By Martin Kleinbard

Over the last few years, the Atlanta Hawks have become a cautionary tale for how not to run an NBA team. Conventional wisdom tells us that a team should either go all in for a “Big 3” (à la the LeBron-Wade-Bosh Heat) or bottom out and tank for top draft picks (à la the Sixers). Whatever you do, don’t be the Hawks: too good to get a lottery pick, never good enough to make noise in the playoffs.

Of course, those critics have had to eat their fair share of crow this season, as the Hawks have surged to an absurd 43-11 record and all but sealed up the top seed in the Eastern Conference by the All Star break. This anecdote—albeit a salient one—doesn’t prove or disprove the effectiveness of the aforementioned boom-or-bust strategy, and I won’t attempt to do so here. Instead, what I want to know is the answer to a pair of prerequisite questions: how mediocre have the Hawks actually been in recent seasons, and how surprised should we be at their sudden success?

First and foremost, a mediocre team is a consistent one. To measure consistency with a metric that will allow cross-sport comparisons was a two-step process[1] that involved comparing each team’s performance trend to others in its league. I’ll save you the nitty gritty and just present the most consistent teams throughout the four major North American leagues for all completed non-strike seasons since 2007:

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It turns out that we have “models of consistency” across the spectrum of success. The Cardinals, Spurs, and Penguins have been the class of their leagues over the last decade, while the Bills, Thrashers/Jets, and Leafs have been doormats. And then, pulling up the middle, are the Blue Jays and our old friends the Hawks.

If we count Buffalo as part of its market, Toronto has three of the top 6 most consistent teams in all of pro sports (none of which has been very good for a while). At least the mayor keeps things interesting.

Of course, mediocre teams are a special breed of consistent. Despite roster changes, draft picks, and injuries, they manage to stay—presumably involuntarily—right around .500. Thus, my Mediocrity Index is a measure of how close a team is to a dead even record, also indexed against league averages to make cross-sport comparisons possible (the smaller the number, the more mediocre)[2]. Here are the top 10:

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In the race for title of sports’ biggest yawner, the Hawks came in a solid fourth. It’s worth noting that they’re the only basketball team in the top 10 (the next up are the Bulls at number 12); does this mean that NBA clubs are in fact more likely to follow a tank or all-in strategy? One easy way to measure this empirically is to average the Mediocrity Index for each league since 2007:

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Since a higher number here means that teams are, on average, farther away from .500, the NBA ends up coming in second behind baseball for the title of least mediocre league. In this light, Hawks and Blue Jays’ averageness look even more remarkable: they’ve managed to stay right around breakeven in leagues where teams tend to gravitate toward the poles.

So how surprised should we be at the Hawks’ sudden dominance? On an individual team level, considering that they haven’t made any significant roster changes, their rise has rightly caught us off guard. From an analytical standpoint, we should be less shocked. The correlation between NBA teams’ Mediocrity Index from 2005-2009 to 2009-2014 was just 0.13, implying that being mediocre in one time period has virtually no “carry over” effect on the subsequent period.

In other words, we should expect mediocre teams from one time period to be roughly as likely to be very good or very bad as opposed to staying mediocre in the following time period. The Sixers were the NBA’s most mediocre team from 2005-2009; since then they’ve been one of the worst. The three most mediocre teams from 2009-2014? The Rockets, Hawks, and Knicks. This year, Houston and Atlanta are Finals contenders, while the Knicks are…well, you know.

How anyone at the start of the season could’ve taken a look at the 5 most mediocre teams of the past few years—the aforementioned trio plus New Orleans and Memphis—and settled on the Hawks as the most likely of the bunch to be 30 over .500 by mid-February is beyond my comprehension, and I’d be very skeptical of anyone who said they saw it coming. We should indeed be surprised that it was the Hawks who have made it big out of that group, but we shouldn’t be surprised that someone did.

The moral here is we should always expect some teams to go from mediocre to great, just as we should expect others in roughly equal quantities to go from mediocre to bad or to stay mediocre. There will be another Hawks—and Knicks, for that matter—soon enough; just don’t bet the ranch trying to predict who either will be.

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Martin Kleinbard is the co-founder of The Bandwagn, a newsletter/website that allows non-sports diehards the chance to join the sports conversation. He can be reached at martin.kleinbard@gmail.com.

References:

[1]First, I calculated the Variance Coefficient (standard deviation of team wins divided by league average of wins) for each team’s win totals (or point totals, in the NHL’s case) for all non-strike seasons since 2007. Because these figures were naturally higher for leagues with shorter seasons (especially the NFL), I standardized these values for each league by calculating the z-scores. This allowed for the best possible apples-to-apples cross-league comparisons.

[2]The Mediocrity Index was created by taking the average of the absolute value of each team’s standardized win totals for the given time period. The use of absolute value is necessary to count a team that finished 10 games over .500 as equally mediocre as a team that finished 10 games below .500.