It is the growing sports epidemic of the 21st century, where being the best team in the regular season of any of the four major professional leagues has never meant so little for the postseason. In fact, not only are the trophy cases of such teams likely to be empty at playoffs' end, but these regular season champions are lucky if they get past their first playoff opponent.
It happened again on Thursday, with the NBA regular season champion Chicago Bulls losing to the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round, joining the NHL's Vancouver Canucks, NFL's Green Bay Packers and MLB's Philadelphia Phillies as the most recent examples of teams with the best record in the regular season failing to win the championship. It completes the first sports year ever where the top seed in all four leagues went one-and-done in the playoffs.
Of the last dozen NBA teams with the best regular season record and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, only two have won an NBA title (Gregg Popovich's 2002-03 Spurs and the 2007-08 Celtics, featuring first-year teammates Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce). Compare that paltry 16.7 winning percentage to the previous 17 NBA seasons, when 10 teams with the best record (58.8 percent) won the title.
And this is hardly an NBA phenomenon, as the NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball are seeing the same shift in competitiveness.
• From 1983 to 1999, the teams with the best regular season record in the four leagues won 27 of the 67
• Since 2000, the teams with the best regular season record in the four leagues have won eight of the 47 championships (17.0 percent). They've gone one-and-done 17 times (36.2 percent).
The percentages have nearly reversed. Today's regular season champions are losing to their first opponent at nearly the same rate past regular season champions used to win league titles. Today's teams are more than twice as likely to go one-and-done than they are to win the whole thing.
• From 1983 to 1999, the most common result for a top seed was to win the Stanley Cup, win the Super Bowl, win the NBA Finals and lose in the World Series.
• Since 2000, the most common result for a top seed was to lose in the first round of the NHL playoffs, lose in the divisional round of the NFL, lose in the conference finals of the NBA and lose in baseball's LDS.
Does it spark fan interest in the leagues by having such parity? Of course. It's a better product for the fans when they truly believe in an anyone-can-win system. But what happens when the monster overtakes its creator? Chaos ensues. The fear factor that used to come with the best record and home-field advantage? It doesn't exist anymore. David is no longer the one under pressure when he meets Goliath.
Take Chicago. Unlike the Michael Jordan-era Bulls, who had the best regular season record three times and won the championship each of those years, today's Bulls have turned consecutive seasons with the best regular season record into two disappointing finishes. There was the Eastern Conference finals loss to LeBron James and Miami in 2011 and now the stunning upset loss to the 76ers after star guard Derrick Rose suffered a season-ending torn ACL in Game 1 of the series. In the wake of Chicago's demise, consider recent happenings in the other leagues:
Since 2005, a staggering 50.0 percent of the top seeds (14 of 28) have gone one-and-done in the postseason. Only four have won a championship.
Why is the upheaval happening more this century? That's the $64 million dollar question, and there's no simple answer. Part of it is that teams are getting too good to play the role of sacrificial lamb for the top seeds on their way to the championship. Now if a top seed has any kink in the armor, some coaching staff is going to find a way to expose it -- and thanks to the salary cap-era and free agency, that coaching staff now has the talent on the roster with which to do it.
Bad luck, injuries to a star player? Those surely have been a factor, too, in this century's one-and-dones (see Rose, Derrick), but those hurdles also existed before 2000. Then how about additional pressure past teams didn't have to deal with? The Pittsburgh Steelers' 1970s dynasty didn't have to worry about ESPN highlights or what some NFL Network analyst said about them Sunday night, or negative feedback from an opposing player through social media. Can you really picture Jack Lambert having a Twitter account?
These days, Amare Stoudemire cuts his hand after punching a fire extinguisher and we get a story on other teams making fun of him, and another to look at the stitches. Washington star Alexander Ovechkin logs just 13:36 of ice time in Game 2 against the Rangers, and it becomes an in-series drama. Sports really have turned into your grandma's soap operas, and a player has to be cut from a different cloth to handle the pressure. It's not foolish to assume some buckle under that pressure, or at least suffer from the ramifications.
At a media session just days before the 2010 AFC Divisional playoffs, New England wide receiver Wes Welker made 11 references to "feet" as a way of poking fun at New York Jets' coach Rex Ryan and his connection to foot fetish videos that had recently gone viral. Unfortunately for Welker, Patriots coach Bill Belichick didn't find the deadpan delivery humorous, as he benched Welker for the first offensive series of that weekend's game against New York.
New England was on an eight-game winning streak at the time, having scored at least 31 points in every game en route to finishing with the league's best regular season record. On the first drive, without Welker, Tom Brady threw an interception, ending his record streak of 335 passes without one, and the Patriots never got settled on offense. In the end, it was Welker who had to remove foot from mouth, as he finished with just 57 receiving yards, and the Jets pulled off the 28-21 upset over the top seed.
But that hardly explains every top seed's loss. What follows is a league-by-league look at this century's top seeds, starting with the NFL and concluding with hockey. Bear in mind that the "regular season champion" was defined by the team that had the best record in each league (most points in the NHL). When teams had the same record in a conference, the tiebreaker went to the team that had the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage. If teams tied for the best record in different conferences, the best season result was used.
For the "since 2000" stats used throughout this article, that would begin with the 2000-01 seasons in the NBA and NHL, as it is based on seasons that started in the year 2000, rather than ones that saw their postseasons end in 2000 -- like the 1999-2000 seasons.
One caveat. None of this is particularly a bad thing. Who doesn't love an underdog defying the odds? And how boring would sports be if the best teams remained the best all season long? Oh, and rest assured, we'll see more of these upsets and crazy playoff results in the future. Maybe not as crazy as a 7-9 team beating an 11-5 team, like the Seattle Seahawks did to the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints two playoff seasons ago, but this trend seems to have some staying power. Just ask the city of Chicago.
As cliché as it may sound, today's postseason truly is a different beast. While you can enjoy your team's accomplishments in the regular season, just remember that the best record has never been more irrelevant come the playoffs than it is today. (
Part of the reason for this change is the superior opponents in the Divisional Round. From 1983 to '99, the top seed's opponent in this round won 59.2 percent of its regular season games, while on average outscoring its opponents by 2.2 points per game. Just one of these 17 teams won more than 10 games (1996 San Francisco 49ers). Since 2000, the average Divisional round opponent for the top seed won 67.4 percent of its regular season games, and had an average scoring differential of 6.6 points per game. Eight of those 12 teams won at least 11 games.
Despite Chicago's loss to Philadelphia, the first round of the playoffs has not been much of a problem for the top seed. Usually, eight-seeds are not quality opponents. After the 16-team playoff format began in 1984, the first five teams that were eight-seeds had losing records and a negative scoring margin.
There have been eight-seeds with a better record than the 2011-12 Philadelphia 76ers (35-31), but none of the 28 teams in the top seed vs. bottom seed matchup had a better scoring margin than Philadelphia's +4.24 points per game, which ranked fifth in the NBA this season. Combine that with the injuries to Rose and Joakim Noah, and Chicago's fate makes sense.
Where baseball likes to get tricky is with home-field advantage. It wasn't until 1998 that the team with the best record was actually given home-field advantage in the LCS. Before that they would alternate each year. Likewise with the World Series, home-field advantage was often alternated between the American and National leagues until they decided to use the winner of the All-Star Game as a way to award it.
Thus, by current rules no team is guaranteed home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, which makes having the best record and top seed less important than in the other sports.
Statistically, first-round opponents (LCS from 1983 to 1993, LDS from 1995 to present) won 56.5 percent of their regular season games from 1983 to '99. Since 2000, they have won a near-identical 56.6 percent of their regular season games.
The Presidents' Trophy was first awarded in the 1985-86 season. It goes to the team with the most points in the regular season.
It started immediately with the 2005-06 Red Wings, and has happened in three of the last four seasons. In those same 2006 playoffs, the bottom seeds (5-8) all won their opening round series in the Western Conference. The eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers even made it all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals before losing to the Carolina Hurricanes.
The first round of this season's playoffs featured a record 16 overtime games; yet another sign of increased competitiveness.
Like with other leagues, a reason for this is an improvement league-wide in the bottom seeds of the playoffs. As for stats, since the number of games in a season has been uneven, we looked at the points percentage for playoff teams. From 1983 to '99, the eighth seed averaged just 46.7 percent of points in a season. Since 2000, that number has increased to 55.8 percent.
Vancouver has played the two eighth-seeds with the best record in the last two seasons: 2010-11 Chicago Blackhawks (97 points), who forced the Canucks into a Game 7 after trailing 3-0, and of course the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings (95 points).