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Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Descent of the 1995-1996 NBA

Lately on my own social media, I've been vehemently defending the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls. Obvious nostalgia aside, the team was a powerhouse that had just returned (arguably) the greatest player of all time to an exceptional supporting cast. I also fondly remember the Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, New York Knicks, and Seattle SuperSonics, and used these teams to justify personal arguments about the strength of the 1995-1996 NBA. A close friend pointed out that the league added two expansion teams for that season, raising a question about the competitive nature of the league. I hypothesized that ELO, a measurement designed to account for franchise strength based on performance in individual games, would readily account for the strength of the league. Furthermore, the presence of the "tank" (or, sorry, "The Process") in the 2015-2016 NBA would surely equate this years bottom of the league with that bottom of the league in 1995-1996. Or so I suspected.

Thankfully, ELO provides a clear and intuitive tool for judging the strength of a given league, so I set out to collect the season opening and closing ELO for each 1995-1996 NBA team, and each 2015-2016 NBA team. The 2015-2016 NBA had 30 teams, while 29 played in 1995-1996 (hereafter 1516 and 9596). My hypothesis was simple: the 1995-1996 NBA, despite its expansion era, would prove to have stronger teams than the 2015-2016 NBA. My findings challenge this, but there are a boatload of interesting facts and interpretations in-between.

(1) Elite Teams.
Let's cut straight to the chase: who were the best teams in 1995-1996? Since the "average" ELO is 1500 points, I used a 10% above average threshold (or, 1650 points) to define "elite" teams at season's end. The 1516 Warriors could be poised to overtake the Bulls, who are currently the most elite team of the bunch. However, the 1516 Spurs, Thunder, and Cavs all are currently rated stronger than the 9596 Sonics and Jazz.

Elite Teams ELO Opening Closing
9596 Bulls 1592 1853
1516 Warriors 1746 1790
1516 Spurs 1667 1759
1516 Thunder 1567 1744
1516 Cavs 1645 1725
9596 Sonics 1627 1704
9596 Jazz 1604 1687

This list doesn't tell the whole story, however. Entering the 1516 season, the NBA featured two elite teams (Warriors and Spurs). By contrast, there were no elite ELO teams entering the 9596 NBA. Instead, there were nine "very good" teams, or teams that were 5% to 9% better than average ELO. In the 9596 NBA, those teams were the Spurs, Rockets, Sonics, Jazz Knicks, Pacers, Bulls, Sun, and Magic. Interestingly enough, the 1516 NBA began the season with the two elite teams (Warriors and Spurs) and four very good teams (Clippers, Cavs, Rockets, and Grizzlies).

As an aside, looking at actual opening and closing ELO development, one can make a better argument for the 1516 Thunder as a comp for the 9596 Bulls, rather than the 1516 Warriors. But that's another day.

(2) League Picture
So, take your pick: entering the season, the 9596 NBA featured no elite teams, but a ton of very good teams (31% of the league entered the season as "very good"). In 9596, the league finished with three elite teams (see table above) and three very good teams (Magic, Lakers, Spurs, Pacers). By contrast, the 1516 NBA opened with a solid number of elite and very good teams (20% of the league fell under these classifications), and finished the season with four elite teams (see table above) and five very good teams (Blazers, Clippers, Heat, Hawks, Raptors).

Elite: 1650+ ELO
Very Good: 1575-1649 ELO
Good: 1500-1574 ELO
Mediocre: 1425-1499 ELO
Bad: 1350-1424 ELO
Terrible: -1349 ELO

Category of Team Opening Closing
9596 Elite 3
1516 Elite 2 4
9596 Very Good 9 4
1516 Very Good 4 5
9596 Good 5 8
1516 Good 11 7
9596 Mediocre 6 5
1516 Mediocre 8 6
9596 Bad 7 2
1516 Bad 1 5
9596 Terrible 2 7
1516 Terrible 4 3

In the broadest terms possible, or the "Big Picture," the 1516 NBA is almost the exact inversion of the 9596 NBA. First, the 9596 NBA, where five good teams declined and produced one mediocre and one bad team (the Lakers ascended to very good); six mediocre teams split into two good, two mediocre, two terrible teams; and nearly half the bad teams became terrible teams (the Pistons became good, the Warriors and Bullets mediocre). Perhaps most tellingly, the 14 very good and good teams nearly split equitably, producing 3 elite, 4 very good, 5 good, 1 mediocre (#LOLHornets), and 1 bad (#LOLNuggets) teams.

9596 Opening Closing
Spurs Very Good Very Good
Rockets Very Good Good
Sonics Very Good Elite
Jazz Very Good Elite
Knicks Very Good Good
Pacers Very Good Very Good
Bulls Very Good Elite
Suns Very Good Good
Magic Very Good Very Good
Hornets Good Mediocre
Nuggets Good Bad
Blazers Good Good
Lakers Good Very Good
Hawks Good Good
Cavs Mediocre Good
Kings Mediocre Mediocre
Celtics Mediocre Mediocre
Mavs Mediocre Terrible
Heat Mediocre Good
Bucks Mediocre Terrible
Nets Bad Terrible
Sixers Bad Terrible
Warriors Bad Mediocre
Pistons Bad Good
Clippers Bad Bad
Bullets Bad Mediocre
Twolves Bad Terrible
Grizzlies Terrible Terrible
Raptors Terrible Terrible

In harsh terms, the 9596 NBA saw its teams' talents redistributed throughout the year, where a bunch of very good and good teams scattered in several different directions, all while the bottom of the league flat-out dropped out. The best thing that can be said about the 9596 NBA is that at least its redistribution was balanced, as nearly a third of the league either improved, remained the same, or declined (see table below).

By contrast, the 1516 NBA was a story of stasis and improvement. While the 1516 NBA opened with more terrible teams than the 9596 league, two of the four terrible teams improved in 1516. Otherwise, teams remained rather steady across categories: the two elite teams entering the season remained elite; the very good teams scattered into elite, very good, good, and mediocre (#LOLGrizzlies) placements; five of eleven good teams remained just that (only the Bulls and Pelicans declined from that category. OUCH!); three of eight mediocre teams remained in place (two teams declined, #LOLBucks & #LOLNets); the Magic, the lone bad team, improved.

1516 Opening Closing
Warriors Elite Elite
Spurs Elite Elite
Clippers Very Good Very Good
Cavs Very Good Elite
Rockets Very Good Good
Grizzlies Very Good Mediocre
Bulls Good Mediocre
Thunder Good Elite
Hawks Good Very Good
Blazers Good Very Good
Mavs Good Good
Jazz Good Good
Wizards Good Good
Pelicans Good Bad
Celtics Good Good
Pacers Good Good
Raptors Good Very Good
Suns Mediocre Bad
Pistons Mediocre Mediocre
Nets Mediocre Terrible
Heat Mediocre Very Good
Bucks Mediocre Bad
Nuggets Mediocre Mediocre
Kings Mediocre Mediocre
Charlotte Mediocre Good
Magic Bad Mediocre
Lakers Terrible Terrible
Sixers Terrible Terrible
Twolves Terrible Bad
Knicks Terrible Bad

Here are how these charts look when they are compared to one another:

Teams Remaining the Same 9596 1516
Elite 0% 100%
Very Good 33% 25%
Good 40% 45%
Mediocre 33% 38%
Bad 14% 0%
Terrible 100% 50%
Overall 10 / 29 (34%) 13 / 30 (43%)
Teams Declining 9596 1516
Elite 0% 0%
Very Good 33% 50%
Good 40% 18%
Mediocre 33% 38%
Bad 43% 0%
Overall 10 / 29 (34%) 7 / 30 (23%)
Teams Improving 9596 1516
Very Good 33% 25%
Good 20% 36%
Mediocre 33% 25%
Bad 43% 100%
Terrible 0% 50%
Overall 9 / 29 (31%) 10 / 30 (33%)

(3) League Strength
It's tempting to argue that the presence of an even distribution of improving, static, and declining teams makes the 9596 NBA the more competitive league. However, the presence of nine bad or terrible teams  (out of 29) simply makes that case more difficult. In terms of basic statistics, the 1516 NBA finished with fewer bad or terrible teams (8 of 30), and had a higher percentage of their preseason bad or terrible teams improve (the Magic, Twolves, and Knicks, here). The 9596 NBA had the Warriors, Pistons, and Bullets improve, but that simply was not enough to tilt the numbers in their favor.

There's also a grand sense of possibility about the 1516 NBA going forward: 22 of 30 teams are mediocre or better, and it's a top-heavy list (16 of those teams are good). Two of those mediocre teams (Bulls, Pistons) are within shouting distance of the league average ELO, and the Magic are trending upward. These numbers are ultimately close to the 9596 NBA, but just a tick better (I feel like that matters, too, as a mediocre team can sell "trying to win" to its fanbase, and the more teams that can do that, better for the league). It is simply better, or more competitive, if 22 teams can fight for playoff spots, instead of 20.

On the other hand, there remain arguments in favor of the 9596 NBA. At the very least, since fewer teams remained the same, the league was at least more interesting, arguably, than the current NBA. Furthermore, nearly as many teams improved in 9596 as in 1516, which means that some of the moves within the league were equally as exciting as the current league.

Isn't it interesting how many franchises have similar arcs within a 20 year span? The poor Rockets: both teams declined from Top 5 openings in 9596 and 1516. That's neither here nor there, really, but still interesting: the 1990s Rockets descending from their Championships, the 2010s Rockets never really succeeding in the playoffs (1st round exits in 3 of their last 4 trips). Teams that were (approximately) within 37 ELO points, or 2.5%, in both their 9596 and 1516 ratings? Rockets (1503 to 1536), Washington (1498 to 1530), Pistons (1528 to 1494), Nets (1327 to 1289),  Kings (1431 to 1425), Hawks (1556 to 1593), and Nuggets (1404 to 1427). That's seven teams that have played nearly a generation of basketball, only to come 'round and land almost in exactly the same spot.

Notably, the Sixers missed the cut, but they were nearly as bad in 9596 (1256 ELO) as their current "Process" (1203 ELO). The current Sixers finished this season with a worse performance than both the expansion Grizzlies and Raptors, which alone should disqualify them form their Draft Lottery. The Sonics / Thunder also missed the cut by a small margin, but they are equally fascinating from the other end of the spectrum: this franchise finished Top Three in both years, elite teams both years, and (arguably) in a transitional season both years. This year's Thunder potentially closed out Kevin Durant's era with the club, closing their attempt at a dynasty; the Sonics weren't quite there in 1996, but they were close to winding down; they wouldn't return to the Western Conference Finals in Seattle.

It remains to be seen if the Warriors can top the Bulls dynasty of the mid-1990s. One might wonder whether that team will become as universally loved or hated as the Bulls (I wonder if video game programmers will tank the Warriors, a la the hideous Bulls in NBA Jam). The one thing that remains extremely interesting about those 1996 Bulls is the return of Michael Jordan, which adds a completely different arc to the story. Moreover, even in the midst of their dynasty run, even including the "break" from the Finals between 1993 and 1996,  the Bulls responded to adversity and rebuilt their club; their ELO climb from 1592 to 1853 (!!!) in 9596 alone proves this. So, one only needs to ask of Golden State, what will their adversity be, and will they beat it?