So one thing that was occurring to me tonight as I was watching the Raptors stick with Lowry through the full fourth quarter after many coaches would have chalked it up to garbage time, was how that's been a theme of this season and, well, of Casey's whole time here. I think there's probably a teaching lesson in there, teaching guys to play right to the end. Against Cleveland last week, a double-digit deficit would have been time to throw in the towel for most coaches, but Casey kept his guys in there to make a final score that was somewhat more respectable than the team probably deserved. Same with late against Cleveland, being down 10 on the second night of a tough back-to-back, or down 18 to GSW. They're always pushing to prove themselves against an elite opponent.
I got thinking about this more, and I began to wonder if there was any correlation there: between never losing big, and winning in the playoffs. So I looked up the best teams in NBA history by this measure: who had the lowest total margin in all of their regular season losses. The top of the list is dominated by the historically great teams, like the Jordan Bulls or 80s Celtics, who rarely lost and far more rarely lost a blowout.
But what I was really interested in was not the total here but the average: the teams that might have lost 20+ games, but always kept it close. Would those teams be particularly good playoff teams? Surprisingly at the very top of the list is everyone's favorite "here's how you win without superstars" team, the 04 Pistons, who lost 28 games, but amazingly, by an average of just 5.6 points. In all, the top 30 on the list includes 13 NBA champions and an additional 11 finalists and conference finalists. There are a lot of interesting teams amongst those on the list: the Boston Celtics, back during their very first championship run, also lost 28 games, but by an average of 6.2. Chicago had their best score at 5.9, on the way to their second championship. Milwaukee's sudden rise to the NBA championship in just their third season came on the back of an impressive 6.2 mark. The first Lakers championship (1952, the first of 3 in a row) came with a great mark, as did the first of their 1980s championships, and the first of their 08-09 back-to-backs.
It's not all good, as OKC has a trio of appearances in the top 30, their top score of 6.9 coming in their 2012 finals run, but they're pretty much the only team with multiple appearances on the list who could not turn it into a championship.
So that brings us to the Raptors this season; in their combined 7 losses, the total margin of loss is a mere 33 points, for an average of less than 5. Major small sample size alert here, but that is the best average in league history. GSW, by comparison, has a total margin of defeat of 77 in their 4 losses. Which is fine for them, they already know how to win (in 2014-15 they posted a franchise best mark in this regard). Same with the Spurs (who themselves posted a great score by this measure in 99 and 04).
Obviously wins are more important overall than margin of defeat. The NBA champions list is heavily populated with conference champions and runner-ups. But I think there's merit here to the idea that Casey is teaching his team to play every game to the bitter end, a lesson that seems especially important after the team got blown out and seemingly threw in the towel in several games during the conference finals last year. Ultimately, I can't tell here whether these other teams on the list were simply good enough to always be competitive regardless of lineup, or whether they just never refused to throw in the towel. I'd certainly like to think it's the latter... it fits with the narrative of how you get to be a champion someday.
TL;DR: Maybe there's a correlation between teams that rarely or never lose by large margins, and teams that learn how to win championships. Maybe not.