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By The Numbers: Sniffing Out The Real Title Contenders

With the NBA season winding down, teams are starting to ramp up in preparation for the Playoffs. The games have become more meaningful to the standings, as illustrated by an insane weekend that included the second-highest-scoring game of all time, 2 buzzer-beaters, and multiple nail-biters. And with 20 some-odd games to go, there’s even less time for struggling teams to turn things around. 

Things begin to clear up even more… We start to think about potential playoff matchups and maybe most importantly, we see who really is a contender and who’s just playing the part. In order to find out who, in the present day, actually could be a championship team in 2023, I had to go to the past. 

NBA history has this wonderful way of determining who can and can’t be a championship-worthy team, by the numbers. With so much information at our disposal and hindsight in our back pocket, we can use past champions and finalists as a measuring stick. Similar to how the legal systems in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia use rulings from past cases to establish precedents in current-day proceedings via case law, through our own version of court cases (pun intended) we can find out who really has what it takes to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy. 

In the end, the saying does ring true: Men lie, women lie… numbers don’t.  

I went through the last 39 years of NBA history, starting in the 1983-1984 season to determine what the numerical characteristics of a championship team are. Why 1983-1984? Well, because offensive and defensive rating per 100 possessions began being calculated that season, as did overall point differential – these 3 key pillars are going to help determine who can win the chip in 2023. 

Also, 39 years gives us a wide array of NBA champions. Some played extra big, some played small, some were led by ball-dominant guards or wings, and others by towering big men in the middle. The game itself changed through 39 years, from a more post-oriented game to a sport dominated by floor spacing, shooting, and pace. And despite all of that variance in style, approach, and skill, offensive, defensive, and net Rating all proved to be pivotal indicators of what it means to be a championship contender. 

With that being said, let’s look at our results. Remember, these are by the numbers. 

(All numbers according to Basketball Reference) 

A League Of Their Own:

Of the 78 teams to make the NBA Finals in the last 39 years, 15 had a top 5 offense, defense, and point differential. 10 of those 15 teams ended up winning the NBA title (66.7%): 84 Celtics, 86 Celtics, 92 Bulls, 96 Bulls, 97 Bulls, 98 Bulls, 2007 Spurs, 2015 Warriors, 2017 Warriors, 2019 Raptors 

Who Fits The Bill? 

2023 Celtics: 2nd in O, 5th in D, 1st in Net Rating 

The Boston Celtics have put themselves in a rare category of NBA contender, the juggernaut. Despite the Bucks and Nuggets nipping at their tails to catch them in the race for best-record-in-the-Association, the Celtics have chugged along, dominantly. They are the second-best offense in the league, led by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who have both improved as shot-creators and playmakers, having the best seasons of their young careers. Their 5th ranked defense is stifling, with Tatum and Brown both taking sizable leaps on that end and a supporting cast mixed with excellent team defenders in Robert Williams, Al Horford, Grant Williams, Malcolm Brogdon, and last year’s DPOY, Marcus Smart. Not to mention, the Celtics are one of if not the deepest teams in the league and that should be important for a long playoff run. 

If the Celtics don’t make the Finals, they’d be an aberration, a glitch in the Matrix. And if they make the Finals and don’t win, it’d be because of some extenuating circumstances. The two most recent teams to have similar offensive, defensive, and net rating numbers to the Celtics and lose in the Finals? The 2016 Warriors and the 2011 Heat. And those are well-documented as some of the biggest upsets in NBA history. So, history is on the Celtics’ side. 

The Clear-Cut Contenders:

Of the 78 teams to make the NBA Finals in the past 39 years, 49 teams had both a top-10 offense and top-10 defense. 30 of those 49 teams ended up winning the NBA title (61.2%): 84 Celtics, 85 Lakers, 86 Celtics, 87 Lakers, 88 Lakers, 89 Pistons, 91, Bulls, 92 Bulls, 93 Bulls, 96 Bulls, 97 Bulls, 98 Bulls, 2000 Lakers, 2002 Lakers, 2003 Spurs, 2005 Spurs, 2006 Heat, 2007 Spurs, 2008 Celtics, 2009 Lakers, 2011 Mavericks, 2012 Heat, 2013 Heat, 2014 Spurs, 2015 Warriors, 2016 Cavaliers, 2017 Warriors, 2018 Warriors, 2019 Raptors, 2021 Bucks 

Who Fits The Bill?

2023 Sixers: 8th in O, 7th in D, 5th in Net Rating 

2023 Cavaliers: 9th in O, 3rd in D, 2nd in Net Rating 

While the Celtics also could be considered in this category, they’re a cut above these two teams. The Sixers and Cavaliers have been very steady all season, boasting powerful offenses and formidable defenses on a night-to-night basis. The Sixers, in particular, have been exceptional as of late, and have the 3rd best record in the NBA since December 1st. Joel Embiid is having, yet again, another MVP-caliber campaign, and James Harden has played the part of second fiddle particularly well, leading the league in assists this season. The Sixers are deeper than they ever have been, their respective stars are healthier than they ever have been and by all the numbers, should be a contender for the NBA title. But of course, there will always be postseason questions for a team led by Embiid and Harden, two players whose playoff deficiencies (whether fair or not) have been brought up on numerous occasions. The only thing left for this Sixers team to do is prove it. This seems like the most ideal year for them to do it as well. And they’ve positioned themselves well. 

The Cavaliers, on the other hand, are probably too early in their own “process” to be labeled as true contenders, but again, the numbers don’t lie! The backcourt pairing of Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland has helped them create a high-octane and entertaining brand of offense, built on a lot of pick-n-roll actions and tons of feisty guard play. Their defense, helmed by their two towering big men Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley is up there with the best in the league. They can score, they can defend, and they’ve beaten some good competition this season as well. Other than the fact that they’re probably too inexperienced to actually make a Finals run, some of their one-track-mindedness on offense will probably lead to issues in the postseason. When everything is coming from two undersized guards in the backcourt, you can get in trouble when you have to beat a team 4 times in the playoffs. I don’t think the Cavaliers have a championship run in them this season, although crazier things have happened. Nonetheless, they’re on track to be a juggernaut in the East for years to come. 

The Defensive Contenders

Of the 78 teams to make the NBA Finals in the last 39 years, 15 of them had top 10 defenses but bottom 20 offenses (20%). 6 of those 15 teams ended up winning the NBA title (40%): 90 Pistons, 94 Rockets, 99 Spurs, 2004 Pistons, 2020 Lakers, 2022 Warriors

Who Fits The Bill?

2023 Bucks: 21st in O, 2nd in D, 6th in Net Rating 

2023 Grizzlies: 20th in O, 1st in D, 4th in Net Rating 

2023 Suns: 15th in O, 9th in D, 9th in Net Rating 

Let’s just get this out of the way quickly, we have to throw away any and all numbers with the Phoenix Suns. Kevin Durant, a perennial MVP candidate, and top-15 player all time joining the team is definitely going to throw a wrench in our whole “numbers don’t lie” motto in the article. The Suns have more than enough time to become a top 10 offense and defense with KD in the fold, so maybe they move up to the ‘clear-cut contenders’ category of things by the time the season is over. 

Also, if you look at some of the recent champions who have won with a good defense, but subpar offense (which again, the Suns will not be) they’ve done so under weird circumstances, similar to this Suns team. In 1994, the Rockets won in a year without Michael Jordan. In 1999, the Spurs won in a lockout-shortened year. In 2020, the Lakers won in the NBA bubble. This category sort of fits under two different sub-categories: weird NBA seasons or juggernaut defenses… and the Suns, with the momentous midseason addition of Durant, might fit in the former. But an NBA title in Phoenix this season wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest. 

The Grizzlies and Bucks, however, fit in the second sub-category. Built on the backs of goliath-like defenses, these two teams fit the exact description of past champions whose defensive prowess led them to glory. The 2004 Pistons are the most notable and most mentioned in this department but the Grizzlies and Bucks both have something that those Pistons were missing: offensive superstars. 

In Giannis for the Bucks and in Ja Morant for the Grizzlies, Milwaukee and Memphis, respectively, can achieve something similar to what the 2022 Warriors did last season: play good enough defense for their superstars to give them a chance on offense. The Bucks have already proved they can win this way. They did so in 2021 with an overall good offense but a subpar half-court scheme and a resilient defensive scheme with Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez as its backbone. 

The jury is still out on whether the Grizzlies can follow a similar formula. They’re young and don’t have as much playoff experience as the Bucks do, but if Jaren Jackson Jr can be as impactful as a defender as he’s been this season, and if Morant can somehow manufacture good looks on offense – then, yes, this team can win. But, we have to see it to believe it. 

The Offensive Contenders: 

Of the 78 teams to make the NBA Finals in the last 39 years, 14 of them had top 10 offenses and bottom 20 defenses (18%). 2 of the 14 ended up winning the NBA title (14%): 1995 Rockets, 2001 Lakers 

Who Fits The Bill? 

2023 Nuggets: 3rd in O, 12th in D, 3rd in Net Rating 

From October to December 31st, the Nuggets were ranked 24th defensively. From January 1st to today, they’ve been the 7th best defense in the league. That is to say that I think the Nuggets will eventually finish the season as a top 10 offense and defense and at that point, they won’t have to worry looking at the grime history of offensively-fueled teams attempting to win a title. 

It is rare. 

And the two teams who did end up winning it had injuries to their respective stars during the regular season, which kept them from ever achieving their full potential defensively. Missing out on Hakeem Olajuwon and Kobe Bryant, as it seems, will hurt you on defense. Go figure. 

In reality, no team in the last 39 years has won a championship strictly because of a formidable offense and a lackluster defense. It is true, in the end, that defense does win championships. And the Nuggets are just close enough to the threshold of being a championship-worthy defense that I think it’s unfair they’re in this category. 

Denver’s starters allow 108 points per 100 possessions on defense, and in the playoffs, with rotations getting shortened, it’s most likely that they’ll only look better. With Aaron Gordon, Bruce Brown, and Kentavous Caldwell-Pope in the fold, plus a lot of size in the frontcourt between Nikola Jokic, Thomas Bryant, and Michael Porter Jr, the Nuggets have decent enough tools defensively to let their offense keep them afloat. 

This team can absolutely win a championship this season, and unless they’re pit against a tough matchup like the Warriors or Suns – who can kill them in drop coverage –  they should have a pretty clear path to the franchise’s first NBA Finals berth. 

The Mis-Fits: 

Of the 78 teams to make the NBA Finals in the past 39 years, only 3 have had a bottom 20 net rating (0.035%). One has gone on to win an NBA title (0.01%): 1995 Rockets 

2023 Clippers: 16th in O, 13th in D, 18th in Net Rating 

2023 Warriors: 13th in O, 20th in D, 17th in Net Rating 

I just can’t shake the Warriors and Clippers. You look at their respective rosters and they scream championship contender. You watch them play (on some nights) and they do, at times, look the part of a championship-worthy team. And yet… the numbers are calling them frauds. 

Looking back at the only team to accomplish the feat, the 1995 Houston Rockets, maybe we can find some solace for the 2023 Warriors and Clippers. The 95’ Rockets were injury-riddled. Clyde Drexler only played 34 games. Otis Thorpe, 35. Robert Horry and Vernon Maxwell missed 18 games each and even Hakeem Olajuwon missed 10 games that season. 

The Warriors and Clippers have had to endure similar circumstances. Kawhi Leonard has only played 36 games. Steph Curry has only played 2 more games than Leonard. Injuries have stopped the Warriors and Clippers from playing to their full potential this season with their respective stars. 

But does that mean they’re contenders? Not necessarily. Even at full strength, both teams have had questionable losses and the Warriors boast an atrocious 7-23 road record. 

History says neither of these teams win the championship and most likely won’t make the Finals. 

Will they be the first to buck the trend? In a season full of surprises and league-wide parity, it wouldn’t be the craziest idea. But they won’t be able to skip the line ahead of the other teams.