Studying the Mega Blowouts

Thursday night, the Hornets drubbed the Grizzlies by 61 points.  This marked the sixth time in the NBA history that there has been a margin of greater than 60 points (and the first time since 1997-98).  While one wouldn’t expect any NBA team to lose by 60, if you had to pick a likely candidate to suffer a mega blowout, the Grizz fit the bill.  They are tied as the worst team in the NBA (the Suns have same record but a much worse SRS), playing on the road, late in a lost season, and without most of their good players.  It is a little surprising (but not totally shocking) that the bully would be an average Charlotte team.

I thought we could look at the five bigger blowouts and see what, if anything, we can learn from these games.  Before we delve too deep, note that none of the teams that suffered a mega blowout were at home (not shocking).  Incidentally, the worst showing by a home team is tie between two fairly good teams.  The 1986-87 Rockets (a perfectly respectable team) lost by 56 at home against the Sonics on December 6, 1986 (Hakeem Olajuwon did not play in that game but Ralph Sampson did).  The 1972-73 Warriors lost by 56 at home in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals against the last iteration of the Jerry West-Wilt Chamberlain Lakers to go up 3-0 in the series.  Proving that momentum is sort of a myth, the Warriors did go on to win the next game.  Now let’s turn to the 60+ club:

-December 25, 1960:  Syracuse defeats New York, 162-100:  Merry Christmas!  Dolph Schayes and company were a .500ish team but they were playing a very poor Knicks team thanks to a 42-17 third quarter.

-November 2, 1991:  Golden State defeats Sacramento, 153-91:  Like now, the Kings were pretty bad for most of the 1990s.  The 1991-92 team was no different.  This loss, though, was pretty bad, as it was only the second game of the season and the Kings were actually coming off of a win.  The Warriors could really score (Chris Mullin and Tim Hardaway) and would win over 50 games that season.  GS hung a 48-18 first quarter on the Kings and just coasted from there (the teams actually tied in the third quarter).  As a backdrop, the Warriors had just traded Mitch Richmond to the Kings for rookie Billy Owens (neither of them played in the game, though I’m sure it thrilled Richmond to sit on the pine and see this result).  The Warriors scored a ton despite hitting only one three-pointer all game (1-5 for the game).

-March 19, 1972:  Los Angeles Lakers defeat Golden State, 162-99:  This was blowout was late in the season between the peak West/Wilt Lakers (who went 69-13) and a very good Warriors team (51-31 behind Nate Thurmond, Jim Barnett, and Cazzie Russell).  The box score at is sparse but the game seemed to snowball on GS.  The Lakers were only up 15 at the half and then won the last two quarters by 18 and 20 respectively.

-February 27, 1998:  Indiana defeats Portland, 124-59:  The Pacers were a title contender behind Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, and the Davis Brothers (they would finish 58-24 and barely lose to the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals).  The Blazers, however, were not slouches with Rasheed Wallace, Arvydas Sabonis, and a young Damon Stoudamire.  On that night, the Blazers just could not shoot (24-72 from the field for .333%, 3-17 from three, and even 8-19 from the line).  That tough Pacers defense probably contributed to the struggle.

-December 17, 1991:  Cleveland defeats Miami, 148-80:  The Cavs would go on to the Eastern Conference Finals and had a healthy Mark Price, Brad Daugherty, and Larry Nance.  The Heat was an expansion team finally sniffing .500 with decent young squad (Rony Seikaly, Glen Rice, Steve Smith).  The Cavs were up 20 at the half but things got wonky, and Cleveland won the third quarter 33-14 and the fourth 42-13 respectively.  By that time, only the scrubs were playing, as none of the Cavs core players exceeded 24 minutes of playing time.  In fact, none of the Heat starters exceeded 25 minutes and the Heat ran out non-scorers like Keith Askins, Bimbo Coles, Kevin Edwards, Bimbo Coles, Alec Kessler, and Alan Ogg for most of the second half.  The Cavs bench outscored the Heat bench 86-33.

So what can we learn from these huge blowouts?  A few things:

-Home teams almost never got totally trounced.

-Mega blowouts happen because things get out of control with the benches.  None of these games involved a single scorer who really put huge numbers and the starters were rested for most of the second half.

-Decent teams can be blown out too.  Three of the five big losers were playoff teams.

-Bad teams don’t really blow people out.  All five victors were playoff teams and fairly good playoff teams.  This year’s Hornets are the first in the 60+ club that likely won’t be a playoff team.

-There is no point in the season where a mega blowout is most likely.  Though it seems that blowouts are more likely late in the season by tanking teams, the data shows otherwise.  In fact, the Kings showed us it can happen in Game 2!

Ultimately, while point differential matters, it appears that the mega blowout is such an outlier that it holds little statistical value vis-à-vis a normal 20 or 30-point win.  Once a team is losing by more than 30, whether the bench players really can’t score doesn’t tell us much more.  Still, it’s a wacky thing to see every now and then.

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