The Weekside: How much will each NBA team improve this year?

October 27, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) celebrates during the third quarter against the New Orleans Pelicans at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Pelicans 111-95. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
October 27, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) celebrates during the third quarter against the New Orleans Pelicans at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Pelicans 111-95. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /

There is one constant rule about the NBA that everybody seems to forget every single year: We can’t know anything before Thanksgiving. Yes, the league does have a preseason, but, no, teams do not fully gel and formulate into what they will be before the season starts.

I’m not sure whether this is due to natural human procrastination when there is no urgency (82 games is looooong so why try before the first real contest?) or because teams don’t really begin to know themselves until the actual competition starts. But it is always the case.

So while the first few nights of NBA action have been a welcome return — I was actually watching baseball for a few weeks there — we haven’t learned anything. Not yet. The results in these first initial weeks, especially in the tooth-and-nail playoff fight out West, aren’t insignificant, of course. But we are going to see plenty of teams start off hot or cold early on before later maturing into what they will actually become.

But, if we can’t take away a ton from the opening month, how can we know how much better your team will be this year?

Looking at the past is one option. For starters, look at the the 15 championship teams this century.

Improvement Champs
Improvement Champs /

The Golden State Warriors run last year was as special in historical terms as it was special to watch.

No other team since 2000 had such an improvement, in terms of a regular season win jump, over the previous season except for the 2008 Boston Celtics. And there is certainly nothing to be learned from that Cs squad, which won an unprecedented 42 more games in its title year after picking up Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to join Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo in the offseason. Last I checked, no teams spent the summer signing arguably the best shooter ever and a maniacal Hall of Famer who can change the entire culture of a franchise overnight.

In general, the team that wins the title was very, very good the previous year. Twelve of the past 15 champs won at least 55 games the previous year, with the 2004 Pistons joining the Celtics and Warriors on the list of anomalies.

If we base this year’s possible champ on that number, here is our list of candidates: Warriors, Hawks, Clippers, Rockets, Spurs, Grizzlies.

If anyone else wins, it will be rare.

But what about your team?

Chances are you are not a fan of one of those squads. So let’s look at the best improvements — and worst drops — each franchise has had this century.

Improvement East
Improvement East /
Improvement West
Improvement West /

This is good news. By and large, teams across the league have shown it’s possible to make big, double-digit win jumps regularly. Every team except for the lowly Sacramento Kings and the always-very-good Dallas Mavericks have done so at least once. And everyone except for the also always-very-good San Antonio Spurs and the always-really-bad New York Knicks have jumped 15 or more wins in a season.

So you have some hope: Lots of franchises have made a double-digit win jump twice since 2000. A few have even done it three or four times.

But don’t get too excited.

Over the past 15 years, teams have only made this type of major leap 15% of the time (67 times total over 450 “team seasons”). And when they do, it is usually predicated on a large-scale offseason move. So no matter who your team is, the deck is stacked against a 10-plus win jump — and it’s even more unlikely if the front office didn’t make a big offseason splash we already know about.

Good luck beating the odds.

And, lastly, here are few final notes after combing through at all the data.

  • The Warriors won 51 games in 2013-14 and still managed their biggest jump this century the following year. Mark Jackson really did build the foundation of a stellar team, and Steve Kerr was able to take an incredible leap by Steph Curry and turn this team into a 67-win, title-capturing juggernaut.
  • Whenever you look at something like this, it is a staggering reminder of why the Spurs are peerless in professional sports, outside of perhaps the Patriots. They have won at least 54 games every year since the century started (when you pro-rate the 2011-12 lockout year to 82 games). They have also made it to at least the second round of the playoffs in 12 of the past 15 seasons — and that includes the the first-round loss to the Clippers last season that helped prompt a playoff seeding format change this offseason. (The Spurs had a better record than the Trailblazers but had to play Los Angeles instead of Memphis due to division champs artificially getting a higher seed, record be damned.) Overall, their worst year-to-year falloff this century came last year, when they plummeted from 62 wins to an embarrassing 55 wins. For shame, Popovich. For shame
  • Everyone knows that the Cleveland Cavaliers’ fate has pivoted with the arrival, departure, and return of LeBron James. But the degree to which he has swung their success is just comical. In his rookie season, the team won 18 more games than the previous season. When he left for Miami, the LeBron-less Cavs lost 42 more games. Then, in his first year back, Cleveland’s win total jumped by 20.
  • Along similar lines, this analysis only further goes to show that the 2003-04 draft class is probably the best ever. Win jumps the following season: Nuggets, 26 wins; Cavs, 18 wins; Heat, 17 wins; Raptors, 9 wins.
  • The Knicks stay being the Knicks. Their biggest jump over the past 15 years has been a paltry 13 wins, which is the lowest among any team aside from the pathetic Kings, and the Mavericks and Spurs (both of which have just consistently won so much that their hasn’t really been room for a double-digit jump). Moreover, after winning 54 games and making the second round of the playoffs two seasons ago, the Knicks plummeted by 17 wins the following season. Then they dropped another 20 the next year. No other team has had back-to-back seasons of falling by even 13 wins — let alone 17 or more in consecutive seasons. #KnicksTape
  • In 2006-07, the year after winning a title, the Heat won 44 games. Then they dropped to 19 the following year and returned to 43 wins the following year. That’s a 28-win drop followed by a 29-win recovery over two seasons, which is some yo-yo behavior that only the Bucks, over the past two seasons, with a 23-game drop then a 26-game recovery, have come close to matching.
  • The 2004-05 season is really when today’s NBA began. The Lakers lost 22 more games than they did the prior season in their the last run to the Finals during the Shaq/Kobe era (which they lost to the Pistons). Meanwhile, the Suns won 33 more games as Mike D’Antoni and Steve Nash unleashed the high-octane, 3-point flinging, 7 Seconds or Less offense on the league.Ever since then, nothing was the same.

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