In their final preseason tuneup on Wednesday, the Sacramento Kings will host Melbourne United. They’re probably going to win. Melbourne is a good National Basketball League team; they finished second in the Australian league last season and first in the standings (delightfully called the league’s “ladder”) the season before. But Melbourne could win the NBL with an undefeated record every year and still be extreme underdogs against the Kings.
Every preseason, a number of NBA teams play against non-NBA opponents. Most of these games go unnoticed; they’re mostly a showcase to international audiences. But this pseudo-competitive environment also provides a worthwhile laboratory setting—not to test the readiness of NBA teams for the upcoming season, but to measure the quality of NBA squads outside the league’s competitive vacuum.
The NBA is a closed, zero-sum environment; every player assessment and team analysis inherently involves comparisons to other NBA teams. When someone concludes, say, that the 2019-20 Wizards roster looks putrid, it’s because of a mental comparison between the Wizards and the established NBA baseline. Throwing international teams into the mix, even in games that don’t strictly count for anything, allows some wider context to seep in. And what do you know? In this scenario, even the 2019-20 Wizards can win a game by 39 points.
These October scrimmages do not make for perfect experiments. In the preseason, starters play reduced minutes or miss games entirely; the games are sloppier than normal NBA contests as coaches tinker with rotations and playbooks; the international teams are almost certainly more motivated than the NBA players going through the motions of preparing for a new season. But it’s the best experiment we have, and the results are plenty revealing.
With one meeting to go, NBA squads have utterly dominated these games this fall: 13 NBA squads have combined to win 13 games against international competition, by an average margin of 38.2 points. Houston beat the Shanghai Sharks by 69 points. Philadelphia beat the Guangzhou Lions by 58. Utah beat the Adelaide 36ers by 52. Every other NBA team to play a foreign opponent this preseason has won by double-digits.
But what about throughout history? We dug deep into the archives to find out. A list on Wikipedia dating back to the late 1970s includes results for 155 games between NBA and international teams over the decades, with NBA teams holding a 138-17 record in those contests. That tally is missing scores from a few games, though, so we’re going to focus on the matchups since the 2007-08 preseason, which is when more thorough box score stats became available on NBA.com/Stats.
Over the last 13 preseasons (including this one), NBA teams facing non-NBA competition in official preseason games are 98-10—the equivalent of 74 wins over an 82-game schedule. In other words, against non-NBA competition, NBA teams as a whole are as good as the record-setting 1995-96 Bulls and 2015-16 Warriors.
The box-score statistics are also hilariously lopsided. The average score in these games has been NBA teams, 110; non-NBA teams, 88. That’s an average margin of 22 points. For reference, the worst single-season point differential in an 82-game schedule belongs to the 1992-93 Mavericks, at negative-15 per game.
NBA vs. Non-NBA Teams
Non-NBA teams have collected more turnovers than assists. They’ve shot worse than 40 percent from the field. They’ve allowed an effective field goal percentage that would rank sixth all-time for any team in a single season; basically, they’ve turned haphazard NBA rosters who aren’t even trying into the equivalent of the best LeBron James Heat teams.
The most instructive line from that chart, though, might be free throw percentage. Over 13 preseasons and more than 100 meetings, NBA and non-NBA teams have have shot the same percentage from the charity stripe. Even if they are wildly overmatched when put into live-ball situations against NBA talents, these non-NBA players are still skilled; they’re still professionals.
One important factor in these results is the location of these games. Outside North America, NBA teams are 15-7 against non-NBA opponents—a fine but not overwhelming record. At home, for comparison, they’re 83-3, with a much better margin of victory to boot.
NBA Teams vs. Non-NBA Teams by Location
|Game Location||W||L||Win %||PTS/G||Opp PTS/G||Margin|
|Game Location||W||L||Win %||PTS/G||Opp PTS/G||Margin|
When not granted the gift of home court, good NBA teams have struggled against top-tier international competition. In a 2016 trip through Spain, the Thunder lost to Real Madrid in overtime and beat Barcelona by three. In 2014, the Spurs fell to Alba Berlin on a buzzer-beater. In October 2010, Barcelona beat the defending champion Lakers and favorite son Pau Gasol in Spain. (Kobe Bryant played 25 minutes as he recovered from knee surgery; he shot 2-for-15 from the field, and the Lakers as a team went 0-for-14 on 3-point tries.)
The three home losers, for those curious:
- In October 2010, just a few months after James took his talents to Miami, Cleveland lost to CSKA Moscow, 90-87. The visitors’ roster included Trajan Langdon, Alexey Shved, and a young Boban Marjanovic.
- Three years later, CSKA Moscow struck again, beating Minnesota 108-106 in overtime. Milos Teodosic led the winning team—which also played notable names Nenad Krstic, Sasha Kaun, and Jeremy Pargo—with 26 points.
- In 2015, Turkish club Fenerbahce beat Brooklyn, 101-96. Jan Vesely and Bogdan Bogdanovic led the way with 18 and 17 points, respectively, while Ekpe Udoh played 30 minutes as the starting center.
There have been other close games in the States—including from Melbourne, which nearly upset the Thunder in 2017, when Paul George (39 minutes), Steven Adams (35), Carmelo Anthony (31), and Russell Westbrook (29) basically played full games, and Oklahoma City still needed a pair of last-second blocks to escape with an 86-85 win.
But the vast majority of games have been blowouts; over the weekend, even with George and Kawhi Leonard resting, the Clippers coasted to an 18-point win over Melbourne. A comparison of the names in the box score shows why: Melbourne’s best player was Melo Trimble, former University of Maryland star and G Leaguer, who dropped 22 points and six assists.
The point isn’t that NBA teams sometimes receive a scare from lesser competition. As entertaining as those results—and the “Let’s Remember Some Guys” quality the other teams’ rosters evoke—are, the point is that even in those circumstances, NBA teams still utterly dominate non-NBA competition. NBA teams are the best in the world, by far, and this little experimental setting confirms the fact. Wednesday’s game should just provide another data point to demonstrate the disparity.