Portland Trail Blazers fans have seen their fair share of nailbiters this season. Nearly a third of the Blazers’ games (10 of 33) have been decided by three points or fewer — more than any other team in the league. And the Blazers haven’t been playing a lot of blowouts to make up for it; only 11 of their games have been decided by 10 points or more, tied for the third fewest in the NBA.
Portland plays a LOT of close games
But does it actually matter that Portland plays more close games (defined as a final margin of victory of three or less) than almost any other team? To examine that question, I made two plots: 1) Each team’s number of close games played vs. their overall win total, and 2) Each team’s close game win percentage vs. total win percentage for the 2016-17 season:
The good news for the Blazers is that the first chart shows that total wins has no significant correlation to number of close games. In other words, teams that play a lot of close games do not lose/win any more than average, so Portland’s propensity toward tough fourth quarters likely has little impact on their bottom line.
Furthermore, overall win percentage has nothing to do with close game win percentage — the Warriors, for example, won only 43 percent of their close games and finished with the best record in the league (note Charlotte’s almost unimaginable 0-9 record in nailbiters last year!). This means that teams that perform well in clutch games don’t necessarily win more games than anyone else. Again, this is good news as it suggests that the Blazers’ .500 record in three point games is not having a huge impact on their overall win percentage.
But there is a caveat: Weirdly, the Blazers are on pace to finish with about 26 close games this season, which would be nearly 50 percent more than any team played last season. That could affect their win percentage as the graph shows that close games appear to be toss-ups, so if the Blazers continue allowing too many of their games to become 50/50 propositions it will reduce their overall total of potentially easily winnable games.
The Blazers don’t win a lot of blowouts
The Blazers have only six blowout wins (defined as games with a double digit margin of victory) this season, placing them in the bottom half of the league. Conversely, they’ve only lost five games by double figures, good for a tie for No. 5 in the NBA. In short, about 35 percent of their wins and 31 percent of their losses are by double figures.
To examine whether or not that matters, I charted percentage of double digit wins against overall win percentage and percentage of double digit losses against overall win percentage. In other words, these charts demonstrate if there’s a correlation between blowouts and overall success.
Both percent of losses by blowout and percent of wins by blowout do have a slight correlation to overall win percentage last season. Teams that get blown out a lot are slightly more likely to have a poor record and teams that have a lot of double digit wins are slightly more likely to win a lot of games.
There’s good news and bad news here: The Blazers’ 31 percent of losses by blowout would make them one of the better teams last season, but winning only 35 percent of games by blowout would put them in the bottom quarter of the league.
In other words, it’s not surprising that the Blazers are struggling to stay above .500 — they don’t get blown out a lot, which helps their record, but they also don’t win a lot of blowouts, which hurts their record.
Overall, these data suggest that turning some of the 50/50 nailbiters into easy victories will play a key role in the 2018 portion of the season. If the Blazers can do that they will likely rise up the standings, but if they can’t they will probably continues to hover around .500.