2.4)
  5. Boston Celtics (+0.8)
  6. Indiana Pacers (+0.4)
  7. Atlanta Hawks (+0.3)
  8. New York Knicks (+0.2)
  9. Chicago Bulls (-0.3)
  10. Charlotte Hornets (-1.4)
  11. Miami Heat (-2.0)
  12. Washington Wizards (-4.4)
  13. Detroit Pistons (-4.6)
  14. Orlando Magic (-6.7)
  15. Cleveland Cavaliers (-7.7)

As you can see, rankings by NetRTG shows a slightly more familiar pecking order. Surprisingly enough, the Knicks are still in the mix. Equally surprising, the Miami Heat are solidly in the negative. It’s worth noting that NetRTG numbers can be seriously skewed by blowouts. Have enough of them and you can be doing well in the standings and still look like the heat with -2.0.

In terms of past five seasons’ playoff teams’ lowest NetRTGs, the weakest playoff team was the 2015 Memphis Grizzlies (-2.4). Last season’s Portland Trailblazers also made it into the postseason decently in the red (-1.1). The remainder were 2018 Pistons (-0.2), 2017 Bucks (-0.3), and the 2016 Hawks (-0.8). This would presumably eliminate teams from the Wizards down while placing the Miami Heat in a precarious position. Teams deeper in the red that make the playoffs are outliers and have never made it into the final 8. 

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Next I turned to Pythagorean Wins and Pythagorean Losses on Basketball Reference to get a feel for which teams might be over- and under-performing. Here’s a description of PW from Danolytics, 

“Pythagoras is also fairly intuitive; it makes good sense that a comparison of a team’s “points” for and against gives us a strong idea of the quality of the team. From sport-to-sport, the exponent in the function changes. In hockey, soccer, and baseball, a squared exponent is effective; however, sports like football and basketball, a different exponent is necessary. This is due to the impact of skill versus luck on the outcome of the game; a higher exponent is reserved for sports whose outcomes are more skill based.”

In short, the figure indicates whether a team is underachieving, overachieving, or just right where they are. (For step-by-step instructions on how to calculate Pythagoras Numbers for the NBA, click here.

We integrated each Messy-Middle team’s actual number of wins compared to their PW (W/PW) into a quick analysis of each squad going into the All-Star break.

  • New York Knicks: At their best point just a couple of days ago, the Knicks were a game over .500. Let that sink in. They’re the best defensive team in the league (in true Knickerbocker tradition) and have been carried by Julius Randle’s career year. RJ Barrett has worked hard and is shaping up into a solid second scoring option. Most important of all, the team has bought into Tom Thibodeau’s system. A blowout loss to a very good Spurs team wasn’t great but wasn’t surprising either. (18/18 – as expected)
  • Miami Heat: The Miami Heat one of the few teams to have started faily miserably but have cobbled a solid run going into the break. They won six in a row after a West Coast swing and notched a very impressive win over the Utah Jazz before losing to the Hawks. (17/15 – outperform)
  • Boston Celtics: The Celtics have struggled and that has surprised just about everyone. Nobody had them pegged for a barely .500 team this far into the season. And yet, there they are, fortunate to be where they are after two very scrappy wins over the struggling Pacers and the in-form Washington Wizards. (18/18 – as expected)
  • Toronto Raptors: Where would the Raptors be without Fred VanVleet going into the All-Star break? Probably side by side the Hawks on the outside looking in. He’s been that important for the Raptors with Kyle Lowry out of commission. He’s capable on both ends of the court, something the enigmatic Raptors could fall back on. (17//20 – underperform)
  • Charlotte Hornets: The Hornets belong to the considerable batch of teams that can light it up on one end and get equally lit up on the other. Malik Monk has been the story for the Hornets so far this season. (16/15 – outperform)
  • Indiana Pacers: If any team could use the All-Star Break, it’s the Pacers. They’ve lost 8 of their last 11 games. They’ve got injuries to Caris LeVert and TK Warren, making scoring something of a challenge these days. Damontas Sabonis can only do so much. (15/17 – underperform) 
  • Chicago Bulls: Zach LaVine continues to have a very good year and Wendell Carter Jr. has put together a respectable run so far. The third-year big man from Duke has been plagued by injuries so it’s too soon to tell what his impact will be for the remainder of the season. (15/16 – underperform)

There aren’t many teams seriously outperforming so that’s a good sign for them on the downside. The Miami Heat and Charlotte Hornets may see a drop off in performance. What’s interesting are the teams that are underperforming since that leaves open the possibility that they can and should improve their current position. The Bulls, Pacers, and Raptors should all be playing better during the second half of the season.

WORDS: Marc Landas.

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