Last night the Cavs destroyed the Hawks to complete an Eastern Conference finals sweep and punch their ticket to the NBA Finals. In some ways, the series was a perfect microcosm of the 2015 playoffs: plagued by injuries, not very close, and — let’s be honest — kind of boring.
Maybe we’re just spoiled after riding the high of last year’s postseason. But it’s still worth asking: Is it me, or do these playoffs objectively suck?
In the current format, a 16-team tournament featuring 15 best-of-seven series, the NBA playoffs contain a minimum of 60 games and a maximum of 105. Last year’s amazing playoffs not only featured five Game 7s but also included 89 total playoff games (5.9 games per series), which is tied with 2006 as the most ever. On the flip side, the 2007 playoffs represent the standard-bearer for boringness. That year saw LeBron James make his first trip to the Finals, but there were just 79 postseason games. The average series lasted just 5.3 games, and there was only one Game 7, which featured Carlos Boozer putting up 35 and 14 to lead the Jazz past the Rockets. Never forget, you guys.
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Just as some games are better than others and some series are more competitive than others, it follows that some playoff tournaments are simply better than others, and this year’s vintage tastes more like the 2007 — dry and bleak in color, with an austere opening followed by aromatic notes of barnyard on the finish. This is some Charles Shaw bullshit. Rajon Rondo saw it coming and got out while he could.
Total games played is hardly a complete metric, but it provides a basic summary of how close the playoffs have been. In fact, since the league adopted the current format 12 years ago, the playoffs have included at least 81 games in every year except that lousy tournament in 2007. With somewhere between five and 10 games left this season, there’s a good chance we won’t get to 81. In other words, these dudes are leaving a lot of talking horse commercials on the table.
There are more numbers to back up the feeling that the average 2015 NBA playoff series has been uninteresting. More than half started with one team winning the first three games, which is not only terrible from an entertainment perspective, but is also highly unusual. Teams have jumped out to a 3-0 lead eight times this postseason, which Elias says is the second-most in NBA history.1 The average 2015 series has been just 5.4 games long, and if the Dubs win tonight, both sets of conference finals will have been even shorter than that.
It happened nine times in 1989.
The Warriors and Rockets will tip off the 75th game of the 2015 playoffs tonight in Oakland. If the Warriors win and advance, we’ll add two more milestones of meh for this year’s tourney. It would be tied for the fewest pre-Finals playoff games since the league went to a best-of-seven format in the first round in 2003. It would also mean this year’s semifinals lasted only nine combined games, which is historically brief; dating back to 1970-71 (the first season this round was known as the conference finals), the fewest combined games in both conference finals is nine (1974 and 1986).
Is something broken here? The players certainly are. I’m all for underdog stories, but nobody sits on their couch at the beginning of a season and dreams of Matthew Dellavedova squaring off against Shelvin Mack in the Eastern Conference finals. We watch the NBA postseason to see John Wall, not Ramon Sessions. Sure, injuries happen, but it’s pretty rare that an All-NBA ballot and a postseason injury report would look this similar. Chris Paul, Wall, Mike Conley, Kevin Love, Pau Gasol, Kyrie Irving, Wes Matthews, Dwight Howard, Chandler Parsons … we’re going to need a bigger MASH unit. When key players like those I just listed go down, there’s a domino effect. Rotations are thrown out of whack (hi, Hawks), offensive sets lack the same spark (hi, Nick Calathes), defensive mismatches abound, and the healthy players are forced to take on a greater workload (hi, Bulls).
Last season’s playoffs sung because the best players on the best teams were playing their best basketball. This year, we got a couple of cool moments (“I called game”) and one series you could call a classic (Spurs-Clippers), and it happened in the first damn round. Rockets-Clippers was certainly interesting, but more because of the complete collapse of Los Angeles than any kind of sublime basketball. All season long, we anticipated the Western Conference playoffs like it was going to be a July 4 fireworks finale scored by the Boston Pops. It wound up being closer to a kid with a sparkler listening to “Uptown Funk” on a transistor radio.
Structurally, this is the exact same architecture that delivered the 2014 masterpiece. But it’s worth noting that, given the kind of massive conference imbalance we have now, the current system is vulnerable to boringness. As I and countless others have written, there are many reasons to simply put the teams with the top 16 records in the playoffs and seed it straight. The biggest reason? Entertainment.