COMMENTARY | For all the Thunder backers in Oklahoma City, the Knick-revival lovers in the Big Apple and the Spurs’ fans down in San Antonio, I come bearing bad news.
Don’t count on your respective teams beating the Miami Heat in the upcoming NBA playoffs.
In fact, the likelihood of LeBron James & Co. hoisting another Larry O’Brien Trophy after all is said and done this June is a near-certainty.
History says so.
Have your doubts? Aren’t buying it? Refuse to believe it?
Check out the following and see if it doesn’t sway any perceptions:
Top seeds carry more weight in the NBA
Anyone who’s seriously followed sports longer than Twitter has been around knows that posting the best regular-season record in a league or earning a conference’s top playoff seed guarantees very little in the playoffs.
In fact, over the past five years, the 22 teams entering the postseason owning or sharing the top regular-season winning percentages in each of the four major U.S. professional sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL) have won a collective three championships. Yes, the 2007-08 Boston Celtics, the ’07-08 Detroit Red Wings and the 2009 New York Yankees have been the only regular-season “champions” to go on and prove their “titles” in the playoffs since 2008.
In the meantime, we’ve seen an eighth seed capture the Stanley Cup (last year’s Los Angeles Kings), a No. 6 seed (the 2010 Green Bay Packers) and two No. 4 seeds (the 2012 Baltimore Ravens and 2011 New York Giants) win the Super Bowl and a fourth-place, wild-card team (the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals) come on top in the World Series
So how, exactly, does all this rate as an argument in favor of the Heat, who long ago locked up the Eastern Conference’s top seed and secured home-court advantage throughout the NBA playoffs?
Glad you asked.
To put it simply, the best regular-season records and No. 1 seeds hold up better in the NBA than in any other of the major sports.
Combing through the past 25 seasons in each of the four top leagues, the NBA has had more teams posting the top regular-season record (10) go on to win championships than the NHL (seven), NFL (six) and MLB (only four). There have also been more NBA No. 1 seeds (25) reaching the championship round over that same quarter-century span than the NFL (23), MLB (20) and NHL (16).
And that’s been accomplished with NBA teams having to navigate more rounds and a more crowded postseason field (16 squads per season). Sure, the NHL has the same 16-team playoff setup, but the NFL (12) and MLB (10) have fewer postseason obstacles for the top seeds to clear.
NBA playoff upsets not so plentiful
NBA postseason upsets are ingrained in our memories — particularly the 8-over-1 triumphs such as the upstart Golden State Warriors stunning the Dallas Mavericks in 2007, the Knicks knocking off the top-seeded Heat in ’99 en route to the NBA Finals and the Denver Nuggets taking out the title-favorite Seattle SuperSonics in ’94 — likely because they’re so, well, memorable.
But they’re chiefly so memorable because they don’t happen too often.
Poring over postseason results from each of the four predominant leagues over the past five seasons, I counted only 17 “upsets” — lower seeds defeating higher seeds, most often away from home or without a home-court advantage — out of 75 NBA series.
Sparing you the quick math, that’s only 22.7 percent of all NBA playoff series results qualifying as upsets over the past five seasons.
In the other three leagues over that same span, the percentages all are more than 40 percent with the NHL leading the way at 44 percent (33 of 75) , followed closely by the NFL at 43.6 percent (24 of 55) and the MLB at 40.5 percent (15 of 37).
That’s more good news for the 2012-13 Heat.
Dominant NBA regular-season teams don’t often falter
The Heat didn’t just earn the No. 1 seed in the East this season – they dominated the conference, finishing 66-16 and a full dozen games ahead of the second-place Knicks (52-28). That 12-game margin between Miami and New York matches the 2005-06 Detroit Pistons and the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls for the largest conference-winning gap in the past 37 seasons.
But was does that portend for the playoffs?
Well, of the past 13 NBA squads which won their respective conferences by eight or more games — dating back through the 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers — 11 have gone on to win it all that season.
The two teams which came up short are the aforementioned 2005-06 Pistons, who fell to the eventual-champion Heat in the Eastern finals, and the 1985-86 Lakers, who lost to the Celtics in the NBA Finals. By the way, those ’85-86 Celtics also won the East that season by 10 games, making for the only season in this span where two dominant squads ruled each conference.
In short, dominating a conference is sure-fire trait of an NBA champion — the strongest indicator yet that a repeat title feat is most likely in store for this year’s Heat.
Ken Pomponio has spent the past 25 years as a sports journalist who has been published extensively in print and online. He can be found on Twitter @kenpomp.