Analysis: As NBA's first quarter ends, the contenders emerge

Miami Heat President Pat Riley has a longstanding belief: After 20 games, a team knows its identity.

He’s right. And after 20 games, title contenders are usually known as well.

Think of this as the end of the season’s first quarter. That’s basically where the NBA is right now, with teams starting to approach the 20-game mark. There’s much basketball left to be played, but 20 games has proven — almost without fail — to be more than enough of a sample size when determining which teams have a legitimate shot at a championship.

The numbers show it. The teams know it, too.

“We look at 20 games,” Phoenix coach Monty Williams said. “It can get stretched out a bit if you have injuries, but for the most part, your identity and who you are is pretty much set. You’ve gone through the league to a degree. ... You kind of have an idea of who you are, where you need to improve, your strengths from a numbers standpoint, and then the players pretty much have an idea of what kind of team you’re going to be.”

In 2005-06, Miami had the league’s 13th-best record through 20 games; the Heat were just 10-10, though few knew at the time Riley was about to return as coach. In 1997-98, Chicago — then winners of five of the league’s last seven titles— was 11th-best in the NBA through 20 games; the Bulls looked bored and were 12-8.

Those are the only two instances of an eventual NBA champion not being in the top 10 in terms of record that deep into a season. (In fairness, there were a few seasons without 10 teams back in the early days, but play along.)

That’s bad news for a lot of teams right now.

Each of the last 16 champions have had no worse than the fifth-best record through 20 games.

Golden State last season, best record through 20 games. The 2018-19 Toronto Raptors and 2019-20 Los Angeles Lakers, best record through 20 games. The 2014-15 and 2016-17 Warriors, best record through 20 games.

They all won titles.

That’s good news for the Boston Celtics, who are well on their way to having the best record in the NBA at the 20-game mark this season. That’s not great news for the Warriors, who are 8-10 and 11th in the West — but are still well within striking distance of everyone. That’s also not great news for the Heat, who finished with the best regular-season record in the Eastern Conference last season and are 7-11 now with a slew of key players hurt.

“We need to figure out what it’s going to take to win and figure out what everybody needs to do differently, more consistently,” Golden State guard Stephen Curry said. “Forget the road record, you can’t even find a sustainable period of success when habits start to form and we’re in a position where we’re feeling good about ourselves. We’re still searching and chasing a little bit."

The Celtics aren't chasing. They're among those being chased. The team with the best record through 20 games has won the title 34 times in the league’s first 76 seasons.

“You have to be able to make each other better whether you have the ball or not,” said Celtics interim coach Joe Mazzulla, who in the span of less than two months has gone from being an assistant coach, to the person in charge after the Ime Udoka suspension, to the coach of a team that’s a popular pick to win the NBA title. “And our guys are bought into making each other better if they have the ball or not. It’s cool to watch.”

The Celtics should be the first team not to write off anyone. They were 10-10 through 20 games last season and wound up in the NBA Finals, where they fell to Golden State in six games.

Besides, rallies from near the middle to the top have happened before.

The 2002-03 San Antonio Spurs were ninth-best after 20 games; the 1998-99 Spurs were eighth-best, and both those clubs went on to win titles. During Michael Jordan’s first championship season, 1990-91, the Bulls were 10th in the league after 20 games.

And in the NBA's initial two seasons, the first two champions got off to slow starts. The 1946-47 Philadelphia Warriors were fifth-best out of 11 teams through 20 games; a year later, the Baltimore Bulls were fourth-best out of eight teams.

And this year, let’s face it, mediocrity reigns. It's still early. Not enough time has passed for anyone to truly separate themselves. A five-game winning streak could send some clubs vaulting up the standings. A five-game slide could send some teams into a freefall.

So, maybe this will be the season when a team can buck the trend, shake off a slower-than-anticipated start and become a contender after all.

But in games, the team that leads after the first quarter usually wins.

In seasons, it tends to go the same way. And the first quarter is about to end. If a team is going to get into the race, this would be a good time to get into gear.

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Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org

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Tim Reynolds, The Associated Press