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1/15/11 1:43 PM
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Mavs and Spurs have 'wow' factor

John Hollinger

Dallas and San Antonio may not garner the attention of the Lakers or Heat, but in one respect at least, they're two-in-a-million successes.

I'll get to that in a minute, but first, the big picture. The Mavericks and Spurs renew the league's best rivalry tonight, and while Dirk Nowitzki's likely absence may make this particular edition less compelling than some of the others, the teams' enduring success remains an awesome feat.

Just look at the standings. San Antonio owns the league's best record at 33-6, while Dallas has its fifth-best mark at 26-11. If that sounds familiar, it's because it is. Dallas has won at least 50 games for 10 straight seasons, and the Spurs have done the same for 11 straight, or really 13 if one prorates the 1998-99 lockout season, in which they were 37-13 (.740). Each is on pace to do so again, with the only real threat being Nowitzki's ability to return to get Dallas back to the 50-win mark.

If they reach the mark again, the Mavs and Spurs will own two of the three longest 50-win streaks in NBA history, and there's a good chance they'll eventually be first and second. The Lakers currently hold that distinction by winning 50 games every season from 1980-81 to 1991-92.

During this stretch, the Spurs have collected four championship rings and the Mavs none, which means Dallas also holds a dubious distinction: The Mavs' .694 winning percentage in the past 10 years is the best ever for a decade by a team that didn't win a championship (hat tip to the Wall Street Journal's Jared Diamond for that one).

While it takes luck to be that consistently good -- yes, both clubs landed once-in-a-generation talents in the late 1990s (Tim Duncan with San Antonio, and the dreaded Nowitzki-Marc Stein combo with Dallas) -- there's a reason most of the same teams win every year and the same teams flounder: strong management. These teams have it, and a lot of NBA clubs don't. In other words, this Texas tussle is more than just a great rivalry. It's an object lesson to the rest of the league on how to operate successful organizations.

The Texas titans have been able to keep their foothold atop the NBA mountain for a decade despite draft rules that reward less competent peers and punish them for their success. Neither team's own draft pick has been higher than 20th at any point in the past decade.

And during this amazing span, both teams have managed to completely remake their rosters on the fly. Go back to their rosters in 2000-01 -- when the Mavs won 53 games and the Spurs won 58 -- and the only common names you'll see are Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki. Nonetheless, they've found ways around the obstacles.

So let's take an even closer look at their dueling 50-win streaks, and I think you'll agree that they get even more amazing when you look a little more closely at them statistically:

How unlikely is this?
We've had 85 50-win seasons out of 294 team-seasons in the past 10 years, which means the odds of any individual team winning 50 in any individual season is 28.9 percent. This may seem a bit higher than you'd expect, but there's a weird lumping effect that we get in the standings most seasons, because the least successful teams start playing for the future while the two or three most successful ones take their foot off the gas as they wait for the playoffs. As a result, the mid-tier playoff teams reap the rewards, netting a few extra wins.

If the odds of winning 50 games is 28.9 percent in any one season, doing it 10 times in a row is much, much harder. We'd expect that to happen only four times in a million 10-year trials. Repeat: Four in a million. For it to happen twice in 29 tries is phenomenal. (It's only 29 because the 30th team, Charlotte, hasn't been with us for all 10 seasons.)

Obviously, there's a difference -- I assumed above that 50-win seasons were random, and they're not. In the past decade 51 of 73 teams that won 50 games were able to do so again in the following year, a 70 percent repeat rate. Even if you take out the Mavs and Spurs it's a 60 percent mark.

Nonetheless, a decadelong 50-win streak is really hard, even given those friendlier parameters: The odds are three in 1,000 that a team would pull it off.

How unlikely is it for two teams to do this at once?
Well, if it's three in 1,000 for one team, what must the odds be for two? Remember, one team winning 50 makes it slightly less likely the second one will win 50, and it's a similar phenomenon with the repeat rate. There's only a 7.6 percent chance that these two teams both would be 50-win teams in the first year of the streak, and then there's only a one-in-three chance that both would repeat as 50-win teams year-to-year.

Repeat the same odds every year for a decade and it gets truly unlikely: just three in a million. That's for a 10-year streak -- tack on the odds for San Antonio extending its string to 11 years and the odds are two in a million.

What are the odds of 50 wins year after year without winning a title?
Actually, this is pretty likely. If we assume 50 wins is the threshold for contention in that 50-win teams have roughly equal odds of winning the title -- a slight stretch, sure, but the Mavs were also in the 60s in wins in several of these seasons -- then we end up with, for an average season, an 88.2 percent chance of a 50-win team not winning the title.

This varies by year, however. With a dozen 50-win teams last season, the failure odds ballooned to 91.7 percent. In 2005-06, when only six teams won 50, those odds were just 83.3 percent. (Ironically, that was also the year a 67-win Dallas team lost in the first round.)

Overall we get a 26.7 percent chance that a team could win 50 every year for a decade and still not have a championship. It's unlikely, but not exactly shocking.

Is there a lesson here for the rest of the league?
I'd say there are a few lessons. First of all, success starts at the top. While it's a players' league in many ways, teams that have had superstar players but lacked quality organizations around them still haven't won very much -- with Kevin Garnett's tenure in Minnesota being the most prominent recent example.

In contrast, San Antonio and Dallas are among the best-run teams in the business, if not in all of sports. While stylistically they couldn't be more different, the similarities are what stand out.
1/15/11 1:44 PM
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Committed ownership, for starters. Mark Cuban's commitment is more visually obvious, but low-key Spurs owner Peter Holt has never nickel-and-dimed this team. They've gone into the luxury tax when necessary while fostering an environment that lets their key players know they're committed to winning. It ain't L.A. or Miami, but San Antonio has been able to keep every player it's wanted.

With Cuban, meanwhile, the key everyone misses is that this isn't some ranting lunatic Dan Snyder clone. Once he's calmed down, Cuban follows league-wide trends and analysis more deeply than any owner.

With good ownership has come stable management. San Antonio's duo of team president Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford remains the gold standard of NBA front offices, and has been there for the entire streak. Dallas, meanwhile, has thrived under the aegis of Donnie Nelson; like the others, he's been there for the whole streak.

Their tenures have begat stability up and down the organization -- a road trip to either city entails seeing many of the same faces year after year. In their time in charge, the Mavs have made just two coaching changes, while San Antonio hasn't made any.

And finally, there's that old Hippocratic rule of "First, do no harm." Many NBA franchises have a nearly constant one-step forward, one-step back rhythm as they undo their good moves with equal but opposite shortsighted ones. Not these two. Page through the past dozen years and you'll find only one major personnel move that either side regrets -- the trade of Luis Scola for San Antonio, and the effective swap of Steve Nash for Erick Dampier for Dallas. Otherwise, when they've had opportunities with trades, free agents and draft picks, they haven't screwed them up.

Much of this is not exactly rocket science. Hire good people, manage the cap effectively, don't sign bad contracts and run your team professionally enough that players want to stay.

Nonetheless, it makes me wonder why the league doesn't get more involved in educating new owners. The NBA is a franchise business, but in many ways it operates more like 30 mom-and-pop stores that are each inventing their own version of the wheel.

Which strikes me as odd, in that no other franchise business would ever consider operating that way. McDonald's, for instance, sends all its managers to a place called Hamburger U. to learn about how to do things -- but I would argue the big thing they're really learning is how not to do things. By avoiding the most common screw-ups, they have a fighting chance at success.

Thus, I've often wondered if the NBA would benefit tremendously by offering a How Not To Screw Things Up course to its owners and GMs every spring, right before the teams embark on their annual quest to riddle their feet with bullets in the draft and free agency. The league could offer sessions with titles like, "The midlevel exception: Just say no," "You don't have to use all that cap space right now" and "Average 29-year-olds turn into awful 32-year-olds."

Those would be the staples, but additionally, every year they could offer timely breakout sessions about current events. For instance, this year's might be, "He's a great player, but he probably won't be a good GM," "Comic Sans: The joke's on you," and "I don't care how many point guards you have, you can play only one of them at a time."

The point is, the Mavs and Spurs represent both the good news and the bad news about the NBA. Their improbable streaks are a testament to great management, and I'm not sure casual fans realize quite what a spectacular feat their staying power has been. Unfortunately, their success also underscores the fact such skill is still not as common throughout the 30 teams as one might hope, and that the league is perhaps not doing all it can to spread that skill.
1/15/11 1:45 PM
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I'm a little surprised at his comments about Cuban as I have thought part of the reason they haven't gotten a ring is b/c of his constant meddling with the team.
1/16/11 11:46 AM
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kanotoa
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My hats off to the Mavs. They are a good team and it is true that they have been very good for a long time, they just can't get over that hump.

I do think that the NBA is rigged to some degree and Cuban's meddling may very well have cost him a title or two.

Dirk is the ultimate dilemma though, he is a stat monster and if you get rid of him you risk having a shit team. As good as he is you know he isn't clutch enough to get you a title.

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