Fans of the New Jersey Nets can't be a happy bunch these days. Thirteen games have been played and the team has still failed to taste victory.
Happiness, though, is often driven by relative standing. Sure, some folks are better off than you. But if you can focus on those who are worse off, sometimes - in a perverse way - that can make you feel better.
Such a fact probably can't make fans of the Nets that happy. After all, they are the only team without a win. But wins and losses aren't always the best measure of a team's quality. If we want to forecast the future we are better off looking at a team's efficiency differential.
Efficiency differential is calculated by subtracting a team's defensive efficiency from a team's offensive efficiency; where offensive efficiency is simply how many points a team scores per possession (and defensive efficiency is points surrendered per possession).
After thirteen games the Nets are scoring 89.5 points per 100 possessions, a mark that ranks dead last in the NBA. On defensive the picture isn't quite so grim. The Nets are only allowing 100.2 points per 100 possessions. Only nine NBA teams are doing better defensively. Yes, the woeful Nets are currently the 10th best defensive team in the league.
Despite this team's defense - or because of the team's offense -- the Nets' efficiency differential is -10.7 (89.5-100.2). How bad is this mark? Since 1973-74, only seven teams have finished with a lower differential. And no team had done this badly since 1999-2000 (the LA Clippers finished with a differential of -11.9 that season). If we connect efficiency differential to team wins, we see that the Nets' current mark translates into about 13 wins across an entire NBA season. Yes, this is bleak. But 13 wins are better than nothing.
And it could be a better mark than what we might see from the Minnesota Timberwolves. The T-Wolves currently have a 1-12 record. When we turn to efficiency differential, though, Minnesota's mark of -15.2 is easily the lowest in the NBA. Since 1973-74 (the first year we can measure possessions), no team has ever done this badly. So if this continues, it will be the Timberwolves - not the Nets - who will finish the 2009-10 season as the worst team in NBA history.
And Nets fans have some hope the gap between the T-Wolves and Nets will widen. Devin Harris - who averaged 21.3 points per game last season -- has only played 89 minutes in 2009-10. He is now back, and that suggests the possibility of winning has increased dramatically.
Well, maybe not that dramatically. Observers of the NBA tend to focus on scoring in evaluating players. A player's contribution to wins goes beyond points scored. Specifically -- as detailed at The Wages of Wins Journal and at wagesofwins.com -- one can move from a team's efficiency differential to a measure of each player's production of wins (or Wins Produced). This step reveals that the most productive players - i.e. the player's who produce the most wins - shoot efficiently, rebound, generate steals, and avoid turnovers. Yes, blocked shots and assists impact outcomes. But efficient scoring and factors associated with getting and maintaining possession of the ball are the most important.
Turning to Harris, we see a player who has been slightly above average with respect to shooting efficiency across his career. And in 2009-10, he was able to get to the free throw line, generate steals, and accumulate assists. As for rebounds and turnovers, though, Harris is below average. When we put the whole picture together and calculate Wins Produced, we see that Harris produced 8.0 wins last season. Although Harris is above average, he's hardly an elite point guard. Last season, ten point guards produced more wins than Harris. This list includes Chris Paul (28.2 Wins Produced), Jason Kidd (19.8 Wins Produced), and Rajon Rondo (17.2 Wins Produced).
And New Jersey is not the only team who will be helped by a returning player. Sometime in December, Kevin Love is schedule to return to Minnesota's line-up. In terms of Wins Produced, Love was actually the most productive rookie in the NBA last season (yes, more productive than Derrick Rose). If Love returns - and maintains what we saw from him as a rookie - then the T-Wolves will also win a few more games.
Love, though, may not be enough for the T-Wolves to catch the Nets. For Minnesota to improve, it's going to need more production from Al Jefferson and Ramon Sessions (two above average players from last season). Until that happens, fans of the Nets can look at Minnesota and say "well, we ain't that bad." Yes, that ain't much. But for fans for New Jersey, it's something to be happy about.