Statistical Analysis. Humor. Knicks.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

NBA First Round – Necessary?

I received an interesting & at first cryptic email today. The entire email was:

Houston. #6. 1995.

Need I say more?

The email was from Page 23′s Kevin Pelton. It took me a second to realize what this meant. It was in reference to my last entry where I wrote:

Off the top of my head I can’t think of a team past seed #5 that went two rounds other than the strike season Knicks.

I had been too busy (read: lazy) to actually research which low seeds have gotten far in the playoffs. Luckily I have readers astute enough to do my work for me. Of course Kevin’s point is made even more poignant by the fact that the 6th seed Rockets not only went past two rounds, but they were the champs as well.

The Rockets playoff team was a bit different than the one that earned them the 6th seed in the West. Midseason they traded Otis Thrope for Clyde Drexler. Drexler only played 35 games for the Rockets during the regular season. Similarly the 8th seeded 99 Knicks went through some changes as well. The newly acquired Camby and Sprewell were still trying to find their identities on the fly, especially in the playoffs when Ewing went down with his injured Achilles. The strike didn’t give them a chance to jell during the season, and who knows what their record would have been had they played the full 82 games.

If we wanted to take 20 years worth of data, let’s go back to 1983. Since then (and excluding 1999) there have been 5 teams that were either the 6th, or 7th seed to go at least as far as the Conference Championships (no 8th seeds have made it that far). The aforementioned Rockets, the ’94 Pacers, the ’89 Bulls, the 87′ Sonics, and the ’84 Suns. All of those teams were 6th seeds, except for the 7th seed Sonics.

In 20 years, there is a 4% chance that one of those teams (#6-#8) will make the conference finals, and and a .8% chance that one of them will make the finals and win it all. If you think I’m tilting the tables in my favor my excluding the strike season Knicks, the chances go up to 5%, 1.7% (to make the Finals), and .8% to win it all. Another thing to consider for the furture is the possibility of a first round upset is now lower with the expanded series (7 games from 5).

In other tournaments like March Madness, the NFL playoffs, and the World Cup, teams have better opportunities for upsets because it only requires one win to move on. The longer series gives the favorites a better chance at winning.

Sunday’s two games underscores the point between the first and second round games. The early game, a first rounder between the Heat and Hornets, meant little to me. It wasn’t because it wasn’t exciting, because tempers were flaring all over the court. One reason was that I couldn’t imagine either of these teams beating Indy in 7 games, and then the winner of Detroit/NJ on the road. The other was that it game 6 of the series. The Hornets were fighting for their lives, but Miami wasn’t. The other tournaments I mentioned above are all single elimination. Each game is important for both teams, not just the one with their backs against the wall. Tthe longer series makes each individual game less important as well.

The second round matchup between the Lakers & Spurs was another story. Since both of these teams have won the last 5 titles, I felt that the winner could possibly go all the way. The Lakers were the early season favorites, with their new additions of Payton & Malone. It was a GREAT game to watch. Even though it was only one game, it was the first of the series, and an upset on the Spurs floor would have tilted the series in the Lakers favor. That the winner of this series still has to face the winner of Minnesota/Sacramento to just reach the Finals is an awesome thought.

To conclude, really low seeds (7th & 8th) have virtually no chance of getting far in the playoffs. You can’t eliminate the first round altogether, because as pointed out by Kevin, 5th & 6th seeds do have a (very slim) chance of making a magical run. I can’t think of a playoff format that would make the first round more exciting without going to single elimination, or even a quick best of 3. The NBA will never allow such a hit on their wallets, even if it would make the game more exciting for their fans.

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