Ranking the 50 greatest playoff series
(Editor's note: This list was originally published on June 7, 2011 and has been updated to take into account the 2012 playoffs.)
We had quite a good 2011 Finals, which inevitably brings up the question of how good? And where does it compare with other memorable playoff series?
That's where things get tricky. After all, we have no overarching means of comparing different playoff series; it's just one person's memory of how spellbinding a series was against another's.
To an extent, that's how it should be. No objective system can measure how the 1984 Lakers-Celtics Finals entranced a nation and put the NBA on the map, or how the 1994 Knicks-Rockets Finals, which also went seven games, had the complete opposite effect.
But around all that gray area lie some basic truths. Five elements matter in any good playoff series, and in today's feature rating the top 50 playoff series of the post-merger era, I've used those five to help quantify which ones pass muster and which leave us wanting more.
First of all, obviously, there has to be something important at stake. By definition, playoff series pass this test, but the deeper we go into the spring, the greater the magnitude of any given playoff series on the eventual championship. By this standard, the same result in an NBA Finals is of far greater significance than it is in the first round.
Second, we need to have good teams involved, or preferably great ones. A tight, seven-game series between 45-win teams is fun and all; but the same series between 60-win juggernauts leaves us breathless.
Third, the longer the better -- both because it indicates a more competitive series and because, as fans, we crave a lengthy battle. It goes without saying that seven games is better than six, which is better than five, and so on down the line. I also adjusted this parameter to allow for some of the old best-of-five and best-of-three first-round series.
Fourth, we want close games, and in particular the heart-stopping, white-knuckle, last-second variety. My formula accounts both for how close the games were and how many overtimes were played.
And finally, we like upsets and, to a lesser extent, near-upsets. Especially big, shocking, Mutombo-crying-on-the-floor upsets. For instance, Memphis' upset of San Antonio in this year's first round was memorable for a lot of reasons, but a huge one was that the Grizzlies were only the fourth No. 8 seed to win a first-round series.
With all that said, here's the nitty-gritty. I created a formula to sum up those five factors and give each contest a "series rating." It's a harsh system -- the average score is below zero. But nearly every series in my top 50 has a score of 10 or better, and all of them were above zero.
Here's how it works. First, I subtract five points for each game difference between winner and loser; in practice this puts every series somewhere between -5 and -20.
Second, I add points based on the round of the series. First-round series are worth 2 points, second-round 4, conference finals 8, and NBA Finals 16.
Third, I add a third of a point for every game each team won in the regular season. This makes the difference between two 60-win teams and two 51-win teams the same as the difference between a conference finals and a first-round series. (For the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, I prorated this figure to an 82-game season.) So, for example, the 1996 Finals between 72-win Chicago and 64-win Seattle got 45.3 points, while the 1978 pairing between 44-win Washington and 47-win Seattle got only 30.3.
Fourth, I subtracted the "adjusted" average scoring margin of each game in the series, and multiplied it by four to put greater emphasis on this aspect.
I say "adjusted" because I tweaked the scoring margins a bit to emphasize close games with great finishes as opposed to games that were only kinda sorta close. First, any margin greater than five points automatically becomes 13 -- whether it's six points or 40. Second, no overtime game can have a margin greater than five, even if one team pulled further away in the extra sessions. And third, any unplayed game gets a margin of 13. So if a best-of-seven series ends in six, I enter a "13" for Game 7.
Let's use the Memphis-San Antonio series in the first round as an example; it had a score of minus-35.2 in this category. The margin for the Spurs' overtime win in Game 5 gets adjusted downward to five, and the three-point margin for Games 1 and 3 stands. But the series also gets a "13" for Games 2, 4 and 6, as well as for the unplayed Game 7.
Average those numbers and we get minus-8.8. Multiply by four, and we get minus-35.2.
Fifth, I add two points for every overtime. This and the five-point rule above are just enough to make virtually any overtime game equal or slightly superior to a one-point margin in regulation.
Last, I do two things for upsets. First, I add two points for every game won by the team without home-court advantage. Second, I take the difference in wins between the two teams, square it, and then divide by 25. The squaring has the effect of emphasizing major upsets over relatively minor ones.
Summing up all the above factors yields a rating for every series since the 1976-77 NBA-ABA merger, and that rating proved robust enough that I didn't have to do much subjective tweaking to the list.
But I still had some adjustments to make to allow for subjective factors. The most important of these was the significance of the series in the big picture. To repeat my example from above, the 1984 Lakers-Celtics Finals and the 1994 Knicks-Rockets Finals had virtually the same score. I put the former at No. 4 because it was the most important series in league history in terms of spurring the popularity of the game; I left the latter out entirely because it pretty much had the opposite effect.
Similarly, I also downgraded series that left viewers scrambling for their remotes (San Antonio-New Jersey 2003; San Antonio-Detroit 2005), ones that had no historical gravitas, or ones that rated better than they really were (most notably Orlando-Boston in the 2010 Eastern Conference finals, which seemed close on paper but wasn't if you were there).
And finally, I had a subjective bias for moments. Some series left us with them and others didn't, and there's nothing a formula can incorporate to capture this. Michael Jordan's 1989 jumper over Craig Ehlo, for example, has a significance far beyond whatever "one-point win" in a spreadsheet can capture.
So ... with that all said, here's one man's take on the 50 best playoff series of the post-merger era.
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