The Celtics early season win streak has extended to 16 games with their succession of come-from-behind thrillers. The question is: Does a win streak like this mean anything beyond “a good team got hot for a month.”? To answer that, we can look at some recent history.
From the 2000-01 season through last year there were 102 win streaks of 10 or more games. Those come from 79 teams. Four teams have had three 10+ game win streaks in a season, including the incredible 2011-12 San Antonio Spurs who did it in a 66 game season with an extra heavy load of back-to-backs. There are an additional 14 teams that posted two 10+ win streaks in a season.
The actual odds of a team achieving an extended win streak are very hard to figure out. If we just simplify things and assume that a team’s odds of winning a single game are evenly distributed we can map how likely a team is to achieve a win streak based on how many games they win in a season.
By this simplified math, you would expect a team with 51-52 wins to have a 50% chance of achieving a 10 game win streak at some point in the season. The streak is currently at 16, which you would expect a 61-62 win team achieve 50% of the time. This is an extreme oversimplification of the odds, though. We’ve had 26 60+ win seasons since 2000-01 and only seven of those teams have had a streak of 16 or more games. Streaks have become longer over time, possibly because the decrease in home court advantage has leveled out game odds, but more likely because of blind luck.
The 2007-08 Houston Rockets won 22 straight games in a 55 win season. The 2012-13 Clippers won 17 consecutive games in a 56 win season. That’s probably the floor for how many games this team will win, barring (more) catastrophic injuries.
Streaks and Titles
In the past 16 seasons there have been 12 NBA Champions that had at least one regular season win streak of 10+ games. This isn’t surprising; if anything it might be lower than expected. On average there are five teams to post a long win streak in a season and these are, obviously, usually good teams. That only 75% of champs were able to post a relatively modest win streak is surprising to me.
Only one of the four teams to post three long winning streaks went on to win the title, and only four of the 16 to achieve two streaks won it. Still, that means that 5/20 teams to post multiple extended streaks went on to win the title while only 7/59 who had one long streak hung a title banner. These are small samples, though.
From the 65 teams that posted a streak but didn’t win the title, an additional 12 lost in the NBA Finals. The Conference Finals brought an end to 16 other seasons that contained a streak. The 2nd Round claimed 19, 17 teams only made the 1st round, and three sad stories include a long regular season win streak but no playoff appearance.
A team like the Celtics putting together a streak like this looks like a positive for Boston’s title odds, beyond simply being 16-2 and obviously a high-level team. From 2002-2012 the team with the longest regular season streak never won the NBA title, but four of the last five seasons had the longest streaking team claim the crown.
Streak vs. Streak
A major complicating factor in determining what a regular season streak means for playoff success is that teams that had win streaks often face off against each other. The most common outcome for a team that “went streaking” is to lose in the playoffs to another team that matched them on that front. From the 79 teams, 61% either won the title or lost to another team from the same group. Only 35% were ousted by a team that hadn’t built up a streak.
From a Celtics perspective, that could mean that the Cavs aren’t as big a threat to the Celtics (let alone the Warriors) if they never put together a major win streak this year. Cleveland currently has a five game streak going. There is history of “flip the switch” teams like the 2002 Lakers sleepwalking through the regular season and then knocking of bunch of winter juggernauts come spring, but it’s not common.
An interesting phenomenon is that when two teams that had long win streaks face off, the exact number of games that they won in their longest streak doesn’t appear to matter. Once a team gets up over 20 that might change, but there are only three squads in that group and two won the title while the other was ruined by injuries. When two teams with a low double-digit streaks meet, you shouldn’t draw conclusions from a couple extra streak wins.
What may matter is timing. In about 60% of the streak versus streak playoff series, the team that had their final 10+ streak later in the season won. That’s obviously not a great sign for Boston. “Peaking too early” might be a real thing, but having a streak early in the season also means you have a lot of time to build a second streak. If this run ends soon and the Celtics don’t put together another streak later in the year, it means they’re likely to face a team in the playoffs that will be able to match them in “streak credentials.”
As you might expect from the preceding section, it’s always nice to have a long win streak but if you could choose, you would prefer to have it later in the year. Earlier season win streaks have meant more NBA Finals appearances (but losses) while later streaks have portended NBA titles.
Of the 12 teams that won the title following a regular season streak, five of them started their last streak in February. Only one started their final streak in the first month of the season, the 2010 Lakers (who I would rather not talk about). There were four early season streak builders to make the NBA Finals (2001 76ers, 2010 Celtics, and 2011 and 2014 Heat) so this could be a good sign for getting beyond LeBron, if not Steph and KD.
Putting together a win streak like this is undoubtedly fun, but it’s hard to draw too many conclusions from it. If the Celtics had two eight game streaks sandwiching a two game losing streak would it be less predictive than winning 16-straight? From recent history, it’s possible that it actually is more telling. Teams that build long streaks seem to have better odds of progressing through the playoffs than teams of similar total wins without streaks, but numbers are limited.
For the moment, fans can revel in the entertainment value of it all. The franchise record is 19 straight wins. Regardless of where this season ends, the Celtics are already achieving something special.
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