Each week during the 2021-22 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
[ Last time on Fact or Fiction: The 2022 NBA guide to tanking ]
There is no NBA championship favorite
Call it East Coast bias, but there is a sense that the NBA championship picture is blurred, probably because the Eastern Conference features a handful of potential finalists. Only, there is definitely a clear title favorite.
The Phoenix Suns own the league's best record (62-14) by 8 1/2 games and highest net rating by 1.8 points per 100 possessions, the combination of which has historically made anything short of a title disappointing.
If they finish 66-16, as they are projected to, according to FiveThirtyEight, the Suns will join an elite club of 17 teams in NBA history. Twelve of them won championships, and that is merely the first point in their favor.
Since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, only seven teams have finished with records seven or more games ahead of the field — the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers, 1984 and 2008 Boston Celtics, 1992 and 1996 Chicago Bulls, 2000 Los Angeles Lakers and 2015 Golden State Warriors — and all seven won championships.
Only once in NBA history has a team won 65-plus games, posted a net rating at least one point per 100 possessions higher than the league's next-best team and failed to win the title: LeBron James' 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers. They finished 66-16 and outscored opponents by 10 points per 100 possessions — 1.8 more than that year's Celtics, who lost Kevin Garnett midseason, 1.7 more than the eventual champion Lakers and 2.7 more than the Orlando Magic, who ousted the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals.
Those Cavaliers are the exception, largely because Mo Williams was LeBron's best teammate, and they started two loafing centers. This season's Suns are far more balanced, led by the All-NBA backcourt of Devin Booker and Chris Paul and All-Star-caliber center Deandre Ayton. Cleveland would have killed for a player of Jae Crowder's ilk in 2009, much less fellow two-way wings Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson.
The Suns rank third in offensive rating, scoring 114.9 points per 100 possessions, and second on defense, allowing 106.5 points per 100 possessions. Only five teams in Basketball Reference's database, going back to the 1973-74 season, have posted an offensive rating higher than 114 and a defensive rating lower than 107 — the 1987 Lakers, 1992 and 1996 Bulls, 1995 Seattle SuperSonics and 2017 Warriors. The Sonics are the only one not to win a ring, losing to the pre-Shaquille O'Neal Lakers in a best-of-five first-round series.
Those Sonics, who made the Finals the following season, are not so bad a comparison to this year's Suns in one regard. Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and Detlef Schrempf made All-NBA teams. None of them made the First Team or finished in the top five for MVP voting. They had a decent wing rotation. They just could not close games, barely finishing above .500 (10-9) in games decided by five points or fewer, and losing three straight playoff games by a combined 10 points to Nick Van Exel, Cedric Ceballos and Vlade Divac.
This year's Suns are not that. They are 32-6 in games that are within five points in the final five minutes — an astonishing figure. You just hope their 56.7% field-goal rate in those situations is not an anomaly.
Phoenix's 8.4 net rating is not historically great. Thirty teams since the 1985-86 season have registered a superior margin of victory per 100 possessions, and 16 fell short of their ultimate goal. But 66 wins and a net rating better than eight points per 100 possessions is as close to a safe championship bet as you will find in the NBA. Few statistical combinations can more accurately predict who is crowned at season's end.
1971 Milwaukee Bucks (66-16 record, 10.8 net rating): NBA champions
1972 Los Angeles Lakers (69-13 record, 10.5 net rating): NBA champions
1986 Boston Celtics (67-15 record, 9.2 net rating): NBA champions
1992 Chicago Bulls (67-15 record, 11.0 net rating): NBA champions
1996 Chicago Bulls (72-10 record, 13.4 net rating): NBA champions
1997 Chicago Bulls (69-13 record, 12.0 net rating): NBA champions
2000 Los Angeles Lakers (67-15 record, 9.1 net rating): NBA champions
2008 Boston Celtics (66-16 record, 11.3 net rating): NBA champions
2009 Cleveland Cavaliers (66-16 record, 10.0 net rating): Lost Eastern Conference finals
2013 Miami Heat (66-16 record, 8.6 net rating): NBA champions
2015 Golden State Warriors (67-15 record, 10.2 net rating): NBA champions
2016 San Antonio Spurs (67-15, 11.3 net rating): Lost in the Western Conference semifinals
2016 Golden State Warriors (73-9 net rating, 10.7 net rating): Lost NBA Finals
2017 Golden State Warriors (67-15 record, 11.6 net rating): NBA champions
A few things may give Suns fans pause here. All of those teams had one or more of the 20 greatest players in NBA history (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain/Jerry West, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal/Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Tim Duncan and Curry/Kevin Durant).
Duncan was 39 years old on the Spurs in 2016. That team featured two more aging future Hall of Famers (Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili), a 24-year-old Kawhi Leonard and a prime LaMarcus Aldridge at the head of a stacked roster, which was plenty for one of the greatest coaches ever to extract a historic regular season. It was still not enough to overcome Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder that season. The moral of the story is that iconic players win championships. Just ask last year's Suns about Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Paul would vault closer to the list of 20 greatest players with a ring, and we do not know where Booker will land among the all-time greats when his career is done. A title at age 25 would tear the roof off his ceiling.
It could be coincidence that, after eight straight championships from 66-win teams with net ratings higher than eight points per 100 possessions, only half the teams that have reached those markers since 2009 have won the title. It could also be a trend in an era when the league-wide talent pool is stronger than ever.
The 2013 Heat have the closest record and net rating to these Suns, but is Phoenix really akin to a roster that boasted peak James and two more Hall of Famers in their prime? The Suns are comparable by the numbers, but they are closer to the Spurs of that same season by the eye test. San Antonio had an aging all-timer, a rising superstar and a bunch of professionals who knew how to play the beautiful game together in 2013. They came within a Ray Allen miracle of beating Miami in the Finals and won the title a year later.
Sound familiar? The Suns set out to avenge their Finals loss, and history tells us they are a safe bet to do it. Oddsmakers agree, since BetMGM considers Phoenix twice as likely to win it all as Brooklyn or Milwaukee.
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