Why the 2015 NBA playoffs feel wide open – but probably shouldn’t

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The Golden State Warriors just completed one of the best regular seasons of all-time.

They went 67-15, posting the NBA’s best defense and second-best offense. They won their six fastest-paced games of the year and their six slowest-paced. They have two All-Stars (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson), a probable MVP (Curry), a probable Defensive Player of the Year (Draymond Green), someone who might be even better defensively (Andrew Bogut), a possible Sixth Man of the Year (Andre Iguodala) and a possible Coach of the Year (Steve Kerr). They project to get substantially better once they narrow their playoff rotation.

Of the 16 teams to win 65 games in a season, 13 won the title.

So why aren’t the Warriors treated as overwhelming favorites to win the 2015 championship?

I suspect it’s because they didn’t win a playoff series last season.

There’s comfort in familiarity, and this year, there’s little familiarity with the NBA’s top regular-season teams performing well in the postseason. The Warriors haven’t played a series as the higher seed since 1992 or won a series as the higher seed since 1977. The Cavaliers had been miserable for the last four years. Neither the Hawks nor Clippers have ever made the conference finals (though Atlanta reached what was then called the division finals). The Rockets have won only one playoff series since 1997.

That’s why so many people are clinging to the sixth-seeded Spurs, who are the defending champions, have reached the last two NBA Finals and have made 18 straight postseasons.

San Antonio is really the only familiar contender in the field. Last year’s other conference-finalists – the Thunder, Heat and Pacers – missed the playoffs entirely.

Since the NBA went to a 16-team playoff format in 1984, just nine conference-finalists missed the playoffs the following year – 2010 Suns, 2004 Lakers, 2004 Timberwolves, 2001 Bucks, 1998 Bulls and 1988 Mavericks and a whopping three from last season.

Most years, there are more returning conference-finalists as No. 1 seeds than there are returning conference-finalists in the entire 2014 postseason at any seed. Every single year, there had been a returning conference-finalist in a top-two seed.

This year, it’s the sixth-seeded Spurs, and that’s it.

Here’s each postseason in the current format and the seeds held by returning conference-finalists:

  • 2015: 6, X, X, X (SAS, IND, MIA, OKC)
  • 2014: 1, 1, 2, 7 (IND, SAS, MIA, MEM)
  • 2013: 1, 1, 2, 7 (MIA, OKC, SAS, BOS)
  • 2012: 1, 2, 2, 7 (CHI, MIA, OKC, DAL)
  • 2011: 2, 3, 4, X (LAL, BOS, ORL, PHO)
  • 2010: 1, 1, 2, 4 (CLE, LAL, ORL, DEN)
  • 2009: 1, 2, 3, 8 (LAL, BOS, SAS, DET)
  • 2008: 2, 3, 4, 4 (DET, SAS, CLE, UTA)
  • 2007: 1, 1, 2, 4 (DAL, DET, PHO, MIA)
  • 2006: 1, 1, 2, 2 (DET, SAS, MIA, PHO)
  • 2005: 2, 6, X, X (DET, IND, LAL, MIN)
  • 2004: 2, 3, 3, 5 (NJN, SAS, DET, DAL)
  • 2003: 2, 2, 5, 6 (SAC, NJN, LAL, BOS)
  • 2002: 2, 3, 6, X (SAS, LAL, PHI, MIL)
  • 2001: 2, 4, 7, 8 (LAL, NYK, POR, IND)
  • 2000: 1, 3, 3, 4 (IND, NYK, POR, SAS)
  • 1999: 2, 3, 4, X (IND, UTA, LAL, CHI)
  • 1998: 1, 1, 2, 8 (UTA, CHI, MIA, HOU)
  • 1997: 1, 1, 2, 7 (UTA, CHI, SEA, ORL)
  • 1996: 2, 2, 3, 5 (ORL, SAS, IND, HOU)
  • 1995: 2, 3, 3, 6 (IND, NYK, UTA, HOU)
  • 1994: 1, 2, 3, 3 (SEA, NYK, PHO, CHI)
  • 1993: 2, 3, 4, 6 (CHI, CLE, POR, UTA)
  • 1992: 1, 1, 5, 8 (POR, CHI, DET, LAL)
  • 1991: 1, 1, 3, 4 (CHI, POR, DET, PHO)
  • 1990: 1, 1, 3, 5 (DET, LAL, CHI, PHO)
  • 1989: 1, 1, 8, X (LAL, DET, BOS, DAL)
  • 1988: 1, 1, 2, 7 (BOS, LAL, DET, SEA)
  • 1987: 1, 1, 4, 6 (LAL, BOS, MIL, HOU)
  • 1986: 1, 1, 3, 3 (BOS, LAL, DEN, PHI)
  • 1985: 1, 1, 2, 8 (LAL, BOS, MIL, PHO)

It’s jarring how much 2015 sticks out, and I think this has created a false sense of parity.

But everything we know about the Warriors suggests they have filled the vacuum created when LeBron James left the Heat, Paul George got hurt and Kevin Durant got hurt.

The Warriors might not win the title (the field is always a safe bet). But if you don’t consider them clear favorites – especially if you’re picking the Spurs – consider whether you’re leaning too much on comfort rather than a sober view of the season.