Membership in the NBA’s .800 club on the rise

Recognize the dude, back row left?

In the lingo of sport, winning a best-of-seven series in just five games is typically classified as a “Gentleman’s Sweep” – domination, but without the sneer that tends to accompany a 4-0 white-wash. Such dominance, however, does occur in the NBA post-season with relative frequency – 43 percent of all NBA best-of-seven’s have been wrapped up within five games … 242 of 558 series over 74 years.

Now an 80+ percent rate of success – be it in a series or (even more impressively) over the course of a full season – represents a performance of most superior quality. Until “spitting the bit” in this summer’s Bubble, Mike Budenholzer’s Milwaukee Bucks were on pace to become the sixth team in the past eight years to attain such stellar status last season (53-12, .815 when play was suspended).

This recent rash of “80% Seasons” has been headed by the Golden State Warriors, who became just the third team (along with Boston and Chicago) in league history to notch three such seasonal performances – and the first to do it consecutively. The Lakers are the only other franchise to have turned this little trick more than once.

And the 2015-16 season, when GSW set a new league standard with 73 victories, is the only time when more than one squad eclipsed .800, as Pop’s Spurs registered 67 wins (.817). Curiously, neither of those “elites” came away with that season’s title.

But despite this recent onslaught of dominant performance, those three “triples” represent exactly half of the mere 18 occurrences of this particular phenomenon in the Association’s lengthy history.

When the league turned 40 back in 1986, an overpowering pack of Boston Celtics went 40-1 on their home floor while becoming just the sixth team ever to surpass .800 for a season – and the first franchise to lay claim to more than one. 

Unless noted, team won championship [playoff record in brackets]

1946-47 Washington Capitals 49-11 (.817) [2-4]
{lost Semi-Final, Chicago Stags (6)}
1966 -67 Philadelphia 76ers 68-13 (.840) [11-4]
1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks 66-16 (.805) [12-2]
1971-72 LA Lakers 69-13 (.841) [12-3]
1972-73 Boston Celtics 68-14 (.829) [7-6]
{lost Conf. Final, New York (7)}
1985-86 Boston Celtics 67-15 (.817) [15-3]
1991-92 Chicago Bulls 67-15 (.817) [15-7]
1995-96 Chicago Bulls 72-10 (.878) [15-3]
1996-97 Chicago Bulls 69-13 (.841) [15-4]

The only team other than Steve Kerr’s recent Warriors to string together consecutive .800+ seasons was the baseballed-out MJ and his ’96 and ’97 champion Bulls … but four seasons later the Bulls LOST 80 percent, going 15-67 (.183). Hmmm!!

The Pace Quickens, the Plot Thickens

I’d guess-timate that a team has played a full slate of games somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500 times since the Basketball Association of America was launched back in 1946, about 600 or so of them since Y2K – but just as many .800+ performances were produced in these most-recent 21 seasons as there were in the previous 53.

1999-00 LA Lakers 67-15 (.817) [15-8]
2006-07 Dallas Mavericks 67-15 (.817) [2-4]
{lost 1st Round, GSW (6)}
2007-08 Boston Celtics 66-16 (.805) [16-10]
2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers 66-16 (.805) [10-4]
{lost Conf. Final, Orlando (6)}
2012-13 Miami Heat 66-16 (.805) [16-7]
2014-15 Golden State Warriors 67-15 (.817) [16-5]
2015-16 Golden State Warriors 73-9 (.890) [15-9]
{lost Finals, Cleveland (7)}
2015-16 San Antonio Spurs 67-15 (.817) [6-4]
{lost Conf. Semi, OKC (6)}
2016-17 Golden State Warriors 67-15 (.817) [16-1]

So, what’s behind the drastic increase in this sort of exceptional performance?

Is it 3-point usage, which has more than doubled since those Shaq and Kobe-led 2000 Lakers broke a decade-and-a-half non-Bulls drought in “80% Seasons”?

Is it the result of rule changes intended to decrease physicality and increase pace of play?

Has player mobility had an unnatural impact on competitive balance?

Is this trend, perhaps, an inevitable consequence for a league that does little (if anything) to discourage the increasingly popular strategic “process” of purposeful under-achievement?

Abacus Revelation for the Road

In part spurred by expansion, the NBA/BAA has seen almost twice as many seasons – 34, to be exact – in which a team has LOST 80+ percent of its games, most recently the 76ers’ 10-72 (.122) showing in 2015-16.

The Clippers, Grizzlies, Mavericks and T’wolves each own THREE such “struggles”; two apiece have been endured by the Cavs, Heat, Rockets and Sixers, also the Providence Steamrollers as well as two incarnations of the Denver Nuggets. The Bobcats, Bucks, Bulls, Celtics, Hawks, Nets, Pistons, Raptors, Suns and Philadelphia Warriors have all dipped so low on one occasion.

The “low-water” mark for the league was the 1990’s, when 11 NBA teams managed to finish a season below .200.