NBA Title Teams and Opening Night

On opening night, the two presumptive favorites, Brooklyn and the Lakers, started the season with resounding thuds.  The Nets were easily handled by that Bucks, before bouncing back with a nice win in Philly.  The Lakers, on the other hand, were beaten by Golden State and then were steamrolled by Phoenix to start out 0-2. 

These results got me wondering whether winning on opening night has any relationship to winning a title.  How worrisome is a losing start to eventual teas?  Of course it seems absurd to assume any single game should matter enough to mean anything but let’s dive in and see how the eventual title team did on opening night.  We limited the inquiry to teams since the NBA expanded to eight playoff teams per conference in 1983-84.  Here are the results:

1983-84 Celtics: Lost to Detroit 121-127

1984-85 Lakers: Lost to Spurs 112-113

1985-86 Celtics: Lost to Nets 109-113

1986-87 Lakers: Lost to Rockets 102-112

1987-88 Lakers: Beat Sonics 113-109

1988-89 Pistons: Beat Bulls 107-94

1989-90 Pistons: Beat Knicks 106-103

1990-91 Bulls: Lost to Sixers 116-124

1991-92 Bulls: Beat Sixers 110-90

1992-93 Bulls: Beat Cavs 101-96

1993-94 Rockets: Beat Nets 110-88

1994-95 Rockets: Beat Nets 90-86

1995-96 Bulls: Beat Hornets 105-91

1996-97 Bulls: Beat Celtics 107-98

1997-98 Bulls: Lost to Celtics 85-92

1998-99 Spurs: Beat Kings 101-83

1999-00 Lakers: Beat Jazz 91-84

2000-01 Lakers: Beat Blazers 96-86

2001-02 Lakers:  Beat Blazers 98-87

2002-03 Spurs: Beat Lakers 87-82

2003-04 Pistons: Lost to Pacers 87-89

2004-05 Spurs: Beat Kings 101-85

2005-06 Heat: Beat Grizzlies 97-78

2006-07 Spurs: Beat Mavs 97-91

2007-08 Celtics: Beat Wizards 103-83

2008-09 Lakers: Beat Blazers 96-76

2009-10 Lakers: Beat Clippers 99-92

2010-11 Mavs: Beat Bobcats 101-86

2011-12 Heat: Beat Mavs 105-94

2012-13 Heat: Beat Celtics 120-107

2013-14 Spurs: Beat Grizzlies 101-94

2014-15 Warriors: Beat Kings 95-77

2015-16 Cavs: Lost to Bulls 95-97

2016-17 Warriors: Lost to Spurs 100-129

2017-18 Warriors: Lost to Rockets 121-122

2018-19 Raptors: Beat Cavs 116-104

2019-20 Lakers: Lost to Clippers 102-112

2020-21 Bucks: Lost to Celtics 121-122

The eventual title teams went 26-12 over this time, which projects to 56-26 over a full season.  This are really nice results in the abstract but actually below the average of 61 wins for these squads (we projected wins over an 82-game season for teams that played in the few shortened seasons).  So, generally speaking, it is fair to say that the eventual team is slightly more likely to lose on opening night than it would be on most nights.  Obviously, individual matchups can affect outcome (the 2010-11 Mavs got a terrible Bobcat team while the 2019-20 Lakers had to contend with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George).  Still, the exercise does tell us generally that you shouldn’t get too worked up about early bad results.

We will end with a few interesting individual notes:

-The great 1990-91 Bulls started out 0-3, including a home loss to a decent Philly team, followed by a loss to a bad Bullets team, and another home loss to the aging Celtics.

-The peak Larry Bird Celtics of 1985-86 lost in overtime on the New Jersey not-so-famous parquet against the Nets.  The results show you players you remember as legends did have bad days sometimes.  Mike O’Koren scored 16 points and held Larry Bird to 5-15 shooting (but he still had a triple-double) and Buck Williams ran amok (23 points and 15 boards) against Kevin McHale.  Bill Walton, in his first game as a Celtic, had and ugly seven turnovers (!) in 19 minutes. 

-On Halloween 1997, Rick Pitino’s Celtics beat up the Last Dance Bulls.  It was an odd game.  Chicago jumped out to a 32-12 lead after one quarter only to be outscored 56-26 the next two quarters.  Michael Jordan shot 7-3 from the field but still scored 30 points, thanks to 16 free throws.  It sure seemed like Pitino knew what he was doing then.

-The worst opening showing by an eventual champ belongs to the 2016-17 Warriors.  In Kevin Durant’s first game, GS lost to the Spurs by 29 in Oakland.  That Spurs team was really good but losing at home to anyone by that much is unexpected for a title team.  Kawhi dominated with 35 points and the legendary Jonathon Simmons had 20 points off the bench.  It sure seemed like a statement win by the Spurs but it ultimately didn’t matter.  Man does Kawhi as a Spur seem like 100 years ago now.

-Another seeming statement win occurred when the 1986-87 Lakers were matched up with the Twin Tower Rockets, who knocked the Los Angeles out of the 1985-86 playoffs.  The Rockets won again, even without an injured Ralph Sampson.  Rodney McCray outplayed James Worthy handily.  Again, the symbolic win didn’t carry weight in the long term, as the Lakers won the next four games against Houston.

-This isn’t really statistically significant but I did find it weird that the Rockets would play out-of-conference against New Jersey to start both the 1993-94 and 1994-95 seasons.