FanPost

Comparing the Blazers to teams with 15-3 records since 1979. UPDATED WITH 16-3 ANALYSIS

Mike Ehrmann

Today we're promoting a Fanpost from Erastus25, who researched the eventual fate of every other NBA team that opened the season as hot as the 2013-14 Portland Trail Blazers. Hey, did anyone else know the Blazers are 15-3? Nice. -- Tim

Like everyone else on BlazersEdge, the Blazers’ hot start has gotten me really excited. However, after years of heartache caused by injuries, bad luck, poor clutch performance, questionable officiating, etc. I have become very cautious – possibly to a fault. So far, I have been very hesitant to raise my expectations much beyond going from "Blazer have a 50/50 shot at the playoffs" to "Blazers will probably make the playoffs…hopefully."

After reading all the praise being heaped on our team by the media and opposition after the Indiana game, I began to wonder, "Am I being TOO cautious in my projections?" To help answer this question, I decided to look at every team that has started a season 15-3 since 1979-80 (see note 1) in order to determine the historic floor for this year’s Blazers. Specifically, I charted every team’s 18 game W/L record, final W/L record (82 game projections via winning percentage used for shortened season), and playoff result. To mine for further historic similarities to this year’s Blazers, I also included offensive rating rank and defensive rating rank. Rank was used instead of actual defensive rating in order to get a more reliable rating of where teams finished relative to their competition; defensive/offensive ratings have changed significantly since 1980 so comparing actual numbers would not be informative (e.g. A defensive rating of 99 in 1980 was great…it’s terrible now). Here are the results (all data from basketball-reference.com):

Year

Team

Start

Wins

Losses

Final Result

ORTG Rank

DRTG Rank

1981

PHI

15-3

62

20

CF

8

2

1981

PHO

15-3

57

25

SF

15

1

1982

PHI

15-3

58

24

Finals

5

7

1982

BOS

15-3

63

19

SF

4

6

1983

PHI

15-3

65

17

Champ

5

5

1983

SEA

15-3

48

34

R1

9

8

1985

BOS

16-2

57

25

Finals

2

5

1986

LAL

16-2

62

20

CF

1

7

1986

BOS

16-2

67

15

Champ

3

1

1987

LAL

15-3

65

17

Champs

1

7

1989

LAL

15-3

57

25

Finals

1

7

1991

POR

17-1

63

19

CF

2

3

1991

BOS

15-3

56

26

SF

4

10

1992

CHI

15-3

67

15

Champs

1

4

1994

HOU

17-1

58

24

Champs

15

2

1994

SEA

16-2

63

19

R1

2

3

1994

PHO

15-3

56

26

SF

1

16

1995

ORL

15-3

57

25

Finals

1

13

1996

CHI

16-2

72

10

Champs

1

1

1997

CHI

17-1

69

13

Champs

1

4

1997

HOU

16-2

57

25

CF

7

10

1997

UTA

16-2

64

18

Finals

2

9

1997

DET

15-3

54

28

R1

5

11

1998

LAL

15-3

61

21

CF

2

11

1998

ATL

15-3

50

32

R1

6

13

1999

POR

15-3

57

25

CF

8

6

2002

LAL

16-2

58

24

Champs

2

7

2003

DAL

17-1

60

22

CF

1

9

2003

IND

15-3

48

34

R1

13

5

2004

IND

15-3

61

21

CF

9

3

2004

LAL

15-3

56

26

Finals

6

8

2005

PHO

15-3

62

20

CF

1

17

2005

SAS

15-3

59

23

Champs

8

1

2005

SEA

15-3

52

30

SF

2

27

2006

DET

15-3

64

18

CF

4

5

2006

SAS

15-3

63

19

SF

10

1

2008

BOS

16-2

66

16

Champs

10

1

2008

SAS

15-3

56

26

CF

15

3

2009

LAL

16-2

65

17

Champs

3

6

2009

BOS

16-2

62

20

SF

6

2

2009

CLE

15-3

66

16

CF

4

3

2010

LAL

15-3

57

25

Champs

11

4

2011

SAS

15-3

61

21

R1

2

11

2012

OKC

15-3

58

24

Finals

2

11

2014

IND

16-2

???

???

14

1

2014

POR

15-3

???

???

3

22

2014

SAS

15-3

???

???

10

2

R1 = Lost in the first round of the playoffs, SF = Lost in conference semi-finals, CF = lost in conference finals, Finals = lost in finals.

Including this year, 47 teams have started a season at 15-3 or better, since 1980. That’s 1.34 teams per year, so it’s safe to say the Blazers are in some fairly elite company. Of those teams, only 16 have started at 16-2 or 17-1, or about one every other season. Every single one of those teams won 57 or more games (average: 63, SD: 4.5), and all but two of them made at least the conference finals. The 2009 Celtics, who suffered some injuries and lost to the eventual finalist Orlando Magic, and the 1994 Sonics, of "Mutombo embraces the ball in the unlikely upset!" infamy, are the two exceptions. The 1996 Chicago Bulls are the leaders of the pack, starting with a 41-3 record(!!!) and finishing with 72 wins, a championship, and the top ranked offense and defense.

Given the weakness of the eastern conference, it would seem that, based on historic data, Indiana fans can reasonably expect a very high win total, probably at least 59, and a return trip to the ECF. Interestingly, their offensive rank and defensive rank of 14 and 1, respectively, are very close to the 1994 NBA Champion Houston Rockets final rankings of 15 and 2.

The 15-3 teams averaged 59 wins with a standard deviation of 5.1 The lowest win totals were 48 by both the 2003 Pacers and 1983 Sonics (note 2). Every single team made the playoffs. Thus, from a historical perspective, it is very likely that the Blazers will win at least 50 games, and anything less than 48 could be considered a remarkable underachievement.

Under normal circumstances, a low end win total of 48 or 50 would guarantee a decent playoff seed, but the ultra-competitive west may require a few extra wins this year. Looking back to the similarly competitive 2008 and 2009 seasons we see a very high cutoff to make the playoffs (50 and 48 games). In both cases, the east was disproportionately weak, relative to the west, and that seems to have inflated the win totals for middle of the run western conference teams. This season could follow that same trend, unfortunately. While we can safely assume the Blazers will finish the season with 48/50+ wins, it’s too early to argue that a low end outcome will necessarily net a decent playoff seed. Of course, if they hit the average (59), or even one SD from the average, they’ll likely have home court, or at least a top 5 seed.

As for the playoffs, teams with 15-3 record do not seem to be guaranteed success. 18 teams did make it to at least the conference finals, but 11 lost in the first or second round. On the positive side, though, the vast majority of teams did make it out of the first round, which the Blazers could consider a massive success given pre-season expectations. As expected, playoff success will likely come down to what team our squad draws in the first round (e.g. Spurs = good, Rockets = bad).

The offensive and defensive rankings were not particularly informative. I ran a bunch of correlation analyses but didn’t get any strong enough hits to really bother reporting. Perhaps surprisingly, a stellar defense did not guarantee success any more than a stellar offense. A better cumulative defense + offense did seem to correlate slightly with more regular season wins, which is expected, but that correlation was not nearly as strong in the playoffs (e.g. 2010 Lakers, 2012 Thunder, 2008 Celtics all make finals with a offense or defense in the middle third. Houston WINS finals with an ORating of 15). That being said, no team made this list with both defense and offense outside of the top 10, and in all cases where one component was below 10, the other was in the top 5.

Unfortunately, the Blazers defense does stand out as very low, second only to the 52 win 2005 Sonics who had a 27th ranked defense (no team had an offense rating below 15).That stat would suggest the Blazers will be on the lower end of expected wins, but the Sonics also won a playoff series so it’s not a death sentence. The rankings of other teams are also for the complete season, so the Blazers have time to raise this number. If the offense stays in the top 5 and the defense can get above 15 then a prediction of playoff success would be reasonable.

In summary, based on previous results, a reasonable low end win prediction for the Blazers is likely in the 48-50 game range. Given the team’s low defensive rating, a slightly below average (59 wins) estimate is probably a good mid-high projection. The majority of teams with records similar to the Blazers also win at least one playoff series. Due to the competitive nature of the west this year, the Blazers playoff fate will probably be mostly decided by matchups.

Notes: 1994 saw three teams in the same conference start at 15-3 or better. The Suns and Rockets met in the WCSF that year – the only case of teams starting 15-3 or better facing off before the conference finals… In 1997 four teams started at 15-3 or better. Houston beat Utah in the WCF, before bowing out to Chicago, while Detroit failed to advance past the first round… If OKC wins its next two games, four teams will have started the current season at 15-3 or better, tying for the most with 1997. Jinx worked!

1.1980 was chosen as a cut-off because it is the year Bird/Magic joined the league and the three point line was added making that season, arguably, the beginning of the modern NBA era. Because of rapid expansion, rampant drug use, and dilution of talent to the ABA, results prior to that would likely be completely unreliable.

2. I can’t find a good explanation for why these teams flamed out so badly. They didn’t seem to have bad injury luck, or particularly easy schedules to start the season – I guess sometimes a hot start is truly a fluke.

Quick update after the win vs. OKC:

Adding the Blazers' win over OKC and setting an inclusion criteria of 16-3 eliminates 11 of the original 44 teams from the group. I compared the two groups to see if there were any significant differences between them as far as the reported statistics go. Before the comparison I eliminated the teams that were 17-2 or better as that group includes a lot of the most winningest teams of all time (e.g. ‘86 Celts, ’96 and ’97 Bulls, ’08 Celts, etc.) so it’s safe to assume that those teams are a cut above even the 16-3 hot starters. I also threw out the ‘03 Sonics because they’re 27 rank on D is just all kinds of outlier.

For stats/science/math nerds – I compared wins, ORTG rank, DRTG rank, and combined ORTG and DRTG rank (a sum of the two ranks) using a t-test with a 95% CI. P-values were not even close to significant for any of the comparisons. I compared combined ORTG and DRTG rank because the initial analysis indicated that teams could be good at O OR D, while average at the other, to make it onto the list.

Non-stats nerds – There is no detectable statistical difference between these two groups on any of the categories listed.

Now that the numerical analysis is out of the way, I’ll add that when I eyeball the two groups nothing really jumps out at me, either. It’s kind of quirky that no team starting 15-3 since the ‘04 Pacers has lost their 19th game, but I’m not sure it means anything either. The ratios for R1:SF:CF:Fi:Ch are 3:3:5:3:4 for the 16-3 group and 2:3:3:2:1 for the 15-4 group. Those seem pretty comparable, for the most part. The 16-3 group did win 4 of 5 titles between the two, so I guess you could say we can be more optimistic about a title now? But given the diminishing sample size, and the fact that even in that group the majority of teams didn’t even make the finals, you’re really grasping at straws at that point.

tl;dr: While the OKC win was clearly AWESOME in reality, there’s no historical precedent to change any conclusions or projections about this year’s Blazers based on that win alone.

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