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“The Cavs and Warriors are unbeatable!” and other fallacies

Are Cleveland and Golden State locks for a third straight Finals?

Boston Celtics Introduce Brad Stevens Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images

If you are a baseball fan, you probably know that they don’t charge an error when the second out of a double-play is botched. This is because you can’t assume that the second out to complete the double-pay is guaranteed. If you’ve ever watched a game called by Michael Kay, he explains the lack of an error as “the fallacy of the predetermined outcome”.

In the NBA this season, no team exemplifies the fallacy of the predetermined outcome more than the Boston Celtics. With Boston’s decision (some would say failure) to make any sort of move at the Trade Deadline, it was assumed by many that the Celtics determined they couldn’t win a title this year and probably can’t even get past the LeBron James-led Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference. It was also assumed Boston should hang on and build through the Draft, with what should be a high pick courtesy of swapping with the Nets. And, finally, many consider it a lock that the Celtics will add a max contract free agent (Gordon Hayward is the favorite target) with all their cap space this summer. Putting it all together, it is presumed the Celtics made the right decision to stand pat at the Trade Deadline.

This three part series will take a look at each of these three arguments and break them down. Hopefully at the end there will be some understanding why each carries risk, never mind looking at all three combined. Let’s start with having no chance at a title, or even a Finals run, this season.

Is it really a lock that the Cavs and Warriors are meeting in a third act this June? The Cavs have been playing LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love heavy minutes this year. Many have surmised this is what led to Love ultimately breaking down and having to go under the knife for knee surgery. In addition, Love has had back trouble historically through his career and it can be linked to having leg issues, as the injuries are often connected.

Love out or not, the Cavs look weaker than they have the last two years. They don’t have the depth they had last season or the season before (recent additions of Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut aside) and one more injury could sink them. Brian Windhorst of ESPN reported that “the Cavs were on pins and needles about the Celtics getting Paul George or Jimmy Butler”. Even assuming full health that is a credible report that Cleveland feared what Boston would have become with either George or Butler. Of course, they have James and a team led by him is likely to always be a prohibitive favorite to win their conference, but it isn’t a lock.

Even if the Celtics had gotten past Cleveland, would they stand a chance against the Warriors? Golden State is playing at a historic level and might be even better than their last two editions. Alas, they lost Kevin Durant last night to a knee injury. Early reports are that Durant and the Warriors dodged a bullet and he’ll be re-evaluated in four weeks. If Durant is able to return at that time, he’ll have about two weeks to get ready prior to the postseason starting. But will he be truly healthy? Like Love with the Cavaliers, the Warriors now have a major question mark hanging over their heads until one of their star players is back on the court and proves otherwise.

Let’s say Durant is back and ready to go, what happens if they meet the Pelicans in the first round and Stephen Curry slips on Donatas Motiejunas’ back sweat again, only this time he can’t come back? What if someone finally has enough of Draymond Green and takes him out? All of a sudden you have a Warriors team that looks eminently more beatable. None of this is likely, but these are real scenarios that you can easily envision playing out.

Beyond the Cavs and Warriors both being banged up, history tells us that the two best regular season teams aren’t a lock to meet in the Finals. The chart below shows us the history of the teams with the best regular season records, the teams who won each conference and the NBA Finals champion. A team highlighted in yellow is where a different team won the conference from the regular season.

NBA Finals History
Keith P. Smith

Only three times in the last 18 seasons have the teams with the best records in the Eastern and Western Conferences in the regular season also won the conference in the NBA Playoffs and met in the NBA Finals. In the Eastern Conference, things have been particularly volatile, as the regular season champion made it to the Finals only six times. You can make a case that the Heat were on cruise control in the regular season for three of four seasons, but the Pacers and Bulls both made runs at that them those seasons. Even the Celtics benefited from this trend, with the 2010 team overcoming an up and down regular season, one that saw them finish fourth in the conference, before making a Finals run.

Overall, we have real history that it is no lock that the two top regular season teams will meet in the Finals. More often than not it hasn’t happened. But the regular season is a grind and the best teams often take it easy, like the Heat mentioned above. Surely this means that the preseason title favorites come through more often not right? Not so fast my friend!

Since 2006 (which is as far back as there is reliable data on preseason NBA title odds), six teams that were favored in the preseason to win the NBA championship haven’t come through in the end. Of those six teams, three times that team didn’t even make it to the title round. In recent years that has flipped, as the last eight preseason favorites have at least made it to the NBA Finals, but three times in that span they have been tripped up and lost.

What about the team who had the second best odds of making it to the title round? That team has only made it to the Finals three times in the 11 seasons of data. Eight seasons, whoever was on deck in the preseason failed to even make it to Finals.

Fallacy number one is that no matter what the Celtics had done, they weren’t beating either Cleveland or Golden State this season. In reality, none of us are fortune tellers and have no idea how that would play out. Would George or Butler have lifted Boston over the Cavaliers and into the Finals? Perhaps. But we’ll never know for sure, as both stayed put in Indiana and Chicago. But the idea that there was no chance is wrong. History tells us the Celtics, or someone else, have a very real chance of making a run as is. With George or Butler, Boston’s chances of stepping up would have been even greater than they are today.

Part II will take a look at the Celtics decision to hang on to the 2017 and 2018 draft picks from the Nets and how that could go very wrong.