Cohen: Every Game Is Important

By Josh Cohen
January 2, 2011


ORLANDO -- Whoever says that the NBA’s regular season doesn’t really matter should definitely review the history of the NBA playoffs.

While the NBA’s regular season may be somewhat long and grueling, it may be the most “important” regular season in all of professional sports.

What NBA teams do during the regular season has great relation to how they do in the postseason. The higher a team’s seed, the better their chances of advancing in the playoffs.

I decided to conduct some research and analyze what has transpired since the league adopted a 16-team playoff tournament in 1984.

For a lengthy period of time (until around the start of the 21st century), having the best record in a team’s respective conference heading into the playoffs was virtually essential to advancing to the NBA Finals and, on the whole, capturing the league championship.

Between 1984 and 2000, the No. 1 seeds in either the East or West won the NBA title 14 times (82 percent). While there has been some shift in this pattern, no team seeded lower than 3 in their respective conference has lifted the Larry O’Brien Trophy this century.

There have been two No. 4 seeds to earn a trip to The Finals before bowing out since 2006, including last season when the Boston Celtics stormed through the East and into the championship round.


Josh Cohen
It may seem logical that higher seeded teams accomplish more during the postseason, but what is often missed in the translation is that they became the higher seed for a reason.

For example, while we tend to forget what transpired on an unadorned December or January night, those wins and losses have relatively significant impact come playoff time.

Positioning in the playoffs is sometimes decided by one or two games. It's exactly why last season the Orlando Magic never rested their stars down the stretch because they knew having a better record than any team in the Western Conference would allow them home court in The Finals. The Lakers, who the Magic had a better record than, benefitted when Boston eliminated Orlando in the conference finals. It gave L.A. the home court edge in the championship round, which paid dividends when it hosted and won a decisive Game 7 against the Celtics.

Below is a table of round-by-round results of the record teams have when they possess home-court advantage since 1984.


YEAR
FIRST ROUND
CONF. SEMIS
CONF. FINALS
FINALS
1984 5-3 3-1 2-0 1-0 1985 6-2 3-1 2-0 0-1 1986 8-0 4-0 1-1 1-0 1987 5-3 2-2 2-0 1-0 1988 7-1 3-1 1-1 1-0 1989 5-3 3-1 2-0 1-0 1990 6-2 3-1 2-0 1-0 1991 5-3 3-1 1-1 1-0 1992 7-1 4-0 2-0 1-0 1993 6-2 4-0 1-1 0-1 1994 5-3 3-1 2-0 1-0 1995 5-3 2-2 1-1 0-1 1996 5-3 3-1 2-0 1-0 1997 8-0 4-0 2-0 1-0 1998 6-2 3-1 2-0 0-1 1999 6-2 2-2 1-1 1-0 2000 6-2 3-1 2-0 1-0 2001 5-3 4-0 1-1 1-0 2002 8-0 3-1 1-1 1-0 2003 6-2 4-0 1-1 1-0 2004 8-0 3-1 0-2 0-1 2005 6-2 4-0 0-2 1-0 2006 7-1 3-1 1-1 0-1 2007 5-3 3-1 1-1 1-0 2008 7-1 3-1 2-0 1-0 2009 6-2 3-1 1-1 1-0 2010 6-2 3-1 1-1 1-0 Total 219-52 85-23 37-17 21-6 PERCENTAGE 81% 79% 69% 78%


While it is certainly no foregone conclusion that if a team earns the No. 1 seed in their respective conference they will ultimately capture the title, percentages are certainly in their favor.

Since 1984 when the playoffs expanded to 16 teams, 18 times has a No. 1 seed in the East or West won the title. Keep in mind, though, that not always has the No. 1 seed that won had the best overall league record heading into the postseason.

Never have teams seeded 4, 5, 7 or 8 in this time frame won the championship. The 1994-95 Houston Rockets are the lowest seeded team (No. 6) to hoist the trophy. The 1999 New York Knicks, who were seeded No. 8, advanced to The Finals before losing to the San Antonio Spurs.

Below is a table of the number of times each conference seed has claimed the NBA title since 1984.


SEED
NBA TITLES
%
1 18 69%
2 5 19%
3 3 12%
4 0 0%
5 0 0%
6 1 4%
7 0 0%
8 0 0%



Only five times since 1984 have the NBA Finals occurred without at least one No. 1 seed involved.

Four of these happenings have transpired in the last seven years. It’s very possible that because the talent pool is so far greater than it used to be, there is more competitive balance.

Below is a table of the Finals matchups that did not include a No. 1 seed since 1984.


YEAR
MATCHUP
CHAMPION
1994 #2 New York vs. #2 Houston Rockets
2004 #3 Detroit vs. #2 L.A. Lakers Pistons
2005 #2 Detroit vs. #2 San Antonio Spurs
2006 #2 Miami vs. #4 Dallas Heat
2007 #2 Cleveland vs. #3 San Antonio Spurs



The conclusion to this research is that the NBA's regular season is much more significant than it may seem. While it is not imperative to end up with the best overall record or the No. 1 seed in each conference, it is helpful and the underlining point to all players is that every game should matter from late October to mid April.

As a result, I expect all of the teams that are in contention for the best records in their respective conference to play like it is already the playoffs.

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How important do you view the NBA's regular season?
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