('88 Record: 54-28)
There is a law in baseball called the plexiglass principle, which states that teams which significantly improve or decline in one season have a tendency to relapse or bounce back in the next. Because Denver is a team that significantly improved last season, I thought I'd check to see if the plexiglass principle holds in basketball.
Looking back on the history of the NBA (to '54-55), I found 146 teams whose record changed by at least ten games from the previous season. Overall, the 146 teams averaged a change of 14.6 wins in those seasons. Of those 146 teams, 89 (61.0%) fell back toward where they had been before the big change in the next season. That reversal wiped out an average of 9.4 games of the 14.8 game change from the season before, leaving a net change of 5.4 games in the direction of the original jump. The 57 teams that continued the trend set in the season of their significant change generally did not make as large a change the season afterward. While these teams averaged a change of 14.3 games in their big jump season, they averaged a continued 6.7 game change the following season, for a net change of 21.0 games over two years.
Combining all the numbers, teams that have their record change by at least ten games (averaging a change of 14.6 games) from one season to the next tend to relapse the following season by an average of about three games, netting a change of about 11.5 games over two seasons.
This implies that the plexiglass principle does hold in basketball, though perhaps not as strongly as in baseball. If the standard for a 'big change' is raised, the principle gets stronger. Teams that have changed by a minimum of twelve games have relapsed 67 of 107 times (62.6%). Teams that have changed by a minimum of 14 games have relapsed 46 of 70 times (65.7%). Teams that have changed by a minimum of 16 games have relapsed 28 of 42 times (66.7%). Teams that have changed by at least 17 games, as Denver did last year, have relapsed 25 of 35 times (71.4%). At such a high standard, data is limited because few teams change by as much as 17 games in one season and the data begin to lose any statistical significance.
What does this mean for Denver in '88-89? Nothing conclusive. It appears very likely that they will win fewer than 54 games next year. Whether they will win 50 games or 40 games is difficult to say at this point.
In a related study, I looked at teams that have bounced back and forth by at least ten games for a couple seasons. Before Denver improved by 17 games in '87-88, the Nuggets declined by 10 games in '86-87. I wondered how teams have come out of such roller coaster rides, i.e. whether they were substantially improved, substantially worse, whether it depended on which direction the initial change was, etc.
There were only 26 teams who improved by ten games then declined by ten games, or vice versa, in consecutive seasond. The characteristics of most of these teams were .400-.600 teams that bounced between 30 and 50 wins, ending up with a record slightly better than .500. Fifteen of the 26 teams finished their ride within six games of .500 (19 of 26 within seven games of .500). The teams started their rides with a cumulative record of 1070-1047, .505, and finished with a cumulative record of 1105-1017, .521. Thirteen of the 26 teams finished their ride with a record better than what they started with and 13 ended up worse off. These teams were generally very average teams that may have suffered major injuries or went through certain players' primes during their jumpy seasons.
The Denver Nuggets seem to fit this mold with a fairly old team that has just had its best year. This study is so small that its implications are not very strong, but it would tend to agree with the plexiglass principle that the Nuggets should lose a little more than they did last year.
There are five teams affected by the plexiglass principle in '88-89: Denver, New York, Cleveland, Chicago, and Golden State. The best way to determine whether each team will relapse is to take a closer look at each one.
The New York Knicks made the second largest improvement in the league last year, going from 24-58 in '87 to 38-44 in '88. The biggest change in the team was a dramatic improvement in the defense, going from 20th in the league and a rating of 109.3 to sixth in the league and a rating of 104.2. The reason for the defensive improvement was obviously Coach Rick Pitino. His constant pressing defense was both very good and very unique in the NBA. Most teams were unaccustomed to handling such constant pressure and many suffered the consequences. Next year, teams will have learned a little more about how to handle it and should do a little better, though the problems will still exist. Offensively, the team still has enormous problems shooting the ball. They should improve somewhat next season, but not by very much. There is a good chance that New York will relapse next season, even though it is a very young team and its floor % was better than its opponents. That relapse will probably be only 2 to 4 games, but the easy games against the expansion teams may keep the relapse to one game or to none at all.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are also a very young team with an outstanding defense. The Cavs improvement was almost entirely offensive as Brad Daugherty, Ron Harper, John Williams, and Mark Price all learned to turn the ball over less and to shoot better. In '87, the Cavs were second to last in offense with a rating of 100.9, but improved to 17th and a rating of 104.8. Their Pythagorean projection was consistent with their 42 wins and doesn't indicate anything. The Cavs' floor % was worse than their opponents, but by only .004 and doesn't say anything strong about the team, though it could indicate a decline. The youth of this team and its offensive development over just one season indicates that it's likely to continue to improve. There is a good chance that the Cavaliers will not suffer from the plexiglass principle's effects next year.
The Chicago Bulls improved by 10 games last year, from a record of 40-42 to 50-32. The 10 game advance is borderline for the plexiglass principle studies that were run. There were 16 teams that had changes of 10 games exactly and 9 (56.2%) of those did relapse. Chicago improved from 30-52 to 40-42 in '87, then followed that improvement with last year's improvement. Two consecutive seasons of 10 game improvements seems destined to come to an end next year. But Chicago probably won't decline next year. The Bulls' improvement came primarily from the defense, which went from 11th to third and from a rating of 105.8 to 103.8. The offense also improved, going from a rating of 106.7 to 107.2. It's hard to believe that Michael Jordan can have a better season than the one he had last year, so any improvement in the team is going to come from the supporting cast. Horace Grant is a good prospect for that improvement. Brad Sellers will also help the team if he only gets back to his rookie production. The trade of Charles Oakley for Bill Cartwright is difficult to evaluate, but it should help the offense and hurt the defense. The Bulls should improve to about 55 wins next season.
The Golden State Warriors suffered a decline of 22 games last season. Such a large decline indicates in itself that the plexiglass principle will have a big effect on the team to improve. The Warriors are young and have, in effect, solved their defensive problems by acquiring Sampson and Bol to block shots. There is no doubt in my mind that the Warriors will bounce back next year.
The Denver Nuggets are an older team having no promising youngsters with pro experience. Their first pick in the draft, Jerome Lane, is telling everyone he'll be better than Charles Barkley, but betting on rookies can be like playing roulette. The core of the Denver team - Alex English, Fat Lever, Danny Schayes, Jay Vincent, Michael Adams - isn't too impressive now and probably won't get any better in the next few years as English, Lever, Schayes, and Vincent are not young.
Despite leading the league in scoring last year, the Nuggets were not a particularly good offensive team, shooting poorly and not doing well on the offensive boards. By points per possession, they were seventh with a rating of 108.3, which was an improvement over the previous years rating of 107.6. Floor %'s, though, were a different story. In '87, their floor % was an impressive .550, but that dropped to .539 in '88 and floor %'s have more predictive value than points per possession ratings. The 'shoot quickly' philosophy that Doug Moe will die by really helped his forward-oriented offenses of the early '80's, but with two poor shooting guards taking so many shots now, the offense resembles the great Denver offenses of the past only in the pace it maintains.
What really helped make Denver so successful last year was the quick gambling defense it played. The team went from 16th to seventh by improving their defensive rating from 108.4 to 104.5. Lever and Adams had nearly 400 steals between the two of them and frustrated the opposition with their fly-like quickness. If the Nuggets had a potent shot-blocker in the middle, they could have a tremendous defense rivaling Houston's and Utah's. What they have instead are Danny Schayes and Blair Rasmussen, with only a glimmer of shot-blocking from no-offense man Wayne Cooper.
The age of the Nuggets won't help either offensively or defensively. The fast pace that Moe likes to use will probably tire the team a little more as they add a year of experience. The quickness of Lever will leave him rather soon, while Adams is only 25 and still has the legs to play the quick defense. The addition of Walter Davis, 34, at guard won't help the defense at all and isn't a large help offensively. Denver has already sacrificed some offense by making Adams a regular and can't afford to lose much more if English starts feeling old or if Schayes isn't able to carry the extra shooting load he'll be asked to take. The rebounding contributed by Lever in the past couple years probably can't be expected from him for much longer as rebounds are usually left to younger and bigger players. Though Adams, Lever, and Schayes are commonly perceived as good young newcomers, all are older than Michael Jordan and they have 16 years of pro experience among them. The Nuggets aren't a good young team with potential like Chicago or Cleveland nor a bad young team with a bright future like Golden State or Sacramento. The Nuggets are in a scarier position - they're a good old team whose best hope for a very successful season can come from the college draft.
I can see the Nuggets of '88-89 winning between 45 and 47 games unless Lane turns out to be a superstar, which is very unlikely. The front line talent in Denver, though very good in many respects, just doesn't fit the typical mold of a great team. Danny Schayes may become an outstanding center, but he's going to be 30 years old next year, which is not old, but is a strange and implausible time for a player to blossom. All this plus the plexiglass principle tends to indicate that Denver's best chance to go all the way was last year.
Basketball Hoopla, © 1988, L. Dean Oliver