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NBA Completists: A New Way To Appreciate Regular Season Dominance

As a big TV fan, when I commit to a show, I commit to all of it. I’m unable to skip episodes, no matter how bad. No show, whether comedy (usually in debut seasons like Parks and Rec’s first batch of episodes), drama (LOST’s “Dave” or “Fire+Water”), or even animation (JLU’s “Hawk and Dove”), is immune from the occasional clunker, but I can’t turn away. I’m a TV Completist.

One day around the All-Star break while perusing the invaluable Basketball-Reference.com, I sorted Chicago’s schedule by opponent. Knowing the Bulls had scored some quality wins over top teams like Golden State, Houston, Memphis and San Antonio, I was curious as to how many teams they’d defeated and realized they still had the chance to beat all 29 league opponents.

Wondering how typical this was in comparison, I spent some time and found that most teams had already been swept in a season series. In fact, only eight teams remained unblemished. So I kept tabs on it, and by early March, the field had been culled to five: Atlanta, Chicago, Golden State, Memphis and San Antonio. Memphis would drop out after its second loss to Cleveland (they also were swept by Washington), while the Spurs vanquished their mini-me, Atlanta.

The Warriors and Spurs, to the surprise of no one, have notched victories over all 29 opponents. Chicago’s quest goes down to the final day of the season, needing a home win over the Hawks to complete their set (NOTE: They prevailed over a mostly-resting Atlanta). To find how rare the accomplishment is, I went year-by-year, examining head-to-head records.

1980 became the cut-off point for a few reasons:

1. It ends in a 0. Sorry, numbers ending in 3 or 7, them’s the breaks.

2. It was the rookie campaign for both Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Combined with the ABA/NBA merger a few years in the rearview mirror, their arrival represents a good approximation for the birth of the “modern” NBA.

3. Though it would be a slow process towards actually utilizing it, 1979-1980 was also the first year for the three-point shot.

4. The schedule changed that season as well. A balanced calendar gave way to one weighted towards conference rivals. Teams might have been in the “wrong” conference (Bulls and Bucks in the West, Spurs and Rockets in the East), but that system still stands today, with two games against non-conference opponents.

Before elaborating further, here’s the full list of what I call NBA Completists:

Updated-completion1

1996 was the first season with 29 teams, due to the birth of the Grizzlies and Raptors. With the league growing from 23 teams to 27 in just a couple years, the significance of the accomplishment has become enhanced over the years. Nowadays, teams get three or four contests a year against their conference, but in the years between instituting the weighted schedule and introducing more teams, conference-mates could play each other five or six times in a season. While road trips were undoubtedly tougher back then, that also makes it easier to manage a split with a non-conference opponent. More chances to win, fewer teams to beat. Still impressive, it just feels like a different category of Completist.

Pre-1996 Completists (teams that didn’t lose a season series are in all-caps, “flimsy” teams are noted):

1995 Suns, 1994 Rockets, 1994 SONICS, 1993 Rockets, 1992 BULLS, 1992 Warriors, 1991 Celtics, 1991 Suns, 1990 Pistons, 1990 BLAZERS, 1990 Lakers, 1990 Spurs, 1990 Sixers, 1990 Jazz

-25 TEAMS-

None in 1989

-23 TEAMS-

1988 Nuggets, 1987 Lakers, 1987 Hawks, 1986 CELTICS, 1985 LAKERS, 1985 Celtics, 1985 Sixers, 1985 BUCKS, 1984 Sixers (1-5 vs ATL), 1984 Pistons (1-4 vs NJ), 1983 CELTICS, 1981 CELTICS, 1981 Sixers, 1981 BUCKS

-22 TEAMS-

1980 Lakers, 1980 Sixers, 1980 Sonics

—–

What do we take from the list?

-Dirk’s Mavs are the ultimate Completists. Over a nine-year span, they pulled off the feat four times. The 2001 team would have made the list, but an 0-4 mark against the Lakers (no shame in that) cost them not just a series, but making the list entirely. The 67-win team from 2007 lost just two series, going 1-2 against Utah and 0-3 against … the “We Believe” Warriors, who knocked them out as an eight-seed.

Furthermore, the 2003 Mavs had seventeen sweeps (five West, 12 East), dominance only seen by Jordan’s Bulls, the 2000 Lakers, the 2008 Celtics and the 2013 Heat. Due to an 0-2 record against the Bucks though, they failed to make the list. That team also went 1-3 against both the Lakers and Kings. Fun fact: They swept the first eight teams alphabetically in the league.

-Surprisingly, the Popovich/Duncan Spurs had never pulled it off until this season. Less “Lord of the Seven Kingdoms,” more “Protector of the Realm,” they ensured seven different teams from six franchises, including their three greatest rivals, couldn’t achieve unblemished season series records. The 2000 Shaq and Kobe Lakers, Dirk’s Mavs in 2002 and not one, but two Nash/D’Antoni Suns squads were thwarted by the dynasty that refuses to die. More proof of their immortality? They also were the only team to defeat the Warriors in the season series this season (barring a Nuggets win in Oracle tonight). Think about that: with the same head coach and franchise cornerstone, they won season series against 65+ win teams FIFTEEN YEARS APART.

-The concept increasingly became more compelling as it gave recognition to all-time great teams that just happened to not win the title. Shaq and Penny’s Orlando squads, the Malone/Stockton Jazz, and Payton and Kemp’s Sonics were all phenomenal and had the misfortune of playing in the Jordan Era. Same goes for the Pacers, Sixers, Blazers, Kings and Wolves, who all saw title windows slammed emphatically shut by the Shaq and Kobe Lakers.

-Going back to the Blazers, they made the list back-to-back years with “just” 50 and 49 wins, with both teams getting swept 3-0 in the first round by the Lakers. The 2015 Bulls joined them as mere 50-win Completists.

-A seriously under-the-radar great team: the 2010 Magic. J.J. Redick waxed poetic with Grantland’s Zach Lowe on how dominant they were and that they let a title slip away. He’s not wrong: they’re the only team dating back to 2000 to beat every opponent without dropping a season series. The 2010 Celtics, who ended not only their run but Cleveland’s as well, remain one of the most fascinating teams in recent memory.

-A whopping six teams from 1990 made the list. Only one year since (1997) has even seen four. The only years without any are 2009, 1989 and 1982.

-Not even the Spurs and Bulls could overcome only having a singular meeting with non-conference opponents to make the list for the 2012 lockout season. For the 1999 lockout, teams didn’t even face the majority of teams outside their conference.

-Speaking of the Bulls, they’re the only franchise to have multiple Completists this decade, a fitting feat and a nice summation of the Tom Thibodeau Era.

-The 2000 Lakers went 27-3 against the East.

-The 1996 Bulls went 25-3 against the West, and the only East team to even split the season series with them was the Pacers. (which also means they were the only team to beat them twice) Jordan’s Bulls would have three-peated as Completists, but for a sweep at the hands of the 1998 Jazz. So at least Malone and Stockton have that going for them.

-The 1995 Magic were an astounding 39-2 at home. Just 18-23 on the road, they failed to beat the Sonics and make the list, though they’d make it the following year.

-Finally, the unblemished 1986 Celtics swept seven teams from the West and won each and every season series within their conference. On one hand, their talent could play up in larger sample sizes, but on the other, in at least five games against every conference rival, only New Jersey and Philly could even take two games from them, both going 2-4.

-As for big picture observations, 2015 broke a three-season drought (excluding the 2012 lockout season) for multiple completists. With teams embracing rest more than ever, a reasonable hypothesis would be that NBA Completists will continue to be a rarer occurrence than they once were. No longer are teams going all-out in the regular season in fear of injuries and running out of gas in the playoffs. The data tentatively supports that, as only two teams since 2000, the 2008 Celtics and 2013 Heat, have been both NBA Completists and NBA champions.

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