Bill James, the legendary baseball statistician, has said the problem with the NBA is the best team almost always wins.
In baseball, the summer-long 162-game season gives you the best teams in each division, but the best-of-seven playoff series involves a lot of luck and favors hot pitchers and bullpens. In the NFL the playoffs are single elimination, favoring the hottest team not always the best team. Same with the NCAA college basketball tournament.
But the NBA, with its best of seven, heavily favors the heavily favorite. Put simply, at the start of the NBA season you can name the five teams most likely to win an NBA title and 9 times out of 10 your champion comes from that group.
Which makes this season’s NBA playoffs interesting. Sure, we may still wind up with Lakers vs. Celtics in the finals, but this year there will be upsets and new faces.
Could an underdog actually hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the season?
Well, define underdog. Do you mean a team that is an underdog in its first-round playoff matchup? Then no. Look, maybe the Knicks get by the Celtics, or the Trail Blazers knock off the Mavericks, but do you really think New York or Portland are making a run all the way to the NBA finals? I like LaMarcus Aldridge and Gerald Wallace as much as the next guy, but Portland would have to get past the Lakers and the Spurs just to reach the finals. The Knicks would still have the Heat and Bulls just to get to the finals. So, no, that’s not really happening.
But, could someone we didn’t expect at the start of the year win the title?
The Chicago Bulls fit that bill. And if defense wins championships then they have a real chance because nobody defends like them, taking away what other teams are comfortable with, closing out on shooters. They get enough offense from Derrick Rose, at least they did during the regular season. That will be the test, when teams start trapping Rose and daring anyone else to beat them who will step up. The Bulls will still execute better than anyone on defense, but will their offense be up to the task.
Out west, the Oklahoma City Thunder fit the bill. There were everybody’s darling when they were running up and down the court and pushing the Lakers to six games last year. Now they are more mature and they added Kendrick Perkins to address a need in the paint. They are on the verge of a breakthrough, and they should get past Denver in the first round.
They likely face San Antonio in the second round, and that will be their big test — the Thunder are the more athletic team, but have they matured in how to use that athleticism enough overcome the calm, efficient execution of the Spurs. Will Kevin Durant be a playoff assassin, will Russell Westbrook use his quickness within the system. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was worried they could and said last week that his team would be challenged trying to run up and down the court with the Thunder.
If the Thunder defend, if they get Durant and Westbrook going, they can beat anyone. They can beat the Spurs, they can beat the Lakers. They are contenders.
Still, maybe not this year. But in a couple of years, expect to see a Thunder vs. Bulls finals. But by then they will be the favorites.