NBA: Do Low-Seeded Playoff Teams Stand a Chance in the NBA Playoffs?


LeBron James and the Miami Heat are the best in the NBA and there’s no changing that. Photo Credit: Keith Allison,

Even though there are 16 teams in the NBA Playoffs, only a select few actually have a good chance at doing real damage in the postseason.

Currently, the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs rule the NBA. These are the best teams in the league and the teams that have the best chance of finishing the season on top. While the Milwaukee Bucks, like the Heat, Thunder and Spurs, will most likely be in the playoffs, it’s safe to say that they won’t be winning the championship.

Why? Because that’s just the way the NBA is.

In college basketball, there are lots of upsets and that’s what makes the tournament fun. However, in the NBA, you rarely see postseason upsets, because the players have endured the wear and tear of a long season and after 82 games, you rarely see weaker teams bringing more energy and winning a long series against a more talented team. The Golden State Warriors proved to be the exception to the rule in 2007, when they knocked off the sluggish Dallas Mavericks, the West’s top seed.

As recently as 2011, the Memphis Grizzlies knocked off top-seeded San Antonio in six games, as the aging Spurs weren’t able to handle Memphis. In 2012, the eighth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers beat the top-seeded Chicago Bulls. However, Derrick Rose‘s injury had a lot to do with Chicago’s downfall in 2012. While Rose and the Bulls were unlikely to win it all, they would have beaten the lowly 76ers with their point guard.

Because two of the last four top seeds (in the last two years) have failed to escape the first round, you would think that higher-seeded teams normally pull off upsets. However, it doesn’t exactly work that way. The Heat and Thunder, both second-place finishers in the 2011-12 season, made the NBA Finals, and the third-seeded Mavericks and second-seeded Heat made the Finals in 2011.

In 1995, the sixth-seeded Houston Rockets won the NBA Finals, but that’s something that simply doesn’t happen anymore. The first round was extended to seven games in 2003, benefiting top seeds and decreasing the probability of an upset by forcing lower seeds to win more games against more talented teams. Since 1996, no team seeded higher than fourth has made the Finals.

While it’s unlikely for teams seeded fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth to do well, it’s promising that there have been teams seeded fourth, such as the 2010 Boston Celtics, breaking loose and having success in the playoffs. Boston took down the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers that year, triumphing over LeBron James and company before beating Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic as well.

The Celtics are the type of team that succeeds in the playoffs, which is exactly what they did in 2012 when they took a 3-2 series lead in the Eastern Conference Finals. They had (and still have talent), in the form of Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. When the moment came, the experienced Celtics rose to the occasion and thrived.

Teams like Boston can definitely get places in the playoffs, but having home-court advantage in the first round is key. In this age, with stars like James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and Tony Parker leading their higher-seeded teams with home-court advantage, it’s incredibly difficult for lower-seeded teams to win. Eighth-seeded teams have come up with some big wins, but no eighth-seeded team has gotten past the second round.

In other sports, you don’t see the same few teams fighting for a championship too often. In the NFL, no team has made a Super Bowl twice in the last four years. In the MLB, no team has won back-to-back championships since 2000. However, in the NBA, the Heat, Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers have all made the Finals at least twice in the last five years, with the Lakers making it three times.

Power doesn’t shift easily in the NBA. Teams don’t win the championship one year and miss the playoffs the next. So, if a team that is on the fringe of playoff contention misses out and has, say, the 13th pick, they could take a player who could help them in the future. If they win the lottery, they could take a star and completely turn around the franchise.

Stars are needed to win in the NBA, and the draft is a great way to find one. So, if a team is almost guaranteed to miss the playoffs with one of the worst records in the NBA, it might be best for them to have one of the first draft picks so they could potentially find a star. It would take a while, because even the best rookies (such as Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers) don’t take their teams to the promised land immediately.

The NBA Playoffs are a glorious event that attracts millions of people, but not every team enters the postseason with realistic championship aspirations. Winning the championship is the ultimate goal in the NBA, but it takes a lot of time to do so. There are a few teams well ahead of the rest of the league and that’s the way the NBA is going to be. Teams without home-court advantage in the first round aren’t going to get far and that’s just the way it is.

So, if your team isn’t one of the best in the NBA, you’re going to have to be extremely patient. And that will include suffering losing seasons, because it’s going to take big splashes and lots of time for the power to shift at the top of the NBA.