Up 3-0 in their series against the Memphis Grizzlies, the San Antonio Spurs can virtually punch their ticket into the next round of the NBA playoffs.
No team in NBA history has ever come back to win a series after being down 3-0. Interestingly enough, it has happened a handful of times in baseball and hockey, but never in basketball.
Less players are on the court at one time during a basketball game, meaning that an individual player has more of an impact in the outcome of a game. There’s 10 players on a basketball court at once, meaning that a great player can have far more influence on a game than baseball, for example.
A starting pitcher in baseball rebukes this theory, but hitters take turns batting so that no great player can leave his mark on a game more than his teammates, at least from an opportunity standpoint. A starting pitcher can dominate for one game, but only pitches once every 5 games.
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There’s just 12 players on the ice at a time during a hockey game, but with the various lines that come in and out of a game every 45-50 seconds, it decreases the amount of time a dominant player is allowed to influence the game.
A typical basketball team might have a rotation of about 9 players that get significant playing time. In total, about 18 players end up playing significant minutes in a matchup. That’s a small field to divvy up impact, and a player can have a much larger role in the outcome of a basketball game compared to other sports.
They say that basketball is the ultimate team game, and while there’s certainly truth to that, it’s also the game that is most prone to individual dominance over the course of a handful of contests.
The starting pitcher example illustrates the lack of influence a player is allowed in baseball. In football, a quarterback touches the ball every time on offense, but he’s largely dependent on both receivers to catch his passes as well as offensive lineman to protect him. Goaltenders in hockey stop their team from getting scored on and are on the ice for the entire game, and while they may have the largest impact of any player on the outcome of a hockey game, their impact pales in comparison to a basketball player who plays both offense and defense, not only controlling how many points their teams scores but also how many points the other team scores.
This is why basketball as a sport is fundamentally weighted towards teams with superstar players more than other sports. Do an experiment: look at any NBA playoff series and pick the 3 best players in that series regardless of what team they play for. About 95% of the time the team with 2 of those 3 best players or more is going to win the series.
It’s why basketball is way more prone to dynasties than football, baseball, or hockey. In the last 32 NBA seasons, only 9 different franchises have won championships.
That number’s slightly misleading when accounting for the fact that teams like the 2008 Boston Celtics bore extremely little resemblance to the 1984 Celtics, but most of the teams’ championships came in bunches.
The 1980s were dominated by the Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. The Detroit Pistons won back-to-back championships as the 1980s rolled into the 1990s. The Chicago Bulls had two separate three-peats in the 90s. The San Antonio Spurs have had a dominant last two decades. LeBron James’ Miami Heat teams won back-to-back championships. Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant’s Lakers won 3 championships in a row in the early 2000s. It’s hard not to notice these patterns.
No team in baseball has even won 2 championships in a row since 1999-2000. Since then, 3 teams in basketball have, and the first of those teams won 3 in a row.
No team in the NHL has won back-to-back Stanley Cups since 1997-1998. 4 basketball teams have accomplished at least back-to-back championships since then.
Only 2 NFL teams have won back-to-back Super Bowls in the last 25 years, but during that span, 6 basketball teams have won back-to-back championships, with many winning 3 in a row. No football team has ever won 3 Super Bowls in a row.
The reason that no NBA team has ever come back to win a series after falling behind 3-0 is because any team that’s superior enough to go up 3-0 did so because of their superior core players, and since those players have far more influence over the game than the superstars in other sports, a team in basketball up 3-0 thanks to star players is far more likely to hold on to that lead.
Observers are often irrationally subjugated by empirical evidence, and mistake frequent occurrence for inevitability.
Even the wisest thinkers can fall victim to this fallacy. Aristotle claimed that slavery was a natural human phenomenon simply because he witnessed numerous societies practice it, and hence any outrage over it would be as ridiculous as someone decrying how human beings had to eat and sleep.
Clearly this reasoning is absurd, and it serves as a cautionary example to the intellectual hazards of relying only on empirical evidence to draw conclusions about future phenomena.
Just because no NBA team has ever come back from being down 3-0 does not mean that it will never take place or is impossible. Having said that, the first incidence of this happening will not be from a team missing multiple star players and against a squad coming off a regular season win total equaled by less than a dozen teams in NBA history. The Spurs can safely start scheduling practices for next round.