[The following is a reader submission by Scottymusprime.]
Last year I made a deep dive into what coaches who orchestrate ending playoff droughts look like using this data set. In that research, I narrowed down historical comps to any coach who ended a playoff drought of 5 years or more during their tenure. There were only 30 examples to pull from, but the evidence pretty strongly supported that Mike Brown was the right profile of the guy for the job. The usual profile included a decade or so of experience, at least one other stop as a previous NBA coach, and being about 50. As it turns out, Mike Brown was exactly that. He exceeded even my highest hopes for the job.
The first 30Q for TKH was “Can the Kings handle higher expectations?” That morning I read the article and thought about what historical comps to our team look like, and what the data says about what is reasonable to expect. This time, I created a new data set to look at what the 3 years following the season that snaps a postseason drought of three or more years looks like. I started with the 1970 season and pulled all ABA and NBA data because that was when Bill Russel retired, and his dominance seemed like a good cut-off point. I looked only at teams that had a drought of 3 or more years, and held that with pretty good fidelity, with three exceptions. One being the 90’s and early 2000’s clippers who made it once in ‘96 with a sub-.500 record in the middle of a drought of 12 years and were swept in the first round. The second was the Cavs who had the same thing happen in the 80’s in a drought of nine years.The last was the Wizards who I forgot to add to my initial data, but they had a 16 year span making the playoffs just once.
The data set that I have shown here is what I compiled and lists the immediate three seasons leading up to making the playoffs as years A-C. The drought breaking year is year D, and the next three seasons are years E-G. I also include data for how long their span of relativity lasted (until their next playoff drought of 3+ years), and then lists how long the teams went before missing the playoffs again and when the start of their next drought was.
From there, I made projections for what it would look like for us to be at the 75th percentile over the next 3 years (being on the higher end of possible projections) as well as what it would look like for us to spend the next three years in the 45th percentile. That does seem pretty unlikely given the profile of our team, and both of these, in some ways feel like under-estimates. Either way, I tried to not aim too high or too low. Below are some key takeaways from the data as I read it.
One final note before I get to observations. I didn’t look at historical data of injuries, star players added, or other things when making comparisons. You can do that as I list years and teams, but I didn’t draw comparisons that way myself. I do make some contextualizations in the notes below, but when I look at best historical comps, I look at who was closest to us in terms of season record the year the team first makes the playoffs, what the previous 3 years looked like, and what kind of a jump was made. From those years.
First of all, we made a historically massive jump. We made an 18 game jump over the in the previous non-playoff season, and a +18 jump in a single year is top 20 all time for breaking playoff droughts, bested by teams like Rookie Melo’s Nuggets, the homecoming LeBron Cavs, the Jason Kidd Nets, and the KG Nets. Sabonis’ addition seems to be a move of that caliber, regardless of what others have to say about extending him.
Second, our jump from 3 year drought to playoff season was actually not that impressive. Most teams, unsurprisingly, suck a lot the 3 years leading up to making the playoffs in a drought. The leader of that kind of jump is the Process 76ers, and the data seems to show that a single year jump is a better indicator of long-term success than the jump over the 3 previous years. We look at 18 wins as being a huge jump, but it’s actually almost dead center. I think this means that our jump wasn’t an outlier, but rather a proper indication of the kind of jump we should be making.
Third, the higher projection I make would still have us making the playoffs at least the next six years. In terms of the record we had last season, it’s top 25 season all time for the first year back in the playoffs after a drought. All but six of those teams ahead of us made at least one conference finals before a new playoff drought started. Those teams represent 6 championship rings and 25 finals appearances during their window of relativity. We’re on a trajectory to be a meaningfully good team for a sustained period of time — and that’s without accounting for age, injury history, star power, coaching, etc. Just the numbers.
Fourth, Only a handful of teams have ever been worse for the 3 years after making the playoffs than they were the 3 years before they made it. Even if we regressed some and averaged just 46 wins the next 3 years, we’d be pretty much dead center historically. Being in the 45th percentile and averaging 43 wins a year for the next three years would still be a solid jump, though overall a disappointment. However, if we jumped up, and averaged say, 50 wins a year we’d still only be in the 75th quartile for teams historically in terms of how much we grew year over year. And, again, historically, making a sustained huge jump over the immediate next three years isn’t the end-all-be-all of dynastic aspirations. Yes, The Warriors top the list with a 40% jump from year E-G after year D, but they also set two of the top seven regular seasons all time in that window. Teams that over the next 3 years fared worse than the 46 wins per year I could project on the low end for us but continued on for a while without creating another drought include the badboy pistions, Jordan’s Bulls, The Rockets and Sonics who saw 6 conference championship series each and a ring over the next 2 decades before playoff droughts started, and the current iteration of the Nuggets. Even if we don’t go supernova right now, we’re on a path to sustained growth with a good core.
I think the biggest takeaway from this for me overall is that on paper, we check all the boxes for meaningful change. We added a legit superstar player entering his prime (Sabonis) and have another. We have a deep core. We made a big jump, but not one that’s an outlier (high or low). As much as the media wants to the everyone else in our division making additions, we’re following more correctly the model of a good team making a real jump. The teams that are the most like us include teams like the 2007 Hawks, the 1983 Jazz, the 1986 Warriors and if you squint a little, you can see teams like the 1997 76ers (A.I.), the 1989 Suns (KJ) and the Lob City Clippers. A little further out, similar teams include the 2013 Dubs (woo!) the 2005 Clips (Woof!) and recent iterations of the T’Wolves, Nets and 76ers. This also means that we’re a little short of what it might look like to have a truly dynastic core, but maybe Sasha moves the needle, or Monte has another way to dip into his bag of tricks and snag someone that truly moves the needle.
One other thing about those good but not great teams? They all ran during eras of dyanstic runs. The Clippers faced the buzzsaw Warriors in Blake Griffin’s prime. The Jazz had the Showtime Lakers, Hakeem and MJ to deal with. Those 80’s GSW teams had the same problems. I look at the landscape of the league right now, and ask “what team in the West is best poised to build from the ground up to be Dynastically good team that’s going to coincide with our run?” Only Dallas, NOP and Minny aren’t cohesive enough. GSW, LAL and PHX are old. LAC don’t have the injury history, and we’re better than them right now as we’re rising and they’re plateauing. Denver stands out as the one that will be our perennial rival, but I think even with Joker being the best player on either team, our top 3 is greater than their top 3. Memphis has internal issues.
My gut feeling about this? I think we make at least one Conference Finals in the next three years, and we’re a perennial Western contender through Fox’s prime — at least 8 years barring injury years.
A few other historical notes. The Spurs and Heat are insane. Since their inception, the only time the Spurs have missed the playoffs twice in a row is the last four years, and they just got Wemby. The Heat have only had one drought of 3 years and it was the first years they existed. Boston and LAL also just don’t miss very often. OKC’s only drought other than the one it’s in right now is when they were still Seattle.
Optimism? Sure, but the numbers back it up. Light the beam.