Despite wildly disparate expectations entering the year, the Celtics and Bruins now find their seasons intersecting on the proverbial playoff bubble.
With 12 games remaining, the Celtics’ 31-39 record has them just ahead of a pack of three teams for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot. The Bruins, meanwhile, have nine games left to try to claim a playoff spot, and sit one point behind the Senators for the last wild card spot in the Eastern Conference (with one fewer game on the docket).
But as both teams make their push for the final remaining playoff spot, a question hovers: What’s the value of sneaking into the playoffs? Based on the recent history of the two sports, is there any more value in sneaking into the postseason as an eighth seed than in missing the playoffs and, particularly in the case of the NBA, improving draft position? What are the odds of doing damage in the playoffs as an eighth seed, and is there any evidence that teams can use eighth-seed status as a springboard to accomplishment in future seasons?
Is an eighth seed a more favorable outcome than a lottery ticket of slightly variable odds in the Jack Eichel-Connor McDavid sweepstakes?
If the Bruins miss the playoffs, they’d likely finish with one of the best records among NHL lottery teams. Right now, the Bruins have the 13th-worst record in the NHL, a position that would give them a 2.0 percent chance of claiming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft. A true tank job, coupled with some cooperative victories by the few teams currently closest behind them in the NHL standings, could improve those odds to as high as 5.0 percent (hypothetically, the Bruins could fall as far as the ninth-worst spot in the standings).
While even a chance at a potential franchise-changing talent is tantalizing, however, the nature of NHL parity makes it virtually impossible for a team to dismiss the value of participating in the playoffs. Since the NHL went to the conference-based seeding format in 1993-94, an astounding 10 of 36 No. 8 seeds (27.8%) have won their first-round matchups against a conference No. 1 seed. Though just three of those 36 teams advanced beyond the second round, the 2011-12 Kings’ march from the last playoff spot in the Western Conference to the Stanley Cup essentially ensured that teams would never ignore the opportunity presented by a playoff berth.
|Won 1st round||10/36||27.8%|
|Advanced beyond 2nd round||3/36||8.3%|
|Won Stanley Cup||1/36||2.8%|
That same Kings run marked the beginning of sustained success for Los Angeles, with the Kings advancing to the third round the following season and then winning another Stanley Cup last year. The Blackhawks, meanwhile, went from an eight seed in 2010-11 (and elimination in the first round) to a Cup-hoisting team two years later.
Still, there’s scant evidence for sustained benefit in future years deriving from status as a No. 8 seed. The year after they squeaked into the playoffs, nearly two of every three teams (64 percent) either missed the playoffs or got bounced in the first round; none followed an eighth-seed season with a Stanley Cup title.
|Won 1st round||10/36||27.8%|
|Advanced beyond 1st round||13/36||36.1%|
|Advanced beyond 2nd round||4/36||11.1%|
|Won Stanley Cup||0/36||0.0%|
In the case of the NHL, the benefits of making the playoffs as an eighth seed are almost entirely focused on the immediate term. Still, the fact that eighth seeds have had better than one-in-four shots of advancing to the second round with recent empirical evidence of the possibility of running the table suggests that the (very) marginal chances of improving draft lottery position can’t match the value of a playoff seed, no matter how low.
The NBA hierarchy is more rigid. Eighth seeds rarely represent anything more than token opposition in the first round of the playoffs.
Since the NBA moved to the 16-team playoff format in the 1983-84 season, just five of 62 bottom seeds (8.1 percent) have toppled the regular-season conference leaders. Of those, just one – the 1998-99 Knicks – advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs.
Unlike the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings, however, that Knicks team should not serve as a beacon of hope to feisty eighth seeds. After all, the 1998-99 New York team enjoyed a solid 27-23 record in a strike-shortened year, with the 50-game regular-season schedule offering a less-than-normal sample size for determining the relative pecking order of teams.
|All teams||Losing records|
|Won 1st round||5 (8.1%)||0|
|Advanced beyond 1st rd||1 (1.6%)||0|
|Reached NBA Finals||1 (1.6%)||0|
|Won NBA Finals||0||0|
Moreover, this particular Celtics team, with eight more losses than wins, seems unlikely to sniff a .500 record. The history of No. 8 seeds with losing records in the playoffs is brutal, as all 23 have been vanquished in the first round.
Is there any long-term building benefit to being a No. 8 seed and gaining familiarity with the playoffs? That notion is gaining some credence thanks to this year’s Hawks, who followed a 38-44 regular season last year by nearly knocking off the top-seeded Pacers, taking Indiana to seven games.
Now, a largely unchanged Atlanta team is cruising to the best record in the Eastern Conference with a roster that is largely unchanged. So, did Atlanta learn to win by reaching the playoffs and pushing Indiana to the limit?
Maybe. But it’s also necessary to note that the Hawks last year had star center Al Horford for just 29 games, going 16-13 in his starts – on pace for a 45-37 record before he suffered a torn pectoral muscle. The Celtics don’t have a comparable presence waiting to rejoin them in what has essentially been a building year.
This year’s Hawks notwithstanding, there’s scant evidence to suggest that teams use an eighth-seed entry into the playoffs as a launching point for future success. The year after being an eight seed, 41 of 60 teams – just over two of every three – have either missed the playoffs or made their exit in the first round.
None has won an NBA title the year after reaching the playoffs as an eight seed. Indeed, no team has won an NBA title within two years of reaching the playoffs as an eight seed.
Those unrealized championship aspirations stand in contrast to the rapid turnarounds achieved by select teams that missed the playoffs completely. The 2007-08 Celtics, of course, won a title the year after they missed the playoffs, and two other teams that didn’t participate in the NBA’s second season (1996-97 Spurs; 1991-92 Rockets) won the O’Brien Trophy within two years of missing the playoffs.
|All teams||Losing records|
|Missed playoffs||24/60 (40%)||14/23 (60.9%)|
|1st round||17/60 (28.3%)||2/23 (8.7%)|
|2nd round||11/60 (18.3%)||6/23 (26.1%)|
|3rd round||7/60 (11.7%)||0/23|
|NBA Finals||1/60 (1.7%)||1/23 (4.3%)|
|Won NBA title||0/60||0/60|
So, there appears to be negligible competitive benefit to making the playoffs as a bottom seed. (There is some financial benefit, of course: An eight seed means the gate from at least a couple of home playoff games.) Is there, by contrast, competitive benefit to missing the playoffs?
The NBA lottery offers teams that miss the playoffs a small chance of getting one of the top three picks. Teams that come close to the playoffs but miss have a less-than-1 percent chance of getting the top pick in the draft, with worse than a 3 percent chance of getting a top-three pick.
Of course, a case can be made that even that marginal chance of a top-three pick is more valuable than squeaking into the playoffs with a losing record, given the absence of any evidence suggesting the potential for playoff hope in that season or longer-term competitive gain beyond it.
Given the star-driven nature of success in the NBA, the improved (if microscopic) chances of finding a star through the NBA lottery appear to have more value than playoff experience in trying to build toward future success.
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.