When you work closely with Tom Haberstroh, you learn lots of cool stuff and terms like "arbitrary endpoint." We see this phenomenon at work all the time in sports. A team is 13-1 since Feb. 3, or a player is shooting 57 percent from beyond the arc since the win at Portland.
Why did we choose those dates? Generally because, in crafting our argument, that range of time best supports our premise.
We slice, dice and decimalize data so that our discoveries tells us what we want to hear.
It's not always dates, either. For the better part of a week, we've been hearing about the Heat's lousy record in games decided by five points or fewer. Headed into Thursday night's game against the Lakers, that mark stood at 5-13.
After the Heat beat the Lakers 94-88, LeBron James joked that he should've intentionally missed one end of a pair of free throws he drained with 19 seconds remaining.
“It means we still can’t win games by five points or less,” James said. “We still can’t crack that.”
James was joking, but the underlying logic of his statement brings the fallibility of the stat into focus. Had LeBron actually bricked one of those two final attempts at the stripe, the Heat would've snapped a string of five consecutive losses in games decided by fewer than five points.
Yet by virtue of doing something as incidental as sinking both ends of an insurance call at the line, the win over the Lakers was moved from the "close" side of the ledger to one that shouldn't be taken into account when we examine how well the Heat perform in tight games.
Had LeBron missed one or both of those attempts, we would've tipped our hats to the Heat for finally pulling out a win by fewer than five points. But his competence deprived his team of a close win in lieu of an unremarkable one.
LeBron's remark got me wondering: How did five points become the baseline for this exercise? Yes, a five-point game is close but as a measure of clutch-ness, it seems a bit arbitrary. Three points represents one possession in basketball, while six points qualifies as a "two-possession game" in the imagination of most hoops fans.
As an experiment, I extended the definition of close to eight points. I'm not wed to eight points in any meaningful sense, but in a league when most team convert their free throws down the stretch, margins are often stretched.
What's the Heat's record in games decided by eight points or fewer?
Miami, a team that struggles mightily in close games, has a winning record in games decided by fewer than three possessions.
What's telling is that many of those 16 wins are among the Heat's worst performances of the season. This includes an awful performance on New Year's Day against Golden State, a lackluster one-point win at Washington, a needlessly close game against Cleveland at home during the halcyon days of December.
Had the Heat not been so bad those nights, the 16-15 stat wouldn't look so good. Such is the irony of selective data.