In every team sport where points (or goals) are counted to determine a winner, there is a strong correlation between point differential and won-lost record. Indeed, two major sports—baseball and basketball—have developed mathematical formulas to predict with startling accuracy the overall record of a team in any given year.
And indeed, when that ledger gets too far out of balance, it is often a sign that a team is about to sharply regress toward its expected record, all other things being equal (that is, they didn’t punt on the season at the trade deadline after a below-expectation start, for example.) Just ask fans of baseball’s Seattle Mariners, who lost 11 out of 15 in 2017 to end the season, or that same franchise losing nine of their last 11 games in 2015, in each case regressing violently to the mean in September.
Or, in the same vein, the 2016 Memphis Grizzlies, whose point differential told people that they weren’t as good as their 41-30 record on March 21; sure enough, they lost 10 of their last 11 in the regular season and got swept in the first round of the playoffs by the San Antonio Spurs, costing coach Dave Joerger his job. Or, again, that same cursed franchise, 40-30 on March 18 the following year, finishing 3-9 before falling in six games to, once again, the Spurs in the playoffs.
When the basketball gods decide your time is up and it’s time to pay the piper for a hot start, you will crash and burn. The same is true in baseball. The same is true if you are the New England Patriots in the NFL, smited by the football gods against the helmet of David Tyree rather than allowed the near-mathematical impossibility of a perfect 19-0 season. Even the Miami Dolphins only had to win 17 games in 1972, and even they had to fight for all three playoff wins, winning by just one score in each.
But sometimes an NBA team can, over 82 games (or less, in COVID or lockout or pre-1968 seasons), massively exceed expectations. Before they got the unholy smackdown at the hands of the Clippers and Jazz earlier this week, the Portland Trail Blazers were on a prorated 82-game pace that was eight games above their expectation. That would’ve put them among the most overachieving regular-season teams in NBA history.
But it wouldn’t have broken the all-time record. And that’s what we’re going to look at today. Take a look back in NBA history to the teams that defied the will of the gods and managed to put together regular seasons far better than their point differential says they should have been able to. And just for fun, let’s look at those teams in the playoffs and see if any of that regular-season luck held through the postseason.
1962 Los Angeles Lakers
Actual W-L: 54-26
Expected W-L: 45-35
The record for most wins above expectation in NBA history belongs to a Lakers team led by Elgin Baylor (who scored 38.3 points and grabbed 18.6 rebounds per game in 1961-62), Jerry West (30.8 ppg), and Rudy LaRusso (17.2 points on a team-best 46.6 percent shooting.)
They are the only team in the history of the league to hit the nine-win mark over expectations.
Thing was, 45-35 still would’ve been good for first place in the Western Division of a league that only had nine teams at the time.
But it gave them an insurance policy of sorts, letting them avoid having to play a semifinal series (the Detroit Pistons, 37-45 that year, beat Oscar Robertson‘s Cincinnati Royals 3-1 in a best-of-five.)
Besides, Baylor only played in 48 regular-season games. When they had him healthy for the playoffs, they were a legitimate powerhouse, falling only because Bill Russell and the era-defining juggernaut that was the Boston Celtics beat them in seven games in the ’62 Finals.
Let’s now look, in chronological order, at the teams that managed to go 8 games above expectation in their historically lucky seasons:
1949 St. Louis Bombers
Actual W-L: 29-31
Expected W-L: 21-39
The Bombers earn special mention because the BAA, in its final season before a merger with the NBL created the NBA we all know and love today, only played 60 games, yet St. Louis managed to exceed their win expectation by eight. Prorated to 82 games, this means they would’ve been on pace to go 40-42 while being expected to go 29-53, fully 11 games over expectation.
Unlike the Lakers 13 years later, however, this just meant that the overrated Bombers got the 4 seed in a six-team Western Division that would’ve gone to the 22-38 Fort Wayne Pistons. For their historically unparalleled run of good luck during the regular season, the Rochester Royals clobbered them 93-64 in Game 1 of their best-of-three playoff series before winning Game 2 66-64 in St. Louis for the right to lose to George Mikan and the eventual champion Minneapolis Lakers in the Western Division Finals that year. Womp womp. At least they made history somehow.
1954 New York Knicks
Actual W-L: 44-28
Expected W-L: 36-36
1954 was a bit of a strange year for the NBA. For the first and so far the only time in the history of the league, they tried a round-robin tournament for the first round of the playoffs. The league had nine teams, five in the Eastern Division and four in the West, and the top three teams at season’s end played each other in a home-and-home, with the worst team eliminated and the two survivors drawn into a best-of-three division final before the usual best-of-seven NBA Finals that hasn’t changed since the league’s inception.
The point of all this is that 1954 was a strange year. The Knicks outperformed their differential by eight games, going 44-28 when they should’ve gone 36-36.
Meanwhile, the Syracuse Nationals played eight games below expectation, going 42-30 when their scoring says they should’ve gone 50-22 in that 72-game season.
The upshot of this is that the teams regressed to the mean when it counted. The Nationals went 4-0, beating the Knicks twice and the Boston Celtics (whose own 42-30 record was just one game below their expected 43-29) twice.
Meanwhile, the Celtics, on paper a better team than the Knicks, beat them twice.
Syracuse then beat Boston in two more games before falling to that legendary old-school Lakers team in seven in the Finals.
Don’t cry for Syracuse, though; they won the title the next year. Meanwhile, the Knicks, who had come up short in the NBA Finals for three straight years between 1951 and ’53, would drop into relative obscurity until Red Holzman showed up in 1968 and eventually coached them to two titles in the early 1970s.
1968 St. Louis Hawks
Actual W-L: 56-26
Expected W-L: 48-34
In the NBA’s first-ever 82-game season, the Hawks came out and established the new standard for overachievement. In what would be their last year in St. Louis, the proud franchise that had battled the Boston Celtics in four out of five Finals between 1957 and 1961 and gotten the better of Russell and company in 1958 for what to this day is the franchise’s only ring, the team roared to a 56-26 record and the top seed in the Western Division.
Unfortunately, the league used a weird seeding model for its playoffs. Instead of having the 1 seed play the 4 and the 2 seed play the 3, as would be the case today in a four-team playoff format, the 1 played the 3 and the 2 played the 4.
This means the Lakers got the honor of playing the 29-53 Chicago Bulls, beating them 4-1, with the plucky Bulls winning Game 3 at home.
Meanwhile, the Hawks had to play the 43-39 San Francisco Warriors, who beat them in Game 1 on the Hawks’ home floor and ultimately won the series in six after they’d stolen home-court advantage, best-of-seven series working the same way in 1968 as they do now.
Had the Hawks not massively overachieved in the regular season, they might’ve had an easier path to the Finals and gotten one last hurrah against the Celtics before decamping to Atlanta. Instead, the Hawks’ St. Louis tenure ended not with a bang but with a whimper, losing their last playoff series on the road, never to return to the home they’d known since the franchise’s beginning.
1977 Boston Celtics
Actual W-L: 44-38
Expected W-L: 36-46
The 1976 champs shouldn’t have been good in ’77. They were outscored by their opponents, and when John Havlicek retired after Boston’s loss in seven games to Julius Erving and the 76ers in the East semis, the Celtics wandered in the wilderness for two lost seasons before Larry Bird showed up and saved the day in 1979.
Oddly enough, the Celtics’ Finals opponent in 1976, the Phoenix Suns, suffered the opposite problem; they went 34-48 when their differential says they should’ve gone 43-39. Phoenix would be back in the playoffs the following year, and in 1979 they lost the Western Conference Finals to the eventual champion Seattle SuperSonics. Retaining coach John MacLeod proved wise, as they also made the West finals in 1984, losing to Magic Johnson and the Lakers and being denied a rematch of the ’76 championship round.
As for Boston in their overachieving season, they had a simply absurd number of close wins, going an absurd 8-3 in games decided by two points or less—since the 3-pointer hadn’t been invented yet, that was the standard for a “one-possession game” back then. Most of Boston’s wins were by single-digit margins; a big chunk of their losses were blowouts.
They beat the Spurs in the first round largely because of free throws (Boston shot 82.0 percent; San Antonio shot 62.9 percent), which was enough to win a best-of-three, but seven-game series are a different beast entirely.
1986 Los Angeles Clippers
Actual W-L: 32-50
Expected W-L: 24-58
This is the weirdest entry on this entire list because it’s the only one that involves a team that was actually steaming hot garbage but played like an ordinary bad team.
There’s no moral to be gleaned from this story. It’s not like they missed out on a great draft pick in the 1986 draft—the Clippers didn’t even have a first or a second-round pick that year no matter how good or bad their record turned out to be. The pick they did have, they’d gotten from Boston, who won the title. The Clips traded it to Portland, who picked Arvydas Sabonis, who wouldn’t even play in the NBA for another nine years.
This was just a crappy team that played out of their minds only to have it result in them being a crappy team. The NBA is weird.
1995 Los Angeles Lakers
Actual W-L: 48-34
Expected W-L: 40-42
This was that weird mid-90s Lakers team that had nobody who was really noteworthy—their “stars” were Cedric Ceballos, Nick Van Exel, and Vlade Divac—and wouldn’t really be anything special until they traded Divac for Kobe Bryant a year later and coaxed Shaquille O’Neal away from the Orlando Magic in that same 1996 offseason.
They still would’ve made the playoffs had they gone 40-42; the only difference is that instead of getting bounced by San Antonio in the second round, as happened after they dealt Seattle another first-round exit, an 8-seed Lakers team would’ve had to play the top-seeded Spurs in the first round instead.
The overall track of the franchise ultimately didn’t change. Magic Johnson came back for a last hurrah in the ’95-96 season, then the stars aligned and everything was wondrous in Tinseltown for most of the next 25 years and still counting.
1995 Phoenix Suns
Actual W-L: 59-23
Expected W-L: 51-31
This is why the Lakers got to play Seattle in the first round. The Sonics, who went 57-25, were denied a Pacific Division title and the 2 seed in the playoffs by the Suns, who played out of their minds as they sought to get back to the Finals and maybe steal a title in the second and final year of the Michael Jordan interregnum.
Trouble was, the Houston Rockets, who had won the title the previous year and then coasted on fumes to the 6 seed, had an extra playoff gear they showed off in the second round, and that’s how the 2 seed Suns had their record regress at the worst possible moment.
Phoenix went 41-41 a year later, Charles Barkley buzzed off for Houston after that, and the Suns were left in the wilderness until Steve Nash, Mike D’Antoni, and friends pulled the NBA out of the Dark Ages and made the world entertaining again in the mid-aughts.
On the bright side, the Suns did the Lakers a solid by gifting them the George Karl Choke Machine as their first-round playoff opponent. Man, those ’90s Sonics were frustrating. If only they’d had a real coach, says annoyed Seattleite writer.
1997 Charlotte Hornets
Actual W-L: 54-28
Expected W-L: 46-36
Hey, look, it’s Vlade Divac again!
But Charlotte had a habit of gutting out close wins, making their shots (they were an absurd 42.8 percent on 3-pointers that year, shooting an at-the-time high 21.8 percent of their shots from out there), and just generally being offensively efficient before it was cool (4th in Offensive Rating.)
Unfortunately for them, two things conspired against them and led to a first-round playoff exit.
One is that their defense was terrible—they were 22nd in Defensive Rating.
The other is that they ran face-first into the Jeff Van Gundy-coached Knicks in the first round, and nothing beats down a good offense in the playoffs quite like the league’s second-best defense.
So that was that. The Hornets lost in three games of a best-of-five, and to this day Charlotte has never played in even an Eastern Conference Finals in the whole of their franchise history. Their replacement franchise that started life as the Bobcats hasn’t even been out of the first round, only making it that far in three of their 16 full seasons.
The best regular-season record in franchise history was an illusion, and they got killed in the postseason. The end.
2006 Utah Jazz
Actual W-L: 41-41
Expected W-L: 33-49
The Jazz did not make the playoffs in 2006. They came three games short of the division-winning Denver Nuggets and that year’s 8 seed Sacramento Kings. All they managed to do by going 41-41 was ensure that the putrid 26-56 team from 2005 would stand as the only team Jerry Sloan ever coached to a losing record.
They got no real benefit or detriment in terms of draft pick—they took Ronnie Brewer, but the steals of the ’06 draft weren’t found until much later, when Rajon Rondo went 21st, Kyle Lowry went 24th, and Paul Millsap—whom the Jazz actually drafted in the second round—went 47th. Everyone in the late lottery/mid-first-round stunk.
That’s it. That’s the story. Like the ’86 Clippers, the ’06 Jazz are naught but a historical curiosity.
2016 Golden State Warriors
Actual W-L: 73-9
Expected W-L: 65-17
This…well, OK, this is in hindsight the funniest entry on this entire list.
It’s not terribly surprising that it is really, really hard to put up a point differential so good that you’d be expected to go 73-9. Granted, it’s not impossible to put up a simply mind-exploding point differential—the 1996 Bulls only exceeded their expected record by two wins, 72-10 compared to 70-12—but Golden State had an eight-game debt to pay off in the playoffs.
The first sign of trouble was when they had to overcome a 3-1 deficit to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in seven games in the Western Conference Finals.
But when LeBron James suddenly turned into 1980 Playoff Magic Johnson in Game 5 of the NBA Finals and the Warriors became an Internet meme, it wasn’t that the Warriors choked, exactly.
It’s that the basketball gods decided at the worst possible time that the Dubs’ debt had come due and foreclosed on the house of legends that Steve Kerr, Stephen Curry, and friends were trying to build.
Of course, the Dubs got the last laugh. Losing the Finals meant they needed to add another piece. And getting humiliated in the conference finals was the last straw for Kevin Durant.
The most brutal statistical regression in NBA history led to a house of fire Warriors team nearly running the table in the playoffs a year later, only a Game 4 Cavaliers victory in the Finals blemishing what would’ve been the NBA’s first-ever 16-0 postseason.
Basketball. Is. Weird.
If you liked this, stay tuned; coming Sunday, April 11, to Pace and Space, we look at the flip side of this statistical journey and catalog the worst underachieving regular-season teams. And brother, have we got some real head-scratchers on THAT list. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!