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July 18, 2011
Historical Luck
How NBA Teams Rank

by Dan Feldman


Luck of the Irish? Try luck of the Lakers.

If you believe Pythagorean wins are a better measure of a team's achievement than actual wins, no franchise has received a bigger boost from chance than the Lakers. Even the notoriously (or famously, if you're a Boston fan) lucky Celtics with leprechauns at the Boston Garden haven't received as much luck--although, they're on the positive side of the ledger.

By subtracting Pythagorean wins from actual wins, we can get an idea of how lucky a team has been. By this measure, no franchise has been luckier than the Lakers, and no franchise has been unluckier than the Pacers. Here's how each of the current 30 franchises ranks:

But the Lakers have had 63 seasons to amass all that good fortune. What if we looked at luck per year? In that case, the Hornets have received the most good luck, and the Grizzlies have received the most bad luck. Here's how each of the current 30 franchises ranks:

Although, maybe the Hornets haven't been relying just on luck. As Henry Abbott loves to mention, New Orleans has an extremely efficient late-game offense. That means their close wins have more to do with skill (of coaches and players) than catching lucky breaks.

If that advantage for the Hornets trends back far enough, maybe the No. 2 team should hold the title of luckiest team per season. Of course, that would be the Lakers.

And of course, when it comes to the luckiest seasons, the Lakers claim the top spot, too.

The 1961-62 Los Angeles Lakers went 54-26 despite a Pythagorean record of 45-35. Their good fortune granted them a first-round bye, home-court advantage against the Pistons in the Western Division Finals and, perhaps consequently, a trip to the NBA Finals. But whatever luck Los Angeles received that year ran out against the Celtics, who won the Finals in seven games and prevented Elgin Baylor and the Lakers from winning a title.

At least Baylor, who never won an NBA championship, had a chance to taste the playoffs. The same can't be said of the 1985-86 Seattle SuperSonics, one of two teams to win 10 fewer games than their Pythagorean record would've predicted (joining the 1958-59 Syracuse Nationals). The Sonics posted a Pythagorean record of 41-41, but a 31-51 actual record allowed three teams with 40 or fewer wins to make the Western Conference playoffs.

Here's how every team, from the 1961-62 Lakers to the 1958-59 Nationals, ranks in luck:

Dan Feldman is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Dan by clicking here or click here to see Dan's other articles.

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