Spoiler alert: The NBA playoffs are underway and you can pretty much book an appointment in the Finals for the teams that finished at the top of the regular-season standings. Eighty-two games don’t lie. Sorry to give away the ending, but there won’t be a Cinderella story, not if history holds up.
The NBA is easily the most predictable of the four major professional sports leagues, Maybe it’s just the nature of the NBA game or maybe it’s because the league’s rules have always enabled teams to stockpile talent (including the latest lame revenue-sharing plan).
Anyway, you’ve probably already realized all of this even if you’d rather not acknowledge it because you’re cheering for a team not based in Cleveland, Oakland/San Francisco or San Antonio. You might get a No. 8 seed defeating a No. 1 seed occasionally in the early rounds (to wit: Chicago over Boston), but when it comes to the NBA Finals, it won’t matter.
Basketball fans like to think their team has a chance. They don’t. This isn’t the NFL.
Teams that are seeded No. 1 in the playoffs — in other words, teams that had the best record in their conference during the regular season — overwhelmingly tend to win the championship or make it to the Finals.
No. 1 seeds have won 48 of 67 championships — that’s 72 percent. A No. 1 or 2 seed has won the title a whopping 59 times — that’s 88 percent, or almost nine out of every 10 NBA Finals. (There were no seeds for the 1950 playoffs but the champion Minneapolis Lakers had the best record in the NBA.)
It turns out that those 82 games that make up the interminable regular season actually tend to sort out the best teams. Who would have thought? The playoffs are almost superfluous.
You know those Cinderella stories you see in pro baseball, hockey and football? Doesn’t happen in the NBA. Only eight teams seeded No. 3 or worse in their conference have won the championship; only two teams have won the title seeded No. 4 or higher — No. 4 Boston in 1969 and No. 6 Houston in 1995. For that matter, out of 134 berths in the NBA Finals, only six have been filled by teams seeded No. 4 or higher.
There is no mystery about the outcome of the NBA playoffs, with very rare exceptions. This is not the case in other professional sports.
The NFL: Since 1975 — when the league began seeding teams for the playoffs — No. 1 seeds have won the Super Bowl 24 of 42 times (57 percent). Only six No. 1 seeds have won the Super Bowl since 2000 (including the last four). Six wild card teams have won the Super Bowl, which means teams that were seeded No. 5 or 6 in their conferences.
From 1975 to 2016, No. 1 seeds filled only 24 of the 84 Super Bowl berths.
Major League Baseball: Since 1995, when the wild card was added to the playoffs, only five teams with the best record in baseball won the World Series. During the same period of time, only nine No. 1-seeded teams won the World Series — 45 percent. Meanwhile, the World Series has been won by three No. 3 seeds, four No. 4 seeds and one No. 5 seed.
The NHL: Since 1994, No. 1-seeded teams have won the Stanley Cup only seven times — 33 percent. Meanwhile, the Cup has been won by five No. 3 seeds, and three teams seeded No. 4 or higher.
What all this means is that the NBA has never fostered much hope for all but a relative select group of fans. If you go back 70 years to the very early days of the NBA, to 1947 when the league was known as the Basketball Association of America, 33 of the league’s 70 championships have been won by two teams — and 47 of them have been won by just five teams. There are 12 teams — 40 percent — that have never won titles.
By the time the playoffs roll around, it’s very clear which teams have a real shot at a championship.