The NBA season is 42 days old, and it is as good a time as any to take an early snapshot of the league and its elite teams.
Every team has played at least 20 games (except the Spurs, who had a game postponed), and several are playing at an extremely high level.
Four teams have .800-or-better records through December 10:
Indiana: 18-3 (.857)
Portland: 18-4 (.818)
Oklahoma City: 16-4 (.800)
San Antonio: 15-4 (.800)
This is a huge rarity. The last it happened was 17 years ago:
December 10, 1996
Houston: 19-2 (.905)
Utah: 17-3 (.850)
Chicago: 18-3 (.857)
Detroit: 16-4 (.800)
The Rockets finished 57-25 (2nd in the West) and lost in the Conference Finals. The Jazz finished 64-18 (1st in the West) and lost in the Finals. The Bulls finished 69-13 (1st in the East) and won the title.
The Pistons, led by third-year forward Grant Hill, who had arguably his finest all-round season as a pro (80 games, 21 PPG, 9 RPG, 7 APG, 49% FGs), were the huge surprise among that early fab four.
Ultimately, the Pistons slowed down. They lost 10 of 15 games in a particularly bad stretch through March and April, finished 54-28 (5th in the East) and lost in Round 1.
What does it all mean for the ‘13/14 Blazers?
The ‘96/97 Pistons are a reasonable point of reference for this year’s shockingly-good Blazers, who everyone is expecting to calm down a little at some point. Portland could be a similar 15-game stretch away from losing homecourt advantage for the first round; this year’s West is just as strong as that year’s East.
The good news for the Blazers: historically, the Pistons model is the worst case scenario. Teams who are .800+ through 42 days generally make it past the first round.
Between 1997 and 2013, 23 teams had an .800+ record at this point in the season. All 23 made it to the Conference Semi-finals, and only three of the 23 failed to make the Conference Finals:
- The ‘10/11 Celtics, who started 18-4 (.818), finished 56-26 (3rd in the East) and lost in the second round after Rajon Rondo dislocated his elbow.
- The ‘04/05 Sonics, who started 17-3 (.850) and finished 52-30 (4th in the West), and lost in the second round to the eventual champion Spurs.
- The ‘98/99 Jazz, who started 17-4 (.810), finished the lockout season 37-13 (2nd in the West), and lost in the second round to the young Rasheed Wallace/J.R. Rider-led Blazers.
That the Ray Allen-led Sonics won 52 games in ‘04/05 remains mind-boggling. Their third and fourth best players were Luke Ridnour and Vladimir Radmanovic, for crying out loud. These Blazers are most certainly a better team. Alas, that was a down year for the league, one of the very worst in modern NBA history. We’ve come a long way since then.
What does it all mean for the NBA?
The league today is in great shape generally, and is always well served by having a number of teams that are competing at historically high levels record-wise. It’s fun to watch great teams. In ‘06/07, zero teams had an .800 record at this stage in the season. And that was not a good season.
So let us appreciate this particular fab four’s early greatness, and enjoy it while it lasts. Tanking and general suckiness throughout the Eastern Conference is playing a considerable part in the lofty win totals, but let’s not stress what the bad teams are up to. This year’s Pacers, fresh off their statement win over Miami, look so dialled in that they may well make a run at 67+ wins – a total only 9 teams have ever reached. So far, so good.