The Unique 2015-16 Spurs

As great as the Warriors have been this season, nipping at their heels are the Spurs.  The Spurs aren’t going to catch Golden State for the best record but the Spurs have consistently been rated higher in SRS (though the Warriors are narrowing this gap and may overtake them due to the Spurs stated plan to rest the starters often, while the Warriors want to finish strong to catch the 1995-96 Bulls).  Don’t forget, however, that the Spurs are in the position to be among the top winning teams ever and not have the best record in the NBA.  This seems like a rather novel position and, to me, raises a few interesting questions that we should try to answer:

How often has the team with the best SRS not had the most wins in the NBA?

We’ll limit this inquiry to the NBA since they expanded the playoffs to 16 teams in 1983-84 (as the ability to win a title was quite different in the small format).  A review of the past 30 years shows that the Spur’s SRS situation is not that rare.  Here’s a list of seasons where the team with the most wins did not win the SRS crown:

-2012-13:  Miami 66-16, 7.03 SRS, Oklahoma City, 60-22, 9.15 SRS

-2010-11:  Chicago 62-20, 6.53, Miami 58-24, 6.76 SRS

-2009-10:  Cleveland 61-21, 6.17 SRS, Orlando 59-23, 7.12 SRS

-2006-07:  Dallas 67-15, 7.28 SRS, Phoenix 61-21 7.28 SRS, San Antonio 58-24, 8.35 SRS

-2005-06: Detroit 64-18, 6.24 SRS, San Antonio 63-19, 6.69 SRS

-2004-05: Phoenix 62-20, 7.08 SRS, San Antonio 59-23, 7.84 SRS

-2003-04: Indiana 61-21, 4.93 SRS, San Antonio 57-25, 7.51 SRS (Detroit, Minnesota, and Sacramento also had better SRS)

-1994-95:  San Antonio 62-20, 5.90 SRS, Seattle 57-25, 7.91 SRS (Orlando and Utah also had better SRS)

-1992-93:  Phoenix 62-20, 6.27 SRS, Seattle 55-27, 6.66 SRS, Cleveland 54-28, 6.30 SRS

-1990-91: Portland 63-19, 8.46 SRS, Chicago 61-21, 8.57 SRS

-1989-90: L.A. Lakers 63-19, 6.74 SRS, Phoenix 54-28, 7.09 SRS

-1988-89: Detroit 63-19, 6.24 SRS, Cleveland 57-25, 7.95 SRS (L.A. Lakers and Phoenix also had better SRS)

-1987-88: L.A. Lakers 62-20, 4.81 SRS, Boston 57-25, 6.15 SRS, Detroit 54-28, 5.46 SRS

-1984-85: Boston 63-19, 6.47 SRS, Milwaukee 59-3, 6.69 SRS, L.A. Lakers 62-20, 6.48 SRS

In essence, the SRS anomaly happens almost every other year.  Still, a situation where the best SRS team has fewer wins and is in the same conference?  This has happened in nine of the 14 instances.  Does this mean anything?  Well, when the team with the best record does not have the best SRS they won the title three times and lost it eleven times.

So, that is a good indicator for this year’s Spurs but this mechanical application of the numbers isn’t necessarily fair.  Sometimes, the difference is SRS is so narrow that it doesn’t seem statistically significant.  Indeed, does the fact that the 1984-85 Celtics had .01 lower SRS than the Lakers really prove they were destined to lose to the Lakers?

This year, the Spurs are about 0.45 SRS better than the Warriors at the moment.  So, let’s see if SRS disparity changes the analysis…Where the team with the most wins was at least 0.40 SRS worse than the best team, the team with most wins won three times and lost nine times, this is a slightly better percentage but gives some hope for the Spurs.  Of course, if the Warriors close strong during a meaningless stretch (at least from the perspective of GS and SA) to end the season, should that change the analysis?  Another monkey wrench in putting too much stock in the SRS numbers, the team with the best SRS in each of these seasons also won the title only three times.  So, there is a glimmer of hope for the Cavs, as well as the Spurs.

How often has the second best team in the NBA won 64 games or more?

Another interesting anomaly from the Spurs-Warriors race is the fact that the Spurs have a shot of winning 70 games this season and, worst case scenario are probably going to win, at least, 66 games.  That is a ton of wins for a second seed.   This has never happened in the expanded playoff era.  In fact, only three teams in NBA history have won 64 games or more and not been the highest seed:

-2008-09: Cleveland 66-16, L.A. Lakers 65-17

-1996-97: Chicago 69-13, Utah 64-18

-1995-96: Chicago 72-10, Seattle 64-18

The Michael Jordan Bulls, like this year’s Warriors, were so good that there was some room for another dominant team in the West.  The one odd Cav season is a different animal.  Cleveland ended up getting shocked by the Magic and Dwight Howard.  You will notice that none of the 64+ win teams were in the same conference as the Bulls/Cavs.  With Golden State and Spurs both out West, you can see that we are in really unique and new territory here.

So, will the Warriors beat the Spurs or what?

It’s hard to pick against a team as dominant as the Warriors.  They are going to beat 70 wins and they have the best player in the NBA at the moment.  Still, the Spurs are really good and the objective analysis gives them palpable chance at knocking them off.  Stay tuned…

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