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Do the Finals Contain the Best Teams in Each Conference?

Posted by Neil Paine on May 30, 2011

Although we like to think "the best team always wins a best-of-7 series", variance plays a much bigger role than we'd care to admit. I found here that the best team in a given season usually wins the NBA title about 48% of the time -- and that's actually an incredibly high rate compared to other sports like baseball (29%), pro football (24%), and college basketball (34%).

Truth be told, playoffs are mainly designed as entertainment, with "finding the best team" as a secondary goal. And there's nothing wrong with that. If we forced teams to play enough to have statistical certainty, it would require a completely impractical number of games. For the fan's sake, it is necessary to achieve a balance between watchability and the feeling that what we watched wasn't a total fluke. And really, the NBA probably does this better than any other sport.

But we still have to acknowledge that the best team does not always win, nor do the NBA Finals necessarily contain the best teams in each conference. Can we put a number on how probable it is that a given Finals matchup did in fact contain the best from each conference? Using a very simplified version of Prof. Jesse Frey's Method for determining the probability that a given team was the true best team in some particular year (with assists from these posts), I calculated that probability for every Finals matchup since 1984, when the playoffs expanded to 16 teams.

Here are those Finals, ranked from the greatest certainty that the two teams were their respective conferences' best to the least certainty:


1. 1996 Finals - Chicago Bulls vs. Seattle SuperSonics (71.8%)
Chicago's intra-conference record: 47-7
Probability of Chicago being the East's true best: 96.7%

Seattle's intra-conference record: 42-10
Probability of Seattle being the West's true best: 74.2%

Nielsen Rating: 16.7


2. 1985 Finals - Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers (58.5%)
Boston's intra-conference record: 43-15
Probability of Boston being the East's true best: 60.9%

Los Angeles' intra-conference record: 47-13
Probability of Los Angeles being the West's true best: 95.6%

Nielsen Rating: 13.7


3. 1984 Finals - Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers (37.9%)
Boston's intra-conference record: 43-15
Probability of Boston being the East's true best: 84.1%

Los Angeles' intra-conference record: 39-21
Probability of Los Angeles being the West's true best: 45.0%

Nielsen Rating: 12.3


4. 1997 Finals - Chicago Bulls vs. Utah Jazz (36.5%)
Chicago's intra-conference record: 44-10
Probability of Chicago being the East's true best: 77.3%

Utah's intra-conference record: 41-11
Probability of Utah being the West's true best: 47.5%

Nielsen Rating: 16.8


5. 1989 Finals - Detroit Pistons vs. Los Angeles Lakers (31.2%)
Detroit's intra-conference record: 41-15
Probability of Detroit being the East's true best: 54.1%

Los Angeles' intra-conference record: 43-15
Probability of Los Angeles being the West's true best: 58.0%

Nielsen Rating: 15.1


6. 1988 Finals - Detroit Pistons vs. Los Angeles Lakers (30.2%)
Detroit's intra-conference record: 39-19
Probability of Detroit being the East's true best: 41.1%

Los Angeles' intra-conference record: 46-14
Probability of Los Angeles being the West's true best: 73.0%

Nielsen Rating: 15.4


7. 2008 Finals - Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers (28.9%)
Boston's intra-conference record: 41-11
Probability of Boston being the East's true best: 66.7%

Los Angeles' intra-conference record: 37-15
Probability of Los Angeles being the West's true best: 43.1%

Nielsen Rating: 9.3


8. 1987 Finals - Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers (25.9%)
Boston's intra-conference record: 38-20
Probability of Boston being the East's true best: 30.8%

Los Angeles' intra-conference record: 47-13
Probability of Los Angeles being the West's true best: 84.3%

Nielsen Rating: 15.9


9. 1992 Finals - Chicago Bulls vs. Portland Trail Blazers (25.5%)
Chicago's intra-conference record: 47-9
Probability of Chicago being the East's true best: 88.9%

Portland's intra-conference record: 37-17
Probability of Portland being the West's true best: 28.9%

Nielsen Rating: 14.2


10. 1991 Finals - Chicago Bulls vs. Los Angeles Lakers (22.8%)
Chicago's intra-conference record: 42-12
Probability of Chicago being the East's true best: 88.1%

Los Angeles' intra-conference record: 40-16
Probability of Los Angeles being the West's true best: 26.2%

Nielsen Rating: 15.8


11. 2000 Finals - Indiana Pacers vs. Los Angeles Lakers (15.9%)
Indiana's intra-conference record: 36-18
Probability of Indiana being the East's true best: 25.8%

Los Angeles' intra-conference record: 40-12
Probability of Los Angeles being the West's true best: 61.7%

Nielsen Rating: 11.6


12. 1993 Finals - Chicago Bulls vs. Phoenix Suns (11.6%)
Chicago's intra-conference record: 39-17
Probability of Chicago being the East's true best: 22.3%

Phoenix's intra-conference record: 40-14
Probability of Phoenix being the West's true best: 51.6%

Nielsen Rating: 17.9


13. 1990 Finals - Detroit Pistons vs. Portland Trail Blazers (10.0%)
Detroit's intra-conference record: 40-14
Probability of Detroit being the East's true best: 52.7%

Portland's intra-conference record: 41-15
Probability of Portland being the West's true best: 18.9%

Nielsen Rating: 12.3


14. 2009 Finals - Orlando Magic vs. Los Angeles Lakers (8.7%)
Orlando's intra-conference record: 37-15
Probability of Orlando being the East's true best: 9.2%

Los Angeles' intra-conference record: 44-8
Probability of Los Angeles being the West's true best: 94.5%

Nielsen Rating: 8.4


15. 1998 Finals - Chicago Bulls vs. Utah Jazz (5.9%)
Chicago's intra-conference record: 42-12
Probability of Chicago being the East's true best: 55.6%

Utah's intra-conference record: 38-14
Probability of Utah being the West's true best: 10.7%

Nielsen Rating: 18.7


16. 2002 Finals - New Jersey Nets vs. Los Angeles Lakers (5.1%)
New Jersey's intra-conference record: 35-19
Probability of New Jersey being the East's true best: 18.5%

Los Angeles' intra-conference record: 37-15
Probability of Los Angeles being the West's true best: 27.0%

Nielsen Rating: 10.2


17. 2001 Finals - Philadelphia 76ers vs. Los Angeles Lakers (4.8%)
Philadelphia's intra-conference record: 40-14
Probability of Philadelphia being the East's true best: 47.8%

Los Angeles' intra-conference record: 34-18
Probability of Los Angeles being the West's true best: 10.0%

Nielsen Rating: 12.1


18. 2011 Finals - Miami Heat vs. Dallas Mavericks (4.5%)
Miami's intra-conference record: 38-14
Probability of Miami being the East's true best: 28.3%

Dallas' intra-conference record: 35-17
Probability of Dallas being the West's true best: 15.2%

Nielsen Rating: ???


19. 2003 Finals - New Jersey Nets vs. San Antonio Spurs (4.3%)
New Jersey's intra-conference record: 34-20
Probability of New Jersey being the East's true best: 13.9%

San Antonio's intra-conference record: 36-16
Probability of San Antonio being the West's true best: 31.5%

Nielsen Rating: 6.5


20. 1986 Finals - Boston Celtics vs. Houston Rockets (3.8%)
Boston's intra-conference record: 48-10
Probability of Boston being the East's true best: 96.3%

Houston's intra-conference record: 38-22
Probability of Houston being the West's true best: 4.0%

Nielsen Rating: 14.1


21. 2006 Finals - Miami Heat vs. Dallas Mavericks (2.0%)
Miami's intra-conference record: 35-17
Probability of Miami being the East's true best: 14.9%

Dallas' intra-conference record: 37-15
Probability of Dallas being the West's true best: 11.8%

Nielsen Rating: 8.5


22. 2005 Finals - Detroit Pistons vs. San Antonio Spurs (1.9%)
Detroit's intra-conference record: 35-17
Probability of Detroit being the East's true best: 8.0%

San Antonio's intra-conference record: 36-16
Probability of San Antonio being the West's true best: 23.4%

Nielsen Rating: 8.2


23. 1994 Finals - New York Knicks vs. Houston Rockets (1.8%)
New York's intra-conference record: 40-16
Probability of New York being the East's true best: 26.7%

Houston's intra-conference record: 38-16
Probability of Houston being the West's true best: 6.6%

Nielsen Rating: 12.4


24. 2007 Finals - Cleveland Cavaliers vs. San Antonio Spurs (1.3%)
Cleveland's intra-conference record: 31-21
Probability of Cleveland being the East's true best: 4.9%

San Antonio's intra-conference record: 38-14
Probability of San Antonio being the West's true best: 27.6%

Nielsen Rating: 6.2


25. 2004 Finals - Detroit Pistons vs. Los Angeles Lakers (1.3%)
Detroit's intra-conference record: 37-17
Probability of Detroit being the East's true best: 17.0%

Los Angeles' intra-conference record: 31-21
Probability of Los Angeles being the West's true best: 7.3%

Nielsen Rating: 11.5


26. 2010 Finals - Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers (1.0%)
Boston's intra-conference record: 33-19
Probability of Boston being the East's true best: 3.9%

Los Angeles' intra-conference record: 35-17
Probability of Los Angeles being the West's true best: 25.8%

Nielsen Rating: 10.6


27. 1999 Finals - New York Knicks vs. San Antonio Spurs (0.7%)
New York's intra-conference record: 24-21
Probability of New York being the East's true best: 1.7%

San Antonio's intra-conference record: 33-11
Probability of San Antonio being the West's true best: 39.8%

Nielsen Rating: 11.3


28. 1995 Finals - Orlando Magic vs. Houston Rockets (0.1%)
Orlando's intra-conference record: 39-17
Probability of Orlando being the East's true best: 42.0%

Houston's intra-conference record: 27-27
Probability of Houston being the West's true best: 0.1%

Nielsen Rating: 13.9

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10 Responses to “Do the Finals Contain the Best Teams in Each Conference?”

  1. Mike in Detroit Says:

    This does not take into account that some teams that win a title have no problem not winning their division. They are more concerned with being rested for the playoffs. You can't determine who is the best team with just numbers. You have to know the context behind the numbers.

  2. Luke Says:

    Can we get a list of which teams were supposedly the best in each conference for each of these years?

  3. Neil Paine Says:

    We can never know for sure who the true best team in each conference was, but here is the data for the most likely best teams:

    Year Conf Team Cnf. Rec p(best) Conf Team Cnf. Rec p(best)
    2011 East CHI 39-13 43% West SAS 38-14 51%
    2010 East ORL 39-13 53% West LAL 35-17 26%
    2010 West PHO 35-17 26%
    2009 East BOS 41-11 52% West LAL 44-8 95%
    2008 East BOS 41-11 67% West LAL 37-15 43%
    2007 East CHI 36-16 39% West DAL 40-12 61%
    2007 East DET 36-16 39%
    2006 East DET 39-13 67% West SAS 42-10 86%
    2005 East MIA 41-11 85% West PHO 38-14 49%
    2004 East IND 41-13 73% West SAS 35-17 36%
    2003 East DET 35-19 22% West SAC 36-16 31%
    2003 East IND 35-19 22% West SAS 36-16 31%
    2002 East DET 38-16 52% West SAS 38-14 40%
    2001 East PHI 40-14 48% West SAS 39-13 69%
    2000 East CHH 36-18 26% West LAL 40-12 62%
    2000 East IND 36-18 26%
    1999 East ORL 30-14 32% West SAS 33-11 40%
    1999 West UTA 33-11 40%
    1998 East CHI 42-12 56% West LAL 42-10 63%
    1997 East CHI 44-10 77% West UTA 41-11 48%
    1996 East CHI 47-7 97% West SEA 42-10 74%
    1995 East ORL 39-17 42% West SAS 41-13 61%
    1994 East ATL 42-14 54% West SEA 44-10 85%
    1993 East NYK 42-14 66% West PHO 40-14 52%
    1992 East CHI 47-9 89% West POR 37-17 29%
    1992 West UTA 37-17 29%
    1991 East CHI 42-12 88% West POR 42-14 56%
    1990 East DET 40-14 53% West LAL 44-12 61%
    1989 East DET 41-15 54% West LAL 43-15 58%
    1988 East BOS 39-19 41% West LAL 46-14 73%
    1988 East DET 39-19 41%
    1987 East ATL 38-20 31% West LAL 47-13 84%
    1987 East BOS 38-20 31%
    1986 East BOS 48-10 96% West LAL 47-13 93%
    1985 East BOS 43-15 61% West LAL 47-13 96%
    1984 East BOS 43-15 84% West LAL 39-21 45%
  4. Ricardo Says:

    Hilariously, Bill Simmons said that in The Book of Basketball the 1997 Utah Jazz weren't as good as their 1988 or 1992 iterations. Shockingly, the data proves him wrong yet again.

  5. pm Says:

    Ricardo, not really. His point was that the NBA was a lot weaker in 1997 than in 1988 or 1992. So there record is tainted because of weak competition. I agree with him to a certain extent because in 1988 there were 23 teams in the NBA, by 1996, there were 29 teams. That is a huge expansion of the rosters and the international player boom really didn't start until the last decade.

  6. Matt, Colombia Says:

    What would this look like using SRS?

  7. k Says:

    @4/5

    Simmons has some real issues with bias, that go beyond his homerism for NE teams.

    One of them appears to be his dislike for the 90s Jazz.

    Circular logic and whatever method necessary to arrive at his preferred conclusions are easily spotted, such as his argument that the Jazz were favored to beat the 1996 Sonics (where? Seriously, where?) in a seven game series where the latter had won 64 games versus Utah's 55, and that this proved that Sloan's group were "chokers".

    The obvious point would be, somewhere in there, that Utah was the better team, then, right?

    Well, no, not really, as Simmons then goes on to argue that Utah could only make the Finals after the conference got weaker on talent. Yet his earlier argument assumes that Utah should have easily beaten the best team in the conference, Seattle, in 1996.

    I also find his conclusion that Utah benefited from a weak West to be seriously suspect, and likely stemming very simply from the fact that he disliked the outcome of Utah representing the West two straight years. Within that, when Seattle beats Utah, complete with an ailing Stockton, by four total points in a game 7 home game for the 1996 conference title, this proves that the West was stronger; yet when Utah beats a Rockets team that has three hall of fame players, that also just beat a Sonics team that was very similar on roster talent to the 1996 iteration, this proves that the West was weak.

    Something tells me that if Houston had won the West, we'd be hearing from this same guy that the 1997 playoffs were amongst the greatest ever, particularly the Finals matchup.

    Further, Utah -- over the course of those two playoff runs -- defeated four teams with records of 55 wins or better, and came within a few baskets of twice defeating the Dynasty Bulls, including losing the first Finals by a combined four points to a selfsame Bulls team that won 69 games. Comparing by way of another era -- namely Simmons' preferred (that of his youth) of the 1980s -- the Lakers didn't defeat a single team with 55 wins or better in the conference playoffs over a 4 year span, and usually played opponents with barely better than .500 records throughout those conference playoffs; in fact, for the conference title in 1987, they played a team with 39 wins. In 1984 they played the Suns, a team with 41 victories.

    Yet would Simmons question the quality of those Lakers teams based on those opponents? Of course not, because that may say something negative about the 80s Celtics and that overall era by proxy.

    Simmons, I'm sure, would argue that this lack of competition points to a top-heavy league in the mid 80s, which means that the very best truly were great teams. Is that a workable argument? Sure. But it also works and carries through to the late 90s when, unfortunately, Utah was probably the second best team in the league while Jordan was dominating.

    And Utah, even under that rubric, faced what appears to be far tougher competition -- even if or argued as top-heavy competition -- than the 80s Lakers, defeating teams with impressive records on a regular basis in May. Whereas LAL actually had a sub-.500 record for a number of years against teams with 50+ wins in the playoffs.

    I think, like a great many people, Simmons hated those 90s Utah teams, particularly their stars, and that this shows in his poor argumentation. Some of his debates with Hollinger on Malone and Stockton have shown this as well, as he also tries to press the idea that Malone's stats were falsely created through pace -- even though Malone's stats stayed steady from the time of a far faster league to a far slower one.

    But then, I also think that Simmons is a pretty poor sports mind that gets by on leftover jokes from Jimmy Kimmel, itself a terrible talk show.

  8. k Says:

    So far as this list, it's rather limited parameter being used -- which on some level is very arguably the key to definition -- and that it does little to justify the idea of "best" beyond that limiting definition.

    Best in conference? On some limited level, sure. But does conference record truly prove which team was the best for a given year?

    The power of subjectivity, versus or as a subversion of ordinary language philosophy.

    The only problem I have with this post, really, is that it bites off more than it can chew on the basis of statistical analysis as broad-based conclusion. It offers itself up as a subject that it can't really encompass or prove out.

    Statistical systems are limited, numbers are constant. But *watching* games and teams play is a numeric basis that often gets forgotten with those same systems, which leads to bad equations and, therefore, conclusions.

  9. k Says:

    Nothing like the bad taste of replying to yourself (twice?), but Simmons is such a biased source that he's even pushed the idea that Kevin McHale was a better Power Forward than Malone.

    Seeing him rant for three paragraphs in a chat transcript about how the late 90s were the worst modern basketball has been, all to attack the career of Karl Malone, really drove home what a petty, reductive source this guy is. And you could tell how serious he was, since there wasn't a single joke or hamfisted pop culture reference in those three paragraphs.

    And, or course, there still isn't all that much evidence to support his stance on quality of competition, particularly as regards the West in the late 90s.

    The 96/97/98 Sonics, Lakers (96 they draft Kobe, pick up Horry, and a guy named Shaq), Rockets and Spurs (bad 97, strong in 96&98) were poor teams? Really? And how does he draw this conclusion? With little more than the circular argument that Utah was superior during this period, with the fact that there were two expansion teams as an addendum. But as an argument regarding skillsets and worth, even if the *teams* were worse during this time, how does this prove that Karl Malone was a lacking player? The conflation of team result with individual greatness is typically myopic and self-serving, which is how a Boston Dynasty homer like Simmons can surmise and justify Kevin McHale>>>Karl Malone.

  10. huevonkiller Says:

    A lot of Celtic fans are huge homers, no biggie.