The Golden State Warriors finished 73-9, the best regular season NBA history. That can be seen as one of the great, all-time sports achievements. One can also frame it as entirely frivolous. If the Warriors lose in the playoffs, many will consider their regular season feat almost irrelevant. See the 2007 New England Patriots.
What does having the best record mean? We looked up the best regular season records in the NBA and the three other major leagues, to get a handle on how much regular season success correlates with postseason success. The results probably say as much about the leagues as the individual teams.
Winning a high percentage of regular season games in the NBA correlates very strongly with post-season success. The top four winning percentage teams before this season (95-96 Bulls, 71-72 Lakers, 96-97 Bulls, 66-67 76ers) won NBA Championships. Eight of the top 10 did. The exceptions were the 1972-73 Celtics (lost to the Knicks in Eastern Conference Finals) and 2006-07 Mavericks (upset by Golden State in first round).
We have a couple theories. Great NBA players have a more disproportionate impact than just about any other sport. They are one of five guys on the court. They are on the court at least 75-80 percent of the game. The few teams with great players don’t often lose to teams that don’t. The best NBA record also offers home court advantage. Playing at home may matter more in the NBA than any other sport.
The same rough qualities (great player(s), great infrastructure, good luck with injuries) correlate with both an NBA Championship team and a team that runs up a number of regular season wins. A great team may not need a great regular season to win a title. But, one may need a great team to have a truly great regular season.
We’d say good news for Warriors fans, but they likely have to play the Spurs who also would have fallen on this list.NHL
The NHL was a different story. We looked at the Top 10 Presidents’ Trophy winners by point percentage before this season (over a full season). There were more first round departures (3:05-06 Red Wings, 09-10 Capitals, 08-09 Sharks) from that group than Stanley Cup winners (2: 88-89 Flames, 00-01 Avalanche). Only four of the 10 teams even reached the Conference Finals.
We’re not NHL experts. But, we’ll offer a few theories. NHL stars have far less of an impact than NBA ones. They are in the game less. They touch the puck less often. Home ice matters less. Hot goalkeepers may have an even more disproportionate impact than elite NBA stars. They could be playing for either team. Tighter, more physical playoff play may favor a different type of team than the regular season.
D.C. Sports fans consider all outsiders talking about their sports teams unqualified. So, we’ll let you interpret the 2015-16 Washington Capitals being on that list how you will.MLB
MLB offered a mixed bag. We looked at the top eight teams by winning percentage in the World Series era. Four (1909 Pirates, 1927 Yankees, 1939 Yankees, 1998 Yankees) won the World Series. Three (1906 Cubs, 1954 Indians, 1931 Athletics) lost the World Series. The 2001 Mariners lost in the ALCS.
There’s not much to read in here. Broadly, what “playoffs” means in the MLB has changed over the last century. Teams now face a far more protracted playoff season then before. Would the 2001 Mariners have beaten the Astros in a one-off World Series?
Schedules are disparate by division and league. The team that finishes the 162-game slog on top may be the best team overall. But, the way the playoffs are structured it could run into a 90-win wild card with a lights out starter and go down in the first round.
With the NFL, it depends how you manipulate the numbers. Seven teams have won 15-plus games in the 16-game era. Two (1984 49ers, 1985 Bears) won the Super Bowl. Two (2007 Patriots, 2015 Panthers) lost the Super Bowl. The 1998 Vikings and 2004 Steelers lost in the Conference Championship. The 2011 Packers lost in the Division Round.
If we throw in post-merger, pre-16 game teams. The 1972 Dolphins (14-0) won the Super Bowl. So did the 1976 Raiders (13-1).
The NFL season is a small sample of games. Regular season schedules can vary. It’s not clear what to make of records. A 15-win team is rarer than a 14-win team, but it’s not clear the latter is not better than the former in any given season.
Moreover, the NFL playoffs are one-off games. Weird things can happen.