This NBA season has been an enigma. Words like disjointed, unpredictable, sporadic, inconsistent, thrilling, and chaotic merely scratch the surface of the season that has unfolded. A revolution of offense has swept through the league, culminating in scoring reaching unprecedented heights, emblematic of the generational individual talent on display. The NBA’s gravitational pull is a continuous source of attraction, with top-tier talent flocking to the league every season, leading to an unparalleled level of parity across the NBA. For example, In the Western Conference, with approximately ten games left in the season, there was only a meager three-game gap between the fourth and 12th seeds, while the East’s top-heavy hierarchy consists of four of the top five teams record-wise in the league. With an abundance of talent and cutthroat competition, predicting which team will emerge as the NBA champion seems about as easy as shooting a three-pointer from half-court blindfolded.
So what is it that truly makes an NBA champion? Is it raw talent, unwavering determination, or just plain luck? Is it a stretch of health and good matchups all lining up at the right time? While the answer is undoubtedly a combination of all of these factors, there are certain statistical markers that have historically correlated with championship success, and should help us put the puzzle pieces together to understand who stood out from everyone else even in the midst of all the uncertainty of this year’s NBA season. So what are these key metrics, and how do they come together to create the DNA of a championship team? By identifying these key metrics, I will take a journey through NBA history to try to determine who realistically has what it takes to join the ranks of the league’s elite, or if they’re destined to remain the perennial bridesmaids of the postseason.
What Does History Tell us?
Top Seeds (Regular Season Record)
Let’s start with the teams at the top of each conference. The Denver Nuggets are the 1 seed in the Western Conference going into the playoffs, while the Milwaukee Bucks will represent the East. Before either team starts popping champagne bottles and planning their victory parade, they should remember that being the top seed doesn’t guarantee a championship.
If we take a closer look we discover that since 1990, only 26% of top seeds in each conference have gone on to win the championship.
#1 seed Playoff Results Since 1990
Although the 1 seed isn’t a fast pass ticket to the finals, it’s a well-known fact in NBA circles that to truly contend for a championship, a team must demonstrate at least a respectable level of dominance throughout the regular season. History speaks for itself, as only one team, the 6th seed ’95 Rockets (who were defending champs), has managed to snag the title from a team lower than the 3 seed going into the playoffs. That’s why securing a top-3 spot in the regular season standings is nearly obligatory for any team with aspirations of lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy, the 1 seed being the seed most correlated to championship wins. By heeding the lessons of the past, we can deduce that there is a 97% chance that only six teams warrant serious consideration as legitimate contenders in the playoffs.
The final regular season results reveal that the survival of the fittest are the Nuggets, Bucks, Grizzlies, Kings, Celtics, and Sixers. Although there may be other contending teams (Lakers, Warriors, Suns, Cavs etc.), historically, these teams do not fit the bill for this exercise.
Playoff Seeding Titles (Since 1990)
Net Rating (Offensive and Defensive Efficiency)
Now that we have narrowed our focus down to 6 teams, let’s deep dive on the intangibles, and intangibles that are predictive of which team will succeed come playoff time. Using the data of teams since 1990 as our population, History tells us that NBA champions heavily correlate to being ranked either in the top 5 in offensive rating, defensive rating, and often in both (Net Rating).
There have only been a few outliers:
6 NBA champions were not a top 10 offensive team in the regular season, but were at least top 5 in defense:
- 1990 Pistons- 11th Off / 2nd Def
- 1994 Rockets- 14th Off / 2nd Def
- 1999 Spurs- 11th Off / 1st Def
- 2004 Pistons- 18th Off / 2nd Def
- 2010 Lakers- 11th Off / 4th Def
- 2020 Lakers- 11th Off / 3rd Def
On the other side, there have been only 3 champions that were not a top 10 defense in the regular season, but all were at least a top 3 offense:
- 2001 Lakers- 21st Def / 2nd Off
- 2016 Cavs- 10th Def / 3rd Off
- 2018 Warriors- 11th Def / 3rd Off
Another interesting statistic is that there have only been 3 NBA champions that were not either a top 5 offense, or a top 5 defense in the regular season:
- 2006 Heat- 9th Def / 7th Off
- 2011 Mavs- 8th Def / 8th Off
- 1995 Rockets- 12th Def / 7th Off
When it comes to net rating, this pattern follows the findings above. Every NBA champion since 1990 was in at least the top 10 in net rating in the regular season. No exceptions. Every. Single. One.
Here is a breakdown Of the 6 contenders we previously identified and whether or not they currently meet this criteria (per NBA.com).
2022-23 Contender OFF, DEF, & Net Rating
To no surprise, the teams with the top 6 seeds (top 3 in each conference) are all in the top 10 in Net Rating. However, a few teams stick out in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency.
The Celtics, and Sixers (who strangely are the 2nd and 3rd seed in the East) are teams that are top 10 in both offense and defense, and history is on their side as they strive to win it all due to this major accomplishment. Since 1990, 24 out of 33 champions (72%) were top 10 in both categories.
Let’s delve into the other teams on the list and explore some crucial nuances that elude a statistic like net rating.
Take the Milwaukee Bucks, for instance, who grappled with offensive struggles early in the season due to some key players being sidelined. Despite their overall rank of 15th in offense, they’ve been a top 5 offense since January 1st.
Meanwhile, the Denver Nuggets’ defense has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride, especially when their starters aren’t on the court. They’ve hovered around the top 10 for most of the season, but their recent poor run to end the season has seen them fall to 15th in the rankings. Nevertheless, they held a very respectable 7th place in defense from December to March. They also held the 2nd best offensive rating in the league until the last 10 games of the season where the majority of their starters sat out (have since fallen to 5th).
As for the Grizzlies, they continue to battle half-court offensive issues, despite boasting an elite defense. Although they have improved since the all-star break, and added an elite shooter in Luke Kennard, they ended relatively mediocre offensively. Still, they’re within reach of a spot in the top 10, even though key players like Ja Morant, Steven Adams, and Jaren Jackson Jr have missed significant time.
The Kings are a different breed altogether. With an unstoppable offensive starting unit, they’re a force to be reckoned with on that front. However, their defense is their Achilles’ heel, making it hard to consider them serious contenders. While the Kings may be content to make the list, their lackluster defense prevents them from being a top dog in the pack.
Due to the fact that all of the teams fell within the top 10 in the league in Net Rating, all of the teams meet that important requirement to win a championship. However, this doesn’t necessarily end our search to find the formula for “Championship DNA”.
Since a statistic like Net Rating can be nuanced by many factors like I highlighted above, I wanted to dig a bit deeper into offensive and defensive championship indicators. The NBA landscape has changed drastically since 1990, therefore, I wanted to narrow the focus to data from 2005, which better reflects some of the offensive and defensive statistics that are important to succeed in the league today.
Based on my analysis of the past 18 NBA champions from the 2004-2005 season, I identified the 4 additional key defensive statistics (after defensive rating) that have the highest correlation to winning (per NBA.com).
Below is the % of champions to finish in the top 10 in each category are the following:
- Defensive Rebound %: 67%
- Steals: 61%
- Blocks: 44%
- Opponent FG%: 41%
Most often, champions have been well balanced in all of these areas, with an average rank of 8th in the NBA across all 4 of these categories.
Here is a breakdown of where the top teams fall this year within these statistical indicators:
Key Defensive Championship Indicators
Like we saw with the defensive rating statistics, Memphis, Milwaukee, and Boston all perform well across these key defensive indicators.
Teams like Denver and Sacramento do stand out in the DREB% category, but are mediocre or at least below average for a championship contender in the other areas. Philadelphia ended the season slightly above the middle of the pack in their key defensive performance indicators, and are right on the fringe to qualify in terms of what the benchmark is for a championship level defense.
I performed a similar analysis of the past 18 NBA champions from the 2004-2005 season, and identified the 4 additional key offensive statistics (after offensive rating) that have the highest correlation to winning (per NBA.com).
Below is the % of champions to finish in the top 10 in each category are the following
- Effective FG%: 94%
- Turnover Rate: 78%
- Off Rebound %: 72%
- 3P%: 67%
The data shows that NBA champions were slightly more well-balanced in the four above offensive stats than they were in the defensive performance indicators. Among the teams that performed well in these offensive categories, Denver performed the best when taking the average rank across the 4 categories, with Sacramento and Boston close behind. Philadelphia performed slightly below average in these categories, but they did fall into the top 10 in effective field goal percentage, which is considered the most important predictive statistic of winning a title. Milwaukee and Memphis, who we know excel at defense, did not perform quite as well in the offensive statistical categories.
Key Offensive Championship Indicators
While it’s true that the statistics presented in this analysis thus far can provide important insights into the traits of championship-winning teams, success in basketball, as in life, is a complex interplay of factors. As the saying goes, “numbers don’t lie,” but they can be somewhat inaccurate when telling the complex story of a team’s performance. For example, and like I mentioned earlier, injuries to key players can completely shift a team’s performance and render a specific defensive statistic irrelevant. Load management, or the practice of resting players during the regular season to keep them fresh for the playoffs, can also skew the data and make the sample size less accurate and less reliable.
By taking a holistic approach and considering a wide range of team characteristics, we can gain a deeper understanding of what makes a team truly great, and understand more clearly how and why certain teams have been so successful.
Here are a few of those characteristics that either contribute or correlate positively with winning it all:
Years in the league:
- From 1990 to 2021, the average age of players on NBA championship teams was 29.2 years old, compared to 28.9 for non-championship teams.
- From 1990 to 2021, NBA champions had an average of 663 combined playoff games of experience on their rosters, compared to 415 for non-championship teams.
- During the same period, championship teams had an average of 3.8 players on their roster with at least one championship ring, compared to 1.2 players for non-championship teams.
- Of the 32 NBA champions during this period, only 2 teams had fewer than 300 combined playoff games of experience on their rosters.
- NBA champions had an average of 2.8 players on their roster who had won a championship before, compared to 0.9 players for non-championship teams.
- Of the 32 NBA champions during this period, only 4 teams had no players on their roster with championship experience.
- NBA champions (since 1990) had an average continuity score (based on Nylon Calculus’ formula) of 68.4, compared to 63.5 for non-championship teams.
- During the same period, championship teams had an average of 8.8 players returning from the previous season, compared to 7.9 for non-championship teams.
- Of the 32 NBA champions during this period, only 2 teams had a continuity score below 60.
Team Championship Characteristics
All-Star selections: NBA championship teams (since 1990) had an average of 2.4 players on their roster who were selected to the All-Star team in the same season they won the championship.
<1 All-Star Selection
- 2020 Los Angeles Lakers (1 All-Star selection)
- 2004 Detroit Pistons (0 All-Star selections)
- 1994 Houston Rockets (1 All-Star selection)
- 1990 Detroit Pistons (1 All-Star selection)
There have been 32 teams that won the championship since 1990. Out of those 32 teams, 30 had at least one player who was named to the All-NBA Defensive First Team or All-NBA Defensive Second Team at some point in their career.
<1 All-Defense Selection
- 1995 Houston Rockets
- 20004 Detroit Pistons
Of those 32 championship teams (since 1990), 26 of them had at least one player who had won the regular-season MVP award at some point in their career.
That means that approximately 80.6% of NBA championship teams since 1990 had at least one player who had won the MVP award.
Here is a breakdown for how the previously identified championship contenders perform in these areas:
NBA Championship DNA: Ranked
After analyzing both tangible and intangible metrics, statistics, and team characteristics, here are the results of the top contenders championship DNA:
Championship DNA Ranked (See Appendix for grading criteria)
History isn’t malleable, it is not subject to change or opinion. The stories can be told and the narratives can change over time, but the cold hard facts are set in stone. Based on all of the analysis of the makeup and DNA of an NBA champion, it is clear that one of the Boston Celtics or Milwaukee Bucks will win the championship this season…
Now, I would not be at all surprised to see history repeat itself this year. It is LIKELY to repeat itself. But.. that is the beauty of sports…isn’t it? It is exactly why we will all tune in and cheer for our favorite team to win no matter what the odds or statistics say. We do this knowing fully well that our hearts may be crushed again, just like they have in the past.
The entire point of sports is to defeat the statistics, to defeat the odds. That is where the great stories are really made, just as it is in life. It’s those magical moments that will drive us to continually analyze the game, assess and reassess the players and how they fit and compare to the history of the game.
So let the playoffs begin! Let us go into the games with that sliver of hope that “my team” might be the team to make history this year.
*data is from 2004-05 season, all other data from 1990-2021-22