STATS: More Than Half of NBA Teams Make the Playoffs (Your Move, Wizards)
Will the Washington Wizards make the playoffs? That’s the big question in D.C. (for the moment, let’s forget all about the grand ol’ government shutdown). Not making the postseason, according to John Wall, would be “the biggest disappointment.”
When asked how he’d feel if the ‘Zards were “relatively” healthy but missed the playoffs in 2013-14, Wall said: “I think it would be a waste of a season, to be honest.”
“I really want to see how the city is going to react and just see everybody with a smile on our face, just to get this city back to the promised land. I think the fans understand what our team is capable of now. I feel like guys that’s been on the fence should be on the bandwagon now.”
Hold up. While I love Wall’s enthusiasm, and confidence, it’s also off-putting. The first round of the playoffs isn’t “the promised land.” The NBA Finals? Sure. The Conference Finals? Fine. But the first round…? Are the Wizards that aspirationally challenged?
I’m not just arguing semantics. The Wizards aren’t North Carolina A&T or Southern U., small-time college programs that, even in their “wildest dreams,” could only imagine having a shot to make it to the NCAA tournament. The Wizards are an NBA franchise with Hall of Famers and a championship in their history, but they’re not acting like it by making mere postseason qualification the finish line (achievable with a sub-.500 record in the Eastern Conference!).
“Green 18! ... Green 18 hut!”
<the sound of grunting and the pop of football pads, followed by a coach’s whistle/>
Before the start of the 2010-11 NFL season, in the team meeting room, Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy hung an empty picture frame alongside team photos of the 12 previous championship squads in franchise history.
“Mike put a blank picture up there—there’s no faces, there’s nothing on it—and said this is where our picture will be,” recalled Charles Woodson, then the team’s star cornerback.
In Green Bay, it’s always about championships. Aaron Rodgers, in his third season starting in place of Hall of Fame gunslinger Brett Favre, got the message. “We can have our picture up on this board immortalized for every team to ever follow after you that lives on,” he said. “That’s what we’re playing for, that’s our ultimate goal. Stay focused.”
The Packers achieved their goal that season, and afterward had their ugly, championship-winning mugs forever framed on the wall.
Now, the National Football League prides itself on parity. Any given Sunday.
In the NFL, since 1990, 25 percent of the teams that finish 6-10 or worse in one season make the postseason the following year. Going back even further, since 1978, there have been 72 teams that have jumped into the playoffs after a 6-10 or worse record in the previous season. On average, according to Bill Barnwell, these team won 4.9 games during their down year, but improved by 5.4 wins in their playoff push.
And every year, the NFL welcomes 5.2 teams to the playoffs that weren’t there the year before. In other words, nearly half (43.3%) of the NFL’s 12 playoff teams will be replaced by losing squads from the year before.
Parity doesn’t concern the NBA as much—the new CBA is trying to change that—but some experts, including Mark Deeks of the New York Times, would tell you that the NBA already has it.
The best five teams in the Eastern Conference in 2009-10 were Orlando, Cleveland, Atlanta, Boston and Miami. All of those teams have won fewer than 25 games at some point in this decade—Atlanta won as few as 13. In contrast, at the bottom end were teams like New Jersey, Detroit, Indiana and Philadelphia, all of whom were title contenders in recent years. All were N.B.A. finalists in this decade. One of them won the title.
The Western Conference has had less parity in the last decade, due in no small part to the Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant eras. Whereas we saw eight different Eastern Conference champions from 2000 to 2009, we saw three Western Conference champions, with only the 2005-6 Dallas Mavericks breaking through the Lakers-Spurs stranglehold. But in the decade prior to that, it was the other way around, with Michael Jordan’s Bulls dominating and beating out a variety of Western contenders.
If only a few teams had a chance, we wouldn’t be seeing so many different N.B.A. finalists.
Joe Flood, special to Sports Illustrated, would agree with this hypothesis, writing in 2011 that “there’s no indication that the league is getting more polarized.” Measuring the standard deviation of wins among the NBA’s 30 teams over the past 30 seasons, Flood found that “2001-07 was the most parity-filled period in modern NBA history” and that “the current gap between good and bad teams may feel extreme, but only in the way that an 80-degree day feels like a scorcher if you just stepped off a plane from Alaska.”
How competitive are NBA lottery teams?
Since Michael Jordan’s sixth and final championship in 1998 there have been, on average, 3.7 new playoff teams each season compared to the previous one—Ben Golliver of SI.com calls these teams “leapers.” That’s a year-to-year turnover rate of 23.1 percent. In the East, there’s an average of two new playoff teams every season; 1.7 in the West. There have never been fewer than two leapers since ’98 and never more than five.
Sixteen teams qualify for the NBA postseason, which means that you can project three-quarters of the league’s playoff teams to be there the following season, and about 10 of the 14 lottery teams to stay in the lottery.
It’s worth noting that although the year-to-year turnover rate for playoff teams is higher in the NFL, NBA playoff spots are there for the taking. It may even be easier for prepared NBA teams to make the jump after, say, having made a few “successful” trips to the lottery, or a splash in free agency.
The average NBA leaper, regardless of conference, improved by almost 13 wins from its non-playoff season to its playoff season. In the East, the average leaper improved to 44.5 wins from 32 wins. In the West, the average leaper improved to 48.7 wins from 36 wins. While leapers in the NFL, on average, improved upon their losing records by 33.75 percent to make the postseason, similar NBA teams only had to improve their records by 14.6 percent.
Not one, not two, not three….
In the first year After Jordan, the 1998-99 lockout-shortened season, the New York Knicks became the first 8th seed to make it all the way to the NBA Finals. (Ernie Grunfeld was the Knicks GM to start that season, but in April, with eight games left and a 21-21 record, he was demoted to “special consultant” by Madison Square Garden President Dave Checketts.) A wild playoff run got the Knicks all the way to the Finals where they lost to the Spurs in five games. But only four other 8th seeds in history have gotten out of the first round, and no lower-seeded team since those 1998-99 Knicks has made it past the Conference Semifinals.
The Wizards will be competing against the rest of the East to punch one of two (or more) new playoff tickets. They have the quality to do it with essentially three max contracts on their books (Wall, Nene, Okafor) and a future star (Beal). The Wizards finished 29-53 last year, losing 23 games by six points or less. Another dozen wins would have locked them into the playoffs with a .500 record, three games ahead of last year’s 8th seed, the Milwaukee Bucks (swept in the first round by Miami).
Still, as long as getting into the playoffs is the team’s primary objective, as long as an 8th seed in the East is seen as “the promised land,” the Wizards will be selling themselves short. It’s an OK goal, but not quite ambitious enough. The Wizards shouldn’t just want to get to the playoffs, they should want to live there.
But hey, I guess it’s a step up from last year’s chase for ninth place.