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Jun 17

The Mathletics Behind Playoff Upsets, Part 2

NBA: Great Odds for the Higher Seeds, Slim Odds for the Rest
Outside of the NFL, with its history so greatly told through NFL Films, the NBA may be the best-known sport for its titanic clashes. Anytime a Celtics-Lakers battle occurs in the NBA Finals, the nostalgia immediately takes over the league. Meanwhile, the league consistently sees the conference finals feature four of the best teams in the league. Rarely do the lower seeds upset their way to the conference finals and beyond. Instead, the higher seeds normally advance deep into the playoffs.

Applying the game into the context of the six factors, we get the following results:

  • Value of score: either one point (free throw), two points (field goal) or three points (field goal)
  • Frequency of scoring: normally between 90-110 points per game per team since implementing the three-point shot
  • Amount of work: very low (teams get into their scoring half on almost every possession)
  • Opportunities: normally between 80-90 field goal attempts per game since implementing the three-point shot
  • Parity within postseason: low to moderate (16 of 30 teams make the playoffs; superstars are limited to a few teams)
  • Games per round: seven in each round

These factors definitely show why upsets are so infrequent in the NBA postseason. Each team attempts enough field goals to have the opportunity to win with the “normal” effort. Better yet, each team scores enough points on these opportunities. for the “better team” to achieve the “normal” advantage. Rarely will a team be outplayed, yet sneak out a victory.

Ultimately, it comes down the high number of possessions allowing each team to generally achieve their normal rates for scoring, rebounding and defending. Add in the Best-of-7 format for each round, and the higher seeds have an ever greater margin for dominance. Finally, in a league where superstars and large markets dominate the scene over the smaller fish in the playoffs, the end result becomes strikingly apparent. Conclusion: The NBA playoffs clearly provide the conditions best suited for the favorites to win postseason series, save for the rare exceptions.

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