There are more basketball statistics, formulas and methods of analysis available now than ever before, but which numbers best predict championship success? I explored this subject a few years ago and it is worth revisiting now with the playoffs about to begin.
Hall of Famer Hubie Brown, who led the Kentucky Colonels to the 1975 ABA championship before winning the NBA Coach of the Year award in 1978 and 2004, emphasises the importance of point differential. He made a chart that matches up a given point differential with a specific winning percentage and he used that chart to remind his players the value of each possession.
Hank Egan, a longtime NBA assistant coach who was a member of Gregg Popovich’s staff when the San Antonio Spurs won the 1999 championship, favours defensive field goal percentage. Egan once told me that the Spurs’ philosophy at the time was to eschew opportunities for offensive rebounds and steals in order to get all five players back on defence and create a wall.
Indeed, the 1999 Spurs ranked first in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage (.402) and point differential (8.1 ppg) but were only middle of the pack in steals (15th out of 29 teams) and offensive rebounds (17th).
A high ranking in regular season point differential correlates very strongly with winning the championship. Since 1990, ten of the 25 NBA champions have led the league in that category, 20 of the champions ranked in the top five and just one finished outside of the top 10. The average point differential ranking of the past 25 NBA champions is third.
The Spurs led the league in point differential in 2014 en route to claiming the fifth championship of the Tim Duncan era; the Spurs ranked first in the NBA in point differential during four of their five championship seasons and finished third in the other season.
The last two teams that led the NBA in point differential but did not win the championship (2013 Oklahoma City, 2012 Chicago) both suffered injuries to MVP calibre players early in the playoffs.
Defensive field goal percentage also correlates strongly with winning a championship. Five of the past 25 NBA champions led the NBA in this category, 15 ranked in the top five and just three finished outside of the top ten. The average defensive field goal percentage ranking of the past 25 NBA champions is fifth.
What do these numbers suggest about this season’s championship chase? With just a few games left, Golden State has easily clinched the point differential lead; the Warriors’ 10.2 ppg point differential dwarfs the LA Clippers’ 6.5 ppg point differential. San Antonio (6.2 ppg), Atlanta (5.8 ppg) and Portland (4.8 ppg) round out the top five, with Cleveland just a tick behind (4.7 ppg).
Then there is a drop off to three teams that are clustered in the 3.1 to 3.4 ppg point differential range (Memphis, Houston, Toronto).
Golden State’s point differential is one of the best in NBA history, trailing only the 1972 LA Lakers (12.3), the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks (12.2), the 1996 Chicago Bulls (12.2), the 1972 Milwaukee Bucks (11.1), the 1997 Chicago Bulls (10.8), the 1992 Chicago Bulls (10.4) and the 2008 Boston Celtics (10.2). All of those teams won the championship except for the 1972 Bucks, who lost to the even more dominant Lakers.
Golden State also leads the league in defensive field goal percentage (.426) but seven other teams are right behind the Warriors, with each of them holding their opponents to less than .440 field goal shooting (Washington, Indiana, Chicago, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Charlotte and Oklahoma City).
No one expected the Warriors to be this good and no one expected Stephen Curry to be a legitimate MVP candidate. There are some ‘name brand’ teams that look more like championship contenders than the Warriors do.
The defending champion Spurs are playing very well now that all of their key players are healthy. The Cavaliers got their act together after LeBron James exited “chill mode”.
However, over the course of the entire season the Warriors fit the championship profile more than any other team – and not just because they lead the league in wins.