Are the San Antonio Spurs the Luckiest Team in the NBA

While the word luck in sports is hard to capture, and most often agree that the harder you train, the more lucky you get (as the old cliché goes), there’s still a way to measure it, and when looking at the 2012-2013 NBA season, there’s a good chance the San Antonio Spurs have been the luckiest team so far of them all.

According to Neil Paine on ESPN Insider, taking a look at the Pythagorean record and trying to figure out how many players are having career years at the same time is a good way to understand just how lucky a team has been to be successful, at least in the regular season. If you throw in the measure of strength of schedule, and you get an interesting way to view the luck factor, backed by the fact that quite a few players on the Spurs have been over-performing, at least when you account for their age.

“Luckiest” teams in the NBA, 2012-13

Team Wins SOS Career Years Pythagoras Total True Wins
San Antonio Spurs 51 +3 +245 +16 +264 42
Los Angeles Clippers 45 -5 +327 -71 +251 37
Brooklyn Nets 38 +19 +81 +103 +203 31
Golden State Warriors 37 -41 +98 +131 +188 31
Memphis Grizzlies 44 -20 +139 +51 +171 38

For anyone watching the Golden State Warriors this season, you’re probably not too surprised to see them on this list, suddenly becoming a playoff contender after so many years of disappointments. Still, they’re only the fourth luckiest team in the NBA this season, mostly backed by being “lucky” and come out as winners most of the time in the close games, giving them the very high Pythagoras score.

The Spurs have enjoyed a combination of things, mostly career years from players who were expected to obviously be on the decline, or simply not as good – Tony Parker is the best example, having what many are calling an MVP year, but Tim Duncan is also right up there with a very surprising season, while Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter (not that much of a surprise) are playing better than projected to add a few wins that “shouldn’t have been there.”

San Antonio Spurs player performance, 2012-13

Player Age MP Net Pts Projected Diff (Wins)
Tony Parker 30 1846 +205 +104 +3.4
Danny Green 25 1778 +65 +43 +0.7
Tim Duncan 36 1668 +143 +59 +2.8
Tiago Splitter 28 1631 +85 +27 +1.9
Boris Diaw 30 1491 +15 -58 +2.4
Kawhi Leonard 21 1392 +96 +101 -0.2
Manu Ginobili 35 1269 +90 +76 +0.5
Gary Neal 28 1217 -60 -29 -1.0
Stephen Jackson 34 928 -55 -37 -0.6
Matt Bonner 32 704 -3 +2 -0.2
DeJuan Blair 23 684 -2 +21 -0.8
Nando de Colo 25 677 -33 -4 -1.0
Patty Mills 24 580 -8 -2 -0.2
Cory Joseph 21 223 +4 -10 +0.5
James Anderson 23 94 -3 -5 +0.1
Aron Baynes 26 73 -5 -0 -0.1

Maybe this helps explain why the Spurs have fallen short in the postseasons in recent years despite their excellent regular season records – being swept by the Phoenix Suns in 2010, losing in the first round to the Grizzlies in 2011 and losing four games in a row to the Oklahoma City Thunder in last year’s conference finals, despite being the team with the best record in the NBA. This season it’s likely they’ll finish on top of the West again, but it doesn’t mean they’re the favorites to win the conference.

Gregg Popovich is always a way to say the Spurs aren’t luck or anything of the sorts – they have a great coach, who knows how to pick players and make things happen even if the numbers, regular or advanced, say they won’t be happening.  But clear-cut coaching credit like that is rare. While the Spurs have defied luck in recent seasons, they’ve won 16.6 more games than they “should have,” according to this luck metric, since the 2010-11 season, in more than 1,300 career games as an NBA coach, Popovich has only raised his teams’ luck by about 1.2 wins per 82 games on average.

Numbers don’t always mean everything. There’s the connection between players, the personalities and much, much more. You don’t win NBA titles based on statistics alone – you only use them to explain later on why this and that happened, although it does help project certain things. Still, the Spurs seem to be lucky, at least in the regular season, over and over again, despite the correlation between luck in one season and the next being 0.03. I guess they got a different kind of luck stuck to them. Or maybe they’re simply really really good.