Ricky Bobby's Law

One rather annoying trend in the world of sports is the decreasing importance of the regular season. In just the past 12 months, we’ve seen the Squirrels of St. Louis, Tom Effin Couglin /Eli Friggin Manning, and Flyers West win championships, each after barely squeaking into the playoffs. If you were a fan of the Phillies, Packers, or Canucks, it was hard not to feel more than a bit ripped off.

The upside to this chip-and-a-chair environment is that anyone feels like they can win. Unless they play in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. It’s comforting (to me) and disheartening (to certain mediocre franchises) to know that in the East, the First Law of Ricky Bobby holds: if you ain't first, you’re last.

Here’s some numbers to chew on, all dating from the merger in 1976. That’s 36 seasons, meaning 72 conference finalists.

4 – number of times the top seed failed to reach the conference finals (94 Hawks, 99 Heat, 10 Cavs, 12 Bulls). And 2 of these 4 misses came in the wacky labor-dispute impacted years. Which I will refer to as strike years, even if that doesn’t capture the full nuance of the particular dispute.

21 – 1 versus 2 matchups in the conference finals (recordswise, not necessarily seedswise).

7 –rematches from the prior season in the conference final (and 2 of these were rematches of rematches).

5 – number of teams from outside the top 3 (recordswise, not necessarily seedswise) to reach the conference finals [89 Bulls(6), 94 Pacers (5), 99 Knicks (8), 10 Celtics (4), 12 Celtics (4)]. Again, both strike years show up.

8 – number of teams with less than 50 wins (or a .610 winning percentage) to reach the conference finals [77 Rockets (yes, those Rockets, 49), 78 Bullets (44), 79 Spurs (not Tottenham, 48), 94 Pacers (47), 99 Knicks (.540), 02 Celtics (49), 03 Nets (49), 12 Celtics (.591)] Again, both strike years make the list.

5 – number of times neither conference finalist had made it at least that far the prior season (80 Sixers-Celtics, 01 Sixers-Bucks, 02 Nets-Celtics, 09 Magic-Cavaliers, 11 Heat-Bulls).

This past season, one unfortunate D-Rose injury likely prevented another 1 versus 2 matchup, as well as a straight-up conference finals rematch.

Take a good, hard look at those numbers, Sixers fans. Particularly those of you talking up the current squad, incremental improvement, railing against rebuilding through the lottery, or soaking in the Big Mac infused good vibes that were supposedly coursing through the [CORESTATES MERIDIAN 1st PENNSYLVANIA GIRARD PSFS] Center’s concourses last season. Chip and a chair don’t work here. (Also, I'm not sure which era was worse for bank advertising, awful songs, or soulless arena names.)

There’s three things I take from these numbers. One, it’s good to be king. Two, the king stay the king (at least for 2-3 seasons). And three, if you’re not first, you’d might as well be last.

And if you're too sophisticated to quote Ricky Bobby, call it Ronin's Rule: either you’re part of the problem, part of the solution, or you're just part of the landscape.

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