Parity and Matchups in the NBA Playoffs 2014

When did there become so much parity in the NBA? Most knew that the East was top heavy and the West was deep, but not many predicted or expected the close series and even closer games in the first round of the NBA playoffs.

Parity has always been a trait of the NFL, a league where it is nigh impossible to “buy” your team. But even with the salary cap in the NBA, teams were able to find all-stars to build their teams, at least the successful teams, and there were always favorites or contenders that were easy to identify.

In the NBA, there are usually a couple of upsets each year in the first round. However, rarely has there been the potential for an upset in every series. Excluding the Heat sweeping the Bobcats (with the Bobcats losing their biggest advantage in Al Jefferson to injury early in the series), each series has been hard fought. Even the Clippers vs. Warriors series, which has featured blowouts from each team is tied at three wins apiece.  Four of the six games between the Thunder and Grizzlies have been decided in overtime, and three of the five games between Houston and Portland have been decided in overtime.

Average Margin of Victory NBA Playoffs 2014

Despite the 4-1 series win by the Wizards over the Bulls, this series has had the second closest series thus far in terms of point differential for victories. It was considered an upset because of each team’s respective seed, but obviously the Bulls had their hands full. Also interesting is the Clippers vs. Warriors series, for that it has the highest average margin of victory (13 points) yet the series is even at three games apiece.  Each team has had blowouts, but outside of those two games, the remaining four have been decided by a total of 17 points (4.25 per game).

The Rockets vs. Trail Blazers series has been even closer. With an average margin of victory of 5.4, every one of the five games have been close, with ten being the highest margin. This series, like many of the others have been interesting because of the personnel matchups.

Personnel Matchups have Created Parity

In the case of Blazers vs. Rockets, the reason for the levelness of the series has been matchups. Simply put, The Blazers have done a slightly better job of exploiting their matchups. Much was thought of the Patrick Beverly vs. Damian Lillard matchup at the point guard position. Whether through injury or illness on Beverly’s part, Lillard has dominated the matchup (averaging 25.6 points per game on 45% shooting, 7.4 assists and 6.4 rebounds). The Rockets haven’t been able to use either of their wing players on him defensively much because; a) James Harden is an awful defender and b) both Wesley Matthews and Nicholas Batum are good enough offensive players in the post that if Beverly matched up against them it would be exploitable. LaMarcus Aldridge started the series torching Terrence Jones and the Rockets have made an adjustment by ensuring that either Omer Asik or Dwight Howard is guarding him. It’s helped bring the 40 point games in the first two games down to the low twenties since the switch and basically Aldridge’s and Howard’s production has canceled each other out. Houston’s other big gun is James Harden, who despite scoring 25 points per game, is only shooting 35 percent because on the defensive end the Blazers’ best two defenders (Matthews and Batum) have been able to matchup with him.

In the eastern conference, Atlanta has all but negated Roy Hibbert’s presence (although he struggled after the all-star break, anyway) by playing big men that can shoot outside or going small. Indiana finally looks to have just decided to match by going small, but that series is knotted up at 3-3. The Grizzlies are one of the only teams that have the defenders to throw at both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook which has really stemmed their production,  the Clippers and the Warriors both have shooters that can break the game open, the list goes on and on.

Much of the way that the first round has played out is due to the matchups and is more luck of the draw (or lack thereof) that has caused this parity. Favored teams (higher seeds) have relied on pure talent to even or take series leads this far, and talent should prevail, but many times a tough matchup is too hard to overcome.

Graham McConnell