After an exciting opening weekend of postseason basketball games, let’s analyze five clichés commonly used to discuss the NBA playoffs, dig into the data to test their validity and see if they can provide any insights into this year’s title race.
1. Anything Is Possible, but Favorites Usually Win
Kevin Garnett famously shouted “Anything is possible!” after leading his Boston Celtics to a championship-clinching Game 6 win in the 2008 NBA Finals. In reality, though, his Celtics were the favorites going into the postseason—winning it all was not only possible but extremely probable. For the majority of playoff teams, however, a title is barely possible.
Since 1984, the team with the best championship odds prior to the start of the first round has won it all 22 out of 37 years, and the team ranked second has picked up an additional seven titles. Only four times has a team won with odds higher than +600 heading into the postseason: the 1995 Houston Rockets, the 2004 Detroit Pistons, the 2011 Dallas Mavericks and the 2019 Toronto Raptors.
In fact, the champions are quite predictable even before the regular season starts. Half of the preseason favorites since 1985 have gone on to win the title. This season’s preseason favorites were the Los Angeles Lakers, but with the Lakers’ injury-riddled season and the Brooklyn Nets’ acquisition of James Harden, the tide shifted over the past five months to make the Nets the current favorites.
With both Los Angeles teams losing Game 1 and the Nets cruising to a win on Saturday, the odds have moved even more. Brooklyn sits at +210, with the Lakers all the way back at +500 and the Clippers rising to +750 and out of the top three. The public has confidence in the two favorites, with 37% and 23% of the DraftKings championship betting handle backing the Nets and Lakers, respectively.
2. Defense Wins Championships
The question of whether a team needs a strong defense to win is pertinent this year. The Nets have the league’s best offense but the 22nd ranked defense. The 2001 Los Angeles Lakers are the only title team ever to have a defense below league average. Those defending champions flipped a switch in April and boasted the best defensive rating of any team in the 2001 playoffs, cruising to a 15-1 postseason record. That kind of 180 seems unlikely for this year’s Nets, who have played just nine games fully healthy in their first year with a new coach.
On the flip side sit the Lakers, who are the best defensive team in the NBA but have the 24th ranked offense. The 1994 Rockets and the 2004 Pistons, two teams with elite defenses, are the only champions since 1980 with below average offenses. Though the Lakers played most of this season with one or both of their superstars injured, they ranked only 14th in offensive rating prior to Feb. 14, when Anthony Davis went down with a calf strain. Scoring was certainly a problem for the purple and gold in their Game 1 loss to Phoenix yesterday: The team shot 7-for-26 from three-point range, and neither LeBron James nor Davis reached 20 points.
In a series between two evenly matched teams, though, is it better to have the superior offense or defense? In the past 20 years, there have been 98 playoff series in which the two teams were within 2.0 in SRS (margin of victory, adjusted for strength of schedule) and one team had a better adjusted offensive rating while the other had a better adjusted defensive rating. Those series have been nearly evenly split, with the better defensive team going 50-48.
The Lakers or Nets would be a historically weak NBA champion on one side of the ball, but no evidence indicates that defense is the more important of the two. Of the last 40 NBA champions, 18 have been Top 3 offensive teams and 18 have been Top 3 defensive teams.
3. Teams Shoot More Threes
As the saying goes, “Live by the three; die by the three.” It seems teams are willing to take their chances. Players shoot more threes come playoff time, a trend that has remarkably held true in just about every single season since the three-point line was instituted in 1980.
The increase in threes is likely a result of defenses better protecting the valuable area around the rim. Indeed, since 2014, the median paint touches per game on offense has declined by 7% from the regular season to the postseason.
This past weekend, though, teams were cold from beyond the arc, shooting just 33% after a season in which the league set records in both volume and percentage from three. Perhaps it was just playoff nerves at play, but another possible explanation is the visual and auditory distraction of crowds. Nine teams this regular season allowed no fans at all this year, and no team’s average home attendance exceeded 4,000. In stark contrast, five of the eight games over the weekend were attended by at least 10,000 spectators.
4. Teams Rely More on Isolation
Last year, only two of the league’s 30 teams ran at least 10 isolations per game in the regular season. In the playoffs, that number rose to eight out of 16. When defenses are more prepared and play with more vigor, offenses move the ball less and become more reliant on stars to generate their own offense.
This trend could benefit the Nets. There are few players who frequently shoulder the burden of creating their own shot while also doing so efficiently. James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are three of just 11 players in the NBA who averaged at least 2.5 isolations per game and produced at least 1.05 points per isolation.
That trio combined for a whopping 40 isolation possessions in Saturday’s Game 1 against the Boston Celtics, a sign that the Nets are all-in on this approach of letting their superstars run the show. They managed 41 points on those plays—respectable relative to league average but slightly below their elite regular season rate.
5. The Pace Slows Down
Historically, teams get about three fewer offensive possessions per 48 minutes in the playoffs than in the regular season. It’s a small difference, but teams are more diligent about hustling back on defense when the stakes are higher. That slight decrease in fastbreak opportunities forces playoff teams to rely a tad more on their half-court sets than in the regular season.
Per Second Spectrum, no team got out in transition more this season than the Milwaukee Bucks, who have been one of the two fastest teams in the NBA in each of their three seasons under coach Mike Budenholzer. Back-to-back premature postseason exits, though, raised concerns about their half-court offense in crunch time.
On Saturday, the Bucks scored only 13 points in transition, down from their regular season average of 24.5. Thanks to an overtime, game-winning dagger from Khris Middleton, though, Milwaukee was able to distract critics from its stagnant offense and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 10-for-27 afternoon from the field.