Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Resting on Regular-Season Laurels

Jeremy (my brother) asked me to look up how teams with the best record in the NBA have fared historically in the playoffs, and the results are pretty encouraging for Dallas. I focused on the 26 seasons the Mavericks have been a team. (When two teams tied for the best record, I followed the one that went the farthest in the playoffs.)

Of those 26 teams:
  • 14 won the championship
  • 2 lost in the nba finals
  • 8 lost in the conference finals
  • 1 lost in the second round
  • And, in the ultimate shame, the '93-'94 Seattle Supersonics finished 63-19 and lost to Denver (42-40) in the first round.
Now, since the best regular-season team only wins the championship a little over half the time, it appears that simply having the best record (relative to the rest of the league) doesn't mean much. However, when you look at how many wins the top team has, there ends up being a pretty strong correlation between regular-season wins and championships.

The Stats:

The top regular-season teams that failed to win the championship ranged from 58 to 64 wins, averaging 62.08 wins. The top teams that went on to win the championship, on the other hand, ranged from 60 to 72 wins, averaging 64.85. Teams that had the best record in the NBA but won 63 or fewer games only went on to win the title in 6 of 17 cases; but no one in the past 26 seasons who has won at least 65 games in the regular season has failed to win the championship.

If you check records all the way back to the founding of the NBA, 10 of the 11 teams to win at least 65 games have won the championship. ('67-'68 was the first season with 82 games, so before that it was pretty tough to win 60.) The only loser was the '72-'73 Celtics, who lost to the Knicks (57-25) in the conference finals.

So while winning more games than everyone else doesn't seem to guarantee anything, winning lots and lots of games appears to mean quite a lot. Apparently you can win 63 on a fluke, but not 65. If Dallas can manage 66-67 wins this year, there's little doubt they should take the championship.

Incidentally, of those seven Mavs-era teams that won at least 65 games, six also had their top player receive the regular-season MVP (and, in each case, the finals MVP as well): Moses Malone for Philly in '82-'83, Bird for Boston in '85-'86, Magic for LA in '86-'87, Jordan for Chicago in '91-'92 and '95-'96, and Shaq for LA in '99-'00. The one exception was '96-'97, when the Bulls won 69 games but Karl Malone was named MVP after averaging 27.4 points on 55% FG, 9.9 rebounds, and 4.5 assists, plus was named to the NBA all-defensive first team while leading Utah to a 64-18 record.

So, if Dallas gets to 66 wins (and beats Phoenix by at least a couple), history also suggests that Dirk takes home the regular-season MVP.

A few other facts about the finals:
  • The last three teams with the best regular-season record have all lost in the conference finals.
  • Teams that topped the league at least once without ever winning a championship in the Mavs era include Portland, Phoenix (twice), Seattle, and Indiana. All four of these teams also reached the finals at least once––although curiously, Portland, Seattle, and Indiana each only reached the finals in a different year, when they didn't have the best record.
  • From 1993-1994 thru 2002-2003 every NBA championship team had either Robert Horry or Steve Kerr on the roster (from Wikipedia).
  • In the past seven years, the only team to win the NBA championship whose coach hadn't already won an NBA championship was Larry Brown –– and he had won an NCAA championship with Kansas in 1988.
  • In the past eight years, either Shaq or Duncan has made it to the finals every season. Their respective teams won the championship every time except 2004, when the Pistons beat the Lakers.


scoots said...

While we're talking about how many wins the Mavericks might get this year (remember what they might have done after game 2 of the finals last year?), I would argue that people who are counting Phoenix out of the race for the West are kidding themselves. If Nash gets healthy, I don't think it's out of the question for Phoenix to finish out 26-4 and get 65 wins themselves.

Incidentally, as I write this, Steve Nash has managed 8 points and 7 assists tonight . . . in the first quarter.

scoots said...

Another interesting finals fact (which I just added to the original post as well): In the past eight years, either Shaq or Duncan has made it to the finals every season. Their respective teams won the championship every time except 2004, when the Pistons beat the Lakers.