Culture of Hoops

What Do The NBA Standings Tell Us in December?

What is it that you are about to read: You’re about to read an explanation of how the NBA standings might (or might not) change between now and the end of the regular season, how NBA standings have changed (and not changed) between December and mid-April in the past fifteen 82-game regular seasons, and if there are any patterns or trends we could pick up on to better understand why things will change (or why they won’t change) over the next four and a half months.

Why did I decide to write this: Honestly, it was an idea I had a long time ago, back in the early stages of my Top 50 list when I was doing some Ray Allen research (this will make more sense soon). I probably should have shelved it for a later date since we are, ya know, still four and a half months away from the end of the season, and maybe more importantly, this regular season has been a delight thus far, so it doesn’t make sense for me to be overlooking it. But anyway, a while back I began pondering at what point a snapshot of the standings would give good enough indication of what was to come for the rest of the season.

Why is this important: Well, it turns out the standings early in December actually paints a pretty accurate picture of what is to come. Are things totally locked in? No, there’s still a lot of ball to be played and plenty of maneuvering in the standings left, but there was less movement in and out of the Playoff picture than I actually anticipated.

So where do we start: I suppose we should start right at the top of the standings, because in the end that matters most in April, May and June. Who has home court advantage throughout the Playoffs? Who is going to play in the NBA Finals? Those are the only questions that the casual fans care about, and since I don’t want to ignore the fact that I may be a different breed of NBA fan than the majority of my readership, I won’t go any further without addressing the big picture questions.

What percentage of eventual Conference Champions were in 1st Place in the standings on December 1st: In the last fifteen full regular seasons (this means the 2011-12 season is excluded in this exercise), nine of the thirty conference champions have been in 1st place in their respective conference standings on December 1st. That’s only 30 percent, so its not a staggeringly high percentage, but then again, the league feels more top heavy right now than it has in the past, right? There’s Cleveland and there’s Golden State, and they are each 1st in their conference’s at the moment, and then there is everyone else. The popular belief is that those two teams will remain on top in the standings for the duration of the regular season and eventually face off in the NBA Finals for the third straight season, shatter TV ratings records yet again and also give us something similar to the Lakers/Celtics rivalry in the mid-80’s.

This is why I was hesitant to lead off with talk about the top seeds or the projected conference champions. This particular season, and last season as well, it feels like the NBA deck was stacked at the top and all of the past trends and stories of teams making a surprise run for the Larry O’Brien Trophy might as well be fairy tales that we know have no chance of being true, like Rupenzel growing hair long enough to come down from the top of a tower to the ground. C’mon now, that’s just ridiculous.

Since we’re here, what does history tell us about teams making big climbs in the standings from December 1st moving forward and entering the Playoffs as a #1 seed: Twenty-four of the thirty conference champs have sat in 4th place or better on December 1st, so it’s unlikely that any team that gets off to a rocky, or even less than spectacular start to the regular season, can recover to the degree that they are contending for a title less than half a year later. The six teams that recovered from an early season funk to make the NBA Finals have been the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers, 2002-03 New Jersey Nets, 2004-05 Detroit Pistons, 2007-08 Los Angeles Lakers, 2010-11 Miami Heat, and 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers. The good news: there is explanations for why those teams stumbled out of the gate.

What are the reasons: You could possibly blame a post-Finals slump on the slow starts for the 00-01 Lakers, 02-03 Nets and 04-05 Pistons since they played into June the previous year. It happens. Playing in a long, grueling postseason can take a toll, especially if your roster is filled with guys who haven’t made that climb yet. The 07-08 Lakers didn’t make their trade for Pau Gasol until February 1st, but this was a wonky regular season anyway. The difference between the Lakers (the 1st seed) and the Denver Nuggets (the 8th seed) was only seven games at the end of the year, And the 10-11 Heat and 14-15 Cavaliers were still in the infant stages of figuring out how they could best utilize their newfound Big Three’s and dealing with rosters that lacked depth and continuity. It all makes sense.

Do the teams in 1st place on December 1st usually enter the Playoffs as a #1 seed: It happens slightly less than half of the time. Fourteen of the last thirty teams leading their conference on December 1st entered the postseason with home court advantage. Again, this would be a more beneficial stat if we weren’t in the midst of a season where it feels like the top two teams would need to get bit by several hundred injury bugs in order to not make the NBA Finals.

Which December 1st #1 seed had the most drastic fall in the standings: The 2001-02 Milwaukee Bucks went from 1st on December 1st to 9th in the Eastern Conference, but it’s even worse than that. The Bucks were 2nd in the Eastern Conference on March 1st and went 8-18 down the stretch to finish 41-41 and missed out on a postseason berth by one game. Just a year earlier the Bucks were one game away from the NBA Finals. Amazingly, you can’t even blame their collapse on a barrage of late season injuries or anything like that. Ray Allen missed six games of the Bucks last 26 games, but Milwaukee’s skid had started before Allen’s absence. The Bucks second banana, Glenn Robinson, missed only two of those 26 games. Plain and simple, it was a choke job. Don’t expect something similar to this to happen again anytime soon unless George Karl improbably lands another coaching job.

Okay, what percentage of teams in the Top 8 on December 1st end up making the Playoffs: So over the last fifteen full seasons, 45 of a possible 240 teams that were among the 16 Playoff teams on December 1st eventually missed the Playoffs. That’s an average of exactly three out of sixteen each year. For the most part, this means the sixteen teams in the Playoffs right now are pretty safe. The highest number of December 1st top sixteen teams that eventually fell out of the Playoff picture was six (three from each conference) in the 04-05 regular season. Only once (the 2009-10 season) have all sixteen teams in the Playoff picture on December 1st ended up making the Playoffs. On average, more Eastern Conference teams fall out of the top eight (2.9) than Western Conference teams (2.4).

Who are the candidates to rise and fall this year, and are there any historical precedents used to make this sort of prediction: Of course. Let’s break it down by Conference.

Ihate to break your hearts, but I don’t have any one good historical precedent available for any of the Eastern Conference teams. Year after year for the last decade and a half we’ve seen a history of crappy Eastern Conference teams falling out of and re-entering the back half of the Playoff picture all season long. So for the next four and a half months, pay attention to the Detroit Pistons (7th at the moment), Milwaukee Bucks (8th), New York Knicks (9th) and Indiana Pacers (10th). They’ll be trading spots 7 through 10 for the duration.

Less than a week ago I gave the edge for those two spots to Detroit and New York, and I’m already second guessing myself largely because there’s a certain Greek monster individual rising like a basketball Godzilla in Milwaukee of all places. If Giannis Antetokounmpo makes a full-fledged leap this season the Bucks will probably get one of those last two spots. If Giannis is a year away then so are the Bucks.

As for those other three teams, the Knicks have the highest ceiling but they probably also have the lowest floor. If the suddenly rejuvenated Derrick Rose comes up gimpy and Kristaps Porzingis gets swallowed up by Carmelo Anthony iso-ball, the Knicks could swoon in a big way. Pending no injuries the Pistons have the least room for movement. They are going to win somewhere between 40 and 45 games; it’s just a matter of if whatever number they end up at will be enough for one of those last two available spots. And I don’t know what the hell to make of the Pacers, but I’m still bothered by the over 45.5 wins bet that I didn’t make.

The Western Conference is a different story. There are five historical dopplegangers out in the Pacific, Mountain and Central time zones.

FALL: Portland Trailblazers (Currently 10-10, 8th seed) – To me the Blazers feel similar to the 2013-14 Denver Nuggets, who were 9-6 on December 1st but fell to the 11th seed by season’s end. These are both perennial Playoff teams that survived and thrived a major makeover (for Denver it was the Melo trade, for Portland it was the mass exodus of LaMarcus Aldridge, Wes Matthews and Nic Batum) but eventually hit the point where they regressed, mainly because they were fatally flawed by absolutely horrendous defense.

FALL: Los Angeles Clippers (Currently 15-5, 3rd seed) – During the 2010-11 season the Utah Jazz were 14-5 and in 3rd in the West, but then Deron Williams drove Jerry Sloan to retirement, the Jazz traded Williams and Utah lost 23 of their final 33 games and missed out on the Playoffs. If the Clippers ever start skidding and Blake Griffin gives Doc Rivers the Matias Testi treatment, maybe this one is in play.

FALL: Memphis Grizzlies (Currently 12-8, 6th seed) – Back in the 2003-04 season the Philadelphia 76ers were the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference on December 1st, but faltered later in the year mainly because Allen Iverson missed 34 games during the season. We know Mike Conley will be out for the next six weeks, and I think it’s doubtful that a roster with a handful players who have missed significant time due to injury in the past few seasons can remain healthy all season long. Conley’s injury unfortunately has the feel of a first domino falling. The Grizzlies are only two games out of eighth place and there isn’t any evidence this season, or in season’s past, to show that they can continue winning games at the same rate without the still underrated Mike Conley.

RISE: Minnesota Timberwolves (Currently 5-13, 14th seed) – Another note from 2003-04; the Miami Heat started the year 5-12 and ended up the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference (granted, this was one of the weakest Eastern Conference years ever). Minnesota won’t be able to climb to 4th, so if you bet the Wolves to win the Northwest Division you can cross that one off (hold on a second while I get a Sharpie … Okay I’m back). But there is still a path for the Wolves to make the Playoffs. They are only three back in the loss column and they’ve been in a ton of winnable games that they blew down the stretch. They’re super young (just like Miami was) and led by a future MVP candidate that was barely drinking age (I’m talking about Karl-Anthony Towns and Dwyane Wade), and there is enough uncertainty with those last couple spots in the West that the Wolves could sneak in if they stop blowing leads in the second halves of games. Can they get to 42 wins like Miami did? Absolutely. Can 42 wins get the 8th seed in the West? Definitely.

RISE: New Orleans Pelicans (7-12, Currently 7-12, 12th seed) – My favorite possible shift in the standings because it involves Anthony Davis going into world-destroyer mode and … oh shit, he’s already done that. Davis is averaging 32 points, 12 rebounds and 5 combined steals and blocks per game, dominating on both ends and making a lot of people feel awfully silly for anointing KAT the best Kentucky big man in the league. A healthy Anthony Davis is one of the gnarliest lab-created basketball players we’ve ever seen, and he’s 23 fucking years old.

The comparison – remember when the Lakers shackled Kobe with a garbage supporting cast and Mamba had free reign to shoot whenever the hell he pleased? Wasn’t that fun? The 05-06 Lakers started 5-8 but Kobe wouldn’t let them miss the Playoffs. He averaged 36 points per game from December 1st until Game 82 and the Lakers grabbed the 7th seed and damn near upset Phoenix in Round 1 of the Playoffs. Could Davis averaged 36 points per game for the next four months and carry the Pels to the Playoffs? Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if he did, and that should scare the hell out of everyone in the NBA … except for the Cavs and Warriors.

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