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Boston and the Worst the East has Ever Been

The West has some of the greatest collection of talent in NBA history. Behind Curry, Durant, Kawhi, and Harden, some of the top talent on some of the best teams ever will battle for the West. Out East is a different story. The Cavaliers need all of Bron's heroics to stave off a 0.500 team. The Celtics are in a 0-2 hole. The Raptors just got destroyed by the Bucks. The East looks pretty weak, and bad news, the numbers back up that it's the weakest it's ever been.

When examining the Celtics this season, something stood out. The Celtics had a mediocre record for a top seed, a weak Simple Rating System (SRS) -- the stength of schedule adjusted point margin for a team -- and a weak top player in Isaiah Thomas. I looked at the times in NBA history a team has won their conference with an SRS below 5.0 in the three-point era of the NBA. I only came up with ten teams. And Boston is by far the worst team to have ever won the Eastern Conference. 

Season Team Record SRS Playoffs
2017 Boston Celtics 53-29 2.25 ?
2015 Atlanta Hawks 60-22 4.75 Lost ECF
2014 Indiana Pacers 56-26 3.63 Lost ECF
2010 Los Angeles Lakers  57-25 4.78 Won Title
2007 Detroit Pistons 53-29 3.69 Lost ECF
2004 Indiana Pacers 61-21 4.9 Lost ECF
2003 Detroit Pistons 50-32 2.97 Lost ECF
2002 New Jersey Nets 52-30 3.67 Lost Finals
2001 Philadelphia 76ers 56-26 3.64 Lost Finals
2000 Indiana Pacers 56-26 4.15 Lost Finals
1994 Atlanta Hawks 57-25 4.94 Lost ECSF

The only other team below 3.0 in SRS to have won the conference was Detroit in 2003. And looking over this list an important factor stands out. Only the Lakers in 2010 took down a title, and most teams that win the conference with a weak SRS don't even make the Finals. From 2000 to 2002, three teams with a weak SRS did indeed make the NBA Finals. Sadly, all three lead the East in SRS for the year. The other teams had stronger SRS opponents (e.g. the Hawks in 94 tied the Knicks for the top record. By tie-breaker the Hawks won the conference. The Knicks had a stronger SRS at 6.5 and went to the Finals)

Of course, Boston doesn't have the strongest SRS in the East. Both Cleveland (2.87) and Toronto (3.65) are better. Of course, both of those would still qualify as among the worst in Eastern Conference history. The East is the weakest it's been in quite some time, and the West looks scary. That said, anything can happen!

One last note, Boston has another thing going against it. Unlike other teams in the past, they don't have a legitimate star. Here's the top Wins Producer on each of the low SRS conference winners.

Season Team Player WP48 Wins
2017 Boston Celtics Isaiah Thomas 0.195 10.5
2015 Atlanta Hawks Kyle Korver 0.230 11.56
2014 Indiana Pacers Lance Stephenson 0.204 11.7
2010 Los Angeles Lakers Pau Gasol 0.282 14.1
2007 Detroit Pistons Chauncey Billups 0.240 12.1
2004 Indiana Pacers Jeff Foster 0.294 12
2003 Detroit Pistons Ben Wallace 0.374 22.4
2002 New Jersey Nets Jason Kidd 0.243 15.5
2001 Philadelphia 76ers Dikembe Mutombo* 0.343 6.3
2000 Indiana Pacers Mark Jackson 0.257 11.7
1994 Atlanta Hawks Mookie Blaylock 0.256 15.6

While Isaiah Thomas hits my threshold for a star player (10 wins in a season) he's a below 0.200 player (twice as good as an average NBA player at his position) Isaiah is, in fact, the weakest star on the weakest team to lead a conference. As a note, I place Dikembe as the top player on the 76ers. However, he was traded midseason, hence the lower total. That said, things aren't looking good for Boston, and all the signs show why. They're a weak team with a weak star. As a plus, they're still a historical team, although not for the reason they may want.




It's impressive that a full 5 teams in the West have a better SRS than any team in the East. Also, that 5th team (Utah) has almost double the SRS that Boston does.
Typo with the Hawks top conference year example.
Boston is in a great spot thanks to brilliant management by Danny Ainge. They are going to get a high lottery pick in a stacked draft and they have a large amount of cap space. It will be interesting to see what Ainge does this summer. He could ship out some non-essentials and absorb a big money veteran frontcourt player (Carmelo Anthony? Lamarcus Aldridge?) into his cap space, or he could opt to sell high on Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley, both of whom will be unrestricted free agents next summer (2018), both will cost a ton of money to re-sign, so will Marcus Smart, a restricted free agent that summer.
Ainge gets too much credit for being average. He isn't an outlier. Can we move on?
Instead why don't you come on the show and we talk about it for like a half hour :)
This is fine with. I was looking at realgm and saw an interesting question that was asked on the Dunc'd on podcast. Could a non playoff all star beat GSW? My first thought is "duh". Am I wrong in my assumption? Interesting thought exercise.
Danny Ainge is an average GM? Everything is relative, who are the GMs who are above average if Ainge is average, and who are the other average GMs? Being a contrarian is fine, I suppose, but a person needs to be able to present a rational argument with evidence that supports this argument. In my view, there are a large number of mismanaged NBA teams due to lousy/meddling/irrational/shortsighted/etc ownership, then you have the remaining teams that are basically either well managed or adequately managed by default. Ainge made three of the most lopsided trades in recent NBA history: 1) the gift that keeps on giving trade with the Nets involving Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, 2) the trade with the Mavs involving Rajon Rondo and Jae Crowder and two Mavs draft picks, and 3) the Isaiah Thomas trade with the Suns. And he's an average GM? Seriously? Can anyone name a GM with this many extremely lopsided trades under his belt over the past decade? Besides maybe San Antonio, clearly the best organization in the league, possibly the most well managed team in NBA history?
If you aren't an outlier (positively or negatively) then most likely you are average. Looking over his tenure, his team has been in the top 10 according to SRS. OKC is right in front of Boston. OKC, whose team's success has been called into questioned a lot. I don't look at trades at determining factor in player evaluating because of the luck involved. Timing has to be right, salaries have to match up, players have to stay healthy, etc. Similar to the draft with Presti's teams.
More players should be trying to pull a Dwight and revitalize their career by moving to the East.
Isn't it pretty easy to assess a GM in a sport that isn't much constrained by the owner's spending desires? Basically just look at wins and losses, no? Ainge has been GM since 2003 (wow, 14 seasons), and his team has a record of 618-513. His team has only missed the playoffs three seasons, and he has a Championship and another Finals appearance. I'd say it's an above average record.

Sure there are some nuances - you'd want to adjust for the position of the team when he got there (I don't blame Sean Marks much for the Nets record this year). But such things probably are relatively insignficant given a 14-year track record.
The Magic is trying to sign the Cavs GM? Whew! A $126 payroll and 51 wins? One title with James when the stars aligned? And firing David Blatt, whose numbers were better than Lue's. I'll be the first to admit I'm quantitatively challenged but one of the first things I look at is a team's road record. Their's was a losing one this year. How well have the Cavs been managed?
I think there's a lot of focus on the draft and the big deals with Ainge here. He's a very good GM. He has flaws (e.g. he focuses too much on winning/losing trades on a micro level), but he's a really good GM.

His use of trade exceptions has been spectacular. Jumped in on Cleveland's preliminary trade as they got ready to bring in Kevin Love and got Zeller, Thornton, and a 1st. Zeller was good that year and Thornton was flipped with the pick for Isaiah Thomas.

He traded another exception for Tayshaun Prince, Austin Rivers, and picks. After giving Prince a run with the team, he flipped him to Detroit for Luigi Datome and Jonas Jerebko who were both markedly improved under Brad Stevens.

Ainge isn't just lucking into trades. The entire organization has fully bought into analytics and making good moves. They've stagnated for a couple reasons. 1. They're too concerned with winning trades, 2. They don't seem to value rebounding as a specialization.
Saying "Danny Ainge is an average GM" is a big part of the reason only a sliver of NBA fans take sites like this seriously.

"Jeff Foster was the best player on the '04 Pacers" would be another.
Yeah, I'm bumping Foster up to near the top of my list of guys that WP seems to like a lot more than anyone else. That's after the rebounding adjustment, right?

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