When you discuss some of the most influential people who have graced the NBA with their presence, Phil Jackson is one of them. From his playing days in New York, to his coaching days in Chicago and L.A, Jackson has been successful in every facet. Jackson has embroidered the NBA with his wealth of tactics and philosophies. One of his key philosophies, is that if you are a true NBA championship contender, you will win 40 games before you lose 20.
So far this season, there are four teams who are labeled (under this philosophy), as NBA contenders; The Warriors 59-6, Spurs 56-10, Cavaliers (46-18), and the Raptors (44-20). Obviously, stating that “the better your record is, the better chance you have to win” isn’t groundbreaking. However, over time Jackson’s theory has held up, as 86 per cent of all NBA championship teams accomplished the 40 before 20 feat during their respective seasons.
Since Jackson’s first ring as a player (1972-1973 Knicks), 36 of the 42 NBA champions achieved this feat over their championship season. During the 70’s, the league was star-deprived after the NBA merger, leading to a much less star-driven league. During this time, four out of seven NBA champions won without accomplishing the 40/20 feat; The 1974-75 Warriors with Rick Barry, the 1976-77 Trailblazers with Bill Walton, the 1977-78 Bullets with Wes Unseld, and the 1978-79 Supersonics. Fast-forwarding to the 90’s, Olajuwon’s 1994-95 Rockets won their second straight championship, without accomplishing the 40/20 on their second leg of their back to back. The 2003-04 defensive-juggernaut Pistons won without it, and lastly, Miami won it in 2005-06 while spending most of the regular season ironing out their kinks with Wade and Shaq.
So where does this leave the Raptors? Obviously, every year (with the exception of the star-drought of the 70’s) there are a handful of teams that are labeled “true contenders”. But it can be difficult to justify the Raptors record, seeing as they spend most of their games laying a beating on the Nets, Knicks and 76ers. To get a closer look, let’s see how well the Raptors have fared against the NBA’s top competition – specifically, the top five teams in each conference.
Against the top competition, the Raptors are 12-5. Two losses have come at the hands of the Warriors, with a loss against Cleveland, Charlotte and Miami. In these 17 games, the Raptors are sitting at a steady +40. In terms of an overall season, this is quite impressive, but how does it stack up against their previous 20 seasons?
So far, while sitting at a .688 win percentage, it is by far the best in Raptor history. The only comparable percentages are 2014-2015 (.598), 2013-2014 (.585), 2006-2007 (.573), 2000-2001 (.573) and 1990-2000 (.549). With that being said, the Raptors still have 19 games to improve on this record, with only 7 of them being against the (current) top 5 teams in each conference.
But what about the 40 before 20 philosophy? How does that translate to NBA finalists? Well, using Phil Jackson’s first ring (as a player) as the benchmark once again, 35 per cent of the NBA finals losers did not accomplish the 40 before 20. So in grand total, out of the 84 teams that have appeared in the finals over the past 42 years, 21 of them did not win 40 games before losing 20; A perfect 25 per cent. So does this mean that there is a 75 per cent chance that a team in the finals will have accomplished the 40 before 20? Over time, going strictly by numbers, technically you can say yes. But what about the 40 before 20 contenders who don’t make the finals? Let’s look back on the past 10 years of the NBA and see how these teams fared.
The NBA goes through a series of trends, however over the past 10 years of NBA seasons, there is an average of 4.5 teams a season accomplishing the 40 before 20 feat. Out of the 160 playoff teams, 45 of them were good enough to be part of the 40 before 20 club. So by using Phil Jackson’s theory, how have these 45 teams fared throughout the playoffs?
Using the data from the past 10 years, 15 per cent of these teams were bounced in the first round, 22 per cent were knocked out in the conference semis, 26 per cent lost in the conference finals, 15 per cent of them lost in the finals, and all 10 of the past champions have been a member of the 40 before 20 club – 22 per cent.
Obviously, there are always other factors that come into play; as sports will always be more than numbers. But Jackson’s theory gives an interesting view on the way to view a regular season, and it can give Raptor fans an optimistic view going into the playoffs. As of now, all we can hope is that the Raptors close out this season, successfully creating history, and following it up with an equally historic playoff run.