What Can History Tell Us About the First-Round Matchups in This Year's NBA Playoffs?

As the Wizards take on the Hawks in Round 1, should they really be all that confident?

History teaches us a lot. But for one reason or another, we often refuse to take history into account when predicting NBA playoff series winners.

Coaches, player personnel, and other surrounding circumstances could be key reasons for that because of the fact that they're not always the same for the same seed from year-to-year. Unlike those three things, we can look at which team is better and by how much.

Here at numberFire, we measure that objectively through our nERD metric, a team ranking that is predictive of a team's ultimate winning percentage. The scale for nERD goes from 0 to 100 with 50 as the league average.

This can be applied to the current playoff teams, and we do just that in using our complex algorithms to provide the probability of each possible series outcome.

More importantly, it has been applied to every team dating back to the year 2000. That is key for the purposes of this article because it allows us to use the nERD scores of the 80 playoff teams from the last 10 years to compare them by seed and difference in nERD for each first-round matchup.

The Process

I used this data to find the five most similar series for each of this year's eight first-round matchups. The best comparisons are drawn using the difference in nERD, with all but one of the 40 past series within 5.0 nERD (one at 5.1) of this year's teams' actual difference.

We then find the game totals for each of the like series and sum them across the board, indicating the percentage of games the higher-seeded and lower-seeded team have won.

To be clear, this history is not meant to replace our existing, algorithm-based likelihoods. Instead, it is to serve as a supplement to them.

So let's see how history can enlighten us today.

Lock It In

(1) Golden State Warriors vs (8) Portland Trail Blazers

Predictors Series 1 Series 2 Series 3 Series 4 Series 5 Total % Games
Warriors 4 4 4 4 4 20 90.9%
Trail Blazers 0 0 1 1 0 2 9.1%

If you didn't already think that the Portland Trail Blazers don't stand a chance, this should do it. The Golden State Warriors have a sizable advantage in nERD (82.7 to 49.6) and -- if they do drop a game -- are most likely to lose just one if history holds.

But, the most comparable series (by difference in nERD between a 1 and 8 seed) is the 2013 first-round meeting between the Miami Heat and Milwaukee Bucks. With a nERD of 78.2, the LeBron James-led Heat had a nERD advantage of 32.0 over the 8-seeded Bucks and came out with a four-game sweep.

(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs (7) Indiana Pacers

Predictors Series 1 Series 2 Series 3 Series 4 Series 5 Total % Games
Cavaliers 4 4 4 4 4 20 83.3%
Pacers 0 0 1 3 0 4 16.7%

The Cleveland Cavaliers' edge (59.0 to 49.3 in nERD) is not nearly as high as the Warriors', but it is the next best thing for this year's first-round certainties. After all, in similar situations, a 2 seed with that same type of advantage swept their opponent in three of the five series. And only once did a team take more than a single game from the team with homecourt advantage.

The playoff series that we can extract the best comparison from is the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers' first-round matchup in 2013. In it, the Spurs had a nERD advantage of 9.3 and swept the Dwight Howard-led Lakers with an average margin of victory of 18.8 points.

Almost a Sure Thing

(2) San Antonio Spurs vs (7) Memphis Grizzlies

Predictors Series 1 Series 2 Series 3 Series 4 Series 5 Total % Games
Spurs 4 4 4 4 4 20 74.1%
Grizzlies 1 2 0 1 3 7 25.9%

The Spurs and Grizzlies met in the same exact series a year ago, but the difference in nERD (39.9) was much larger, and as a result San Antonio did away with Memphis in four straight games. But that's not among the comparable series for obvious reasons. This year, the gap is slimmer (71.7 to 50.0 in nERD), so we look to alike series from recent history. They tell us that the Spurs are very likely to win, but the game counts vary, from 0 to 3 wins for Memphis.

When the 2-seeded Phoenix Suns and 7-seeded Lakers butted heads in the 2007 playoffs, the difference between them was almost the same (22.4 nERD). The result there was a 4-1 series win for the Suns, so we might expect Memphis to make it competitive but not for more than five games.

More Likely Than Not

(3) Houston Rockets vs (6) Oklahoma City Thunder

Predictors Series 1 Series 2 Series 3 Series 4 Series 5 Total % Games
Rockets 4 3 4 4 4 19 63.3%
Thunder 2 4 2 3 0 11 36.7%

As we take a step down from the three teams with a 20-game total between their series comps, the Rockets are the next-closest thing, with 19 of their own. What that means, though, is that in one situation the team in the Rockets' position (a 13.2 advantage in nERD) lost in seven. In the other four those teams won, but the results differed.

The 2013 Indiana Pacers-Atlanta Hawks series is the most notable among the equivalent series. With a nERD of 64.0, the Pacers had the upper hand by 12.6 nERD and went on to win the series 4-2. If history's right, we should expect at least that from a clash of MVP candidates.

(1) Boston Celtics vs (8) Chicago Bulls

Predictors Series 1 Series 2 Series 3 Series 4 Series 5 Total % Games
Celtics 2 4 4 2 4 16 61.5%
Bulls 4 0 2 4 0 10 38.5%

Don't look away -- those game totals are right. In the five series most akin to the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls (a difference of 6.8 nERD), the 8 seed won two and did so in six games, closing it out on their respective home floors. On the other hand, the Celtics have three series on their side, including two series sweeps.

In the last 10 years, there's never been a 1 seed with a lower nERD so it's hard to find an exact replica of this series from recent years. Unfortunately, by difference in nERD, the closest we get to this matchup is a 4-2 win in favor of the 8 seed. That took place back in 2012, when Andre Iguodala's Philadelphia 76ers upset Derrick Rose's Bulls. So maybe it's the Bulls' turn to do the upsetting this time around.

Probably Maybe

(3) Toronto Raptors vs (6) Milwaukee Bucks

Predictors Series 1 Series 2 Series 3 Series 4 Series 5 Total % Games
Raptors 4 2 4 3 4 17 58.6%
Bucks 0 4 2 4 2 12 41.4%

Here, despite one 4-0 series sweep, we dip below 60%. And this is a byproduct of two similar series where the lower-seeded team won 4-2 and 4-3. Which among the five series has roughly the same difference in nERD (14.6), though?

That would be the Boston Celtics' sweep of the New York Knicks in 2011. Back then -- led by the original Big Three -- they had an advantage of 15.1 in nERD and dominated the series accordingly. Does that mean the Raptors will do the same and rest up ahead of the second round?

Up for Grabs

(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs (5) Utah Jazz

Predictors Series 1 Series 2 Series 3 Series 4 Series 5 Total % Games
Clippers 1 4 1 4 4 14 51.9%
Jazz 4 2 4 2 1 13 48.1%

If history's any indication, the Los Angeles Clippers are in trouble. In two of the five series, the team in a similar situation to the Utah Jazz won the series decidedly in five games. Yet, a team with a nERD advantage (1.7) like the Clippers have won three and in no more than six games.

The most alarming note comes from the 2014 series between the 4-seeded Bulls and 5-seeded Washington Wizards. The Bulls entered the first-round bout with a 1.4 advantage in nERD but came out losers in five games, having dropped all three of their home games. So, clearly the Clippers should be on their toes for this one.

(4) Washington Wizards vs (5) Atlanta Hawks

Predictors Series 1 Series 2 Series 3 Series 4 Series 5 Total % Games
Wizards 4 3 0 4 4 15 50.0%
Hawks 3 4 4 2 2 15 50.0%

While you could say that the Wizards have the 3-2 advantage in series -- along with their 4.5 edge in nERD -- two seven-game finishes evenly balance out the total games. And a 4-0 sweep by a similarly positioned 5-seed does most of the damage.

However, if anyone has an edge by historical accounts, it's the Wizards. In 2009, the 4-seeded Hawks -- with a 4.5 nERD advantage -- were in the exact same situation when they held off the Heat in seven games. But will they fall on the wrong end of history this year?