Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Best Team? Or Best *Record*?

In the past couple of days, I've heard the phrase "best team" being bandied about, naturally in reference to this year's Cleveland Cavaliers. I however have a question, and some NBA history, to impart upon that: since when did regular season records determine who the best team of the year was? Is the team that finishes with the best record ever really the best team?

They say that those who don't know their history are doomed to repeat it. A corollary to that saying could well be: those who don't know history are doomed to be confused by current events and make bad predictions and shaky statements.

Of the past 10 teams that finished the regular season with the best overall record, precisely two of them went on to grab the NBA championship: the 2008 Celtics, and the 2003 Spurs. If recent history is much of an indicator, it should be at least another 2-5 years before we witness the perfect storm of a tremendous regular season followed by an impeccable post-season run. In the past 20 years, only nine of the best-record teams captured the NBA title -- and four of those nine were based in the windy city and captained by a certain NBA legend.

So what's with all this best-team talk? Aren't we supposed to wait until the champion is crowned before anointing one team with such a title? In fact, it quite appears that the team with the best overall record is quite a safe answer if the question is "who won't win the title this year?"

Surely, to some, this is all just statistics and nerd-speak; surely, dominating the regular season must translate into post-season success. Yet no one outside of Dallas batted an eye 2 years ago when the Mavs were bounced out in the first round by the one team who had their number. That team won all of 66 games, as compared to this year's Cavs' 67 games. Is there anyone willing to raise their hand to say the 2007 Dallas Mavericks were the best team in the league? Anyone? Anyone? No one considers the '06 Detroit Pistons the 'best' team; that's reserved for the Wade/Shaq ring-bearing squad. There is no shortage of people who will criticize the supposed mirage that was the regular-season domination of the Phoenix Suns of 4 years ago. And the list goes on and on. So why are we being subjected to this ridiculous diatribe with the Cavaliers?

Just why have the best regular-season records not translated into postseason success? It likely boils down to one phrase I used earlier: the perfect storm. So many things have to go right over the 6-month marathon for a team to keep winning so consistently: no major injuries, or minor ones for that matter, a high sustained level of consistency, a good number of weak teams, a middling division, a fair amount of luck, etc.

The good teams that deal with one or more of these and other setbacks, unfortunately, both don't get the best record, and usually gear up to have a perfect storm for the next 6-7 weeks. It's a lot easier to be good and fortunate over the span of 6 weeks than it is over the span of 8 months. The last 2 San Antonio championship teams are a testament to that. They deal with their share of injuries to Duncan, Ginobili, and others, go thru stretches of poor play, and at some point pull back on the reigns of trying to push out the best record. They refocus on getting healthy, getting rested, and gearing up to play their best ball near the end of the season.

And how about the 2009 Boston Celtics? Anybody remember them? Remember that 17-game win streak they reeled off in December? They were rolling thru the season early, and everyone thought they had a chance to break the record for regular-season wins. Then, the Lakers came to town, the losses started to pile up, and there went any thought of a record run. Aftwerwards, they righted the ship, and started powering up towards another postseason run, until -- disaster struck, in the form of a Kevin Garnett knee injury.

But what if they started the season slowly? What if KG hurts that knee before Christmas, has surgery right away, and comes back healthy -- and rested -- in mid-March? What if, from that point on, they started playing that December-quality ball? Simply put, the 2008 Celtics run went against normal NBA-season rules; it was, to an extent, to be expected that the perfect storm of health, quality play, and luck wouldn't fall into place for another 8 straight months. In fact, one could make the case that the '08 Celtics run wasn't all that perfect, considering their struggles in beating the Hawks and Cavaliers in grueling 7-game series.

So what do we make of this best-record, best-team talk? Very little. Does beating a depleted Washington squad in mid-January have any bearing on winning a title? How could it? There are some regular-season records that do matter, records aside from the overall wins tally. How you perform against +.500 teams. How you perform against the other playoff teams. And most importantly, how you perform against the other top-tier teams in the league. If you dominate the best of the best -- something the Cavaliers did not come close to doing this year -- then you are certainly in line for a championship. If you amass a reasonable .500 record against the rest of the league's best, then you've got a pretty good shot at a title, given a little luck and quality play. Remember, once the playoffs start, you've only got to win 57% of the time to win a title. That 57% translates into a 46-win season, a far cry from the 60+ win seasons that the top teams amass. However, if you are a middling sub-.500 against the best teams in the league, a distinction held by the 2009 Cavaliers, it is evidence that trouble is amiss.

Basketball, as with other sports, is a game of matchups. Beating 28 other teams repeatedly really has no bearing on how you'll perform against that 29th team. History has shown this time and time again. Just ask the 2007 Dallas Mavericks and their arch-nemisis, the Oaktown Warriors. Best team? Or best record? The facts say that we wait for the playoffs to end before crowning anyone with the former.

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