Giant Killers in the NBA playoffs

Examining postseason favorites and underdogs to identify potential upsets

Updated: April 18, 2014, 6:05 PM ET
By Kevin Pelton | ESPN Insider

BullsMike DiNovo/USA TODAY SportsWill the Wizards' tough brand of defense lead them to a playoff upset?

There are no true Cinderellas in the NBA playoffs, no No. 16 seeds. Every team -- even the Hawks -- has a legitimate chance to win a series, despite the favorite-friendly, seven-game series format that runs throughout the postseason. Still, there are upsets, and with that in mind, we can borrow from the principles our Jordan Brenner and Peter Keating have applied to the NCAA tournament to identify Giant Killers.

Using data from the last 11 postseasons -- which marks since the league expanded the opening round from best-of-five to best-of-seven -- I looked at both favorites and underdogs to try to identify factors, besides overall team ability, that help predict an upset.

Here's a look at indicators of both Giant Killers and teams most prone to suffer upsets, followed by the top indicator and which first-round series it most closely applies to.

Indicators of strong Killers

Elite defenses (This year: Charlotte Bobcats, Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies, Washington Wizards)

While the makeup of a Goliath doesn't seem to matter, defensive-minded Davids have been more likely to knock off higher seeds. The three best defenses relative to league average without home-court advantage (the 2012 Boston Celtics, 2013 Memphis Grizzlies and 2012 Philadelphia 76ers) all won their first series, while the worst 14 defenses were all eliminated.

That's good news for several defense-first underdogs in this year's opening round. Four of the NBA's top 10 defenses are lower seeds. However, the best of the group (the Warriors, who ranked third) may not be able to play at that level in the playoffs without center Andrew Bogut, who's sidelined with a fractured rib.

Teams that hack opponents (This year: Brooklyn Nets, Dallas Mavericks)