A week and a half into the 2019-20 NBA season, there’s only one team that remains undefeated. The Philadelphia 76ers are the lone unbeaten squad, sitting atop the Eastern Conference with a 5-0 record.
For years, NBA players and coaches have regurgitated clichés about how important it is for a team to get off to a strong start each season. But do the numbers back this up? Playing well out of the gate certainly can’t hurt a team, but do squads that play well immediately have a better shot at sustaining that success over the course of the season and into the playoffs?
HoopsHype looked back at each of the NBA’s last-remaining-unbeaten teams of this century to see if starting the campaign with a solid winning streak actually leads to postseason success.
Our research shows that while these hot-start teams tend to do well in the playoffs, they’re far from lock to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy. (Note: There were 28 eligible teams that we evaluated because in some years, there were two or three teams that tied for the distinction of last-unbeaten team.)
Of the 28 teams that were the final unbeaten squad at the start of the regular season, 25 went on to make the playoffs. That’s 89.3 percent. Twenty of these teams ended up winning at least 50 regular-season games that season.
These strong-start teams did have some success in the postseason, with 22 of the 28 teams winning at least one playoff series. On average, the last-remaining-unbeaten team went on to win 1.82 postseason series that year.
Sixteen of the 28 teams advanced all the way to the Conference Finals. That’s more than half of the eligible teams advancing to the NBA equivalent of the Final Four.
Finally, 10 of the 28 last-unbeaten teams managed to advance to the NBA Finals. But that’s where these franchises have run into trouble over the years.
Despite having 10 teams in the NBA Finals this century, only three managed to win it all: the 2001-02 Los Angeles Lakers (who started 7-0), 2007-08 Boston Celtics (who started 8-0) and 2011-12 Miami Heat (who started 5-0).
Some last-unbeaten teams are obviously better than others. The more wins a team strung together to start the year, the higher the likelihood that they could sustain that early success. For example, every team that started their season 10-0 or better advanced to at least the Conference Finals that year.
Meanwhile, the only three last-unbeaten teams that went on to miss the playoffs entirely had gotten off to just a 4-0 start, which isn’t quite as impressive.
It remains to be seen if the Sixers can keep up their strong play and become just the fourth last-unbeaten team to win a championship in the last two decades.
Alberto de Roa contributed research to this report.