The Predictability of the NBA Playoffs

The perception going into the 2018 NBA Playoffs was that the field was more open than in recent years and that the usual contenders would be far from a sure bet to reach the later rounds. In the East, the Cleveland Cavaliers were being carried by LeBron James to a modest 4-seed and the two best players on the Boston Celtics were out for the year. In the West, the Houston Rockets were surging, but with little playoff success on their roster and the Golden State Warriors were without Stephen Curry, who had dealt with a myriad of injuries for the duration of the season.

One month after the open field narratives took over, the James-led Cavaliers, 2017 Eastern Conference Finals participant Celtics, super-team Warriors, and top-seeded Rockets found themselves back in the NBA’s final four. Each of those teams got by their second round opponents in five games or less.

This continues a trend of predictability that the league has been watching grow ever since James decided to take his talents to the Miami Heat in 2010. Since then, his teams have appeared in the NBA Finals each year. And with Kevin Durant’s free agent decision to team up with a stacked Golden State squad in 2016, the Warriors have been a sure thing in the Finals each year.

These matchups were likely picked by many reporters and fans entering the NBA season in November. Vegas’ odds show that all four remaining teams were the four favorites to win the title in the preseason, with the Rockets being tied with the San Antonio Spurs. Before the 2016-2017 season, Vegas accurately predicted that the Warriors, Celtics, Cavaliers, and Spurs would be the last teams standing.

In comparison, other professional leagues in the U.S., such as the NFL, allow for much more parity and less predictability. Where the NBA has seen multiple dynasties or perennial franchises in the later rounds of its playoffs, the NFL typically sees different teams enter the conference championships and Super Bowls over the years. Before the 2017-2018 NFL season kicked off, the New England Patriots, the only true mainstay in the later rounds of the playoffs, were the Vegas favorites to take the title. The eventual champions, the Philadelphia Eagles, were tied for the 16th-best odds.

Two years ago, the Cavs came back against the record 73-9 Warriors from 3-1 down in the NBA Finals to win their first championship. This was an undeniable upset, but it came in the middle of three consecutive Finals involving the two teams. With the exception of a few competitive series, they have dominated their respective conferences with relative ease. The disparity only grew when Cleveland came out on top as Durant subsequently decided to join forces with the likes of Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.

This season was supposed to be the year where the two behemoths, the Cavaliers and Warriors, were to be overthrown from their respective conference thrones after the past three years of dominance. The Toronto Raptors emerged from the East as the first-place team and a supposed contender to James and company. In the West, the Rockets also barreled into the playoffs with the first seed and an inevitable date with Golden State in the conference finals. The Raptors were promptly swept by the Cavaliers in the second round while the Rockets made the conference finals and are tied 1-2 in the Western Conference finals. Before the playoffs, many writers, such as USA Today’s Sam Amick and Jeff Zillgitt, put their faith in the Raptors and Rockets to finally change the three year pattern.

Harvard Sports Analysts explored the relationship between preseason odds and the actual results from 2009-2016 when it comes to the major sports leagues across the globe, including the four major American sports as well as soccer’s Premier League and La Liga. The NBA does, in fact, have the least amount of parity over that span of time while the NHL, MLB, and NFL display a much more even playing field, according to the “Gini Coefficient,” the metric that the website uses.

However, the NBA’s rising popularity should not go unnoticed. The league has engaged audiences on several platforms, especially on social media platforms like Twitter. Fan conversations mostly deal with the accolades of individual players instead of teams, but endless debates take place about James being the greatest of all time, Ben Simmons being a rookie and the Durant’s sudden move two years ago.

So, the obvious conclusion would be that if the NBA’s formula is not broken, then do not fix it. If the already unsurprising outcomes in the NBA Playoffs are not pushing viewers away, then why mess with success and come up with solutions like a new salary cap? Would creating more parity run the risk of actually losing viewers instead of enticing more of them?

Because the focus is already on the individual, the NBA should not have to worry about a cut in viewership. A league that sees more contenders and less favorites would increase the quality of the game without sacrificing the drama that takes place with and between the players. Although the NCAA Tournament in college basketball does not attract as many viewers as the NBA Playoffs, it has been constantly lauded for its tendency to produce “Cinderella” teams that go farther in the playoff than most people predict them to. A combination of both a focus on the players and an unpredictable nature that keeps fans on the edge of their seats would only help the NBA.

The only glimpse of a meaningful upset in these NBA Playoffs came almost a month after the tournament began as the depleted Celtics took a 2-0 lead on the Cavaliers on Tuesday night. Aside from the countless followers of James, this appears to be a welcome change among the NBA community.

The standpoint of the fans is equally if not more important than the opinions of experts in judging how well a league is doing. I asked 20 random students at the Pirates Cove at Seton Hall University what their general thoughts were on the NBA and the teams that participate in the later rounds of the playoffs each year. Out of them, 15 said they were NBA fans, while two said they disliked the league. Out of all of the participants, 14 acknowledged the repetitiveness that occurs in the NBA Playoffs.

“I prefer watching the NBA because of the level of play,” said Seton Hall senior Nick Serafini. “NBA players are way above any other level in the world so it doesn’t bother me as much that the same teams might be in the Finals every year. March Madness is fun but the quality of play isn’t as entertaining.”

The question becomes whether or not the NBA executives see this as a big enough issue or if they view it as an issue at all. Is the sense of predictability that the league gives off to its viewers a problem if the viewership and engagement is peaking? That is for them to decide, but the disparity that we currently see consistently ends with familiar faces in the later rounds of the playoffs. The motivation for fans will likely grow thin when the league’s final four teams are decided long before the end of the regular season.