There is an old adage in sports that is often used, you are what your record says. Well, in the case of the Washington Wizards, that may not be completely true.
Even though the Wizards have started to turn it around as of late, their record so far this far this season has lead to a growing concern that it may be difficult for them to get into the playoffs. But records early in the season, especially when schedules are unbalanced, make it difficult to really determine how good or bad a team actually is. Instead, we should focus on the team’s point differential.
Why is the point differential so important you ask? It is often a great barometer of playoff teams and can even give you clear indication of elite teams in the league. Just look at the past three seasons as proof:
15 of the top 17 teams in point differential were playoff teams. The two that did not make it were the Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves who missed the playoffs due to the overloaded Western Conference.
But by the end of December, this was already beginning to take shape. 12 out of the top 16 teams in point differential ended up making the playoffs at the end of the year.
Of the teams with the top point differentials, 15 out of the top 18 made the playoffs. The only team that finished in the top 12 in point differential that did not make the playoffs was the Oklahoma City Thunder. That also happened to be Scott Brooks’ final season with the Thunder. The reason they didn’t make it in despite their great point differential is because it was skewed by Kevin Durant’s injury issues. When Durant was healthy that season, the Thunder posted a +3.9 point differential, which was the 6th best in the league during that time.
By the end of December though, 14 out of the top 16 teams in point differential made the playoffs.
The Utah Jazz, who were decimated by numerous injuries to key players throughout the season, finished in the top 10 in point differential, but did not make the playoffs. 15 of the top 16 teams in point differential last year made the playoff and the only team that did not finish in the top 16 teams in point differential, who made the playoffs, were the Memphis Grizzlies, who were also decimated by injuries. They lost key players Marc Gasol and Mike Conley during the regular season, which lead to the Grizzlies only winning three of their last 17 games.
Thirteen of the top 16 teams in point differential at the end of December went on to make the playoffs.
What does this all mean?
There has been a clear pattern. Outside of colossal injuries and occasional anomalies, teams who have the best point differential are going to be the teams that generally are in position to make the playoffs. It seems almost too simplistic to simply state this in hindsight, but it’s an important dynamic to consider because we as fans are often caught up in our current record, but the point differential tends to reveal a team’s potential before their record does. The more dominant you are, the more you’ll win games by most of the time, and vice-versa.
The results from previous seasons also show that by the end of December we should have a good idea of who the playoff teams are based on their point differential.
So what can we conclude based on the Wizards point differential?
Right now, the Wizards have the 15th best point differential in the league and the 8th best in the conference in point differential at -0.8.
So far the Wizards have the second fewest wins by 10 points or more in the Eastern Conference. They have also played in the most games (7) in the Eastern Conference where the deciding score is 3 points or less – with a record of 3-4 in those contests. Then there is this nugget:
Craziest thing is that the 3 minutes the Wizards have trailed by more than 20 points this season were against the Sixers (11/16).— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) December 19, 2016
The Wizards are showing that they are not a dominant team, but they have been in virtually every game, which indicates they are not a bad team either. The worst loss of the season came on the first night of the season against Atlanta, in which they held a brief fourth quarter lead, before ultimately losing by 15.
So despite being 10th in the conference at the moment, the Wizards play so far indicates that their record does not do them complete justice. The question for the rest of the season is, can they continue to improve and become a playoff team? If they continue to keep their point differential in the upper half of the league, odds are the answer will be yes.