Cohen: Regular Season Importance

By Josh Cohen
January 24, 2012

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, even in this condensed 66-game 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 two seasons ago when the Boston Celtics stormed through the East and into the championship round.

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 January or February 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 Chicago Bulls 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.

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

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.

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

Five 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.

However, for mysterious reasons, earning the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference has proven recently to be disadvantageous. Since 2003, only once has a team seeded No. 1 in the East advanced to the NBA Finals (2008 Boston Celtics).

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.

While it's obvious that every game in the NFL's regular season is critical since there are only 16 games, once a team advances to the playoffs, seeding is relatively insignificant.

Since 2006, two No. 6 seeds and one No. 5 seed have won the Super Bowl. This meaning that the eventual champion won three consecutive road games before claiming the ultimate prize on a neutral field. If the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots in a couple of weeks in Super Bowl XLVI, this will be the fifth time in the last seven years that a team who did not have a First Round bye won the Super Bowl.

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