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Championship Usage Patterns III: Regular-Season Teams Built For the Playoffs

Posted by Neil Paine on May 21, 2010

In Part II of this series, I developed a method of estimating a team's probability of winning the NBA Championship based on the allocation of their possessions among their top 5 players. The idea is that, assuming 2 teams are championship-caliber, the one who follows the time-tested pattern of Star 1a + Star 1b + 3 role players will be more likely to win a championship. Today, I'm going to apply this to all regular-season teams in NBA history, and see which teams were theoretically built for postseason success, then look at what actually happened to them.

First, we need to define what it means to be a "championship-caliber team". Historically, the average regular-season SRS of all NBA champions is 6.07, and the median SRS is 6.059. Obviously, teams have won with SRS scores of under 6 (the 2006 Heat were the last team to do so), but as a general rule, if you post an SRS of 6 or greater during the regular-season, you have established yourself as either the odds-on favorite or at least one of the leading candidates to win the NBA title, which is what we're going for here.

Now, we need to look at the possession usage for each championship-caliber team's top 5 players by MP during the regular season. Since possessions are impossible to calculate for seasons prior to 1977-78, I'll be approximating them with what's called "Modified Shot Attempts", a possessions-like stat that doesn't include turnovers. I estimated the % of the team's MSA used by each player while on the court, and sorted the teams' top 5 minute-getters by that result. I also forced all teams' "5-man units" to have a combined %MSA of 100%; we didn't have to do this in the playoffs (because players don't change teams mid-postseason), but in the regular-season players do move around, and before 1965 there was no real accounting for split-season stats. Because of this, if no adjustment is made, some early teams will have combined %MSA of 110% or more for their top 5 players, and we need everything to be scaled to 100% for consistency's sake.

Anyway, once we have the top 5 players' %MSA figures, we can use the following equation to estimate their championship probability based on the usage mix of their top players:

p(Championship) ~ 1 / (1 + exp(3.23 - 0.01*MSA#1 - 0.10*MSA#2 + 0.10*MSA#3 + 0.01*MSA#4 - 0.03*MSA#5))

Here are the championship-caliber regular-season teams with the most ideal usage patterns since 1952:

Team Wins Losses SRS #1 MSA #2 MSA #3 MSA #4 MSA #5 MSA p(C) Playoffs
1965 Boston Celtics 62 18 7.47 28.1 27.2 15.3 14.8 14.7 18.7% Champs
1997 Chicago Bulls 69 13 10.70 34.7 26.1 14.7 14.4 10.1 17.0% Champs
2002 Los Angeles Lakers 58 24 7.15 28.2 27.6 17.1 14.4 12.7 15.9% Champs
1964 Boston Celtics 59 21 6.93 26.9 25.2 16.1 15.9 15.9 15.0% Champs
1994 New York Knickerbockers 57 25 6.48 26.9 26.5 18.6 14.9 13.2 12.8% L-FIN
1991 Chicago Bulls 61 21 8.57 32.6 21.9 15.8 15.0 14.7 11.9% Champs
2010 Cleveland Cavaliers 61 21 6.17 35.4 22.9 16.7 12.5 12.5 11.9% L-ECS
1972 Los Angeles Lakers 69 13 11.65 28.0 26.1 18.9 14.7 12.3 11.8% Champs
1998 Los Angeles Lakers 61 21 6.88 28.9 25.5 18.4 15.9 11.3 11.5% L-WCF
1993 Chicago Bulls 57 25 6.19 32.1 22.5 16.9 15.3 13.1 10.8% Champs
2009 Cleveland Cavaliers 66 16 8.68 33.1 22.0 16.4 16.0 12.6 10.7% L-ECF
1991 Phoenix Suns 55 27 6.49 24.1 23.2 17.9 17.8 16.9 10.6% L-WC1
1973 Los Angeles Lakers 60 22 8.18 28.2 27.8 21.5 12.1 10.3 10.6% L-FIN
2008 Utah Jazz 54 28 6.87 25.1 23.8 18.6 16.6 15.9 10.5% L-WCS
1981 Boston Celtics 62 20 6.05 25.5 24.6 19.5 16.3 14.1 9.9% Champs
1990 Phoenix Suns 54 28 7.09 27.0 25.8 20.0 16.4 10.9 9.9% L-WCF
1992 Portland Trail Blazers 57 25 6.94 29.7 23.1 17.8 17.4 12.0 9.8% L-FIN
1991 Los Angeles Lakers 58 24 6.73 26.2 24.1 19.4 15.7 14.6 9.8% L-FIN
1995 Orlando Magic 57 25 6.44 28.9 23.5 18.9 15.4 13.3 9.7% L-FIN
1992 Chicago Bulls 67 15 10.07 30.0 23.6 19.2 14.4 12.8 9.5% Champs
1962 Boston Celtics 60 20 8.25 25.5 25.3 20.5 15.5 13.3 9.5% Champs
1985 Milwaukee Bucks 59 23 6.70 26.9 23.5 19.4 15.5 14.7 9.4% L-ECS
1972 Chicago Bulls 57 25 7.91 25.0 21.8 18.1 17.9 17.1 9.3% L-WCS
2005 Phoenix Suns 62 20 7.08 24.1 22.3 18.9 17.4 17.3 9.1% L-WCF
1967 Boston Celtics 60 21 7.24 26.2 26.2 21.5 14.8 11.4 9.1% L-EDF
2006 Detroit Pistons 64 18 6.23 25.5 25.1 20.1 18.6 10.6 8.8% L-ECF
2000 Los Angeles Lakers 67 15 8.41 28.2 25.4 20.8 15.4 10.2 8.8% Champs
1987 Atlanta Hawks 57 25 7.19 30.0 21.7 18.2 17.2 12.9 8.6% L-ECS
2009 Los Angeles Lakers 65 17 7.11 31.6 19.5 17.1 16.1 15.7 8.6% Champs
1986 Los Angeles Lakers 62 20 6.84 23.1 23.0 19.4 19.1 15.4 8.6% L-WCF
1963 Boston Celtics 58 22 6.38 26.4 23.2 20.1 15.9 14.5 8.5% Champs
2008 Detroit Pistons 59 23 6.67 24.2 23.3 19.6 19.1 13.7 8.3% L-ECF
2001 Sacramento Kings 55 27 6.07 29.0 20.1 17.8 17.4 15.6 8.2% L-WCS
2010 Orlando Magic 59 23 7.12 24.9 22.8 19.8 17.8 14.7 8.1% ???
1973 Boston Celtics 68 14 7.35 23.9 23.1 20.6 16.3 16.1 8.1% L-ECF
1998 Indiana Pacers 58 24 6.25 25.1 23.2 20.2 17.5 14.1 8.1% L-ECF
1995 Utah Jazz 60 22 7.75 26.6 21.8 19.6 16.5 15.5 8.0% L-WC1
1989 Phoenix Suns 55 27 6.84 23.0 22.8 20.5 17.3 16.4 7.9% L-WCF
1982 Boston Celtics 63 19 6.35 24.5 22.4 20.1 17.2 15.8 7.9% L-ECF
1989 Detroit Pistons 63 19 6.24 24.9 24.9 21.5 16.9 11.8 7.9% Champs
1999 San Antonio Spurs 37 13 7.12 24.6 21.8 19.3 19.1 15.2 7.8% Champs
1990 Los Angeles Lakers 63 19 6.74 27.6 21.9 20.0 15.7 14.8 7.7% L-WCS
1997 Seattle Supersonics 57 25 6.91 25.6 21.2 19.4 17.6 16.3 7.7% L-WCS
1989 Cleveland Cavaliers 57 25 7.95 22.5 22.0 20.1 18.3 17.1 7.7% L-EC1
1996 Chicago Bulls 72 10 11.80 31.9 24.2 21.4 13.6 8.9 7.6% Champs
1986 Milwaukee Bucks 57 25 8.69 24.8 21.5 19.6 18.3 15.8 7.6% L-ECF
1976 Golden State Warriors 59 23 6.23 27.6 26.6 24.1 11.3 10.4 7.5% L-WCF
1987 Boston Celtics 59 23 6.58 26.1 20.4 19.0 17.9 16.5 7.5% L-FIN
1971 Milwaukee Bucks 66 16 11.91 26.1 21.2 19.8 17.1 15.9 7.4% Champs
1968 Philadelphia 76ers 62 20 7.96 25.0 21.6 19.5 19.1 14.7 7.4% L-EDF
2008 Los Angeles Lakers 57 25 7.34 30.2 19.6 18.7 15.8 15.6 7.4% L-FIN
2007 Phoenix Suns 61 21 7.27 24.2 22.0 20.7 17.0 16.1 7.3% L-WCS
1998 Seattle Supersonics 61 21 6.33 25.7 21.8 20.0 18.1 14.5 7.3% L-WCS
1980 Boston Celtics 61 21 7.37 25.5 21.0 19.9 17.1 16.4 7.3% L-ECF
2009 Orlando Magic 59 23 6.49 23.5 23.2 21.5 16.7 15.1 7.3% L-FIN
2008 Boston Celtics 66 16 9.31 24.3 24.0 21.0 19.7 10.9 7.2% Champs
1996 Utah Jazz 55 27 6.24 29.1 22.4 20.7 15.5 12.4 7.2% L-WCF
1974 Milwaukee Bucks 59 23 7.61 23.4 22.8 20.9 18.2 14.7 7.2% L-FIN
1993 Phoenix Suns 62 20 6.27 24.8 21.3 20.4 16.8 16.7 7.2% L-FIN
2002 San Antonio Spurs 58 24 6.27 27.6 18.5 18.2 17.9 17.8 7.2% L-WCS
2005 San Antonio Spurs 59 23 7.84 27.2 25.0 23.4 12.3 12.0 7.2% Champs
1972 Milwaukee Bucks 63 19 10.70 26.0 20.6 19.2 18.9 15.3 7.2% L-WCF
1985 Los Angeles Lakers 62 20 6.48 23.2 21.9 20.7 18.1 16.1 7.1% Champs
2002 Sacramento Kings 61 21 7.61 26.7 20.9 19.8 17.5 15.1 7.1% L-WCF
1981 Milwaukee Bucks 60 22 7.14 22.2 21.7 20.4 19.5 16.2 7.0% L-ECS
1987 Los Angeles Lakers 65 17 8.32 27.0 19.2 18.7 18.5 16.6 7.0% Champs
1996 Seattle Supersonics 64 18 7.39 22.9 20.8 20.1 18.9 17.4 6.9% L-FIN
1981 Philadelphia 76ers 62 20 7.76 30.9 20.6 18.9 18.3 11.2 6.9% L-ECF
1985 Boston Celtics 63 19 6.47 27.6 19.9 19.4 17.0 16.1 6.9% L-FIN
1984 Boston Celtics 62 20 6.42 27.0 20.3 19.2 18.8 14.7 6.9% Champs
1998 Chicago Bulls 62 20 7.24 32.7 21.9 19.7 17.3 8.4 6.9% Champs
1994 Seattle Supersonics 63 19 8.68 21.8 21.0 20.6 18.4 18.3 6.9% L-WC1
1986 Boston Celtics 67 15 9.06 26.3 20.5 19.9 17.6 15.7 6.9% Champs
1983 Philadelphia 76ers 65 17 7.53 24.1 22.7 21.6 17.0 14.6 6.9% Champs
1990 Portland Trail Blazers 59 23 6.48 25.4 22.0 20.7 18.4 13.5 6.8% L-FIN
2000 Portland Trail Blazers 59 23 6.37 22.3 19.6 19.5 19.4 19.2 6.8% L-WCF
1970 New York Knickerbockers 60 22 8.42 21.8 20.5 20.3 18.9 18.5 6.7% Champs
1997 Utah Jazz 64 18 7.97 30.7 21.5 20.9 14.2 12.6 6.7% L-FIN
1989 Los Angeles Lakers 57 25 6.38 27.6 22.2 21.4 15.8 13.1 6.7% L-FIN
1991 Portland Trail Blazers 63 19 8.47 26.1 21.9 20.3 19.8 11.9 6.6% L-WCF
1993 Cleveland Cavaliers 54 28 6.30 25.9 20.2 19.9 18.0 16.0 6.6% L-ECS
2003 Sacramento Kings 59 23 6.69 28.5 21.4 20.8 16.2 13.0 6.6% L-WCS
1988 Boston Celtics 57 25 6.15 28.2 19.4 19.3 17.7 15.3 6.6% L-ECF
2003 Dallas Mavericks 60 22 7.91 23.7 23.3 21.2 21.0 10.9 6.5% L-WCF
1967 Philadelphia 76ers 68 13 8.50 22.9 21.1 20.9 18.5 16.7 6.5% Champs
2007 Dallas Mavericks 67 15 7.28 27.1 23.0 21.4 18.6 10.0 6.4% L-WC1
1995 Seattle Supersonics 57 25 7.91 24.2 20.1 20.0 19.5 16.1 6.4% L-WC1
1975 Washington Bullets 60 22 6.54 25.2 23.2 21.6 19.3 10.7 6.3% L-FIN
2004 San Antonio Spurs 57 25 7.51 28.2 23.1 22.2 15.7 10.8 6.3% L-WCS
1960 Boston Celtics 59 16 7.62 23.3 22.3 21.6 18.9 13.9 6.3% Champs
1993 Seattle Supersonics 55 27 6.66 26.6 23.1 21.7 18.3 10.3 6.3% L-WCF
1973 New York Knickerbockers 57 25 6.07 22.1 20.9 20.8 20.2 16.1 6.2% Champs
2006 San Antonio Spurs 63 19 6.69 24.5 24.5 23.3 17.5 10.2 6.1% L-WCS
1973 Milwaukee Bucks 60 22 7.84 25.3 21.2 20.7 20.0 12.9 6.1% L-WCS
2001 San Antonio Spurs 58 24 7.92 26.6 22.0 21.4 18.5 11.5 6.0% L-WCF
2009 Boston Celtics 62 20 7.44 24.2 22.2 21.6 20.1 11.9 5.9% L-ECS
2007 San Antonio Spurs 58 24 8.35 24.8 24.0 23.5 17.9 9.8 5.7% Champs

Are the 1965 Celtics underrated in "Greatest Team of All Time" discussions? Yes, they barely outlasted the 76ers en route to the Finals, but Red Auerbach's team construction was nothing short of beautiful: One outstanding offensive go-to guy (Sam Jones) in the backcourt, a pair of solid two-way players (Tom Sanders & Tom Heinsohn) at forward, and two of the best defensive players of all time (Bill Russell, K.C. Jones) rounding out the starting lineup, plus a gifted scorer off the bench in John Havlicek, and another decent all-around reserve in Willie Naulls. The result was 62 wins (the most of the Russell era), one of the top defensive teams ever, and an offense that was constructed to maximize its potential in the playoffs. It was also a team that was more than the sum of its parts, which is what this series has been all about -- achieving great team results by finding the perfect combination of players that "fit" best together.

On the flip side, though, you have to feel bad for the Cleveland Cavaliers, who followed the championship usage formula to a T in 2009 & 2010, but have no rings to show for it. And the Boston Celtics of recent vintage, more balanced now than ever with the emergence of Rajon Rondo, are the antithesis of the formula with the offensive load spread almost evenly across 4 starters, but have sustained success and are 2 wins away from their 2nd Finals berth in 3 years. All of which goes to say that the ideal championship usage pattern isn't set in stone, and it's not a given that if you build a team according to it, you'll automatically win. But it is a nice guideline based on the most successful teams of the past and what it has historically taken to win a title from a team-building perspective.

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6 Responses to “Championship Usage Patterns III: Regular-Season Teams Built For the Playoffs”

  1. Anon Says:

    With all of the calls for Lebron's head on a platter in the basketball world recently, I wonder if these same people realize that you have to be pretty lucky to win a title? It's not a given by any means.

    It also helps a bit to have reliable go-to guys outside your star and good coaching for your team in the playoffs -- two things that LeBron didn't have.

  2. jeremy Says:

    To sum up a little, more due to my lack of sleep than any lack of explanation by the poster....

    If you exclude the 2010 Magic, there are 95 teams that meet your criteria in NBA history. Of these teams, 30 won the NBA title, 16 more lost in the finals and 24 more were final four participants (regardless of what the round before the finals was called at the time). So roughly 74% of the teams did reasonably well.

    If you look at the 18 teams that were the only team that fit your criteria for their year, 10 won the title, 2 were finalists and 5 more were in the final four. Leaving only the 2004 Spurs as underachievers. Truly dominant teams? or lack of competition in that year?

    Lastly, of the 57 teams that failed to win the title and were NOT the only team in their year to meet the criteria, 36 of the 57 were eliminated by another team who met the criteria. So in total, 66 of the 95 teams (70%) went as far they possibly could given the playoff structure.

    Conversely, The 94 Knicks (12.8%), 2010 Cavs (11.9%), 98 Lakers (11.5%), and 91 Suns (10.6%) were the biggest underachievers based on your algorithm and the fact that they didn't get beat by another one of the qualified 95 teams.

    Love the #'s. Keep the posts coming.

  3. SD Says:

    Distribution of shot attempts is part of it but I'd like to see this taken further to distribution of scoring potency distribution. "Efficient points scored" above league average attempts for a player X average scoring efficiency. Do it for the #1-5 or 7 guy using the same league averages for everyone or the average for that "slot". I think that probably matters more but probably important to be aware of both parts of the combination of usage and potency.

  4. Jared Ras Says:

    2 of the top 3 teams sorted by MSA #1 are the 2009 and 2010 Cleveland Cavaliers. I know they fit the algorithm, but isn't it possible they are too "top heavy"? LeBron James is either the last or second-to-last person to touch the ball probably more than any other player in the league. However, this also means that they aren't feeding their roleplayers and trying to distribute scoring. Of course, the remainder of the top 7 "top heavy" teams were Michael Jordan teams, so I guess it works out for the better sometimes too.

  5. hk Says:

    Jared Ras, Mo Williams has between 13-12 PER in his last two post-season runs. That's a pretty good hint of why they lost.

  6. mrparker Says:

    Cavs have a championship front court and an average backcourt. How many teams have won championships without a true all star in the back court?

    In the past 20 years only the 99 spurs and 94/95 rockets had a backcourt devoid of all-star caliber players.