You Are Here > Basketball-Reference.com > BBR Blog > NBA and College Basketball Analysis

SITE NEWS: We are moving all of our site and company news into a single blog for Sports-Reference.com. We'll tag all Basketball-Reference content, so you can quickly and easily find the content you want.

Also, our existing Basketball-Reference blog rss feed will be redirected to the new site's feed.

Basketball-Reference.com // Sports Reference

For more from Neil, check out his new work at BasketballProspectus.com.

NBA Finalists That Improved the Most In the Playoffs

Posted by Neil Paine on June 2, 2010

One of the biggest storylines of the 2010 playoffs has obviously been the Boston Celtics' totally unexpected postseason turnaround. From late December through the end of the regular season, the Celts were a very mediocre ballclub (literally average: they were .500 after Christmas), but in the playoffs they have looked -- and played -- like a completely different team, very nearly channeling the dominance of their 2008 championship squad. And lost amid the stories of Boston's playoff about-face has been the fact that the Lakers, owners of barely an above-average offense during the regular season, have morphed into an offensive juggernaut once again, as they were during the 2008 and 2009 regular seasons. In the history of the NBA, have any Finalists changed their identities more during the playoffs?

To answer that question, let's briefly go back to yesterday's post... There, I introduced a method of estimating team offensive and defensive ratings (points scored and allowed per 100 possessions) for years prior to 1974, which essentially opens up all of NBA history to us for studies like this (except 1951 -- unbelievably, they didn't even track rebounds that year). Today I want to use the same framework to see which Finalists most outperformed what we would have expected their playoff offensive & defensive ratings to be, given their regular-season numbers and the RS numbers of their playoff opponents.

During the regular season, we can broadly assume that every team played a league-average strength of schedule (this is not always exactly true, but as Ed Kupfer once pointed out to me, perceived team-by-team differences in regular-season SOS quality are wildly overstated). During the playoffs, we can characterize a team's SOS as the average of the regular-season efficiencies of the teams it faced in the playoffs, weighted by games played against each opponent. Then, to establish expected postseason efficiency levels, you just adjust the teams' regular-season numbers to what they "would be" if the team had faced their postseason SOS during the regular season, using the pythagorean formula (essentially the same process I used to translate offensive and defensive ratings for era in this post).

Let's take an example: during the regular season, the Lakers had an estimated ORtg (using the simplified possessions formula from yesterday) of 108.2 vs. a league average of 107.3. During the playoffs, their opponents have an average regular-season defensive rating of 107, so we would expect their playoff offensive rating to be 107.9, or (107 * (108.214 / (108.214 + 107.314))1/14) / ((1-(108.214 / (108.214 + 107.314)))1/14). In actuality, their estimated ORtg in the playoffs has been 112.5, so they've outperformed their expectation by +4.6. How does this stack up to other NBA Finalists from the past?

50 Biggest Offensive Improvements
(mouse over column headers for descriptions)

Year Team RSeORtg RSeLgRtg avoppDRtg POeORtg POxORtg Diff
1952 New York Knicks 86.8 85.6 82.1 91.2 83.3 7.94
1954 Minneapolis Lakers 86.2 86.1 83.4 90.7 83.4 7.26
1963 Los Angeles Lakers 98.6 95.4 90.7 100.0 93.7 6.34
2001 Los Angeles Lakers 106.1 102.7 99.8 109.3 103.0 6.26
1952 Minneapolis Lakers 85.8 85.6 86.4 92.1 86.6 5.49
1973 New York Knicks 101.5 98.5 94.1 102.1 96.9 5.17
1962 Los Angeles Lakers 95.0 93.3 89.7 96.1 91.3 4.86
1954 Syracuse Nationals 88.0 86.1 85.4 91.8 87.2 4.61
2010 Los Angeles Lakers 108.2 107.3 107.0 112.5 107.9 4.58
1966 Los Angeles Lakers 98.9 94.4 92.0 100.8 96.4 4.36
1972 New York Knicks 100.2 99.2 97.2 102.6 98.2 4.36
1961 Boston Celtics 89.5 91.6 90.2 92.4 88.1 4.33
1982 Los Angeles Lakers 109.4 106.2 103.7 110.9 106.9 4.04
1966 Boston Celtics 92.8 94.4 94.7 96.9 93.2 3.75
1986 Boston Celtics 111.2 106.9 105.8 113.7 110.0 3.69
1958 St. Louis Hawks 88.5 88.4 86.6 90.3 86.8 3.55
1999 San Antonio Spurs 103.9 102.5 99.4 103.8 100.7 3.08
1992 Portland Trail Blazers 111.0 107.3 104.7 111.2 108.3 2.92
1969 Boston Celtics 95.1 95.8 95.1 97.2 94.3 2.85
1957 St. Louis Hawks 88.3 88.8 86.5 88.8 86.1 2.70
1993 Chicago Bulls 111.4 107.4 104.8 111.3 108.7 2.62
2000 Indiana Pacers 109.1 103.8 100.1 107.7 105.3 2.48
1968 Boston Celtics 95.6 96.1 95.1 97.0 94.6 2.41
1978 Seattle Supersonics 100.0 101.7 100.3 100.9 98.6 2.29
1955 Fort Wayne Pistons 91.4 89.5 87.6 91.7 89.5 2.24
1951 Rochester Royals 91.0 84.6 84.1 92.7 90.4 2.22
2005 San Antonio Spurs 108.1 105.5 105.2 110.0 107.8 2.19
1994 Houston Rockets 107.6 106.3 103.2 106.7 104.5 2.16
1998 Chicago Bulls 107.6 105.4 104.3 108.5 106.4 2.02
1995 Houston Rockets 112.7 108.9 107.2 112.9 111.0 1.99
1988 Los Angeles Lakers 113.0 107.4 105.6 113.0 111.1 1.95
1989 Los Angeles Lakers 114.3 107.9 106.2 114.4 112.5 1.89
1991 Chicago Bulls 114.1 107.2 105.7 114.4 112.6 1.84
1983 Philadelphia 76ers 109.9 105.3 102.6 108.7 107.1 1.67
1960 St. Louis Hawks 93.6 90.8 88.3 92.5 91.0 1.53
1987 Boston Celtics 113.1 107.6 104.9 111.4 110.3 1.12
2005 Detroit Pistons 105.0 105.5 102.3 102.9 101.8 1.05
1965 Los Angeles Lakers 97.4 92.9 91.7 97.2 96.1 1.05
1986 Houston Rockets 108.5 106.9 105.0 107.6 106.6 0.98
2009 Orlando Magic 110.3 108.1 104.3 107.4 106.4 0.95
2006 Miami Heat 106.5 105.5 102.7 104.6 103.7 0.94
1987 Los Angeles Lakers 115.6 107.6 108.2 117.2 116.3 0.87
1976 Phoenix Suns 102.0 98.9 96.8 100.7 99.8 0.86
1959 Minneapolis Lakers 89.9 89.9 88.2 89.0 88.2 0.84
1984 Boston Celtics 110.4 107.3 105.6 109.5 108.7 0.81
1964 San Francisco Warriors 92.3 93.8 89.8 89.1 88.3 0.80
1970 Los Angeles Lakers 101.2 100.1 100.1 101.8 101.1 0.67
2000 Los Angeles Lakers 104.6 103.8 102.3 103.8 103.1 0.66
1999 New York Knicks 99.5 102.5 99.4 97.1 96.5 0.63
1985 Los Angeles Lakers 114.6 107.8 107.3 114.6 114.1 0.54

The Lakers have a long history of performing better on offense during the playoffs than you would expect from the regular-season numbers, and the 2010 version is no exception -- their +4.58 mark this year is the second-biggest offensive improvement by any Finalist in the last 37 years. The biggest? The 2001 Lakers, the most dominant playoff team ever.

But if you thought the 2010 Lakers' offense was dramatically better in the postseason, check out the 2010 Celtics' defensive improvement:

50 Biggest Defensive Improvements

Year Team RSeDRtg RSeLgRtg avoppORtg POeDRtg POxDRtg Diff
2001 Los Angeles Lakers 102.5 102.7 105.8 95.8 105.6 9.77
1998 Utah Jazz 104.3 105.4 108.1 97.3 106.9 9.54
1988 Detroit Pistons 104.0 107.4 111.0 98.7 107.4 8.70
2010 Boston Celtics 104.5 107.3 110.0 99.1 107.2 8.10
1981 Boston Celtics 104.1 106.2 108.8 99.8 106.7 6.93
1974 Boston Celtics 97.1 99.6 101.3 92.2 98.8 6.54
1967 San Francisco Warriors 93.3 95.7 98.3 89.4 95.8 6.42
1967 Philadelphia 76ers 94.4 95.7 97.2 89.6 95.9 6.37
1989 Detroit Pistons 103.5 107.9 110.6 99.8 106.1 6.34
1971 Milwaukee Bucks 97.3 98.3 99.3 92.0 98.3 6.26
1975 Golden State Warriors 98.2 98.8 98.3 91.4 97.7 6.24
2003 San Antonio Spurs 101.1 103.7 106.1 97.4 103.5 6.12
1999 New York Knickerbockers 98.3 102.5 105.1 94.8 100.8 5.98
1997 Chicago Bulls 103.3 108.1 111.2 100.4 106.3 5.86
1978 Washington Bullets 100.0 101.7 104.1 96.6 102.3 5.67
1971 Baltimore Bullets 96.5 98.3 100.9 93.4 99.1 5.65
1977 Portland Trail Blazers 99.5 101.0 103.4 96.3 101.9 5.57
2004 Detroit Pistons 96.7 103.3 103.9 91.8 97.4 5.53
1995 Houston Rockets 110.4 108.9 113.4 110.0 115.0 4.99
1972 Los Angeles Lakers 96.2 99.2 102.9 94.9 99.8 4.97
1984 Los Angeles Lakers 107.9 107.3 109.1 104.8 109.7 4.91
1969 Los Angeles Lakers 95.5 95.8 94.7 89.6 94.4 4.84
1986 Houston Rockets 106.0 106.9 109.6 103.9 108.7 4.81
1985 Los Angeles Lakers 107.5 107.8 110.5 105.4 110.2 4.75
1990 Detroit Pistons 102.0 107.3 111.0 100.8 105.5 4.73
1980 Philadelphia 76ers 103.6 106.3 108.7 101.4 105.9 4.49
1991 Chicago Bulls 104.7 107.2 108.5 101.5 106.0 4.49
1979 Seattle Supersonics 101.1 104.8 107.8 99.5 104.0 4.45
1981 Houston Rockets 107.1 106.2 107.8 104.2 108.7 4.44
1996 Chicago Bulls 103.3 108.6 110.7 100.9 105.3 4.39
2005 Detroit Pistons 100.6 105.5 106.7 97.5 101.8 4.35
2006 Dallas Mavericks 104.2 105.5 108.5 102.8 107.1 4.34
1964 Boston Celtics 84.5 93.8 95.5 81.8 86.1 4.31
2009 Los Angeles Lakers 104.4 108.1 110.0 102.0 106.3 4.29
1957 Boston Celtics 84.5 88.8 88.4 80.2 84.2 4.02
1951 New York Knickerbockers 86.4 84.6 88.2 86.0 90.0 3.98
1951 Rochester Royals 87.7 84.6 85.6 84.8 88.8 3.91
1956 Fort Wayne Pistons 89.9 89.8 90.4 86.7 90.5 3.80
1970 Los Angeles Lakers 99.4 100.1 102.8 98.3 102.0 3.75
1976 Boston Celtics 96.4 98.9 100.6 94.3 98.0 3.74
2008 Los Angeles Lakers 105.5 107.0 110.7 105.4 109.1 3.69
2007 Cleveland Cavaliers 100.8 106.8 108.2 98.6 102.1 3.51
1979 Washington Bullets 101.0 104.8 106.3 99.0 102.5 3.51
1956 Philadelphia Warriors 90.8 89.8 89.5 87.2 90.6 3.42
1997 Utah Jazz 103.6 108.1 111.4 103.4 106.8 3.41
2006 Miami Heat 102.3 105.5 107.0 100.5 103.8 3.29
1998 Chicago Bulls 99.7 105.4 109.4 100.3 103.5 3.17
1980 Los Angeles Lakers 105.5 106.3 107.7 103.7 106.9 3.15
2004 Los Angeles Lakers 99.7 103.3 103.0 96.3 99.4 3.09
1983 Los Angeles Lakers 106.5 105.3 108.8 107.0 110.0 3.08

The 2010 Celtics are the 4th-most-improved playoff team ever, trailing only the '88 Pistons, the '98 Jazz... and those pesky 2001 Lakers again. The Celts' defense has been better in these playoffs -- and against a tougher offensive SOS -- than they were during their epic 2008 regular-season run, when they were one of the best defenses of all time.

50 Biggest Overall Improvements

Add up the offensive and defensive improvements for each NBA Finalist, and what do you get? This list of the most improved overall Finalists in playoff history:

Year Team RSeORtg RSeDRtg RSeLgRtg avoppORtg avoppDRtg POeORtg POeDRtg POxORtg POxDRtg OffDiff DefDiff OvrDiff
2001 Los Angeles Lakers 106.1 102.5 102.7 105.8 99.8 109.3 95.8 103.0 105.6 6.26 9.77 16.03
2010 Boston Celtics 108.5 104.5 107.3 110.0 103.9 104.8 99.1 105.1 107.2 -0.26 8.10 7.84
1954 Minneapolis Lakers 86.2 83.0 86.1 87.2 83.4 90.7 83.6 83.4 84.0 7.26 0.38 7.64
1995 Houston Rockets 112.7 110.4 108.9 113.4 107.2 112.9 110.0 111.0 115.0 1.99 4.99 6.98
1961 Boston Celtics 89.5 85.3 91.6 92.4 90.2 92.4 83.5 88.1 86.0 4.33 2.44 6.76
1999 New York Knicks 99.5 98.3 102.5 105.1 99.4 97.1 94.8 96.5 100.8 0.63 5.98 6.60
1972 New York Knicks 100.2 97.9 99.2 101.5 97.2 102.6 98.1 98.2 100.2 4.36 2.13 6.49
1991 Chicago Bulls 114.1 104.7 107.2 108.5 105.7 114.4 101.5 112.6 106.0 1.84 4.49 6.33
1951 Rochester Royals 91.0 87.7 84.6 85.6 84.1 92.7 84.8 90.4 88.8 2.22 3.91 6.13
1986 Houston Rockets 108.5 106.0 106.9 109.6 105.0 107.6 103.9 106.6 108.7 0.98 4.81 5.79
1989 Detroit Pistons 109.5 103.5 107.9 110.6 107.4 108.1 99.8 108.9 106.1 -0.86 6.34 5.48
1974 Boston Celtics 100.7 97.1 99.6 101.3 97.6 97.6 92.2 98.7 98.8 -1.12 6.54 5.42
2005 Detroit Pistons 105.0 100.6 105.5 106.7 102.3 102.9 97.5 101.8 101.8 1.05 4.35 5.40
1985 Los Angeles Lakers 114.6 107.5 107.8 110.5 107.3 114.6 105.4 114.1 110.2 0.54 4.75 5.29
1982 Los Angeles Lakers 109.4 104.8 106.2 107.7 103.7 110.9 105.1 106.9 106.3 4.04 1.23 5.27
1978 Washington Bullets 100.8 100.0 101.7 104.1 101.3 100.0 96.6 100.4 102.3 -0.40 5.67 5.26
1984 Los Angeles Lakers 111.5 107.9 107.3 109.1 106.8 111.3 104.8 111.0 109.7 0.31 4.91 5.22
1998 Chicago Bulls 107.6 99.7 105.4 109.4 104.3 108.5 100.3 106.4 103.5 2.02 3.17 5.19
1993 Chicago Bulls 111.4 104.8 107.4 110.2 104.8 111.3 105.0 108.7 107.5 2.62 2.50 5.11
1971 Baltimore Bullets 97.0 96.5 98.3 100.9 96.1 94.2 93.4 94.9 99.1 -0.65 5.65 5.00
1973 New York Knicks 101.5 94.9 98.5 100.3 94.1 102.1 97.1 96.9 96.6 5.17 -0.48 4.69
1975 Golden State Warriors 101.2 98.2 98.8 98.3 95.8 96.5 91.4 98.2 97.7 -1.63 6.24 4.61
1970 Los Angeles Lakers 101.2 99.4 100.1 102.8 100.1 101.8 98.3 101.1 102.0 0.67 3.75 4.42
2003 San Antonio Spurs 107.2 101.1 103.7 106.1 101.6 103.4 97.4 105.1 103.5 -1.74 6.12 4.38
2004 Detroit Pistons 103.5 96.7 103.3 103.9 100.2 99.1 91.8 100.4 97.4 -1.27 5.53 4.26
2006 Miami Heat 106.5 102.3 105.5 107.0 102.7 104.6 100.5 103.7 103.8 0.94 3.29 4.23
2009 Los Angeles Lakers 112.5 104.4 108.1 110.0 105.5 109.7 102.0 109.8 106.3 -0.08 4.29 4.21
1981 Boston Celtics 110.0 104.1 106.2 108.8 105.1 106.0 99.8 108.8 106.7 -2.86 6.93 4.07
1994 Houston Rockets 107.6 103.0 106.3 108.5 103.2 106.7 103.2 104.5 105.1 2.16 1.91 4.06
1990 Detroit Pistons 108.3 102.0 107.3 111.0 107.9 108.2 100.8 108.9 105.5 -0.73 4.73 4.00
1996 Chicago Bulls 116.9 103.3 108.6 110.7 105.6 113.2 100.9 113.6 105.3 -0.45 4.39 3.94
1986 Boston Celtics 111.2 102.0 106.9 108.6 105.8 113.7 103.5 110.0 103.6 3.69 0.16 3.86
2010 Los Angeles Lakers 108.2 103.1 107.3 111.8 107.0 112.5 108.2 107.9 107.5 4.58 -0.77 3.81
1971 Milwaukee Bucks 108.5 97.3 98.3 99.3 98.6 106.1 92.0 108.9 98.3 -2.77 6.26 3.49
1987 Los Angeles Lakers 115.6 106.5 107.6 109.8 108.2 117.2 106.1 116.3 108.6 0.87 2.56 3.43
1988 Detroit Pistons 109.1 104.0 107.4 111.0 107.0 103.5 98.7 108.7 107.4 -5.29 8.70 3.41
1979 Seattle Supersonics 103.8 101.1 104.8 107.8 104.1 102.0 99.5 103.1 104.0 -1.09 4.45 3.36
2006 Dallas Mavericks 111.0 104.2 105.5 108.5 102.8 107.2 102.8 108.2 107.1 -0.99 4.34 3.35
1983 Philadelphia 76ers 109.9 102.4 105.3 106.7 102.6 108.7 102.1 107.1 103.7 1.67 1.64 3.31
1963 Los Angeles Lakers 98.6 95.9 95.4 94.1 90.7 100.0 97.9 93.7 94.6 6.34 -3.24 3.10
1966 Boston Celtics 92.8 88.8 94.4 97.2 94.7 96.9 92.2 93.2 91.4 3.75 -0.76 2.99
1964 Boston Celtics 90.9 84.5 93.8 95.5 91.1 87.0 81.8 88.3 86.1 -1.32 4.31 2.99
1967 Philadelphia 76ers 102.1 94.4 95.7 97.2 94.1 97.0 89.6 100.5 95.9 -3.50 6.37 2.87
1952 New York Knicks 86.8 86.1 85.6 87.3 82.1 91.2 92.8 83.3 87.7 7.94 -5.11 2.82
2004 Los Angeles Lakers 103.8 99.7 103.3 103.0 97.1 97.3 96.3 97.6 99.4 -0.36 3.09 2.73
1980 Los Angeles Lakers 111.2 105.5 106.3 107.7 103.6 107.9 103.7 108.4 106.9 -0.43 3.15 2.71
1968 Boston Celtics 95.6 92.2 96.1 98.6 95.1 97.0 94.4 94.6 94.7 2.41 0.25 2.66
2002 Los Angeles Lakers 106.9 99.3 104.2 107.3 101.1 103.6 99.6 103.6 102.3 0.00 2.63 2.63
1980 Philadelphia 76ers 107.7 103.6 106.3 108.7 104.1 103.7 101.4 105.5 105.9 -1.86 4.49 2.63
1977 Portland Trail Blazers 104.7 99.5 101.0 103.4 100.0 100.7 96.3 103.7 101.9 -3.00 5.57 2.57

So the 2010 Celtics are the second-most improved playoff team ever, having tacked on +7.8 points of estimated efficiency differential to what you would expect their performance to be in the playoffs. However, that's a distant 2nd place behind the 2001 Lakers, still owners of the most improbable postseason run in NBA history: the '01 Lakers essentially went from a good but not great team during the regular-season to arguably the greatest team of all time during the playoffs!

Past performance is still the best predictor of future results, of course -- but as these teams showed, it's hardly a 100% foolproof method of predicting playoff success.

ShareThis

5 Responses to “NBA Finalists That Improved the Most In the Playoffs”

  1. Mike G Says:

    Very nice work.
    Those 2001 Lakers sure are in a class by themselves. More than twice as improved as anyone else.
    The '95 Rockets and '99 Knicks rank in the top 6.
    Of those early '70s Knicks teams, it's the 1972 edition that was most improved. They knocked off the favored Celtics 4-1.
    Nice work. Did I say that already?

  2. downpuppy Says:

    The 2001 Lakers were not exactly a secret before the playoffs. They'd won their last 8 & were in the middle of a 3 year title run. Most of the teams that improved in the playoffs seem like that - great teams that were beat up or resting during the regular season, not ordinary teams that caught fire.

    Or maybe that's just how they seem afterwards. Is there a way to measure expectations & reputation before & after a season?

  3. Jason J Says:

    For the most part I see teams whose best players got healthy late in the season or who had significant signings last in the season. The 2001 Lakers got a healthy, in shape Shaq at the end. The 2010 Celtics got healthy KG & Pierce ready to play. The '95 Rockets picked up Clyde. The '99 Knicks picked up Spree and Camby. The '91 Bulls break that mold. I don't really remember that regular season anymore, but nobody expected that team to dominate the playoffs the way they did. Other than a monster game by Charles Barkley in round 2 and a stroke of bad luck in game 1 of the finals (MJ game winner rimout), they went through untouched.

  4. Ben Says:

    I haven't looked at it systematically, but it seems like a lot of these teams had won a championship recently. Slacking off in the regular season seems to be a real phenomenon.

  5. Romain Says:

    Great work.

    I'm surprised the 95 Rockets rank behind the 10 Celtics.
    They had an even worse regular season and pulled a last minute trade that sounded a bit desperate at the time (Clyde had been on the decline for 2+ years, Otis Thorpe was a valuable PF next to Hakeem, who after the trade had to pretty much take care of the paint on his own, not an esay task for a 32 year-old center...).
    The Celtics at least had home court advantage in the 1st round and a relatively weak opponent with the Heat to gather some steam whereas the Rockets had to defeat nothing less than the best 4 teams of the regular season, and they even somehow found a way to sweep one of them.