Friday, May 11, 2018

Warriors' Explosiveness

ESPN The Magazine has an online article today on the Golden State Warriors' offensive explosiveness. Specifically, the article provides statistics on the Warriors' frequency of going on 10-0 and 15-0 runs, and examines whether there are distinguishing circumstances that seem to presage such runs and any effective strategies for opponents to short-circuit them (spoiler alert: time-outs don't seem to work).

Back in 2015-16, I examined the explosiveness of the Warriors (which I defined as scoring 18 or more points in six-minute intervals) and of the eight college teams seeded No. 1 or No. 2 in March Madness (defined as scoring 15 or more points in five-minute intervals).

One pattern I found for the Warriors in the final 6:00 of regulation play is that the further they were behind, the greater the offensive bursts they exhibited.

The college teams' explosiveness did not seem to predict NCAA-tourney success. Xavier was the most explosive team among the eight I studied by a good margin (13 explosions in its last 10 regular-season games, with no other team higher than nine). The Musketeers also had the fastest tempo (possessions per game) among the eight teams. Despite these seeming advantages, however, Xavier was eliminated in the second round.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

76ers All-Time Hottest NBA Team Entering Playoffs by One Measure, but Not by Another

With Wednesday night's blowout regular-season-ending win over the Milwaukee Bucks, the Philadelphia 76ers set a record for most consecutive wins entering the playoffs (16). By this measure, the 76ers could lay claim to being the all-time hottest NBA team entering the playoffs.

However, by another measure of end-of-season hotness, which I developed in 2015, Philly would not quite be at the top. As shown in the following graphic (which you can click to enlarge), the 2011-12 San Antonio Spurs were the hottest team in recent years entering the NBA playoffs. Note that my method uses only a team's final 10 games of the regular season (to make things comparable among teams), so one could argue that I am not doing justice to the full 16-game length of the Sixers' streak.


Also, my measure takes into account the strength of the opposition and it is here, in my view, that Philly suffers. If you win a game, your hotness "temperature" is multiplied by [1 + opponent's winning percentage entering the game]. Thus, when the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors beat the .781 San Antonio Spurs with eight games left in the season, the Warriors' cumulative hotness value after the team's prior game would be multiplied by a hefty 1.781. In finishing out the season, this year's 76ers  beat such weak teams as the Atlanta Hawks (twice, when the Hawks' winning percentages were .280 and .296), the Dallas Mavericks (.300), the Brooklyn Nets (.325), and the New York Knicks (.360). As a result, the Sixers' winning streak has included such anemic multipliers as 1.280, 1.296, 1.300, 1.325, and 1.360. Philly's toughest opponent in its last 10 games was Cleveland (.620), thus the Sixers' win over the Cavaliers gave Philly a multiplier of 1.620.

Just as my system rewards wins over good teams more than wins over bad teams, it punishes losses to bad teams more severely than losses to good teams. After a loss, a team's previous cumulative temperature is multiplied straight up by the opponent's winning percentage entering the game. If you lose to a .750 team, your temperature to that point is multiplied by .750. If you lose to a .400 team, your temperature is multiplied by .400, which lowers your temperature much more.

High hotness by this measure does not necessarily translate into playoff success, so Philadelphia fans should be OK with the fact that their team is not the hottest entering the playoffs in the last few years. Neither the 2011-12 nor 2014-15 editions of the San Antonio Spurs, which finished their respective regular seasons playing at pretty scorching levels, won the NBA championship (note that the 2015 Spurs entered their final game with a temperature of 52.43, but lost to a .543 New Orleans squad, roughly halving the Spurs' temperature to 28.47).

Among recent NBA champions, only the 2017 Warriors had a high temperature (26.00). The three title-winners before them had uniformly low temps:
As I noted in my original entry introducing the metric, the formula does not take account of factors such as home/road location of games, margin of victory/loss, or resting of players down the stretch. One could also argue that even a single loss (unless it's against a team playing .800 ball or thereabouts) is excessively influential in depressing a team's temperature. 

However, among teams who won all 10 of their final regular-season games -- the 2012 Spurs and 2018 Sixers -- I think the temperature metric properly reflects the more difficult opposition San Antonio encountered.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Streaks in the City (2): Los Angeles

I occasionally get asked how I got interested in streaks. There's no way to know for sure, but I suspect that growing up in Los Angeles as a basketball fan in the early 1970s was a factor. This era included both an 88-game winning streak by coach John Wooden's UCLA program and a 33-game roll by the L.A. Lakers. These remain as records for men's college basketball and the NBA, respectively.

UCLA BASKETBALL

Following a January 23, 1971 loss to Notre Dame (when I was eight years old), UCLA rattled off 15 straight wins to claim the school's fifth straight NCAA championship. This was not an easy run to the title, as six of the 15 wins were by four points or fewer (see here for UCLA season-by-season logs from that era). The next season, 1971-72, was far easier for the Bruins. Sophomore Bill Walton joined the squad,* leading UCLA to a 30-0 record and another championship. Only two games were closer than 10 points, a five-point win in the NCAA title game vs. Florida State and a six-point conference win at Oregon State. Another 30-0, title season followed in 1972-73. Two six-point conference wins were the Bruins' closest of the season.

With seven straight national championships and 75 straight wins, UCLA entered the 1973-74 season, Walton's senior year. Having survived 65-64 against a talented Maryland squad in the season's second game, UCLA ran its season record to 13-0 and overall streak to 88 games, entering the site of its last lost -- Notre Dame -- on January 19, 1974. Having taken a late 70-59 lead over the Irish (with no three-point shot or shot clock), the Bruins seemed almost certain to extend their streak. However, UCLA inexplicably gave up a 12-0 run to close the game (shown here on YouTube), yielding a 71-70 Notre Dame victory. The Bruins' failure to get a tip-in on a final possession is painful from a UCLA perspective. The Bruins' streak of titles also fell that season, as they couldn't hold a seven-point lead in the second overtime period over NC State in the national semifinals.

(Another championship factory in Westwood was the UCLA men's volleyball program, under coach Al Scates. From 1970, when the sport became sanctioned by the NCAA, to 2006, Scates's teams won 19 national titles, including 11 of the first 15 NCAA tourneys held.)

LAKERS

Partially overlapping UCLA's 88-game basketball winning streak in time was the Lakers' 33-game winning stretch (November 5, 1971- January 7, 1972). In 2007, on the 35th anniversary of the Lakers' streak, I wrote a detailed analysis of it, so I won't do so here. This was an old squad, led by aging superstars Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain, so it would not have seemed a likely candidate for such a long winning streak.

The 1971-72 Laker team also won the franchise's first NBA title in Los Angeles (after the Minneapolis Lakers had won championships in 1949, '50, '52, '53, and '54). The Lakers have won several more NBA titles (1979-80, 1981-82, 1984-85, 1986-87, 1987-88, 1999-2000, 2000-01, 2001-02, 2008-09, and 2009-10; season-by-season log). The Lakers' 1986-87 and 1987-88 titles (the second of which had been guaranteed by L.A. coach Pat Riley) were the first back-to-back championships by an NBA team since the Boston Celtics won in 1967-68 and 1968-69 (list of NBA champions).

The aforementioned Chamberlain, who played the final five campaigns of his 14-year NBA career with the Lakers, was like a one-man record book (see the chart on page 169 of the league's golden-anniversary volume NBA at 50 for details). What some observers consider most remarkable is that Chamberlain never fouled out of an NBA game.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, another legendary NBA center who played roughly the final three-quarters of his career with the Lakers (1975-76 to 1988-89), had a few noteworthy streaks himself. On the advanced analytic metric of Player Efficiency Rating (PER), Abdul-Jabbar led the league nine times in an 11-year span (1970-71 through 1980-81). He also once had a streak of 787 consecutive games with 10 points or more.

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Being such a large city, Los Angeles has a large number of professional teams (especially if one counts nearby Anaheim), along with major universities UCLA and USC.

USC FOOTBALL

Whereas the Bruins have been a national power in basketball, the Trojans have done likewise in football. From 2003-05, USC won 34 straight on the gridiron, one of the longest winning streaks in college-football history. The Trojans shared the 2003 mythical national championship (i.e., non-playoff determined) and won the mythical championship in 2004 during the streak. It was against Texas in early 2006 (playing for the 2005 mythical title) that USC's winning streak ended. Note that, because of NCAA findings of improper financial assistance to Trojan running back Reggie Bush during this period, some record-keeping organizations have stripped USC of wins and/or titles with which Bush was associated.

(Also, USC won five straight college baseball national championships from 1970-1974; had separate streaks of nine and seven straight NCAA men's track and field titles; and two separate stretches of four straight NCAA men's swimming titles.)

DODGERS

After winning the World Series in 1988, the Dodgers did not return to the Fall Classic until this past autumn, ending the franchise's 28-year drought (1989-2016) without a National League pennant. However, in falling to the Houston Astros in seven games, the Dodgers extended their stretch without a World Series championship to 29 years.

Between 1955, when the Brooklyn Dodgers won the franchise's first world title, and 1988, the team won six World Series (1955, 1959, 1963, 1965, 1981, and 1988), the last five of which in Los Angeles. During this span, there was thus never longer than a 16-year gap between world titles (year-to-year log).

Individual Dodger players have had a few interesting streaks during the franchise's L.A. years. Many baseball fans (at least those of a certain age) will be familiar with how Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser set the MLB record of 59 consecutive scoreless innings in 1988, passing another Dodger, Don Drysdale, who had thrown 58 straight shutout innings 20 years earlier. What I hadn't realized is that yet another Dodger, Zack Greinke, moved into fourth place on the all-time list in 2015 with 45 and 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings (St. Louis's Bob Gibson is in third place with 47 in 1968).

Another set of streaks, reflecting the Dodgers' perennially strong farm system, involves consecutive Rookie of the Year winners in the National League. L.A. players won five straight from 1992-1996 (Eric Karros, Mike Piazza, Raul Mondesi, Hideo Nomo, and Todd Hollandsworth) and four straight from 1979-1982 (Rick Sutcliffe, Steve Howe, Fernando Valenzuela, and Steve Sax). Talking about Valenzuela, his "Fernandomania" 1981 season featured a lot of hot pitching. I wrote about Fernandomania on its 30th anniversary in 2011.

Finally, continuing on the theme of great Dodger pitchers, Clayton Kershaw led the National League in low Earned Run Average four straight years (2011-2014), whereas Sandy Koufax did so five straight years (1962-1966).

ANGELS

If one wants to take literally the name Los Angeles Angels, even though the team plays in Anaheim, then I would include two players' individual streaks in the present essay.

Mike Trout has recorded at least 7 offensive Wins Above Replacement (oWAR) for each of the last six seasons. In order to find streaks matching or exceeding Trout's, you need to look at players such as Willie Mays (nine straight years, 1957-1965), Babe Ruth (seven straight, 1926-1932), and Ted Williams (six straight, 1941-1942, 1946-1949, interrupted by military service).

In terms of Angel pitching, it would be hard to top Nolan Ryan's eight years with the club (1972-1979). Ryan had a stretch of five years out of six with 300-plus strikeouts per year (1972, '73, '74, '76, and '77). He also had some career milestones in 1975, but suffered through elbow pain that year and eventually had surgery. Only Ryan and Randy Johnson (each with six) have more than three career 300-plus strikeout seasons. Johnson had a streak of five straight 300-plus strikeout seasons (1998-2002; be sure to look at the 1998 TOTAL line in his season-by-season log, as he pitched for two teams that year).

PRO FOOTBALL (RAMS, CHARGERS, and RAIDERS)

Pro football has had an inconsistent history in the L.A. area, with the Rams (1946-1994**; 2016-present) now in their second stint there, the Chargers (1960, 2017) likewise in their second (brief) stint in L.A., and the Raiders a resident from 1982-1994. Given the Rams' longest history in L.A., I focus on them.

The L.A. Rams won the 1951 (pre-Super Bowl) NFL championship, amidst a string of four straight divisional titles (1949-1952). Several years later, however, the franchise entered a tailspin, with the Rams finishing either fifth, sixth, or seventh in their division for seven straight seasons  (1959-1965). Things turned around again in 1973, with the Rams winning their division seven straight years (1973-1979), culminating in the franchise's only Super Bowl appearance as the L.A. Rams, a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on January 20, 1980. From 1991-1994, it was another slide for the Rams, as they finished last in their four-team division for four straight years. With that, the team was off for St. Louis.

Two L. A. Ram stalwarts, in terms of longevity, were defensive tackle Merlin Olsen with 198 consecutive starts (1962-1976) and defensive end Jack Youngblood with 184 (1972-1984).

HOCKEY (KINGS and DUCKS)

The L.A. Kings entered the NHL in the 1967-68 western expansion. An interesting piece of Kings trivia is that the franchise has won more Stanley Cups (two, 2011-12 and 2013-14) than divisional titles (one, 1990-91).

The best-known player in franchise history would have to be Wayne Gretzky, who played all or part of eight seasons with the Kings (1988-89 through 1995-96). With "The Great One," the Kings made one Stanley Cup final, losing in 1993 to Montreal. By at least one statistical metric, however, Gretzky was not as effective with the Kings as during his previous seasons with the Edmonton Oilers. Whereas Gretzky's annual Offensive Point Shares value ranged from 14.9-17.4 for six straight years with Edmonton (1981-82 through 1986-87), his OPS never exceeded 13.2 with the Kings.***

The Anaheim Ducks (originally known as the Mighty Ducks) won the Stanley Cup in 2007 and lost in the finals in 2003. Goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere was part of both teams, but was a truly dominant, hot goalie in 2003, at one point amassing three straight shutouts in one playoff series. In more recent years, the Ducks have faced nothing but playoff frustration, getting eliminated in decisive seventh games four straight years (2013, '14, '15, and '16). It is probably small consolation that their 2017 playoff ouster came in a six-game series.

SOCCER (GALAXY)

The L.A. Galaxy has been among the most successful franchises in Major League Soccer, winning five championships total, and three in a four-year span (2011, 2012, and 2014).

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*Walton was a freshman in 1970-71, but first-year players were not eligible to play varsity sports until 1972-73.

**The Rams moved from the Los Angeles Coliseum to the previously baseball-only Anaheim Stadium in 1980 and played there through 1994. To increase seating capacity for the Rams, Anaheim added double-decker stands in the baseball outfield area. After the Rams' departure to St. Louis, the outfield seats were removed, giving the Angels' ballpark a more traditional baseball feel once again.

***Don't get me wrong -- a lot of great players would love to have a 13.2 OPS for a season. It's just low relative to Gretzky's previous numbers.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Streaks in the City (1): Believeland Or Grieveland

Happy New Year!

Today, I am introducing a new feature for 2018 on the Hot Hand blog, which I'm calling "Streaks and the City." Each entry will feature a different North American city and discuss famous streaks its teams and athletes have recorded over the years.

The first city to be featured is Cleveland, Ohio, a city associated in many people's minds with misfortune such as municipal bankruptcy, a lake catching on fire, and sports futility. Cleveland sports teams have actually exhibited two types of futility: near misses by pretty good teams when it looked like a title might be within reach, and horrible teams.

One example of the latter is this past season's Cleveland Browns football squad, which went 0-16, prompting yesterday's "perfect season" parade by the stadium.

Yet, on a more uplifting note, we had the May 14, 2016 ESPN documentary "Believeland," chronicling the efforts of Cleveland's teams to win the city's first championship in any major sport since the Browns in 1964, followed about a month later (June 19, 2016) by LeBron James and the Cavaliers bringing the NBA title to Cleveland. Before the Cavs' championship, Cleveland's 52-year title drought (1964-2016) had been the longest active streak of its kind among North American cities. (Milwaukee now tops the leaderboard at 46 years, the Bucks' 1971 NBA title being the city's last in any pro sport.)

It can be said about all three of Cleveland's major pro-sports franchises* (and about many other teams outside of Cleveland, as well) that they have experienced a lot of losing, but have periodically had some title-contenders.

CAVALIERS

The Cavs were part of the NBA's 1970-71 expansion, going 15-67 that first season (season-by-season log). If a team's nearly 50-year history can be conveyed in a single sentence, Cleveland has alternated every few years between rock-bottom and being a playoff club. The Cavs improved over their first few years to where they made the postseason three straight years (1975-76 to 1977-78). A nine-year dry spell ensued from 1978-79 to 1986-87, in which the team only made the playoffs once, in 1984-85, with a 36-46 record. Other lowlights during this stretch included another 15-67 record in 1981-82, a parade of coaches around this time that included Don Delaney, whose coaching experience included pro softball and small-college basketball, and imposition by the NBA of a rule prohibiting teams from trading away their first-round draft-pick two years in a row, after the Cavs did so to disastrous effect.

A productive era followed from 1987-88 to 1997-98, with nine playoff appearances in 11 years. Early on in this timeframe, the Cavs benefited from up-and-coming players such as Brad Daugherty, Mark Price, and Larry Nance. A 57-25 Cleveland squad was ousted in the first round of the 1988-89 playoffs on what's famously known as "The Shot" by the Bulls' Michael Jordan in the deciding game of a 3-out-of-5 series (YouTube video), but the Cavs were unlikely to make the NBA finals that year, anyway, as Detroit was at the peak of its "Bad Boys" dynasty, winning the title in 1989 and 1990.

Next came seven straight non-playoff years from 1998-99 to 2004-05. A 17-65 record in 2002-03 put the Cavs in a position to draft a local hero from nearby Akron, LeBron James, out of high school. In James's third season, 2005-06, Cleveland was back in the playoffs, and the next year, 2006-07, the Cavs made their first-ever NBA final, losing to San Antonio. James helped Cleveland win the 2007 Eastern Conference finals by scoring the team's last 25 points in a key game of that series.

After three more successful years in Cleveland -- in terms of win-loss records, but without a return to the NBA finals -- James left after the 2009-10 season, famously "tak[ing] my talents to South Beach" via free-agency, to play for the Miami Heat (YouTube video). While James was making the NBA finals with the Heat each of the next four years and capturing two titles, Cleveland averaged 24 wins per season over the same four years.

Almost as stunningly, James returned to Cleveland via free agency for the 2014-15 season. In his three complete seasons back in Ohio, the Cavs have made the NBA finals every year (always against the Golden State Warriors), winning in 2016, but losing in 2015 and 2017.

Now, at age 33, James is still going strong. Earlier in the current 2017-18 season, he led the Cavs to a franchise-record-tying 13-game winning streak. James can't play forever and when he either retires or leaves for another team, the Cavs will probably go through a multiple-year slump, if past is indeed prologue.

INDIANS

Among MLB franchises that have won the World Series at least once -- which Cleveland did in 1948 and 1920 -- the Indians hold the longest currently active drought, 69 straight years, without a World Series title.

Still the Indians have been excellent in recent years -- even record-setting in a good way -- narrowly missing a World Series title in 2016 and compiling an American League-record** 22-game winning streak in 2017. During the latter, a new hashtag appeared on Twitter celebrating the streak: #windians. A run to a slump-ending World Series win seemed likely, especially after Cleveland took a 2-0 lead in games over the Yankees in a 3-out-of-5 series. But then, days later, it was over, as New York went on a three-game winning streak.

A look at the Indians' season-by-season log shows that, in the 11 years following the 1948 championship (1949-1959), Cleveland finished above .500 -- sometimes well above it -- 10 times. This stretch included a 111-43 record in 1954, en route to the World Series, which Cleveland lost to the New York Giants. However, in the 34 years from 1960-1993, the Indians reached or exceeded .500 only seven times.

Things have turned around in the 24 following years (1994-2017), with 16 .500-or-better seasons and three World Series appearances. These occurred in 1995 (a six-game loss to the Braves), 1997 (a seven-game loss to the Marlins, in which the Indians couldn't hold a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth in Game 7) and 2016 (a seven-game loss to the Cubs).

As good as the Indians have been the last two seasons, it will probably take a drought-ending World Series title to really earn the moniker Windians in many fans' view.

BROWNS

A team named the Cleveland Browns has never appeared in a Super Bowl, the pro-football championship game that launched on January 15, 1967. However, a team that once was the Cleveland Browns has not only made it to, but also won, a Super Bowl. The explanation, of course, is that then-Browns owner Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore after the 1995 season (becoming the Ravens) and the Ravens won the Super after the 2000 season. In some ways, however, the connection between the 1995 Browns and 2000 Ravens is not that strong, as only two players were on both squads. The Ravens also won the Super Bowl after the 2012 season.

Prior to the 1995 move, the Browns, like the Cavaliers and Indians, enjoyed some sporadic success. Cleveland made five straight NFL playoff appearances from 1985-1989, with particularly devastating postseason losses occurring in 1985, 1987, and 1988. These are summarized here.

After the Modell move, the NFL granted Cleveland a replacement franchise, also to be known as the Browns, which would begin play in 1999. The "new" Browns have made the playoffs only once (in 2002) in their 19 years of existence, and have gone a combined 1-31 in 2016 and '17. Since 1999, the Browns have had eight general managers and nine head coaches.

Some may cite the "Cleveland Curse" for the misfortunes of the new Browns. However, as argued by Cleveland Plain-Dealer columnist and prolific book author Terry Pluto, in False Start: How the New Browns Were Set Up to Fail, structural barriers imposed by the NFL are to blame. The team faced a compressed start-up time, a weakened expansion draft, and other hindrances, which they still haven't overcome, approaching 20 years.

CONCLUSION

Cleveland has had a lot of streaks in the last roughly 70 years, most of them involving losing and droughts. The city has had some nice within-season winning streaks (such as the 2017 Indians), but in our championship-minded society, mere winning streaks aren't enough. I would expect continued shuffling between Believeland and Grieveland in the coming years, with more time spent in the latter. I don't know how much more time remains in the LeBron-led Cavaliers' championship window, especially with the Warriors being so good. The Indians should be good for a while, but the Astros, Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs, and others aren't going anywhere. That leaves the Browns...

If the city's teams all start struggling around the same time, it will not be good for the health of Clevelanders. The 2013 (pre-Cavs' title) book The Secret Lives of Sports Fans, by Eric Simons, devotes an entire chapter to Cleveland. One former resident of the city suggests that "the miserable winter weather and the lack of other [cultural, entertainment, or recreational] options" have driven Clevelanders toward an intense fandom of sports (p. 101). Another transplant from Cleveland says, "There is a bitterness, a frustration with Cleveland that cannot be matched anywhere else"  (p. 100).

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*The city had an NHL team, the Cleveland Barons, in the 1970s, but it went defunct after only two seasons.

**The MLB-record winning streak is usually credited at 26, by the 1916 New York Giants. However, a tie in a darkness-shortened game has led to a controversy over the Giants' streak.