The Second Annual: Who’s More Dominant, the Warriors or the Caps?

Posted: 02/15/2017 by levcohen in Basketball, Hockey

Around this time last year, I compared the dominance of the Golden State Warriors and Washington Capitals, ultimately determining that the Capitals (who were 45-12-4 with 11 more points than the next best team and a +60 goal differential) were more dominant compared to the rest of their league than the Warriors (who were 53-5 with a +11.3 point differential). Of course, the rest of the season didn’t go the way either team wanted. The Warriors went 73-9 and took a 3-1 series lead against the Cavaliers, but we all know what happened next. Meanwhile, the Caps slumped down the stretch, finishing the regular season 11-6-4 after I published the post and losing in the second round. But both teams have predictably come back strong this year. The Caps brought back every single one of their important pieces (the goalie, the top six scorers, and all of the top six defensemen), while the Warriors added Kevin Durant to an already record-setting team. Washington is 39-11-6, good for a 1.5 point per game total that is slightly worse than last year’s 1.54 when I wrote my post but slightly better than the 1.46 they ended up with. Their goal differential is +71, 11 goals better than it was when I wrote last season. Meanwhile, the Warriors are “just” 46-9 and boast a +12.6 point differential. So even though neither team has as good of a record as they had last year, they’re arguably both performing better than they were when I wrote about them last season. This all begs the question (again): who’s more dominant?

I must admit that I was a bit surprised when I looked at the standings today and saw just how well the Capitals are doing. That’s because they started relatively slowly — 13-7-3. They’ve turned things around… and then some. Since December 31st, they’re 19-2-1 with a +53 goal differential. That’s +2.4 goals per game, which is unbelievable. Washington has scored at least five (5!) goals in 11 consecutive home games. They’re being led by all of the familiar faces. Alex Ovechkin is unlikely to get to the 50 goal mark, but he’s scoring nearly a point per game and is on pace to assist more goals than he has in six years. Nicklas Backstrom ranks third in the NHL with 60 points. Evgeni Kuznetsov, the team’s leading scorer last year, has 44 points. The most impressive thing is that, advanced-stats wise, the Caps’ third line (Brett Connolly-Lars Eller-Andre Burakovsky) has been its strongest. It’s worth noting that the Capitals have been incredibly lucky to this point, at least in 5-on-5 situations. They’re blowing teams out, but that’s largely because of the puck luck they’ve gotten. The numbers are astounding: they’ve scored 65% of the goals in their games at even strength, but they’ve only taken 51.3% of the shots (that is, shots on goal + shot attempts that missed the net or were blocked). To put that in perspective, the Flyers and Flames have also taken 51.3% of 5-on-5 shots. So this is by no means a dominant full-strength team, which could mean that they will regress going forward. But I’m not asking which team will be more dominant going forward, because I think that’s pretty clearly the Warriors. Rather, I’m asking who’s been more dominant so far. And if we take the Capitals’ record and goal differential at face value, which I’m willing to do for this exercise, they have a real argument.

The one thing the Warriors haven’t had this year is a dominant stretch like the Capitals are currently in the midst of. Sure, they’re 46-9 with a +12.6 point differential, so you could argue that the whole season has been a dominant stretch. But their longest winning streak was “just” 12 games, and they were “just” +18 per game in that stretch, which is obviously amazing but isn’t quite “22 game stretch with +2.4 goals per game difference” level awesome. Their starting lineup (Steph Curry-Klay Thompson-Kevin Durant-Draymond Green-Zaza Pachulia) has played 508 minutes together this year and has a +23 net rating (120.2 points scored per 100 possessions, 97.2 allowed). They lead the league in points, assists, assist percentage, steals, blocks, field goal percentage, fast break points, field goal percentage on drives, catch and shoot points per game, and deflections per game. The only reason they don’t have the record they had last season is that they’ve gotten much less lucky in close games.

So both teams have been incredible. The Warriors seem more incredible, with a four game lead over everyone else and a tidy 46-9 record. But we thought that’s the way it would turn out last year, and yet the Capitals’ season (up to the day I wrote, at least) was actually more remarkable compared to the rest of the NHL than Golden State’s was compared to the rest of the NBA.

Just like last year, I calculated standard deviations (a mathematical way to compare a number to a mean and see just how exceptional that number is) for the NBA by winning percentage and point differential and for the NHL by points per game and goal differential per game, and here are the results:

Warriors Capitals
Winning % / PPG .836 1.50
Standard Deviations From Mean – Winning % / PPG 2.27 (last yr when I wrote: 2.39) 1.99 (last yr: 2.58)
Point/Goal Differential +12.6 +1.27
Standard Dev From mean – Point/Goal Differential 2.72 (last yr: 2.13) 2.29 (last yr: 2.55)

This year, the results are different: the Warriors are clearly the more dominant team, even though the Capitals have had the more dominant hottest stretch. Washington’s season doesn’t match up to where they were last year at this point. Heck, the Caps aren’t even the most remarkable team in the NHL. The Colorado Avalanche have 32 points through 54 games and own a -75 goal differential. Their two standard deviation numbers are 2.8 and 2.48 standard deviations below the mean. The Warriors’ point differential is something else. 2.72 standard deviations above the mean is the 99.67th percentile. The Avalanche’s 32 points, by the way, put them in the .0026th percentile.

For now, the Warriors are the more dominant team. But if the Capitals can keep up their torrid hot streak and continue to thumb their noses at the advanced stats, I’ll have to revisit this at the end of the year.

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