What NBA history says about middling teams

The 2023 NBA season has been the year of the middle class.

We all know the teams at the top of the standings and challengers. But while these three or four teams sometimes steal our attention too MVP debates and occasional marquee games this season have been about the glut of teams stuck in the middle.

On Friday, only eight teams are guaranteed to finish above .500: the Bucks, Celtics, Nuggets, 76ers, Grizzlies, Cavaliers, kings and Knicks. That's all. But there are also only seven teams guaranteed to finish below .500. With just one week left in the regular season, that leaves a whopping 15 teams stuck in the middle and still trying to find their way.

That includes the defending champion Warrior (40-37). That includes LeBron's Lakers (38-38) and currently Kevin Durant's Solar (41-35). That still includes overachievers — those thunder and Jazz — press for a play-in and underperform as Clippers, Timberwolves, Pelicans and Mavericks trying to get healthy and make a push. And that's just the west!

Out east we have it Web, Heat, Hawks, Birds of prey, Bulls and Wizards still fighting for postseason spots.

With Basketball Reference's Simple Rating System (SRS), there are an unprecedented 15 teams with an average SRS between 2.00 and -2.00. That's half the league, and it's the most in any season in NBA history.

We're all looking through these middle layers for signs of a Cinderella run. But what can NBA history teach us about this corpulent bourgeoisie? Can either of them make it to the conference finals, or even further?

Let's start by taking a look at other seasons with a high parity in the middle, and then look back at the worst regular season teams ever to make a conference finals run. What can we learn?

I dug into the numbers for you. Here is what I found.

What has happened in recent seasons with many intermediate teams?

As I mentioned earlier, there are 15 teams between 2.00 and -2.00 in Basketball Reference's SRS, more than any season in NBA history. It's not a perfect metric, but it's historically been a quick and easy way to count a team as either mostly good, not great, not bad, or just okay. As you will see, these teams are usually contenders to make the postseason, but not make a deep run.

In the past three decades, there have been seven seasons with at least 12 teams in the same SRS series. Here are the seasons and how the postseason played out:

  • 2021: 12 intermediate teams during a 72-game season (pandemic). The playoffs were relatively chalky, considering. Top-5 SRS teams Philadelphia and Utah lost in the conference semifinals in part due to some injuries, but two top-3 SRS teams met in the finals as expected.
  • 2019: 12 intermediate teams. According to SRS and Net Rating, there is no real juggernaut, but only because the Kevin Durant version of the Warriors faced some injuries and ran aground. The playoffs were mostly chalk, but the No. 3 SRS Raptors upset the 1-seed Bucks and then also upset the Warriors with the help of some injuries.
  • 2017: 13 intermediate teams. The playoffs were again fairly tight, with eight of the top nine teams in the SRS making up the Conference Semis. The Juggernaut Warriors demolished everyone and the seedings mostly held.
  • 2006: 13 intermediate teams. There are seven such teams from the East and six from the West, the most balanced of any of these middle division seasons. Still, the top four teams in each conference made the conference semis as expected, with the exception of the 4-seed Grizzlies. Both conference finals were upsets and the No. 6 SRS Heat won the title with a surprisingly low 3.59 SRS, in part because it just wasn't a great standout team this year.
  • 2002: 13 intermediate teams. Now the middle class has moved out to the east, with an absolutely loaded West but 10 East bourgeoisie. Despite the odd bunch of Eastern teams, the playoffs will be the crux again. In addition to the East 4 seed getting upset in Round 1, the East is going flat and the lone – and somewhat good – Nets are demolished by the Spurs in an unwatchable NBA Finals.
  • 2000: 12 intermediate teams. The top five SRS teams are out west, with the bracket most chalked up by SRS. The East is pretty weak, but plays out the same, with the 1-seed Pacers finally making it to the Finals before losing big.
  • 1993: 12 intermediate teams. We're back 30 years now, and this is our last. Five elite teams have 5.87 SRS or better, and four of them make the conference finals. The Bulls rank just fourth in the SRS but rise above the 60-win Knicks and 62-win Suns to complete the three-peat.

So those are the seven seasons in the last three decades with the largest averages. Have you noticed a theme?

Not one of those mid-major teams made it to the conference finals. Neither. Zero. Zilch. Every now and then a first round upset was pulled, usually against a 4 seed, but that's about it.

The playoffs remained mostly chalk, as they tend to do in most NBA seasons, and the middle class went quietly and was barely relevant.

That's potentially very, very bad news for the Suns, Warriors, Lakers and others in this fat middling 2023 class.

Who are the biggest overachievers to reach the conference finals?

There is a lot of talk about whether any of these mid-major teams can make it to the conference finals. Heck, we just talked about it for the fifteenth time in our Friday Futures podcast episode on Buckets.

If we can spot the right sleeper team, there is an opportunity to bet on them to win the conference by a long shot, and then secure themselves if they make it to the conference finals and lock in a win.

But history says we should be careful about doing so. Below are the 13 most overachieving regular-season teams to reach the conference finals since the league expanded in 1989.

That doesn't necessarily make them the “worst”. We're looking for teams whose regular season profile wouldn't have expected a spot in the Conference Finals, likely teams with subpar SRS metrics, low wins and poor net ratings.

Conference strength and seeding also matter. If a team grades poorly but made it to the conference finals largely because the rest of the conference was bad, I left them out. We are looking for overachievers.

  • 2022 Mavericks: The 4-seed Mavs demolish the 1-seed Suns in Game 7 for reasons that are still somewhat unclear. Dallas won 52 games and ranked seventh in Net Rating though, so it wasn't super overmatched at all.
  • 2021 Hawks: The 41-31 Hawks ranked just 11th in Net Rating with a 2.14 SRS. They upset a 1-seeded Sixers team in seven games when Ben Simmons forgot how to shoot a layup. This was the 72-game pandemic-shortened season so the regular season stats may have moved around a bit.
  • 2020 Nuggets: The 46-27 Nuggets upset the 2-seed Clippers in seven after a big 3-1 comeback in Round 1. Asterisks abound with this one, with the pandemic shutdown, shortened season and Orlando Bubble.
  • 2013 Pacers: The 49-win Pacers upset the 2-seed Knicks with the profile of just a slight underdog. Indiana pushed the eventual champion and Miami 66 wins to seven, the closest any team on the roster has come to making the finals.
  • 2012 Celtics: At 39-27, Boston ranked just 10th in Net Rating with a 2.26 SRS. They got out of the 4/5 matchup and then managed an 8 seed matchup after the 1 seed Bulls went out when Derrick Rose got hurt. This is another shortened season where the season statistics may not measure fairly.
  • 2007 Jazz: Similar to 2007, the 51-31 Jazz come out of the 4/5 matchup, then good luck to the “We Believe” Warriors after they upset the 1-seed Mavs as an 8-seed. Utah was a quality team at 3.06 SRS, but fell quickly in the WCF.
  • 2002 Celtics: Boston is actually second best in the East SRS, but at just 1.75 they are our first sub-2 SRS team on the list to make the Conference Finals. This is one of those seasons above with a huge average class, and I promise you forgot how awful Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce shot in the ECF.
  • 2000 Knicks: New York was 50-32 but only 11th in Net Rating with a very mediocre 1.30 SRS. Still, the Knicks weren't a shock conference finalist, the East 3 seed upsetting a blah 2-seed Heat in seven, and New York coming off a Finals appearance themselves.
  • 1999 Knicks: Perhaps the greatest shock Finals team in the modern NBA! New York was the 8-seed, upsetting the 1-seed Heat with an injured Tim Hardaway, and the rest of the East is relatively blah and also after a high-speed, strike-shortened season. New York is just 27-23 at +1.45 SRS and 14th in Net Rating, but it's another season of unreliable metrics.
  • 1995 rockets: The Rockets are the only ray of hope for these middling teams. They went just 47-35, were 11th in Net Rating and had a 2.32 SRS before upsetting elite teams with 59 and 60-win streaks that went the distance and then beating both 1-seeds to win the title. Of course, it was the defending champs who also traded for Clyde Drexler midseason, so they only got 35 games out of Drexler in those metrics and were without Hakeem Olajuwon for a couple of weeks. Still, just by the regular season profile, the '95 Rockets are easily the greatest modern overachieving NBA champion.
  • 1994 Pacers: Indiana was 47-35 with a hefty 3.26 SRS. The Pacers staged a second-round upset of the 1-seed Hawks, who lost aging All-Star Dominique Wilkins on the brink of the playoffs to injury. They pushed the 2-seed Knicks to seventh in the ECF but fell short.
  • 1990 Bulls: Chicago might be a surprise addition at 55-27, but the underlying stats were soft at 2.74 SRS. Michael Jordan was as good as you can imagine, but Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant hadn't blossomed yet – until the playoffs. The Bulls pushed the eventual champion Pistons to Game 7, but ended up there, the last time they lost in the playoffs in half a decade.
  • 1989 Bulls: This Bulls team was much more of a surprise at 47-35, just 12th in Net Rating and 2.13 SRS. Jordan upset an elite Cavs team with “The Shot” after Chicago finished fifth in their own division, and then the Bulls pushed eventual champions Detroit to six in the ECF before bowing out.

So that's our quick rundown of the story.

Only three times since the 1989 expansion has a few team for a few season made it to the Conference Finals with a sub-2.00 SRS — and all three of those teams had some serious asterisks on their runs that made it possible.

Only two of those overachieving conference finalists advanced to the finals – and only one won it all.

If you're a Suns or Warriors fan, here's hoping the 1995 Rockets are right up your alley. For Phoenix, Durant is their midseason acquisition of Drexler and a team that got healthy just in time to close out the season and make a run. For the Warriors, it's the hope that a defending title team will switch gears after a bad regular season.

For everyone else in this mid-table — and maybe even for the Suns and Warriors — it's not good news. There's still enough time left for some of these teams to escape the 2023 NBA bourgeoisie, but if they don't, history says there's very little hope for a deep or memorable playoff run.

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