How Much Did the First Two Rounds of the NBA Playoffs Lack Competitiveness?
If you have been following or even overheard coverage in passing of the NBA playoffs, it's been easy to notice the lopsided results.
Final scores have been off the charts, the games have left a lot to be desired, and the favorite in each conference -- the Golden State Warriors in the West and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the East -- have yet to lose a game. The results have led to conversations about the first two rounds of the playoffs lacking excitement, but is this really any different from what we have grown accustomed to seeing?
The recent memories of teams that have played spoiler in the NBA playoffs stand out like a sore thumb because there are so few. People may recall teams like the 2007 Warriors that knocked out the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the first round, or in 2012 when the Philadelphia 76ers kicked out the Chicago Bulls after Derrick Rose went down. But they are way more of an exception than a rule.
That being said, have the 2017 NBA Playoffs been even less competitive than normal? Taking data dating back to 2012, we will explore how this year's first two rounds stack up against the past.
Length of Series
The aforementioned domination by the Warriors and Cavs has been well documented to this point -- their combined four series sweeps is the most we've seen during the time period we're looking at. This has impacted the number of games played through the first two rounds (65), which is also the fewest we've seen over the past six years.
While it is a decrease, it is only a slight margin and actually is very close to the average of 67 games played in the first two rounds. The higher number of sweeps seems to only be decreasing the number of five-game series and not having an effect on the total six- and seven-game series.
Margin of Victory Per Game
The margin of victory by winning teams played a huge role in the feeling that these rounds did not yield competitive games. However, this is a problem that has plagued the first two rounds over the last two seasons.
In 2016 and 2017, there have been nearly as many games decided by 20-plus points (32) as there were in the four years that preceded it (36). Over the same two-year span, 59 percent of games have been decided by double figures. In the prior four years, only 46 percent of games were decided by 10 or more.
Grouping the last two years together in this respect was easy because they equally lacked the amount of competitiveness one would hope to see. The only real difference between this year and last was the number of overtime games. Five contests needed overtime in 2016, which was closer to the average of the six-year span. There were only two this year, which is the lowest during this time.
Margin of Victory Per Series
Taking this idea one step further, the average margin of victory per series has also been inflated this year. Only 3 series out of the 12 had an average margin of victory below 10 points per game throughout. Once again, this is on par with last season. However, the average between 2012-15 was nearly 7 of the 12.
This trend is most noticeable in six- and seven-game series. Of the seven matchups that went that long before determining a victor, all but one had an average margin of victory of 10.5 points or greater. The largest margin of these was between the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets. Their average margin of 21 points per game was the biggest of any six-game series and second largest of any series dating back to 2012.
With all this being said, the closest series over the past six years took place this year. Any guesses? That's right; the four-game sweep Cleveland handed to the Indiana Pacers had an average margin of victory of four points per game. Just like we all thought.
What's the Cause?
An emphasis on three-point shooting in today's NBA is no secret, but could this uptick be the cause behind the first two rounds of the playoffs to be less competitive? The total statistics over the past six years shows there could be a link suggesting such.
Three-point attempt rate (3PAr), or the percentage of total field goal attempts that are threes, has been on the rise since 2012, while three-point percentage has stayed within a similar range. Similarly, pace (the number of possessions per 48 minutes) is up 5 possessions per game this year from 2012, and offensive rating (Ortg) is at a six-year high.
Free-throw rate (FTr), or the number of free-throw attempts per field goal attempt, is also on the decline, which could be directly linked to the increase in threes. The below table shows these trends.
The way the game is trending over just the past six years is causing teams to play a style that has a higher level of variability, and therefore leading to a lower likelihood for competitive games.
Comparing the 2014 playoffs to the 2017 playoffs, the offensive rating, field goal percentage, and three-point percentage are similar and better than the rest. This is important to note because 2014 was the most competitive playoffs based on number of games played (72), number of overtime games (9), and lowest percentage of games decided by 10 points or greater (42%), while 2017 is on the opposite end of the spectrum.
The main difference appears to be the increase in the percentage of threes that teams are taking.
Should We Expect More of the Same?
Games should hopefully get more interesting, but early indications say we should expect to keep watching non-competitive games. The Spurs looked to have a shot at giving the Warriors a tough time until Kawhi Leonard was injured in Game 1, leading San Antonio to relinquish a big lead and then get blown out in Game 2.
In the East, it has taken the top-seeded Boston Celtics 13 games to get through the 8 seed Chicago Bulls and 4 seed Washington Wizards, while Cleveland has swept 7 seed Indiana and blown the doors off the 3-seeded Toronto Raptors.
We have seen this coming all year, but it looks like we will just need to wait until the Finals to see good, competitive basketball.