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The Dissolution of the NBA Playoffs’ Ruling Class

Posted by Neil Paine on May 9, 2011

From 2008 to 2010, the NBA playoffs clearly had a "ruling class" that consisted of Boston, Orlando, and the Los Angeles Lakers. Combined, those three teams played 26 playoff series, and just once did one of them lose to a team outside of their own small clique:

Year Round Rd# Team Opp W L Winner
2008 EC1 1 BOS ATL 4 3 BOS
2008 WC1 1 LAL DEN 4 0 LAL
2008 EC1 1 ORL TOR 4 1 ORL
2008 ECS 2 BOS CLE 4 3 BOS
2008 WCS 2 LAL UTA 4 2 LAL
2008 ECS 2 ORL DET 1 4 DET
2008 ECF 3 BOS DET 4 2 BOS
2008 WCF 3 LAL SAS 4 1 LAL
2008 FIN 4 BOS LAL 4 2 BOS
2009 EC1 1 BOS CHI 4 3 BOS
2009 WC1 1 LAL UTA 4 1 LAL
2009 EC1 1 ORL PHI 4 2 ORL
2009 WCS 2 LAL HOU 4 3 LAL
2009 ECS 2 ORL BOS 4 3 ORL
2009 WCF 3 LAL DEN 4 2 LAL
2009 ECF 3 ORL CLE 4 2 ORL
2009 FIN 4 LAL ORL 4 1 LAL
2010 EC1 1 BOS MIA 4 1 BOS
2010 WC1 1 LAL OKC 4 2 LAL
2010 EC1 1 ORL CHA 4 0 ORL
2010 ECS 2 BOS CLE 4 2 BOS
2010 WCS 2 LAL UTA 4 0 LAL
2010 ECS 2 ORL ATL 4 0 ORL
2010 ECF 3 BOS ORL 4 2 BOS
2010 WCF 3 LAL PHO 4 2 LAL
2010 FIN 4 LAL BOS 4 3 LAL

Over that 3-year span, the Lakers-Celtics-Magic triad went 20-1 in series against non-ruling class teams, and as a result the road to the NBA title always went through one of the three teams. The rest of the league was largely irrelevant when it came to determining the championship.

Until this year, that is. For the first time since 2007, a ruling-class team failed to register at least 1 series win in a playoff season, as the Magic fell to the Atlanta Hawks in a 1st-round upset. Yesterday, the Lakers saw their season end against a non-ruling class team for the first time since 2007, losing in embarrassing fashion against the Dallas Mavericks. And the Celtics, for all of Kevin Garnett & Rajon Rondo's heroics in Game 3, still trail Miami's superteam 2-1 in their Eastern Conference Semifinal series.

It's tough to make any sweeping statements on the basis of a few week's worth of games, but the 2011 playoffs seem to indicate a major changing of the NBA guard. After having their way with the league's proletariat for three seasons, the once-mighty ruling class now finds itself on the wrong end of a radical upheaval.

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30 Responses to “The Dissolution of the NBA Playoffs’ Ruling Class”

  1. deron Says:

    Game recognize game. Great article; it's simply stated, but it also very insightful and gives useful, non-esoteric information. I'm glad to see that there is still room for this kind of work in a world of PER and Hollinger. Those are great tools, but they are often overused and usually not presented in proper context. I wrote an article similar to this one, but yours takes a different, better tact. If you did a study like this going from the 50s to now, you would probably find that the league is just a procession of "ruling classes" being ushered out by the newer "ruling classes"

    theresastatforthat.blogspot.com

  2. Neil Paine Says:

    Thanks, Deron. Nice blog, btw -- I've added it to the feeds I'm following for StatHead.

  3. Ray Says:

    Interestingly, even the one exception involved the last hurrah for a "ruling class" team from the mid-00s. Although they might not have had as impressive a record as this triad, those Pistons won one title, lost three times to the eventual champs, and lost two other times in the ECF between '03 and '08. An impressive six year run of being an NBA Final Four team, winning it all once and falling just one game short on another occasion to the mini-dynasty Spurs.

  4. BSK Says:

    Would Cleveland fit in with this group? They only lost to Boston and Orlando in this time, if I recall correctly.

  5. Neil Paine Says:

    It's debatable, but I left them out because they never actually beat any of the other ruling-class teams in a series. Orlando beat Boston in 2009, Boston beat L.A. in 2008 and Orlando in 2010, and L.A. beat Orlando in 2009 and Boston in 2010. Cleveland never won a series against any of those teams.

  6. BSK Says:

    Fair enough. I didn't think about it from that angle. What do we make of that Cleveland team? Paper tigers? This is an interesting way to look at "eras". It'd be interesting to see what previous Ruling Classes looked like, and whether you had a triumverate like this or whether it was more fractured or what.

  7. NBAGuru Says:

    Not to be a hater, but this article feels like a stretch. Orlando only is here because they beat a banged-up Celtics team (no KG) in '09 that was worn out from an epic first-round series. Losing to Detroit in '08 was not an aberration; the Pistons were the better team, and were considered a dark horse to make it out of the East.

    You want a historical "ruling class?"

    Early 00's: Lakers
    Mid 00's: Spurs/Pistons/Heat
    Late 00's: Lakers/Celtics (reverse the order if the Celtics come back vs Miami and win the title)

  8. Jason J Says:

    I wonder how unique it is for a three team dynamic like this to happen over a 3 year span... I can really only think of one other time. I'm thinking of the Lakers, Rockets, and Celtics in the mid-80s, and I believe you can say the same thing for those teams (or not... come to think of it, I don't think LA beat Houston in 87 or 85). My memory doesn't go back further than that.

  9. BSK Says:

    I was thinking today that the NBA may be the best of the major sports (pro and college) at determining a champion. It seems that more often than not, the best or one of the very best teams wins. We don't see a lot of real "surprise" champions or monumental upsets. I wonder if this is real or perceived. I got onto the topic because of the conversation around Phil Jackson's legacy and the larger fact of how few NBA champions there have been recently (and, really, throughout history). I tried to think analytically and I believe that the league may actually be setup to ensure this.

    Basketball uses 4 7-game series to determine a champion. Each series is equivalent to roughly 1/12th of the season. Compare this to baseball (1/33rd in the first round and 1/23rd in the second and third), football (1/16th), college basketball (approx. 1/30th), and college football (approx. 1/14th with all the BCS nonsense a major factor as well). Hockey has the same structure as basketball, but also seems more susceptible to variance because of the low scoring margin and the ability of a hot or cold goaltender to severely tip the odds. As the sample size of games used to determine a champion grows, the likelihood of the result matching reality increases. So, is this true? And, if so, what do we make of it? Does it impact our perception of players and coaches? Would Jordan or Phil Jackson or Red or Russel have as many titles if they had to play single-elimination games (like football) or best-of-3 and -5 game series (making it more akin to baseball)? Would Marino or Manning or Belichek have a half-dozen titles each if they played a best-of-3 series?

  10. Jason J Says:

    BSK - I'd say that the NBA playoff set-up does give the best team the chance to win the most often. Not sure if the 2-3-2 home-away set up in the Finals is better or worse for that, but for the most part, the longer series is going to favor the better team. If a team earned home court advantage in the regular season and is good enough to win all its home games, or, if a team without home court advantage is good enough to avoid any back to back losses, they'll win.

    The 7 game series also favors coaches who are good at adapting (Jackson and Riley come to mind) and teams who are consistently good on the defensive end - any team can get super-hot from the perimeter or get a single player on a night when he just can't miss no matter how tight the defense and win a one and done tournament style game, but rarely will hot-shooting win 4 games out of 7. Commitment to defensive principles and having the ability to find good shots instead of lucky shots against those defensive principles comes into play in longer series.

    A one and done style would likely have a huge impact on NBA history. Chicago lost plenty of game ones in seasons that they won the title including '91 to the Lakers (swept the rest of the series), '93 to the Knicks (lost game two and swept the rest), '98 to the Jazz (split games two and three and won the rest). Now if MJ and Phil knew that they could not recover from losing one game would they have played with increased urgency and possibly won those games? Maybe, but who knows.

  11. Cort Says:

    hi jason,
    the lakers/celtics/76ers triad in the early 1980s was pretty awesome. all averaged about 60 or more wins in those years. LA beat Philly in 1980 and 82 in the finals, boston won it in 81 and lost in the ECF in 80 and 82 to 76ers, and Philly whipped LA in the 83 finals.
    houston beat LA in 1981 and 1986; only team to beat LA in the West the entire 1980s.
    then you had LA/Boston/Detroit from 1986-89 or so....boston/NY/LA/Milwaukee was a great foursome in the 1970-74 golden era as well.
    let me throw this in about phil jackson too. great coach, but auerbach had no (zero) assistant coaches when he won his titles. phil benefited greatly from tex winter especially, he was the guy who invented the triangle offense. frank hamblen too. plus the 2000 and 2002 titles with LA were tainted. in 2010 LA wheezed to the title almost by default. the finals were intense but it wasnt real great basketball. LA shot something like 32% yet won game 7 due to offensive rebounding, FTs, boston ineptitude on offense and the injury to perkins. plus bryant was only 6-24. amazing they won it playing so poorly on offense. gasol dominated garnett on the boards too. everyone is burying gasol for LA's collapse but it was everyone. artest and fisher are done. bryant clearly in the early stages of decline. he was last year in the playoffs.

  12. Cort Says:

    hi again jason,
    the funny thing about the 2-2-1-1-1 format is that the team with home court advantage doesnt really realize that much of an advantage unless it goes 7, or 5. otherwise the teams play the same number of games at home.
    the 2-3-2 Finals format helps the team with the middle 3 games at home i think, especially if they win one of the 1st 2 on the road. it puts al ot of pressure on the team with HCA to win the first 2 games at home.
    i feel that when they started the finals 2-3-2 format in 1985 it helped LA beat boston. the celtics had just beaten LA in game 4 on a DJ jumper at the buzzer in the forum to tie it 2-2. had game 5 been back at boston as before i think they would have ridden the momentum to a win. that is what happened in 1984 when boston won in OT in LA to tie it 2-2, then blew the lakers out in game 5 during the infamous sauna game.
    instead they stayed in LA and lost to a fired up laker team stinging from the buzzer loss in game 5. LA then won in boston.
    i know it reduces the travel but having to stay for a week or so on the road in the finals isnt easy for the road team either. that is the only time all year a team would do that.

  13. BSK Says:

    Jason J-

    Thanks for weighing in. I didn't think about the impact of the series structure, but I'm sure that is a factor as well. You also brought more basketball knowledge to the conversation (e.g., how defense versus offense factors in) whereas I was simply looking at institutional structures.

    If we can say definitively that the NBA is better at crowning the best team champion... the next question is... is this a good thing? I believe it to be more of a subjective argument, as some people like upsets and underdogs and "parity" while others want to see the best man win and bristle and the apparent randomness of other setups. Some things would be measurable, such as attendance, ratings, fan perception, etc., but there would be a ton of noise in that data that would make it difficult to determine how much was the structure and how much is other things (is the NFL more popular than the NBA because its playoffs are more random or because the league has generally had better PR, etc, etc, etc...).

    Interesting conversation. Thanks for humoring my little aside and I'd love to hear from anyone else who can weigh in.

  14. Cort Says:

    should have said 1985-88 before in #11 regarding the la/det/boston triad. bird went down early in the 88-89 season and the celtics were not close to being a contender without him. one might also add milwaukee to the mix in much of the 1980s. won 7 central division titles in a row but could never get past both philly and boston in the same year.
    the nba made it much easier for the lakers to get to the finals when they moved a rising power milwaukee team from west to east before the 1980-81 season. LA had a much easier route to the finals out of a weak west after 1980 the rest of the decade.
    put boston in the west in the 80s and they win 5-7 titles, philly maybe 2. keep milwaukee out west and they get to the finals once or twice i think. instead they haven been there since 1974.

  15. Cort Says:

    yea i agree the NBA determines the best team moreso than other sports. the 1 game and out playoff sports obviously arent as good at determining champs (college and pro football, soccer, NCAA hoops). in baseball the best teams/typical division winners only win 55-62 percent of the team or so, and even a bad team can beat a better team in a short series without it being uncommon at all. pitching can make a bad team much better. hockey also can be affected a lot more by a hot goalie. the better team doesnt always win in the NBA in a best of 7, but it does more often than other sports for sure.

  16. AYC Says:

    Another way of putting that is that the NBA is more predictable/boring....

  17. NBAGuru Says:

    I hate when people say being predictable is bad. Are you a fan of basketball or are you a fan of randomness? If the former, then you should be happy to sit back and watch the best teams play for the championship.

    I know I'm in the minority of course; I actually like basketball, and think the NCAA tournament is mostly unwatchable. Just not a fan of the touchy-feely nonsense I guess.

  18. BSK Says:

    A little amateur math, and I may be way off, but let's assume two teams, one of which has a 55% chance of winning any game between the two, regardless of home court.

    In a 1 game playoff, the team wins 55% of the time.
    In a 3 game playoff, the team wins 57% of the time.
    In a 5 game playoff, the team wins 59% of the time.
    In a 7 game playoff, the team wins 61% of the time.

    Now, this doesn't really tell us anything we don't already know (that a longer series favors the better team). The bigger question is whether or not this is really true in the NBA or whether there is some sort of perception bias. I have no idea how to determine this, because it would mean agreeing on a measure of "best team".

  19. SynicFan Says:

    one thing yall arent taking into consideration is the match-up factor.

    how many times does one team "own" another team yet the "owner" doesnt meet the "ownee" come playoff time.

    Example: in the 90s, during the two years when Chicago didnt win, Houston was owned by Seattle, yet they never played in the playoffs during Houston's back to backs. when they finally met in the playoffs, Seattle did what Robinson, Ewing, Shaq and others couldnt. they BEAT THE ROCKETS.

    there are more recent examples as well, but when you talk about the "best team" winning a series, you also have to consider who those teams ARENT playing also.

  20. Cort Says:

    one of the things that has made this year's playoffs memorable and interesting is that it hasnt been predictable. the first round was as competitive top to bottom as it has been in a long time. there is more balance and less gap between 1 and 8 seeds than maybe ever. makes for exciting series and unpredictability.

  21. Jason J Says:

    SynicFan - Too true. Kenny Smith outright admitted that it was all about matchups in the mid-90s West. His Rockets always beat the Suns, and Barkley's Suns always beat the Sonics, and Gary's Sonics always beat the Rockets (until Houston picked up Charles that is).

  22. aweb Says:

    Basketball tends to have the top teams win more because it is a large sample game with 100-150 scoring plays (FG, FT) every game. Baseball has 1-20, hockey 1-15, football 1-20, each with a huge variance compared to basketball. The best teams are only about 5-10% better, like most major sports, but in each game, the actually has a chance to be borne out to a large extent. In any of the other major sports, putting together 4-5 consecutive scores makes victory very likely. In basketball, this happens for both teams several times a game, and is easily overcome. I like that basketball is like this, and it is very hard for an inferior team to pull off upsets.

    In general, the higher scoring the sport, the less likely upsets are. The NHL had dynasties in the late 70s and early 80s (Islanders, Oilers) in part because the game was higher scoring. Baseball depends too much on the starting pitcher, a factor no other sport has - it would be similar to NHL teams having a 5 goalie rotation, or NFL teams using different quarterbacks each week.

  23. Neil Paine Says:

    #22 - Great comment.

  24. aweb Says:

    Thanks, sorry for the typos. I should note the exception to the "low scoring means more upsets" rule - Soccer. Scoring is so hard to do in soccer, that the best teams often win by simply shutting out the other team, and 2-0 becomes a "blowout" win. Because of the offsides rules and the huge advantage the goalies have (using their hands...), and lots of other game dynamics I don't quite understand, it's almost impossible to score in a flukey way in high level soccer. Unlike hockey's basic scoring play - throw it at the net and hope it takes a funny bounce (I love hockey, but it can be pretty annoying sometimes).

  25. BSK Says:

    Aweb-

    Thanks! I tried to touch on that in my original post, noting that hockey had lower scores and thus more randomness, but I didn't explain it nearly as well as you did here.

  26. aweb Says:

    I should note that each sport of the big four likely contains a similar number of potential scoring plays - every pitch in baseball (~250-300/game), every snap in football including special teams (~200-300 a game?) and every puck directed toward the net in hockey (50-80 shots on goal, maybe 3x that that don't result in an offical shot) - to basketball, with ~200 shots a game (counting free throws).

    It might be more technically correct to call basketball a "high probability of success" game, rather than a large sample game, as it's really the large sample of success that matters when reducing the randomness of the outcomes. Complete success (a made shot is the best possible outcome, essentially) is frequent in basketball for the offense, but is rare in other sports where successes tend to be more partial (taking a walk, getting a first down, cycling the puck and drawing a penalty).

    Anyway, the main point stands, but I felt the need to nitpick my own post some more...

  27. Neil Paine Says:

    Which just goes to show that 10 feet of air is just not a very effective goaltender.

  28. Matt, Colombia Says:

    @24 First off, great posts. I agree with what you say about high level soccer except there are two main problems: the same teams always win their leagues because they have far superior players, yet those same teams will lose to those others and even some from inferior leagues.

    If you put the best 2 or 3 NBA teams against a D-league team, they would never lose. Ever. In Soccer, those teams that dominate their league will still lose every once in a while to teams from a lower league. That means there is some element of randomness.

    Also, when the league champs play every year in the UEFA cup, it is again very random who wins. Those champs crush their league teams sometimes 5-0, but the best teams are probably the 2 from Spain every year, but they don't always win. Finally, teams that don't win their league still win that cup.

  29. BSK Says:

    Oh really, Neil? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m43sRhRZUWI

  30. yariv Says:

    I would say that in soccer (in Europe, I don't follow the MLS) the main reasons for the dominance of some teams are:
    A) No (or very weak) equalizing mechanisms. There is no draft, no salary cap, no maximum wage, etc.
    B) No play-offs. The championships in the national leagues are decided by a double-round-robin competition. The European title is decided by a play-off style competition, and no team has won consecutive titles in 20 years.