Sunday, the Phoenix Suns fought back from 22-point deficit, raising their record to 41-29.
On the same day, the Atlanta Hawks blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead, dropping their record to 31-37.
As you surely know already, the Hawks are on pace to make the playoffs, and the Suns are not. Thanks to the disparity between the Eastern Conference and Western Conference and a format that sends precisely eight teams per conference to the postseason, Atlanta is sitting pretty (three games ahead of the ninth-place Knicks) while Phoenix is not (half a game behind the eighth-place Mavericks).
The Suns and Hawks play tonight, a chance for Phoenix to get some karmic revenge for at least 48 minutes. But in terms of getting justice for their playoff fate, the Suns have no choice to accept their possibly postseason-less destiny while the Hawks can keep losing and probably keep their playoff spot.
The Suns should be used to it, at least – especially if the Hawks are the team benefitting. This season looks to be another chapter in already twisted postseason history, or lack thereof, between these two franchises.
By record, we can easily identify the best team to miss the playoffs (the 1972 Phoenix Suns went 49-33) and worst team to make the playoffs (the 1953 Baltimore Bullets went 16-54).
But as the number of NBA teams and number of playoff teams fluctuates, using percentiles for win percentages during each season in NBA history and a linear best fit, we can estimate how good the worst playoff team should be each season. Under current conditions – 30 NBA teams, 16 playoff teams and an 82-game season – the postseason threshold is expected to be 38.9 wins, a mark Phoenix passed last week.
Here’s how the expected win percentage for the worst playoff team has evolved over the years:
Sometimes, people get worked up over a team with a losing record making the playoffs, but it’s really quite logical. In a 30-team league, the median falls between 15 and 16. Because 16 teams make the playoffs, it’s expected one below-median team makes the postseason.
Similarly, it’s misguided to blindly call many of playoff teams with the worst records the least-deserving of a postseason berth. Between 1948 and 1968, the NBA allowed between 67 percent and 80 percent of its teams into the playoffs each year (compared to 53 percent now). You can see how that led to some teams with poor records qualifying.
With that in mind, we want see which teams fell furthest above and below that expected line in a given year – specifically, in this case, the worst playoff team (red) and best non-playoff team (green).
The 2014 Suns are narrowly ahead of the pace of the 2008 Golden Warriors, who went 48-34 and missed the playoffs. Only the 1957 New York Knicks, who went 36-36 in a season six of eight teams made the playoffs, fell further above the expected line and still missed the playoffs.
The Hawks aren’t quite as historically fortunate, but they’re still on pace to rank as the 19th-worst playoff team in NBA history after adjusting for the expected record of the worst playoff team each season. (If you’re wondering, those 1953 Bullets remain No. 1, even in a year eight of 10 teams made the postseason).
Together, the Suns and Hawks are on pace to make 2014 the year with the fifth-largest record disparity between a playoff team and its better counterpart in the other conference. Here’s the complete top 10 of the teams that have snagged playoff berths over better teams:
1. 1972: Atlanta Hawks (36-46) over Phoenix Suns (49-33)
2. 1953: Baltimore Bullets (16-54) over Milwaukee Hawks (27-44)
3. 1971: Atlanta Hawks (36-46) over Phoenix Suns (48-34)
4. 2008: Atlanta Hawks (37-45) over Golden State Warriors (48-34)
5. 2014: Atlanta Hawks (31-37) over Phoenix Suns (41-29)
6. 1968: Chicago Bulls (29-53) over Cincinnati Royals (39-43)
7. 2009: Detroit Pistons (39-43) over Phoenix Suns (46-36)
7. 1988: San Antonio Spurs (31-51) over Indiana Pacers (38-44)
9. 2011: Indiana Pacers (37-45) over Houston Rockets (43-39)
9. 2004: Boston Celtics (36-46) over Utah Jazz (42-40)
9. 1997: Los Angeles Clippers (36-46) over Cleveland Cavaliers (42-40)
9. 1979: New Jersey Nets (37-45) over San Diego Clippers (43-39)
If this holds, not only would it be both the Hawks’ and Suns’ fourth appearance on this list, not only would the Hawks be the playoff team all four times and the Suns not all four times, it would be the third time the Hawks are the weak playoff team making it ahead of the aggrieved Suns.
The Suns might beat the Hawks tonight. They probably should.
But it won’t erase decades of bad fortune for the Suns and good fortune for the Hawks – a trend that is apparently continuing.