One of the NBA’s most foundational qualities is how frequently the better team wins. While most American sports leagues—including the NBA to a lesser extent than the others—have chased parity as a way to keep fans of all teams engaged (and spending money), it isn’t all that possible to achieve in the NBA. With only five players on the court, who have to play both offense and defense, a single player can have a much greater impact on the result of the game than they can in any other team sport. Over the course of the 100 possessions an average game has, the team with the better players usually wins.
We see this in the playoffs, where the 1994-95 Houston Rockets are the lowest seeded team (6th) to ever win the NBA Finals. No other team seeded lower than 3rd has done it. Meanwhile, for example, in baseball, the latest World Series was contested between the two winners of the Wild Card play-in game. This relative scarcity of upsets means that when they do happen—think Nuggets over Sonics in 1994 or Warriors over Mavericks in 2007—they’re all the more exciting.
This is true during the regular season as well. Relatively early on, we know how the regular season will end. It is part of the reason I think the NBA should adopt a shorter schedule: way too many games are rendered meaningless because playoff positioning is already settled. As the graph below demonstrates, on this date last season, the good teams were already good and the bad teams were already bad. That R2 number on the chart means that (this is a bit simplified) 63% of a team’s final regular season record is determined by its record on December 18th. Good teams are good early, bad teams are bad early, and there just aren’t too many surprises in the NBA.
But don’t tell that to the people that run its crappiest franchises.
Ramona Shelburne had a great interview with Jim and Jeanie Buss, who run the Lakers, which included this head-scratching exchange with Jeanie:
What kind of hit do you take if you miss the playoffs again this year?
Jeanie: That’s not how we anticipate this season to go. We’ve never, in over 30 years of ownership, missed making the playoffs two consecutive years, so I can’t really tell you what the hit will be. Our fans understand that it’s a process. We renewed over 90 percent on season tickets. Our ratings went down last year when Kobe went out. Clearly. When he came back for those six games, they went right back up.
If Jeanie doesn’t anticipate the Lakers missing the playoffs, then she is sure going to be surprised come April. While not quite as bad as they started the season, the Lakers are still really bad! They are four-and-a-half games out of the final playoff spot, and they’d have to pass Denver, Sacramento, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, and New Orleans to make it. According to Basketball-Reference’s formula, they’re the sixth-worst team in the NBA. I feel comfortable unequivocally stating that the Lakers have no chance at making the playoffs.
And neither do the Knicks. While the East is a charitable conference to be in for bad teams, it’s not THAT charitable. The Knicks have the second-worst record in basketball, which might as well be the worst because the abominable 76ers aren’t even trying. I mean, the Knicks have a .185 winning percentage. They aren’t making the playoffs.
This offseason Phil Jackson, the president of the Knicks, said they’d make the playoffs. Carmelo Anthony—who was an unrestricted free agent this offseason and could have signed with any team in the NBA, but chose to stay with the Knicks—is reportedly so unhappy with the losing that he is willing to be traded away from the team he just signed a five-year deal to play for. Derek Fisher pulled all of his starters in the first quarter a few nights back because they weren’t playing “hard enough” against the Mavericks, when maybe the Mavericks are just waaaaay better than the Knicks.
This isn’t just hindsight cherry picking. In the offseason ESPN polled their 200 basketball writers about each team’s record, offering a good representation of the consensus opinion of a team prior to the season. The Lakers were expected to finish 30-52 while the Knicks were expected to finish 37-45, and neither were expected to make the playoffs.
#Kings Ranadive Says he expects Kings to reach playoffs with more wins under Corbin then they would have had under Malone.
— stevelarge_cbs13 (@largesteven) December 17, 2014
To a lesser extent, this played a part in Mike Malone’s firing earlier this week. He was 9-6 with DeMarcus Cousins this season and 11-13 overall. They were expected to finish 29-53. Yet that wasn’t good enough for owner Vivek Ranadivé, who thinks Tyrone Corbin(!) is the solution (to a non-existent problem). Malone’s relationship with the front office and other factors played a role in his firing as well, but basing an argument for his firing on how he didn’t lift the Kings to proper playoff positioning is holding him to an absurdly unfair expectation.
It isn’t that people should abandon all hope, just that hope in basketball is constrained by the structure of the sport. On a scale that ranges from chess (winner determined almost entirely by skill) to Candyland (winner determined entirely by luck), basketball is closer to the chess end of the spectrum. That’s not a good thing or a bad thing, just a descriptive thing.
Ranadivé, Carmelo, and Buss don’t seem to understand this, or more likely, wish they didn’t understand this. Unfortunately for them, this attitude leads to poor decisions. It leads to firing your coach because he didn’t meet expectations that nobody could meet. It leads to panicked trading of the future for the present. Fans can dream of a worst-to-first turnaround, of all the analysts being wrong, but for an executive to indulge is dangerous.