The team with the best record in the NBA hasn’t won the title since 2017 – the longest drought in the 16-team playoff era. Should Celtics fans brace for another playoff disappointment?

The Boston Celtics have dominated the regular season, sitting miles ahead of the No. 2 team in the Eastern Conference.

It looks like they should be able coast to the NBA Finals, but regular-season success hasn’t translated quite as well to the playoffs in recent years.

From 1984 (the season in which the 16-team playoff field started) to 2019, only five teams with the best (or tied for the best) regular-season record in the league failed to make the conference finals, while 17 of those teams won the title. It’s not surprising to see that for most of NBA history, the best team during a full season performed well in the playoffs.

What might be surprising, however, is how these teams have performed recently. The last four years, the best regular-season team has failed to reach the conference finals. And the best team in the regular season hasn’t won the title since the 2017 Golden State Warriors.

That six-year drought is the longest in the 16-team playoff era. So, should Celtics fans be bracing for another playoff disappointment or is this team good enough to end this best team curse?

There are reasons to believe either is true.

Aberration or Trend?

The challenge with most playoff trends is that the playoffs are a small sample. So, even when taking multiple years of data, there is always a chance that the answer to any trend that lasts for a few years is randomness.

Of the four teams with the best record in the regular season over the last four years, two of those losses came from the Milwaukee Bucks losing to the Miami Heat. A simple bad matchup or injury (Giannis Antetokounmpo in both series) could explain away half of those teams’ shortcomings.

On the other hand, the top seed failing to reach the conference finals in four consecutive years does feel significant when it had never even happened two years in a row since 1984. And the fact that two of those losses came in the East, which has widely been considered the weaker conference for years, is notable as well.

It’s not just the elite teams in the West beating up on each other.

In three of these years, the win totals in the league were a little flatter, leading to a team barely finishing ahead of the second-place finisher in the league. This certainly doesn’t apply to Boston, which sits 6.5 games above the second-best team in the league (the defending champion Denver Nuggets). The Celtics also easily have the best chance of reaching the NBA Finals (58.7%) in the conference, per our supercomputer.

The Phoenix Suns had an eight-game lead on the second-best team in 2022, but lost in the second round to the Dallas Mavericks. And while the Celtics aren’t the same as that Suns team, there are a few similarities in the team’s playoff path that could get Boston fans nervous.

Why Boston Could Lose Early

For all the talk about the weakness of the Eastern Conference, the Celtics might not be handed an easy opening-round series despite our supercomputer giving them a 92.8% chance of reaching the conference semifinals. The Indiana Pacers seem likely to capture a top-six seed, which would likely leave the Philadelphia 76ers and Heat as the 7-8 play-in game.

Boston would likely root for the loser of that game to also drop the following game and be eliminated from the playoffs. The Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls are locked into the 9-10 play-in game in some order, and the Celtics would be massive favorites over either team (although the Hawks did take the Celtics to six games in last year’s opening round and beat them twice last month).

A first-round series against the 76ers or Heat would not be as welcome. Neither has been great this year, but the Heat have a better point differential than last year when they were able to beat the Celtics en route to the NBA Finals. The Heat also knocked the Celtics out in 2020, meaning the Jimmy Butler-Bam Adebayo combination has sent the Celtics home in two of the last four seasons.

The 76ers obviously are a much different team with Joel Embiid back on the court and took the Celtics to seven games last season. The Celtics are obviously decent favorites in either series, but it’s the not walkover that you’d expect a 62-win team in the weaker conference to have.

It could also be argued that the Celtics would be in the unusual spot of being the top seed without the best player in a first round matchup. DRIP ranks Embiid as the third-best player in the league and has Butler fifth, which is higher than any Celtics player.

Twice in the last four years the Heat have overwhelmed a seemingly more talented top seed. And in 2022, a superstar (Luka Doncic) took over as the best player in the series and upset the top seed. Both of these scenarios seem to at least be possible in Round 1.

Why The Celtics Should Be Fine

Even with some recent trends going against the top overall seeds, the Celtics should still be seen as heavy favorites to make the conference finals. The biggest reason? Boston was substantially better through 82 games than the past four top seeds.

Boston will end up with a substantially better record than three of those teams, as only the 2022 Suns finished with 60 or more wins. And if you look at point differential, Phoenix had a point differential of plus-7.4 points per game, while Boston is at +11.3 currently.

The Celtics’ point differential puts the them in a prestigious group. If their point differential holds, it would be the fifth-best point differential of all time. All three teams above the Celtics won the title. The highest regular season point differential by a team that didn’t win the title was +11.2 for the 1972 Bucks, but that team lost in the conference finals to the Lakers, who have the best point differential ever at +12.3.

Point Diff leaders

The highest point differential for a team that didn’t win the title or lose in the playoffs to a team with a better point differential is +10.8 by the 73-9 2016 Warriors. You may remember that team. Right behind that group is the 2016 San Antonio Spurs (+10.6), who were upset in the second round by the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Point differential underscores the difference between Boston and last year’s Bucks even more than record. The Bucks finished 58-24, but only had a +3.6 point differential. Even with the Heat having a point differential of minus-0.3, that means only 3.9 points per game separated those two teams.

The Celtics will have a much larger gap than that in any Eastern Conference series. The second-best point differential in the East belongs to the New York Knicks at +4.6. That leaves a whopping 6.7 differential in points per game between the Celtics and the second-best team in the East. The only team of the four top seeds that lost with a comparable point differential in the last four years is the 2020 Bucks, and, if you remember, there were some pretty major extenuating circumstances in 2020 and that series in particular.

Boston also has our adjusted team ratings on its side. Those ratings normalize a team’s performance from league environmental factors that can either inflate or deflate numbers. Our model uses advanced metrics and other factors to calculate how many points per 100 possessions better or worse teams are compared to the league-average club that season.

The Celtics easily lead the NBA with an adjusted team rating of 11.77, while the Knicks are the second-best team in the East at 5.29. Boston’s mark is on pace to be the best mark since the Warriors finished with a 12.82 rating in 2016-17 and the fourth highest since 1986-87.

Seven of the top eight won the title that year.

adjusted team ratings

The Celtics roster is also substantially better than in previous years. While it’s true you could argue that several other teams in the East would have the best player in the potential playoff series, the depth of star talent for the Celtics is something few other teams in NBA history have been able to match.

DRIP has four Celtics in the top 50 and that’s not including Jaylen Brown, a player advanced stats tend to hate but also someone who has leveled up his game this season. Kristaps Porzingis, Derrick White and Tatum are all top-20 players in DRIP. And Tatum is good enough to match other stars in a series.

While DRIP ranks Embiid and Butler higher, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if Tatum outplayed either in a series, particularly with Embiid just returning from injury. There is also the fact that, while the first-round series may be tougher than Boston hoped, the rest of the Eastern Conference is shaping up to be less dangerous than the usual path to the Finals.

The Knicks are the only other team in East with a point differential above +4.0 per game and must contend with Julius Randle not being around for the playoffs. The Cleveland Cavaliers haven’t been able to put it together with their whole roster. The Orlando Magic and Indiana Pacers are both inexperienced teams with a bottom-10 offense and defense, respectively.

The Bucks seem like the biggest threat to the Celtics, but they’re dealing with an injury that will cause their best player to miss the rest of the regular season and still seem likely to hang on to a 2 or 3 seed, meaning the Celtics will avoid them in until the conference finals. It’s unclear how healthy Antetokounmpo will be for the start of the playoffs, and, if he’s compromised at all, the Celtics might avoid a match up with the Bucks altogether.

The East looked like it would be better heading into the year, but, as the playoffs approach, there isn’t a team that the Celtics won’t be heavily favored over in the conference.

Even if a combination of factors has made top overall seeds riper for upsets than ever before, the Celtics appear to be in a good enough situation to avoid slipping up early in the playoffs.

They’re also in as good a spot as any team in the league to take home the Larry O’Brien Trophy. That’s just not as certain as it used to be in the early days of the 16-team playoff era.  

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