If your favorite team is off to a bad start, you can look that stat in the headline in two different ways:
- Since 2003, 76.7 percent of teams that are under .500 coming into November 18 have missed the playoffs, failing to put the pieces together in another season of letdowns.
- Since 2003, 23.3 percent have come back to make the playoffs and win their fans back with five months of great basketball. The first three weeks? Well, that was just a flesh wound.
A total of 30 teams out of 129 have come back to contend. You might think most of those came from the East since we’re in an era where the West has been loaded, but only 16 were from the inferior conference. And they’re not all teams who just barely make the postseason. Two defending champions, the Shaq-led ’03 Lakers and ’07 Heat, started out flat. Others like the ’07 Suns, ’07 Bulls, and ’11 Grizzlies were pesky outs.
Here’s the complete list. I left out the lockout-shortened 2012 season:
2003 (4 out of 13 teams): Los Angeles Lakers (3-7), Portland (4-6), Utah (4-7), Minnesota (5-6)
2004 (2/11): New Jersey (5-6), New York (3-7)
2005 (4/12): New Jersey (2-6), Chicago (0-6), Denver (3-5), Memphis (3-5)
2006 (3/14): Chicago (3-5), Los Angeles Lakers (4-5), Sacramento (4-5)
2007 (5/14): Toronto (2-7), Chicago (3-6), Miami (4-5), Washington (4-5), Phoenix (3-6)
2008 (2/14): New Jersey (3-6), Washington (4-5)
2009 (2/12): Chicago (5-6), Dallas (4-7)
2010 (2/14): Charlotte (3-8), San Antonio (4-5)
2011 (3/13): New York (4-8), Philadelphia (2-10), Memphis (4-8)
2013 (3/12): Indiana (4-7), Denver (4-6), Houston (4-6)
Who will make the list this year?
So far, 15 teams are under .500: (deep breath) Philadelphia, Boston, Toronto, New York, Brooklyn, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Orlando, Washington, New Orleans, Sacramento, Los Angeles Lakers, Utah, and Denver. No more than five and no less than two have made the playoffs. If we’re going straight by the math over the last decade, we can pick three or four.
I’ll pick four and they’re all coming from the East. Out in the West, the most likely under .500 candidates to surge back are the Lakers and Pelicans yet they’ll have to overtake Memphis, who sits in tenth place and in time will pass ninth-place Phoenix. Basically, nobody under .500 from the West will come back this year, though Kobe Bryant‘s return and Anthony Davis‘ monster sophomore season at least made me think about it. Oh well. There are still nine teams from the East to choose from.
Every team in the Atlantic Division is under .500, which is embarrassing but one has to win and get the fourth seed by default. I’d expect New York and Brooklyn to limp into the finish line, maybe seeing them battle in the first round of the playoffs. At the very least, they both get in. The East is just too terrible for them not to.
From there I’ll go with Detroit, who didn’t sign Josh Smith just to tank the season away. I already wrote a little about their frontcourt woes while wondering why nobody is fouling Andre Drummond, but I expect the team to play better as the season goes on. I mean, they can’t be much worse defensively, right? If they somehow are, Greg Monroe can be moved for a piece that’s a better fit, one that’s good enough to put Detroit in the playoffs. I’d like to think of them being a pesky out for a title contender, at least pushing the series to five games.
That leaves one more team, and it gets painful to pick and choose who will get destroyed by Miami or Indiana, but I’ll go with Washington. They can make a move or two before the deadline with whatever Trevor Ariza will attract, but could (and probably will) also fire Randy Wittman and hopefully gain wins down the line with a coach that, you know, can get the job done with John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Marcin ‘Too Hot To’ Gortat.
Toronto can make moves too, especially with Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan, but a trade will more often than one to push themselves into the lottery. As for Cleveland, they seem to be a mess led by Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, and Anderson Varejao. Somehow, they can’t score with those three guys. Cleveland was a tough choice though since they too are primed for a trade down the road.
The East in general is a crap shoot, but it wasn’t expected to be this bad out of the gates. Right now if the conference were a Myspace account, Orlando, Philadelphia, Toronto, and Charlotte would be in the East’s top eight, along with Miami and the like. By the end of the season, they’ll all have grown sour and made room for New York, Brooklyn, Detroit, and Washington.