Close is Not Far in the NBA

05/18/2015 04:23 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2016
Mike Lawrie via Getty Images

The NBA Final Four is now set. Not surprisingly, the top two seeds in each conference are all that remain in the 2015 NBA playoffs. And now fans of the remaining 26 teams get to wonder when their team will also be contenders to win an NBA title.

It's easy to conclude that if your team is not still playing, that title contention is far away. Furthermore, to truly contend drastic changes must be considered. But I think the data tells a different story. And to illustrate, I am going to talk about a playoff team that couldn't even win a single playoff game this year.

This past year the Toronto Raptors won 49 regular season games. This mark was not only good enough to win the Atlantic Division, it was also the best mark in franchise history. Unfortunately, the Raptors -- despite having home court advantage -- exited the playoffs with four straight losses. Despite this result, though, I think the Raptors are really not that far from being title contenders.

Let's begin by noting that across the past 30 years, the teams that won the title averaged a 74.1 percent winning percentage (or won close to 61 games in the regular season). So if the Raptors could get to 60 wins we might think of them as title contenders.

So how far are the Raptors from 60 wins? Simple math says just 11 wins. But actually it appears the Raptors might be even closer. Back on February 20th the Raptors traveled to Atlanta and defeated the Eastern Conference team with the best regular season record by 25 points. That victory gave the Raptors a mark of 37-17, or a winning percentage of 68.5 percent. In sum, on February 20th the Raptors were clearly one of the top two teams in the East; although not quite yet on pace to win 60 games. In other words, back in February it looked like the Raptors were on pace to be in the NBA's Final Four.

Unfortunately, problems were already apparent on February 20th. The Raptors All-Star point guard -- Kyle Lowry -- was clearly breaking down. Across the final 28 games of the season, Lowry was absent from the lineup 11 times. Even when he did play, Lowry was far less effective. With this decline in productivity, the Raptors closed out the season winning only 12 of these last 28 contests.

Perhaps it should not be surprising that Lowry is suddenly offering less on the court. Academic research indicates that NBA players tend to peak in their mid-20s. Lowry is now 29 and so it is not surprising that his production has declined. In fact, even his first half performance this season was less than what we saw in 2013-14.

Given Lowry's health and age, the Raptors team that faced the Wizards was probably not the 37-17 team that was contending with the best in the East. Instead it was closer to a team like the Miami Heat, who completely missed the playoffs.

So how do the Raptors get back to what we saw on February 20th? Greivis Vasquez noted after the Raptors playoff exit that the team needed someone on the team to talk more trash. After all, that's what Paul Pierce does. And Paul Pierce played for the team that swept the Wizards.

Actually that line of reasoning is nonsense. Paul Pierce has been a very productive player across his career. But his trash talking is not why he is productive.

A more serious suggestion would be for the Raptors to fire the coach. Although this may seem reasonable, academic research indicates that most NBA coaches really don't alter outcomes in the NBA. In sum, firing the coach probably won't solve the Raptors' problems.

To understand the solution, we need to understand why NBA teams actually win. And again, we turn to academic research. Wins in basketball -- whether it's played in the NBA, WNBA or NCAA -- are primarily about a team's ability to gain and keep possession of the ball (i.e. get defensive rebounds, force turnovers, avoid committing turnovers) and then turning those possession into points (i.e. make shots from the field, grab offensive rebounds, and get to the free throw line). These factors are all tracked in the standard box score and can all be quantified for individual players. Consequently we can measure how many wins each individual player produces.

When we do this for the Raptors, we see that about 41 of the team's 49 wins can be traced to the play of Jonas Valanciunas (8.2 wins), Patrick Patterson (7.7 wins), Kyle Lowry (7.0 wins), James Johnson (6.1 wins), Louis Williams (6.0 wins) and Amir Johnson (5.7 wins). Everyone else on the roster only produced about eight wins combined.

The list of everyone else includes DeMar DeRozan. This past season DeRozan led the Raptors in scoring per game and was second in salary paid. But when we look at how he scored, we see a problem. A typical shooting guard will average about 0.97 points per shot from the field. DeRozan, though, only averaged 0.85. And that means that DeRozan -- despite his per game scoring average -- was actually a below average scorer. Yes, he was able to launch many shots at the basket. But he was not very good at getting those shots to actually go in the basket. Consequently, he only produced 2.3 wins for the Raptors.

After such a stunning defeat in the playoffs, there is a temptation to make drastic changes to this roster. But if we look at where this team was at just a few months ago, and we couple that knowledge with what factors drive team success, the path forward seems fairly clear. First, the team needs to determine if age is going to permanently limit Lowry's production. If that is the case, the team needs to find another point guard. However, Lowry can return to form -- and it is possible that can happen -- then the Raptors simply keep him in the starting line-up.
The same conclusion should not be reached for DeRozan. Despite his salary and All-Star status, DeRozan has never been a very productive shooting guard. So the Raptors probably need to find a better player at this position.

Where, though, can the Raptors find a more productive shooting guard? People tend to think that the draft is where teams go to find talent. And certainly the Raptors found Valanciunas on draft day. But every other productive player on this roster was acquired either via trade or the free agent market. And these productive players -- almost all acquired since 2012 - have allowed the Raptors to improve from 23 wins in 2011-12 to the 49 wins seen this year.
In sum, the Raptors are a team of players that were generally discarded by other teams. And that team -- on February 20th -- was clearly contending with the best in the Eastern Conference in 2015-16. To get back to this form, the Raptors shouldn't overreact to three months of bad basketball. It simply needs to add one or two more productive players to a team that already has several above average players. And again, the Raptors' roster suggests those players do not have to be lottery picks or expensive free agents.

So the Raptors do not need a complete roster turnover. And they do not need more trash talking or a different coach. The team probably just needs more production in their backcourt. And with a bit more production at point guard and shooting guard, the Raptors can reach the 60 regular season wins it needs to truly contend for a title.

One could repeat this type of analysis for any team that is close to contending. If we look at who produces wins, we can easily identify where any team is coming up short. And once that the problem area is identified, it becomes clear that for many teams close is not that far away in the NBA.