Spurs are NBA's 'luckiest' team

When it comes to extra wins, stats show lady luck rides in San Antonio

Updated: March 19, 2013, 12:27 PM ET
By Neil Paine | Basketball-Reference.com
SpursNoah Graham/Getty ImagesDespite their expected decline, the San Antonio Spurs are thriving once again in the regular season.

It's the summer of 2010, and it looks like the San Antonio Spurs' dynasty era is winding down. Coming off of an uncharacteristically mortal-looking 50-32 regular season, San Antonio ousted the Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs but were subsequently swept aside by the Suns, a team whose number they've traditionally had in the postseason. Worse yet, shrewd acquisitions like drafting Manu Ginobili 57th overall and signing Bruce Bowen from the scrap heap have been replaced by head-scratching moves, such as giving Richard Jefferson a $40 million extension. Nothing great can last forever, and the Spurs seem to be intent on proving that, as their best days are fading further into the rearview mirror.

That's what most analysts were saying three years ago -- and who could blame them? But fast-forward to today, and the Spurs are sitting atop the Western Conference standings once again, a place they've occupied the last three seasons. And if anything, they seem to be getting stronger as more time has passed since the seeming crossroads they faced in 2010. Rather than a sign of trouble to come, or even the new normal, their aberrant 50-win 2009-10 campaign looks more and more like merely a flukish down year from one of the league's best clubs.

However, there is some evidence that the San Antonio narrative -- which seemed to be building back in 2010 (namely, that the team's true quality has in fact declined from the peak of Tim Duncan's heyday) -- wasn't 100 percent off the mark. Casual observers might point to the Spurs' stunning first-round loss to Memphis in 2011 and their collapse from a 2-0 lead against Oklahoma City a year ago as evidence, but there's even stronger underlying support for this hypothesis if you use a technique to identify teams that have been playing above their heads due to "luck."


To read more on the "luckiest" teams in the NBA and how sustainable their good fortune is, become an Insider today.

Neil Paine writes for FiveThirtyEight, the data-supported sports, politics and culture site coming soon from ESPN.