ATLANTA (AP) — If the playoff-bound Atlanta Hawks were in any other sport, they might have a glimmer of hope for winning a championship.
More than the NFL, NHL or Major League Baseball, the cream of the regular season in the NBA always seems to rise to the top of the rim come playoff time.
In the last two decades, all but three titles have been claimed by teams that had at least the fourth-best overall record in the league. So maybe the two-time defending champion Miami Heat have some reason to worry: They were No. 5 this season.
“For the most part,” Atlanta’s Kyle Korver said Friday, “the best team wins.”
The Hawks, therefore, have no chance. Not with the worst record (38-44) among the playoff qualifiers. Not in this league, which tends to weed out the sort of surprises you see in the one-and-done NCAA tournament – where a No. 7 seed (Connecticut) beats a No. 8 seed (Kentucky) for the championship. Or in the NFL, where a team getting hot at the right time can spring a major surprise on the right day.
The NBA is best-of-seven through four grueling rounds; but, then again, so is the NHL, which also requires 16 playoff wins to take the championship. Baseball, for that matter, has the same format for its league championship series and World Series. Why, then, do those leagues produce far more surprise champions than the NBA?
“There’s not a hockey goalie who can get hot or a pitcher who can be dominating and change a series,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer theorized. “In the NBA, it’s hard to go against the numbers. It just doesn’t happen as often.”
If you’re going by the numbers, top overall seed San Antonio (62-20) or Oklahoma City (the next-best record at 59-23) are the most likely teams to be celebrating after the final game.
That’s not to say LeBron James & Co. might as well call it a season. In an interesting twist, the last champion to finish outside the top four during the regular season was … the Heat.
That was in 2006, before the Big Three united in South Florida. Led essentially by Dwyane Wade, Miami went 52-30 during the regular season and finished second in the East, a staggering 12 games behind Detroit. But the Heat upset the top overall seed in the conference finals, then beat Dallas for the title.
Still, history shows that’s a major anomaly in the NBA. Over the entire history of the league, stretching back to 1947 when it was known as the Basketball Association of America, the teams with the most regular-season victories have hoarded 32 championships. Those at No. 2 have finished on top 18 times, a staggering 50 of 67 titles.
Naturally, those entering this year’s playoffs with lower seeds would prefer to stay away from that cold, hard fact.
“With all due respect to a good question,” said Dallas coach Rick Carlisle, whose Mavericks were the last team to qualify in the West, “it’s a question to ask some other historian.”
OK, here goes.
Beyond the top four, there’s not much reason for hope – a mere five titles in NBA history.
The fifth-best team has pulled out a couple: the aforementioned Heat and the 1969 Boston Celtics, the last hurrah for the NBA’s greatest dynasty. Detroit had only the sixth-best record before it won the title in 2004. The team formerly known as the Washington Bullets was eighth best before a surprising run to the championship in 1978. And, finally, there’s the Houston Rockets, who were sixth in the West and 10th overall before they won the crown in 1995.
But even that last one wasn’t a huge shocker: The Rockets were showing their age, but they were the defending champs and had a pair of future Hall of Famers in Hakeem Olajuwan and Clyde Drexler. Not exactly some Cinderella team that caught everyone off guard.
This sort of top-end dominance isn’t as pronounced in the other major team sports.
In the NFL over the last two decades, only five teams with the best regular-season record have gone on to win the Super Bowl. During that same span, there have been just as many champions from the wild-card ranks. More recently, there was a run of three straight titles by teams that had no better than the eighth-best record during the season, a streak finally broken this year by the top overall team, the Seattle Seahawks.
Of the last 20 Stanley Cup winners in the NHL, there have been the same number of champions that finished with the best regular-season record as those who didn’t even crack the top four (six apiece). Most notably, the Los Angeles Kings celebrated in 2012 after being the very last team to make the playoffs out of the Western Conference, with only the 13th-best record overall.
In baseball, the St. Louis Cardinals slipped into the playoffs in 2006, also with just the 13th-best record overall, and went on to claim an improbable World Series title. Heck, they had a worse record than five teams that didn’t even make the postseason but benefited from a weak division.
In those other leagues, you sound more believable when you say everyone starts 0-0 at playoff time.
In the NBA, most teams have already been eliminated.
Before they even play a game.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
AP Sports Writers Schuyler Dixon in Dallas, Joseph White in Washington and Michael Marot in Indianapolis contributed to this report.