Ladies and Gentlemen,
Welcome back to Ramblings from a Talking Head, a sports blog that is acutely aware of the irrelevance of its banter on impacting the sports world at large. Despite that, however, I type to see myself published online as much as I sometimes talk to hear myself speak (every Monday thru Friday from 4-6pm on SEMO ESPN 92.9 FM, Saturdays from 9-10am on SEMO ESPN and any time you see me on the street), so here we go with another blog post! There was a lot of exciting sports news from across the spectrum over the Memorial Day weekend and even more opinions to be discussed concerning those results, but I want to take full advantage of the “Rambling” in this blog’s title by discussing one topic specifically in this week’s post. This week, I will be rambling on the NBA Playoffs and the commonality of playoff teams having winning percentages at or below 50 percent.
The NBA Playoffs have surged on and, outside of the Clippers’ implosion costing the team a 3-1 series lead and the Rockets victory over Golden State in Game 4 to stave off elimination (as of this writing), the playoffs have seen the teams expected to advance do so in convincing fashion. Cleveland completed their sweep over Atlanta last night with a 118-88 win, asserting once again that the team with LeBron on its roster is always the favorite to make the NBA Finals. Atlanta, as the number one seed and a team that had a winning record against the West this season (22-8), failed to dispel the thoughts of many fans concerning the West’s superiority over the lesser Eastern Conference with their paltry performance against James and the Cavaliers. The quick work made of the East’s top seed, as well as another year of the seventh and eighth seeds in the East having losing records (and the sixth seed sitting at .500), has again brought about the conversation concerning playoff reforms.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is maintaining a holding pattern on the topic, focusing his energy on flop prevention, potential draft restructures and sponsored jerseys, instead. I have no problem with this, especially in regards to the first two topics on that list in dire need of analysis and revision. NBA teams making the playoffs with a subpar record is not a recent trend, however; teams with records .500 or lower have made playoff appearances consistently since the NBA/ABA merger for the 1976-1977 season. The issue became more pronounced and expansive (no pun intended) after the playoff field was expanded (see?) to 16 teams for the 1983-1984 season, when that season’s bracket saw five teams make it to the playoffs with a regular season win percentage of .500 or less. In the 31 years since the NBA playoff field was expanded to 16 teams, 75 out of a possible 496 teams have made the playoffs with a .500 or below record. Those figures average out to 2.4 teams with such records making the playoffs each year, or 15.1 percent of playoff teams from 1984 to today.
I know that the majority of readers will call out the East’s run of subpar playoff teams since 2000, and I cannot refute those with the results and numbers that I have documented. Since the 1998-1999 strike-shortened season, all 25 of the playoff teams at or below .500 have been from the Eastern Conference. Five of those years, including four in a row (‘05-’06 thru ‘08-’09) saw three or more teams with an even or losing record. Many fans and analysts use these numbers to establish that the Eastern Conference is the lesser of the two conferences with a large gap. That analysis is, for all intents and purposes, correct; as a Bulls fan, I have watched my fair share of East matchups and many of them are subpar, at best. But to imply or directly state that this disparity is the worst in league history is short-sighted and ignores the NBA prior to the ‘98 strike.
I have given the number of teams at or below .500 to make the playoffs both since the 16-team expansion (75) and since the 1998-1999 strike season (25), which leaves 50 teams having made the playoffs with a subpar record between the 1983-84 and the 1998-99 season. The first five years of the expanded playoffs (‘83-’84 thru ‘87-’88) contained 23 teams with non-winning records. Furthermore, those years were not just filled with Eastern Conference ineptitude. Poor playoffs records were evenly distributed between both conferences during this period, so superiority was solely determined by the Finals, not just by the number of below-.500 teams in the conference playoffs. The first five years of playoff expansion saw the following spread of Eastern/Western playoff teams with subpar records:
1983-1984: 2 East, 3 West
1984-1985: 3 East, 3 West
1985-1986: 2 East, 3 West
1986-1987: 2 East, 2 West
1987-1988: 2 East, 1 West
The split between subpar East and West playoff participants continued until the ‘98-’99 strike, with the last three years preceding the strike having only Western Conference playoff teams (6 total) with non-winning records. It was only after the strike that the Eastern Conference began to take its current place as the lesser of the two conferences.
I’ve thrown out a lot of numbers (and have kept even more to myself, but I enjoy doing research, so it’s a win-win) in an effort to see if playoff reform is needed in the NBA and what approach may be the best way to fix the supposedly broken NBA postseason. My conclusion, however, is the East’s current plight with being the weaker conference is likely just a cycle that will play its way out as the years go on. I use “likely” both in an effort to not tout my thoughts as irrefutable evidence, as well as to leave a margin for error if this trend continues. If the Eastern Conference continues to have 3 teams in each postseason with subpar records for the next five to ten years, I may need to go back to the drawing board with my theory. The current state of the NBA has a few other problems to sort out, especially in the draft lottery format, before revamping the postseason becomes the main priority.
That’s all for this week rambling, I hope that this post have been informative and fun to read! Until next time, you can catch me on Twitter (@CodySandusky) and on the SEMO ESPN airwaves six days a week!
All statistics and season standings courtesy of basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted.