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Long odds for low seeds in NBA playoffs

Posted by Andrew Mooney  March 25, 2013 12:19 AM

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After a rocky start to the season, the Celtics have clawed themselves solidly back into playoff position, currently sitting at seventh in the Eastern Conference. Standing pat at the trade deadline, the Celtics kept their core of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett together to attempt one more postseason run.

After last year’s gutty effort came up just a game short of the NBA Finals, we’ve seen that the Celtics can’t be totally ruled out of any playoff series. But gutty efforts can only take you so far in the playoffs. As history has proven, NBA basketball is a meritocracy, in which the teams ultimately crowned as champions are the ones that have demonstrated they deserve it during the regular season.

Below, I’ve graphed the seed number of each team to make the NBA Finals since the playoff field expanded to 16 teams in 1984.


Only two teams seeded lower than fourth have even made the Finals—the sixth-seeded Houston Rockets in 1995, led by Hakeem Olajuwon, and the eight-seed New York Knicks in the strike-shortened 1999 season. The vast majority of teams (81 percent) to play for the title have been the best or second best in their respective conferences in the regular season.

This is reflective of the fact that, in general, basketball is just a low variance sport. With 200 possessions—the average length of an NBA game—come 200 chances to score and a reduced role of random chance over that large of a sample. In the midst of March Madness, basketball may not seem like a sport in which things usually play out according to the script, but single-elimination scenarios introduce much more randomness. In addition, seeds mean much less than in the NBA, which has over twice as many games to sort out its postseason ratings of team quality. There’s a reason we don’t see low-seeded NBA teams competing for the title like we do in the NHL, for instance; eventually, true talent levels express themselves more reliably than in most other sports.

Despite how tough they’ve played Miami of late, I just don’t see the Celtics to repeating their near-run to the Finals of last season. It’s possible that they get back to the conference finals, but this team simply doesn’t have the firepower to compete with the Heat in a long series. I don’t take last year’s Miami-Boston series to be representative of what would happen if the two teams played out a best-of-seven series 10 or 100 times—and there’s no reason to believe this Celtics team has made up any ground on the Heat from last year, let alone the rest of the Eastern Conference. It may be quite some time before Boston sees basketball in June again.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Stats Driven is powered by David Sabino, who over the last two decades has been a source of statistical analysis on the pages of Sports Illustrated, New York Times, and Chicago Tribune. David has written about all seven recent Boston-area championships for Sports Illustrated Presents commemorative issues, was the creator of such long time features as SI’s Player Value Ranking, NBA Player Rating and long running fantasy football and baseball columns.

He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrated’s 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.

Now living in Marblehead, he’s focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.

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