Posted: Friday May 11, 2012 8:13AM ; Updated: Monday May 14, 2012 7:25AM
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Postseason failure (cont.)

By Scott Kacsmar, Special to SI.com

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NBA

Joakim Noah twisted his ankle in Game 3 against Philadelphia and joined injured star guard Derrick Rose on the bench.
Joakim Noah twisted his ankle in Game 3 against Philadelphia and joined injured star guard Derrick Rose on the bench.
Getty Images

Playoff Evolution: From its early roots, the NBA had seen a fair share of changes to its playoff format. Going back to the 1970s, you can find teams getting first-round byes, best-of-three opening series, and series that went back-and-forth between cities each game instead of the more common 2-2-1-1-1 format. Finally, for the 1983-84 season, the league simplified and changed it to a 16-team playoff system, and the first round was a best-of-five series. For the 2003 playoffs, this was changed to a best-of-seven series like the other rounds, forcing a team to have to win 16 games to win a championship.

What's Different?: The problem that plagues NBA's top seeds today has been getting past the conference finals. From 1983 to '99, the top seed's opponent in the conference finals won 66.5 percent of its regular season games, and had an average scoring margin of 5.10 points per game. Since 2000, the top seed's opponent in the conference finals has won 69.8 percent of its regular season games, and had an average scoring margin of 6.37 points per game. Top seeds are playing slightly tougher teams today, hence fewer appearances in the NBA Finals.

Despite Chicago's loss to Philadelphia, the first round of the playoffs has not been much of a problem for the top seed. Usually, eight-seeds are not quality opponents. After the 16-team playoff format began in 1984, the first five teams that were eight-seeds had losing records and a negative scoring margin.

There have been eight-seeds with a better record than the 2011-12 Philadelphia 76ers (35-31), but none of the 28 teams in the top seed vs. bottom seed matchup had a better scoring margin than Philadelphia's +4.24 points per game, which ranked fifth in the NBA this season. Combine that with the injuries to Rose and Joakim Noah, and Chicago's fate makes sense.

The Numbers Don't Lie
 
NBA From 1983 to 1999 Pct. From 2000 to 2011 Pct.
Won NBA Finals 10 of 17 58.8% 2 of 12 16.7%
Lost NBA Finals 3 17.6% 0 0.0%
Lost Conference Finals 2 11.8% 7 58.3%
Lost Conference Semis 1 5.9% 1 8.3%
Lost First Round 1 5.9% 2 16.7%
Reached NBA Finals 13 76.5% 2 16.7%
 
• Of the four leagues, the NBA is the only one where the team that holds the record for most wins actually won a championship. The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls finished 72-10 and won their fourth championship in the decade.
• There have been 14 teams to come back to win after a 2-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series. A sign of today's increased competitiveness, seven of those comebacks have happened since the 2004 season alone.
• Though playing under a much different system than today's, the team with the best record actually failed to win a championship in eight straight seasons from 1972-73 to 1979-80.
 

THE ONE AND DONES

2011-12 Bulls (50-16): A year after Chicago reached the Eastern Conference finals, the team earned home-court advantage, even though reigning MVP Derrick Rose missed 27 regular season games. With Rose back, the Bulls looked like a title threat. But with a minute left in a playoff-opening win over the 76ers, he tore his ACL on a move near the basket. With its star out for the postseason, Chicago lost in six games to Philadelphia.

2006-07 Mavericks (67-15): Dallas drew its nightmare matchup in the first round: Ex-coach Don Nelson and the Warriors had won five straight over the Mavericks. Golden State's success continued in the series as the Mavericks became the first team with more than 65 wins in a season to be eliminated in the first round. Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki was widely criticized for his playoff performance, especially his 2-for-13 shooting in the Warriors' 25-point win in Game 6 to close the series.

The Other Top Seeds Who Stumbled
 
Year Team Outcome
2010-11 Chicago (62-20) Lost Eastern Conference finals (4-1) to Miami
2009-10 Cleveland (61-21) Lost Eastern Conference semis (4-2) to Boston
2008-09 Cleveland (66-16) Lost Eastern Conference finals (4-2) to Orlando
2005-06 Detroit (64-18) Lost Eastern Conference finals (4-2) to Miami
2004-05 Phoenix (62-20) Lost Western Conference finals (4-1) to San Antonio
2003-04 Indiana (61-21) Lost Eastern Conference finals (4-2) to Detroit
2001-02 Sacramento (61-21) Lost Western Conference finals (4-3) to L.A. Lakers
2000-01 San Antonio (58-24) Lost Western Conference finals (4-0) to L.A. Lakers
 

THE TOP SEEDS WHO WON IT ALL

2007-08 Celtics (66-16): The first-year pairing of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce in Boston worked beautifully, as the team cruised to the NBA's best record, and clicked as one of the league's stingiest defenses. The postseason would prove to be more difficult, as Boston didn't win a road playoff game until the Eastern Conference finals, and needed all seven games just to advance past Atlanta and Cleveland. In the Finals, they beat longtime rival the Lakers in six games. The series-clincher was a dominant 131-92 Game 6 win in Boston.

2002-03 Spurs (60-22): Behind league MVP Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich's defensive-minded Spurs won the second of four championships in a nine-year span. Statistically, the Dallas Mavericks (also 60-22) were the best team in the regular season, but the Spurs eliminated Dallas in the Western Conference finals, winning the series 4-2. In the NBA Finals, they beat the New Jersey Nets in six games that may have set offensive basketball back several years.

MLB

Ryan Howard
Adding injury to insult? Ryan Howard's torn Achilles' made the pain of losing the 2011 NLDS to the Cardinals even worse.
Getty Images

Playoff Evolution: Baseball has been a much simpler game in terms of the playoff format. For decades it just played the World Series. Then in 1969 a league championship series (LCS), played as a best-of-five (changed to best-of-seven in 1985), was added, putting four teams in the postseason. That worked fine until 1981, when a strike wiped out 38 percent of the scheduled games, and the league used a split-season format that added a division series and basically negated the team with the best overall record. The Cincinnati Reds were a league-best 66-42, but didn't even make the playoffs under this split system. Things returned to normal the following year, until another strike canceled the 1994 postseason. Starting in 1995, the league division series (LDS) were permanently added, starting the postseason with a best-of-five series, and bringing the total postseason count to eight teams.

Where baseball likes to get tricky is with home-field advantage. It wasn't until 1998 that the team with the best record was actually given home-field advantage in the LCS. Before that they would alternate each year. Likewise with the World Series, home-field advantage was often alternated between the American and National leagues until they decided to use the winner of the All-Star Game as a way to award it.

Thus, by current rules no team is guaranteed home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, which makes having the best record and top seed less important than in the other sports.

What's Different?: One could say the addition of Wild Card teams and the LDS has made getting to the World Series harder. Other than that, the numbers remain fairly similar. Of course that could be leveled as a complaint against the salary cap-less MLB, as a lot of the same teams (ones with large payrolls) are finding themselves in the playoffs year after year.

Statistically, first-round opponents (LCS from 1983 to 1993, LDS from 1995 to present) won 56.5 percent of their regular season games from 1983 to '99. Since 2000, they have won a near-identical 56.6 percent of their regular season games.

The Numbers Don't Lie
 
MLB From 1983 to 1999 Pct. From 2000 to 2011 Pct.
Won World Series 4 of 16 25.0% 2 of 12 16.7%
Lost World Series 6 37.5% 2 16.7%
Lost LCS 5 31.3% 3 25.0%
Lost LDS 1 6.3% 5 41.7%
Reached World Series 10 62.5% 4 33.3%
 
• Since adding the LDS in 1995, only three of 17 (17.6 percent) teams with the best record won the World Series.
• The 2001 Seattle Mariners (116-46) and 1906 Chicago Cubs (116-36) hold the record for most wins in a season. Neither won the World Series.
• After the Oakland Athletics' World Series win in 1989, only one of the next 16 teams with the best record won the World Series (1998 Yankees).
• Since 1983, the MLB has six cases of teams repeating as regular season champions: 1988-90 Oakland Athletics, 1992-93 Atlanta Braves, 1995-96 Cleveland Indians, 2002-03 New York Yankees, 2004-05 St. Louis Cardinals, and 2010-11 Philadelphia Phillies. Just one World Series was won out of those 13 seasons (1989 Athletics).
 

THE ONE AND DONES

2011 Phillies (102-60): Philadelphia won a major league-best 102 games during the regular season, but the team was designed for success in the postseason behind its deep rotation. The opposing Cardinals found enough offense to split the first four games of the series, though, setting up a winner-take-all matchup between aces. St. Louis star Chris Carpenter outdueled Roy Halladay in a 1-0 win in Game 5. The only run of the game came in the top of the first when Skip Schumaker doubled home Rafael Furcal. The Cardinals went on to win the World Series.

2008 Angels (100-62): The Angels' prize for winning a major-league best 100 games? The defending champion Red Sox, who had won nine straight playoff games against the Angels entering the series. Boston was in control from the start, and the only positive for Los Angeles was that it ended its losing streak with a Game 3 victory. The turning point might have been in Game 2. J.D. Drew, who had battled back problems that some thought would end his season, drilled a two-run home run in the ninth inning to give Boston a 7-5 win.

2006 Yankees (97-65): The high-powered Yankees' offense was clicking in Game 1, with shortstop Derek Jeter going 5-for-5 and New York dominating in an 8-4 win. From there, Detroit's pitching took over. New York scored only six runs in the final three games as the Tigers eliminated the World Series favorites. "You kind of get tired of giving the other team credit," Alex Rodriguez told reporters after the team was eliminated. "At some point you've got to look in the mirror and say, 'I sucked.'"

2002 Yankees (103-58): It was the year of the Rally Monkey, and the Yankees were just the first stop for the Angels. Anaheim, with their white-headed capuchin monkey acting as mascot, made a run to the World Series title. New York took Game 1 of the ALDS, but the Angels responded by taking three straight. Anaheim scored 31 runs in the four games and hit .376 in the series.

2000 San Francisco Giants (97-65): The Giants had their opportunities and, with a couple breaks, may have swept the Mets. Instead, they dropped both Game 2 and Game 3 in extra innings. In Game 2, the Giants rallied to score three runs in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game. But their momentum stopped when the Mets' Jay Payton drilled an RBI-single to center in the top of the 10th. In Game 3, San Francisco didn't score after the fourth inning. Benny Agbayani drilled a walk-off home run in the 13th to seal the New York win. The Mets then closed the series at Shea Stadium in Game 4.

The Other Top Seeds Who Stumbled
 
Year Team Outcome
2010 Philadelphia Phillies (97-65) Lost NLCS (4-2) to San Francisco
2005 St. Louis Cardinals (100-62) Lost NLCS (4-2) to Houston
2004 St. Louis Cardinals (105-57) Lost World Series (4-0) to Boston
2003 New York Yankees (101-61) Lost World Series (4-2) to Florida
2001 Seattle Mariners (116-46) Lost ALCS (4-1) to NY Yankees
 

THE TOP SEEDS WHO WON IT ALL

2009 Yankees (103-59): After eight years of postseason frustration that included two World Series losses, four one-and-done ALDS losses, and an excruciating 2004 ALCS against Boston, the Yankees added a 27th World Series victory to the trophy case. Not bad for a team that missed the postseason the previous year. In the World Series, the Yankees prevented a Philadelphia repeat by winning the series in six games.

2007 Red Sox (96-66): What happens when two teams on different waves of momentum meet in the World Series? The 2007 Colorado Rockies finished the regular season winning 14 of their last 15 games, before sweeping the first two rounds of the playoffs. That's a 21-1 run. Meanwhile, Boston fell behind 3-1 in the ALCS to Cleveland, but rallied back again with a dominant three-game winning streak. Boston outscored the Indians 30-5 in the last three games. While Colorado was hotter, its momentum fizzled away thanks to a record eight-day layoff before it played Game 1 of the World Series, which Boston won easily by a score of 13-1. Boston went on to sweep the series.

NHL

After averaging 3.04 goals in 82 regular season games, the Canucks averaged just 1.6 in their five-game defeat to the Kings.
After averaging 3.04 goals in 82 regular season games, the Canucks averaged just 1.6 in their five-game defeat to the Kings.
Ben Nelms/Reuters

Playoff Evolution: There have been numerous changes to the NHL playoffs throughout history. By the mid-1970s, 12 teams were making the postseason in a league that only had 18 teams. Teams were even given first-round byes, meaning only 12 games were needed to win the Stanley Cup instead of 16 if you had a bye. In the 1979-80 season, the league changed to allow 16 teams out of 21 make the playoffs. The 1981-82 season reintroduced the idea of divisional matchups, with the top four teams from each division making the playoffs. The first round of the playoffs was still a best-of-five. It became a best-of-seven in the 1987 playoffs. The league then switched to two conferences (Eastern and Western) for the 1994 playoffs, with eight teams from each conference making the postseason. Finally, each conference featured three divisions starting in 1998-99, creating the playoff system we see today.

The Presidents' Trophy was first awarded in the 1985-86 season. It goes to the team with the most points in the regular season.

What's Different?: After the entire 2004-05 season was lost over a labor dispute, the NHL returned in 2005-06 with hopes of more exciting scoring and shootouts replacing ties. But the most interesting development has been the increase in postseason upsets and drama. In the seven seasons since the lockout, four Presidents' Trophy winners have lost in the first round of the playoffs.

It started immediately with the 2005-06 Red Wings, and has happened in three of the last four seasons. In those same 2006 playoffs, the bottom seeds (5-8) all won their opening round series in the Western Conference. The eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers even made it all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals before losing to the Carolina Hurricanes.

The first round of this season's playoffs featured a record 16 overtime games; yet another sign of increased competitiveness.

Like with other leagues, a reason for this is an improvement league-wide in the bottom seeds of the playoffs. As for stats, since the number of games in a season has been uneven, we looked at the points percentage for playoff teams. From 1983 to '99, the eighth seed averaged just 46.7 percent of points in a season. Since 2000, that number has increased to 55.8 percent.

Vancouver has played the two eighth-seeds with the best record in the last two seasons: 2010-11 Chicago Blackhawks (97 points), who forced the Canucks into a Game 7 after trailing 3-0, and of course the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings (95 points).

The Numbers Don't Lie
 
NHL From 1983 to 1999 Pct. From 2000 to 2011 Pct.
Won Stanley Cup Finals 5 of 17 29.4% 3 of 11 27.3%
Lost Stanley Cup Finals 3 17.6% 1 9.1%
Lost Conference Finals 3 17.6% 2 18.2%
Lost Conference Semis 4 23.5% 1 9.1%
Lost First Round 2 11.8% 4 36.4%
Reached Stanley Cup Finals 8 47.1% 4 36.4%
 
• Since 2000-01, the Presidents' Trophy winner has won three of 11 Stanley Cups (27.3 percent). They are 3-1 in the Stanley Cup Finals.
• From 1983-84 to 1999-00, the team with the most points won five of 17 Stanley Cups (29.4 percent). They were 5-3 in the Stanley Cup finals.
• Since adding the Presidents' Trophy in 1985-86, the winner has won seven of 26 Stanley Cups (26.9 percent).
• From 1967-68 through 1977-78, the team with the most points won eight of 11 Stanley Cups (72.7 percent).
• Since moving to a 16-team playoff format in 1980, the team with the most points has won 10 of 32 Stanley Cups (31.3 percent).
 

THE ONE AND DONES

2011-12 Canucks (111 points): Vancouver finished with a league-best 111 points. Its first round opponent, Los Angeles, sneaked into the playoffs with only three regular season games left. But from the start, the Kings were the aggressor. In Game 2, L.A. scored two short-handed goals. Jonathan Quick was strong in the net for the Kings, recording 46 saves in Game 2 and shutting out the Canucks in Game 3. Vancouver struggled between the pipes. The Canucks benched starter Roberto Luongo after he gave up four goals in each of the first two games. Backup Cory Schneider played better but still went only 1-2 in his starts.

2009-10 Capitals (121 points): The President's Trophy winner jumped out to a three-games-to-one lead in its opening round series with the Canadiens. But the Capitals scored only one goal in each of the final three games as the No. 8 seed downed the Cup favorites. Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak put on a clinic in the final three games, recording 141 saves over those three contests. "It'll be on ESPN Classic tomorrow as one of the greatest goalie performances," Halak's teammate Mike Cammalleri said after the goalie's 53-save performance in Game 6.

2008-09 Sharks (117 points): San Jose's home-ice advantage didn't last long. No. 8 seed Anaheim swept the first two games of the series on its way to eliminating the Sharks. San Jose was shut out twice in the series, after being shut out only three times in the entire regular season. "Did we get what we deserved? We could have played better, obviously, in some games," Sharks coach Todd McLellan told reporters after his team was eliminated.

2005-06 Red Wings (124 points): Top-seeded Detroit ran into a team ready to make a big run. The Red Wings were first on the Oilers' path to the Stanley Cup finals. In the clinching Game 6, Edmonton's Ales Hemsky scored with 1:06 left in the third period to give the Oilers a 4-3 lead. "I am shocked we're in this situation," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said afterward. Defenseman Mathieu Schneider put it more bluntly: "We didn't play like the No. 1 seed."

The Other Top Seeds Who Stumbled
 
Year Team Outcome
2010-11 Vancouver (117 points) Lost Stanley Cup Finals (4-3) to Boston
2006-07 Buffalo (113 points) Lost Eastern Conference Finals (4-1) to Ottawa
2003-04 Detroit (109 points) Lost Western Conference Semis (4-2) to Calgary
2002-03 Ottawa (113 points) Lost Eastern Conference Finals (4-3) to N.Jersey
 

THE TOP SEEDS WHO WON IT ALL

2007-08 Red Wings (115 points): After some early stumbles in the Mike Babcock era, Detroit put it all together for a complete season. With the best record and scoring differential in the league, Detroit eliminated all of its opponents in six games or fewer on its way to a Stanley Cup victory over Pittsburgh. The Red Wings shut down the Penguins' talented offensive duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The teams would meet in a Stanley Cup Finals rematch the next season, but Detroit squandered a 2-0 series lead and lost Game 7 at home.

2001-02 Red Wings (116 points): As you can see, Detroit's had plenty of ups and downs. Heading into the 2002 playoffs, the Red Wings won just one of its final 10 games in the regular season. Its opponent, the eighth-seeded Vancouver Canucks, was hot and already in playoff mode, going 8-0-1 in that span. Vancouver would seize a stunning 2-0 series lead. However, the momentum didn't matter. The superior Detroit team rallied to win Game 3 on its way to a sweep of the last four games. It took a while, but the switch was finally turned on. After surviving the first round scare, Detroit won its third Stanley Cup in the Scotty Bowman era.

2000-01 Avalanche (118 points): With a talented roster featuring Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Patrick Roy, the Avalanche won its second championship in a six-season span. After falling behind 3-2 in the Stanley Cup Finals against New Jersey, Roy had a 24-save shutout in Game 6's 4-0 victory. Game 7 was played in Colorado, and Roy outplayed Martin Brodeur, as Colorado won 3-1 to hoist the Stanley Cup.

Scott Kacsmar is a researcher/writer who contributes regularly to Pro-Football-Reference.com, ColdHardFootballFacts.com, and Colts Authority. You can send any questions or comments to Scott at siwriters@simail.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback. (Bill Carey contributed to this story.)

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