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Everybody always says the playoffs are a whole different ballgame.

Oh sure, the equipment and playing conditions are the same, so too the rule book – though many may want to contend that the officials utilize a whole different “Case Book” once the regular season has expired.

On the other hand, the ebb and flow of a stretch of win-or-go-home play – a stretch that could extend to two full weeks and seven games – against a single opponent creates a competitive environment unique from other formats. It’s neither the purely physical duel of the 100-yard dash (as found in single elimination, like March Madness of the NFL’s run-up to the Super Bowl), nor the cagy endurance contest that is the mile run.

Rather, it’s a little (too much?) of each, like the 440, that scourge of all runners – one lap, one-quarter of a mile. Sometimes your burst erodes the competition’s will-to-win coming out of the first turn, other times you’re in for a scrum all the way to the wire.

The sports world’s power brokers have ever deemed the post-season a more valuable product – especially when affixing a price tag to such commodities as broadcast rights and ticket packages.

But is “more valuable” necessarily “better”? Do the playoffs – specifically the NBA Playoffs over the past couple of seasons – provide the consumer a measurably higher quality of play?

Allow me to put a ruler – or should I say an abacus? – to that matter.

2015-16 Average Team performance (per game)

Reg. Season -- Post-season

Points: 102.7 -- Points: 99.8
FG: 38.2 – 84.6, .452 -- FG -- 36.5 – 83.1, .440
3FG: 8.5 – 24.1, .354 -- 3FG 9.1 – 25.8, .353
3Par: .285 – 3Par .310
FT: 17.7 – 23.4, .757 -- FT 17.6 – 23.6, .747
(Off/Tot) Reb: 10.4 / 43.8 -- (Off/Tot) Reb: 10.5 / 43.0
OR%: .238 -- OR% .244
TO: 14.4, .132 -- TO 12.5, .118
Possessions: 96.5 -- Possessions: 92.8
Rate of Conversion: .493 -- Rate of Conversion: .495 

 2016-17 Average Team performance (per game)  [playoff stats thru Conf. Finals]

Reg. Season -- Post-season

Points: 105.6 -- Points: 105.2
FG 39.0 – 85.4, .457 -- FG -- 38.3 – 83.2, .460
3FG 9.7 – 27.0, .358 -- 3FG 10.3 – 28.6, .359
3Par .316 – 3Par .344
FT 17.8 – 23.1, .772 -- FT 18.4 – 23.7, .776
(Off/Tot) Reb: 10.1 / 43.5 -- (Off/Tot) Reb: 9.6 / 41.5
OR% .233 -- OR% .230
TO 14.0, .127 -- TO 12.7, .119
Possessions: 97.1 -- Possessions: 94.3
Rate of Conversion: .498 -- Rate of Conversion: .506

Well, that data doesn’t show us much difference beyond a post-season drop in Turnovers and Possessions/Pace, and a rise in three-point usage. A slower pace seems to nudge up offensive efficiency (Conv. Rate). Surprising, perhaps, that FT attempts go up ever so slightly in the “Let ‘em Play”-offs.

How Elite are the Elite?

Now, let’s acknowledge that banners are not raised to rafters on the basis of the “least mediocre” play, and the numbers of the Warriors and Cavs (especially during this season’s combined 24-1 romp to the Finals) bear this out:

Cleveland / Golden State Average Playoff performance (per game)

2015-16 -- 2016-17

Points: 106.3 -- Points: 117.5
FG 38.6 – 83.4, .461 -- FG -- 41.7 – 82.7, .504
3FG 12.5 – 31.4, .399 -- 3FG 13.4 – 32.4, .412
3Par .374 – 3Par .392
FT 16.5 – 22.6, .731 -- FT 20.7 – 26.1, .792
(Off/Tot) Reb: 10.6 / 43.2 -- (Off/Tot) Reb: 8.2 / 43.4
OR% .245 -- OR% .238
TO 12.6, .119 -- TO 13.2, .123
Possessions: 93.6 -- Possessions: 98.1
Rate of Conversion: .509 -- Rate of Conversion: .532

Unfortunately, those impressive numbers delivered us a 2016 NBA Finals in which the average margin of victory was 17.4 points, and only Game 7 provided victory by fewer than 11 points. The average 2016 Playoff contest was decided by 14.5 points; only nine of 86 games were decided by no more than three points (one possession).

This year’s 74 games through three rounds show an average victory margin of 13.5 points, again a mere nine of them determined by a single possession.

Golden State led the league in per-game point differential during the regular season at 12.3, up from their +9.3 en-route to 73 wins, which was second to the Spurs +10.5. San Antonio’s average edge matched the largest deficit of ’15-16, which was posted by Phoenix. This season’s worst PPG differential belonged to Luke Walton’s Lakers at just 6.9.

Here’s the distribution of outcomes in recent playoff times.

1 – 5 points: 2016 – 18, .209 / 2017 – 18, .243
6 – 10 points: 2016 – 18, .209 / 2017 – 14, .189
11 – 15 points: 2016 – 19, .221 / 2017 – 20, .270
16 – 20 points: 2016 – 8, .093 / 2017 – 3, .041
21+ points: 2016 – 23, .267 / 2017 – 19, .257

In a styles-make-fights sort of way, a long series with its capacity to shift gears – like last year’s 1-3 comebacks, or the Celtics’ U-turn on the Bulls – will ever intrigue … even when the play itself doesn’t quite compel.

Abacus Revelation for the Road

Is it time to revisit the NBA’s playoff format?

Here’s an idea that could help in a couple of areas.

First, expand the playoff field to 20 teams, but have seeds No. 7 – 10 whittle themselves down (pick yer poison: single/double elimination, best-of-three), leaving seven teams per conference.

Incentivize the best record in the conference by giving the No. 1 seed a bye into the Conference Semi-Finals.

From that point, proceed as normal with best-of-sevens.

The total number of games to offer the TV partners is comparable, teams start off in a state of urgency … might even put a small dent in the tanking epidemic?


images: foxsportsradio.com, usatoday.com, si.com

Abacus Reveals 6/05/2017 12:53:00 PM Edit
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