2010’s Playoff Analysis

Introduction:

With the Toronto Raptors capturing their first championship a few weeks ago, the playoffs of the 2010’s have come to a close. The NBA has had seven different champions (Lakers, Mavericks, Heat, Spurs, Warriors, Cavaliers, Raptors) in this decade with a few “dynasties” or “mini dynasties” (Miami Heat-two championships in four straight Finals, Golden State Warriors-three championships in five straight Finals, LeBron James-three championships in eight straight Finals). While casual viewers might think of this decade as relatively noncompetitive due to the dominance of LeBron James led teams and the Warriors, there was more competitiveness than meets the eye in the playoffs of the 2010’s. The idea for this article was first conceived during the Conference Semifinals of this year’s playoffs, where we were all witness to three dramatic back and forth series. Even as an avid NBA fan, I hadn’t remembered a Conference Semifinal this good in quite some time (it was actually the best of the 2010’s-more on that later). I wondered how competitive this NBA playoffs had been in relation to previous years and I decided to make a short project out of it.

Methodology:

After collecting the data from all of the playoffs in the 2010’s (courtesy of Basketball Reference), I had to come up with a way to quantify what a good playoff series was. Obviously, the longer the series, the better, but I didn’t want to just stop there. While lengthy series are great, the quality of the games also has to be factored in. A six game series where every game is within six points (2019 Warriors-Rockets Conference Semifinal) is more enjoyable to watch than a seven game series where all seven games are blowouts. One might even argue (I would) that a five game series with every game within six points is better than a seven game series with seven blowouts. I decided to base the quality of the game based on the final point differential and used four different tiers. 

The first tier received three points for games that finished with a point differential of three or under (games that come down to the final possession). The second tier received two points for games that finished with a point differential of seven or under (games that were in jeopardy within the final minute). The third tier received one point for games that finished with a point differential of ten or under (games that were in jeopardy within the final three minutes). The final tier received zero points for game quality and was for games that finished with a point differential greater than ten. These tiers are far from perfect and I’m sure a more thorough analysis could be done to provide a more accurate point differential for these tiers. However, based on a quick survey of playoff games and simple intuition, this is what I came up with.

Additionally, I gave extra points for games that went into overtime. For each overtime that was played, that game received an additional point (for instance the Nuggets-Blazers four overtime game this year received four points just from overtimes). In terms of length of series, I gave a point for every game five, one point for every game six, and two points for every game seven (game sevens being worth more to sports fans). Finally, I wanted to make all the rounds equal one another in possible point value. For this, I had to multiply all Conference Semifinals’ points by two, all Conference Finals’ points by four, and all Finals’ points by eight. The total possible number of points for each round is 200, with a max of 800 for a single playoff. The template for this system is outlined below.

Game 5+1
Game 6+1
Game 7+2
Games Under 3 Points+1
Games Under 7 Points+1
Games Under 10 Points+1
Overtimes+1 (for each overtime)
Conference Semifinals(Total Points) *(2)
Conference Finals(Total Points) *(4)
Finals(Total Points) *(8)
Possible Points
 OvertimesGames Under 3 PointsGames Under 7 PointsGames Under
10 Points
Game 5Game 6Game 7Total
Round 105656568816200
Conf.
Semis
0282828448200
Conf.
Finals
0141414224200
Finals0777112200
Total       800

Results:

Year by Year Analysis:

As shown by the table and chart below, the NBA was very competitive at the beginning of this decade before falling off in the middle of the Warriors’ dynasty and making a huge jump in competitiveness this year. The NBA posted its three highest scores of the decade in the years of 2011-2013, which included two Heat championships and the Mavericks’ seemingly out of nowhere championship. In the early years of the 2010’s the West was essentially wide open (featuring five different conference champions in the first six years). Despite LeBron James led teams making the Finals eight years in a row, the East was actually pretty competitive as well (remember those Pacers, Hawks, and Raptors teams). While none of those teams were able to overthrow James, they were competitive and pushed him with some lengthy series.

2010269
2011310
2012291
2013311
2014255
2015274
2016224
2017160
2018198
2019285

The league was also competitive during the Warriors’ first title run in 2015, posting a solid score of 274. However, during the years of 2016-2018, the playoffs never received a score of over 224 and reached a low point in 2017 when it managed only 160. After a small bump in 2018, the league received a resurrection in competitiveness this past year. With LeBron going out to Los Angeles to join the Lakers, the East was suddenly wide open. While the Warriors came into the season projected to dominate the West again, a slew of injuries as well as the emergence of teams like the Blazers and Nuggets made the West playoffs much more interesting this year. While it only went six games, the Warriors-Rockets Conference Semifinals series this year was one of the most competitive the Warriors have played during their dynasty. All six games finished with a point differential of six or under and it really seemed like the entire series could flip with a single shot. This year’s second round was the best second round of the decade and featured two of the best series of this decade (and also the aforementioned Warriors-Rockets series) in the Nuggets-Blazers series and the Raptors-76ers series. Despite the Finals being largely overshadowed by injuries, it was actually very competitive. Had the Warriors won game six by less than three points and the would be game seven finished within ten points, this playoff would’ve gone down as the best of the decade. 

Round by Round Analysis:

In terms of round by round comparisons, the results were a little surprising. While the competitiveness of the Finals carried a great deal of variance, with a range of 88 and a sample variance (standard deviation squared) of 1127, the rest of the rounds were surprisingly similar to each other. The first round had range of 68 (thanks to a monster score of 111 in 2014, otherwise the range would’ve only 35) and a variance of 342. The Conference Semifinals weren’t that different with a range of 62 and a variance of 371. The Conference Finals also followed a similar trend with a range of 72 and a variance of 377. While the variance in competitiveness of the Finals doesn’t surprise me, I would expect the variance of competitiveness to gradually increase from the first round to the Finals. Instead, the variance only marginally increased across the first three rounds before nearly tripling between the Conference Finals and Finals. I’m not quite sure what that means and perhaps it’s due to the small sample size of ten years, but I thought it was worth noting the surprising lack of variance in the Conference Semifinals and Conference Finals.

Round2010201120122013201420152016201720182019
First Round637877631116652645843
Conference
Semis
30485872567668364492
Conference
Finals
727210072564456287268
Finals10411256104328848322480
Total269310291311255274224160198285

Conclusion:

This analysis is far from perfect and a lot more work could be done. For starters, the point values are very subjective and were based off of what I personally value in playoff games and series. Those point values could be manipulated to show different results, but this is the criteria that I valued. Additionally, as I mentioned before, the point differential criteria weren’t based on a separate analysis, rather just intuition and a quick scan of some playoff scores. I wanted the criteria to approximately fit a game in doubt within the final possession, the final minute, and the final three minutes. A more thorough analysis would give back better criterion for those point differentials, but for this analysis, my intuition will have to suffice.

I’m hoping to eventually go back further in my analysis to see how the 2010’s compares with other decades, but my gut instinct tells me that the NBA hasn’t been this competitive in a while. While consecutive champions/finals appearances certainly aren’t the only factor in determining competitiveness, this decade has shown that generally the more competitive years feature different teams in the Finals than the year before (there was a large dip when the Heat-Spurs matchup repeated and huge dips when the Cavaliers-Warriors matchup was repeating). In past decades, the NBA was often dominated by one or two teams each decade. The 60’s were dominated by Russell’s Celtics, the 80’s by Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics, the 90’s by Jordan’s Bulls, and the 00’s by Phil Jackson’s Lakers and Gregg Popovich’s Spurs. Overall, this decade has seen a new type of competitiveness that the NBA hasn’t seen since the 70’s. With seven different champions (the most except for the 70’s where there were eight), the competitiveness in the NBA seems to be on the way up. With the likely fall of the Warriors dynasty (don’t tell Draymond Green), the NBA looks completely wide open next year. Perhaps that will lead to the beginning of a new dynasty for a team like the Bucks or Nuggets. On the other hand, it could be the beginning of the most competitive decade in NBA history.

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