What NBA History Says About Teams in the Middle Class

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Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images. Pictured: Kevin Durant.

The 2023 NBA season has been The Year of the Middle Class.

We all know the teams at the top of the standings and contenders. But while those three or four teams occasionally steal our attention for MVP debates and occasional marquee games, this season has been all about the glut of teams stuck in the middle.

Entering Friday, only eight teams are guaranteed to finish above .500: the Bucks, Celtics, Nuggets, 76ers, Grizzlies, Cavaliers, Kings and Knicks. That's it. But there's 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, still trying to find its way.

That includes the defending-champion Warriors (40-37). It includes LeBron's Lakers (38-38) and, for now, Kevin Durant's Suns (41-35). It still includes overachievers — the Thunder and Jazz — pushing for a play-in and underachievers like the Clippers, Timberwolves, Pelicans and Mavericks trying to get healthy and make a push.

And that's just the West! Out East we've got the Nets, Heat, Hawks, Raptors, Bulls and Wizards still fighting for postseason berths.

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

We're all scouring these middling teams for any signs of a Cinderella run. But what can NBA history teach us about this corpulent bourgeoisie? Can any of them make a run to the Conference Finals, or even further?

Let's start by taking a look at other seasons with a high amount of 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's what I found.

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What happened in recent seasons with many middling teams?

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 measure, but it's historically been a quick and easy way to count a team as mostly fine — not great, not bad — just okay. As you'll see, these teams are typically contenders to make the postseason, but not go on a deep run.

In the last three decades, we have seven seasons with at least 12 teams in that SRS range. Here are those seasons and how the postseason played out:

  • 2021: 12 middling teams in 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 middling teams. By SRS and Net Rating, there's no real juggernaut, but only because Kevin Durant's Warriors faced some injuries and coasted. The playoffs were mostly chalky, but the No. 3 SRS Raptors upset the 1-seed Bucks and then upset the Warriors too with the help of some injuries.
  • 2017: 13 middling teams. The playoffs were quite chalky again, with eight of the top nine teams in SRS making up the Conference Semis. The juggernaut Warriors demolished everyone and seedings mostly held.
  • 2006: 13 middling teams. There are seven such teams from the East and six from the West, the most balanced of any of these Middle Class seasons. Still, the top four in each conference made the Conference Semis as expected, with the exception of the 4-seed Grizzlies. Both Conference Finals had an upset, and the No. 6 SRS Heat won the title with a surprisingly low 3.59 SRS, in part because there just wasn't a great standout team this year.
  • 2002: 13 middling teams. Now the Middle Class has moved East, with an absolutely loaded West but 10 East bourgeoisie. Despite the odd bunching of East teams, the playoffs go chalk again. Other than the East 4-seed getting upset in Round 1, the East goes chalk and the somewhat good 1-seed Nets get demolished by the Spurs in an unwatchable NBA Finals.
  • 2000: 12 middling teams. The top five teams are out West, with the bracket going mostly chalk by SRS. The East is pretty weak, but plays out similarly, with the 1-seed Pacers finally getting to the Finals before losing soundly.
  • 1993: 12 middling teams. We're 30 years back now, and this is our last one. Five elite teams sit at 5.87 SRS or better, and four of them comprise the Conference Finals. The Bulls rank only fourth in SRS but rise above the 60-win Knicks and 62-win Suns to complete the three-peat.

So those are the seven seasons over the last three decades with the biggest Middle Class. Did you notice a theme?

Not one of those Middle Class teams made the Conference Finals. None of them. Zero. Zilch. Occasionally one pulled a first-round upset, usually against a 4-seed, but that's it.

The playoffs mostly stayed chalk, like 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 2023 Middle Class.

Who are the biggest overachievers to make the Conference Finals?

There's a lot of talk about whether any of these Middle Class teams can make run to the Conference Finals. Heck, we just talked about it for the umpteenth time on our Friday Futures podcast episode on Buckets.

If we can spot the right sleeper team, there's an opportunity to bet them to win the conference at a long number, then hedge out if they make the Conference Finals and lock in a profit.

But history says we should be careful. Below are the 13 biggest overachieving regular season teams to make the Conference Finals since the league expanded in 1989. That doesn't necessarily make them the "worst." These are teams whose regular season profile would not expect a Conference Finals berth, teams with subpar SRS metrics, low win totals and poor net ratings.

Conference strength and seedings matter as well. If a team grades poorly but made the Conference Finals largely because the rest of the conference was bad, I left them out. We're looking for overachievers.

  • 2022 Mavericks: The 4-seed Mavs demolish the 1-seed Suns in Game 7 for reasons that remain a bit unclear. Dallas won 52 games and ranked seventh in Net Rating though, so not super overachieving all things considered.
  • 2021 Hawks: The 41-31 Hawks ranked just 11th in Net Rating with a 2.14 SRS. They upset a 1-seed Sixers team in seven games when Ben Simmons forgot how to shoot a layup. This was the 72-game pandemic-shortened season so that may have messed with the regular season metrics 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 stoppage, shortened season and Orlando Bubble.
  • 2013 Pacers: The 49-win Pacers upset the 2-seed Knicks with a profile of just a slight underdog. Indiana pushed eventual champion and 66-win Miami to seven, the closest any teams on the list have come to making the Finals.
  • 2012 Celtics: At 39-27, Boston ranked just 10th in Net Rating with a 2.26 SRS. They made it out of the 4/5 matchup, then lucked into an 8-seed matchup after the 1-seed Bulls went out when Derrick Rose got hurt. This is yet another shortened season where the season metrics may not measure fairly.
  • 2007 Jazz: Similar to 2007, the 51-31 Jazz come out of the 4/5 matchup, then luck into 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 East SRS, but at just 1.75, they're our first sub-2 SRS team on the list to make the Conference Finals. This is one of the seasons above with a huge Middle Class, and I promise you forgot just how horribly 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 were not a shock conference finalist, the East 3-seed that upset a blah 2-seed Heat in seven, and New York was coming off a Finals appearance themselves.
  • 1999 Knicks: Maybe the biggest 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 even 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 with unreliable metrics.
  • 1995 Rockets: The Rockets are the one 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 59- and 60-win Sonics and Jazz teams in series that went the distance, then beating both 1-seeds to win the title. Of course, these were the defending champions who also traded for Clyde Drexler midseason, so they only got 35 games of Drexler in these metrics and were missing Hakeem Olajuwon for a couple weeks. Still, by just the regular season profile, the '95 Rockets are easily the biggest modern overachieving NBA champion.
  • 1994 Pacers: Indiana was 47-35 with a stout 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 seven in the ECF but fell short.
  • 1990 Bulls: Chicago might be a surprise addition at 55-27, but the underlying metrics were soft at 2.74 SRS. Michael Jordan was as good as you'd think, but Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant hadn't blossomed yet — until the playoffs. The Bulls pushed the eventual-champion Pistons to Game 7, but got trounced there, the last time they'd lose in the playoffs for 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 its own division, and then the Bulls pushed the eventual champs Detroit to six in the ECF before bowing out.

So that's our quick run back through history.

Only three times since 1989 has any team made the Conference Finals with a sub-2.00 SRS — and all three of those teams had some serious asterisks on its runs that made it possible. Only two of these overachieving Conference Finalists went on to make the Finals — and only one won it all.

If you're a Suns or Warriors fan, you're holding out hope that the 1995 Rockets are your path. For Phoenix, Durant is their midseason Drexler acquisition and a team that got healthy just in time to end the season and make a run. For the Warriors, it's the hope of a defending title team flipping the switch after a lackadaisical regular season.

For everyone else in this Middle Class — and maybe for the Suns and Warriors, too — it's not great news. There's still enough time left for a few of these teams to escape the 2023 NBA bourgeoisie, but unless they do, history says there's very little hope of a deep or memorable playoff run.

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Daniel Preciado
Jul 11, 2024 UTC