There’s always been a fine line between winning and losing games, but considering how good the Western Conference has become, the divide between a W and L is growing more defined by the day — and, along with that, so is the gap between playoff and lottery teams.
Last season, the 45-win Oklahoma City Thunder missed the West playoffs. The season before, 48 wins wasn’t enough for the Phoenix Suns to qualify for the eighth seed. By comparison, only five Eastern Conference playoff teams finished with a winning record last season.
When, for example, one game in the standings separates the second and sixth seeds in the West — as was the case last season — the importance of individual games across the span of an entire campaign is understandably magnified. While their loss to the Pelicans on the last day of the regular season last year ultimately cost the Spurs homecourt advantage in the first round (and yet another first-round series with the Mavericks) that wasn’t the only game all year the Spurs could have reversed their fortune. A last-second loss at home to the lottery-bound Detroit Pistons way back in January brought about that fate, as well.
Of course, that same exact logic could be used for and against every playoff team in the West. That’s how close the standings are year after year.
“It’s a challenging conference, there’s no doubt about that,” Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle said. “But, you know, you can look at the records and all those kinds of things. But if you look at the game scores night in and night out, there are thin margins of error for victory and defeat.”
We usually attribute postseason positioning to a team’s performance late in the regular season, but the truth is playoff teams must steadily build up a portfolio of wins for five-plus months before the real tournament begins. The Mavs’ buzzer-beating win in Milwaukee last December was just as important as their thrilling win in a high-scoring shootout against Oklahoma City last April. What it boils down to is all wins are created equal.
With that in mind, let’s categorize games into groups to see where the Mavericks can get enough wins — 45, 48, or possibly even more — to qualify for next spring’s playoffs.
While every win matters, regardless of opponent, who you beat is a very good indication of where your team is destined to wind up in the standings. For example, 11 Western Conference teams played more than half their 82 regular-season games against teams who finished at least .500 last season. (The Mavs were one of them.) No team that won fewer than 19 of those contests made the playoffs, and no team that won 19 or more missed the postseason.
|Team||Record (vs. .500 or better)||Record (Overall)||Playoffs?|
Notice that five of the six teams with the most wins against winning teams are in the Southwest Division, and each of them made the playoffs. Dallas will play San Antonio, Memphis, Houston, and New Orleans four times each this season, and as they are all predicted to compete for a playoff spot, it’s likely they’ll all be above .500 at season’s end. It goes without saying those games will matter a whole lot when it comes down to seeding.
But, as Carlisle said, every game matters, and that includes mid-January tilts with teams destined for the lottery. No playoff team in either conference finished worse than eight games over .500 against losing teams last season, and no qualifier in the West won fewer than 26 games against losing teams. (Dallas went 29-10 against those teams.) You hear players preach the importance of “taking care of business” all the time. They aren’t kidding.
Nine Eastern Conference teams finished below-.500 last season — five finished above and the Milwaukee Bucks landed squarely at 41-41 — which means, more often than not, a game against the rival conference will feature an opponent who could be chasing lottery balls come summer.
To give an idea of just how extreme the divide between East and West is, a whopping 11 Western Conference teams finished at least .500 against the East, while just five East teams won at least half their games against the West. Seven West teams won at least 20 of their 30 inter-conference games, while only one East team, the Atlanta Hawks, did the same against the West.
|Team||Record vs. East|
|Houston, San Antonio||23-7|
|Portland, Memphis, Oklahoma City||20-10|
Clearly, those are games the Mavs cannot afford to lose too often. Dallas had a sterling road record in particular against East teams last season, finishing 13-2. It could take a similar effort this season — and doubling down at home would be great, too, of course — to get back to 50 wins.
The final major area wins come from intersects with games against foes from the West, East, top, and bottom of the standings: close games.
Dallas went 5-4 in games decided by three or fewer points last season, per ESPN.com. Only the Clippers won fewer games in such contests, posting a 3-5 mark. Meanwhile, New Orleans went 10-4, Memphis went 9-3, and Houston went 8-4. While those records are impressive, in statistical terms it’s very unlikely to see those teams post such overwhelmingly outstanding records in extremely close contests again, based on sheer luck alone. If a buzzer-beater rims out here and a free throw is missed there, suddenly that record changes, and generally over time things can swing from one way to another. The Basketball Gods have no loyalty.
Even so, close games are still the great equalizer in this league. The 2010-11 Mavs, for example, were 10-6 during the regular season in such contests, and that success directly translated to the playoffs, when the club won close games early on and of course a couple tight contests in the Finals en route to the first championship in franchise history. (Here’s a breakdown of the team’s record in such games by year.)
Whether success like that can be attributed to a team’s poise and resolve or just sheer dumb luck is for a debate between people far smarter than myself. One thing’s for sure, though: If you want to make the playoffs, you’d better find a way to win more of those games than you lose. Carlisle, for one, believes success in those contests is part of the bigger picture of how a team plays.
“Execution night in and night out is gonna tell the story of whether you’re winning the close games or not,” Carlisle said. “And if you’re winning your share, you can hang in and make the playoffs, or you can get in the top-four (seeds). And if you don’t, you’re gonna be up against it a little bit.”
Last season’s Mavs won 21 games against .500 or better teams, 29 against losing teams, 29 against the West, 21 against the East, and five games decided by three or fewer points. If the past is any indicator, it’s going to take somewhere close to 20 wins against the East and a record approaching .500 against winning teams to secure a Western Conference playoff berth.
We won’t know for a while how exactly the Mavericks will get there, but the framework is certainly in place. Just know that the Oct. 28 season opener is just as important as the April 13 finale. We don’t say “these games count” for nothing.