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November 16, 2012
The Meaning of 6-0
NBA History

by Kevin Pelton

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We here at Basketball Prospectus have never been known for shying away from bold predictions, and in that spirit I offer this conclusion gleaned from the season's first two weeks: The New York Knicks will not continue to play this well. They can't, of course, having run their record to 6-0 with Thursday's fourth-quarter comeback at San Antonio. The Knicks are outscoring opponents by 13.7 points per game, which would surpass the +12.3 differential posted by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls en route to 72-10. So the question obviously isn't whether New York will regress but how much they will do so.

To get an idea of that, I got Prospectus' Neil Paine to pull a list of the 50 teams in NBA history that have started 6-0 from the Basketball-Reference.com database. Here they are:

Year Team   Win%   PO    F    C    Diff
---------------------------------------
1958 BOS    .681    Y    Y    N    15.7
1960 BOS    .787    Y    Y    Y     9.8
1961 PHW    .582    Y    N    N    13.3
1964 BOS    .738    Y    Y    Y    10.2
1965 BOS    .775    Y    Y    Y    17.2
1967 PHI    .840    Y    Y    Y    21.3
1968 BOS    .659    Y    Y    Y    12.3
1968 STL    .683    Y    N    N    10.2
1971 DET    .549    N    N    N     7.7
1972 MIL    .768    Y    N    N    21.3

Year Team   Win%   PO    F    C    Diff
---------------------------------------
1973 BOS    .829    Y    N    N     7.3
1975 WSB    .732    Y    Y    N    10.2
1977 CLE    .524    Y    N    N    10.8
1977 DEN    .610    Y    N    N    13.7
1979 SEA    .634    Y    Y    Y    15.2
1980 PHI    .720    Y    Y    N    14.8
1980 POR    .463    Y    N    N    14.7
1982 POR    .512    N    N    N     5.8
1983 PHI    .793    Y    Y    Y    16.2
1983 SEA    .585    Y    N    N    17.0

Year Team   Win%   PO    F    C    Diff
---------------------------------------
1985 HOU    .585    Y    N    N    11.8
1986 DEN    .573    Y    N    N    17.3
1988 BOS    .695    Y    N    N    10.0
1988 LAL    .756    Y    Y    Y    12.7
1989 DET    .768    Y    Y    Y     8.8
1991 POR    .768    Y    N    N    12.3
1993 POR    .622    Y    N    N    11.7
1994 HOU    .707    Y    Y    Y    10.2
1994 NYK    .695    Y    Y    N    10.0
1994 SEA    .768    Y    N    N    13.8

Year Team   Win%   PO    F    C    Diff
---------------------------------------
1995 HOU    .573    Y    Y    Y    12.8
1997 CHI    .841    Y    Y    Y    16.2
1997 HOU    .695    Y    N    N     9.8
1998 ATL    .610    Y    N    N     5.2
1998 LAL    .744    Y    N    N    15.2
1999 SEA    .500    N    N    N    10.5
1999 UTA    .740    Y    N    N    10.0
2001 PHI    .683    Y    Y    N     9.2
2002 LAL    .707    Y    Y    Y    13.2
2002 MIN    .610    Y    N    N    16.5

Year Team   Win%   PO    F    C    Diff
---------------------------------------
2003 DAL    .732    Y    N    N    18.7
2006 DET    .780    Y    N    N    13.0
2008 BOS    .805    Y    Y    Y    16.3
2009 ATL    .573    Y    N    N     9.3
2009 LAL    .793    Y    Y    Y    19.8
2010 BOS    .610    Y    Y    N    18.3
2011 ATL    .537    Y    N    N     8.8
2011 LAL    .695    Y    N    N    11.7
2011 NOH    .561    Y    N    N     6.0

2013 NYK                           13.7

On average, teams that start 6-0 win a little better than two-thirds of their games (.677), which translates into 55.5 wins. Of the 49 teams that did so prior to this year's Knicks, 46 made the playoffs. 21 reached the NBA Finals and 15 won the championship. So, obviously, starting 6-0 is an excellent sign but not yet a guarantee. The 1970-71 Detroit Pistons, 1981-82 Portland Trail Blazers and the 1998-99 Seattle SuperSonics could not even translate it into a trip to the postseason. That's most remarkable in the case of the Sonics, who lost 25 of their last 44 games during the lockout-shortened season after opening the season as contenders.

One thing that surprised me is that New York's differential to date is less meaningful than it appears. To state the obvious, teams that win all their games tend to have very good differentials, so the Knicks are only slightly better than the average 6-0 team, which had a differential of +12.8 in that span.

There is some value to looking at point differential, even over such a small period. The 15 teams that outscored opponents by at least 15 points per game during their 6-0 start ended up winning nearly 72 percent of their games (.719), whereas the 11 teams that failed to reach double-figure average margins ended up winning less than 65 percent on average (.646). That's a six-win difference between the two groups.

Alas, that history doesn't really tell us much about this New York team, which falls slightly better than average. Based on the overall relationship between point differential during the first six games and final record, we'd increase our prediction for the Knicks only slightly from 55.5 wins to 56.2.

The more interesting indicator may be history. After all, nobody was all that impressed when the 2010-11 Los Angeles Lakers started 6-0. As the two-time defending champs, the Lakers--who ended up losing in the conference semifinals--were expected to play like that. What makes New York's start so notable is that it came relatively out of nowhere for a Knicks team that was 36-30 a year ago and wasn't expected to play much better this season.

Of the 35 teams since the NBA-ABA merger to start 6-0 before this season, 24 won at least 60 percent of their games the previous season. That puts New York in the middle of the other group, which previously included 11 teams--most of them, like the Knicks, slightly better than .500 the year before, although the most interesting example is the 2007-08 Boston Celtics, who went from 24-58 to the NBA championship after adding Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett.

The teams that had no track record of success naturally finished worse than the group as a whole. On average, they won 51.0 games, and while 10 of the 11 made the playoffs, a smaller percentage reached the Finals (four, 36.4 percent) and won the title (two, 18.2 percent).

Of course, a 51-win pace would have been enough to win the Atlantic Division and give New York home-court advantage in last year's Eastern Conference. Even if it's too early to start thinking championship at Madison Square Garden, the Knicks' fast start is enough to raise expectations and consider New York atop the group of challengers to the Miami Heat in the East.

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

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