Scrimmage Small Sample Size Theater: NBA highs and lows

Small sample sizes are one of the NBA’s guilty little pleasures. Sometimes there’s something to them, sometimes there isn’t. But the theater of small samples is undeniable.

The scrimmage portion of the NBA’s restart has come and gone and we’re just hours away from the first game of the resumed regular season between the New Orleans Pelicans and the Utah Jazz.

It’s safe to say that even the most optimistic of us never really thought we’d make it to this point, but so far so good. Of course, the NBA’s bubble remains just a mistake or two away from disaster, and these days you’re rarely safer than the decisions of the people around you, but it appears the league has taken steps to limit the impact of some of the poor decision-making capabilities of those inside the bubble.

That goes a long way towards ensuring the success of the whole project.

To make things even better, the NBA is endeavoring to make the world a better place through their efforts to provide COVID tests to underprivileged areas nation-wide.

These are all good things, but basketball has been played, and that’s what we’re here to talk about today. And tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, and so on at long last.

Only three scrimmage games have been played by all 22 teams invited to the Orlando bubble, and none of the games count, but this brief period of game action provides one of my guiltiest basketball pleasures: Small Sample Size Theater.

These micro-samples are usually indicative of very little, but sometimes they confirm previous trends or can predict future developments. Again, small samples are incredibly unreliable, but keeping an eye on them is a fun exercise, if not a predictive one.

With these three games under our belt for all 22 teams, let’s take a look at some of the most interesting, promising and concerning small samples.

Everything Sixers

The Philadelphia 76ers are a one-stop-shop of small sample size theater. They had the second-best defense in their three games with a defensive rating of 95.9, which doesn’t seem that dissimilar from what you can expect from them when the season resumes.

The Sixers have a sturdy defense and if they can get (and stay) engaged they should have one of the top few defenses in the NBA’s restart.

Their offense, however, is somewhat concerning. They had the worst offensive rating at 95.0, and only the toothless Washington Wizards had a worst effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage.

Of course, there’s no reason to lose sleep over this if you’re a Sixers fan. And if you’re looking for something optimistic to hang your hat on, take this: In Joel Embiid‘s 26 scrimmage minutes, the Sixers had a defensive rating of 59.4.

The scrimmage champion Pelicans

The New Orleans Pelicans were without their prized rookie Zion Williamson through their three scrimmage games, but they tore through their own schedule. They had the second-best offensive rating behind the Los Angeles Lakers at 112.5 and the best defensive rating at 90.8. Their corresponding net rating of 21.7 was the best in the league by almost 12 points.

The Pelicans will get Zion back, perhaps as early as game 1 against the Jazz, meaning the scrimmage period’s best team will be even better when the games finally matter.

What does this mean for their chances to make the playoffs?


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But it’ll be interesting to see if their great scrimmage play continues into the seeding games. The Pelicans need to make a push from the very start if they hope to force a play-in with the Memphis Grizzlies.

Everything Houston Rockets

As the Houston Rockets move to embrace the smallest of small-ball strategies, they’ve effectively surrendered the rebounding category. Over the final 15 games of the regular season, they were tied for the worst rebounding percentage with the Washington Wizards at 46.0 percent.

It’s a number that computes. With nobody in the rotation over 6’7″, the Rockets simply had to rely on swarming defense and outstanding offense, because getting second-chance opportunities (and reducing their opponents’ opportunities for the same) simply wasn’t going to be possible on a regular basis.

In the scrimmage games, however, the Rockets had a perfectly reasonable rebounding percentage of 49.0.

Will this relative success carry over into the seeding games?

It probably won’t.

But that’s small sample size theater for you.

Next: Worst first-round opponent for teams out west
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