All season long, the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs seemed to be on an irreversible collision course. Both were historically dominant, and it seemed a practical certainty that they would eventually meet in a Western Conference finals for the ages. The Warriors did their part, beating the Portland Trail Blazers in five despite missing Steph Curry for the better part of the series.
But the Oklahoma City Thunder shocked the Spurs, knocking San Antonio out of the playoffs with a 113-99 victory Thursday night. After all the buildup and all the hypotheticals, there will be no epic Warriors-Spurs showdown. And given the Spurs’ preseason hype — as well as the extraordinarily high level at which they operated all season long — San Antonio’s second-round ouster has to be seen as an historic disappointment. But NBA fans can take solace: The Thunder ought to give the Warriors a terrific series, too.
I have a point system for rewarding playoff success based on how far a team advances in the playoffs (and how many teams it had to beat out to get there). Every team starts with 33 initial points, or 1,000 times one-thirtieth (there are 30 teams, so at the beginning of the season every team has a 1-in-30 chance of winning the title). By qualifying for the postseason, a team increases its chances from 1-in-30 (3.3 percent) to 1-in-16 (6.25 percent), so it gets a 29-point bonus just for making the playoffs. And from there, it’s all about advancement. Win a first-round series? Get 63 bonus points. Advance to the conference finals? Tack on 125 more. Make it to the NBA Finals? Grab 250 points. And win the chip? That’s a 500-point prize. (This means the NBA champion gets exactly 1,000 points for its playoff run.)
So San Antonio only gets a playoff score of 125 points for all its trouble this season — an absurdly low total for a team with its +11.3 efficiency differential. Excluding the 2015-16 Spurs, teams with an efficiency margin of +10 or better since 1983-84 averaged a playoff score of 859.6, which is somewhere between a championship victory and a Finals loss. The previous low playoff score for a +10 team was 250, achieved by the 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers, but even they managed to make the conference finals. San Antonio didn’t even get that far.
FiveThirtyEight: Spurs’ loss historically disappointing
So NBA fans are going to be deprived of that long-anticipated Warriors-Spurs battle. But look on the bright side: the Warriors-Thunder series is also shaping up to be a classic. In fact, according to the pre-series Elo ratings (which estimate each team’s strength at any moment), it’s the single best-looking conference finals matchup since 1984:
|YEAR||CONF||TEAM||ELO RATING||OPP.||ELO RATING||HARMONIC MEAN|
(To give credit to series where both teams were strong — instead of cases where one of the teams propped up the overall average — I used the harmonic mean, a special type of average that penalizes low outliers.)
Not every series that looks great on paper ends up delivering on its promise. But with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook facing a healthy Steph Curry and the rest of the record-setting Dubs, nobody outside Texas should complain about the Spurs’ early absence from the playoffs.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.