There are no fluke NBA champions. While other sports have spoiled us with surprise runs and miraculous squads like the 2007 New York Giants, 2006 St. Louis Cardinals, or 2012 LA Kings, the NBA supremacy is reserved for only the very best. Even as we strive for unpredictability and exhilaration in sports, the NBA's model of superstars, long series, and consistency doesn't allow for that many huge upsets, and instead promotes dynasties.
To wit, check out this table regarding the last 10 NBA champions. We started with 2005, as it was the year when hand-checking rules were enforced to produce the start of the offensive systems we are used to today.
|Year||Team||Seed||Winning Pct.||Score Dif.||2nd Half||Top Scorer (PPG)||Def. Rating||3-pt Pct.|
|2005||Spurs||2||0.720||7.8||0.654||Tim Duncan (20.3)||98.8 (1st)||.363 (8th)|
|2006||Heat||2||0.634||3.9||0.655||Dwayne Wade (27.2)||104.5 (9th)||.345 (19th)|
|2007||Spurs||3||0.707||8.4||0.793||Tim Duncan (20.0)||99.9 (2nd)||.381 (3rd)|
|2008||Celtics||1||0.805||10.2||0.781||Paul Pierce (19.6)||98.9 (1st)||.381 (5th)|
|2009||Lakers||1||0.793||7.6||0.766||Kobe Bryant (26.8)||104.7 (6th)||.361 (19th)|
|2010||Lakers||1||0.695||4.7||0.578||Kobe Bryant (27.0)||103.7 (4th)||.341 (23rd)|
|2011||Mavericks||3||0.695||4.2||0.654||Dirk Nowitzki (23.0)||105.0 (8th)||.365 (11th)|
|2012||Heat||2||0.697||6.0||0.594||LeBron James (27.1)||100.2 (4th)||.359 (9th)|
|2013||Heat||1||0.805||7.9||0.937||LeBron James (26.8)||103.7 (9th)||.396 (2nd)|
|2014||Spurs||1||0.756||7.8||0.846||Tony Parker (16.7)||102.4 (3rd)||.397 (1st)|
Taking into account the seven most relevant stats that usually considered to build a successful team, we can see that eventual NBA champions tend to share similar traits. The seeding pops out as the first big factor, as nobody lower than #3 has made it all the way. Home-court advantage plays a big role, and the 10 last champions averaged a .731 winning percentage (which roughly translated to a 60-win season).
Aside from that, they average a .726 wining mark after the All-Star break, and have posted a strong score differential average of +6.8. In fact, the only team that was able to win it all with a differential below 4 was the 2006 Heat. A superstar scorer is always a welcome addition, but can be replaced by a strong team effort, as the Spurs and Celtics have shown.
What seems to be a must is definitely to have a very good defense, as all 10 teams that lifted the trophy were in the league's top 10 in defensive rating, and with six of them being in the top 5. Being a strong 3-point shooting team has proven essential in the past 2 seasons, but hasn't always been a necessity. Still, the average NBA champion has shot .369 from behind the arc, a mark that would have ranked 5th in 2014-15.
So, taking these factors into account, which of the sixteen teams in the playoffs actually have a shot? With the postseason now in full force, we can try to tackle this question. To do this, we'll take the 16 teams and go at them elimination-style, and see who actually has the statistical profile to join the NBA champions select club.
To start, we can practically take out all teams that made the dance with a winning percentage below .600, which eliminates almost all Eastern participants, and the Western team that made it during the last day of the season.
So we can wave goodbye to the Nets, Celtics, Bucks, Wizards, Raptors, and Pelicans. Among them, we could consider that the Bucks are #3 in defensive rating and rank among the top 10 in three-point percentage, but they posted a .419 winning percentage in the second half, and their leading scorer was traded mid-season. Milwaukee may be on the right track, but they are no more than an uncomfortable opponent in 2015.
The Third Tier
#10 - Dallas Mavericks: when they won the title in 2011, it was considered a huge upset. However, the numbers showed that the Mavs were a statistically sound team that exploited matchups to upend the heavily-favored Heat. Now after a rough season, Dallas just doesn't have that many chances to make noise. They barely won 52% of their second-half games, only hit 35% of their 3-pointers, and are below average on defense. The Mavs could still surprise the Rockets in the first round, but don't expect much after that.
#9 – Chicago Bulls: the Bulls had another roller-coaster season that saw them see the best and worst of Paul Gasol, the slow decay of Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic's emergence, and the perennial question of Derrick Rose's health. In the end, they earned the East's 3-seed almost by default, and would need a miracle run to upset the Cavs and/or Hawks. Chicago finished 11th on defense, 10th on three-pointers, and has Gasol as its top scorer with 20 PPG. The postseason will probably work for the franchise as a testing ground for what it needs going forward.
#8 – Portland Trail Blazers: the Blazers, as they are wont to do, thrived at home to post the third-best mark on their court. However, as a whole they are no more than a quasi-contender. They went 15-14 after the All-Star break, are 10th in defensive rating, and 8th in three-point percentage. Portland's biggest strength comes from its star power, as both Damian Lillard and LaMacrus Aldridge average over 20 PPG. Still, their ceiling probably resides in the second round.
#7 – Memphis Grizzlies: Portland's first-round rival looked to be a serious contender midway through the year, but a rough finish to the regular season has tempered expectations to the point where the Grizz would need a monstrous turn-around to challenge the big boys of the West. Memphis went 16-13 in the second half, and while they have 5 regulars averaging at least 10 PPG, their leading scorer is Marc Gasol with 17.4. Memphis could always present a threat by virtue of their smothering defense (4th in the NBA), but unfortunately they are only 23rd in 3-point shooting. At least, we know that the Grizzlies will get under the skin of any potential rival, and have what it takes to present a close series against anyone.
#6 – Houston Rockets: the rockets are probably a deceptive #2 seed, as they finished there just one game ahead of two squads, and also beat a tie-breaker. In short, they could have easily been the sixth-best Western team. Houston has the tools to be considered a real contender, as they have a natural scorer in James Harden (27.4 PPG), a second star now that Dwight Howard is back, and five additional players who averaged at least 10 PPG. The problem resides in Houston's predictable system, as they rely too much on Harden and officiating, which may not be a repeatable skill in the postseason. The Rockets finished a surprising 8th in defense, but also a disappointing 16th in 3-pointers. Even as they have a lead and should be considered favorites to beat Dallas in Round 1, they would be hard-pressed to advance forward.
The Dark Horse
#5 – San Antonio Spurs: at this point, it's really hard to bet against the Spurs. On numbers alone, this team looks eerily similar to the one that won the title a year ago. They won 21 of their final 25 games, finished second in defensive rating, and fifth in 3-point percentage. Highlighting the ultimate team play of the franchise, their leading scorer was Kawhi Leonard, with a modest 16.5 PPG. The case against the Spurs is that they only won 55 games, and they are a sixth seed that won't get many home games. Of course, they are also the only team among the six money-line favorites that won a playoff series last year, with the rest of them trying to become the second team in 34 years to win the title despite not winning a series the previous season. Until they are officially dead, don't rule out Pop, Duncan, and the Spurs.
#4 – Los Angeles Clippers: in what may have been the best-rounded season in the franchise's makeover (post 2010), the Clippers enter the playoffs as a serious threat that has the bad fortune of having to face the Spurs. The team has many things working in their favor, including a .769 winning percentage in the second half, a dominant leading scorer (Blake Griffin – 21.9 PPG), and a .376 percentage of three-pointers, good for third in the league. However, the Clips also have a glaring weakness in their 105.5 defensive rating, which sits at 16th in the league. If they survive the Spurs, anything could happen with LA, but it is hard to take them seriously when elite offenses can exploit their miscues.
#3 – Atlanta Hawks: on a remarkable stretch in December and January, the Hawks looked unstoppable, winning 33 out 35 games at one point. The end of the season saw them cruise to the East's top seed, but even now they are regarded as the second-best team in the conference. Atlanta's lack of stars (they have six regulars averaging double digits, but Paul Millsap leads the team with only 16.7 PPG) looks like its biggest possible downfall, even as they have shown how they can make it work á la Spurs. The Hawks went only 17-11 in the second half, but still finished sixth in defense, and second in 3P percentage, which bodes well for their chances in an inevitable Eastern Finals clash with the Cavaliers.
#2 – Cleveland Cavaliers: as the postseason started, the Cavs were listed as the biggest sports-book favorite to win the title. That notion would have seem farfetched by the mid-point of the season, but some savvy trades and the ascent of LeBron to his peak form established Cleveland as a very serious threat. The Cavs went 20-7 in the second half, and have three legitimate superstars in LeBron, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love, who combined to average 63.4 PPG. The Cavs finished just a tick below the Spurs to be the sixth-best 3-point shooting team in the league, but are actually a below-average defensive team. The presence of LeBron by himself will keep Cleveland afloat and as the biggest favorite in the East, but their defensive status could be a problem if they do reach the Finals.
#1 – Golden State Warriors: the Dubs are trying to buck conventional wisdom and win their first title since 1975. While all the other playoff teams had at least some signs of inconsistency through the year, Golden State produced a fantastic all-around season, never losing more than two straight games, and only losing twice at home. The Warriors seem to have it all, with its two stars (Steph Curry and Klay Thompson) averaging well over 20 points, a winning percentage above 80% (and at .806 in the second half), and enter the playoffs as the top 3-point shooting team and the best defensive squad in the NBA. The full profile has the Dubs as a slam-dunk to win the title, but playing in the tough West could be the only roadblock in their way to glory.