Extra Pass: Should the Eastern Conference elite worry about the red-hot Brooklyn Nets?

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The Miami Heat host the Brooklyn Nets tonight in a matchup of the Eastern Conference’s best team vs. … the Eastern Conference’s best team?

The Heat are 53-23, the conference’s best record. But the Nets are 32-13 since New Year’s, the conference’s best record in the 2014 calendar year.

Should that make Brooklyn the new conference favorite? Do recent results tell us more about playoff chances than results colored by games several months ago?

Probably not and probably not.

Since the NBA adopted a 16-team playoff format in 1984, 42 series have featured one team with a better overall record (what we’ll call the better team) and a different team with a better record since New Year’s (what we’ll call the hotter team).

Of those 42 series, the better team won 28 (67 percent).

This makes sense on a couple levels.

1. More data is usually better. Although it seems the Nets have made real progress by switching to a small-ball lineup, they were still the Nets in 2013. A flip of the calendar – even when it coincides with a pretty big style change – doesn’t completely invalidate those 2013 games. Brooklyn probably comes closer to this reason not carrying water than the average hot team, but I don’t think we can discount it completely.

2. This, I suspect, is more important. The NBA awards homecourt advantage to the team with a better overall record, not the better record since New Year’s. So, the better team always has that advantage over the hotter team. The Nets, zeroing in on the No. 5 seed, probably won’t have homecourt advantage for even a single round.

Here is the complete history of the better vs. hotter matchups since 1984. The better team is blue, and the hot team is red (overall record, win percentage | record since New Year’s, win percentage).

  • 2013 WC Finals: Spurs (58-24, .707 | 33-16, .673) def. Grizzlies (56-26, .683 | 37-17, .685)
  • 2012 EC First Round: Celtics (39-27, .591 | 38-24, .613) def. Hawks (40-26, .606 | 37-25, .597)
  • 2011 WC Finals: Mavericks (57-25, .695 | 33-18, .647) def. Thunder (55-27, .671 | 32-16, .667)
  • 2010 WC Finals: Lakers (57-25, .695 | 32-19, .627) def. Suns (54-28, .659 | 33-16, .673)
  • 2010 WC Semifinals: Lakers (57-25, .695 | 32-19, .627) def. Jazz (53-29, .646 | 35-15, .700)
  • 2010 EC First Round: Celtics (50-32, .610 | 27-24, .529) def. Heat (47-35, .573 | 31-21, .596)
  • 2010 EC First Round: Hawks (53-29, .646 | 32-19, .627) def. Bucks (46-36, .561 | 34-18, .654)
  • 2010 WC First Round: Lakers (57-25, .695 | 32-19, .627) def. Thunder (50-32, .610 | 32-18, .640)
  • 2008 WC Semifinals: Lakers (57-25, .695 | 38-14, .731) def. Jazz (54-28, .659 | 37-12, .755)
  • 2007 EC First Round: Bulls (49-33, .598 | 30-21, .588) def. Heat (44-38, .537 | 31-21, .596)
  • 2006 WC First Round: Clippers (47-35, .573 | 31-23, .574) def. Nuggets (44-38, .537 | 30-21, .588)
  • 2005 NBA Finals: Spurs (59-23, .720 | 34-17, .667) def. Pistons (54-28, .659 | 39-15, .722)
  • 2005 EC Finals: Pistons (54-28, .659 | 39-15, .722) def. Heat (59-23, .720 | 35-16, .686)
  • 2005 WC Semifinals: Suns (62-20, .756 | 37-16, .698) def. Mavericks (58-24, .707 | 39-14, .736)
  • 2005 WC First Round: SuperSonics (52-30, .634 | 30-24, .556) def. Kings (50-32, .610 | 32-23, .582)
  • 2004 NBA Finals: Pistons (54-28, .659 | 35-15, .700) def. Lakers (56-26, .683 | 35-19, .648)
  • 2004 WC First Round: Kings (55-27, .671 | 34-19, .642) def. Mavericks (52-30, .634 | 34-18, .654)
  • 2003 WC Semifinals: Mavericks (60-22, .732 | 35-17, .673) def. Kings (59-23, .720 | 36-14, .720)
  • 2003 EC First Round: 76ers (48-34, .585 | 29-22, .569) def. Hornets (47-35, .573 | 29-20, .592)
  • 2003 EC First Round: Nets (49-33, .598 | 26-24, .520) def. Bucks (42-40, .512 | 29-22, .569)
  • 2003 WC First Round: Lakers (50-32, .610 | 37-13, .740) def. Timberwolves (51-31, .622 | 34-17, .667)
  • 2002 EC First Round: Celtics (49-33, .598 | 31-22, .585) def. 76ers (43-39, .524 | 31-21, .596)
  • 2002 WC First Round: Lakers (58-24, .707 | 37-18, .673) def. Trail Blazers (49-33, .598 | 36-17, .679)
  • 2001 EC Finals: 76ers (56-26, .683 | 35-18, .660) def. Bucks (52-30, .634 | 36-17, .679)
  • 2001 EC First Round: Raptors (47-35, .573 | 32-20, .615) def. Knicks (48-34, .585 | 29-22, .569)
  • 2000 EC Semifinals: Knicks (50-32, .610 | 32-20, .615) def. Heat (52-30, .634 | 33-21, .611)
  • 1997 EC First Round: Knicks (57-25, .695 | 36-17, .679) def. Hornets (54-28, .659 | 38-15, .717)
  • 1994 NBA Finals: Rockets (58-24, .707 | 34-20, .630) def. Knicks (57-25, .695 | 39-18, .684)
  • 1994 EC First Round: Pacers (47-35, .573 | 37-19, .661) def. Magic (50-32, .610 | 34-20, .630)
  • 1994 WC First Round: Suns (56-26, .683 | 35-21, .625) def. Warriors (50-32, .610 | 36-19, .655)
  • 1993 EC Semifinals: Bulls (57-25, .695 | 36-18, .667) def. Cavaliers (54-28, .659 | 37-16, .698)
  • 1993 WC First Round: Spurs (49-33, .598 | 35-21, .625) def. Trail Blazers (51-31, .622 | 34-23, .596)
  • 1992 EC First Round: Knicks (51-31, .622 | 33-23, .589) def. Pistons (48-34, .585 | 33-19, .635)
  • 1991 WC Finals: Lakers (58-24, .707 | 41-15, .732) def. Trail Blazers (63-19, .768 | 36-15, .706)
  • 1990 EC Semifinals: Bulls (55-27, .671 | 36-18, .667) def. 76ers (53-29, .646 | 38-16, .704)
  • 1990 WC First Round: Suns (54-28, .659 | 42-15, .737) def. Jazz (55-27, .671 | 36-18, .667)
  • 1988 EC Semifinals: Pistons (54-28, .659 | 36-22, .621) def. Bulls (50-32, .610 | 35-20, .636)
  • 1987 WC First Round: Warriors (42-40, .512 | 25-26, .490) def. Jazz (44-38, .537 | 25-28, .472)
  • 1985 NBA Finals: Lakers (62-20, .756 | 40-10, .800) def. Celtics (63-19, .768 | 37-13, .740)
  • 1984 WC Semifinals: Suns (41-41, .500 | 26-25, .510) def. Jazz (45-37, .549 | 25-26, .490)
  • 1984 EC First Round: Nets (45-37, .549 | 31-20, .608) def. 76ers (52-30, .634 | 31-23, .574)
  • 1984 WC First Round: Mavericks (43-39, .524 | 27-25, .519) def. SuperSonics (42-40, .512 | 29-24, .547)

However, there might be a matter of degrees at play. Can a team be hot enough to overcome not being as good at its opponent?

To assess, I came up with a Heat Rating:

((hotter team’s advantage in win percentage after New Year’s) minus (better team’s advantage in win percentage overall))*82

In all three series with a Heat Rating above 3.5, the hotter team won:

  • 5.0, 2003 WC First Round: Lakers (50-32, .610 | 37-13, .740) def. Timberwolves (51-31, .622 | 34-17, .667)
  • 4.8, 1990 WC First Round: Suns (54-28, .659 | 42-15, .737) def. Jazz (55-27, .671 | 36-18, .667)
  • 3.9, 1985 NBA Finals: Lakers (62-20, .756 | 40-10, .800) def. Celtics (63-19, .768 | 37-13, .740)

This season, the Spurs, Clippers and Rockets are both better and hotter than the Nets (42-34, .553 | 32-13, .711).

Of the 10 potential Brooklyn playoff opponents with better overall records, just four are on pace to create a series with a Heat Rating above even 0.5. And only three, all in the West, trump the 3.5 standard.

Potential opponent
Heat Rating
Phoenix Suns (46-31, 0.597 | 27-20, 0.574) 7.5
Portland Trail Blazers (50-28, 0.641 | 25-21, 0.543) 6.5
Dallas Mavericks (47-31, 0.603 | 29-18, 0.617) 3.6
Toronto Raptors (45-32, 0.584 | 31-17, 0.646) 2.7

There are many factors, including matchups and injuries, that lead to playoff upsets. But if you’re going to predict the Nets will beat anyone in this year’s playoffs – unless they get to the Finals and play the Suns, Trail Blazers or Mavericks – you better come with a stronger argument than just Brooklyn’s post-New Year’s record.