Before the 2013-14 NBA season began, basketball fans could quickly list off the favorites to win the 2014 NBA Finals. The Miami Heat have been the perennial favorites since LeBron James arrived in 2010. The San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder have faced the Heat in the Finals the past two years, and the Indiana Pacers took the Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals last year. Not surprisingly, those are the four teams left playing for the 2014 title.
The NBA has always been a league where the eventual champion is easy to predict. The Boston Celtics were the favorite in the 1960s and won nine championships during the decade. The Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers owned the 1980s, winning a combined eight championships in that decade. Then it was the Chicago Bulls who dominated the 1990s, winning six titles.
Since the Heat teamed up James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, they’ve made the NBA Finals every year, winning two of the three. The Spurs are making their eighth Western Conference Finals appearance in the Tim Duncan–Gregg Popovich era. The Thunder are making their third trip to the WCF in four years after an MVP season from Kevin Durant. Once Derrick Rose went down with a season-ending injury, it was clear that the Pacers would be the favorite to again face the Heat in the ECF.
Even though these four teams are the only ones that ever had a realistic shot at winning the NBA Championship, the league continues to use a playoff format that includes over half its teams and lasts over two months. Five separate first-round series did go to seven games, but the higher-seeded team won four of those five series. The Brooklyn Nets were the only lower-seeded team to win, and they were actually favored going into the series.
The league could cut the playoffs in half, allowing only the top four teams in from each conference, and it would have little affect on which teams play for the championship. Since 2000, every team that’s appeared in the Finals has been one of the top four seeds in the conference — all but two of them being a three-seed or higher. The league would never actually do this because the expanded playoffs give fans of mid-level teams the illusion of hope, not to mention the revenue that these extra playoff games generate for the league.
The 2014 NBA Playoffs have provided some interesting games and compelling stories. Like most seasons, however, a preseason favorite will be the one coming out on top.