Can regular season advanced metrics filter legitimate championship contenders from pretenders? Four metrics were examined from the past 25 NBA champions in order to potentially identify key trends and predict 2024 contenders. Based on the results, six teams currently stake a claim in the title race.
Predicting Contenders Methodology
Does defense actually win championships? The first metric I explored is Defensive Rating, which measures how many points a team surrenders per 100 possessions. Because it accounts for the entire regular season, it depicts which franchises consistently limited opposing offenses.
Does overall regular season dominance indicate postseason dominance? Net Rating combines both offensive and defensive rating to produce a team’s point differential per 100 possessions. In other words, it states how many points a team outscored their opponents by per 100 possessions. For bad teams, the net rating will be negative.
Due to the unstable nature of drawing free throws and mathematical advantage of three-pointers, what is the optimal shooting stat for predicting playoff success? Effective field goal percentage (eFG%) adjusts field goal percentage to include the fact that threes are worth more points than twos. Net effective field goal percentage measures a team’s percentage minus their opponent’s percentage. Essentially, the metric portrays whether a team is more efficient on a points per shot basis without factoring in free throws.
Is a hyper-impactful, top player needed to win the title? Box Plus-Minus is “a box score estimate of the points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league-average player, translated to an average team” (per Basketball Reference). It’s one of the top all-around impact player metrics and correlates highly with MVP votes.
With these four pillar metrics selected, I then looked at the past 25 champions and noted their regular season rank for each of the metrics. Let’s see if the trends were strong enough for meaningful takeaways about sifting contenders from pretenders.
Predicting Contenders Results & Takeaways
Defensive Rating Regular Season Rank:
- Top 3 = 48%
- Top 5 = 60%
- Top 8 = 76%
- Top 11 = 92%
Nearly half of the past 25 champions finished their respective regular season in the top three of Defensive Rating, while 92 percent were top eleven. The only two outliers are the 2001 Lakers (22nd) and 2023 Nuggets (15th).
Los Angeles was coming off of a championship and cruised through the regular season without much interest. They featured two of the three best players across the NBA in Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, so the Lakers could afford this half-hearted approach. Los Angeles subsequently won the championship this season by storming through the postseason with a 15-1 record. Therefore, this squad is a unique exception to me.
Meanwhile, Denver entered the playoffs with an average defense, but shortened rotations slashed the minutes of their defensive liabilities. The Nuggets morphed into an excellent defense and did not have a massive target on the court for opposing teams to hunt.
Based on the results, it’s vital to enter the playoffs with an above average defense at a minimum. Considering 15 of the last 25 champions ranked top five in Defensive Rating, an elite unit is obviously preferable though.
Net Rating Regular Season Rank:
- Top 3 = 64%
- Top 6 = 92%
- Top 8 = 100%
Teams can get away with a non-elite Defensive Rating, but the same cannot be said of Net Rating. 16 of the 25 champions finished the regular season top three in the metric, and every single champion at least made the top eight. That’s a powerful trend, as it states that regular season dominance is absolutely essential to winning the title. In other words, above average teams cannot elevate their play for four straight series.
Net Effective Field Goal Percentage Regular Season Rank:
- Top 3 = 64%
- Top 6 = 92%
- Top 9 = 100%
Net effective field goal percentage is another iron-clad metric that teams must thrive in during the regular season. 23 of the 25 champions wound up top six with the two exceptions being the 2009 and 2010 Lakers, who still made the top nine. Overall, demonstrating the ability to shoot more efficiently than the opponent across the regular season when factoring in three-pointers and disregarding free throws is crucial.
Box Plus-Minus Regular Season Rank:
- Top 3 = 48%
- Top 5 = 76%
- Top 9 = 96%
Finally, 19 of the 25 champions had a top five player in Box Plus-Minus. The only team to not have someone in the top nine was the 2004 Pistons, who were the ultimate example of the phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Chauncey Billups still managed to rank 16th too, so it’s not as if Detroit completely bucked the trend. To me, the 2004 Pistons are also a unique exception like the 2001 Lakers.
2024 Championship Contenders
Here are the necessary thresholds for each metric that at least 60 percent of the past 25 champions hit:
- Top 5 Defensive Rating
- Top 3 Net Rating
- Top 3 Net Effective Field Goal Percentage
- Top 4 Box Plus-Minus
At this moment, no teams currently hit all four marks. However, three franchises fit the bill in three of four metrics: the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, and Oklahoma City Thunder. Therefore, let’s get looser and change it to a 90 percent threshold for each metric, which would be the following:
- Top 11 Defensive Rating
- Top 6 Net Rating
- Top 6 Net Effective Field Goal Percentage
- Top 9 Box Plus-Minus
Under these new parameters, only the Oklahoma City Thunder check all four categories. That’s quite a surprise considering they currently hold the seventh shortest odds (+1800) to win the title. It’s worth noting that a handful of teams were extremely close to qualifying and met the criteria for three of four metrics.
Philadelphia’s only blemish was ranking 10th in net effective field goal percentage, which speaks to their dangerous reliance on free throws.
Boston missed in Box Plus-Minus, as Jayson Tatum is their top player at 17th overall. The Celtics’ abundance of talent reduces their individual impact on the box score though, which definitely drives the low ranking. For example, they have three players that sit in the top 22: Jayson Tatum, Kristaps Porzingis, and Derrick White. Essentially, Boston being too talented and deep hurt them here.
Minnesota also failed to qualify due to Box Plus-Minus. On the other hand, they don’t have a single player in the top 30, so their situation is not comparable to Boston’s.
Denver’s sole mistake was ranking 12th in Defensive Rating instead of reaching the top 11 – what a crime!
The Clippers are 14th in Defensive Rating and 10th in Box Plus-Minus; both marks barely miss.
No other team managed to hit three of four metrics, including the Milwaukee Bucks. Based on recent history, their defense is too porous for them to win the championship, and the eye test corroborates this claim.
Overall, the past 25 champions indicate that the teams below have a legitimate shot at the title. Any other franchise would currently be considered a pretender, but it’s worth mentioning that only half of the regular season is over. The list may grow or shrink when April rolls around.
- Boston Celtics
- Denver Nuggets
- Los Angeles Clippers
- Minnesota Timberwolves
- Oklahoma City Thunder
- Philadelphia 76ers