Butler captivated the college basketball world with another unexpected NCAA tournament run, advancing to last Monday's men's championship game before succumbing to Connecticut. Butler's feat may provide some hope for the fans of its crosstown neighbor, the Indiana Pacers, who have clinched the eighth seed in the NBA's Eastern Conference despite being seven games below .500.
But if history is any guide, Pacers fans should not hold their breath. Since 1984, when the NBA playoffs were expanded to 16 teams, the underdog has rarely had its day.
Of the 432 teams that made the playoffs in that time, only 38, or 8.8 percent, had a losing record. And of those 38 teams, only one, the 1987 Seattle SuperSonics, managed to win a playoff series. (Seattle actually won two series and advanced to the Western Conference finals, only to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers.)
It is also rare for an eighth seed in a conference to win a playoff series. In the 54 first-round series pitting an eighth seed against a first seed, the eighth seeds have a series record of 3-51, a winning percentage of 5.6 percent. The three wins occurred when Denver beat Seattle in 1994; when the New York Knicks upended the Miami Heat in 1999 (and also became the first eighth seed to advance to the NBA finals); and when Golden State stunned Dallas in 2007.
When the two previous criteria are combined — an eighth seed making the playoffs with a losing record — the results are grim. Those teams had a series record of 0-22, won only 11 of 82 games and were outscored by an average of 12.1 points per game.
It is no mystery why underdogs have so little chance in the NBA playoffs. Unlike the NCAA tournament, where teams need to beat an opponent once to advance, NBA teams must beat their opponent four times. And it became more difficult in 2003, when the first round was expanded from five to seven games. Try to imagine, for instance, Virginia Commonwealth beating Kansas four times in a seven-game series.
Since 1979 in the NCAA tournament, a No. 1 seed has won its region 40.9 percent of the time. But in the NBA during that same period, the top seed has won its conference 60.9 percent of the time. In other words, the first seed in the NBA playoffs is almost one and a half times more likely to win its section of the "bracket" than a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
NBA fans are left, then, with the usual suspects — the Los Angeles Lakers, the Boston Celtics and the San Antonio Spurs — dominating the playoffs and taking home the titles.
Only once since 1984 has a team seeded lower than No. 3 won the NBA title. That team was the 1994-95 Houston Rockets, who won as a No. 6 seed after adding Clyde Drexler during the season to join Hakeem Olajuwon. (The Knicks, a likely No. 6 seed, added Carmelo Anthony this season, but that's about as far as the comparison goes.)
This is all depressing news for the Pacers, of course, but in the end they will have the same thing 15 other teams do: a chance. After four consecutive seasons without a playoff berth, they are probably happy to take what they can get.