Does a team's record in close games matter?

Kirby Lee-US PRESSWIRE

Obviously, a team's total W-L record matters. But instead of looking how well teams do in close games as a predictor of quality, maybe we should be looking at various categories of wins.

When Tulsa coach Gary Kloppenburg was fired, his combined record in games decided by five points or less was 2-16 - he only had one close win per season as Tulsa head coach.  Rightly or wrongly, he had a reputation as a coach that could not close big games.

At basketball-reference,com,  Neil Payne brings up the case of the Miami Heat, who (at one time anyway) had a record for big wins against bad teams and close losses against good ones.  Like Tulsa, Miami previously had a reputation as a team that just couldn't close out games.  He mentions that the phenomenon of close losses (and blowout wins) has been examined as far back at 2005.

Payne's article was an inspiration. These were the three best teams in the close win category in 2013:

Washington (9-3)
Los Angeles (7-1)
Phoenix (6-3)

And what that record yield?  Washington got a first round win against Atlanta, but didn't get past the conference semis.  Los Angeles was swept by Phoenix - who were in turn swept by Minnesota. 

Rather than looking at close wins, Payne suggested that we play closer attention to certain categories of wins.  We'll categorize them the way he did:

Gut wins:  a gut win is a win by 5 points or less against a team that finished >= .500
Stomps:  a stomp is a win by 9 points or more against a team that finished < .500
Skates:  a skate is a win by 5 points or less against a team that finished < .500 (you escaped by the skin of your teeth from an upset), and
Dominations:  a domination is a win by 9 points or more against a team that finished >= .500

In football, it turns out that the team with the most stomp wins tends to win the Super Bowl.

In basketball, however, the most likely predictor of post-season success is the number of domination wins - lots of big wins over .500+ teams tends to be the key to NBA success.  The second-most predictive category is stomps, which are big wins over .500- teams.

So if we divide all of the WNBA wins in the regular season into gut wins, stomp wins, skate wins and domination wins, what do the wins look like?

Gut W Stomp W Skate W Domination W Other W
CHI 3 11 1 6 3
ATL 0 9 1 7 0
WAS 5 7 4 1 0
IND 1 7 1 3 4
NYL 2 1 2 3 3
CON 2 4 2 0 2
MIN 1 11 0 12 2
LAS 4 8 3 7 2
PHO 1 5 5 1 7
SEA 1 4 2 5 5
SAS 1 2 2 3 4
TUL 0 1 1 5 4



If you're counting domination wins as your key to post-season success, then Minnesota would have been your post-season favorite - but in the Eastern Conference, Atlanta had one more domination than Chicago!  Furthermore, Atlanta's dominations + stomps (16) compares favorably to Chicago's dominations + stomps (17).  So seeing Atlanta win another conference championship shouldn't have been a surprise.  But if you looked at the Dream's 1-5 record in close games, you might have thought that they would have lost in the conference Semifinals.

So let's come back to Tulsa.  Five of their wins were by 9+ points against better than .500 teams (vs. Washington and Phoenix with only one domination each).  If you look at things that way, maybe the decision to keep Kloppenberg or let him go should have been reconsidered.


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