The NBA has been operating under their current playoff system since the 2002-03 season, when they decided that the first round matchups should be a 7-game series instead of 5. Going into this year’s playoffs we now have 17 seasons of data to inform us about the 18th. And that is what I’m going to do here. I’m using what we’ve learned from the past seasons under the current format to make predictions about the now. Here we go...
Lower seeds generally lose in the first round. In fact, over the last 17 seasons the lower seeds have only won about 20% of all first round matchups. That comes out to 1 or maybe 2 upsets per season, and it’s usually the 4-5 matchup that has the potential for an upset. Since 2003, the 4 seed only has an 18-16 record in series’ versus the 5 seed. And as the seeds go down so do the chances of winning. The 3 seed has a 26-8 record versus the 6 seed which means a 6 will beat a 3 about once every other year.
And then there are the 1-8 and 2-7 matchups. Surprisingly the 8 seed has beaten the 1 seed 3 times while the 7 seed has beaten the 2 seed only 1 time. That one time was in 2010 when the 7 seeded Spurs beat the 2 seeded Mavericks in 6 games. Don’t feel too bad for Dallas because the loss motivated them to win the championship the very next season while the Spurs went on to be one of only 3 number 1 seeds to lose to a number 8 seed when they lost to the Memphis Grizzlies after Manu Ginobili was injured in the last game of the regular season. The other 2 number 8 seeds to beat number 1 seeds were the 2007 Warriors (who used a before-its-time small ball lineup to upend the Mavericks), and the 2012 76ers who beat the Bulls only because of a Derrick Rose knee injury.
Given this information, here are some first round predictions for the 2020 playoffs. Since the 7 and 8 seeds have only beaten the 1 and 2 seeds 4 times in 68 matchups, I’m calling those locks for the Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, and Raptors. As far as the 3-6 matchups go, I don’t see the Jazz doing much against the Nuggets, and does anybody actually believe the often shorthanded 76ers will put up much of a fight against the Celtics? (Too bad this is what their process has led to: 2 injury prone superstars who can’t get on the same page or past the second round.)
The two most interesting series in the first round are, predictably, both of the 4-5 matchups. Historically, there is at least one upset in the first round in most playoffs. So it would seem I have to choose either the Heat over the Pacers or the Thunder over the Rockets.
As I said earlier, the lower seeds only win about 20% of first round series. Which is the equivalent to 1 or 2 per year. If I look at last year there were zero first round upsets, so I say that both of the 4-5 matchups this year will be upsets. The Heat and Thunder will both win. To recap:
(1) Lakers over (8) Blazers
(5) Thunder over (4) Rockets
(3) Nuggets over (5)Jazz
(2) Clippers over (7) Mavericks
(1) Bucks over (8) Magic
(5) Heat over (4) Pacers
(3) Celtics over (6) 76ers
(2) Raptors over (7) Nets
Here’s a fun fact that connects Rounds 1 and 2: only one team in the last 17 years has won their first round matchup as a lower seed and also won their 2nd round matchup. They were the 2013 Memphis Grizzlies who, as a 5 seed, beat the Clippers in round one then beat the top seeded Thunder in round 2 before being swept by the Spurs in the Conference Finals. Given that information, it’s safe to say my predicted upset teams, the Heat and Thunder will lose in the 2nd round. Good news for the Bucks and Lakers.
In fact the percentage of lower seeded teams winning in the second round drops from about 20.5% in the first round to about 19% in the second round. The higher seeded teams are 55-13 in the second round since 2003.
I think the numbers say all they need to about who I’m predicting to win these 2nd round matchups. All the higher seeds.
(1) Lakers over (5) Thunder
(2) Clippers over (3) Nuggets
(1) Bucks over (5) Heat
(2) Raptors over (3) Celtics
That’s a lot of work to get the top two seeds in both the East and West all making the Conference Finals, but that’s what the numbers say will happen. Here is where things get interesting. Since the 2003 season, in the Conference Finals, the higher seed has gone to the NBA Finals less than half the time. The higher seed has won 16 times while the lower seed has won 18.
Both of the number 1 seeds making the finals has happened twice. The first was in 2008 when the Celtics met the Lakers in the finals for the first time since the 80’s. The second was in 2016 when LeBron James and the Cavs came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Warriors. The Warriors responded by adding Kevin Durant to their team and making the next two years boring and predictable.
What to do with this information? I have the Conference Finals as Lakers versus Clippers and Bucks versus Raptors. Historically, 2 number 1 seeds rarely make the finals together. So that eliminates Bucks versus Lakers. The most common matchup is between a number 1 seed and a number 2 seed. That has happened 6 times in the last 17 years. So, that would leave us with either the Lakers versus the Raptors or the Bucks versus the Clippers.
Do I want to see LeBron and Anthony Davis try to will their team of upstarts past one of the best and most creative defenses in the entire NBA? Or do I want to see how Giannis Antetokounmpo will respond to and deal with two of the best wing defenders in the game, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George?
It’s weird, but after doing all this research, I have to throw all the numbers away and listen to my heart. You know what I really want to see is the Raptors, who were left for dead, try and win a championship on their own without Kawhi. They brought him in last year as kind of a ringer to get them a title. He showed them how it was to be done, and now it’s their turn to do it. And it’s against Kawhi’s new team no less. Come on.
This would be the best story the Finals could produce. Better than old man LeBron trying to prove he still has it. Better than Anthony Davis and his first deep playoff run. Better than Giannis taking his next step toward being one of the all time greats. Better than all that is Kawhi taking his new team versus his old team, who knew he was most likely a 1-year rental yet led them to a championship anyway. It would be an unusual rivalry. One that doesn’t have a lot of personal vendettas. Just a bunch of guys playing good basketball at the highest level to try and prove they are the best.
(2) Clippers over (1) Lakers
(2) Raptors over (1) Bucks
I suppose I should make a prediction here too. At this point all the numbers can be thrown out the window. I’ve already done that. I’m going to go with my heart on this one and say that the Toronto Raptors will repeat as NBA champions.
Raptors over Clippers