You almost can't go too far in praising the Golden State Warriors this season.
If the Warriors can go 4-1 in their final five games, they will break the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' record with 73 wins. Stephen Curry has been Jordanesque, shattering the record for 3-pointers and hitting shots from half court and beyond. Klay Thompson is an offensive and defensive sensation, and Draymond Green is hauling down rebounds and dishing out assists at a dizzying pace.
But amid all the hype about history and destiny, could it be possible that the Warriors are not even the best team in the NBA this season? A look at the computer ratings by Jeff Sagarin in USA Today shows the San Antonio Spurs, not the Warriors, at the top. ESPN's Basketball Power Index says the same thing.
Why the discrepancy between the perception of the Warriors' historical greatness and the numbers?
The elements of computer rankings are relatively few: schedule strength, a standard factor for home edge and scoring margin. Attempts to add others, like field-goal percentage in basketball or yardage gained in football, have not proved to be more accurate. Schedule strength is important in college sports, but not in the pros. That leaves just one factor unaccounted for: scoring margin.
And that is where opinions diverge.
"There are two totally extreme philosophical ways of rating teams," said Sagarin.
For the most part, fans and the media look exclusively at wins and losses. The Warriors are 69-8. The Spurs are 64-12. So the Warriors are seen as better.
But things look different when scoring margin is taken into account. The Warriors have some big defeats this year: Their median loss is by 15 points. The Spurs, in contrast, have mostly stayed close in their losses, losing by a median of seven points.
Add in the margins of the teams' wins, and San Antonio outrates Golden State in point differential, 11.6-11.0.
But could margin of victory really be more important than victories themselves? Sagarin is a believer that how many points a team scores and surrenders is a vital indicator of quality.
"I just care about what picks the future the best, and points tend to be slightly better," he said. "The further you stray from pure points," the weaker the computer rankings. It is not just computers that rate the Spurs highly.
"The public may be overlooking the Spurs, but the gamblers are not," Sagarin said.
Using a new method he is developing, Sagarin says he predicts that a hypothetical game at a neutral site would end with San Antonio on top, 105-104. San Antonio would win a home game, 106-103, while Golden State would win at home by a slightly smaller margin, 106-104.
The potential matchup also offers a clash of statistical styles. Based on points allowed per possession, the Warriors have the league's best offense and the Spurs the best defense.
"I'm fascinated because this is irresistible force and immovable object," Sagarin said. "One math approach says that one team is way better; the other says that the other team is slightly better."
At the end of the season, it is very likely that either the irresistible force or the immovable object will be lifting the championship trophy, and advocates of one of the schools of rating teams will have an argument in their favor. — New York Times