There are a plethora of ways to measure a team’s success in a season. Some teams give themselves a pat on the back for a year well done if they make the playoffs. For others, it’s the NBA Finals or bust. Fans of any given team will often argue about which season was the best their team has ever had. Where did the 2007-08 Celtics rank in comparison to their 1985-86 counterpart? How would the 1999-2000 Lakers fare against the 1971-72 or 1986-87 squads?
Those arguments are often highly subjective and biases emerge based on when you were born or what you consider the level of competition around the league to have been at the time in question. Beyond the eye test and “in my day” stories, there are statistics that can be used to make these arguments more tangible.
Advanced stats like offensive rating, defensive rating, pace, etc. can be measured all the way back to 1973 and estimated before then. Those things could make or break an argument, but the state of the league at the time plays a big factor. Pace is a stat that has fluctuated enormously over the years, for example.
The Buffalo Braves (now the Clippers) registered the fastest pace in its franchise’s history at 111.9 possessions per 48 minutes in 1970-71. That would beat this season’s league-leading Philadelphia 76ers by about 12 possessions per game. It seems like a fast team by today’s standards, but based on the league average at the time, it was actually quite slow. That ’71 Braves team was 3.2 possessions per-48 below the league average, which would actually make them the second slowest team in the Clipper franchise’s 44-year history based on relative pace. Period matters.
Simple Rating System
The Simple Rating System (SRS) used by basketball-reference.com is a team rating based on things like average point differential and strength of schedule. The rating that results (simple rating or SR) is denominated in points above or below average, where zero represents the average. For example, the Spurs lead the league this season with an SR of 8.42, while the Sixers are currently in the basement at -11.20.
If you look at a team’s SR over their history, some interesting trends emerge. The top five ratings in Boston Celtics history have resulted in a championship. Both the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers have won it in all of their four highest-rated seasons. The Miami Heat, New York Knicks, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers all won championships in the seasons in which they posted their highest SR.
While some franchises weren’t able to win it all in their highest-rated seasons, there is still an undeniable correlation between a good SR and playoff success. The Pistons didn’t win the title in their top-rated 2007-08 season (they lost in the Eastern Conference Finals), but they made the Conference Finals in six of their top-seven seasons. The Washington Wizards (then the Bullets) made the Finals in their top two seasons. The Portland Trail Blazers made the Conference Finals in each of their four highest-rated seasons and went on to the NBA Finals in two of those.
So, why is this relevant this year? Well, if there are no major changes between now and the end of the regular season on Wednesday, there will be an unprecedented four teams that finish with the highest SR in their respective franchise’s history.
If we use SR as a predictive stat, based on the playoff success that other franchises have had during their highest-rated seasons, one could assume that we could be in for deep playoff runs from any or all of these four teams. At the very least, they each seem poised to match or surpass previous playoff accomplishments. In some cases, that might mean finally advancing beyond the second round, while for others it could mean a legitimate shot at the title.
How will these teams stack up against their predecessors? What are the chances that they’ll be able to ride what is arguably the best season in their franchise’s history to playoff success? Which of these teams could win it all?
Let’s take a look.
Toronto Raptors (Season 19)
The Toronto Raptors started the 2013-14 campaign with most people predicting lottery balls instead of playoff games. They were prime candidates for tanking and getting off to a 6-12 start to the season only fueled that fire. Fast forward to the end of the season and now they are somehow Atlantic Division champs and the third seed in the suddenly competitive Eastern Conference. As their global ambassador Drake would say, they started from the bottom, now they’re here.
The turnaround story is well documented at this point and Raptors GM Masai Ujiri should have a legitimate shot at his second consecutive Executive of the Year award. The way he turned his two biggest and most bloated contracts in Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay into bench depth and a team that the entire nation of Canada can get behind was truly artful. DeMar DeRozan blossomed into an All-Star, Kyle Lowry has earned himself a decent payday this summer and deserved All-Star consideration as well, and Coach Dwane Casey is in the conversation for Coach of the Year. It was (almost) all roses for the Raptors this year, but what will it mean come playoff time?
Considering the Raptors are only 19 years old, they are still considered a young franchise, just barely reaching Canada’s legal drinking age (there’s a Jonas Valanciunas joke here somewhere, but I like the kid too much to make it). This is only the fourth time the team has had a positive SR, so the fact that this season is their highest-rated at 2.65 might not seem like that much of an accomplishment.
Even so, there’s something to be said about a team that most considered to be lottery bound turning things around and taking a shot at their own record books. Previously, the two most successful seasons in the Raps’ short history were arguably their division-winning 2006-07 season and the 2000-01 season in which they came within one Vince Carter three-pointer of the conference finals (the only time they’ve ever gotten out of the first round in their five visits to the postseason). They finished both of those aforementioned seasons with a record of 47-35. This season, they’ve already reached the 47-win mark and have two games left to top it. Considering those games are against the Bucks and Knicks, I’d bet that they pull it off.
What does that mean come playoff time? Well, our algorithms have them pegged as having a 3.8% chance of winning the championship. As for where they stack up against other Eastern Conference opponents, they have the third-highest team nERD among East teams at 59.2, trailing only Miami (67.3) and Indiana (62.1). That’s not really enough to get excited about, but that shouldn’t take away from the opportunity this team has.
They are the only team in the Eastern Conference that ranks in the top ten in both offensive and defensive efficiency (joining the Spurs, Clippers, and Thunder out West). If they can finish this season with a franchise record in wins and a shot at their deepest playoff run ever (they should be favored in the first round and who knows what will happen if they get the reeling Pacers in round two), then it would be hard to argue against this season as the best they’ve ever had.
Los Angeles Clippers (Season 44)
The Los Angeles Clippers, just like the Raptors, are currently tied for their franchise record in wins with two games remaining to break it (against Denver and Portland). Their SR of 7.34 is the best in the team’s 44-year history, which includes seasons as the Buffalo Braves and San Diego Clippers.
Interestingly enough, they’ve set their highest-rated mark in each of the last three seasons (which not-so-coincidentally coincides with Chris Paul’s arrival in 2011). They were bounced in the second round in 2012 and had an even earlier exit in 2013, when they lost in the first round to the Memphis Grizzlies. Can they build on their success this season and make more progress as far as the playoffs are concerned?
The Clippers, long considered a cursed franchise, have only reached the playoffs nine times in 43 seasons and have never seen playoff games beyond the second round. They saw their fortunes change, however, in the 2009 draft when they took Blake Griffin first overall. There have been some bumps in the road since then (Blake’s kneecap, Vinny Del Negro, etc.), but the Clips have become LA’s top team in only a few short years. Griffin has raised his game to superstar levels, CP3 has been a steady influence on instilling a winning culture, and this season the Clips have pushed all their chips into the middle by grabbing Coach Doc Rivers from Boston and bolstering their depth through trades and free agency.
The Clippers, although it’s still funny to think if you’ve been following the league the last decade or two, are now legitimate title contenders. Our numbers have them as the top offensive team in the whole association (112.0 offensive rating) and the eighth-best defensive squad (104.7 defensive rating). That combination of offensive and defensive prowess makes them good enough for first place on our NBA Team Rankings, where they hold a league-best nERD of 74.2. As far as championship odds are concerned, we have them at the second highest probability at 17.0%, trailing only the two-time champion Miami Heat (19.3%) and ahead of the perennial powerhouse San Antonio Spurs (16.5%).
Quite simply, all the pieces are there for the Clippers to make good on their highest-rated season in franchise history. They should have a legitimate shot at the Western Conference Finals, although it won’t be an easy path if they have to go through the Golden State Warriors (currently having their second-highest rated season in terms of SR) and the Oklahoma City Thunder as currently projected. Regardless, a new franchise record in wins and the deepest playoff run in their history are well within reach (even if that simply means making and having a chance at getting past the second round). If everything comes together, we’ll have no trouble justifying this as their best season ever.
Houston Rockets (Season 47)
If you can believe it, a team with 47 seasons, 28 playoff appearances, and two championships on their résumé are currently having their highest-rated season in franchise history in terms of SR (5.10) while being more or less ignored as contenders. That’s right, this year’s Houston Rockets are arguably having a better statistical season than Hakeem Olajuwon’s back-to-back championship squads of the mid-90’s and a Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady-led team that won 22 straight games in 2007-08.
How did we get here? It was only 18 months ago that the Rockets had “rebuild” written all over them, now they’re among the league’s elite. It all started with a trade for James Harden before the start of last season, it grew through the development of youngsters like Chandler Parsons, Patrick Beverley, and Terrence Jones and has blossomed through various trades and free agent signings. Some of the moves were for depth, while the most notable one was for one of the best big men in the game, Dwight Howard.
The Rockets established that they were on an upswing last season when they pushed the Thunder to six games as the eighth seed, but this year they have established that they have title aspirations. Recent injuries to Dwight and Beverley have slightly put a wrench in their momentum and Harden’s porous defense is a constant concern, but the numbers certainly suggest no one should be sleeping on them.
We’ve got them as the team with the fifth highest championship odds at 9.5%, while being the third best team in terms of nERD in the whole league with a 69.2. Unlike the Raptors and Clippers, this year’s Rockets team won’t have a shot at their franchise record in wins, which they achieved in the 1993-94 championship season with 58 (they’re currently at 53 with two games remaining), but that doesn’t mean they’re not positioned to make some noise in the playoffs.
Their 110.9 offensive rating has them at fifth in the league, while their 106.1 defensive rating has them at thirteenth. That might not be enough to put them over the top, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’ve been fantastic and underrated as contenders this season, winning almost two thirds of their games in a stellar division and conference.
In the franchise’s 47 seasons, there have only been six instances where they have gotten past the second round. If they can take care of the defensively inept Portland in the first round this year, perhaps they could prove to be too young and fast for the Spurs in round two. From there, who knows how far their remarkable numbers this season could take them.
San Antonio Spurs (Season 47)
The final and perhaps most shocking entry on this list of teams having their best season on record in terms of SR is the 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs (currently leading the league with a whopping 8.42). A team that has 42 playoff appearances in 47 seasons as a franchise and is currently on a streak of 15 straight 50-win seasons (to go with four titles over that span) is arguably having their best season ever. That’s equal parts scary and un-frickin’-believable.
The Spurs have two games remaining on the schedule against the Rockets and Lakers and have very little left to play for with homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs already locked up. We all know that Coach Gregg Popovich is very likely to sit some of his key players down the stretch, but we also know that it probably won’t matter, as they could very well win with their second string playing the majority of minutes. They accomplished as much a few times during their recent 19-game winning streak.
Winning one of those two remaining games would result in a tie for a franchise-best 63 wins (set in 2005-06), while winning out would set the new record at 64. The fact that the Spurs are doing this in a year that their big three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili are playing with a combined 42 seasons of experience is nothing short of breathtaking.
Their regular starting five of Duncan, Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, and Tiago Splitter have missed a combined 75 games this season, with their sixth man Ginobili missing 14 as well. It simply hasn’t mattered, as Pop’s system is clearly better at winning than we are at predicting when the Spurs will be too old to compete. It’s making guys like Marco Belinelli, Patty Mills, and Boris Diaw into legitimate threats and we’re all silly for counting them out every year.
We currently have the Spurs as having the third highest championship odds at 16.5%. They have the league’s second highest nERD at 71.7, the sixth best offensive rating at 110.7, and the third-best defensive rating at 102.1. Anyone who saw them simply eviscerate teams at an average of almost 17 points per game over their 19-game winning streak knows that this team is a title contender until proven otherwise. The fact that they’re having what could be having the best season in the history of their franchise at this point is amazing, but should no longer be considered a surprise. Let’s see if they can cap it all off with their fifth championship in sixteen seasons.
Bring on the playoffs already!