As Sunday’s slate of NBA games came to a close, there’s much left to be decided— seeding, home-court advantage, whether Chicago’s self-immolation will keep the franchise from the postseason for the first time since 2008 — between now and April 16.
ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh wrote in 2012 that momentum, at least what’s generated over the final 10 games of the regular season, “is mostly a load of nonsense.” He makes some strong and founded points:
- San Antonio entered the 2003-04 postseason on an 11-game winning streak and got bounced in the Western Conference semifinals.
- “The record over the first 10 games of the regular season has a higher correlation to playoff series wins than the final 10 games of the regular season,” at least that was the case prior to 2012.
- The 2009-10 Boston Celtics won the title after dropping seven of the final 10 games of the regular season.
Much of Haberstroh’s analysis was predicated on win-loss records — and while the predictive power of the final legs of the regular season can certainly fluctuate, at least recently, the final 15 games, or 18.3 percent of the regular season, have provided data worth exploring.
There’s a cliched refrain that postulates that elite teams don’t let off the gas pedal. Basketball history is littered with teams that downshifted and weren’t worse off for it. Over the past five seasons, despite ample evidence to rest starters and let up near the finish line, above-average teams have stayed the course: 62 of the 80 playoff-qualifying teams (78 percent) over the final 15 games of the regular season had winning records and 66 (83 percent) had positive net ratings. Of the 20 teams to qualify for the conference finals, 16 (80 percent) had winning records and 18 (90 percent) had positive net ratings over that same stretch. Consider the NBA finals: Eight of the 10 participants (80 percent) in the NBA Finals over the past five seasons finished the final 15 games of the regular season with winning records and nine (90 percent) had positive net ratings. Finals-qualifying teams averaged 10.1 wins, 4.9 losses and a net rating of plus-6.2, and while none went into the postseason on a 15-game winning streak, most maintained their success, many in spite of not playing their full roster.
Conversely, of the 70 teams who didn’t qualify for the postseason over the past five years, 52 (74 percent) had losing records and 55 (79 percent) had negative net ratings over the final 15 games.
Some of what unfolds over the final 15 games of the regular season isn’t all that surprising. For example, the Charlotte Hornets finished the 2011-12 season with a league- and franchise-worst 7-59 record, and went 0-15 in the final 15 games of the season, while being outscored by 20.2 points per 100 possessions. However, the final 15 games of the season have the potential for non-playoff teams to continue refining skills and create momentum heading into the subsequent season. For example, the four teams that finished the final 15 games of last season with winning records were the Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz. If the playoffs started today, each would be in the postseason.
There isn’t much parity come playoff time; the cream usually rises to the top: Only one eighth-seeded team has ever qualified for the NBA Finals, and only five teams seeded sixth or lower have qualified for the conference finals. The last team to qualify for the NBA Finals and not finish the regular season in either first or second place in the conference standings was the Dallas Mavericks in 2010-11. Dallas finished third that year, tied the Los Angeles Lakers but lost the No. 2 seed because the Lakers won the Pacific Division. In fact, among the 30 participants in the NBA Finals over the past 15 years, only seven times did a team qualify lower than first or second in the conference standings, and all but two of those teams were the third seed. The others were the fourth.
Particularly this season, there appears to be two teams — coincidentally occupying the same conference — who have not only been historically dominant, but also the only contenders for this year’s title. There may as well be the Mariana Trench separating Golden State and San Antonio from the rest of the league, the others franchises clawing to get even a glimpse of the surface. However, the final 15 games of the regular season are worth playing out and, at least recently, provide some predictive power in how the postseason unfolds.