As the NBA playoffs approach, there are some teams that are pushing for the top seed and others that are resting up for the postseason. In the process I've heard a number of analysts suggest that seeding isn't important. I wanted to see if that was true.
Let's assume that teams that are hosting a first-round series aren't content to play into the second round. Their goal is to win it all. Even in Oklahoma City, they aren't getting themselves psyched up right now to get to the Western Conference finals. Now, the fans might be delighted with that, but that's not what the goal is.
I went back to 1980 to look for the answer to four questions. First, how often did a No. 1 seed win and what other seeds have won. Second, how many teams won road series in order to win the championship. Third, if the No. 1 overall did not win, did the team that beat them win. Finally, what was the record of the road team in the NBA Finals.
In the 31 years since the 1980 season, the NBA championship has been won by one of the two No. 1 seeds 22 times, or 71 percent of the time. Of those, it has been won by the No. 1 overall team 15 times, or 48 percent.
In the other nine Finals, five were won by a two seed, three by a three seed and only one team has won with lower than a three seed. That distinction goes to the 1995 Houston Rockets, who won with a six seed.
What's intriguing, though, is that of the nine times a first seed did not win, six of those champions came in a seven-year stretch from 2001-2007. However, the last three seasons the championship has been won by a first seed. So was that six-in-seven-year stretch an anomaly or a change in history?
It's interesting that five of those six teams included either Shaquille O'Neal or Tim Duncan, though. In fact, of the nine seeds who won without a one seed, only two, the 2004 Pistons and the 1994 Rockets, won an NBA championship without one of their two most important players having won a previous championship.
The 2006 Heat had the advantage of Shaquille O'Neal's experience. The other six teams had an entire core nucleus which had won the championship before.
WINNING ON THE ROAD
The logic of not needing the seeding is usually qualified with the explanation, "They're a team that can win on the road anyway. They just need to win one game on the road."
That's not really true. They don't need to win one on the road. They need to win one more game on the road than their opponent does, and the deeper you go the more likely it is the other team knows how to win on the road too.
Of the 31 NBA champions, 20 of them never had to win a road series to win it all. In one instance that was a two seed, the 1994 Houston Rockets (which makes one team a two-time anomaly).
Of the other 11 champions, six teams had to win one series on the road. On two occasions that was a one-versus-one matchup in the Finals. In only three of those occasions was the road series the team won the NBA Finals.
Three teams have won two road series to win the ring. The 2004 Pistons won three road series, and only the 1995 Rockets won all four of their series on the road to get it all.
BEATING THE TOP OVERALL SEED
This raised up an interesting question for me. If the team that won was not the top overall seed, how often did the team that beat the overall top seed actually win? I wanted to see if the process of beating the top seed wore the winning team out, thereby giving another team the benefit of not having to beat the top seed.
In all, there have been 16 times where the overall seed did not win the championship. Of those 16 times, nine times the team that beat them won the NBA Finals. However, four times that occurred in the NBA Finals.
When a team upsets the No. 1 overall seed and then goes on to play one or more series, they have won the championship six of 12 times. On three of those occasions the team that beat the top seed then hosted the NBA championship. Beating the top team and then following that up with another road series win is very rare.
HOME COURT IN THE FINALS
Over the last 31 years the team with the home-court advantage in the finals is 24-7, winning 77 percent of the time. That's pretty cut and dry, and there's not a not much to add to that. Home court in the Finals is pretty important. That's why the Celtics didn't prove last year that "home court is not important" as some have argued.
In fact, the Celtics feel that if they had the first seed they would have the championship last year. Home court matters. It's not impossible to win the Finals without the advantage, but it helps more than a little.
WHAT THIS MEANS
First, it means that the No. 1 seed, at least in the Eastern Conference, and even the No. 1 overall seed is more important to the Chicago Bulls than anyone else. If they have any chance at all, they need to get the home-court advantage.
It also means that Heat probably need to get the two seed if they are going to advance. To their benefit though, they have one of the few players on the planet who has won three straight road series to win a ring. However, their core hasn't been together as long as the Celtics, so the two seed is more important to them.
How important is seeding in the NBA playoffs?
Because the Celtics have won before, they are probably the only team with a realistic chance to win it all if they get the three seed, although you could make an argument for the Heat.
In the Western Conference, both the Lakers and the Spurs have won together with their core, so the top seed is not as important as it is to the Bulls, but it sure wouldn't hurt—especially because it might come down to facing the other and thereby facing another core that has won it together.
Apart from that, there's little chance of anyone else in the Western Conference winning it all. It is just hard to see either Oklahoma City or Dallas winning consecutive series on the road against Los Angeles, San Antonio and whoever comes out of the East, all on the road.
While there are always exceptions to history, it's better to have history on your side. This season we'll see if it repeats itself or if new history gets written.