Top Heavy NBA

Most believe that NBA title contention is likely limited to Boston, Cleveland, and the Los Angeles Lakers.  I was just checking out Basketball-Reference’s cool playoff probability reports, which essentially confirm all of our hunches on this point.  As of right now, each team of these teams has about the same chance of winning the title (with Cleveland a little bit higher on the totem pole).  Moreover, each team is projected to win at least 63 games.  Assuming everyone stays healthy, all three teams should be playing well until the end of the season if only because home court will definitely be on the line all season long. 

We’ve debated the merits of these three best teams ad infinitum but my question for now is how often the NBA has had so many dominant teams at one time.  Granted, dominance can be a function of context.  Perhaps the Cavs, Celts, and Lakers win a ton because the rest of the NBA is weaker than its been in other seasons.  Naturally, we expect the distribution of quality of teams per year to be in the shape of a bell curve, with the teams tending towards the middle but my sense is that three 63-win teams is a rarity.  Let’s check it out by looking at the NBA season-by-season look since we went to eight playoff teams per conference (1983-84) and see how many 60-win teams each season has produced: 

-1983-84: 1 (Boston 62-20)

-1984-85: 2 (Boston 63-19, L.A. Lakers 62-20)

-1985-86: 2 (Boston 67-15, L.A. Lakers 62-20)

-1986-87: 1 (L.A. Lakers 65-17)

-1987-88: 1 (L.A. Lakers 62-20)

-1988-89: 1 (Detroit 63-19)

-1989-90: 1 (L.A. Lakers 63-19)

-1990-91: 2 (Chicago 61-21, Portland 63-19)

-1991-92: 1 (Chicago 67-15)

-1992-93: 2 (New York 60-22, Phoenix 62-20)

-1993-94: 1 (Seattle 63-19)

-1994-95: 2 (San Antonio 62-20, Utah 60-22)

-1995-96: 3 (Chicago 72-10, Orlando 60-22, Seattle 64-18)

-1996-97: 3 (Chicago 69-13, Miami 61-21, Utah 64-18)

-1997-98: 4 (Chicago 62-20, Utah 62-20, Seattle 61-21, L.A. Lakers 61-21)

-1998-99: 2 (San Antonio 61-21, Utah 61-21)(projected 82-game record from 50-game season)

-1999-00: 1 (L.A. Lakers 67-15)

-2000-01: 0

-2001-02: 1 (Sacramento 61-21)

-2002-03: 2 (Dallas 60-22, San Antonio 60-22)

-2003-04: 1 (Indiana 61-21)

-2004-05: 1 (Phoenix 62-20)

-2005-06: 3 (Detroit 64-18, San Antonio 63-19, Dallas 60-22)

-2006-07: 2 (Dallas 67-15, Phoenix 61-21)

-2007-08: 1 (Boston 66-16) 

Generally, the NBA expects one or two 60-win teams a year and breaking 62 wins is a seriously rare accomplishment.  Three 63-win teams in a year has never been accomplished.  There were a couple of close calls (1995-96, 1996-97, and in 2005-06) thanks to the dominant Bulls and the Mavs/Suns of recent vintage.  What separates this season, however, is not just the win pace but also the dominance in point differential.  Basketball-Reference uses a formula called Simple Rating System (“SRS”) that takes into account the quality of team based upon point differential, strength of schedule, and quality of wins (an explanation of SRS can be found here).  There are other variations on this system (John Hollinger has a system that isn’t identical but seems to use some of the same concepts and gets similar results).  The upshot is that SRS currently has the ratings of the top three as follows: 

-Cleveland, 9.63

-Boston, 9.08

-L.A. Lakers, 8.02 

While SRS is certainly not a be all/end all determinative factor in ranking teams, particularly over different years, it’s something to watch.  Since it has a point differential component, it helps reflect dominance intra-season.  SRS tells a story of a particularly dominant big three this year.  In only two seasons of recent memory, 1990-91 (Portland 8.47, Chicago 8.57) and 1985-86 (Boston 9.06, Milwaukee 8.67), have more than even one team broke 8.0 SRS in a season.  You have to go all the way back to 1971-72 to find a season where two teams were more dominant (Milwaukee 10.70, L.A. Lakers 11.65). 

So, we can conclude that we are seeing, so far, the three most dominant NBA teams playing in any one season.  Can we discount this performance on some level?  Both Boston and Cleveland have had a pretty easy road.  There is only one other team in the East that is more than a few games over .500.  If Cleveland and Boston were playing uut West, where there are several good teams to play on a regular basis, things might be different.  Boston is 30-4 in against the East and only 14-8 against the West.  Cleveland is actually 17-3 against the West (but has surprisingly gone only 25-8 in conference).  Conversely, the Lakers have dominated the tougher conference (27-4) and are 17-6 against the East (but are 4-0 against Boston and Cleveland).  

What does this all mean?  I think the Boston, Cleveland, and the Lakers could hang with any of the great teams of the last 25 years but the mediocrity of the East has painted the tape a bit, particularly once the Pistons punted on the season.  Objectively, the Celts and Cavs look better against the 2008-09 NBA than they might have playing in the 1990s East for example.  The Cavs are still the best team in the NBA right now and they would be a title contender any year but the unprecedented dominance of the top teams seems like an anomaly.

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