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Commenting on the NBA Finals

Also posted at The Wages of Wins Journal

The NBA, relative to the other major sports leagues, tends to suffer from a lack of competitive balance. One way to see this, though (as I have noted before) not the only or perhaps the best way, is the distribution of championships in The Association.

The following cities have hosted an NBA champion in the past 50 years: Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Oakland (Golden State), Houston, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, St. Louis, San Antonio, Seattle, Washington D.C.

All in all, fifteen cities are on this list. And that includes St. Louis, who has not hosted an NBA team in almost 40 years.

The following cities have an NBA team but have not held a championship parade in the past 50 years: Atlanta, Charlotte, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Indiana, Memphis, Miami, Minneapolis, East Rutherford (New Jersey), New Orleans, Orlando, Phoenix, Sacramento, Toronto, Salt Lake City (Utah).

All in all, sixteen cities are on this second list. And that ignores the LA Clippers, a franchise that has failed to bring an NBA title to Buffalo, San Diego, and Los Angeles.

This year, one city on the “never won” list gets to host a parade. Either Miami or Dallas will win the NBA championship. So a new member of the championship fraternity will be welcomed.

Crowing a new champion is not the only news from the 2006 NBA Finals. As I noted a few weeks ago, there is a tendency in the NBA – more so than the other major North American sports leagues – for the eventual champion to be among the very best in the regular season. Specifically, in the past 50 years 80% of teams winning the NBA title had either the best or second best record in the NBA regular season.

Although one of the best regular season teams taking the title is a tendency we see in the data, it is not an iron-clad rule. And this year that tendency will not hold. The Mavericks had the third best regular season record, while the Heat posted the fifth best mark.

Of these two, who should be favored? The Mavericks posted the better regular season record, but the difference might be deceptive. One of Miami’s most productive players – Shaquille O’Neal – did not play in 23 regular season contests. Had Shaq played the entire season the difference in the regular season records of these teams would have been smaller.

Still, despite having a healthy Shaq, the odds are stacked against Miami. For the first three rounds of the playoffs the NBA utilizes a 2-2-1-1-1 playoff format. First two games on one team’s court, then the next two in the other team’s arena, and the last three games go back and forth.

Since 1985 the NBA has changed the format for the Finals. In the Finals the format is 2-3-2. Since going to this format the team with home court advantage has won 16 of the 21 Finals contested. That works out to a 76% success rate for the team with the home advantage.

Why the steep odds for the team without the home court advantage? Even if the Heat take one of the first two games in Dallas, the Heat would have to win three straight games in Miami to avoid sending the series back to Dallas. In other words, Miami has to win the series 4-0 or 4-1 to avoid trying to win the title on their opponent’s home floor. So the Heat are battling steep odds.

Of course these are only odds. Although the tendencies we see in the data go against the Heat, these are only tendencies. And given how other playoff trends in the playoffs have fallen this year, perhaps the Heat can count on one more tendency to falter this June.