Why experience matters in the NBA playoffs

Last season, the Miami Heat entered the NBA playoffs as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference and ranked sixth in ESPN’s NBA BPI rankings.

The Heat were coming off back-to-back NBA championships and three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals. LeBron James, Ray Allen and Dwyane Wade had all played more than 5,000 playoff minutes in their careers, and based on the weighted playoff minutes on the roster, the Heat entered the playoffs as the most experienced team in the past decade.

Miami breezed through its first three playoff series (12-3) before meeting the second-most experienced team in the NBA, the San Antonio Spurs. Although the Heat did not win the championship, they are a prime example of the value of experience in the playoffs.

Other examples of experienced teams that have had postseason success despite being seeded second or lower are the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks, the 2006-07 Spurs and the 2005-06 Heat, all of them NBA champions. Conversely, inexperienced No. 1 seeds such as the 2013-14 Indiana Pacers, the 2010-11 Chicago Bulls and the 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers generally do worse than expected (based on seed) in the playoffs.

Experience matters

ESPN’s BPI playoff projections account for experience, which has been found to be predictive of team performance in the postseason. The experience ratings are a weighted average of a team’s playoff minutes (weighted by the percentage of a team’s minutes played in the current season) and are factored into BPI’s odds for playoff series and the championship.

Although the 2014 Heat were sixth in BPI entering the playoffs, BPI projected them to have the second-best chance to win the title, behind the Spurs, because of their experience and path to the Finals.

Including the Heat and the Spurs last season, every team to make the NBA Finals in the past 10 seasons ranked in the top 10 in experience, and every NBA champion ranked in the top six.

What does this mean for the 2015 NBA playoffs?

The Spurs are by far the most experienced team heading into this season’s playoffs. They enter the playoffs third in NBA BPI, but in large part because of the experience factored into the playoff projection, they have the second-best chance to win the championship, behind the Golden State Warriors. Dallas, Cleveland and Memphis are the next-most experienced teams projected to make the playoffs, but their playoff experience is far from the level of the Spurs.

The Warriors are an interesting No. 1 seed.

By most traditional measures of historical success (wins, win percentage, efficiency, etc.), they should run away with the NBA championship, but they also are the sixth-least experienced team in the playoffs.

Their projected starting lineup has played 3,112 playoff minutes, almost 6,000 fewer than Tim Duncan alone.

Despite leading the NBA in BPI by a wide margin, the Warriors' chances to win the NBA title are only seven percentage points ahead that of the Spurs, according to BPI’s projections.

Like the Warriors, the Hawks are an inexperienced No. 1 seed. The difference between the Hawks and Warriors, however, is that the Hawks rank ninth in the NBA and second in the Eastern Conference in BPI.

Accounting for experience, team strength and potential matchups, Atlanta has a 24 percent chance to make the NBA Finals, according to BPI’s projections.

The Cavaliers, on the other hand, are the most experienced projected playoff team in the East (mostly LeBron James’ experience) and get a boost in the projections from that factor.