Suns, Sonics off to surprising starts, but can they keep it up?
Posted: Tuesday December 14, 2004 2:03PM; Updated: Thursday December 16, 2004 5:53PM
Recent hot starts
How long does a team have to keep surprising us before we consider them "for real?"
That's the question facing us after two teams expected to be near the bottom of the Western Conference, Phoenix and Seattle, hit the 20-game mark at a scalding 17-3. To understand what a shock this has been, consider that the 17-3 start puts each team on pace to win 70 games for the season. A year ago, the two won 66 combined.
Obviously, this raises a number of questions, all of which have the basic "can they keep this up?" theme:
Is it possible one of them could play this well all season and actually win 70 games?
Is it possible they could both trip up so badly that each misses the playoffs?
How likely is it that one of these teams could end up with the league's best record or even, dare we say it, win the championship?
To get some answers to these questions, we need to turn to the history books. By looking at how previous teams have fared after beginning the season 17-3 or better, we can develop a range of expectations for how the Suns and Sonics will fare the rest of this season.
For starters, we can see that starting 17-3 or better is a pretty rare accomplishment. Only 32 teams in NBA history have done so, which in itself is newsworthy. This season is only the seventh time in league history that two or more teams have done it. The most recent was 1996-97, which also was the only time three teams (the Bulls, Jazz and Rockets) started 17-3 or better.
As to the question of "can they keep this up," in the most literal sense, the answer is no. Of the previous 32 teams, not one played as well over the rest of the season as they had in the first 20 games. In some cases the differences were small -- the '96-97 Bulls and '71-72 Lakers, for instance, were each just 11 percentage points worse over the final 62 games than in the opening 20. But not one of the 32 teams improved. So we can at least rule out the Suns and Sonics winning more than 70 games.
What about at the other end? Is it possible for the Suns or Sonics to screw up so badly that they miss the playoffs entirely? Based on history, it ain't bloody likely. All 32 teams made the postseason, with 31 of the 32 winning at least 56 games (prorated for an 82-game season). The lone exception was the '48-49 Washington Capitals (who featured a very young Olaf Kolzig between the pipes).
This is an important point, because most observers have been taking the "they'll fade soon enough" angle with regard to the two teams. But since the preponderance of the evidence points to the opposite conclusion, why should these two be any different?
So we know they're not going away. But how many wins can we expect them to end up with? The average team lost 161 points off of its winning percentage during the season's final 62 games. If that happened to Phoenix and Seattle, they would play .689 ball the rest of the season -- still good enough for them to finish the season at 60-22.
Sixty wins is a pretty substantial accomplishment -- only five teams this century have hit that number. Are we to seriously expect these two teams -- with their soft defenses and a combined one decent big man between them -- will join such a select fraternity?
All of the evidence says yes. The only realistic way to expect the Sonics and Suns not to win in the high 50s is to come up with some substantial differences from the previous teams that began the year 17-3. I can think of two:
First, they are the only ones who didn't have a track record of winning. Phoenix and Seattle are the first teams to begin a season 17-3 after finishing below .500 the season before. In fact, every other club had at least 47 prorated wins the previous season except for the '50-51 Syracuse Nationals, who were a first-year team. Even the team with 47 wins (the '96-97 Bulls) made a fairly substantial addition to the lineup. In contrast, the Sonics have virtually the same roster that couldn't compete in the West a year ago, while the Suns' squad is basically the 44-38 team of two years ago with a swap of point guards.
Second, at some point one has to think somebody will get hurt and slow the teams' momentum. The Suns get 99.98 percent of their scoring from the starting five (OK, 84.5 percent), none of whom has missed a game. It seems highly unrealistic to expect all five to stay on the court for all 82 games. Seattle also has been almost completely healthy -- fourth guard Ronald Murray has been the only casualty -- and they get 78.4 percent of their scoring from five players. By contrast, preseason favorite San Antonio gets just 68.9 percent of its points from its top five.
But even if the Suns and Sonics both suffer stronger setbacks than some of the previous teams, it's still hard to imagine them falling off enough to miss out on one of the top playoff seeds in the Western Conference. If the two dropped off twice as much as the average, they'd still be looking at 50-win seasons. In fact, if they just play .500 the rest of the way, which all of the other 32 teams achieved, they'll end up 48-34 and comfortably in the playoff mix.
In the big picture, the question "are they for real?" always depends on what people mean by "for real." But if it means making the playoffs or winning 55 games, or even challenging for the top seed in the West there is no historical precedent for dismissing the Suns' and Sonics' chances.