Through two games of the NBA Playoffs, the Boston Celtics have looked less like the best team in the Eastern Conference and more like a seventh or eighth seed. That’s good, because they’ve been easily handled on their home floor by a team that was a self-imploding caricature of itself during the regular season and only got into the Playoffs because the Brooklyn Nets rested all of their semi-decent players in their last game of the season (by plus-minus, the best player on the floor for Brooklyn against Chicago last Wednesday was Spencer Dinwiddie).
But through two games of their first-round series, they have easily handled the top-seeded Celtics, dominated the rebound battle, and looked like the far superior team of the two. The Celtics are just the second one seed in NBA history to lose the first two games of their first-round series; the 1992-93 Phoenix Suns dropped their first two games to the Los Angeles Lakers before winning the last three in what was then a five-game series. The Suns later went to the Finals last year and Charles Barkley proclaimed that the team had a very famous fan on their journey. The rest is history.
But, while the Suns made the NBA Finals after such an inauspicious start to their Postseason, the Celtics don’t look as though they’ll have the same fate; after all, they are in the same conference as LeBron James. But, there is a bigger question to be asked:
Are the Boston Celtics the weakest one seed the NBA has ever laid eyes upon?
This discussion will be limited to teams who have secured the honor in the modern NBA Playoff format of sixteen teams, an arrangement that began with the 1984 Playoffs. We will also exclude the lockout shortened 1998-99 and 2011-12 seasons, as both seasons saw significant chunks of time knocked off the regular season.
Including and since 1984 but excluding this past regular season, a total of 20 teams have obtained the number one seed in their conference without getting to 60 wins; that number is generally regarded as the threshold for safely earning a one seed. Out of those 20, every single one won at least one Playoff series, and 19 reached at least the Conference Finals. Additionally, 12 of the original 20 reached the NBA Finals with three (the 1989-90 Detroit Pistons, 2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers, and 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers) winning the championship. History has shown that stumbling to a top seed and going far in the Playoffs are not mutually exclusive things.
In the modern Playoff era, just five eight seeds have defeated one seeds in the first round. They are:
- 1994: Denver Nuggets (42-40) def. Seattle SuperSonics (63-19) (3-2)
- 1999: New York Knicks (27-23) def. Miami Heat (33-17) (3-2)
- 2007: Golden State Warriors (42-40) def. Dallas Mavericks (67-15) (4-2)
- 2011: Memphis Grizzlies (46-36) def. San Antonio Spurs (61-21) (4-2)
- 2012: Philadelphia 76ers (35-31) def. Chicago Bulls (50-16) (4-2)
*note: until 2003, the first round of the NBA Playoffs was a five-game series
Of the five one seeds that lost to eight seeds, the worst by win percentage was the 1999 Heat; their season, like all others that year, was abbreviated by the lockout and did not commence until February 5, 1999. If their win percentage was converted to a full season, they would have gone 54-28, just one win better than this year’s Celtics squad. However, with so short of a regular season, only six wins separated them and the eighth-seeded Knicks. It’s also important to remember that the ’99 Knicks went to the NBA Finals before losing to the Spurs, and the Heat put up the best fight of any team in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. In fact, it took this miraculous shot from Allan Houston to eliminate Miami:
The Heat, therefore, are exempt from this discussion; they obviously played an underachieving Knicks team that later went on a run to the NBA Finals. And in a lockout-shortened year, one had to expect some degree of craziness in the Playoffs. That also means that the 2011-12 Chicago Bulls are exempt from this discussion; they also lost defending MVP Derrick Rose in the first game of their series against Philadelphia and very likely would have moved on with a healthy Rose.
We then move to the 1993-94 Seattle SuperSonics, who won 63 games in the regular season but fell prey to the Dikembe Mutombo-led Denver Nuggets in the Playoffs. By the SRS (simple rating system), Seattle ranked number one in the league that season and were the favorite of many pundits to advance far in the Postseason and possibly even win an NBA title in the first season after Michael Jordan’s first retirement from basketball. Alas, they fell flat in April, but calling them a weak one seed would be a gross mischaracterization. While they disappointed in the Playoffs, they may have been the best team in the regular season.
Moving chronologically, the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks were very similar to Seattle. They were second in SRS and while metrics say they overachieved by roughly six wins that year, they were still one of the best teams in the league. Unfortunately for them, they ran into the “We Believe” Warriors and were dispatched in six games. But with 67 regular season wins, the Mavericks were actually one of the strongest one seeds of all time. However, they turned in an incredibly lackluster Playoff performance.
The other one seed to exit in the first round was the 2010-11 San Antonio Spurs, who were ousted in six games by the Memphis Grizzlies. It’s worth noting that after beating San Antonio, Memphis took the Oklahoma City Thunder to seven games in the Conference Semifinals, clearly cementing their status as better than your average eight seed. The Spurs probably weren’t as good as the 61-21 record, but they hardly stood on shaky ground. If anything, they were actually beaten by a better team.
That leads us to the 2016-17 Boston Celtics. I’ve used the Simple Rating System for a couple of other teams in this article, so why not use it again: Boston ranked eighth in the league in SRS this year, behind teams such as the Jazz and the Raptors. At 53-29, they were a one seed in name only, and their expected win-loss record (48-34) suggests that they were really a middle-of-the-pack team.
Part of their failure against Chicago can also be attributed to their matchup deficiencies against the Bulls. While Chicago is a top-five rebounding team, the Celtics ranked 27th in the league in the same category this past year. The Bulls have exploited the Celtics’ weaknesses on the glass to the tune of a +22 rebound advantage over the first two games of the series. That doesn’t seem like a very advanced winning method; after all, everyone could have seen that coming, right?
No, we didn’t. Not one ESPN expert picked Chicago. I picked the Celtics in a quick and easy five games. Like many others, I saw the Bulls as a hapless, bickering misadventure of a basketball team with big names but not enough cohesion and, frankly, pure basketball skill to take out Boston. Like everyone else, I’ve been proven wrong by the Bulls’ tenacity and winning combination of Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, Robin Lopez, and the National TV version of Rajon Rondo.
The metrics and the results agree: this is the worst and weakest one seed in the modern era of professional basketball. The Celtics couldn’t hide forever, and now that they’ve reached the Playoffs, their fraudulent identity has come to the surface.
We should have probably seen something like this coming, but we didn’t. We were wrong. I was wrong. And we’re all sorry. We saw the Bulls as a team that couldn’t compete with the Celtics, and we saw Boston as something they’re clearly not:
Worthy of being the one seed in the Eastern Conference.