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Sure Thing

The outcome of the NBA playoffs is all but a foregone conclusion even before the first ball has bounced. So why do people keep watching?

Author Paul Flannery Illustration Michael Byers


FOR A BASKETBALL FAN, there’s nothing better than the NBA playoffs. The games are filled with subtle adjustments and strategic decisions; for those who love a good narrative arc, it’s a time when reputations are made and legacies are enshrined or forever tarnished.

And yet for all the buildup, the outcome is fairly easy to predict. Consider that since the 2000 season, only one team has advanced to the NBA Finals with a record that wasn’t among the top three in their conference: the 2010 Celtics. Just two years after winning a championship, the Celtics had sacrificed regular-season success by resting their older stars, which made their postseason run less of a fluke than a strategy.

Upsets of the David-vs.-Goliath variety are extremely rare, and we have a pretty good idea even before the playoffs begin which teams are in serious contention. On March 1, Basketball-Reference.com listed three teams—Miami, San Antonio and Oklahoma City—with a 20 percent chance or better of winning the championship, based on a predictive model that runs a thousand simulations every day during the season.

That was no surprise, as those three teams had topped the standings since the early part of the season. What was surprising? The next closest competitor, the Los Angeles Clippers, was given a mere 8.9 percent chance, and no other team had as much as a 4 percent chance of winning the title. (By the time you read this, those predictions almost certainly will have been proven correct, barring debilitating injuries to key players.)

Of course, it’s theoretically possible that an underdog team could win the championship—it would just require a lot of luck. To do so they would have to beat odds stacked heavily in favor of teams with superstar players, and overcome the daunting task of winning playoff games on the road.
Before last season, LeBron James was derided as a mercenary in pursuit of a ring, someone who lacked the mental toughness needed to carry his team to the promised land. Now that he’s won a championship, he’s rightfully hailed as one of the all-time greats, a visionary player whose unselfish nature helped the star-studded Miami Heat capture the first of what should be several titles with him. In sports, as the saying goes, you’re only as good as your last victory.

Before the LeBron Era, there were superstars Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan, who traded titles throughout the 2000s while playing for the L.A. Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs, respectively. In winning five championships, Bryant forged his reputation as the ultimate closer and the nearest reincarnation of Michael Jordan, who won six times with the Chicago Bulls. Jordan himself took the mantle from Magic Johnson, who wrested it from Larry Bird. And so on.

Sportswriters love to weave Homeric tales of struggle and redemption around these kinds of players, whose influence on the sport is in fact much more prosaic. Basketball is a game of matchups. Once an advantage is found, a good team will exploit it relentlessly, running the same play again and again until the opponent finds a way to counter it. When in doubt, clear it out and let the best player try to beat his man.

It stands to reason that the team with the top athlete has an inherent edge, and history bears this out: Only nine teams have won championships since 1980, and just one franchise during that period, the Detroit Pistons, did it without a former, current or future MVP on the roster. Yet Detroit still had top-notch talent—most notably Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, who helped them win back-to-back titles in the late 1980s. (And when the Pistons won the championship again, in 2004, it was with a team featuring four current or future All-Stars.)

There are only so many superstars to go around, and teams without one are doomed to bide their time on what’s known around the league as the “treadmill of mediocrity.” If that sounds bleak, well, it is, but it’s also just the way it is. Sorry, Milwaukee.
Even for teams with a superstar, the process of winning an NBA championship takes players and coaches to their breaking point, both physically and mentally. They must survive an 82-game regular season that lasts almost half a year. And that’s just the prelude to a postseason trek that includes four rounds of best-of-seven-game series featuring over half the teams in the league.

The sole purpose of the regular season is to win as many games as possible and thus secure the home court advantage in the playoffs, where home teams win about two-thirds of the time. There are several theories about why home turf conveys such an advantage—players are more comfortable in their own arena, they’re better rested, the home crowd provides energy for its heroes in their time of need—but there are other, slightly more troubling factors involved, too. In their book Scorecasting, L. Jon Wertheim and Tobias J. Moskowitz found that referees across all sports were influenced to make calls favoring the home team. The writers theorized that this had less to do with bias than with the subconscious desire to please a mass audience—in this case, rabid hometown fans.

Whatever the reason, the benefits are very real. In the 75 playoff series held during the past five years, the home team won 76 percent of the time. What’s more, the majority of the “upsets” occurred between teams with nearly identical seeds (4 versus 5 and 2 versus 3, especially).

That leaves just a handful of bona fide stunners—and most of those were influenced by an injury to a key player, the sports world’s one true equalizer. After reigning MVP Derrick Rose tore his ACL at the end of the regular season last year, for instance, the top-seeded Bulls lost to the underwhelming Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the playoffs. Of course, Philly would find their unexpected success difficult to sustain, and much like other Cinderellas who came before them, they didn’t make it out of the next round.

So why would anyone watch the playoffs when the outcome seems all but certain? No reality show can match sports for unscripted drama—each game is a pulp novel, with heroes, villains and plot twists galore. The possibility of surprise, no matter how small, sustains us through the early rounds and right up to the grand conclusion. But we shouldn’t be shocked when the story turns out pretty much the way we thought it would.

PAUL FLANNERY lives in Cambridge, Mass., where he watches way too much basketball and writes about it for the website SB Nation.

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