On NBA Undefeated Starts

What’s a good start worth in an NBA season?  It’s obviously better to win than to lose but you can’t help but wonder how real some good starts are.  We have no undefeated teams after six games but the Wizards are 5-1 and have looked pretty good.  They are not a team that projected to be particularly good.   Incidentally, past history is not that bullish on strong Washington starts.  The last two Washington teams to start 5-1 are not much to write home about. Those squads, the 1989-90 and 2005-06 teams, ended up losing their next five games.  The 1989-90 Bullets were 31-51 and missed the playoffs.  The 2005-06 Wizards were 42-40 and lost in the first round.

Obviously, a nice run to open the season is subject to the usual small sample size caveats, a fact that we learned when we recently wrote about how we saw that a decent amount of eventual titles teams lost on opening night.   That got me wondering how teams that start really hot end up.  Specifically, I wanted to see how the teams that start the season undefeated deepest into the season were by the end.  We all know that the 2015-16 Warriors famously started 24-0 and set the record for wins in a season.  But what about the more under-the-radar hot starts?  For the purposes inquiry, we went through each franchise’s best start since 1983-84 and how those teams ended up.  Here’s the data:

-1997-98 Hawks, 11-0:  Ended up 50-32, lost in first round

-2007-08 Celtics, 8-0: Ended up 66-16, won title

-1997-98 Nets, 4-0: Ended up 43-39, lost in first round

-2002-03 Nets, 4-0: Ended up 49-33, lost in Finals

-2021-22 Hornets, 3-0: Yes, the Hornets have never had a team start better than 2-0 before this year, which is nuts.

-1996-97 Bulls, 12-0: Ended up 69-13, won title

-2016-17 Cavs, 6-0:  Ended up 51-31, lost in Finals

-2002-03 Mavs, 14-0:  Ended up 60-22, lost in conference finals

-1985-86 Nuggets, 6-0: Ended up 47-35, lost in second round

-1988-89 Pistons, 8-0:  Ended up 63-19, won title

-2005-06 Pistons, 8-0: Ended up 64-18, lost in conference finals

-2015-16 Warriors, 24-0:  Ended up 739, lost in Finals

-1993-94 Rockets, 15-0:  Ended up 58-24, won title

-2013-14 Pacers, 9-0:  Ended up 56-26, lost in conference finals

-1985-86 Clippers, 6-0: Ended up 32-50, missed playoffs

-1997-98 Lakers, 11-0: Ended up 61-21, lost in conference finals

-2014-15 Grizzlies, 6-0: Ended up 55-27, lost in second round

-2011-12 Heat, 5-0: Ended up 46-20, won title

-2018-19 Bucks, 7-0: Ended up 60-22, lost in conference finals

-2001-02 Wolves, 6-0: Ended up 50-32, lost in first round

-2010-11 New Orleans Hornets, 8-0: Ended up 46-36, lost in first round

-1993-94 Knicks, 7-0: Ended up 57-25, lost in Finals

-1993-94 Sonics, 10-0: Ended up 63-19, lost in first round

-2020-21 Magic, 4-0: Ended up 21-51, missed playoffs

-2000-01 76ers, 10-0: Ended up 56-26, lost in Finals

-1984-85 Suns, 5-0:  Ended up 36-46, lost in first round

-1990-91 Blazers, 11-0: Ended up 63-19, lost in conference finals

-1995-96 Kings, 5-0: Ended up 39-43, lost in first round

2012-13 Spurs, 4-0: Ended up 58-24, lost in Finals

-2016-17 Spurs, 4-0: Ended up 61-21, lost in conference finals

-2017-18 Spurs, 4-0: Ended up 47-35, lost in first round

-2018-19 Raptors, 6-0: Ended up 58-24, won title

-1998-99 Jazz, 6-0: Ended up 37-13, lost in second round

-2017-18 Wizards, 3-0: Ended up 43-39, lost in first round

 Poring over the list, we learned a bunch of things:

-The main takeaway is that good teams tend to start well but we have at least 10 teams in the group that didn’t make it out of the first round (to be fair, that group includes the 1993-94 Sonics, who were shockingly upset). 

-There are a ton of teams that started 4-0 that ended up really bad.  Most of them didn’t make this list because the relevant franchises had better starting teams.  Still, the 2020-21 Magic are not atypical in starting well and then ending the year with a thud.

-I wanted to point out two odd teams that didn’t make the list because there were better franchise starts but are worth some note.  The 1998-99 Sonics started out 6-0 but ended up missing the playoffs, thanks to a woefully out-of-shape Vin Baker (and a few other foibles we won’t get into here).  The 1992-93 Blazers had an 8-0 start, which usually means that team will have a great year.  They finished 51-31 but were steamrolled in the first round by the Spurs.  The only team with a more disappointing finish after a hot start has to be the 1997-98 Hawks.  They were 11-0 but also lost in first round (50-32 record overall).

-Pity the 1985-86 Clippers, the only team on the list with better than 4-0 start to have missed the playoffs.

-The Wiz and the Charlotte franchise are the only franchises without a start better than 3-0.  Perhaps coincidentally, neither franchise has been very good at any point in the last 40 years.