Monday, June 01, 2009

The Curious Cases of Top Teams in Recent Years

Through the 2004-05 season, 13 teams in NBA history won 64 or more games in a single season. Here's the list:
    96 CHI 72-10
    72 LAL 69-13
    97 CHI 69-13
    67 PHI 68-13
    73 BOS 68-14
    86 BOS 67-15
    92 CHI 67-15
    00 LAL 67-15
    71 MIL 66-16
    87 LAL 65-17
    83 PHI 65-17
    96 SEA 64-18
    97 UTH 64-18
In almost every case, these teams reached the postseason potential that was suggested by their regular-season prowess. 10 of these 13 teams won the NBA championship, and two others (96 SEA, 97 UTH) lost only when matched up against a team with more regular-season wins in the NBA Finals. The '72-73 Celtics were the only one of these teams to fail to make the Finals, and that was after their best player, John Havlicek, suffered a debilitating shoulder injury in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Knicks.

The past four seasons have seen a flurry of dominant regular-season teams, but for whatever reasons, these teams have had a much tougher time translating regular-season dominance into postseason success, falling short of the Finals three times out of five:
    06 DET 64-18 - Lost Conf. Finals
    07 DAL 67-15 - Lost First Round
    08 BOS 66-16 - Won Championship
    09 CLE 66-16 - Lost Conf. Finals
    09 LAL 65-17 - ???
All of this unpredictability makes Bill James' 2007 story "Where The Numbers Go Next" increasingly look like a piece of garbage. Here was the core of James' argument:
    The NBA's problem is that the underlying mathematics of the league are screwed up. In every sport, there is an element of predetermination and an element of randomness in the outcomes. Who will win the championship next year is not entirely a crapshoot. We know that Kentucky has a better chance of winning the NCAA basketball title than Nebraska does - next year, or in 2019. If we knew with certainty who was going to win the title next year, then we could say that the championship was 100 percent predetermined, 0 percent random.

    In the NBA, the element of predetermination is simply too high. Simply stated, the best team wins too often. If the best team always wins, then the sequence of events leading to victory is meaningless. Who fights for the rebound, who sacrifices his body to keep the ball from rolling out of bounds doesn't matter. The greater team is going to come out on top anyway.

    A fan can look at the standings in December, pick the teams that will make the playoffs, and might get them all. This has a horrific effect on the game. Everybody knows who's going to win. Why do the players seem to stand around on offense? Why is showboating tolerated? Because it doesn't matter. Why don't teams play as teams? Because they can win without doing so (although teams like these may crumble when they run up against the Pistons or Spurs).
Rather than one or even two teams anointed as the NBA's best - the clear champion - by midseason, in recent years the NBA title has been legitimately up for grabs even into May and June, as it has been again this year. Let's look at the past few years:

Many figured that the Conference Semifinal series between the Lakers (56-26) and the Spurs (57-25) would decide the eventual champion, with Indiana (61-21) expected to represent the East after posting the season's best record. However, the Detroit Pistons (54-28) went through them all after acquiring Rasheed at the deadline. And, oh yeah, Minnesota (58-24) was the top seed in the West, and Sacramento (55-27) took them to 7 games.

Let's say that that would be five teams who were legit title contenders, with pretty much no one expecting the Pistons to win it all up until they stole home court from L.A. in Game 1 of the Finals, at the earliest.

2005 was a wide-open year for the Playoffs, with San Antonio (59-23), Miami (59-23) and defending champ Detroit (54-28) all considered to be top contenders heading into the playoffs, and it was Phoenix (62-20) who owned the best record in basketball. These were the final four teams in the playoffs, with the Pistons outlasting the Heat in 7, helped by the D-Wade injury, and the Spurs blitzing the Suns in 5, helped by the Joe Johnson injury. Then the Spurs needed 7 to beat Detroit, with Robert Horry's game-winner in Game 5 the pivotal play of the series. Also, Dallas went 58-24 on the season.

Let's say that that would be four teams who were legit title contenders, with the top three being very evenly matched, given that two of the final three series came down to Game 7.

Detroit (64-18) had dominated the Eastern Conference throughout the regular season, and San Antonio (63-19) and Dallas (60-22) were considered the class of the West (and proved it with one of the greatest playoff series ever seen), but it was Miami (52-30) who hoisted the Larry O'B. after stunning the Pistons and Mavs in back-to-back series. Also, Detroit needed 7 games to get past Cleveland (50-32).

Let's say that that would be four teams who were legit contenders, with the team considered to be the most marginal of the contenders winning it all.

It was all about the Western Conference in 2006-07, as Dallas (67-15) challenged for 70 wins and Phoenix (61-21) was solid as well, while San Antonio (58-24) had the best point differential in the league. Detroit (53-29) was the top seed and favorite in the East and thought to have a puncher's chance in the Finals because of their experience.

What happened? Dallas fell in the biggest upset in playoff history, while the Spurs topped the Suns in a controversial series. Meanwhile, Detroit was stunned by LeBron's spectacular output in Game 5. We can't really truly call Cleveland (50-32) a title contender even though they made the Finals, though, given the way the Spurs ripped through them in 4.

Let's be conservative and say that that would be three teams who were legit title contenders - a smaller number, yes, so seemingly more predictable, but the monumental first-round upset was a big score for unpredictability.

The 2008 Playoffs went more according to form, with the best regular-season team, Boston (66-16), defeating the top seed in the West, L.A. (57-25), in the Finals, but many thought that the experience of Detroit (59-23) and San Antonio (56-26) would allow those teams to prevail in the Conference Finals, and the Lakers were clear favorites over the Celtics heading into the Finals. Not to mention that Boston barely escaped the challenge of LeBron and Cleveland (48-34) in the second round. And four other teams won between 54-56 games in a wild Western Conference.

Let's say that that would be four teams who were legit title contenders, with very few picking the Celtics to prevail in the Finals.

The conference competitions were widely expected to be coronations leading into LeBron and Cleveland (66-16) vs. Kobe and the Lakers (65-17) in the Finals, but of course Orlando (59-23) had a little something to say about that. Defending champs Boston (62-20) took the Magic to 7 but suffered from KG's absence, while Denver (54-28) played well throughout the playoffs and Houston (53-29) took L.A. to 7.

Let's give Boston and Denver each half-credit as a contender, and say that that would be four teams who were legit title contenders, and certainly a lot of unpredictability given that, as of about a week ago, no one had any clear idea who was going to be in the Finals.

The idea that the NBA Playoffs are utterly predictable is utter nonsense. Yes, the Playoffs determine the best team (and that is their beauty), but the best team is not pre-determined. That is, as they say, why they play the games.

The James argument is that too much predetermination hurts the NBA's popularity. First of all, there is far less predetermination than he thinks, and second, the TV ratings were terrible in 2005 when the Playoffs were up for grabs and have been great in 2009 when things have been similarly up in the air.

Certainly, there are times when there's little question who's going to win, such as in 2007 after the Mavs and Suns had been dispatched, and ratings did suffer for it. But you know, it happens in the NCAA's sometimes, too, such as when Florida (2006-07) and North Carolina (2008-09) were decisive no. 1s all the way back in preseason and then decisive national champs come March Madness.


At 8:20 AM, Anonymous Ian said...

Can you imagine Ben Wallace saying to himself, "Everything's predetermined, so why should I dive for that rebound?"

At 11:37 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

2004: Detroit had 2nd best point differential in the league.
2005: Spurs had best PD
2006: Miami had 5th best PD
2007: Spurs had best PD
2008: Boston had best PD
2009: Lakers have 2nd best PD, Orlando has 4th (3rd if you discount Boston because of KG's injury).
Most years there are 3-4 teams clearly at the top of the league in point differential, and with the exception of Miami one of them has won it. Sounds predictable to me.

At 11:41 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Of course, James is wrong that it's hurting the NBA's popularity. Fans come to watch the stars play.

At 6:39 PM, Blogger MysticX said...

Oh sure, in the 90s, when everyone knew that Jordan and his Bulls were going to win year after year, the NBA was reeeally suffering from low popularity.

What kind of crack is that guy James smoking?

At 6:46 PM, Blogger MysticX said...

Alex, point differential is indeed a good indicator of who the best teams in the league are, but keep in mind we're talking about predictability affecting popularity.

PD goes out the window, because we all know the average and the transient NBA fan can't even define point differential much less know who excels in it.

At 8:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post! You should show it to this James dude and prove him wrong!

At 8:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speakin of idiotic articles, did anyone read the article on the wall street journal (or forbes? don't remember) about the fact that there were only 2 teams in contention to win the title (Lakers and Cavs) and all of the others were just trying to save money because of the economy and didn't have any chance to win the title? No comment.

At 8:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love the Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure quality of calling Bill James "this James dude." Interesting argument that hits on what's wrong with that analysis without really explaining what goes right to make various years finals more popular.

Whether you go with media member X's "it's a league of stars" argument or that the pace and/or style of play are more conducive to viewership, I'd be apt to agree that the Bill James competitive randomness thesis doesn't seem to hold that much water.

As an aside, what do you think about the contrast between relatively high ratings numbers with the Bill Simmons "the world is falling if you're a real NBA fan because they over-officiate" thesis?

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