The first round of the NBA playoffs completed this past weekend. We had some surprises along the way, with sixth seeded New Orleans sweeping the number three seed in Portland, as well as seventh seeded Milwaukee nearly upsetting Boston. Cleveland and Indiana also went to a crucial Game 7, and these three series have been a joy to watch.
It reminds me of other great first round moments, like in 1994, when the eighth seed Denver Nuggets upset the Seattle Supersonics, becoming the first team to do so in NBA Playoff history. Or how about 2007, when the eighth seed Golden State Warriors stunned the 67-15 Dallas Mavericks, becoming the first eighth seed to do so in a seven game series? Boston vs. Chicago in 2009 was also great, setting records for most games requiring overtime (4) and periods played (7). We could even go back to 1989, as Michael Jordan hung in the air longer than his defender Craig Ehlo of the Cleveland Cavaliers, to hit the game and series clinching buzzer beater. All great and unforgettable moments.
And as great as all of those moments were, I’m here to tell you that the first round of the NBA Playoffs is a big fat waste of time, no matter who comes out on top. In the end, it’s going to come down to one of four teams from each conference, just as it always does. One of the top four teams from the Western Conference will play one of the top four teams in the Eastern Conference (and if you’re looking for my picks, I’m calling #1 Houston vs. #3 Philly, with the Rockets claiming their third franchise championship).
I’ll give you an example: All of those moments I listed above? Each team went on to be eliminated in the second round of competition (except the Chicago Bulls because, well, Mike man…). Oh, you’re still not ready to let go of great first round moments in the NBA playoffs, so you need some more proof? Just look at the history of the Finals and who has actually gotten to compete for a championship (I will spare you all of the repeat Warriors vs. Cavaliers series, which have all been #1 vs. #1 or #2):
2014 – #1 San Antonio Spurs vs. #1 Miami Heat
2013 – #2 San Antonio Spurs vs. #1 Miami Heat
2012 – #2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. #2 Miami Heat
2011 – #3 Dallas Mavericks vs. #2 Miami Heat
2010 – #1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. #4 Boston Celtics
2009 – #1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. #3 Orlando Magic
2008 – #1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. #1 Boston Celtics
2007 – #3 San Antonio Spurs vs. #2 Cleveland Cavaliers
2006 – #4 Dallas Mavericks vs. #2 Miami Heat
2005 – #2 San Antonio Spurs vs. #2 Detroit Pistons
2004 – #2 Los Angeles Lakers vs. #3 Detroit Pistons
And on, and on, and on. In fact, the only times any team further than a fourth seed reached the Finals was 1999 when the eighth seeded NY Knicks defied the odds (during a 50 game lockout shortened season) in their Finals loss to the top seeded Spurs, and when the Houston Rockets did it twice. Once in 1981 losing to the the top seeded Boston Celtics, and again in 1995, winning the championship against the top seeded Orlando Magic. Both times Houston was a sixth seed (weird…).
So, it has happened. Three times in 67 seasons, a team seeded lower than four has reached the NBA Finals. And if you completely nullify anything that occurred during that joke of a season in 1999 (as everyone should), then it has really only happened twice. In 66 seasons! In fact, only eight times in the past 30 seasons has a one seed even failed to advance to the Conference Finals. Again, two of these occurred during lockout shortened seasons, so really, only six times (Not a coincidence strange things happen during these lockout seasons, so, let’s just continue to ignore them). And none of the six teams mentioned advanced any further after defeating the one seed. Proving this was more of a matchup issue than the truly better team moving on.
Not to mention that every season, there are definitely some stinker matchups we all could have done without. Warriors and Spurs was unwatchable, as was Houston and Minnesota. The Eastern Conference was a little better, but even Miami got rolled by the 76ers. And Toronto vs. Washington was boring if only for the fact that the Raptors should’ve stomped the Wizards out in less than six games (Casey, that sad first round effort really hurt me, since I picked you for COY).
So, the question becomes, do we really need to have a first round, if no team seeded lower than fourth hardly ever makes the Finals in the first place? And, we should all come the agreement that, yes, we do need a first round of the playoffs. I mean, the playoffs have to start somewhere (haha). My beef has become just how many teams the NBA allows to advance to the post-season. Eight per conference has become too many. The magic number that I have been harping on is four. We only need four teams from each conference to advance to the post-season.
Under the new playoff landscape, NBA Playoffs would start like this:
Western Conference Round 1
#1 Houston Rockets vs. #4 Oklahoma City Thunder
#2 Golden State Warriors vs. #3 Portland Trailblazers
Eastern Conference Round 1
#1 Toronto Raptors vs. #4 Cleveland Cavaliers
#2 Boston Celtics vs. #3 Philadelphia 76ers
So, in my new playoff atmosphere, the winners of the first round would advance right to the conference finals. Not exciting enough? Well, if I had my way, the first round of the playoffs would be best of five again (I like upsets). It’s a shame the NBA chose to do away with this format, as I feel this is what makes the college basketball tournament each March so exciting. One game elimination makes the chance for upsets that much greater. It’s why the Super Bowl is and always will be the grandest championship stage in sports. Best of five in the first round of the playoffs was the closest the NBA had to this (besides, of course, a crucial Game Seven).
This post-season, both Portland and Oklahoma City failed to advance to the second round. While all three of the remaining top four Eastern Conference teams were in danger of not advancing. Does this create a hole in my theory? Not really, because does anyone truly believe the five seed Utah Jazz or six seed New Orleans Pelicans will advance to the Finals? They would be lucky to even advance to the next round. So, no matter how much you may have enjoyed the first round of the NBA Playoffs, if history proves to be correct once again this post-season, the question remains: With the outcome all but predetermined, did we really need sixteen teams to determine the NBA Champion?
Sadly, no, we didn’t.
All stats were found, as always, at www.basketball-reference.com. For more of my post-season complaints, follow me on Twitter, @cleanupglass. This post was written with the absurd idea that the NBA actually cares more about the quality of their product, and less about the revenue that their league is generating. I understand why sixteen teams are in the playoffs ($$$), I just think it would be much more exciting if there were less. I also hear you thinking out loud, “OK Dan, eight playoff teams, so you want to send 22 teams down to the NBA Draft Lottery?” No, I don’t. I want to contract six teams from the league, and send 16 teams to the Lottery. More on that idea in the near future…