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NBA PM: Best Starts in NBA History

In 2002-2003, the Mavericks started the year 14-0, but that wasn’t the best start in league history.

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The Houston Rockets (9-1) and Memphis Grizzlies (8-1) are off to very hot starts this season, posting the two best overall records in the NBA while playing in the league’s most challenging division. There’s no question that these starts are good ones, but they aren’t anywhere close to the best starts in NBA history.

The easiest way to assemble a list like this would simply to be as a list rattling off the top five winning streaks to start a season. However, the competition and style of play in professional basketball when the 1948-1949 Washington Capitols set the season-starting undefeated record at 15-0 doesn’t really put them in a place to be rated among the better teams on this list.

So, to make it work, we will consider a few different things:

Unexpected hot starts are more noteworthy than predictable ones. Memphis are Houston are teams that we expect to be good, but if, say, Atlanta had started 9-0, they’d be worth talking about.

Secondly, some weight will be placed on what these teams did with that hot start. What was their final record? How deep did they get into the playoffs? That sort of thing.

With those criteria set, let’s have a look at the best starts in NBA history:

#5 – 1964-1965 Boston Celtics
Started: 11-0
Finished: 62-18
Postseason: Beat the L.A. Lakers in five games for the NBA Championship
What Did We Expect? As far as living up to expectations, the Celtics did a pretty good job of it in 1965. They came into this season having won seven of the last eight NBA titles, so 11-0 shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. Finishing the season 51-18 and eventually winning the championship wasn’t all that shocking either.

#4 – 1957-1958 Boston Celtics
Started: 14-0
Finished: 49-23
Postseason: Lost to the St. Louis Hawks in the NBA Finals
What Did We Expect? A championship, honestly, which they didn’t end up winning. In fact, 1958 was the only year between 1957 and 1966 in which the Celtics did not win the championship, which leaves this particular season as a relatively disappointing one compared to the string of dominance they put together throughout the ’50s and ’60s. Also, a 35-23 record the rest of the season isn’t particular glowing either. It’s the second-best win streak to start a season in league history, but in terms of where it ranks objectively among the best starts ever, it’s a little bit lower than one might expect.

#3 – 1996-1997 Chicago Bulls
Started: 12-0
Finished: 69-13
Postseason: Beat the Utah Jazz to win their second consecutive NBA title and Michael Jordan’s and Scottie Pippen’s fifth ring overall.
What Did We Expect? The season before, a nearly identical Chicago team won a league record 72 games, so if anything, it’s a little disappointing they didn’t start something like 20-0 that season. They did everything they were supposed to do, including starting the follow-up to the most dominant regular season ever by losing only one game in the first 13 contests of the year.

#2 – 2002-2003 Dallas Mavericks
Started: 14-0
Finished: 60-22
Postseason: Lost in the Western Conference Finals to the San Antonio Spurs
What Did We Expect? The year before, the Mavs had won 57 games, so coming into the new season hot wasn’t too big a story. But when they kept winning and winning, falling only one game short of tying the NBA record for a winning streak to start the season, it quickly did turn into a big story. That Mavericks team is the only squad of the new millennium to make the list, which some would argue came at the expense of a watered-down league. Still, 14 wins in a row to start a season is pretty impressive. No team this season got even halfway to 14 before earning their first loss.

#1 – 1993-1994 Houston Rockets
Started: 15-0
Finished: 58-24
Postseason: Beat the New York Knicks in the Finals in seven games.
What Did We Expect? This was the year after Michael Jordan retired (the first time), and somebody was going to have to win the championship that year. Houston was certainly a strong candidate, but not the only one. Clearly, their 15-0 start was impressive, but so was a championship year led by Hakeem Olajuwon and little else. The second and third top scorers on the team that season were Otis Thorpe and Vernon Maxwell, so while a good season was expected, 15-0 very likely was not. But what 15-0 did do was place the Rockets squarely as favorites to win the championship, which of course they did.

Honorable Mention:

1948-1949 Washington Capitols
Started: 15-0
Finished: 38-22
Postseason: Lost the BAA Finals to the Minneapolis Lakers
What Did We Expect? Coached by Red Auerbach in his time before the Boston Celtics, the Capitols (who only lasted as an organization for six years) won their division and finished the season about where they were expected to finish. This was the in the ’40s, before the modern NBA had even been formed, so it’s hard to take a 15-0 start too seriously. Plus, to finish the season just 23-22 doesn’t look very good either.

1982-1983 Seattle SuperSonics
Started: 12-0
Finished: 48-34
Postseason: Lost in the first round to the Portland Trail Blazers
What Did We Expect? The Sonics, led by Gus Williams and Jack Sikma, added David Thompson in the offseason, and that extra boost is likely what led a good team to experience a great start. But finishing the season 36-34 and bowing out in the first round of the postseason doesn’t bode well for their standing on this list. They squandered their great start worse than just about any other team on this list.

1990-1991 Portland Trail Blazers
Started: 11-0
Finished: 63-19
Postseason: Lost to the L.A. Lakers in the Western Conference Finals
What Did We Expect? This was an extremely talented Portland team coming off an NBA Finals appearance, led by all-stars Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter. With talent like that starting 11-0 isn’t particularly shocking, especially when you see how well they played the rest of the season. In fact, just a year later, they’d be back in the Finals again, this time losing to Michael Jordan and the Bulls.

1997-1998 Atlanta Hawks
Started: 11-0
Finished: 50-32
Postseason: Lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Charlotte Hornets.
What Did We Expect? Having won 56 games the year before behind the offense of Steve Smith and the defense of Dikembe Mutombo, the Hawks came into the ’97-’98 season with huge expectations. They did manage 50 wins, but finished only fourth in the Central Division and bowed out in the first round of the postseason. By no means did they make the most of their hot start. Not even close.

1997-1998 L.A. Lakers
Started: 11-0
Finished: 61-21
Postseason: Got swept in the Western Conference Finals by the Utah Jazz
What Did We Expect? We expected a huge step in the right direction for a team led by Shaquille O’Neal and a burgeoning Kobe Bryant, and that’s what the Lakers did in 1998. They added five wins to their previous season’s total and got a round further in the playoffs than 1997, getting all the way to the Conference Finals. The rings, obviously, were coming.

So yes, while this season got off to a great start for the Rockets and Grizzlies, there hasn’t been anything close to some of the tremendous starts we’ve seen in the league’s past. Will that 15-0 season-beginning win streak ever be broken? Probably, but we know 2014-2015 won’t be the year it does finally happen.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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