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Amidst the Unease, What Seed Do We Need?

A Look at the History of the Finals, and the Path We Need to Take

NBA: Playoffs-Chicago Bulls at Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis is the center as he should be, but the two on the outside are soooo important to continuing the dynasty
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Hi Milwaukee Bucks fans! So, I know there is a lot of stress amongst Bucks’ fans, and I don’t think rightfully so because I believe we should just enjoy the high level of basketball we have come to expect and still get more often than the rest of the league. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I think that, at this point, I’m going to try and analyze where we need to end up en route to the postseason to have a good chance at the Finals and turning our championship into a dynasty.

In three of the last four seasons and nine times since 2004, the NBA Finals has consisted of neither of the top-place finishers from EITHER conference. However, nobody below a four seed made any of those appearances since the inception of the Finals, and in those series, a four seed made it only three times. So, according to recent history, being the top seed doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to be the champion (look at us the two years before we made the Finals, which I will get to). And since and including the Lakers’ three-peat, the number one overall seed from both conferences has seven championships, or a 33% chance, with the last two to do it being the Golden State Warriors in 2015 and 2017.

On the contrary, 48 of the 76 champions have been from the one-seed line, with 11 of them being since the year 2000, about a 50% chance since that time. 90 one-seeds have made the NBA Finals out of 76 years, meaning if you take away the 15 seasons neither one-seed made the Finals, that leaves 90 teams in 61 years. Essentially, about 75% of the NBA Finals in those years have been one-seeds, and 60% or so overall. Again, the odds have been better in the past 22 seasons, with only 17 total one seeds making the Finals, or about a 38% chance.

Now, let’s quickly go over the history of seeds five and below. There is one NBA Champion, the six-seeded Houston Rockets in 1995. There have also been four Finals appearances, those Rockets, the Rockets in 1981 as a six-seed, the 1999 New York Knicks as an eight-seed, and the 2020 Miami Heat in the bubble as a five-seed. No seven-seed has made the Finals, and aside from the bubble year, no lower-half bracket team has made the Finals since 2000.

With four-seeds, Bill Russell’s last championship was as a four-seed in 1969, and that is the only championship that seed has ever won. They’ve also lost the Finals four more times, 1978 (Seattle), 2006 (Dallas), 2010 (Boston), and 2018 (Cleveland). So in recent history, a stacked-Boston team, a LeBron-led and forced Finals Cavaliers team, and Dallas have made it but not won. That’s also 6% of the Finals teams that have been four-seeds since 2000.

Now let’s talk about three seeds. There have been eight titles and eight additional Finals appearances for three-seeds, including the past two NBA Champions, the Warriors last year, and our Bucks the year before. Since 2000, five champions and an additional Finals appearance have been made by a three-seed, with a 14% attendance rate and a 23% championship rate. Not bad.

And finally, two seeds have made 19 Finals appearances in the past 22 years, or 43% of the total appearances. They also have six rings to show for it, or 27% of the champions.

Here is a quick breakdown:

One seeds: 39% attendance, 50% champions

Two seeds: 43% attendance, 27% champions

Three seeds: 14% attendance, 23% champions

Four seeds: 6% attendance, 0% champions

Five and below: 1 appearance, 0% championships

This is how the NBA has played out since the Lakers began the NBA’s last three-peat, and I am not going to lie the results are not surprising. The NBA is a star-driven league, and the most dominant players of the generation lead their teams to the Finals, because many are unstoppable. Just looking at Shaq, Kobe, LeBron, Steph Curry and Tim Duncan, one or more of those players was in every Finals in that span aside from one: the Bucks-Suns in 2021. Before that, Tim Duncan, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Larry Bird could bring us back to 1979, minus the 1990 Pistons-Blazers’ Finals. All you need is NINE players to account for 40+ years of NBA titles, and I guess the question to be answered is, is Giannis possibly a player to be added to that list?

If we combine seeding with star power, the Bucks need a three-seed or better to have a good shot at the Finals, since that would avoid whoever is the best team aside from us in the semifinal round. Getting the two-seed has the best odds in the new millennium, but not the best odds of winning. Overall though, if we aren’t a top-three seed, this season might just be lost, even with Giannis. With the star power, Giannis needs help, and he’s getting it, but getting Khris Middleton back and having Jrue Holiday playing at a high level was enough to get us to the Finals in 2021. And all of those stars had help.

Shaq had Kobe and Dwyane Wade

Kobe had Shaq and Pau Gasol

LeBron had Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and Anthony Davis

Steph Curry had Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Kevin Durant

Tim Duncan had David Robinson, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Kawhi Leonard

Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen

Magic Johnson had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy

Larry Bird had Robert Parrish and Kevin McHale

*Not all of these players necessarily played all at once

Are Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday on the level of those players? I don’t know if I can say that for most, and I don’t think it is fair to compare them. But, if we are to make the Finals again and win the Finals again, they will be in the Hall of Fame with them, and that is why they are so important to the Bucks’ success. None of those players made the Finals alone, and aside from the Raptors beating the broken Warriors, a very strong starting five in Detroit, and Dirk’s spectacular heroics in 2011, they all won with help. We need Middleton and Holiday to not be the 2011 Mavericks, and that involves getting us at least to the three-seed. There is no reason to panic about that, we are right in the mix for that, and when we get everyone back fully healthy, there is no reason to believe that we won’t be in a great position to continue forward.

So, relax, take a deep breath, because amid all of the drama and rest days, this is still a team in a great position to do great things. Just give them a chance, and save the pessimism for if they lose prematurely (as in before the Conference Finals).