Friday, April 18, 2008

50-Game Winners

A couple of weeks back, ESPN posted a stat (here) about how the Spurs have won 50 games for 9 seasons in a row (including this one), a stat which ties them for second place on the all-time list, alongside Bird’s Celtics (1980-1988), and trailing only Magic’s Lakers (12 years in a row: 1980-1991). also posted a stat a couple of days later about the Mavericks’ place in that list, which puts the Mavericks only one 50-win season behind the Spurs, since Dallas finally reached 50 games this season, to make it 8 in a row. I can’t remember what that stat was exactly, except that it tried to put Dirk in the company of Magic, Bird, and Duncan, in light of the Mavericks’ long-term success. I can’t find the link to that page anymore, or I’d cite it specifically.

In any event, as it turns out, the whole ESPN statistic is skewed, because it doesn’t take into account 1998-99, when a lockout limited the regular season to only 50 games total, and no one finished with more than 37 wins. Now granting that no one actually won 50, still for the purposes of measuring long-term success it’s silly to skip that season, which cut off a couple of pretty impressive streaks of 50-win seasons.

So I did a run-through of every NBA season since the league first went to 79 games in 1961 (then 80 games in 1962, and finally 82 games in 1967). (Note that I didn’t get to double-check the results, so there might be mistakes in this list.) After adjusting for the 61% winning percentage that a 50-win season represents with the current schedule, here are the best streaks (with an asterisk by the active streaks):
  • 12 - Lakers ('80-'91)

  • 11 - Spurs ('98-'08)*

  • 9 - Celtics ('80-'88)
  • 9 - Lakers ('96-'04)

  • 8 - Jazz ('94-'01)
  • 8 - Mavericks ('01-'08)*

  • 7 - Bucks ('81-'87)
  • 7 - Suns ('89-'95)
  • 7 - Pistons ('02-08)*

  • 6 - 76ers ('80-'85)
  • 6 - Sonics ('93-'98)

  • 5 - Bucks ('70-'74)
  • 5 - Celtics ('72-'76)
  • 5 - Pistons ('87-91)
  • 5 - Bulls ('90-'94)
  • 5 - Heat ('97-'01)
  • 5 - Kings ('01-'05)
A couple of comments, before I get to my main point. Three teams (the Nets, the Warriors, and the Nuggests) have never had two consecutive 50-win seasons, and another four (Bullets/Wizards, Cavs, Rockets, Hornets) have never had more than two.

Next, Chicago surely would have won 50 or more in 1995 if Jordan hadn’t absurdly retired for a year and a half to play baseball, which would have given them 9 consecutive years ('90-'98). But of course, he did retire, at his own whim (unless Bill Simmons is right about it being a secret suspension for gambling), and the franchise paid the price.

And third, to keep things in perspective, the Mavericks had won 50 games only twice in their franchise history (1987 and 1988) before Nowitzki joined the team. My childhood memory wants to say that Dallas just had bad luck in always having to face Magic’s Lakers in the playoffs, but in reality the Mavericks just weren’t that good for very long.

The Top of the List

So then, the numbers put the Mavericks as tied for 5th on the all-time list (that is, since 1961). That position seems impressive, except that it only ties them with the Jazz (who could never quite get the job done), and it only puts them just ahead of Bucks, Suns, and Sonics teams that weren’t exactly known as dynasties.

I find the top three teams particularly impressive, because their respective stars (Magic, Duncan, and Bird) played their entire career with the same team and led their respective teams to 50 wins every year they played for them (only counting Magic until his first retirement).

With the Jazz and the Mavericks, that isn’t the case. The Jazz with Stockton and Malone had some other good seasons, but they weren’t great every year. The Mavericks, in Dirk’s first two seasons, only won 14 (23 if adjusted for lockout) and 40 games.

In one way the Mavericks’ streak is the more impressive of the two, because the Jazz had two superstars, while Dirk is the only Maverick on the team for their entire streak. Still, Mark Cuban has consistently put a lot of good players around him, so we should also credit the organization of adjusting quickly (e.g., to the departure of Nash) to keep the team good.

If Dirk isn’t going to fall into the Karl Malone mold (as my brother Jeremy thinks he will), it’s going to depend on what happens with the Mavericks these next couple of seasons. If they stay strong, they could jump into 3rd place on this list, which would help solidify Dirk (at least in my opinion) as a hall-of-fame player. A championship, of course, would do the same.

On the other hand, it’s easy to see the Mavericks fading if they don’t make a significant playoff run this year. There’s a reason that only Magic, Bird, Duncan, and Shaq have kept teams good for longer: it’s difficult to do, and most players/teams fade before they get there.


Brad Cranford said...

Nice bit of research there.

jeremy said...

Dirk and the Mavs were fortunate to play in the era in which they did. Like the mid-70s, when teams like the Sonics and Bullets made multiple trips to the NBA finals, the oughts gave us some of the worst championship contenders in history.

I’ve settled on an apt comparison for Dirk: it’s Rick Barry. Both were sound fundamentally and were popular, in part, for their great white hopefulness. Both took their teams further than they had any right to go. And both stood out due to the mediocre talent surrounding them.

But like Barry’s Warriors, these Mavs were placeholders between one golden age and another. To their credit, they, like the Spurs and Pistons, usually took advantage of the competition. But sadly, their time is over.

Did you happen to see Dwight Howard’s line today?

Justin Burton said...

It is interesting to find Dallas in a group of teams (the 6, 7, and 8 season streaks) that is a combined 2-8 in the NBA finals - regular season juggernauts that, for whatever reason, couldn't get it done in the playoffs.

Now, of those 8 losses, 4 were to Jordan's Bulls. (Both wins, by the way, came at the expense of the Lakers - the 76ers in '83, and the Pistons in '04).

A few things jump out at me about this list:

1. People complain rather loudly that baseball is competitively unbalanced, but since 1980, only 8 teams have won an NBA title, and 2 of those eight (Miami and Philly) only managed one. Even in the salary cap era, the Lakers, Bulls, and Spurs have dominated.

2. This year, I think most of us are noticing some chinks in SA's armor, so it's interesting to note that they are only one win away from the all-time 50-win season mark. They may break the record, but the team probably doesn't have much longer until it's time to retool.

3. I was surprised to find the Nets among the teams that hasn't managed back-to-back 50-win seasons. I would've bet money that they had done it during the Kidd years. I was also mildly surprised to see that the Rockets have never had more than two in a row.

jeremy said...

Rick Berry would never have let this happen.

scoots said...

That video is completely inane. After the Mavericks have had Stackhouse and Terry suspended in recent playoffs, and then last year when Amare got suspended for leaving the bench, only a fool would slap a player in a playoff game--and certainly get himself suspended--when his team's chances of winning depend almost entirely on him.

If those sports reporters wanted to say something, they should have said the league should change its rules for suspending players so that a player *could* defend himself in a situation like that.

jeremy said...

The Mavs have an Avery problem. They may also have a pothead problem. Check out this Q&A from an ESPN interview with Josh Howard on April 25, 2007:

ESPN: One theory I heard about why you went as low as 29th is that some teams were concerned that you might have a problem with marijuana.

Howard: I think a lot of people have that problem. How that could stop me from getting drafted, though? How many guys in the lottery smoke pot? The weed thing, just about everybody smokes.

jeremy said...

I have to point out that I nailed this Josh Howard marijuana story 2 days before it broke.