Monday, March 23, 2009

All eyes on 65

Rules are made to be broken, history is created to be rewritten at a later date. But as we watch the Cavaliers stride down the home stretch of what has been to this point a magic carpet ride of a season, we can keep our eyes on one near-certainty that has been proven time and again in the NBA:

Teams that win 65 games during the regular season almost always win the NBA title. And the Cavs are currently on a 66-win pace, nudging very close to a 67-win pace. Another week of wins could have them on a solid 67-win pace.

The list of 65-win teams in NBA history reads like a who's-who of basketball: Michael Jordan's Bulls won a league record 72 in 1995-96 and followed that up with 69-win effort in 1996-97. Jordan's Bulls also won 67 in 1991-92.

Larry Bird's Celtics won 67 in 1985-86, nearly matched by last season's Celtics of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, who won 66. The Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant-led Lakers of 1999-2000 won 67. Magic Johnson's Lakers won 65 in 1986-87. Wilt Chamberlain's 76ers won 68 in 1966-67. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Bucks won 66 in 1970-71. The Lakers of Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West won 69 in 1971-72 and were largely regarded as the greatest single-season team of all time until the '95-'96 Bulls.

All of those teams won the NBA title. Finding a 65-win team that didn't win the NBA title is a needle-meets-haystack proposition. The 1972-73 Celtics won 68, but lost to the eventual NBA champion Knicks in the conference finals. The Dallas Mavericks won 67 in 2006-07 and managed to get bumped out of the playoffs in the first round by the Warriors, who were coached by Don Nelson, the man who installed the Mavericks' offense in the late '90s. It's hard to fight your shadow and win.

The 65-win mark isn't an arbitrary number pulled from a fishbowl. There are a number of 64-win teams that didn't win the NBA title, including the 1995-96 Sonics and the 1996-97 Jazz, both of whom fell victim to Jordan's Bulls in the Finals. The 2005-06 Pistons won a franchise-record 64 games, but lost in the conference finals. The Spurs won a franchise-record 63 in 2005-06, but lost a hotly-contested seven-game series to the Mavericks in the conference semifinals.

There are certainly many years in which teams with fewer than 65 wins walk off into the sunset with world championship hardware. But reaching the 65-win plateau seems to mark a dramatic increase in a team's chances of winning the title.

Of course, many of the championship teams listed above were the undisputed alpha dogs of the NBA in their title-winning years. It's much easier to win the whole ball of wax when you have the rest of the league on a string. This year, 65 wins won't even get the Cavs undisputed alpha dog status. Both the Cavs and Lakers stand strong chances of winning 65. It would make for an epic NBA Finals showdown, but it would also mean that some team is getting added to the short list of 65-game winners that didn't win the NBA title.

But if the Cavs can simply outpace the Lakers and finish with a better record, the Lakers' final win total might not matter. Reaching the 65-win plateau is a sign of a team's ability to dominate for long stretches, but the correlation between 65-win seasons and championships is rooted in something more cause-and-effect: Homecourt advantage.

If you win 65, you probably have clinched the best record in the league in most years. If you have the best record in the league, that means homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. Having Games 5 and 7 of conference playoff series and Games 6 and 7 of the NBA Finals on your home turf can do wonders for swinging a series in your favor.

Homecourt advantage is more valuable to the Cavs than any other team. Not so much because the Cavs are less capable of winning road playoff games than other contenders, but because Quicken Loans Arena has been the Cavs' ace in the hole this season. They're 32-1 at The Q entering play Wendesday.

There is a good chance the Cavs will go as far as homecourt advantage takes them. In a season during which the first overall seed has been hotly contested among four potential 60-win teams, that is the significance of reaching the 65-win mark for the Cavs.

To the victor goes the spoils. The spoils, in this case, is the right to host Game 7.

No comments: