Posted: Wednesday November 23, 2005 12:54PM; Updated: Wednesday November 23, 2005 6:19PM
Sam Cassell has the surprising Clippers on a season-opening roll that history suggests will lead to the playoffs.
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
By Kevin Pelton and Justin Kubatko, 82games.com, Special to SI.com
Are they for real?
That's the question everybody is asking about the Los Angeles Clippers, at 8-2 off to the best start in franchise history after beating the Golden State Warriors 113-101 in a matinee on Sunday afternoon. While the Clippers have never started this well, they've teased us before, making many hesitant to declare the Clippers Western Conference contenders.
The question of whether the Clippers are for real has been answered in many ways, but one that has yet to be used is the perspective of history -- not just that of the Clippers, but of other similar teams.
Thanks to data obtained from Justin's web site, we found 25 teams dating back to the 1979-80 season that opened the season with at least 7 wins in their first 10 games after posting a sub-.500 record the previous year (the Clippers were 37-45 in 2004-05). Here's how those teams fared:
Teams Starting 7-3 or better
These teams averaged 46.1 wins, and 11 (44 percent) topped the 50-win mark. The two teams that advanced to the NBA Finals were the '89-90 Portland Trail Blazers and the '01-02 New Jersey Nets.
Overall, the evidence makes a strong case that surprise teams can be picked out with accuracy much more quickly than is suggested by conventional wisdom. For example, despite qualifying for this group, the Phoenix Suns and Seattle SuperSonics did not gain legitimacy as Western Conference contenders until last December; it took the Sonics a full 20 games and a sweep of San Antonio and Dallas back-to-back on the road to fully convince doubters. Both the Suns and Sonics went on to win their divisions and win playoff series before being eliminated by the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs.
At the same time, however, there are cautionary tales like the '00-01 Cleveland Cavaliers. At 9-3, the Cavaliers led the Central Division by a full two games on Nov. 24, 2000. But the Cavaliers would win only 10 of their final 42 games and finish 30-52, their third of seven straight lottery appearances.