What’s In A Sweep?

The tussle between the top seeded Hawks and the eighth seeded Nets has ended up being one of the better match ups in the first round.  While the Hawks were able to eke out a win at home last night, there is a pretty good chance that they could be facing needing to win a Game 7 to advance against the lowest seeded team in the playoffs.  The Hawks should ultimately win this series but does the failure of Atlanta to dominate an eight seed mean anything?  One the one hand, one series is a small sample size.  On other, shouldn’t a one seed trounce low seeded competition most of the time?

Let’s take a look at what kind of an indicator the length of first round series has meant two prior one seeds (yes, I would agree that losing in the first round is pretty bad indicator for a one seed).  We’ll start our analysis in 2002-03, the first year that the first round was best-of-seven.  To try to quickly quantify the average outcome of each one seed, we will also assign points for each round that each team advances (if a team got to the second round of the playoffs, we would give it two points, three for going to the conference finals, four for the NBA Finals, and five for winning it all).  Once a raw score for each scenario is tabulated, we’ll take the average “score” for each scenario, to give a short hand for how far the top seeded teams got after the first round, depending on how long it took them to dispatch with the eight seeds.

Of the 24 top seeds since 2002-03, here’s how they have done in the first round:

­-Lost to eight seed, three times. 

-Won in seven games, four teams.  Of the four teams, two won a title (2013-14 Spurs and 2007-08 Celtics).  Average score, 4.25.

-Won in six games, four times.  Of this group, we also have two title teams (2009-10 Lakers and 2002-03 Spurs).  Average score, 4.00.

-Won in five games, five times. One title team (2008-09 Lakers).  Average score, 3.40.

-Won in four games, eight times.  One title team (Miami 2012-13).  Average score, 3.38.

Granted this is a small sample size and our scoring system is a bit imprecise (it doesn’t take into account quality of foes or other details) but, the outcome is not meaningless.  On the whole, the better a team has done in the first round, the worst it has done overall in the playoffs. Perhaps with more data, the results would not be so counterintuitive but that is all we have so far.

We had started the analysis with 2002-03, figuring that the old five-game series was too short to be a meaningful of dominance.  For fun, though, here is how one seeds did during the five game series era (1983-84 through 2001-02):

-Lost to eight seed, two teams. 

-Won in five games, seven teams.  The group had only one title team, the 1999-00 Lakers.  Average score, 3.71.

-Won in four games, 12 times.  Of this group, we also have two title teams (1998-99 Spurs and 1983-84 Celtics).  Average score, 3.75.

-Won in three games, 17 times.  A whopping ten title teams.  We have the six Bulls teams with Jordan (1990-91 through 1992-93 and 1995-96 through 1997-98), the Bad Boy Pistons (1988-89 and 1989-90), and Magic Lakers (1984-85, 1986-87, and 1987-88) and the Bird Celtics (1985-96).  Average score, 4.18.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, sweeps were apparently significant indicators of title-worthiness.  It’s not clear if this was because the best teams were more dominant then or because the five-game series format was just more conducive to sweeps.  Also, Michael Jordan seriously alters any analysis (he had more first round sweeps than the rest of the old dynasties combined).  In any event, these numbers, while interesting mean very little to the 2014-15 Hawks.  The fact is that that Hawks fan can rest easy because, in the modern NBA, struggling with a first round foe doesn’t appear to mean much.

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