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The Point of the Postseason


An in-depth examination of which sport has the better playoff: the NBA or the NHL.

@BreakTheHuddle

As debates go, the one between whether the NHL or the NBA has the better postseason is pretty straightforward. There’s a simple truth that swings people towards one side or the other – hockey fans are passionate people, and will argue tooth and nail that the battle for Lord Stanley’s Cup is the best postseason in sports. While basketball fans fail to match in passion they make up for in steadfast faith – the NBA Playoffs is the best in sports at determining the best teams in the game, period.

To put all my cards on the table – I fall into the second category. So when a fellow sports blogger posed the question of which postseason was better, my predisposed notions spurred me to argue for the NBA. Not wanting to base this on pure emotion, I went into the lab (I need a research assistant) and did some calculations. I’ve come out on the other side convinced, more than ever, that the NBA Playoffs are better than the NHL.

Concession #1 to NHL fans: The trophy is cooler.

The purpose of the postseason, in any sport, ought to be determining the best team in the league. This is best done in different ways, depending upon what the nature of the game in question allows. A series of games (3 , 5 or 7) cuts down on the anomaly of a Cinderella team catching a few lucky breaks and knocking off a better team. In football, this isn’t possible – single elimination is the only plausible method. College basketball has March Madness, probably the most entertaining postseason in professional sports, but the single-elimination format lends itself to the downfall of mighty teams who have one bad day.

A side note, quickly – I am not against Cinderella teams. Everyone loves the stories of the small school competing against the powerhouse, or the team that was written off going on a run. I wouldn’t change March Madness – all I am saying is, if the point of the postseason is to find the best team, it’s best to do so over a series of games.

The two leagues which appear to get it right are the NHL and the NBA. The first round of the playoffs in each league is a 7 game series – a 9% sample size of the 82 game regular season played in a normal year. Drop a game or two, and you have time to recover. Underdogs can’t just steal one game and advance – they have win four times. The NHL and the NBA both seem to have themselves set up to determine the clearest, most definitive champion in sports.

Once you dig a little deeper into the numbers, and examine the intricacies of each sport, this is shown not to be the case. Professional basketball’s champions and conference finalists routinely finish among the top records in the sport – while hockey is much more of a crapshoot. A hot goaltender can swing an NHL series. Other than injuries (which occur in both sports), there is no equivalent in the NBA, nothing that can alter a series as much as a goalie who hits a groove at the right time of the year. Thus, the NHL is more prone to upsets, meaning you often get Stanley Cup Finals between two teams that few would have picked.

For some, that’s what makes hockey great, the chaos and unpredictability of the postseason. A look back through the past two decades (roughly) of each league reveals just how unpredictable the sport is – and how predictable the NBA can be.  At the beginning of the research, I wondered just how different the two leagues were in terms of: A) Top teams making it to the conference finals and championships, and B) whether the champions in each league were routinely high seeds. The numbers surprised me – the gap is a lot bigger than anticipated.

The Method to my Madness

The past 21 seasons in both the NBA and NHL were studied, with the concentration primarily on the final four teams standing in each season. That is 21 years’ worth of data – 21 champions, 42 conference champions and 84 ‘final four’ teams in each sport. (For the NBA, that’s the 1990-91 season through 2010-11, and for the NHL it’s from 1989-90 through 2010-11 due to the lost 2004-05 season.)

In the NBA, playoff seeds are awarded in the order of best records – period. This is in contrast to the NHL, where the top three seeds are the three division winners seeded in order of their records, and the remaining five teams are seeded 4th through 8th as ‘Wild Cards’. It is possible the team with the second-most points in hockey could be a 4th seed. Despite this discrepancy, the difference in calculations was negligible whether I used the real life seeds or re-seeded the NHL teams based on points.

So what does the research show?

Champions

Of the 20 NHL champions, the seeding breakdown looks like this:

Seed

Number of Stanley Cup Champions

1

6

2

8

3

2

4

3

5

2

 

Compared to the NBA, where the seeding breakdown is as follows:

Seed

Number of NBA Champions

1

11

2

5

3

4

6

1

 

The numbers skew a bit towards NBA #1 seeds, but as a whole they are actually fairly comparable. 14 of the 21 NHL champions were top-2 seeds, and 16 of the 21 NBA champions were top-2 seeds. Basketball saw a 6th seeded champion, while the NHL didn’t have one come from that low in the bracket. But that 6-seed was the 1994-95 Houston Rockets, who were hardly a Cinderella story; they had won the Finals the year before.

The average NBA champion over this stretch had a seed of 1.8, compared to 2.4 in the NHL. Slightly lower, but overall, the playoffs in each league are won by a team with a seed near the top. For all the perceived chaos of the NHL, at least they don’t have 6, 7 and 8 seeds winning on a regular basis.

Finals Participants

Where the numbers begin to diverge is when you consider the teams to make it to the Stanley Cup and NBA Finals.

The total breakdown of Stanley Cup participants, 1989-90 through 2010-11:

Seed

Number of Stanley Cup Finals participants

1

10

2

12

3

4

4

6

5

3

6

1

7

5

8

1

 

The total breakdown of NBA Finals participants, 1990-91 through 2010-11:

Seed

Number of Finals Particpants

1

21

2

11

3

6

4

2

6

1

8

1

 

In the NHL, 26 of the 42 Stanley Cup teams were top-3 seeds, compared to 38 of 42 in the NBA. In 21 seasons, more 7 seeds made it to the Stanley Cup Finals (five) than 3 seeds did (four). In just 6 years, the Stanley Cup Finals paired two teams that were top-3 seeds in their conference. Only twice did a matchup feature top-2 teams, and 2000-01 (Colorado v. New Jersey) marked the only instance of a 1 versus a 1 meeting on hockey’s biggest stage. Less than a quarter of the 42 Stanley Cup Finals participants were the top seeds in their conference.

In 17 of 21 seasons, the NBA Finals paired two teams that were top 3 seeds in their respective conference. More than half the NBA Finals matchups (11) were between top 2 seeds. There were six years (1992, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000 and 2008) in which the top seed in each conference made it to the Finals. Half of the 42 NBA Finals participants were the top seeds in their conference.

A simpler rendering:

Scenario: NHL NBA
Number of Finals teams from 3rd Seed or lower 20 10
Number of Finals between top 3 seeds 6 17
Number of Finals between top 2 seeds 2 11
Number of Finals between top seeds 1 6

 

 

Conference Finalists

When the sample size is increased to include all teams playing in the conference finals in each sport, the splits are similar. High seeds survive in the NBA:

Seed

Number of Conference Finalists (NBA)

1

35

2

21

3

20

4

4

5

2

6

1

8

1

 

And lower seeds have success in the NHL:

Seed

Number of Conference Finalists (NHL)

1

19

2

19

3

8

4

13

5

7

6

10

7

7

8

1

 

In the NHL, 46 of the 84 (55%) conference finals teams came from the top 3 seeds. In the NBA, 76 of the 84 conference finals teams (90%) came from the top 3 seeds. If you were calculate the sum total of the seed numbers among the conference finalists in both sports, the lowest possible total would be 6 (i.e. 1 vs 2 in the East, 1 vs 2 in the West).

In 15 of the 21 years, the sum of all the NBA conference finalists was less than 10. In just 2 of the 20 NHL seasons, however, the sum seed number was less than 10.  The actual average of all 21 years was 8.4, meaning that in the majority of the seasons, the conference finals matchup in the NBA was between a 1 seed and a 3 seed in each conference. The average of all NHL seasons was 13.4, meaning that in a typical year, the conference finals (hypothetically) saw a 2 versus 4 matchup in the East and a 3 versus 4 matchup in the West.

This last set of data shows the main difference between the two sports, and could point to something that hinders hockey’s popularity – the matchups once you get deep into the postseason.

Final Analysis

Funny thing about statistics – all the numbers I presented above, trying to argue that the NBA’s postseason is superior because its best teams are around at the end – can be turned around and used by hockey fans to defend that sport. What it comes down to, for me, is whether or not hockey fans can be honest with themselves. Do you want to be entertained? Or do you want to see the best your sport has to offer on its biggest stage?

All it takes for an 8-seed to beat a 1-seed in the NBA Playoffs is a torn ACL to the better team’s best player (Rose), a torn hand ligament to its second best player (Deng) and a badly sprained ankle to its third best player (Noah).

There’s nothing wrong with entertainment. Fans of each sport find plenty to spur their interest this time of the year; if upsets and chaos are your thing, then the NHL playoffs is the right fit for you. The 8th seeded Kings are on the verge of making the Stanley Cup Finals and the Rangers and Devils are locked in a bitter series between regional rivals that despise one another. The NBA Playoffs are plenty intriguing as well, with the team of the coming decade (the Thunder) likely to meet the team of the past decade (the Spurs) in the Western Conference Finals. The battle-tested Celtics appear to be on a collision course with the talented (though troubled) Miami Heat in the East.

Ratings-wise, it’s obvious which sport Americans enjoy more. 8 of the top 10 cable shows on television last week were NBA playoff games. It isn’t the popularity that I am arguing about – though that certainly buttresses the overall point – but rather the point of the postseasons themselves.

I am not saying the Stanley Cup champions in a given year do not earn it – no one can rightfully argue that after watching the meat grinder known as the NHL playoffs. I guess I feel a little sorry for NHL fans, though – they’re robbed of the same, elite late playoff-matchups that the NBA is chock-full of. Wouldn’t the NHL Playoffs be a bit more fun if the best teams from the entire season – the Canucks, Blues, Penguins or Bruins – were still involved?

If the purpose of the postseason is to determine the best team, the NBA has the best in sports. Sure, the NHL has got excitement and upsets. But is it really worth the trade-off between chaos and predictability?

 

Hate mail can be directed to BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, or the comments section below. Hit me up on Twitter (@BreakTheHuddle) if your insults are fewer than 140 characters. Thanks for reading!

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