The Triple Double: Why make the playoffs?
The Milwaukee Bucks are currently two games behind the New York Knicks for the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference playoff standings. Both teams are playing hard down the stretch to grab that final spot in the postseason.
But why does it matter?
The eighth-place team in the East will match up with either the Chicago Bulls or Miami Heat, currently separated by three games at the top of the standings. There is virtually no chance the Knicks or Bucks could beat either of these teams, yet some fans still get excited at the prospect of their team making the playoffs.
It’s no great honor to get swept in the first round. Serving as an elite team’s playoff warmup is not a strong indicator of a successful season. The Knicks’ season has been, for the most part, a disaster given the talent on their roster and their preseason expectations. The Bucks stumbled out of the gate and haven’t played with the grit and defensive intensity one expects from a Scott Skiles team.
The NBA expanded its playoff field to 16 teams — eight in each conference — before the 1983-1984 season. Beginning with those 1984 playoffs, there have been a total of 56 first-round series involving eighth-place seeds. These teams have a combined first-round record of 4-52. Even seventh-place teams have won only five times in that same span. A record of 9-103 over almost 30 years of playoff basketball doesn’t speak well for a lower seed’s chances.
The NBA draft lottery system is set up in such a way that it can actually benefit teams to miss out on postseason play. In this system, all 14 teams that miss the playoffs have a weighted number of ping-pong balls put into a tumbler. The worst team gets the most balls, the second-worst the second-most, and so on for the 14 teams. Balls are then drawn to determine the first three picks in the draft, with picks four through 14 assigned based on the team’s regular season records.
Only twice since the current system was adopted has the team with the highest odds won the first pick. In fact, teams with a single-digit percent chance of winning have gotten the first pick six times, most recently in 2008 when the Chicago Bulls and their 1.70 percent chance won the lottery.
A top-three pick can change your franchise almost immediately. The Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, Denver Nuggets and Chicago Bulls became contenders after acquiring superstars in the draft in recent years. This is less important for the Knicks, who play in a destination city and have the most honored home court in all of basketball.
For a team like the Bucks, however, hitting a home run in the draft is their best shot at relevance. The last time the team had the first overall pick, they drafted Andrew Bogut, who never lived up to his considerable potential due to injuries and inconsistent offensive production. But having the chance to draft that high again could turn everything around.
It’s a hard position to be in as a fan. When your team is fighting for a playoff spot, it’s almost instinct to root for them to make it. I have never actively rooted against any team that I’m a fan of in hopes they would get a higher draft pick. That’s just not in my fan DNA, I suppose.
But I do urge Bucks fans to not get too upset if they can’t beat out the Knicks and grab that last playoff spot. After all, the chance at a franchise-changing draft pick is more exciting than serving as Derrick Rose’s tuneup.