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Will the NBA’s Playoffs in a Bubble Finally Produce a Cinderella?

 

The NBA’s postseason has provided very few surprises over the years. All that could change given the unique circumstances in Orlando, and give us a title chase as we’ve never seen.

By: Peter Hirdt

With the NBA about to press “Reboot” for a brief resumption of the regular season in Florida, we could be on the cusp of playoffs unlike any other in our lifetimes—specifically, an NBA postseason characterized by unpredictability and upsets.

More than any other pro league in the U.S., the NBA playoffs have long tilted in favor of the very best teams. It’s been eight years since the last time a team with fewer than 50 regular-season wins reached the NBA Finals. The most recent was the champion Miami Heat (46–20) and runner-up Oklahoma City Thunder (47–19) in 2012. Neither was a Cinderella; both won their division. It’s been more than four decades since a team with a regular-season winning percentage below .550 – 45 wins over an 82-game season – won the NBA title. The last was Washington in 1978 (44–38, .536).

We aren’t discussing pros and cons here. Many fans love unpredictability. “On any given Sunday …” is the most quoted incomplete thought in sports because it succinctly articulates the NFL’s capacity for keeping us guessing and watching. The annual interest in March Madness is fueled by the unexpected success of colleges with a lesser pedigree than historical powerhouses like Duke, Kentucky and Kansas.

But fans also savor the excellence of great teams and the brilliance of great players, watching the Jordans and Jeters, the LeBrons and Bradys, the Messis and Messiers compete to win their sport’s ultimate crowns. We think most if not all fans appreciate both.

The lovable randomness of hockey, by which a single bad bounce of the puck can determine a game’s outcome, seduces fans of even mediocre teams to approach a single game or an entire playoff season with optimism. The same is true of soccer. But in the highest-scoring of all the major sports, a random lucky bounce of the basketball is often nothing more than that. And it’s rare indeed for players such as LeBron James or James Harden not to significantly impact the outcome of a game.

But in so many ways this year is different, and the NBA playoffs aren’t exempt. All games will be played on a neutral court in an empty arena in Orlando. Players were inactive for more than four months; some opted out of the reboot and others are sidelined by the novel coronavirus. They are isolated from family and friends.

It’s not our intention to minimize the challenges they’re facing, but the possibility of a wide-open postseason will be a fascinating storyline. Much of that has to do with the historical super-sized home-court advantage in the playoffs, which won’t be a factor inside the bubble.

To gain an appreciation for the disproportionate success of favored teams in the NBA playoffs, we looked at the postseasons of MLB and the NBA, NHL and NFL since 2000. On a series-by-series basis (which, of course, is the same as game-by-game in the NFL), these are the winning percentages of teams with the better regular-season record than their opponent: NBA–.784, NFL–.589, NHL–.574, MLB–.514.

That’s an incredibly wide spread: from MLB, where the better regular-season teams advanced in only a slight majority of series, to the NBA, in which the team with the higher regular-season winning percentage prevailed more than three-quarters of the time. As a result, 80% of the teams that reached the NBA conference finals since 2000 had one of the top two winning percentages in their conference. By contrast, the comparable figure for the NHL is 39%.

But there’s an interesting and relevant sub-trend: When you drill down to the game level, most of the separation between the leagues is attributable to a home-team advantage. The following figures correspond to those above, but they are based on which team won each game (not which team won the series): NBA–.635, NFL–.589, NHL–.532, MLB–.527. In other words, the team with the better regular-season record won 63% of NBA playoff games since 2000, but only 53% of MLB postseason games.

(Note: We excluded MLS throughout this analysis because the results of individual matches in two-game aggregate-goals series aren’t necessarily meaningful. Only the series totals matter.)

The leagues are relatively equal when only road games are considered. Regardless of the league, road teams with a better record than their host won 46–49% of the time. But the difference between leagues when the team with the better regular-season winning percentage played at home is massive. Note that when an NBA team hosted an inferior opponent—a scenario that won’t apply in this year’s neutral-site playoffs—it won more than three-quarters of the time:

Steve Hirdt, Stats Perform’s Sr. Director of Operations and Research, identifies four main components to a team’s advantage when playing at home: (1) no travel required, unlike its opponent; (2) familiarity with playing conditions; (3) crowd support; (4) tactical advantages that some sports or leagues—although not the NBA—confer on the home team (e.g., last line change in the NHL). None of those will apply inside the NBA’s bubble. And so the massive home-court advantage that superior teams have perennially enjoyed in the playoffs will disappear.

The absence of an outsized home-court advantage for already superior teams could be the great equalizer.  But as noted earlier it won’t be the only randomizing factor in this year’s playoffs. As the late basketball sage Al McGuire famously noted about college hoops, the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores. We think McGuire would have said the same about the NBA, and it’s reasonable to assume that many of the 2019–20 season’s top rookies will make a bigger impact in this virtual “second season”—maybe none more so than Zion Williamson, who didn’t debut until Jan. 22, missing the New Orleans Pelicans’ first 44 games.

Zion Williamson

The Pelicans posted an 11–9 record from the time of Williamson’s debut until the hiatus after going 17–27 prior to that. Zion ranked 16th in the league in scoring (23.6 PPG) and eighth in field-goal percentage (.589) during his seven weeks of activity.

But to reach the playoff tournament, New Orleans will have to pass the Memphis Grizzlies, who take a 3.5-game lead over the Pelicans into the eight “seeding games” and have a formidable rookie of their own in Ja Morant. Among the teams guaranteed a spot in the postseason, the Heat stand out in that they have two rookie starters. Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro could provide the club with a late-season upgrade.

Some teams will be impacted by players who have opted out of the resumption, such as Avery Bradley of the Western Conference-leading Los Angeles Lakers, Thabo Sefolosha of the Houston Rockets, and Trevor Ariza of the Portland Trail Blazers. In the Eastern Conference, the Washington Wizards will be missing two players as they fight for a playoff spot: Bradley Beal (shoulder injury) and Davis Bertans (opt-out). But that’s nothing compared to the Brooklyn Nets, who will be without what could have been a formidable starting five plus a solid sixth man: DeAndre Jordan, Spencer Dinwiddie and Taurean Prince tested positive for COVID-19, Wilson Chandler opted out, and Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant won’t return from injury.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James

That’s hardly a complete list. Domantas Sabonis (Pacers), Lou Williams (Clippers), Rajon Rondo (Lakers), and Eric Bledsoe (Bucks) are a few of the other players listed as either questionable or out when the season resumes.

Having said all that, there’s another possibility to consider, because at the time of the stoppage this wasn’t just any old NBA season. Prior to the pandemic, ­it appeared two superteams were on a collision course for a Finals showdown: the Milwaukee Bucks (53–12) and the Lakers (49–14). Despite the documented playoff success of the top teams, it’s been more than 20 years since the Finals were contested by two teams with winning percentages above .750. The last time that happened coincided with the Chicago Bulls’ second three-peat, when the Bulls and their opponents—the Seattle SuperSonics in 1996 and the Utah Jazz in 1997 and 1998—all won at least 62 regular-season games.

Do the Bucks and Lakers stand far enough above the rest of the league to overcome the randomness and upsets we expect in the bubble?  We’ll see.

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Research support provided by Jacob Jaffe and Chase Weight