How Do This Year's NBA Playoff Teams Stack Up Historically?
A lot of emphasis is put on playoff seeding in the NBA, and for good reason -- it does dictate homecourt advantage, second-round matchups and how easy or hard a team's road to the Finals is.
However, getting caught up in which seed a team is for their postseason run can sometimes cause us to overlook how good they actually are. This is where advanced analytics come in.
Our nERD metric -- a team ranking, on a scale of 0 to 100, that is predictive of a team's ultimate winning percentage -- can help account for both seed and strength of the NBA's playoff-bound teams.
We can do so by comparing the current seed's nERD to the historical average of those that came before them. So, relative to the 10-year average (back to 2007), we can determine which teams are better or worse than the usual 1 seed, 2 seed, so on and so forth.
Below is a table that has the nERD for each of the 16 playoff teams, along with the 10-year average of their seed line and how much better or worse they are compared to the average.
This year's postseason participants are, for the most part, weaker overall -- of the 16 teams, 11 are below the 10-year average. However, the West reigns supreme again, as four of the five teams who rate above the historical averages are located west of the Mississippi River.
Meanwhile, the Eastern Conference has just one squad that's rated better than the historical averages, and five of their eight representatives have a nERD score that's over 5.0 below their seeds' average.
The Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz make for one of the best 4-5 matchups in the past 10 years. Both teams' nERD scores are 4.0 or better relative to the average and they're seventh and sixth of the 22 teams on their individual seed lines, respectively. In fact, the Jazz are the best 5 seed since the 2013 Memphis Grizzlies (62.2).
It just so happens that the winner of this matchup will likely face a Warriors team that is nearly 10.0 nERD superior to the average from last 10 seasons. Overall, they're the second-best 1 seed next to the 2008 Celtics (82.8 nERD). Their opponent, the Portland Trail Blazers, are severely overmatched -- of the Western Conference's 8 seeds, they are the worst since the 2012 Jazz.
On the other side of this portion of the bracket, the San Antonio Spurs make their second consecutive playoff appearance as the 2 seed. This is also the second straight year they've accomplished this with a nERD of at least 71.7, which is above the average of 68.0. Head coach Gregg Popovich and company will meet Memphis in the first round, who they swept in the same 2-7 series in 2016. But this Grizzlies team is much improved, with a nERD of 50.0 compared to the 42.4 mark they produced last year.
Whoever emerges from the tough Spurs-Grizzlies series will face the winner of the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder. Houston is the worst 3 seed in the West since the 2012 Los Angeles Lakers, but the Thunder are the fifth-worst 6 seed since 2007. And when we narrow it down to their conference, they're only better than last year's Dallas Mavericks.
The Celtics earned their way to the 1 seed over the Cleveland Cavaliers, but they are substantially lower than the historical average for their position. As a matter of fact, they are the worst 1 seed and their nERD is 4.9 below the next-worst team, the 2014 Indiana Pacers. Also working against them is their opponent, the Chicago Bulls. They're an 8 seed, but they're also better than three of the last four 8 seeds that have come from the East. Chicago is even better than four of this season's playoff squads.
One of those teams is the 5-seeded Atlanta Hawks. They are the worst team of all 16, according to nERD, and are the worst 5 seed since the 2013 Bulls. Fortunately, their opposition, the Washington Wizards, are also well below the average 4 seed and are tied for the second-worst team on their line since 2007.
The Milwaukee Bucks follow the same path, as the fourth-worst 6 seed. In stark contrast, the Toronto Raptors are the best 3 seed in the East since the 2011 Celtics (66.9). Their nERD of 65.1 has them pegged as the best team in the East and the only one above the historical average.
The same can't be said for the Cavaliers, who, by the numbers, take a backseat to the Raptors. If we take it one step further, they're the worst 2 seed in the last 11 years. Previously, the worst 2 seed was the 2015 Rockets, who had a 59.1 nERD. So, this could be a closer matchup despite the Indiana Pacers' below-average nERD -- one that is 5.9 below their mark a year ago when they also entered the playoffs as a 7 seed.