The NBA playoffs are a best-of-seven elimination tournament annually held by the National Basketball Association. This tournament determines who will be the NBA champion for the season. In this article, we are going to explain how the NBA Playoff Structure works. The format of the tournament has been changed several times. The latest instance happened back in 2015 and below, we will cover all the details surrounding the NBA Playoffs.
NBA Playoff Format
In September 2015, the NBA announced changes to the format of the NBA playoffs. The change was set to begin with the 2016 NBA playoffs. The top eight teams in each conference (East and West), ranked in order by win-loss records, qualify for the playoffs. The tie-break criteria for playoff seeding and home-court advantage have also changed; head-to-head results between the tied teams is the first tie-breaker, and whether a team won its division championship is the second tie-breaker.
Both conferences conduct the playoffs in the traditional bracket format. All rounds are best-of-seven series. Series are played in the 2–2–1–1–1 format. This means, the team with home-court advantage hosts games 1, 2, 5, and 7. Their opponent hosts games 3, 4, and 6, with games 5–7 being played if needed. Once the playoffs start, the bracket is fixed; teams are never “reseeded”, unlike in the National Football League (NFL) where the strongest remaining teams face the weakest teams in subsequent rounds. This format has been used since 2014, after NBA team owners unanimously voted to change the format of the NBA finals from the 2–3–2 format on October 23, 2013.
The most common criticism of the current structure is related to parity of conferences. On numerous occasions, Eastern Conference teams with losing records qualified for the playoffs, while Western Conference teams with winning records ended up missing them, including the 2011, 2013 and the 2015 NBA playoffs. Weaker Eastern Conference teams also often make it farther in the playoffs due to the conference imbalance.
NBA Playoff Format in 2020
Normality has been thrown out the window in nearly every aspect of life, and that includes all things basketball and the NBA Playoffs. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, changes had to be made in order to finish the 2019-2020 NBA season.
On June 4, the NBA Board of Governors approved a plan to restart the season on July 31 in the NBA Bubble, with 22 of the 30 teams in the league, all clubs within six games of a playoff spot. Under this plan, the 22 teams played eight regular-season “seeding” games. A possible best-of-three play-in series for the final seed in each conference would then be held if the ninth seed finished the regular season within four games of the eighth seed. The eighth seed would start with a de facto 1–0 lead, meaning that it would need just one win to advance, while the ninth seed would need two. The NBA’s regular playoff format would then proceed as normal. All games were played behind closed doors at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Walt Disney World.
Under the NBA’s regular playoff format, the eight teams with the most wins in each conference qualified for the playoffs. The seedings were based on each team’s record. Each conference’s bracket was fixed; there was no reseeding. All rounds were best-of-seven series; the series ended when one team won four games, and that team advanced to the next round. All rounds, including the NBA Finals, were in a 2–2–1–1–1 format.
How did it look?
In the conference playoffs, home court advantage went to the higher-seeded team (number one being the highest), although since all games were played in the same location, this was merely a designated home court. Seeding was based on each team’s regular season record within a conference; if two teams had the same record, standard tiebreaker rules were used. Conference seedings were ignored for the NBA Finals. Home court advantage went to the team with the better regular season record, and, if needed, ties were broken based on head to head record, followed by intra-conference record.
How will the Playoffs look in the new season?
For now, reports suggest that NBA Playoff Structure for the new season will be similar to the “bubble” playoffs. The NBA is targeting Dec. 22 for the start of the 2020-21 season. Teams will probably be playing 72 games and the campaign is expected to finish before the Olympics. However, there might be one casualty due to the new structure. Because of Covid-19, the season will start late but it also has to finish before the Olympics. For that reason, the 2020-2021 All Star Weekend could get canceled.
It appears the NBA has three main goals that apply to the 2020-21 season. First, the NBA understandably wants to get through the year without any shutdowns. The success of the bubble, coupled with the steps the league can take to avoid super-spreader events, should prevent an extended shutdown from happening anytime soon. Next, the NBA wants to make money. The league also hopes to end its season before the Olympics, scheduled to begin on July 23, 2021.
To accomplish all three goals, there could be numerous substantial changes to the NBA’s typical plan. The All-Star Game could be on the chopping block, possibly replaced by a play-in tournament similar to what happened in the bubble this summer. Instead of playing 82 games, NBA teams might only play 72. If that sounds like a large percentage of games, remember that Major League Baseball played 60 regular-season games instead of the standard 162 outings.
If next season begins on December 22, there would have been 72 days between the end of the NBA Finals and the next season’s start. That number climbs to 75 if the league starts play on Christmas Day. Consider this fact. There were 109 days between the end of the 2019 NBA Finals and the start of the preseason. This can create problems for teams that played in the bubble, especially the ones that got all the way to the final. However, the NBA Playoff Structure will remain similar to last season’s bubble. If teams have similar records after the 72 games are played, the final seeding spots will be decided by a play-in tournament.
LeBron James from the Lakers made posts on Instagram that made it seem that he is not happy with the decision. The players that featured in the Conference Finals won’t have enough time to rest. However, if they get through the entire year and accomplish all of their goals, the strangeness will have been worth it. “Unprecedented” truly is the best word to describe the 2020-21 NBA season.