As the San Antonio Spurs put the finishing touches on their dominating Game 7 performance against the Dallas Mavericks, play-by-play announcer Mike Breen remarked on the irony that perhaps the "most exciting, most unpredictable" first round in the NBA's history was ending with such an anticlimactic thud. In retrospect, even the Donald Sterling controversy failed to completely overshadow a rather unanimous vote for a stellar round of action. But is Mike Breen right? Was it truly one of the best first rounds in NBA history?
Since 2003, when the NBA expanded the first round to best-of-seven matchups instead of best-of-five, the 2014 first round featured the most game sevens than any other year and it wasn't even close. Five series going the distance was more than double the previous high of two, done in 2003, 2005, 2009 and 2012. If a playoff round is judged solely on the number of game sevens, then 2014 was truly historic.
But is there any reason for this unprecedented competitiveness? As my colleague at Sports on Earth Patrick Hruby pointed out, the NBA season began with lots of debate regarding tanking, which may provide an answer. In theory, if a handful of teams aren't trying to compete, this leaves more serviceable players for the rest of the league, resulting in a deeper playoff pool, the same principle behind contraction increasing competitiveness.
This theory would hold water if the worst teams in the league were especially incompetent as the first round increased in competitiveness. Unfortunately, this wasn't the case, with a correlation between number of seven game series and winning percentages of the two worst teams at -.29, which is considered on the low end of "moderate". Furthermore, there's reason to be skeptical of this number, since so few series go to seven games every year (two or fewer). This leads me to believe a seven-game series is more or less a random result and what we saw this year with five seven-game series is more of a statistical oddity than any kind of explainable phenomenon.
This got me wondering if there was any other possible indicator of playoff round quality. The next thought that came to mind was margin of victory. The logic here is pretty intuitive: Close games are considered better, so a playoff round with more close games will be considered better, regardless of how many games are played.
While a double-digit victory might seem like a lopsided affair, it's actually the average result of a basketball game. Over the last decade, the average margin of victory for an NBA game is in the low double-digits at 10.78 points, while each individual year stays pretty close to that mark. Since the NBA changed its first round format, no year has seen a margin of victory lower than 10 points per game. (The median is also in this range, typically 9, 10 or 11 points.)
While the regular season margin of victory remains fairly constant, the first round margin of victory fluctuates. 2008 and 2009 were particularly lopsided years, with the margin of victory greater than 13 points per game. Still, this offers more support for 2014's quality, since the 8.18-point margin was the lowest of any year since the first round expansion, even though the 2014 regular season margin of victory was very close to the 2003-2013 average of 10.77.
Still, we must be careful with this metric. Part of this is basic statistics: Like the number of game sevens, these fluctuations in the first round seem to be random and due to small sample sizes. Historically, there's no correlation between margin of victory and number of seven-game series. For instance, every 2011 first-round series lasted six games or fewer despite having the lowest margin of victory of any other year at that point.
In fact, there's likely a reason that 10-11 point margin is so consistent across years. Big and small leads alike will regress towards that mean, since repetitive fouling is a high-variance strategy often making the lead larger, and huge leads can often result in the winning team letting up towards the end of the game, allowing the lead to shrink without posing any real danger. Since the margin of victory tends to approach a common number regardless of the game's flow, it doesn't seem to be any kind of reliable indicator of game quality.
Unfortunately, this basic problem holds for almost any measurement we use. Teams behave differently according to the score, with the losing team getting more desperate and the winning team becoming more risk-averse. This distorts any measurements that focus on end-of-game snapshots like margin of victory, but it also poses a more existential question about what actually makes a game a good one, since we so often look to the final score to determine game quality.
So much of what makes a game good can't be quantified. It's the feel of the game, the pace, the competitiveness, the energy in the building and the spectacle of the performance. A game can still be "good" even if one team ends up winning by 15 or 17 or even 25. Likewise, as the Spurs and Mavericks demonstrated, Game 7 can barely be worth watching. Maybe one day someone smarter than me will come up with a way to quantify game quality, but until then, I'm happy to embrace the randomness.