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What A Hot Start Means for NBA Title Hopes

A hot start like the Warriors are experiencing is fun. But as Dirk Nowitzki knows, it doesn’t always lead to a ring.

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The Golden State Warriors tied the hottest start in NBA history, winning their first 15 games and showing absolutely zero signs of slowing down. They have the opportunity to put a stranglehold on the record this Tuesday when they take on the L.A. Lakers in front of a home crowd, and subsequent games against the Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz are plenty winnable too.

If they continue playing at this level, it may be quite awhile before Golden State loses. However, regular season records ultimately mean very little in the big scheme of things. There have been many great regular season teams throughout NBA history, but the only ones that matter are those that actually win a championship at the end.

Knowing that, here’s a look at the teams that jumped off to the hottest starts in league history before this year’s Warriors and how things ultimately ended for them:

1993-1994 Houston Rockets
Hot start: 15-0
What happened from there: The only other team in league history to start 15-0 did, in fact, win the NBA championship at the end of their record-setting campaign. The circumstances are a little extraordinary here, however, as Michael Jordan walked away from the game of basketball in 1993 after winning his third consecutive title with the Chicago Bulls, so Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets ended up battling the New York Knicks in that year’s Finals rather than Jordan and his Bulls. Regardless, the Rockets finished their season 58-24 and took home some hardware.

1948-1949 Washington Capitols
Hot start: 15-0
What happened from there: It’s hard to compare anything the Warriors are doing right now to what happened almost 70 years ago, but this pre-merger hot start is still worth mentioning since it does still show up in the record books. The Capitols finished the year 38-22, which means they were basically .500 after those blazing first 15 games. They did make the BAA Finals against the Minneapolis Lakers, but fell victim to George Mikan, who was easily that era’s most dominant player.

2002-2003 Dallas Mavericks
Hot start: 14-0
What happened from there: While the Mavericks did end up winning 60 games behind some legitimately stellar offensive performances from Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Finley and Steve Nash, Nowitzki wouldn’t even have the opportunity to sniff at a championship thanks to the San Antonio Spurs, who have knocked out every legitimate Western Conference hopeful over the course of the last 15 years at some time or another. Nowitzki’s knee injury in the Conference Finals was what ultimately did them in, proving that one fluke injury to a team’s best player can derail championship hopes in a blink, no matter how well the previous 82-plus games have gone.

1957-1958 Boston Celtics
Hot start: 14-0
What happened from there: Knowing how many rings the Celtics won in the 1950s and 1960s, it would be completely safe to assume that this season was one of those championship years, especially considering the hot start. But in truth, it was the only year between 1957 and 1966 in which the Celtics did not win the title. After starting the season with 14 straight wins, the C’s cooled off considerably, going a comparatively pedestrian 35-23 the rest of the way. While they did end up in the 1958 NBA Finals, they lost to the St. Louis Hawks. But it’s not like Bill Russell needed 12 rings. Eleven is plenty.

1996-1997 Chicago Bulls
Hot start: 12-0
What happened from there: When people talk about this current Warriors team in relation to Jordan’s best Bulls teams, the 1995-1996 and 1996-1997 squads are the ones to which they are referring. The Bulls followed up their 72-win championship season with a 12-game win streak that would kick off another huge regular season. While the Bulls would “only” win 69 games that year, they would in fact win the championship.

1982-1983 Seattle SuperSonics
Hot start: 12-0
What happened from there: So far, every team with a historically excellent start to the season has at least proven to be a championship-caliber team able to run deep into the playoffs, but the SuperSonics are the first exception to that trend. Seattle was absolutely mediocre after their 12-0 start, going 36-34 the remainder of the season and losing in the first round of the playoffs. This was a Jack Sikma/Gus Williams team that added David Thompson in the offseason, so expectations started high and stayed there after 12 games. The result, though, was worse than any other team to start so well.

Four other teams have started the season 11-0, including the 1964-1965 Boston Celtics, the 1990-1991 Portland Trail Blazers, the 1997-1998 Atlanta Hawks and 1997-1998 L.A. Lakers. Of those four teams, only Boston won the championship, though the Blazers did make the Finals in 1991. In the 1998 playoffs, Atlanta bowed out in the first round, while the Lakers fell short in the Western Conference Finals.

Of the 10 teams in NBA/BAA history to start the season at least 11-0, only three ended winning the championship at the end of the campaign, but three more at least made the Finals. Two lost in the Conference Finals, and two lost in the first round of the playoffs.

None of this has any tangible bearing on what will happen with the Warriors this season, but history seems to suggest that there’s a very good chance that they’ll at least end up back in the Finals to defend their title. This article wasn’t needed for that to be made abundantly clear, but a historical look at other hot starts certainly does show that early wins don’t always mean a title (or even Finals run) is inevitable.

With that said, if the Warriors continue to win and start the year 18-0 or 19-0 or 20-0, all historical precedence goes out the window. There is no precedent for that kind of start.

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

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