Ranking the NBA Again

Posted on March 7, 2007 by


The Chicago Bulls in 1995-96 won 72 games, finishing with a winning percentage of 0.878. This mark currently ranks as the best regular season in history, surpassing the Los Angeles Lakers who finished the 1971-72 season with 69 victories (and a 0.841 winning percentage).

After 60 games the Dallas Mavericks have won 51 times, for a winning percentage of 0.850. With this record the Mavericks are on pace to win 70 games. Given that this record ranks among the all-time marks in NBA history, clearly the Mavericks are the best team in the NBA this season.

Although that may seem obvious, John Hollinger disagrees. His NBA rankings place the Mavericks behind the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs have played 61 games, but with only 43 victories, are only on pace to win 58 contests. Yes, the Spurs are on pace to finish 12 games behind the Mavericks. So how can the Spurs be ranked number one?

A couple of months ago I discussed the Hollinger’s rankings. Although his formula includes a number of factors, the key issues are offensive and defensive efficiency. Prior to last night’s games, the Spurs were scoring 106.5 points per 100 possessions while only allowing 97.1. Hence their efficiency differential (offensive efficiency – defensive efficiency) stood at 9.3. The Mavericks had a more efficient offense, scoring 109.4 points per 100 possessions. But per 100 possessions, Dallas was allowing 100.6 points. This results in an efficiency differential of 8.9.

Of course, the difference between these marks is rather small. Clearly both Dallas and San Antonio are very good this year. To see how good, in the last fifteen years only five teams managed an efficiency differential as good as the Spurs and Mavericks this season. These five were the

  • Chicago Bulls (1995-96): 13.0
  • Chicago Bulls (1996-97): 11.6
  • Chicago Bulls (1991-92): 10.6
  • Utah Jazz (1996-97): 9.4
  • Seattle SuperSonics (1993-94): 9.2

So it should be pretty clear, the Spurs and Mavericks are each having very impressive seasons.

Of course there is a problem for the NBA. Each of these teams play in the Western Conference. Therefore, only one of these teams can appear in the NBA Finals. And given that the Phoenix Suns have a differential of 7.9, a mark in excess of any team in the NBA in 2005-06, it’s possible that both the Spurs and Mavericks will fail to make it to the NBA Finals.

If we look at the entire NBA (listed in the table below), the league is comprised of three top teams — Spurs, Mavericks, and Suns – and then everyone else.

Table One: Ranking the NBA in 2006-07

Given the offensive and defensive efficiency of these teams, all three are projected to win at least 60 games. No other NBA team is projected to win more than 53 contests. And since only 11 teams have a positive efficiency differential, the majority of NBA teams are currently projected to finish the season with a losing record. Unfortunately, the NBA’s playoff format requires the participation of 16 teams, which means that a number of average and below average teams will be appearing the in the post-season.

The main attractions in the playoffs will be the NBA’s three elite teams. But since all three reside in the Western Conference, we already know that the NBA Finals in 2007 cannot feature the NBA’s two best teams. In fact, if upsets occur out West – and in a short seven game series that is quite possible – it’s possible the NBA Finals may feature two teams that are less than elite.

Is there are remedy to this problem? Unless the NBA wants to ignore conferences and seed the playoffs in order of the best records, there is not much the league can do. As it stands, the best playoff match-up will probably happen in the Western Conference Finals, with the second best match-up occurring in all likelihood between the Spurs and Suns in the Western Conference Semi-Finals.

Out East, a collection of less than stellar teams will battle to face the best in the West. Currently, in terms of efficiency, the Chicago Bulls rank as the Eastern Conference’s best team. One should note, though, that in the 17 games since the Pistons passed the mid-point, Detroit’s efficiency differential has been 6.6. If this record holds, the Pistons should be favored over the Bulls in the playoffs.

And of course, that ignores what it would mean if Dwyane Wade – bad shoulder and all – could join Shaq on the court in Miami. Yes, the East looks least this year, but it’s possible that the Eastern Conference champion could put up a fight in the finals. Okay, not likely, but certainly possible.

– DJ