NBA Playoffs: Top 5 Biggest Misconceptions About the Postseason
Perhaps it's because of our statistics-oriented sports culture that there is an ongoing perception in some circles that there is a specific way to predict the outcome of the postseason simply by looking at a few patterns.
If the team is playing well over the course of several games prior to the playoffs, it will advance. If a team has playoff experience or championship experience, then it is the team to beat. If a team has slumped in the final weeks leading up to the playoffs, that team is in for an early exit. If a team is making a playoff appearance as the top scoring team in the conference, it is dangerous.
NBA playoff analysis is a fairly predictable science. It is largely based on assertions according to recent trends in the playoffs and regular season, rather than gauging other variables that come into play.
This is the list of the five most oft-cited, though often bogus, claims in assessing the odds of a team's success in the postseason.
The Conference's Top Seed Is the Conference's Best Team
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Going into the playoffs, most analysts look at regular-season record to judge the ability of a team to advance to the finals and win.
If they have managed to secure the top seed in the conference, many analysts mistakenly surmise that they have the inside track to advance to the NBA Finals. After all, if they have won this many games in the regular season and will host every playoff series leading up to the NBA Finals, surely they will continue their winning ways in the postseason.
However, recent NBA history has shown that working hard to secure home-court advantage in the playoffs does not guarantee postseason success, even for championship-tested veteran teams.
For example, look at 2006. The Detroit Pistons and the San Antonio Spurs were a year removed from their epic seven-game war in the NBA Finals the previous year and both teams came into the next season on a mission. The Spurs won 63 games (securing the top seed in the West and home-court advantage throughout the West playoffs) and the Pistons won 64 (securing home-court advantage throughout the NBA playoffs).
Every prognosticator was predicting both teams would repeat the previous year's finals. They were experienced, they were deep and they had each won a title in the last two years. It was an easy championship prediction. But it didn't happen. The Spurs lost in the second round to the Mavericks and the Pistons fell to the Heat in the conference finals.
Being the top-seeded team is an accomplishment, but other than the Lakers (which have advanced to the finals as the top seed every time in the Kobe Bryant era), holding the No. 1 seed offers no guarantees of postseason success.
Since 1999, the No. 1 seed in the East is only 4-7 in NBA Finals appearances that same year. The West has been better about holding onto home-court advantage, going 6-6 during that span, but that's mostly because the Lakers are 4-0 as the top seed since 1999 in finals appearances.
So why does a team play so well in the regular season and then struggle in the playoffs?
Part of it is style of play. The Phoenix Suns had several excellent regular seasons in the 2000s because their up-and-down brand of basketball would overwhelm some opponents in the regular season. But it did not translate well to the slower-paced format of NBA playoff basketball. They always lost to the Spurs, which thrived playing that style.
Other reasons are injuries and exhaustion. It can be extremely tiring to play well enough all season to win 64 games. The energy expended is enormous as many teams cannot maintain that pace in the regular season and playoffs.
Matchups are another factor. Dallas won 67 games in 2007, but there was one team they could not matchup with and that was the Warriors. If the Mavericks had faced the Kings or Clippers in the first round, maybe they get to the finals, but facing their worst possible matchup was deadly in the postseason.
Regular Season Matchups Predict the Outcome of Playoff Matchups
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Much is made going into the playoffs about regular-season series victories and how they prove the superiority of one team over another before these two teams play in the postseason.
This is a trap that analysts are forever falling into. They say: "Well, Team A won the regular-season series over Team B 4-0, plus Team A has home-court advantage. Obviously I'm going to pick Team A to win the series."
Not saying that this is the wrong method in all cases, but often times predicting the playoff victors is not that cut and dry.
For example, remember Michael Jordan's most famous shot? The one against Craig Ehlo and the Cleveland Cavaliers? Well, that shot actually won the series for the Bulls 3-2 in the first round. What many people don't remember about that series was the fact that the Cavs were the prohibitive favorite to win it.
Why? The regular season.
Perhaps fired up at the fact that the Bulls eliminated them in the 1988 playoffs, the Cavs won every game they played against the Bulls during the1989 regular season. That would be a 6-0 record against Chicago. Plus, the Cavs had home-court advantage in the first round. What analyst would pick against them in the playoffs?
But, of course, Jordan hit the shot to take the series and no one even remembers the regular-season matchups.
Regular season games are sometimes entertaining, but rarely offer real previews of what will occur in the playoffs, despite how logic may compel one to believe otherwise.
Teams can lose regular-season series for a number of reasons: injuries, back-to-back situations, three-games-in-four-nights situations, lack of motivation to win every game when the games are still not technically important, resting players, odd one-in-a-million-chance performances by an unlikely source (like a role player going off for 40 in a game) which will not likely be repeated.
Sometimes regular-season series wins repeat in the postseason, but not enough to call it an overwhelming trend.
Great Teams Win in the Postseason, Not Great Players
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Perhaps it's because we are force fed the idea of team play from as far back as our little league coaches that there is a belief that deep teams, rather than top-heavy teams, have the edge in the NBA playoffs.
We hear a lot about how Team X goes 10 players deep and therefore it has the edge over Team Y, which has three exceptional talents but role players inferior to those on team X.
"They are a better overall team," a writer might say. "That gives them the edge in a playoff series over a team that has a better top three, but a weaker supporting cast."
But is this true? Do benches matter that much in the playoffs? Well, I have not found this to be the case. In more cases than not, the team with the better top three will win over the team with the better fourth-through-10th players.
The reasons are simple:
1. Role players don't win playoff series. They can help win a playoff game here and there, but in almost all cases, stars win the series. Kobe and Gasol for the Lakers; Pierce, Garnett, Rondo and Allen for the Celtics, etc. The winners of the series will generally be the team whose starting lineup plays the best and most consistently in the series.
2. Lineups are different in the playoffs and that favors top-heavy squads. If you have three or four solid players, the playoffs are right up your alley. You will have an edge over a 10-man squad because most of that depth will be relegated to less playing time or left off the playoff roster altogether in the postseason.
3. One or two-man teams will almost always be beaten in the playoffs. Why? Because defenses will invariably get tougher as these teams advance in the postseason and defenses will devise strategies to shut down these one or two players. Teams need at least three solid options offensively in order to be successful in the postseason, which is why we've seen so many title winners be configured like the big three.
As were the cases of LeBron James' Cavs teams and Dirk Nowitzki's Mavs squads, defenses will prepare to neutralize that one exceptional talent and force role players to win the series. Most of the time, that is an impossibility.
A Team's Success Will Be Determined Based on How They Play in Early Rounds
Two teams are set to tip it off in a hotly-debated second round matchup. One team just endured a tough seven-game war in the first round and appears to be running on fumes. The other team coasted in the first round, sweeping their opponent, and appears to be playing the best basketball.
So which team wins the series?
Obviously, home-court advantage and matchups are considerations, but oftentimes critics will look at the play in the early rounds of the playoffs and assume that the team that is playing the best will win the series. This is true in some cases, but not in all.
In the 2008 NBA playoffs, most analysts thought that the Lakers had a decided advantage over Boston in the NBA Finals. This belief came from how tough Boston's road to the finals was compared to that of the Lakers
Boston went the full seven games against their first two playoff opponents (Hawks and Cavs) before winning the conference finals in six. This caused many sports writers to question just how good this Celtics team was. The theory was: "If they couldn't breeze through the Hawks, how are they going to win against the team playing the best basketball in the NBA?"
Meanwhile, the Lakers were on fire. They blew by their first three playoff opponents 12-3 and looked to be on an unstoppable roll. But despite the early struggles, Boston overcame the Lakers momentum and won in six.
One of the reasons that sports writers constantly make this mistake is that they never take into account the advantages of losing early in the playoffs. That prepares teams to battle adversity and become tougher through it. Losses can build strength, while wins can sometimes create complacency.
Remember the 2004 Pistons? They didn't just roll to the title. They faced elimination twice in the second round and needed to win a tough Game 2 in Indiana just to get to the finals. That adversity made them a better team, just like the early struggles in 2008 made the Celtics a better team.
There Is a Specific Formula That All Title Teams Have That Will Lead to a Title
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Sports writers love to buy into the theory that there is a magic bullet or pattern that all title teams have to virtually ensure a title.
They like to say things like: "This team has consistent low-post scoring so they will win." Or: "That team has won more games against plus-.500 teams, so they will excel in the postseason."
Most of the time these theories are bunk. There generally are no specific attributes to all championship-winning teams with the exception of playing great defense and having at least three exceptional players on the roster. True, the 2004 Pistons won without the latter, but don't forget that Rip Hamilton, Chauncey Billups and Ben Wallace were All-Stars in subsequent years, so it's not like they were just mediocre players.
The bottom line is that all of the stats that the sports writers throw out are ultimately meaningless in the postseason. There is no set pattern that all title teams follow and no amount of statistical quoting will answer the question of who will win in the playoffs, because if they did, writers wouldn't have to change their picks every few weeks.
The things that seem to actually impact a team's postseason success appear to be:
Having multiple elite players
The team with at least four of the proceeding (especially defense) will have a solid chance in the postseason. But there are no absolutes.