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January 4, 2012
Don't be Swayed by Early Results ... Yet

by Bradford Doolittle

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How far does a team need to sink before we can declare them as done? The short and obvious answer is not yet, but as always that's just part of the story.

One of the amazing things about this crazy, condensed schedule is how quickly narratives can change. Remember how high we all were on the Kings after they knocked off the Lakers in their opener at raucous Power Balance Pavilion? Well, the Kings promptly lost three straight and DeMarcus Cousins nearly groused himself off the team. Then, with Cousins sitting back home in Sacramento, the Kings went and won a road game in New Orleans and find themselves tied for eighth in the West. Now Cousins in back with the team. All of this happened in the last week.

A few days ago, all and sundry were ready to write off the Mavericks and Celtics. After Dallas dropped a two-point game at Oklahoma City on Thursday, both teams stood 0-3. Were they too old? Had there been too much roster upheaval? Whatever the reason, it seemed clear that the teams that account for two of the NBA's last four championships were done.

Except, they weren't. This happens in every season in every sport. Fans, writers, analysts, broadcasters and even the teams themselves love to draw grand conclusions from limited evidence. It's just our nature. We're constantly searching out the next big story and if we have to fictionalize one out of a handful of results then fine--it's all we have right now.

It shouldn't be at all surprising that things are looking rosier for the Mavericks and Celtics this morning. Dallas beat Oklahoma City handily on its home floor on Monday to win for the second time in three outings, the loss coming at Minnesota against a Timberwolves team that is going to be a handful for anyone visiting the Target Center. Boston has won three straight after beating the lowly Wizards at home on Monday, and that came with rookie Greg Stiemsma starting at center. The winning streak coincides with Paul Pierce's return to the lineup, which probably tells you as much as you need to know about the Celtics' early struggles.

After the long, nightmarish lockout, it's only natural to overreact to early trends. Teams all across the league were patched together on the fly and had to try to get into game condition for upcoming back-to-back-to-backs, learn their coach's systems, get used to new teammates and pull it all together in two weeks and two preseason games. We've only had to deal with this once before and anything that smacks of squirreliness is bound to raise a few eyebrows. In the case of Boston and Dallas, one thing was verifiably true: These were the two oldest teams in the league.

You always see graphics on NBA telecasts during the season that list the league's oldest and youngest teams and they are almost always wrong. These charts take the total average age of all the players on a team's roster and use that as the basis for their ranking in the league. One such listing on a telecast earlier this season had the Hawks listed as the league's second-oldest team even though their two oldest players--Jason Collins and 99-year-old Jerry Stackhouse--have played a combined 11 minutes so far this season. The proper way to calculate team age is to weight a player's age by the time he spends on the court. Here's how the teams stacked up coming into the season:

PROJECTED TEAM AGE
WEIGHTED BY MINUTES
Team         Age
Mavericks  32.74
Celtics    30.97
Lakers     30.32
Suns       29.95
Spurs      29.35
Heat       29.04
Blazers    28.78
Magic      28.60
Hawks      28.43
Clippers   28.24

Because of the slow starts by Dallas and Boston, the theory was floating around that the old teams were having trouble getting acclimated to the new season because of the shortened training camp. In fact, the opposite is true. Let's divide the league in half between the 15 oldest teams and 15 youngest. If advanced age was the primary factor in a team's ability to deal with the lack of preparation time, you'd expect the oldest teams as a group to have underperformed against expectation.

EXPECTED VS. ACTUAL
WINS AND POINT DIFFERENTIAL
             Teams      xW      xDIF    aW      aDIF
Oldsters	15	44	+1.5	47	+2.5
Youngsters      15      32      -1.5    28      -2.6

Eleven of the 15 oldest teams have outperformed the final preseason projections from our SCHOENE forecasting system. Conversely, 10 of the 15 youngest have underperformed their forecast. It's been the inexperienced teams that have had more trouble adapting to the lockout-pinched schedule.

Of course, that may not be the story either. Young teams are often that way because they by definition have cleared away most of their veterans in an effort to rebuild. So there tends to be a lot of roster turnover on these squads and that can't be good when you only have two weeks to prepare for the season. The Celtics and Mavericks are old, but they also had a lot of turnover, ranking just 17th and 18th respectively in percentage of minutes projected to go to returning players. We can look at this as well to see if teams with continuity have been more closely aligned with expectations. Here's the same chart from above, except the teams have been divided in half according to percentage of returning minutes.

EXPECTED VS. ACTUAL
WINS AND POINT DIFFERENTIAL
             Teams      xW      xDIF    aW      aDIF
Continuity      15      40      +0.4    41      +1.0
Upheaval        15      36      -0.4    34      -1.1

Indeed, it looks like teams with a lot of familiar faces have fared better than we projected, though the differences are more muted that the previous grouping. With such a small sampling of games so far, we wouldn't want to attribute any of this to any one reason, but it does seem like coming out of the lockout, it's better to have a young, stable roster. And it if that doesn't make intuitive sense then your intuition isn't very good.

In the case of Boston and Dallas, it bears remembering that neither club entered the season with a particularly strong forecast. The Mavericks ranked eighth in projected point differential, while the Celtics were ninth. That's solid but the numbers put both teams on the very fringe of championship contention. There are real issues with these rosters. The Mavericks lost defensive anchor Tyson Chandler and have slipped from eighth to 19th in Defensive Rating. They'll probably climb the ladder a little bit, but despite the emergence of Ian Mahinmi, it's been obvious that Dallas sorely misses its basket protector. So do the Celtics for that matter. How much better would that team look with Kendrick Perkins still manning the middle? Also, Boston's bench is a hodgepodge, especially considering that top reserve Brandon Bass has logged much of his time with the Doc Rivers' first unit.

Nevertheless, there is no real reason yet to alter our preseason expectations. There simply haven't been enough games played. The only thing that would alter a team's prospects at this point would be a major transaction or a key injury. For instance, the Spurs' outlook grew murky last night when Manu Ginobili broke his hand. Other than accounting for breaking news such as that, the preseason forecasts still hold in terms of informing you what to expect going forward.

Before the season, we took SCHOENE's baseline projections and ran 10,000 simulations of the season to establish the probabilities for each team's outlook. After last night's games, we ran the simulations again, only we plugged in the actual results of the 75 games played so far this season. The probabilities aren't that much different. On the average, Boston won 36.0 games in our preseason simulations. The revised average is 35.7. Dallas started off at 35.6, now its at 35.3.

By the end of the season, it's likely the standings will look much more like we expected than they do today. Even though it seems like an awful lot of NBA basketball has been played since Christmas, it's only been 75 games. Even in the shortened season, that accounts for just 7.6 percent of the eventual complete schedule. If you, like us, had more or less buried the title chances of the Celtics and Mavericks before the season then by all means continue to do so. However if you have a rooting interest in one of those teams and are clinging to the belief that there is another championship run in the offing, nothing that has happened so far should dissuade you from doing so.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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