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Blown Leads, Comebacks, and Close Games Around the NBA

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Are the Sixers blowing an unusually high number of leads, or does it just seem like it?

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Note: the data for this piece was compiled as of January 5, 2019, prior to that night’s games.

I’m not sure if you knew, but the Sixers played the Suns a couple days ago and there sure was some gnashing of teeth after the 132-127 road win due to the...difficulties of the fourth quarter. Before I recommend to Elton that he should trade Joel, Ben, and Jimmy for a few second round picks, I wanted to investigate if the kind of fourth quarter shenanigans that occurred were Sixers-specific or a part of the NBA as a whole.

The first step (which should be familiar with the readers of this website) is to sort of divorce ourselves from the results of games and focus on the process. If the Sixers are up by 15 at the start of the fourth quarter and then win at the buzzer when the opponent misses a potential game-winning field goal, is that game appreciably different than if the Sixers are up by 15 at the start of the fourth quarter and then lose at the buzzer when the opponent makes a shot at the buzzer? I say no — despite the outcome being different, how the Sixers got there is mostly the same.

Basic Methodology

For every single game played in the NBA this year, I took the scoring margin at the start of the third quarter (Q3), start of the fourth quarter (Q4), and at approximately 60 seconds left in the fourth quarter. My thought is that to fully remove the outcome, we can treat every game with a five point or less margin within 60 seconds to go as a “close game”, regardless of the ultimate result. This way, a 20-point comeback to get to -5 at 1:00 in the fourth quarter is essentially the same (for this specific metric) as a 20-point blown lead to get to +5 at 1:00 in the fourth quarter, or any other permutation of previous scores as long as the margin is +/- 5 at 1:00 left. For bonus fun, I have the win probabilities attached at each time interval as well so we are able to gauge the relative quality or likelihood of each comeback/blown lead. Think of each section here moving forwards as a collection of related chapters/vignettes, not exactly a linear stepwise path to some grand conclusion.

Type of Game Outcomes

For our purposes, there are only three outcome types. Games with margins at 1:00 to go in the fourth quarter (Q4:60) greater than +5, less than -5, and those within 5.

Figure 1: Game outcomes at 1:00 left in fourth quarter by team

Just from a visual inspection, it seems fairly intuitive. The Knicks, Hawks, and Cavs seem to have about half of their games entering Q4:60 down more than five points, and the Bucks, Raptors, and Thunder seem to only have about 10-20 percent of their games end like that. What’s interesting to me is that it appears that the proportion of games at Q4:60 within five is far more uniform across the board compared to the larger margin categories. Figure 2 takes a look at that in more detail.

Figure 2: Q4:60 type percentages across NBA

I might have to save digging into this for a future article, as I’m not sure what exactly to make of this right now. Or if I’m missing something obvious, let me know in the comments.

Win Probability at Q3 and Q4

Combining NBA.com second-by-second win probability data, we can start to examine actually how win probabilities change from Q3 to Q4. My thought is that a team prone to collapsing would likely have a higher (relative) win probability at the start of Q3 than at the start of Q4, whereas a team who is strong later in games might have an increased (relative) win probability at the start of Q3 compared to the start of Q4. Figure 3 presents the spread of those deltas for each team.

Figure 3: Differences in win probability from start of third quarter to start of fourth quarter

Again, it seems to more or less pass the eye test. The Warriors, Raptors, Bucks, etc. all have median increased win probabilities at the start of the fourth quarter compared to the third quarter, whereas the Hawks, Cavs, and Wiz (hah), etc. are the opposite. If you’re trying to squint to figure out if Brett Brown should be immediately fired or given a lifetime extension based on if the Sixers’ value, it’s -0.00695.

Good Teams and Their Q4 Margins and Q4:60 Margins

My hypothesis is that good/sustainably successful teams enter the Q4:60 up by more than five in order to prevent a series of stupid or unlikely events causing them to lose. With an average of about 14 second per possession, and assuming the team in the lead might run some clock a bit, that’ll get you about 2-3 possessions per team. If we assume the team in the lead at Q4:60 scores 1.0 ppp for either the two or three possessions they have, the only way to lose is to give up between 7-9 points on 2-3 possessions, a fairly unlikely scenario. Figure 4 takes a look at the relationship by team between the average margin at the start of Q4 and the average Q4:60 margin. Obviously, using averages smooths out the bumps, but that is precisely the point. Of note, the line here is a reference line, not a regression line.

Figure 4: Relationship between team quality, Q4 point differential, and Q4:60 point differential

I colored the sections of the graph based on quartiles of team quality assuming my hypothesis to be true. Lo and behold, I think this does a nice job of separating the teams. I also think this is a solid indication that the Kings might be due for a bit of a backslide, and that the Pels are probably better than their record indicates. Also, the Bucks are good and Jason Kidd might be the worst NBA coach ever, aside from Jim Boylan. Plus, we might be underrating the Pacers a bit.

Actual Counts of Close Games, Wins, and Losses

Let’s put actual wins and losses back into the equation at this point. Using five-point chunks for largest leads (Table 1) and largest deficits (Table 2), we can count up the number of games that ended up as wins, losses, and close (within 5 points either way at Q4:60). These are for the entire NBA, so the tables are large. You can search and filter through them at your leisure.

Table 1: Maximum leads and game outcomes

Team Maximum Lead Count Close Game Count Percent Close Game Win Count Pecent Win Loss Count Percent Loss
Team Maximum Lead Count Close Game Count Percent Close Game Win Count Pecent Win Loss Count Percent Loss
ATL -5:5 13 0 0 0 0 13 100
ATL 6:10 14 5 35.7 3 21.4 11 78.6
ATL 11:15 5 2 40 3 60 2 40
ATL 16:20 3 2 66.7 3 100 0 0
ATL > 20 2 1 50 2 100 0 0
BKN -5:5 7 1 14.3 1 14.3 6 85.7
BKN 6:10 9 2 22.2 1 11.1 8 88.9
BKN 11:15 12 7 58.3 7 58.3 5 41.7
BKN 16:20 5 1 20 4 80 1 20
BKN > 20 6 1 16.7 5 83.3 1 16.7
BOS -5:5 8 1 12.5 1 12.5 7 87.5
BOS 6:10 7 2 28.6 3 42.9 4 57.1
BOS 11:15 8 5 62.5 5 62.5 3 37.5
BOS 16:20 4 1 25 3 75 1 25
BOS > 20 10 0 0 10 100 0 0
CHA -5:5 8 1 12.5 0 0 8 100
CHA 6:10 7 6 85.7 0 0 7 100
CHA 11:15 6 2 33.3 4 66.7 2 33.3
CHA 16:20 6 2 33.3 5 83.3 1 16.7
CHA > 20 10 3 30 9 90 1 10
CHI -5:5 13 2 15.4 1 7.7 12 92.3
CHI 6:10 15 9 60 3 20 12 80
CHI 11:15 6 4 66.7 4 66.7 2 33.3
CHI 16:20 3 2 66.7 2 66.7 1 33.3
CHI > 20 1 0 0 0 0 1 100
CLE -5:5 15 1 6.7 1 6.7 14 93.3
CLE 6:10 11 3 27.3 0 0 11 100
CLE 11:15 8 2 25 3 37.5 5 62.5
CLE > 20 4 1 25 4 100 0 0
DAL -5:5 8 2 25 1 12.5 7 87.5
DAL 6:10 13 7 53.8 4 30.8 9 69.2
DAL 11:15 7 2 28.6 5 71.4 2 28.6
DAL 16:20 2 0 0 2 100 0 0
DAL > 20 7 1 14.3 6 85.7 1 14.3
DEN -5:5 4 3 75 0 0 4 100
DEN 6:10 12 4 33.3 7 58.3 5 41.7
DEN 11:15 7 5 71.4 6 85.7 1 14.3
DEN 16:20 5 4 80 4 80 1 20
DEN > 20 8 0 0 8 100 0 0
DET -5:5 15 5 33.3 2 13.3 13 86.7
DET 6:10 6 5 83.3 2 33.3 4 66.7
DET 11:15 8 4 50 6 75 2 25
DET 16:20 3 0 0 3 100 0 0
DET > 20 4 0 0 4 100 0 0
GSW -5:5 10 3 30 2 20 8 80
GSW 6:10 6 5 83.3 2 33.3 4 66.7
GSW 11:15 4 3 75 3 75 1 25
GSW 16:20 8 3 37.5 7 87.5 1 12.5
GSW > 20 11 0 0 11 100 0 0
HOU -5:5 10 1 10 1 10 9 90
HOU 6:10 7 4 57.1 4 57.1 3 42.9
HOU 11:15 4 2 50 4 100 0 0
HOU 16:20 8 3 37.5 5 62.5 3 37.5
HOU > 20 8 0 0 8 100 0 0
IND -5:5 6 0 0 0 0 6 100
IND 6:10 10 8 80 5 50 5 50
IND 11:15 8 1 12.5 8 100 0 0
IND 16:20 3 1 33.3 2 66.7 1 33.3
IND > 20 10 1 10 10 100 0 0
LAC -5:5 11 3 27.3 1 9.1 10 90.9
LAC 6:10 7 4 57.1 4 57.1 3 42.9
LAC 11:15 8 4 50 6 75 2 25
LAC 16:20 5 1 20 5 100 0 0
LAC > 20 6 1 16.7 5 83.3 1 16.7
LAL -5:5 9 3 33.3 1 11.1 8 88.9
LAL 6:10 10 3 30 5 50 5 50
LAL 11:15 7 4 57.1 3 42.9 4 57.1
LAL 16:20 5 2 40 5 100 0 0
LAL > 20 7 0 0 7 100 0 0
MEM -5:5 8 1 12.5 1 12.5 7 87.5
MEM 6:10 11 6 54.5 6 54.5 5 45.5
MEM 11:15 8 3 37.5 4 50 4 50
MEM 16:20 8 1 12.5 5 62.5 3 37.5
MEM > 20 2 0 0 2 100 0 0
MIA -5:5 6 1 16.7 0 0 6 100
MIA 6:10 8 5 62.5 2 25 6 75
MIA 11:15 8 5 62.5 3 37.5 5 62.5
MIA 16:20 5 2 40 4 80 1 20
MIA > 20 9 1 11.1 9 100 0 0
MIL -5:5 5 2 40 0 0 5 100
MIL 6:10 5 5 100 2 40 3 60
MIL 11:15 6 5 83.3 5 83.3 1 16.7
MIL 16:20 7 2 28.6 6 85.7 1 14.3
MIL > 20 13 0 0 13 100 0 0
MIN -5:5 10 1 10 0 0 10 100
MIN 6:10 9 6 66.7 1 11.1 8 88.9
MIN 11:15 10 4 40 7 70 3 30
MIN 16:20 2 0 0 2 100 0 0
MIN > 20 7 0 0 7 100 0 0
NOP -5:5 15 5 33.3 1 6.7 14 93.3
NOP 6:10 10 7 70 3 30 7 70
NOP 11:15 3 1 33.3 3 100 0 0
NOP 16:20 5 1 20 4 80 1 20
NOP > 20 6 0 0 6 100 0 0
NYK -5:5 17 4 23.5 1 5.9 16 94.1
NYK 6:10 12 6 50 3 25 9 75
NYK 11:15 3 2 66.7 0 0 3 100
NYK 16:20 3 1 33.3 2 66.7 1 33.3
NYK > 20 3 0 0 3 100 0 0
OKC -5:5 7 3 42.9 1 14.3 6 85.7
OKC 6:10 5 3 60 1 20 4 80
OKC 11:15 6 4 66.7 4 66.7 2 33.3
OKC 16:20 6 1 16.7 5 83.3 1 16.7
OKC > 20 13 0 0 13 100 0 0
ORL -5:5 10 1 10 0 0 10 100
ORL 6:10 6 4 66.7 2 33.3 4 66.7
ORL 11:15 10 7 70 6 60 4 40
ORL 16:20 5 3 60 3 60 2 40
ORL > 20 6 0 0 6 100 0 0
PHI -5:5 5 1 20 1 20 4 80
PHI 6:10 8 3 37.5 2 25 6 75
PHI 11:15 6 1 16.7 4 66.7 2 33.3
PHI 16:20 6 5 83.3 4 66.7 2 33.3
PHI > 20 14 2 14.3 14 100 0 0
PHX -5:5 20 2 10 1 5 19 95
PHX 6:10 8 3 37.5 0 0 8 100
PHX 11:15 6 2 33.3 5 83.3 1 16.7
PHX 16:20 1 0 0 0 0 1 100
PHX > 20 4 0 0 3 75 1 25
POR -5:5 9 1 11.1 0 0 9 100
POR 6:10 5 4 80 2 40 3 60
POR 11:15 12 5 41.7 8 66.7 4 33.3
POR 16:20 6 1 16.7 6 100 0 0
POR > 20 6 0 0 6 100 0 0
SAC -5:5 9 2 22.2 1 11.1 8 88.9
SAC 6:10 12 6 50 5 41.7 7 58.3
SAC 11:15 7 3 42.9 4 57.1 3 42.9
SAC 16:20 6 1 16.7 5 83.3 1 16.7
SAC > 20 4 0 0 4 100 0 0
SAS -5:5 12 3 25 0 0 12 100
SAS 6:10 5 2 40 2 40 3 60
SAS 11:15 6 3 50 5 83.3 1 16.7
SAS 16:20 5 0 0 5 100 0 0
SAS > 20 11 1 9.1 10 90.9 1 9.1
TOR -5:5 8 4 50 2 25 6 75
TOR 6:10 6 3 50 2 33.3 4 66.7
TOR 11:15 5 2 40 4 80 1 20
TOR 16:20 9 2 22.2 8 88.9 1 11.1
TOR > 20 12 0 0 12 100 0 0
UTA -5:5 11 4 36.4 0 0 11 100
UTA 6:10 5 1 20 1 20 4 80
UTA 11:15 7 2 28.6 4 57.1 3 42.9
UTA 16:20 5 2 40 3 60 2 40
UTA > 20 10 0 0 10 100 0 0
WAS -5:5 14 3 21.4 1 7.1 13 92.9
WAS 6:10 13 6 46.2 5 38.5 8 61.5
WAS 11:15 4 1 25 2 50 2 50
WAS 16:20 4 1 25 4 100 0 0
WAS > 20 3 0 0 3 100 0 0

Table 2: Maximum deficit and game outcomes

Team Maximum Deficit Count Close Game Count Percent Close Game Win Count Pecent Win Loss Count Percent Loss
Team Maximum Deficit Count Close Game Count Percent Close Game Win Count Pecent Win Loss Count Percent Loss
ATL -5:5 3 2 66.7 3 100 0 0
ATL -6:-10 4 3 75 3 75 1 25
ATL -11:-15 11 4 36.4 4 36.4 7 63.6
ATL -16:-20 4 0 0 0 0 4 100
ATL < -20 15 1 6.7 1 6.7 14 93.3
BKN -5:5 13 5 38.5 11 84.6 2 15.4
BKN -6:-10 12 5 41.7 7 58.3 5 41.7
BKN -11:-15 5 2 40 0 0 5 100
BKN -16:-20 4 0 0 0 0 4 100
BKN < -20 5 0 0 0 0 5 100
BOS -5:5 14 3 21.4 14 100 0 0
BOS -6:-10 6 3 50 4 66.7 2 33.3
BOS -11:-15 6 2 33.3 1 16.7 5 83.3
BOS -16:-20 6 1 16.7 2 33.3 4 66.7
BOS < -20 5 0 0 1 20 4 80
CHA -5:5 10 2 20 9 90 1 10
CHA -6:-10 11 5 45.5 6 54.5 5 45.5
CHA -11:-15 5 4 80 3 60 2 40
CHA -16:-20 4 2 50 0 0 4 100
CHA < -20 7 1 14.3 0 0 7 100
CHI -5:5 2 2 100 1 50 1 50
CHI -6:-10 15 13 86.7 8 53.3 7 46.7
CHI -11:-15 3 1 33.3 0 0 3 100
CHI -16:-20 2 0 0 0 0 2 100
CHI < -20 16 1 6.2 1 6.2 15 93.8
CLE -5:5 7 2 28.6 6 85.7 1 14.3
CLE -6:-10 2 2 100 2 100 0 0
CLE -11:-15 3 2 66.7 0 0 3 100
CLE -16:-20 11 1 9.1 0 0 11 100
CLE < -20 15 0 0 0 0 15 100
DAL -5:5 9 1 11.1 8 88.9 1 11.1
DAL -6:-10 12 6 50 9 75 3 25
DAL -11:-15 7 3 42.9 1 14.3 6 85.7
DAL -16:-20 5 2 40 0 0 5 100
DAL < -20 4 0 0 0 0 4 100
DEN -5:5 11 3 27.3 11 100 0 0
DEN -6:-10 12 8 66.7 9 75 3 25
DEN -11:-15 8 4 50 4 50 4 50
DEN -16:-20 4 1 25 1 25 3 75
DEN < -20 1 0 0 0 0 1 100
DET -5:5 8 1 12.5 8 100 0 0
DET -6:-10 6 2 33.3 5 83.3 1 16.7
DET -11:-15 11 9 81.8 3 27.3 8 72.7
DET -16:-20 3 2 66.7 1 33.3 2 66.7
DET < -20 8 0 0 0 0 8 100
GSW -5:5 14 2 14.3 13 92.9 1 7.1
GSW -6:-10 11 6 54.5 9 81.8 2 18.2
GSW -11:-15 5 4 80 1 20 4 80
GSW -16:-20 4 2 50 2 50 2 50
GSW < -20 5 0 0 0 0 5 100
HOU -5:5 12 2 16.7 12 100 0 0
HOU -6:-10 8 4 50 6 75 2 25
HOU -11:-15 9 3 33.3 3 33.3 6 66.7
HOU -16:-20 2 1 50 1 50 1 50
HOU < -20 6 0 0 0 0 6 100
IND -5:5 15 4 26.7 13 86.7 2 13.3
IND -6:-10 7 4 57.1 5 71.4 2 28.6
IND -11:-15 8 2 25 6 75 2 25
IND -16:-20 3 1 33.3 1 33.3 2 66.7
IND < -20 4 0 0 0 0 4 100
LAC -5:5 12 4 33.3 12 100 0 0
LAC -6:-10 9 5 55.6 6 66.7 3 33.3
LAC -11:-15 6 2 33.3 3 50 3 50
LAC -16:-20 3 1 33.3 0 0 3 100
LAC < -20 7 1 14.3 0 0 7 100
LAL -5:5 9 1 11.1 9 100 0 0
LAL -6:-10 11 6 54.5 7 63.6 4 36.4
LAL -11:-15 10 4 40 4 40 6 60
LAL -16:-20 4 1 25 1 25 3 75
LAL < -20 4 0 0 0 0 4 100
MEM -5:5 10 4 40 7 70 3 30
MEM -6:-10 13 5 38.5 8 61.5 5 38.5
MEM -11:-15 6 1 16.7 2 33.3 4 66.7
MEM -16:-20 2 1 50 1 50 1 50
MEM < -20 6 0 0 0 0 6 100
MIA -5:5 11 3 27.3 10 90.9 1 9.1
MIA -6:-10 7 5 71.4 5 71.4 2 28.6
MIA -11:-15 8 2 25 1 12.5 7 87.5
MIA -16:-20 6 3 50 2 33.3 4 66.7
MIA < -20 4 1 25 0 0 4 100
MIL -5:5 12 2 16.7 12 100 0 0
MIL -6:-10 10 3 30 9 90 1 10
MIL -11:-15 9 6 66.7 3 33.3 6 66.7
MIL -16:-20 2 2 100 1 50 1 50
MIL < -20 3 1 33.3 1 33.3 2 66.7
MIN -5:5 10 1 10 10 100 0 0
MIN -6:-10 7 4 57.1 4 57.1 3 42.9
MIN -11:-15 10 5 50 2 20 8 80
MIN -16:-20 6 0 0 1 16.7 5 83.3
MIN < -20 5 1 20 0 0 5 100
NOP -5:5 10 2 20 9 90 1 10
NOP -6:-10 8 4 50 5 62.5 3 37.5
NOP -11:-15 7 3 42.9 2 28.6 5 71.4
NOP -16:-20 8 4 50 1 12.5 7 87.5
NOP < -20 6 1 16.7 0 0 6 100
NYK -5:5 1 0 0 1 100 0 0
NYK -6:-10 10 5 50 5 50 5 50
NYK -11:-15 5 3 60 1 20 4 80
NYK -16:-20 9 3 33.3 1 11.1 8 88.9
NYK < -20 13 2 15.4 1 7.7 12 92.3
OKC -5:5 13 0 0 13 100 0 0
OKC -6:-10 9 4 44.4 6 66.7 3 33.3
OKC -11:-15 8 5 62.5 3 37.5 5 62.5
OKC -16:-20 4 1 25 1 25 3 75
OKC < -20 3 1 33.3 1 33.3 2 66.7
ORL -5:5 6 2 33.3 6 100 0 0
ORL -6:-10 9 4 44.4 6 66.7 3 33.3
ORL -11:-15 10 7 70 4 40 6 60
ORL -16:-20 3 2 66.7 1 33.3 2 66.7
ORL < -20 9 0 0 0 0 9 100
PHI -5:5 14 5 35.7 12 85.7 2 14.3
PHI -6:-10 10 4 40 9 90 1 10
PHI -11:-15 7 1 14.3 2 28.6 5 71.4
PHI -16:-20 4 2 50 2 50 2 50
PHI < -20 4 0 0 0 0 4 100
PHX -5:5 4 0 0 3 75 1 25
PHX -6:-10 6 4 66.7 3 50 3 50
PHX -11:-15 6 3 50 3 50 3 50
PHX -16:-20 6 0 0 0 0 6 100
PHX < -20 17 0 0 0 0 17 100
POR -5:5 13 2 15.4 12 92.3 1 7.7
POR -6:-10 9 6 66.7 8 88.9 1 11.1
POR -11:-15 3 1 33.3 2 66.7 1 33.3
POR -16:-20 8 2 25 0 0 8 100
POR < -20 5 0 0 0 0 5 100
SAC -5:5 9 2 22.2 8 88.9 1 11.1
SAC -6:-10 5 4 80 3 60 2 40
SAC -11:-15 10 2 20 6 60 4 40
SAC -16:-20 6 3 50 2 33.3 4 66.7
SAC < -20 8 1 12.5 0 0 8 100
SAS -5:5 14 2 14.3 13 92.9 1 7.1
SAS -6:-10 9 3 33.3 6 66.7 3 33.3
SAS -11:-15 5 3 60 3 60 2 40
SAS -16:-20 5 1 20 0 0 5 100
SAS < -20 6 0 0 0 0 6 100
TOR -5:5 19 4 21.1 18 94.7 1 5.3
TOR -6:-10 8 1 12.5 7 87.5 1 12.5
TOR -11:-15 4 4 100 0 0 4 100
TOR -16:-20 5 2 40 3 60 2 40
TOR < -20 4 0 0 0 0 4 100
UTA -5:5 13 1 7.7 12 92.3 1 7.7
UTA -6:-10 6 2 33.3 4 66.7 2 33.3
UTA -11:-15 6 3 50 1 16.7 5 83.3
UTA -16:-20 6 3 50 1 16.7 5 83.3
UTA < -20 7 0 0 0 0 7 100
WAS -5:5 5 0 0 5 100 0 0
WAS -6:-10 10 7 70 6 60 4 40
WAS -11:-15 4 2 50 2 50 2 50
WAS -16:-20 4 1 25 1 25 3 75
WAS < -20 15 1 6.7 1 6.7 14 93.3

Upon a brief review, it appears the Sixers do not profile as well as the Raptors or Bucks (shocker). However, we are talking about a game or two in either direction. I certainly do not see anything that indicates the Sixers have any sort of significant WIP caller CHOKE ARTIST situation going on. All teams blow leads to certain extents. However, they do seem to have a knack for letting teams back into games a bit. Of Philadelphia’s 20 games that they led at any point by 16 points or more, seven of them (35%) ended up within 5 points either way at Q4:60 — they did win 18 of those 20 games (90%), however. For comparison, the Warriors have let three of 19 games they led by 16 or more points (16%) get to within five with at most 60 seconds left in the fourth quarter, winning 18 of 19 (95%). The Celtics are at 1-of-14 (7%) and 13-of-14 (93%), and the Bucks are at 2-of-20 (10%) and 19-of-20 (95%), respectively. I have a strong suspicion that if we gave Joel robot legs to play him 42 minutes per night, we wouldn’t be seeing as many large leads dwindle.

Update: Requested by Commenter

Here’s what the stats look like for the 2015-2016 Process squad: ten games with leads of 16 or more points, with four turning into close games at Q4:60 (4/10 = 40%) and winning five of the ten (5/10 = 50%).

Figure 5: Process 76ers Game Outcome Info

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