As the NBA’s annual play-in tournament plays out over the next few days, we’re sure to hear a lot of talk about which of the teams involved is the greatest threat to “make some noise” in the playoffs. The fact that three of those teams have made the NBA Finals in recent years (and one of them is LeBron James’s team) surely has a lot to do with that, but so does the perception that this year’s title race is more wide-open than in years past — a perception that has been present since before the season even began. Throw in the fact that the play-in teams are the only ones playing actual games until the weekend, and you’ve got the perfect environment for the pundits to fire off some hot takes about which of them poses the greatest danger to the top seeds.
A word of caution, though: In the three years of the play-in’s existence — either as a one-game format in 2020 or a multi-game bracket starting in 2021 — not a single team that made it out has won a first-round playoff series. Those teams are 0-9 overall, and none of the nine series in which they’ve been involved has even made it to a seventh game.
You might think that poor track record is indicative of the recent play-in victors being particularly weak seventh- or eighth-seeded teams, but that’s not the case. According to Basketball-Reference’s Simple Rating System, the nine teams that have escaped the play-in to become a No. 7 or 8 seed have been of almost the exact same quality as the average No. 7 or 8 seed in the preceding 17 seasons (2003 through 2019), a span that encompasses the entirety of the seven-game first-round series era. During that span, they have also faced off against opponents (seeds No. 1 or 2) of roughly similar quality, and they have had remarkably similar results to their predecessors.
|Era||7/8 Seeds||Opponents||W-L||Avg. Length||PPG Diff.|
A three-year sample is obviously much smaller (and thus inherently less meaningful) than a 17-year sample, but the fact that the results are so similar is quite striking. Really, the main differences to date are the fact that the pre-play-in era teams got swept more often (20 of the 64 series losers were dispatched of within four games, while just one of the nine play-in winners has been swept) but also took series the distance more often (10 of 64 series losers made it to a Game 7 before being eliminated). And of course, four of them actually won the series outright.
What do we know about those four teams who won? We’re glad you asked.
These teams should all be quite familiar to basketball fans. The 2007 Golden State Warriors squad that defeated Dirk Nowitzki (who was weeks away from being crowned the league’s MVP) and the Dallas Mavericks are known as the “We Believe” Warriors, perhaps the most famous underdogs in recent league history. The 2012 Philadelphia 76ers team that topped the Chicago Bulls had the good fortune of seeing their opponent’s best player (Derrick Rose) tear his ACL near the end of Game 1 and miss the remainder of the series. The 2010 San Antonio Spurs were a better team than the Mavericks by almost every conceivable measure except win-loss record; they just happened to underperform their expected record by five games during the regular season (tied for the second-largest margin in the league), while the Mavericks simultaneously overperformed by a league-high six games. The following season, the Spurs were knocked out in the first round by a physically overpowering Memphis Grizzlies team, and that loss inspired them to dramatically alter their style of play, which would result in yet another Gregg Popovich-Tim Duncan championship a few years later.
What can the performances of these teams tell us about the likelihood of any of this year’s play-in teams pulling off a similar upset? Well, the first thing you might notice is that three of the four upsetters were unusually strong 7- or 8-seeds. The 2010 Spurs, 2011 Grizzlies and 2012 76ers all had an SRS of plus-2.5 or better. That puts them each among the 15 best 7- or 8-seeds since 2003, with the Spurs unsurprisingly ranking as the very best of the bunch.
|RANK||Year||Team||Seed||Conf||Reg. Season SRS||Rd 1 Win?|
None of this year’s play-in teams are particularly close to achieving that level of performance. The New Orleans Pelicans came the closest with an SRS of plus-1.63, but even that ranks outside the top 25 teams since 2002-03. And among the eight candidates in this year’s crop, only the Toronto Raptors (plus-1.59) and Chicago Bulls (plus-1.37) joined the Pelicans in potentially being among the top third of 7- and 8-seed teams since ’03.1
But while the potential seventh and eighth seeds might be relatively weak this season, the same is true for most of this year’s top-seeded teams as well. Yes, the Boston Celtics are better than average among recent 1- and 2-seeds, with a plus-6.38 SRS. But the Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies and Milwaukee Bucks all check in among the 15 “worst” 1- and 2-seeds since 2003, with the Nuggets ranking particularly close to the bottom.
|RANK||Year||Team||Seed||Conf||Reg. Season SRS||Rd 1 Loss?|
Of course, it’s worth noting that of the four No. 1 or 2 seeds that have lost in the first round since 2003, only one of them (the 2010 Mavs) appears on the above list. The others were much stronger squads that just happened to get upset anyway.
Taken together, this all means we should consider it highly unlikely that any of the individual teams participating in the play-in tournament pulls off a first-round upset and truly “makes noise” in the playoffs. The 80 teams seeded at Nos. 7 or 8 over the past 20 years are just 4-76 in the first round, after all, and this year’s crop of play-in participants does not appear to be notably stronger than the teams that typically occupy those seeds. But still, the top seeds being a bit weaker than usual offers some glimmer of hope for underdogs looking to pull an upset that shocks us all.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.