Should the NBA 1st Round Be a Best-of-5?

The 2015 NBA Playoffs started off slow. With the exception of the Spurs vs. Clippers, there weren't any "must watch" series.

Basketball commentators lamented about how it used to be better in the "good old days" when the 1st round was a best-of-5. This hasn't been the first time someone's suggested reverting back from the current system.

Should the NBA revert back to a best-of-5? We'll look at data from 2003 to 2015 — the years where the NBA used a best-of-7 format for the 1st round — to look at trends.

I used data from Basketball-Reference and analyzed it here.

Number of Games Played

The competitiveness of a playoff series can be summarized by the number of games that are needed before a team wins the best-of-7 series.


Think about it this way, would you rather have:

  • 4 close games with the same team winning by a small margin each time, or
  • 7 games, with some games swinging wildly in one team's favor, but with the opposing team responding to the challenge in future games (the 2015 Spurs vs. Clipper was a good example of this)


Looking at the number of games played, 2015 was near historic lows with 41 games.

2007 ties 2015 with 41 games in the 1st round. This was back when the league featured:

  • The aging but still good Piston team of Billups, Hamilton, Prince, Rasheed, and Big Ben
  • Cavs + LeBron James 1.0
  • The Spurs with Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili in their prime
  • The "7 seconds or less", run-and-gun, Suns

2004 leads in least games played in the 1st round with 39. Unsurprisingly, the league was top-heavy and featured powerhouse teams like:

  • The "championship or bust" Kobe + Shaq Lakers featuring Malone + Payton
  • The eternal Spurs
  • A scary Reggie Miller, Jermaine O'Neal, and Ron Artest Pacers team
  • The Jason Kidd led Nets

Another likely reason why 2015 felt non-competitive was the year-to-year fluctuation in the number of games played. 2014 was the most competitive of all years, with 50 games played. This makes 2015 — with it's 41 games — seem a lot worse, with it's 9 game year-to-year drop. This was the second largest drop in all years.

The largest year-to-year drop was 2004 with 10 games (2003 featured 49 games while 2004 featured only 39 games).

Number of Sweeps

Sweeps are one of the largest indicators of a non-competitive series. Sweeps have a way of making a series feel insignificant and unnecessary, regardless of how close the games are.


The 2015 tied 2004 and 2007 (the same years we discussed above) for most sweeps, with three each. This trend mirrors the trend in the number of games played.

Interestingly, 2003 was the only year without a sweep in the 13 years since the league moved to a best-of-7.

Number of Game 7's

A seven game series is the anthesis of a competitive series. The fact that a team's season comes down to a Game 7 — a "win or go home" situation — makes it a must-watch.


2014, unsurprisingly, had the most number of Game 7's with the Pacers vs. Hawks, Raptors vs. Nets, Spurs vs. Mavericks, Clippers vs. Warriors, and Thunder vs. Grizzlies all taking it to seven.

That's five must-watch, grab your popcorn, edge of your seat, games.

Interestingly, 2011 had no series that needed seven games — but it did have four series that needed six.

What Does This Tell Us?

Although the 2015 1st round was underwhelming, it's far from representative of the norm in the past 13 years of best-of-7 series. Given that 2014's 1st round was one of the most competitive, people are likely over reacting and being influenced by the recency effect bias.

Do you think the 1st round should be a best-of-5 or a best-of-7? Let me know on Twitter (@sebfung).

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