Cinderella runs, NBA

What can history tell us about the NBA play-offs?

Ahead of the NBA play-offs this weekend, we’ve taken a look at every past season since the bracket was expanded to 16 teams in 1984 to reveal some interesting patterns.

We’ve looked at which seeds tend to go deeper in the tournament and the likely source of any upsets to help you with your betting before the curtain goes up on Saturday.

How far does each seed usually go?

The seeding system is generally a pretty reliable indicator of how well a team will perform. The top seed from the Eastern Conference has been responsible for 12 of the 16 play-off wins by its teams, while 11 of the 19 champions hailing from the Western Conference were also seeded as favourites. Only four seasons have seen a team seeded lower than third go all the way to the NBA Finals and three of those saw them fall at the final hurdle; more on the fourth later.

It would be particularly unusual to see a seventh or eighth seed go deep in the tournament, with only one in every 14 even making it past the first round of the play-offs. There have only been two occasions in which a seventh or eighth seed has made it past the semi-finals: the Seattle SuperSonics reached the Western Finals as seventh seed back in 1987, while the New York Knicks made it all the way to the NBA Finals in 1999 despite being seeded eighth in the Eastern Conference.

How often do upsets occur?

Overall, the Western side of the bracket has seen the more shocks, which supports the prevailing theory that it has been the stronger and thus more competitive of the two Conferences. Seven of the 10 teams who crashed out in the first round despite being one of the top two seeds hailed from the West and the fifth seed in the Western Conference has overcome the fourth seed in the first round almost two thirds of the time.

However, this trend is reversed when we reach the Conference Finals, where 15 of the 25 upsets we’ve seen over the last 35 seasons have occurred on the Eastern side of the bracket. Once we get to the NBA Final itself and remove all of the matches between identically-seeded teams, we find that upsets are exactly a one-in-three occurrence, with seven of the 21 meetings between teams of different ranks seeing the underdog prevail.

Are we due another surprise winner?

Since 1984 there have been five seasons in which the NBA play-offs were won by a team seeded third or lower, with the first instance being Houston’s record-smashing triumph as sixth seed in 1995. The other four all involved the third-placed team and the most recent was eight years ago in 2011, so we’re arguably overdue another shock winner. With four of those five underdog victories being the work of Western teams, there’s far more value in looking at that side of the bracket for an outside bet.

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