by: Alex Langer
Here in our final part of this series, we are looking at the NBA playoffs. (The NHL has a similar system, but for the sake of parallels, and because I am not much of an NHL fan, I’m only looking at the NBA). The NBA playoffs are designed to crown the best overall team. After what most people believe is an overly long 82 game schedule, the playoffs consist of four best-of-seven series. This
means than an NBA champion could potentially play 110 games in a season. A champion must win sixteen playoff games to hoist the trophy at the end of the season, compared to six wins in the NCAA basketball tournament and either three or four in the NFL, depending on seeding. Those sixteen victories should make it harder for a weaker team to upset its way to a championship.
Unlike in the MLB, there are no wild-card playoffs, nor are there five-game series in the NBA, at least not anymore. The playoffs have consisted of four seven-game series each year since 2002, (an interesting coincidence which lets me compare the same number of years as the NFL). Simply put, the NBA is dedicated to making sure the teams that were better in the regular season win. In the first round of the NBA playoffs, since 2002, the lower seed has won 16% of the time. Not the No. 8 seed. Any lower-seeded team, meaning a No. 5 seed against a No. 4 seed on down, has won 16% of the time. No lower seeded team (aka a 5-8 seed) has won two rounds of an NBA playoffs since 1998. The numbers on Finals bear this out. Since 2002, there have been fourteen NBA playoffs. A No. 1 seed has won six of those fourteen playoffs, for a 43% clip, by far the best of any sport we’ve looked at. Furthermore, those other eight playoffs have been won by a No. 2 seed three times, a No. 3 seed four times, and a No. 4 seed once. No lower seed than that have won the NBA playoffs. To win an NBA ring, a team must win sixteen games. No other playoff system is as rigorous.
It is fair to say that the “best” teams more often win the NBA playoffs than in any other system I’ve looked at. But the result of that rigor is that the playoffs offer very little drama, especially in that first round. Lower seeded teams rarely win. It would almost be easier to eliminate the seeds five through eight, and eliminate an entire round of the NBA playoffs.
In this series, we have looked at four different playoff systems, with four different results and four different strengths. Nothing in sports can compare to the first weekend of the NCAA playoffs, nor can any night compare to the Super Bowl. But the winner of the NBA Finals can rest knowing that their system rewarded those teams that survived the 82 game stretch at the top. Perhaps the best, in my opinion, is the MLB system, which one can accurately argue often rewards the top teams, while giving those wild card teams you cannot help but root for a legitimate chance to pop the champagne at the end of October.
This exercise was never meant to pick the right way to do the playoffs, only to examine how we choose winners, and put a lens up to our assumptions about the results of those choices. Perhaps one day, we’ll look at European football, which has three separate ways of accumulating trophies, and decide that they’ve figured out how to have their cake and eat it to. Until then, I will continue to appreciate the different ways we crown champions in this country. The NFL began recently, the NBA is but a month away, college basketball is heating up, and the Fall Classic is just around the corner. What system do you prefer?