The NBA Reads Like a Dickens Novel After the First 20 Games.

It was the best of seasons; it was the worst of seasons.

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Charles Dickens would have loved this NBA season.

Even though results may even out over time, the beginning of this season is as strange as anything we’ve seen in the last twenty years.

Great Expectations

As of December 1st, there were 11 teams on pace to win at least 50 games this season (six in the East, five in the West), and 10 teams on pace to win under 30 games.

This has only happened twice over the last twenty years. In 2007–2008, there were 11 teams with 50 wins, and in 2009–2010, there were 12 teams with 50 wins (all eight playoff teams in the West).

Using point differential as a means to project total wins, 11 of the current teams project to win at least 50 games, while 8 teams are projected to win less than 30 games.

What a strange Twist of affairs

If that isn’t unusual enough, seven of the top teams have a winning percentage that projects to 60 wins.*

Over the last twenty years, the league averages 1.5 teams per year that win 60 games.

In ten of those years, there was only one 60-win team. (The 2000–2001 season was the only year where no team won 60 games.)

Having two 60-win teams in a season has happened seven times.

Having three 60-win teams in a season has happened only twice.

Please, Sir, can I have some more?

Which teams have the best chance to reach 60 wins?

  1. Toronto — in spite of injuries to starters Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, the Raptors have continued to play well, while having the fifth hardest schedule in the league to start the season. They have the second-best bench in the league. Also, they play in the East, which means more games against terrible teams.
  2. Milwaukee — the Bucks have played the seventh hardest schedule so far and had a seven-game winning streak while Kris Middelton was injured. Giannis is so durable and dominant he will win a lot of games by himself throughout the entire season, like a star pitcher who can win a game to prevent his team from going into a long slump. Throw in the usual cast of clowns in the East and you’ll have about three more regular-season wins per year than a team in the West.
  3. Los Angeles Clippers — until the Lakers prove they can beat the Clippers, I’m still picking the Clippers to win the NBA title. With Durant injured, they have two of the top five two-way players in the league (Giannis, Leonard, Davis, LeBron, George), two Sixth Man of the Year finalists who form an unstoppable best pick and roll attack, and a bench full of hard-working defenders who can hit three-point shots. The only reason I put them third is playing in the West and load management.
  4. Los Angeles Lakers — having an 18–3 start is nice, but the Lakers have a lot of big questions to answer because they’ve had the 10th easiest schedule so far (although winning at Denver was a big step in the right direction). Also, it’s impossible to know if LeBron and Davis can play 75+ games during the season. Perhaps the biggest question is if they will have bad luck with injuries, and by that, I mean the unfortunate return to health for Rajon Rondo. Without Rondo this season, the Lakers were the #1 team in defensive efficiency (99.8) and 2nd in net rating (+8.4). Since his return, the Lakers have dropped to #15 in defensive rating, and 9th in net rating (+5.9). The Lakers can be an elite team even with a poor defender like Kyle Kuzma on the floor because they can surround him with three good defenders (LeBron, Green, Caruso, Howard, Bradley, and KCP) and a DPOY (Davis). Unless Rondo is on fire from the three-point line, he kills the defense and the flow of the offense. I would say that the team’s only hope of winning 60 games this season would be if Rondo plays less than 15 minutes per game. (Props to Coach Vogel so far for playing Caruso over Rondo in crunch time when LeBron and Davis are on the court together and the team has enough offense.)
  5. Houston — Even though they don’t have a high enough winning percentage (yet), I have to add the Rockets to this conversation. James Harden can will a team to victory. We saw him do it in the second half of last season when the team had a stellar record (30–12). With the addition of Westbrook, the energy and chaos he brings make them a more unpredictable team for both the regular season and the playoffs. The team has almost no bench, but the core of Harden, Westbrook, Gordon, Tucker, and Capela are a top 5 team.
  6. Denver — Roster continuity has been one of the reasons the Nuggets started so well last season (9–1) as well as this season (13–4). As always, they have the best home-court advantage in the NBA because they play in altitude, which will lead to a half dozen schedule wins against teams that have the misfortune to play them in the second game of a back-to-back. They still have a lot to prove before I change my mind about them. I don’t trust Murrasdy as a go-to guy in the playoffs, or for Jokic to play much defense. (They had the #1 defense in the league at the start of last season, and ended up #10.)
  7. Boston/Miami — I’ll save space by writing about these two doppelgangers: they both have a top coach, play great defense, have a bunch of good two-way players at the wing, depend on their outside shooting, and rarely have the best player on the floor when they play against a team with a superstar. Put those factors together and you have solid 50+ win teams. Add in the fact they play in the East, and 60 wins aren’t impossible, though highly unlikely.

And what of the Tiny Tims of the league?

Ten of the bottom teams have a winning percentage that projects to less than 30 wins. Which teams have the best chance to make it?

On average, six to seven teams crash and burn each year.

There have been three seasons with eight teams winning less than 30 games, and two seasons with nine teams achieving this embarrassing mark.

Over the last twenty years, there hasn’t been a season that ended with ten under 30-win teams.

We can count on the East to produce maybe six, plus the G-League State Warriors.

Are these three teams Scrooged?

The remaining teams, Memphis, New Orleans, and San Antonio, have all shown spunk.

Memphis has ridden ROY candidate Ja Morant to four wins over teams .500 and over, and barely lost to the Lakers and Clippers.

New Orleans has struggled with injuries all season long. Still, they crushed Denver, beat the Clippers at full strength, barely lost to the Lakers and lost to Toronto in overtime. They can’t defend, and they keep losing close games. Maybe the arrival of Zion Williamson will turn them into a more dangerous team.

Finally, we have the Spurs. Is this finally the year where they run out of system miracles? They have looked bad most of the year, then had a Jekyll and Hyde sequence over the last three games: a thorough beat down of the Clippers, a blow out loss to Detroit, and a double-overtime win over the Rockets. I have no idea what is going on with that team, but I’m not betting against them just yet.

In the interest of time, I have sacrificed the teams in the middle, struggling to stay close to .500. There may be some interesting stories in Brooklyn, Orlando, Minnesota, and Phoenix, but they’ll need to make the jump to be included next time.

Forgive me, Sacramento, Oklahoma City, and Detroit if I bid you adieu, for

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.

Until I write about the mid-season progress of the league.

*The Clippers and Nuggets project to 59.61 wins as of December 3rd.

Written by

Ad agency creative director, writer & designer at https://guttmanshapiro.com. Former pro tennis player and peak performance coach for professional athletes.

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