Compare & Contrast: The NHL & NBA Postseasons

We’re coming to the end of the period on the sports calendar that I think of simply as “The Rites of Spring.” The two-month long saga where the NHL and NBA playoffs are running simultaneously. Even though, as a fan, my first love is baseball, hockey and hoops are always at the lead in my thoughts during these two months. These two postseasons are fundamentally the same—16-team bracket and best-of-seven series for each round. Yet they also seem fundamentally different.

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It comes down to balance and unpredictability. The NHL is—beyond a doubt—the more balanced of the two leagues. Even though the length of time it takes makes hockey’s playoffs comparable to the NBA, the overall feel is that of March Madness. No favorite ever feels unstoppable, no lead ever feels safe.

The track record backs that up. It’s not even unusual for the best teams to lose in the first round. The lessons of history teach that at least the top half of the draw—eight teams—have a legitimate chance to win the Stanley Cup and it’s not unheard for teams seeded 7th or 8th to make the Finals (see Nashville in 2017) and even win them (the 2012 Los Angeles Kings).

No one would ever make that claim about basketball. In the NBA, an 8-seed winning a single game against the 1-seed is usually the most that can be hoped for and simply extending the series to six or seven games triggers immediate media reaction as to whether the top seed is in trouble moving forward.

In the NBA when we talk of lower seeds winning, we mean that literally—like the 2 beating the 1. And the instances where this happens are usually more about the 2-seed simply not taking the regular season as seriously—i.e., Golden State this year. No one ever actually doubted they were the best team and so far that’s been backed up on the court.

Instances where a team not seeded among the favorites have a similar pattern. Yes, the Cleveland Cavailiers made the Finals this year as a 4-seed. And no one is surprised, with it being assumed that LeBron James was simply pacing himself to the playoffs. If you want to turn the clock back to 1995, the Houston Rockets won it all as a 6-seed. The Rockets were already the defending champs and had made a big trade in February, meaning the team that actually took the floor was a lot better than the seed number.

Translation—in the NHL, anything can happen and everyone knows it. In the NBA, “anything” rarely happens and everyone knows it.

Lest anyone think this automatically rules against the NBA though, there’s a flip side to every coin. When a league or a postseason is extremely balanced, the results can seem a little random. When a hockey team wins the Stanley Cup, there’s always a certain sense that it was simply a case of the randomness breaking in their direction.

To be sure, I don’t think everything is luck—you can’t go as long as the Washington Capitals have without winning the Cup or win championships as consistently as the Pittsburgh Penguins have without believing there’s more to it than the coin falling on the right side. But anyone who follows hockey will tell you luck plays an outsized role—indeed, that’s part of the charm.

The fact that NBA has virtually no elements of luck at all give its ultimate champion a great feel of historical authenticity. The fact there’s considerably less drama make the genuinely dramatic moments that do occur that much more special. Plays like LeBron’s chase-down block in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, or Ray Allen’s corner trey that broke San Antonio’s heart in 2013 take on a place in sports lore that hockey can rarely match.

I dare say that if you take any sports fan who follows both leagues and ask them to rank the top five moments of the 21st century from both the NBA and NHL playoffs, the NBA would probably get all five and likely nine of the top ten (the only exception I can think of offhand is the Chicago Blackhawks’ two goals in less than a minute flurry that beat the Boston Bruins to win the Cup in ‘13).

So it’s all about taste. Hockey provides a steady flow of constant drama, while basketball gives the feel of historic greatness unfolding, even as the result seems a foregone conclusion. I tend to prefer hockey, although that’s more because the NBA unnecessarily insists on giving its stars special treatment and making the predictability factor more dramatic than otherwise need be.

But taken collectively, I like the way each one complements the other at this time of year. The mix of current drama and historical legacies make for a steady run of good storylines and interesting things to talk about. Any good diet has a variety of components to it (or so I’m told anyway) and the NHL-NBA menu is always a tasty combo every spring.