How often does the best NBA team win the championship?

The Houston Rockets have finished the 2017-18 NBA season with the best record in the NBA. So what does history say about how this affects their chances of taking home the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy this June? I took a look a few days ago to see how the top team fares in the NHL playoffs, so let’s do the same for the NBA.

In the last 71 seasons of NBA basketball, 78 teams have finished with the best record in a season. This accounts for teams tying to finish with the best record in a season, which took place in 1954-55, 1974-751980-811997-981998-992002-03 and 2011-12.

How often does the best team make and win the finals? 

Odds of making Finals 45/78 (57.69%)
Odds of winning Finals at start of playoffs 35/78 (44.87%)
Odds of winning Finals once in Finals 35/45 (77.77%)

Interestingly, enough there have been two occasions in NBA history where the two teams who finished in a tie for the best record met in the finals. In the 1955 NBA Finals, the Syracuse Nationals defeated the Fort Wayne Pistons 4-3. In the 1998 NBA Finals, the Chicago Bulls defeated the Utah Jazz 4-2.

Besides the two aforementioned occasions above, there have only been eight other times when the team with the best record made the Finals and lost. This includes the Syracuse Nationals (1949-50), Boston Celtics (1957-58) and 1984-85), Milwaukee Bucks (1973-74), Washington Bullets (1974-75 and 1978-79), Phoenix Suns (1992-93) and Golden State Warriors (2015-16).

Decade Breakdown

A quick by decade breakdown of how often the best team made and won the NBA Finals. This also accounts for ties as the best team, hence why not every full decade is out of 10.

Decade Made Finals Won Finals
1940s (47-49 Finals) 0/3 (0%) 0/3 (0%)
1950s (50-59 Finals) 9/11 (81.81%) 7/11 (63.63%)
1960s (60-69 Finals) 7/10 (70%) 7/10 (70%)
1970s (70-79 Finals) 6/11 (54.54%) 3/11 (27.27%)
1980s (80-89 Finals) 8/11 (72.72%) 7/11 (63.63%)
1990s (90-99 Finals) 7/12 (58.33%) 5/12 (41.66%)
2000s (00-09 Finals 3/11 (27.27%) 3/11 (27.27%)
2010s (10-17 Finals) 5/9 (55.55%) 4/9 (44.44%)

How the best of the best have fared

What does this all mean for the Houston Rockets, who finished the 2017-18 season as the best team in the NBA? Finishing with a record of 65-17, the Rockets became only the 21st team in the history of the league to win at least that many games in a season.

Team:

Record:

Won Championship:

Golden State Warriors (2015-16)

73-9

No, lost in Finals (4-3)

Chicago Bulls (1995-96)

72-10

Yes

Los Angeles Lakers (1971-72)

69-13

Yes

Chicago Bulls (1996-97)

69-13

Yes

Philadelphia 76ers (1966-67)

68-13

Yes

Boston Celtics (1972-73)

68-14

No, lost in ECF (4-3)

Boston Celtics (1985-86)

67-15

Yes

Chicago Bulls (1991-92)

67-15

Yes

Los Angeles Lakers (1999-00)

67-15

Yes

Dallas Mavericks (2006-07)

67-15

No, lost in WC 1st Round (4-2)

Golden State Warriors (2014-15)

67-15

Yes

*San Antonio Spurs (2015-16)

67-15

No, lost in WC Semi-Finals (4-2)

Golden State Warriors (2016-17)

67-15

Yes

Milwaukee Bucks (1970-71)

66-16

Yes

Boston Celtics (2007-08)

66-16

Yes

Cleveland Cavaliers (2008-09)

66-16

No, lost in EC Semi-Finals (4-2)

Miami Heat (2012-13)

66-16

Yes

Philadelphia 76ers (1982-83)

65-17

Yes

Los Angeles Lakers (1986-87)

65-17

Yes

Los Angeles Lakers (2008-09)

65-17

Yes

Houston Rockets (2017-18)

65-17

TBD

 *Only team to win at least 66 games in a season and not have that year’s best record.

Out of the previous 20 teams to finish with at least 65 wins 16 (80%) of them reached the NBA Finals. 15 of those 16 teams (93.75%) who reached the Finals ended up winning, with the notable exception of the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors.

The Rockets aren’t fully guaranteed to make the Finals as the best team but history says that their outstanding 66-win season gives them an already greater chance than the average best team. It also shows that a team of their caliber should win the Finals if they made it, even more so then your typically best team, barring a historic collapse.

WordPress.com

Sources and Tools:

Featured Image: “James Harden” by Keith Allison is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

http://www.basketball-reference.com/leagues/    (went through each season taking note of best team)

http://www.nba.com/history/nba-season-recaps/

http://www.landofbasketball.com/statistics/best_seasons.htm

Charts made using Google Spreadsheets

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