Winning Not Necessary Heading Toward Postseason?

Gregg Popovich has never been shy about resting his starters before the postseason. But does that strategy actually work if the team is losing? Photo via Associated Press/DayLife

Rest the starters and accept potential losses or go for the win and risk injury to your stars.

Coaches throughout the league were running through the possible risks and benefits of these decisions. Do you let players get rusty and potentially lose their edge? Do you push them to play harder and risk overworking them before the grueling test ahead?

Each coach has a different approach to this question.

San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich has always elected to bench his starters throughout the season and especially toward the end of the season to make sure they are in top condition for the postseason. Other coaches will scale back minutes to give added rest. Others don’t do much and let their teams play on toward the postseason, hoping to carry on whatever momentum or rhythm they have into the first round of the Playoffs.

It is always good to win, but it is not necessary for playoff success. The streaking team is very much like the hot hand, it makes logical sense to believe it but the statistics don’t necessarily back it up. Remember, these numbers are more a correlation than a causation.

Take a look at the conference finalists from the last five years:

Year Team L10 W-L Team L10 W-L Team L10 W-L Team L10 W-L
2010 Lakers 4-6 Celtics 3-7 Suns 8-2 Magic 9-1
2009 Lakers 7-3 Magic 5-5 Nuggets 8-2 Cavaliers 7-3
2008 Celtics 9-1 Lakers 8-2 Pistons 8-2 Spurs 7-3
2007 Spurs 6-4 Cavaliers 7-3 Jazz 4-6 Pistons 7-3
2006 Heat 4-6 Mavericks 6-4 Pistons 6-4 Suns 5-5

 

Generally, it seems important to have a winning record in the final 10 games heading to the postseason. Only two teams in the last five years have won the title with a record below .500 in the final 10 games of the regular season and just four have made the finals. In fact, only five teams have reached the conference finals with a sub-.500 record.

 

What should be interesting to note, however, is the only team to win the NBA title with the best record among conference finalists was Boston.

That, if anything, shows that the regular season’s end is a long way away from the conference finals and NBA Finals. Streaks change and momentum swings. So won/loss record in the last 10 games of the regular season likely does not matter as much when you get deeper into the Playoffs.

However early in the postseason, in getting to the later rounds, some momentum seems to matter.

Team L10 W-L Team L10 W-L
Spurs 4-6 Bulls 9-1
Lakers 5-5 Heat 8-2
Mavericks 6-4 Celtics 5-5
Thunder 7-3 Magic 6-4
Nuggets 7-3 Hawks 4-6
Trail Blazers 6-4 Knicks 7-3
Hornets 5-5 76ers 4-6
Grizzlies 6-4 Pacers 5-5

This does not bode well then for the Spurs, the Celtics and the Lakers, the only top-seeded teams to have a .500 or worse records. However, these are also veteran teams with championship experience. As the Celtics showed last year, some of these teams know how to “turn it on” and win in the postseason.

That experience alone should warn teams facing those three not to look at recent play.

It also seems to show the Bulls and Heat are peaking too early (as the saying would go). The 2008 Celtics are the only team to have done as well as the Bulls and Heat to close the season and win the NBA Finals.

Again, momentum tends to wear off. Although, this could very much go like the theory of the hot hand. It may just be something we make up to explain trends.

Philip Rossman-Reich

About Philip Rossman-Reich

Philip Rossman-Reich is the managing editor for Crossover Chronicles and Orlando Magic Daily. You can follow him on twitter @OMagicDaily

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