Every team has a peak and valley during their season, even the 76ers who started the season 3-0 but are now dealing with a winless five-week stretch. For a team looking to grab a top-3 pick in this year’s draft, that’s probably the right time to find their high and really, really low points of the season. As for the title contenders it should be the opposite, though a few teams are going through some recent woes whether it’s from a difficult stretch of games (Miami dealing with Joakim Noah and Boris Diaw), adjusting after a trade (Indiana with Evan Turner and other problems) or whatever else factoring into a slump (it’s all Russell Westbrook’s fault!).
History has shown that it’s fine to experience those downswings as long as they don’t carry too deep into March or April. Over the past 30 years, 26 of the eventual champions played .600 ball or better in the final quarter of the season. Also worth noting is that, with the help of Basketball-Reference, 26 of the last 28 champions finished the same stretch of games with a positive net rating.
Below are the last 30 champions with their records, offensive and defensive efficiency, and net rating over the final fourth of the season. Highlighted are the outliers. All stats are according to Basketball-Reference:
1995 Houston Rockets
Hakeem Olajuwon missed eight of the final 20 games with the Rockets going 3-5 over that stretch. Clyde Drexler played out of his mind during Dream’s absence, averaging a stat line of 30.0/9.3/5.5/2.4/0.9. He also made over 30 percent of his threes, something not totally guaranteed throughout his career.
In the 12 games Olajuwon played, Houston squeaked out a positive net rating of 0.1. Also, Zan Tabak played in only eight of the last 20 games. Absolutely has to be noted.
Orlando finished 9-11 as well, though they had efficiency splits of 114.2/112.3/+1.9. Long live the mid-90s Magic jerseys and Penny Hardaway.
2006 Miami Heat
Dwyane Wade missed three games while Shaquille O’Neal missed five. Each sat out the last two games, paving the way for a Michael Doleac-Wayne Simien-Antoine Walker-Dorell Wright-Jason Williams starting lineup. Miami lost both. Fun times.
Dallas also finished 11-9 that season and Dirk Nowitzki played 81 games, so what might be their best excuse? Their schedule wasn’t the greatest as they played the Cavaliers, Clippers, and Kings each twice and the Jazz, Nets, Nuggets, Pistons, Spurs, Suns, and Wizards each once. That’s not exactly the most murderous row of opponents but a mix of title contenders and playoff-worthy teams jousting for seeding nonetheless. Also mixed in the final 20 games were the Hornets with a rookie Chris Paul, the Magic with a young Dwight Howard, and the Warriors who…they stunk down the stretch, sure, but we all know what happened next year. Regardless, that’s 19 of the final 20 games. Joe Johnson and the Atlanta Hawks were the other squad Dallas faced (and defeated).
2010 Los Angeles Lakers
Andrew Bynum missed the last 13 games of the season while Kobe Bryant missed four. Pau Gasol was awesome down the stretch, though, averaging a line of 24.2/12.9/3.8 with 2.2 blocks.
2012 Miami Heat
A lockout-shortened season where resting core players was rarely a bad move. LeBron James, Wade, and Chris Bosh made only 31 appearances out of a possible 48, making way for front courts of some combination of Eddy Curry, Dexter Pittman, Udonis Haslem, James Jones, and Shane Battier. Arguably more fun times than 2006.
It might seem standard for solid teams to play any fourth of the season with a positive net rating, but that’s not exactly true. Using the net ratings from NBA.com, below are 10 notable teams of the last 15 seasons that dipped into the negatives over the final quarter:
Sure, a lot of those teams were pseudo-contenders. The 2001 Sixers, for example, were never going to win four games against a Lakers squad that mowed over their first three opponents with an offense-defense efficiency line of 113.0/96.3/+16.7, but maybe sputtering down the stretch contributed to those teams not being among the league’s elite during their respective seasons. As for the 2010 Lakers and 2013 Spurs, they clearly stand above the eight other teams in terms of talent and confidence they’d make a deep run in the postseason.
Some team over the next five weeks is bound to hit a rough patch. Maybe they’ll right themselves in time for what should be a hell of a postseason, but they could also end up as a team to write off whether it’s in April, May, or possibly even June. Below is a breakdown of the remaining schedules for a mix of title contenders and ones I don’t think will go that far in the playoffs, but included them anyway just because. Each team also has their own sheet with their last 20 games, including the (color-filtered) difficulty of their opponents. It’s a fricken rainbow.
Every team seems to have a few games in a row against teams competing (or about to compete) for lottery balls, though teams out West appear to have more daunting schedules overall.
There’s always the chance for an outlier like four of the last 30 seasons, though, but the Clips at least look well on their way to fit the minimum requirements to be labeled as a contender. That’s at least in regards to finishing steady.
But to include one last table, ending the last quarter of the season over .600 and with a sexy net rating doesn’t always guarantee making the deepest of runs in the playoffs. Below is a table of the best nets in the final fourth of seasons since 1997, according to NBA.com:
If that final table makes a team finishing hot suddenly worrisome, it probably shouldn’t. When looking at net ratings provided by Basketball-Reference in the very first table, champions often had very respectable ones. Chicago’s from 1996 is unreal.
Anyway, a lot still needs to be addressed regarding quite a few playoff teams. Let’s see how the last five weeks play out. The next two days should especially be entertaining thanks to a ton of good matchups.
For related posts, check out drastic movements in the lottery over the last two months of the season and what 20 wins before Christmas means in the West.