Are NBA’s winning streaks legit, or fool’s gold?

Photo courtesy of zombio.com

Photo courtesy of zombio.com

As the 2015-16 NBA season approaches its halfway point, three teams are on winning streaks of at least eight games. Which of these streaks are a result of an easy schedule, and which say something more about the team’s chances at winning a title?

The Golden State Warriors (36-2) kicked off this season with an unthinkable, but somehow not unbelievable, 24-game winning streak, but it is three other teams that have put together much smaller streaks of their own. The San Antonio Spurs (34-6) and the Los Angeles Clippers (25-13) have each won nine straight games, and the Cleveland Cavaliers (27-9) have won eight straight.

The other notable winning streak going on right now is, you guessed it, those Warriors, who have won seven of their own in a row. While winning games counts the same no matter who the opponent, statistics say some of these winning streaks may be a result of a lull in the schedule rather than a reflection of who the team really is.

In an attempt to not talk too much about Golden State, let’s begin with the Spurs, who have quietly somehow managed to keep pace with the red-hot Warriors. San Antonio is currently the second best team in the Western Conference, and finds themselves only three games behind the two-loss Warriors.

The Spurs have benefited from a lot of home games during their nine-game winning streak, only playing three away from San Antonio. The Spurs are one of the few teams in the league who has not lost back-to-back games this season, and is one of two teams to still have not lost a game at home (22-0). The other is Golden State, who have won all 18 of their home games.

San Antonio has been dominant through their first forty games, and have happily flown under the radar of many people while doing so. Of the three teams currently on winning streaks longer than eight games, the Spurs played the toughest schedule (by percentage points over the Cavs), while also having the largest margin of victory:

Average margin of Victory during winning streak: SA: 17.78 points, CLE: 12.75 points, LAC: 11.33 points

Current record of opponents during winning streak: SA: 143-206, CLE: 126-183, LAC: 119-222

Current winning percentage of opponents during winning streak: SA: .410, CLE: .408, LAC: .349

So the Spurs and Cavs played a near identical schedule in terms of opponent’s current record, while the Clippers clearly played teams that had won less games to this point in the season. The only difference between the Spurs and Cavs is that the Spurs won their games by more points than both the Clippers and Cavaliers. San Antonio won seven of their nine games by at least ten points, while the other teams teams had more close calls (both the Cavaliers and Clippers had four single-digit victories).

San Antonio has been destroying teams by large margins all season, and as a result have actually won 16 of their last 17 games (the lone loss coming on Christmas Day against Houston). The Spurs have enough story lines and crazy stats that can make up an entire article by themselves, so I’ll save that for another time.

The Cavaliers edged out Dallas last night in overtime, as they begin a tough four-game stretch. Next up Cleveland will continue the Texas triangle trip with games on the road at San Antonio and at Houston, before returning home to face off against the Warriors. These next three games will tell us a lot about where exactly this year’s Cavalier’s team is on their quest for a championship.

A crazy stat to keep in mind: if the Cavs can return to The Finals again at the end of this season, it will be LeBron James’ sixth STRAIGHT Finals appearance. Another loss in The Finals would put him well below .500 in what would be his seven career trips there.

The Clippers are maybe the most interesting team out of the four being talked about. Many of us already know what we are going to get from Cleveland, San Antonio and Golden State, but the Clippers have been a true wild card so far this season.

Los Angeles took advantage of a weak stretch in their schedule, beating seven non-playoff teams from a year ago. Their last nine games were against the New Orleans Pelicans and Charlotte Hornets twice, the Utah Jazz, Washington Wizards, Philadelphia 76ers, Portland Trail Blazers and their cross-town rival the Lakers.

Many people picked the Clippers to not just make the playoffs, but to represent the Western Conference in The Finals because of an “improved and much deeper bench” after they were able to get DeAndre Jordan to resign this summer. I’ll save my comments on this whole Clippers thing for another time, but we are going to learn a lot about the Clippers over their next ten games.

While the winning percentage of the teams they will be playing is nothing impressive (just over .500 according to Clips Nation), the teams have been better than their records. Los Angeles gets the top-six teams in the Eastern Conference standings, plus Houston, Sacramento, the Knicks and the Lakers. Only the Lakers matchup is one that would surprise me if the Clippers lost.

The Clippers also have struggled against their own conference so far this season. Ten of their 13 losses have come against Western Conference opponents, which does not bode well come playoff time. The Clippers are currently in fourth in their conference, so the tougher schedule may make it hard for them to keep that spot in the standings.

Speaking of tougher schedules, I found this interesting. You may have noticed I left out the “strength of schedule” rankings when talking about these four teams. While I like the stat and think it can put some things into perspective, it really does not do the top teams justice.

Teams like the Cavs, Warriors, and Spurs will almost always have lower than expected strength of schedule statistics mostly because these teams cannot schedule themselves. So while other teams have to play all three of these teams, for example, which boosts their strength of schedule rating, the Warriors will only have two of these three teams on their schedule.

Keeping things like this in mind when talking about the best of the best in the NBA is crucial when trying to compare teams. It also never hurts to remember the old saying that should always be followed by an asterisk: the Numbers Never Lie*.

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