Luckiest Teams in the Playoffs

My last post described the chances the Heat have of winning the championship this year, and how it is happening despite the Cavs being one of the dominant two-year teams of the past two decades.  So how unlucky were the Cavs?  I decided to look through the playoffs of the past 8 years or so and find the biggest upsets according to my playoff model.  Here are some highlights (or, if your team was on the wrong end of things, the lowlights):

Boston (6 seed) over Indiana (3), 2003: 14% chance.  Despite having All-Stars Jermaine O’Neal and Brad Miller along with Ron Artest, Reggie Miller, and the immortal Austin Crochere, the Pacers couldn’t overcome the Celtics.  Perhaps an early sign that Isiah Thomas shouldn’t be in charge of things.

Lakers (2) over Spurs  (3), 2004: 16% chance.  While most people probably consider the Pistons’ victory over the Lakers in the championship to be the odd series here, the Lakers were fairly weak at a 3.9 differential while the Spurs were a ridiculously strong 3 seed at 7.2 (best in the league that year; the Pistons were a 5.8).  The Spurs were the home team despite having the lower seed, making the outcome even less likely.  This is the series that featured Kobe flying back and forth to games from his trial in Colorado and Derek Fisher’s turn-around jumper with .4 seconds left to win game 5 in San Antonio.

Detroit (2) over Miami (1), 2005: 20.4% chance.  The year after the Pistons won the title, and the year before the Heat would win theirs, Detroit beat Miami despite having to go on the road and being 2.6 points worse than their opponents.  Miami may have been disadvantaged by injuries to Shaq and Wade.

Miami (2) over Detroit (1), 2006: 20.4% chance.  The exact role reversal occurred the next year, with underdog Miami going on the road and beating the number 1 seed Pistons, who were 2.6 points better this year.  The Pistons had a better point differential than Dallas, so the championship series wasn’t quite as unlucky, although still definitely an upset.

Golden State (8) over Dallas (1), 2007: 3.7% chance.  What has to be considered the biggest upset in the last decade is indeed the worst: the Warriors knocking the Mavs out in the first round.  The Mavs’ misfortune was really the Jazz’s gain, as the fairly average 4 seed was able to go to the conference finals and would have been a coin flip to win the title against the Cavs had they pulled it out against the Spurs (although the Jazz got lucky just to get out of the first round against Houston).  The Warriors’ win was attributed at least in part to the amazing crowds for the home games in Oakland, but it might also be due to the Mavs following the adjusted plus/minus advice of stats adviser Wayne Winston and going to a small line-up instead of the one that got them 67 wins.  The lesson, as always: don’t use adjusted plus/minus.

2008: Nothing weird happened.  Every series was won by the team that was the favorite according to the model.  This in itself is an upset; as the series’ above have shown, there’s usually at least one 4:1 dog who manages to win.  And actually, that’s the way it should be.  There are 15 series in the playoffs; even if every one of them went off with the home team an 80% favorite, the underdog should win 3 times.  Usually the teams are more evenly matched than this, particularly after the first round, so upsets aren’t as surprising and there should be more than 3 each year.  It’s honestly amazing there aren’t more of them.  So 2008 was unpredictably predictable (and predictably the year my multinomial model had its best showing).

Orlando (3) over Cleveland (1), 2009: 23% chance.  The first knockout for LeBron when he was on his way to a title.  This might be especially bad because had they won, the Cavs would have been just under 70% to win the championship against the Lakers.  I’ll mostly remember this series because they always show LeBron’s buzzer-beating three pointer to win game 2 in commercials.  It was fairly close overall, as the Magic won the first game with a three-pointer with 14.7 seconds left and game 4 in overtime.

Boston (4) over Orlando (2) and Cleveland (1), 2010: 13.9 and 19.2% chance.  The second victory, over Orlando in the conference championship, was less likely since Orlando had a better point differential than Cleveland.  Thus this one shouldn’t be quite as heartbreaking for Cavs fans, since they would have been only a coin flip to move past the Magic and 74% against the Lakers.  So in 2009 they were 70% away from a title; in 2010 they were 36% away.  The real story here is Boston, who only had a 2.7% chance of winning both of those series.  Even if you believe that the Celtics were saving their guys for the playoffs, and thus would have had a better regular season if they played all-out, I don’t think you could move them up to much more than a 5 point differential (they actually put up a 3.7), which means they still only had about an 8% chance to win those two series on the road.

So, since the 2003 playoffs, the luckiest team was either last year’s Celtics or the 2007 Warriors, depending on if you want to combine two series or not.  There are a lot of unlucky teams here; the 2004 Spurs would have been slight favorites to win the conference and NBA championships if they hadn’t lost to the Lakers; the 2005 Heat would have been about as likely to win had they gotten past the Pistons; the Pistons would have been 64% favorites against Dallas in 2006; and the Cavs had good chances at winning each of the past 2 years.  Of course, if you’ve been paying attention, you know the Cavs are the biggest losers here; the Spurs, Lakers, and Pistons have all won titles in the last decade while Cleveland has been shut out of both trophies and any chance at getting one in the near future since LeBron has taken his talents to South Beach.

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