For true drama, NHL playoffs top the NBA

The L.A. Kings won the Stanley Cup Trophy as a No. 8 seed in 2012 and are threatening to do it again this year as a 6 seed.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Every spring, an interesting debate rages: Which sport has the better playoffs, the NBA or the NHL?

We’re not talking popularity. The NBA playoffs still boast far better TV ratings than the NHL, although if you factor in Canadian viewership, the numbers are less pronounced. We’re talking pure entertainment value.

Several analysts are calling these NBA playoffs one of the best in recent memory because of the number of close games, while hockey analysts are saying the same thing about the NHL playoffs, where 22 games have already gone to overtime and 39 have been decided by one goal.

But there’s one major difference between the two postseasons that gives hockey a decided edge: predictability.

While two No. 1 seeds (Indiana and San Antonio) were squaring off against two No. 2 seeds (Miami and Oklahoma City) in the NBA’s conference finals this week, a No. 4 seed (Montreal) was facing a No. 5 seed (New York Rangers) in the NHL’s Eastern Conference Final, while a No. 5 seed (Chicago) was facing a No. 6 seed (Los Angeles) in the Western Conference Final.

There’s nothing wrong with watching the top dogs square off for supremacy in the NBA — unless of course you’re a fan of one of those other teams. There is definite merit to seeing regular-season efforts rewarded before settling which team is the best of the best.

On the flip side, how interesting can those earlier rounds truly be when the outcome seems all but determined? There have been some notable upsets in the history of the NBA, but Cinderella generally doesn’t play more than a round or two, and Cinderella almost never wins the title.

Of the NBA’s 67 champions to date, 65 of them were either a No. 1 seed (48), a No. 2 seed (10) or a No. 3 seed (7). One No. 4 seed has won the title (Boston in 1968-69), and one No. 6 seed (Houston in 1994-95). One No. 8 seed has ever advanced to the Finals (New York in 1999). That’s it.

So if you’re a fan of a low-seeded team that gives a high seed a run for its money, is it really drama, or just pseudo drama? Let’s face it, if your NBA team is seeded lower than No. 3, you’ve got virtually no chance (2.99 percent according to history) of seeing that club raise the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Where’s the drama in that?

By contrast, the NHL playoffs offer renewed hope for every team left standing. This year’s playoffs alone have ensured that a lower-half seed will win the Cup. In 2012, the L.A. Kings became the sports’ first No. 8 seed to win the Cup when they upset top-seeded Vancouver, second-seeded St. Louis, third-seeded Phoenix and then outlasted the Eastern Conference’s No. 6 seed, the New Jersey Devils, in six games to win the franchise’s only Cup. 

Entering this postseason, the top NBA seeds in each conference had fallen in the first round just 8 percent of the time, compared with 26 percent in the NHL.

The two NBA No. 1 seed vs. No. 8 seed upsets in the 1990s were in best-of-five series. The three since the turn of the millennium were best-of-seven series, and one of those was Philadelphia over Chicago in 2012 when the Bulls lost star guard Derrick Rose to a torn ACL in Game 1, then lost center Joakim Noah later in the series. That’s hardly an upset.

Aside from the L.A. Kings’ incredible run, the No. 5 seed New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup in 1995; No. 4 seed Montreal won in 1993; No. 4 seed Pittsburgh won in 1992; No. 5 seed Montreal won in 1986 (when divisional playoffs still existed) and going way back, the Chicago Blackhawks, who finished with a 14-25-9 record, won the Stanley Cup in 1938.

So what’s at play here? One theory is that a hot goaltender can carry a team to the Cup. There have certainly been instances of that phenomenon. Jonathan Quick won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP for L.A. in 2012, and Martin Brodeur was brilliant for the Devils in 1995.

But the greater issue is a numbers game. NBA teams only have five players on the floor at the same time, and maybe nine who truly impact a game. The NHL playoffs require use of the full game-day active roster of 21, and then some, due to injuries that always occur.

When you have one or two superstars who can impact the game in greater percentages based on their playing time, as the NBA does, the outcomes become more predictable — especially when the NBA affords teams the opportunity to essentially stop play and set up their offense to create isolations and favorable matchups.

It’s far more difficult to do that at the much faster NHL pace when lines are changing every 45 seconds or so. And it’s far harder for a superstar to impact the NHL game when the top forwards only play between 35 and 40 percent of the game and top defensemen anywhere between 45 and 50 percent.

None of this is intended to persuade you to drop one sport for the other. As we noted above, both formats have their merits. But if it’s true drama you want — and a chance for your lowly team to rise up and shock the world — the NBA playoffs can’t hold a candle to the NHL playoffs.

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