Playoff Quick Thoughts

1.            The Boycott:  Before getting into the substance of the NBA playoffs so far, we would be remiss if we didn’t comment on the NBA players’ decision to sit out a few games in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake.  It’s hard to really coherently write about this issue in brief but here are a few undercooked observations:

-Protests are typically more symbolic than substantive but symbolic gestures do matter.  The boycotts were significant but are only a step in what will clearly be a long-term debate.

-A long-term boycott, as advocated by some, does not seem viable.  There is a delicate balance between making an impact and spending all goodwill capital you have.  Taking the position that there will be no sports until the world is fixed is not tenable to the public.

-The argument that the protests are hypocritical because the NBA does business with China is overstated and seems to be made more as a glib counter-talking point.  The China issue is quite real and we will attempt to go over this issue that is trouble for the NBA (and the U.S. in general).

The conflict is well-illustrated by some recent spats on the issue.  Take a recent kerfuffle from July.   On Twitter, Ted Cruz made the China/hypocrisy charge against the NBA and Mark Cuban answered that Cuban makes it a policy not to get into the business of foreign countries unless that country interferes with the United States (and he also questioned Cruz’s manhood).   The exchange was entirely unsatisfying to me (as, I imagine, are most interactions with Cruz regardless of your political beliefs).  First, Cruz’s claim is somewhat silly.  Does Cruz, as a senator, make sure that all autocratic regimes and all injustices are attacked all over the world before he speaks on the issues that concern him personally?  Not really.  Pointing out the NBA’s hypocrisy is all well and good but hypocrisy goes both ways.

As for Cuban, it rings somewhat hollow to argue that he makes it a policy of not meddling in foreign affairs that don’t concern him.  There are limits to this position.  It is indisputable that the NBA is doing business with a regime that places a minority in detention centers solely because of their birth identity.  Mass detention of an ethnic group is not something that should be tolerated, even if it doesn’t directly affect one’s business.  The problem is what to do?  There is no military option and it is not really possible for a global business to ignore the Chinese market.  China has the largest GDP in the world and refusing to do business with China isn’t realistic at this point.

The NBA, like all United States businesses, has to be ready to cooperate in a coordinated effort with the U.S. government (and other democratic governments), to force China to curb its worse behavior (both in terms of repression and corporate espionage/theft).  The best the NBA can do now is to express dismay.  This is why idealists get frustrated by the world we live in.

Having said all that, the complex China problems do not disqualify the NBA players from protesting policing policies in the United States.  Just like it is not realistic for the players to boycott the NBA until we achieve perfect equality from everyone’s perspective, it is also unrealistic to mandate ideological purity before commenting on racial differences.  Neither issue can be solved with pithy social media soundbites but by complex policy negotiations.

2.            Sweeps:  The First Round of the Eastern Conference was beset by sweeps.  Three of the four series ended in sweeps.   That got me wondering more about First Round sweeps.  I did a deep dive and found that there have been 79 such sweeps since the NBA went to the 16-team playoff format in 1983-84.  A few bullet points on this:

-The Nets got absolutely stomped by the Raptors, losing by an average of 20.5 ppg.  Surprisingly, that is not the worse point-differential for a sweep.  Just last year, Detroit got blitzed by 23.8 ppg against Milwaukee.  Detroit has the worst showing in a First Round sweep since the league went to the seven-game format.  Here are the five worst First Round sweeps in both formats:

Worst First Round Sweeps Since 2002-03 (7-game series format)

1.  2018-19 Detroit, -23.8 ppg (swept by Milwaukee)

2. 2015-16 Memphis, -22.0 ppg (swept by Spurs)

3.  2019-20 Brooklyn, -20.5 ppg (swept by Toronto)

4.  2012-13 Lakers, -18.7 ppg (swept by Spurs)

5.  2016-17 Blazers, -18.0 ppg (swept by Golden State)

Worst First Round Sweeps From 1983-84 to 2001-02 (5-game series format)

1. 1985-86 San Antonio, -31.7 ppg (swept by Lakers)

2.  1986-87 Denver, -27.4 ppg (swept by Lakers)

3.  1995-96 Miami, -23.8 ppg (swept by Chicago)

4.  2000-01 Miami, -22.4 ppg (swept by Charlotte)

5.  1984-85 Suns, -20.3 ppg (swept by the Lakers)

The 1980s Lakers and the MJ Bulls did a lot of destruction in the five-game format.  Of the modern teams, this year’s Nets, the 2015-16 Grizzlies, and the 2012-13 Lakers were decimated with injuries (Conley was injured for Memphis and,  for L.A., Kobe had just torn his Achilles and Steve Nash was not healthy). 

The 1995-96 Heat sweep was moderately surprising.  Though they were playing the best team of All-Time in the 72-win Bulls, Miami had beaten them in the one game where Rex Chapman went off and Pat Riley had acquired a number of good players at the deadline.  None of it mattered.  The Heat’s closest game was a 17-point loss. 

The 1985-86 Spurs were pretty horrible (35-47, -2.06 SRS) but snuck into the playoffs because the bottom of the conference was even more horrible.  The Lakers opened the series with a 47-point win followed by a 28-point win.  The Spurs lost by a “respectable” 20 points in the final game.  Maybe the Lakers needed more competition because they were clearly unready for the Rockets in the next round.

-As one might imagine, the vast majority of the teams swept are seven or eight seeds.  The only two seed ever to be swept in the First Round was the 1988-89 Jazz by the Nellie Warriors.  Golden State had Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin but no Tim Hardaway yet.  We broke down that weird series here.  In short, Nellie attempted to neutralize Karl Malone and Mark Eaton with a stretch five on offense.

-Two three seeds have been swept: the 2000-01 Heat and the 2017-18 Blazers.   The Heat got destroyed by 22.4 ppg by the Hornets.  The Heat were a bit of a paper tiger (50-32 but only a 1.73 SRS) and were essentially even with the Hornets (46-36, 1.45 SRS).  The big difference was that Tim Hardaway’s body gave out and he (and Anthony Carter) were absolutely destroyed by a young Baron Davis. 

As for Portland, they were a three seed at 49-33 but the West was lumped together in the middle.  Only three games separated them from the ninth seed Denver.  So, the Blazers were hardly decisive favorites.  It seems like forever since Anthony Davis was in New Orleans but he was damn good in that series (33 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 2.8 bpg) and Damian Lillard was actually outplayed by Jrue Holiday.  It was weird but not a totally inconceivable outcome.

-2002-03 was the only year where there were no First Round sweeps.   Ironically, the Nets went on to sweep the Celtics and Pistons in the next two rounds after dropping two games to the Bucks in Round 1.

-The year with the most First Round sweeps was 1988-89, with five.  That year, the Pistons had sweeps in three of the four rounds (the Bulls took them six games) and the Lakers swept each of the first three rounds before getting swept by Detroit in the Finals.

-Three sweeps in the First Round is relatively common but we’ve had four sweeps only twice (1985-86 and 1996-97). 

-Since the First Round became best-of-seven in 2002-03, there have been 31 sweeps in 17 years, compared to 48 in the prior 18 years under the shorter format.