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Best Performances vs. Playoff Teams, 2000-2010

Posted by Neil Paine on August 16, 2010

There are a lot of attributes that I've looked into as the hallmarks of great teams, including dominant wins, ideal usage allocations, and superior playoff point differentials. But here's another characteristic to throw onto that heap -- season-long performance vs. playoff teams.

Since the playoffs only feature the league's best teams -- a.k.a. those through which the path to a championship runs -- you could argue that we should judge a good team's ability by its performance vs. fellow postseason participants. Or at least that's the premise here: for every season since 2000, I whittled down the NBA schedule (regular-season and playoffs) to just include games between 2 playoff teams. Then I ran the Simple Rating System formula on those games, adjusting for a home-court advantage of 3.3 PPG and setting the results relative to the overall league average of 0.0 (to keep things on the familiar SRS scale).

The results are the teams that performed the best vs. playoff teams during the year in question:

Rk Year Team SRS W L WPct
1 2005 SAS 9.39 43 23 0.652
2 2009 LAL 9.36 45 19 0.703
3 2007 PHO 8.93 34 19 0.642
4 2000 LAL 8.85 49 18 0.731
5 2002 LAL 8.84 45 18 0.714
6 2009 CLE 8.71 40 17 0.702
7 2001 LAL 8.65 43 17 0.717
8 2007 SAS 8.55 40 21 0.656
9 2008 UTA 8.42 34 20 0.630
10 2006 DAL 8.38 42 23 0.646
11 2008 BOS 8.29 43 24 0.642
12 2010 ORL 8.18 35 19 0.648
13 2004 SAS 8.17 32 22 0.593
14 2000 POR 8.13 40 20 0.667
15 2003 SAS 8.00 48 20 0.706
16 2005 PHO 7.82 35 21 0.625
17 2005 DAL 7.61 34 21 0.618
18 2008 LAL 7.53 40 23 0.635
19 2004 DET 7.47 41 25 0.621
20 2003 SAC 7.38 36 20 0.643
21 2002 SAS 7.10 30 24 0.556
22 2008 DET 7.00 38 21 0.644
23 2002 SAC 6.84 38 22 0.633
24 2009 ORL 6.78 39 26 0.600
25 2003 DAL 6.78 34 30 0.531
26 2009 BOS 6.65 36 21 0.632
27 2004 LAL 6.57 40 26 0.606
28 2005 HOU 6.36 29 21 0.580
29 2006 DET 6.33 41 20 0.672
30 2004 MIN 6.27 40 22 0.645

And look at the top of the list, it's our Most Dominant Playoff Tournament Champions, the 2005 San Antonio Spurs!

Back in April, that result seemed surprising, perhaps even a glitch in WhatIfSports' programming... but maybe it shouldn't have. San Antonio simply dominated the league's good teams in '05: they had 43 wins over playoff teams, and 28 of them came by 10 or more points (by comparison, the 2000 Lakers had 6 fewer wins of 10+ pts despite winning 6 more total games; likewise, the '03 Spurs were even less dominant, winning just 19 of 48 by 10+). And along with the 4th-best scoring differential vs. playoff teams of any squad since 2000 (+5.4 PPG), in the playoffs San Antonio went through Phoenix (+7.8 SRS vs. playoff teams), Detroit (+5.9), Seattle (+4.0), and Denver (+3.6), one of the toughest gauntlets any team on this list had to run.

Because they were geared toward defense and ball control, because they were just one of four nonconsecutive Spurs title teams, and especially because they went 7 games against Detroit (another team geared toward defense and ball control) in David Stern's nightmare Finals, the 2005 Spurs have been consistently overlooked as a great team. However, with their ability to dominate the cream of the NBA's crop, perhaps it's finally time to give that San Antonio squad the respect they deserve.

14 Responses to “Best Performances vs. Playoff Teams, 2000-2010”

  1. BSK Says:

    Do those totals include the actual playoffs themselves? I assume they must, otherwise it seems odd that they played 60+ games against playoff teams.

  2. P Middy Says:

    I really hated those 2000s Spurs teams when they were winning so consistently. Now that I'm a little removed from it, I'm starting to appreciate how good they were. In particular, how much of a near-perfect basketball player Tim Duncan was/is.

  3. Neil Paine Says:

    Re: #1 - Yes, both playoff and regular-season games are included. I basically just put a flag next to any game that featured two teams who made the postseason.



  5. tgt Says:

    Instead of arguing without evidence, how about you actually do some research and see if SRS or win percentage against playoff teams is a predictor of success? I'd suspect SRS against the top 8 in the league overall would be a better predictor, but these things can be counter intuitive. Look at FO's research on Guts and Stomps. They found that in the NFL, destroying bad teams was a better predictor of post season success than barely beating good teams.

  6. marparker Says:

    That research has been completely refuted. They don't even mention it on the site any longer

  7. Neil Paine Says:

    Re: #5 - With the current setup of including playoff results, any study predicting the postseason would be circular. I can, however, look into how performance vs. playoff teams in the regular-season translates to the postseason.

  8. Anonymous Lurker Says:

    Wow, I didn't expect the Cavs to only appear once in the top 30. They just seemed so dominant during the regular season.

  9. Jason J Says:

    2005 was the season where Duncan was hurt and wound up playing limited games / minutes in the reg season and Manu really blossomed, and then they both had it going in the playoffs. I'm still surprised the SRS is that high without the Shaq-Lakers there to challenge them in the West.

  10. BSK Says:

    It does seem like a better measure would be to use the top X teams.

    I'm curious how the talent disparity between the conferences and the relative strength of the lower playoff seeds in each conference impacts things. I'm not too familiar with all of the advanced stats, but my guess is that these studies take into account the strength of each team. Still, it doesn't seem to do us much good to consider how well the 2008 Celtics did against the 37-45 #8 Hawks, especially when the Lakers of that same year had a 50-32 team as the #8 seed. Maybe I'm missing the boat, but I'm curious as to how that might impact things and whether there is a better predictor of success than this study.

  11. Walter Says:

    The big surprise to me is the East vs West desparity! Of the top 21 teams only 4 teams from the East appear on the list: 2009 Cleveland (6), 2008 Boston (11), 2010 Orlando (12), and 2004 Detroit (19).

    I know the East has not been very good, but I would have expected them to do better in this list simply because they played a disproportionately high number of games against 40 win "playoff teams" in the East.

    Also, all but 3 of the teams on that list were eliminated from the playoffs by another team on the list (no shame in that) or went on to win the title. The only teams eliminated by a team not on the list was: 2010 Orlando, 2006 Detroit, and 2006 Dallas.
    The Orlando team was knocked out by the Boston Celtics who had a dissapointing regular season (against many teams) but turned it on in the playoffs. The two teams from 2006 were both eliminated by the eventual champion Miami Heat who are not on the list.

  12. Walter Says:

    Re: #8 - Seeing the Cavs on the list only once isn't too big a surprise. They have only been a really good team for 2 years (2008-09 and 2009-10). Other than that they never had more than 50 wins in a season (equivalent to an 8th seed in the West many years).

    People often view them as a great team because over a 5 year stretch they at least made the conference semi's, once made the finals, and twice had the best record in the league. But when you really break it down, the Cavs consistently took advantage of what the Eastern Conference called playoff teams (2006 WAS 42 Wins, 2007 WAS 41 Wins, 2007 NJ 41 Wins, 2008 WAS 43 Wins, 2009 DET 39 Wins, & 2010 CHI 41 Wins). That is 6 playoff series victories against teams with no more than 43 wins (in other words, non-playoff teams if in the West). Cleveland's ONLY win against a true playoff team was the 2007 Detroit Pistons but even they only won 53 games despite playing in the easier Eastern Conference. That Pistons team would have been a 5th seed in the West so even they weren't really a great playoff team. The 5 times the Cavs went up against a TRUE heavy weight they lost all five series.

    I think the Cavs are similar to the Suns in that they are a team that racks up wins in the regular season by feasting on the weaker teams that don't play defense (notice Phoenix only made the list twice despite posting 54+ wins five times in 6 seasons). However in the playoffs against good defenses that are given time to prepare their one-dimensional offenses are somewhat limited and thus they struggle.

  13. Joseph Says:

    12: The Suns and Cavs do rack up wins against weaker teams, that's right, because most teams are weaker. The Suns have lost to who in the Playoffs, exactly? Lakers (two-time champs), Spurs (two-time champs) and the Mavericks (Finals runner-up) so, essentially, the Suns lost to great teams in the Playoffs, not terrible teams. The Cavaliers lost to Boston (champions and Finals runner-up), Orlando (Finals runner-up), and San Antonio (champion). While you could say they're similar, I think the credit should go to the teams who defeated them in the Playoffs rather than a feast on the weak.

  14. huevonkiller Says:

    The Cavs had a weak playoff supporting cast the past two seasons. There aren't too many elite teams they would have beat with Mo and Jamison playing the way they did.