NBA Finals history plagues Cleveland Cavaliers despite Game 5 win; should league change playoff format?

History shows teams facing a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals face the same odds as Bernie Sanders clinching the Democratic presidential nomination: zero.

It was far-fetched to believe the Cleveland Cavaliers ever stood a chance against the record-breaking 73-9 Golden State Warriors.

LeBron James and Kyrie Irving both dropped 41 points to become the first teammates to score 40 points in an NBA Finals game and help stave off elimination in a 112-97 Game 5 victory on Monday. Headed into Thursday night’s Game 6 in Cleveland, Golden State leads the series 3-2.

A casual fan could argue the Cavs still have a chance using the logic that the Warriors overcame a 3-1 deficit against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.

However, history shows two things:

1.) The Warriors overcame nearly unsurmountable odds to comeback to win the series against the Thunder.

Golden State is only the third out of 40 teams to comeback to win the series trailing 3-1 in the NBA conference finals. Before Golden State won this year’s Western Conference Finals, teams trailing 3-1 in NBA conference finals lost 25 straight series.

2.) The stakes are higher in the NBA Finals.

Teams trailing 3-1 in the NBA Finals are 0-32 in the series. Only two of those teams, the 1951 New York Knicks and the 1966 Los Angeles Lakers, forced a Game 7.

Perhaps James and Irving can replicate their “historic” Game 5 performances to prolong the series. It would be quite the feat for head coach David Blatt first-time head coach Tyronn Lue to lead his team to becoming the third team ever to force a Game 7 facing a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals.

None of those teams went on to win the series.

If 32 other teams couldn’t come back from trailing 3-1 in the Finals, it’s a pretty strong indication the Dubs will win consecutive NBA championships.

Maybe the Warriors were significantly better than they were a season ago, but a healthy Irving and Kevin Love were supposed to close the discrepancy between the two teams.

Last year, the Cavs also stretched the Finals to six games even with a depleted roster, and players like Matthew Dellavedova (remember the days when you didn’t have to look up how to spell his last name?) logged significant minutes.

As ESPN’s problem child The Ringer’s Bill Simmons predicted, speculating about Kevin Durant’s impending free agency has been more entertaining than this year’s NBA Finals.

The closest 2016 Finals contest between Golden State and Cleveland thus far was an 11-point win for the Warriors in Game 4. And compared to the rest of the playoffs, it’s been downright thrilling.

The mostly uncompetitive playoffs begs the question: Should the NBA should abolish its current playoff structure, and instead place the best 16 teams (regardless of conference) in the playoffs?

Here’s what it would have looked like this season, in 2015 and in 2014.

Think about if you could replicate the sheer entertainment of this season’s Western Conference Finals. Could you imagine the Cavs matching up with the San Antonio Spurs in the “semifinals” instead the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals?

What about the potential matchups of Cavs-Clippers or Thunder-Raptors in the second round?

NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in February 2015 that he wants to see the best teams in the playoffs, and “it’s an area where we need to make change.”

Silver isn’t the only one who is proponent of changing the playoff format to include the best 16 teams.

Network executives couldn’t argue with the potential TV ratings. Game 7 of this year’s Western Conference Finals broke the record for cable television’s most-viewed NBA telecast of all time.

With the help of modern medicine, the rigors of traveling aren’t as gruesome as it was back in the day when teams would fly coach. The two “best” teams made the NBA Finals this season. During the regular season, the Warriors traveled more miles than any other NBA team, and the Cavs traveled the least.


LeBron James is bionic. He’s never missed a playoff game, and his six consecutive NBA Finals appearances is a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since the 1960s Boston Celtics dynasty.

All things considered, does anyone really think James considered leaving the Eastern Conference when he made “The Decision” in 2010, or when he decided to return to Cleveland in 2014?

Could James make six consecutive Finals appearances if he played in the Western Conference instead of playing in the East?

The discrepancy between the Western Conference and the Eastern Conference may one day even itself out. Regardless, the best 16 teams should make the playoffs instead of the final few spots getting decided by the virtue of geography, especially if a team makes the playoffs with a sub .500 record.

Ultimately, the Warriors and Cavs may have both made it to the NBA Finals even with a restructured playoff format, but fans deserve a more competitive series.

Fans want to see the best teams competing against one another. For the time being, dreaming about potential destinations for Durant’s impending free agency will have to fill the void.

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  1. Pingback: Derrick Rose departs Chicago amid Lebron James’ sixth championship appearance

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