There are just a few seconds left on the clock. One team in this game had a large lead, but it’s been whittled away to nothing. All that matters now is this final possession—one shot to decide the game. And somehow, the Hornets win.
That’s been the story of this season. The Charlotte Hornets have manged to make games close at the end when they have no business doing so. Often it’s the result of the Hornets rallying at opportune times after falling behind earlier in the game. Sometimes, it’s the opposite. It took 16 games before the Hornets played an entire game without falling behind by double digits. Ironically, in that game they led by as many as 13 in the fourth quarter. They lost by seven.
The Hornets are playing an extraordinary amount of close games. Roughly 32% of their games have been decided by three points or less. Only this year’s Kings have played more. No team in the five full seasons prior to this one has had even a quarter of their games finish with such fine margins.
Not only are the Hornets playing in a lot of close games, they’re winning them. Below is a chart plotting teams’ winning percentage in one possession games against their overall winning percentage. It includes this season and the five full previous seasons before it (That’s the sample for this entire piece).
Teams in the bottom left and top right quadrant are generally performing at normal rates in close games. The bottom left are sub-.500 teams that also have losing records in one possession games. The top right are winning teams with winning records in close games. The bottom right is for teams with winning records that lost more close games than they won. The top left is for losing teams that won more close games than they lost. This year’s Hornets are way up here.
Only two teams with losing records in the past five-plus seasons have fared better than the Hornets in one possession games. One of them is this year’s Spurs, so small sample sizes and what not.
All those close games have resulted in the Hornets getting an inordinate percentage of their wins by three points or less, and teams that scrape out a lot of narrow wins tend to be bad. Here’s a scatter plot of teams’ total win percentages compared to how many of their wins come by three points or less.
Those with keen eyes and a lot of time on their hands might notice something wrong with this chart—there are only 179 points plotted here, and we’re using six seasons worth of data. One team is missing. I wonder who it could be.
53.3% of the Hornets’ wins this season have been by three points or less. No team in the last five-plus seasons has touched 40% in that mark.
I wanted to take a look at the expected win/loss record of a team that wins so many games by such fine margins. There isn’t a perfect trend line for the data above. The best we can do is a logarithmic function.
We can take the equation of that trend line and calculate an expected win percentage for a team that narrowly wins games as often as the Hornets. That win percentage is 0.287, which equates to a win loss record of 11-27 through 38 games (the Hornets are 15-23 as of this writing).
But the sample sizes for one possession games are relatively small, and there’s obviously a lot of room for noise. If we look at the amount of a team’s wins that come by 10 points or less and compare it to their overall record, there’s a stronger, more linear correlation.
Once again, we find the Hornets sitting way outside the rest of the data.
We can plug how many of the Hornets’ wins have come by 10 points or less (86.7%) and plug into the formula of the trend line to get a sort of expected win/loss record, just like we did above. That record is 9-29.
The Hornets are playing in a ton of close games right now. Somehow they’re winning them more often than not and a lot more often than they should. I don’t know how they keep doing it, and I don’t know how long they can sustain it. We’re halfway through the season. Unsustainable trends should have tapered off by now, but every time it seems like the Hornets have hit the wall, they do something like come back from a 12-point fourth quarter deficit to take down the best offense in the NBA on the road in overtime. Maybe they’ll do this for the whole season and I’ll be stuck here trying to figure out how to explain a team that doesn’t make sense.
*All data pulled from Basketball Reference and plotted with Tableau
*All information compiled prior to games played on 1/6/2020