Which Types of Teams Reach the Conference Finals in the NBA?

Predicting which teams will have deep playoff runs early in an NBA season can be a daunting endeavor. But that’s particularly the case this year, when the league hierarchy is set to be as wide open as it has been since Michael Jordan first quit in 1993.

The NBA is so deep that redesigned entities like the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves aren’t even in the top 12 for chances of taking home the title (according to most major gambling operators).

As parity seeps through our ranks, it will take some sophisticated mechanism to weed out the competition from all the noise.

Fortunately, we have just the right tool.

Adjusted offensive and defensive stats

The first question to ask here is what types of teams make it to the Conference Finals?

To understand this, we need to look back at the offensive and defensive skills of previous conference finalists. With our unique Adjusted Offensive Rating (AOR) and Adjusted Defensive Rating (ADR) metrics, we can analyze these teams in the context of their respective eras.

Pure numbers like Offensive and Defensive Rating don’t provide much insight on their own as these variables fluctuate wildly due to the changes in style and pace that have occurred in the league over time.

However, our adjusted measurements take into account these changes and isolate the impact of a given team to tell us how many points per 100 possessions better or worse teams have had during this season, including the playoffs, compared to the league average club.

Since our data goes back to the 1986-87 campaign, we have a sample size of 144 conference finals teams to support our analysis. Here’s a scatterplot of the AOR and ADR outputs from all of these teams (remember, in the case of ADR, the lower the output, the better):

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These 144 data points can be aggregated into four specific team constructs: balanced teams, elite attackers, elite defenders, and a group we’ll simply refer to as “Other” for now.

Balanced teams

For this exercise, a “balanced” team is defined as one that has an AOR of 1.5 or greater and an ADR of minus 1.5 or less.

This group was by far the most prominent team category among conference finalists, with “balanced” teams making up 64 of our 144 (approximately 44.4%) conference finalists.

This frequency indicates that this roster configuration is probably the easiest to achieve. This makes sense from a team building perspective as you don’t have to worry about beating gold on offensive juggernauts like Steve Nash or defensive stalwarts like Dwight Howard.

You just have to focus on finding parts that balance each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

A great example of this is the Detroit Pistons of 1986-87. The group wasn’t what we consider elite on either side of the ball (3.08 AOR and minus 1.9 ADR). But they reached the conference finals on the backs of veteran guards like Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Vinnie Johnson and versatile greats like Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn and John Salley.

It’s also worth noting that the teams that meet the Balanced and Elite Attack/Defense criteria have been placed in this category for the sake of simplicity.

Elite Attack

Forty-six of the 144 teams (31.9%) met our guidelines for an elite offense: an AOR of 3.5 or greater with an ADR greater than minus 1.5.

These teams generally lacked superstar defensive personnel, but made up for it with their all-time offensive engines at the other end.

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The aforementioned Steve Nash and his Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns are the epitome of this model. From 2005 to 2010, the group reached three conference finals, despite never touting a defense of league average or better (according to the ADR).

The seven seconds or less suns

Elite Defense

It looks like defense doesn’t necessarily win championships as this section was only the third most common subcategory of the four outlined for this study. To fit here, a team had to have an ADR of minus 3.5 or less and an AOR of less than 1.5.

Minor offenses that rely on defenses to command the ship usually have elite-level rim guards. Some examples of these Goliaths are Howard, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Alonzo Mourning, Ben Wallace, Joakim Noah and the Gasol brothers.

That makes sense when you consider that the paint is the most valuable area on the floor and the teams that protect it best often have the most success.

Other

Up to this point, we’ve found that teams that make deep playoff runs generally have either elite offense, elite defense, or great balance on both sides of the ball. However, there were 14 teams (9.7%) that did not fit either of these descriptions.

Most of these outliers (eight out of 14) can be explained by examining the strength of their conference.

For example, in the early 2000s there was a huge talent gap between the Eastern and Western Conferences. The 2000-01 Philadelphia 76ers may have been the Eastern Conference champions, but they finished only seventh in our adjusted team standings that season behind six Western Conference teams (the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings, the Utah Jazz, the Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trailblazer).

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Three other of those teams — the 2003-04 Lakers, 2020-21 Hawks, and 2021-22 Heat — just missed the cutoff line for some of our subcategories. Both the Hawks and the Heat would fit the definition of “elite offense” if we simply changed the threshold from 3.5 or higher to 3.25 or higher (the downside of creating arbitrary policies).

The bottom three teams — the 1988-89 Chicago Bulls, the 2014-15 Houston Rockets, and the 2021-22 Dallas Mavericks — are a little more difficult to target.

These three teams represent deviations in the timeline. All three were underdogs, bucking the odds of defeating a higher-seeded opponent (the Bulls), a comeback from a seemingly insurmountable series deficit (the Rockets), or both (the Mavericks).

These anomalies represent the human aspect of sport, and as they only make up 2.1% of our conference finalists, they don’t get overly much consideration in our analysis.

Projection into 2022-23

The increased player autonomy has coincided with a year-over-year increase in league-wide player movement. This societal shift brings many benefits (which are beyond the scope of this study), but for our purposes, it makes planning for this year’s conference final list a tedious task.

Still, our rundown of the past seems incredibly powerful once we get a legitimate understanding of each team’s offense and defense. As our data collection on each of the 30 NBA teams increases, we should revisit this study at several points throughout the season to identify potential competitors. From there we can start predicting which teams might fit into the subcategories we created and outlined.

And that’s why we rely primarily on data to paint a clearer picture.


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