The NBA’s New Era of Playoff Parity

One of my favorite historical NBA facts is that only one team that finished below fourth place in its conference, the 1995 Houston Rockets, went on to win the NBA Finals. That's almost eight decades of evidence that only good-to-great regular-season teams win championships in the NBA.

We might have to put that notion to bed this year and in the coming years. The NBA playoffs could be trending more in the direction of their NFL, MLB, and NHL counterparts. Sure, the best regular-season teams will be likelier to win championships and make the Finals, but a 7- or 8-seed team is no longer the early round fodder they once were.

As of writing time, the second round is past its theoretical midpoint, and the two series with a 3-1 series score have a 7-seed and an 8-seed on the doorstep of the conference finals. With each series having played four games as of May 9, it feels like a stretch to say that all eight teams still have a legitimate shot at the title with how poor the Knicks have been on offense, but 7 of 8 probably do.

This second round, featuring the Lakers and Heat continuing to run circles around their regular-season standard of play, comes on the heels of a first round where every seed — 1 through 8 — won a series across both conferences. I love to look at NBA title odds throughout the season for this column, and by this point in the playoffs, there's usually a clear hierarchy, especially if a team has a commanding lead on another in a series.

On Tuesday morning according to FanDuel, Miami — with one foot in the door of the conference finals — has the same title odds as Golden State, who is on the verge of getting ousted by a deep and locked-in Lakers team that's been getting to the free throw line at will. And those Lakers are now technically Western Conference favorites, which might change by the time you read this, should Denver win Game 5 at home against Phoenix.

Could these playoffs be just a one-year blip? Of course, and we could still get the Celtics/Nuggets Finals that the seedings would indicate. But I'm not betting on it due to load management.

In the past 10 years, dating back to Gregg Popovich resting his best players for a nationally-televised Thursday night game early in the 2012-13 season and getting fined, players sitting out regular season games for conditioning or to nurse injuries has gone from being a quirk to something that has undoubtedly affected the standings due to its frequency.

To me, the solution has been and will always be cutting the regular season down to about 66-72 games and eliminating back-to-backs entirely. Neither the owners nor the players seem to have the appetite to take a TV money hit, so it looks like we'll have load management during an 82-game season around for a while.

There could be some benefits to that arrangement. The playoffs have been excellent so far, featuring enjoyable clashes in styles, superb playmaking and shotmaking by the best players, and more balance between offense and defense than the regular season offered.

But is the promise of great playoff basketball worth the possibility of no longer seeing all-time great teams that win 60+ games from October to April? For some people, the answer is yes. I'm not so sure.

In general, one of the biggest reasons why I watch a decent amount of basketball during the regular season compared to hockey or baseball is because I can be relatively sure that the best teams by record are still going to be there deep into the playoffs. If teams now know that they can find playoff success while treading water in the standings or shifting their rotations through trades, fans like myself may just wait until deep into the season to watch games every night.

Comments and Conversation

May 15, 2023

Anthony Brancato:

Maybe if the NBA re-seeded after the first round, it would become more difficult for lower-seeded teams to make deep playoff runs - and the incentive for a team battling for a fifth or a sixth seed to tank games to avoid playing the 1 seed until the conference finals should be eliminated.

The bottom line is that re-seeding would make the regular season that much more meaningful.

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