NBA playoffs

The NBA playoffs are a best-of-seven elimination tournament annually held after the National Basketball Association (NBA)’s regular season to determine the league's champion.

Format

In September 2015, the NBA announced changes to the format of the NBA playoffs that would 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, meaning the team with home-court advantage hosts games 1, 2, 5, and 7, while 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.

History

The National Basketball Association was established in 1949 by merger of the Basketball Association of America (BAA) and National Basketball League but it recognizes the three BAA seasons as part of its own history. In all of its three years the BAA champion was finally determined in a best-of-seven series but its first two tournaments, the 1947 and 1948 BAA Playoffs, were otherwise quite different from the third, which 21st-century NBA playoffs nearly match. In 1947 and 1948, the Eastern and Western Division champions were matched in a best-of-seven series following the regular season, whose winner advanced to the championship round. Meanwhile, four runners-up played best-of-three series to determine the other finalist: the two second-place teams were matched in one short series and the two third-place teams in another; the winners of those two series played another one. In 1947 the Philadelphia Warriors won the runners-up bracket and beat the Western champion Chicago Stags four games to one, which the NBA recognizes as its first championship; in 1948 Baltimore won the runners-up and beat Eastern champion Philadelphia in the final. Both tournaments generated one finalist from the Eastern and one from the Western Division, but only by chance.

In 1949, the third and last BAA tournament matched Eastern teams exclusively and Western teams exclusively, necessarily generating Eastern and Western playoff champions to meet in the final. At the same time, the number of playoff teams was increased from three to four from each Division; two rounds of best-of-three series were played, followed by a best-of-seven championship. The main idea was retained by the NBA. Even the 1950 tournament, following a transitional season with three divisions rather than two, initially determined one playoff champion from each division. The Central champion Minneapolis Lakers became the first league champion under the NBA name by defeating Anderson from the West in a best-of-three, with Syracuse from the East idle, and then knocking off the Syracuse Nationals in six games.

The 1951 through 1953 playoffs changed the division finals into a best-of-five playoff. With only nine league members in 1953–54, the NBA cut its postseason tournament field from eight teams to six (from 1954 through 1966, the period of eight to nine league members). Round robins were played in 1954, uniquely in NBA history—a three-team round robin among the three playoff teams in each division. From 1955 to 1966, the first-place team in each division was idle while its two runners-up faced played a best-of-three. Division finals were expanded to best-of-seven in 1958 and division semifinals to best-of-five in 1961.

With ten league members again for the 1966–67 season, eight teams were again admitted to the tournament, providing a simple three-round knockout (8-team bracket). A year later, the division semifinals were changed to best-of-seven playoff. Then, in 1975 and 1977, respectively, a fifth and sixth team were added to each Division, necessitating an additional first round of best-of-three series.

Finally in 1984, the tournament expanded to its present 16-team, four-round knockout, and the now-complete set of first-round series was expanded to a best-of-five. In 2003 the first round was changed to also be best-of-seven.

Beginning with the 2004 season, with the addition of the thirtieth NBA franchise, the Charlotte Bobcats, the NBA realigned its divisions. The result was that each conference would have three divisions of five teams each, and the winner of each division was guaranteed a top-three playoff seed. This would change slightly after the 2005–06 season; while division winners still receive automatic playoff berths, they are guaranteed a top-four seed, as described below.

2006 NBA playoffs controversy

The previous playoff format, in place for the 2004–05 and 2005–06 NBA playoffs, after the NBA was re-aligned into six divisions, created controversy during the 2005–06 season and playoffs and would be changed prior to the 2006–07 NBA season.

Prior to 2005, NBA division champions were seeded higher than the other teams in their conference, regardless of their record. Prior to 2004, when the NBA was aligned into two conferences with two divisions each, the division champions were guaranteed the top two seeds. This meant that top two teams in a conference (by record) would be seeded either first and second (if they were in opposite divisions) or first and third (if they were in the same division). Because of the NBA playoffs' preset matchups in the second round, this meant that the top two teams in a conference could never meet until the conference finals, assuming they both made it to that round.

After the NBA realigned its two conferences into three divisions each, the seeding rules remained largely unchanged. The top three seeds would now be reserved for division champions. However, this meant that if the top two teams (by record) in a conference were in the same division, they would be seeded first and fourth. Assuming no first-round upsets, this raised the prospect that the top two teams in the conference would face each other in the conference semifinals, instead of the conference finals.

In the second year of this format, the 2005–06 NBA season, the two teams with the best records in the Western Conference, the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks of the Southwest Division, did just that. The Mavericks had the second-best record in the Western Conference and the third-best record in the entire league, behind the Detroit Pistons and San Antonio. However, they were seeded fourth because they finished second in the Southwest behind the Spurs. This turn of events led to the playoff format being criticized by many. Besides the prospect of a team losing earlier in the playoffs than its regular-season record or seeding would suggest, critics claimed that it also created an unfair advantage for teams in the 2-7/3-6 half of the Western Conference playoff bracket, who could advance to the conference finals without playing either of the two best teams in the conference in an earlier round.

The Phoenix Suns, winners of the Pacific Division and possessors of the third best record, were seeded second, while the Denver Nuggets, winners of the Northwest Division and tied for only the seventh-best record in the conference, were seeded third.

The Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers met in the second-to-last game of the regular season, after the top four seeds had been clinched. The two teams were already determined to be the fifth and sixth seeds, respectively, and had only to determine which rank higher. The fifth seed would likely need to defeat the best two teams in the conference without home-court advantage to advance to the conference finals, as it would face fourth-seeded Dallas in the first round and likely face first-seeded San Antonio if it managed to defeat Dallas. The sixth seed would play third-seeded Denver in the first round, but would have home-court advantage (since the Grizzlies had the fourth-best record in the conference and the Clippers had the fifth-best), and would not have to face either San Antonio or Dallas until the conference finals at the earliest.

This led to speculation about whether the Grizzlies or the Clippers would have much commitment to winning their match-up in the second-to-last game of the season, since it was clearly most advantageous to lose the game in order to obtain the 6th seed. The Clippers eventually lost to Memphis without much evidence to support the speculation that the Clippers had lost intentionally. In the first round of the playoffs, the Clippers defeated the Nuggets in five games, while Memphis was swept by Dallas. Ultimately, Dallas and San Antonio did meet in the second round, with Dallas winning in seven games and advancing all the way to the NBA finals.

Timeline

  • 1947: The playoffs were instituted with a three-stage tournament, similar to the Stanley Cup playoffs of the 1930s; the two first-place teams qualified directly to one semifinal where they played each other in a best-of-7 series. Teams finishing second & third qualified for the best-of-3 quarterfinals, where the two second-placed teams were paired in one quarterfinal, as were the two third-placed teams, and the two quarterfinal winners played each other in a best-of-three semifinal. The two semifinal winners played each other in the Basketball Association of America (BAA) best-of-7 final series.
Quarterfinals
Best-of-3
Semifinals
Best-of-3 (one series)

Best-of-7 (one series)

BAA finals
Best-of-7
         
E3 
W3 
 
 
W2 
E2 
 
 
W1 
E1 

There were no byes, or idle time, for the division champions – as there would be for higher-seeded playoff teams 1955–66 and 1975–83. All six 1947 participants played their first tournament games on Wednesday, April 2; in 1948 the two Eastern runners-up (E2, E3 in the figure) were idle for a few days only because there was a three-way Western tie to break. Both winners of the runners-up bracket, Philadelphia in 1947 and Baltimore in 1948, reached the final series having played fewer tournament games than their final opponents, Chicago in 1947 and Philadelphia in 1948, had played in the best-of-7 pairings of division champions. And both winners of the runners-up bracket won the final series. The "postseason" actually comprised 11 games played in a span of 21 days for the 1947 Chicago Stags and 13 games in 30 days for 1948 Philadelphia Warriors, the finalists who emerged from the pairing of division champions.

  • 1949: The playoffs were reorganized to match Eastern Division teams exclusively, and Western Division teams exclusively – in two halves of the bracket, so to speak. Thus the BAA tournament generated a playoff champion in each Division. (So did the NBA in each of three 1950 divisions, and so it has done in each half of the league since then.) The top four teams from each of the two divisions qualified. The quarterfinals and semifinals were renamed division semifinals and division finals, respectively, and both rounds were best-of-3. Thus any playoff team might be eliminated in two games, one home game. The best-of-7 final was unchanged.
Division semifinals
Best-of-3
Division finals
Best-of-3
BAA finals
Best-of-7
         
E1 
E4 
 
Eastern Division
 
E2 
E3 
 
 
W1 
W4 
 
Western Division
 
W2 
W3 
  • 1950: The BAA was renamed as the National Basketball Association (NBA). With a three-division setup, 12 teams now qualified for the playoffs, with the top four teams from each division meeting in the best-of-3 division semifinals. The winners met in the best-of-3 division finals. With three teams remaining, the surviving team with the best regular season record qualified directly for the finals while the other two teams met in a best-of-3 NBA semifinals.
 Division Semifinals
Best-of-3
Division Finals
Best-of-3
NBA Semifinals
Best-of-3
NBA Finals
Best-of-7
                   
C1  
C4  
  
Central Division
  
C3 
C2  
 
E1  
E4  
  3  1 
Eastern Division
   2    
E3 
(Division Final winners were re-seeded based on their regular season win-loss record.)
E2  
W1  
W4  
  
Western Division
  
W3 
W2  


  • 1951: With the NBA reverting to a two-division setup; the division semifinals reverted to its original 1949 format with only eight teams qualifying. The division finals was extended to a best-of-5 format.
 Division Semifinals
Best-of-3
Division Finals
Best-of-5
NBA Finals
Best-of-7
              
E1   
E4   
    
Eastern Division
     
E3  
E2   
    
    
W1  
W4   
    
Western Division
    
W3  
W2  
  • 1954: With only nine league members (soon to be eight), the number of playoff teams was cut down to six. The division semifinals was changed to a double round-robin format within the division, with the top three teams from each division qualifying (each team played four games). Following the round-robin games, the top two teams qualified for the best-of-three division finals, followed by the best-of-seven finals.
 Division Round Robin SemifinalsDivision FinalsNBA Finals
              
E1  E1
E2  E2 
E3Eastern Division
 
(Teams were re-seeded in Division Finals based on Round Robin win-loss record)
 
W1W1
W2W2
W3Western Division


  • 1955: The number of playoff teams remained at six, but the initial round-robin was dropped after one year in favor of giving the first-place team in each division a bye to the best-of-five division finals. Teams which placed second and third played a best-of-three division semifinal. In 1955 the byes provided five and six extra days idle for the first-place teams.
  • 1958: The division finals was extended to a best-of-seven format.
  • 1961: The division semifinals were extended to a best-of-five format.
 Division Semifinals
Best-of-3 (1955–1960),

Best-of-5 (1961–1966)

Division Finals
Best-of-5 (1955–1957),

Best-of-7 (1958–1966)

NBA Finals
Best-of-7
              
E3    E1  
E2        
Eastern Division
    
    
W3    W1  
W2       
Western Division

The 1961 to 1966 tournaments alone combined initial byes for seeded teams with best-of-five initial series for unseeded teams. The 1961 byes provided five and seven extra days idle for the first-place teams. By 1966 the schedule provided more rest for the first-round participants with byes of 11 and eight extra days idle.

  • 1967: The number of playoff teams was expanded to eight once more. The division semifinals now included the fourth-best team in each conference. The first-placed teams no longer received a bye. They were matched against the third-placed teams in the best-of-5 division semifinals, while the second-placed teams were now matched against the fourth-placed teams.
  • 1968: The division semifinals was extended to a best-of-seven format.
 Division Semifinals
Best-of-5 (1967),

Best-of-7 (1968–1970)

Division Finals
Best-of-7 (1968–1970)
NBA Finals
Best-of-7
              
E1  
E3  
    
Eastern Division
     
E2 
E4  
    
    
W1 
W3  
    
Western Division
    
W2 
W4 


  • 1971: With an increased number of teams, the divisions were upgraded into conferences, which were then split into two divisions. Eight teams still qualified, four from each conference. Hence, the division semifinals and division finals came to be known as conference semifinals and conference finals, respectively. The top two teams in each division qualified as the Eastern Conference, comprising the Atlantic and Central divisions, while the Western Conference consisted of the Midwest and Pacific divisions. The first place team from one division would face the second place team of the other division within their conference. In the conference playoffs, a division winner always held home-court advantage over a second place team regardless of record.
 Conference Semifinals
Best-of-7
Conference Finals
Best-of-7
NBA Finals
Best-of-7
              
A1  
C2  
  
Eastern Conference
   
C1 
A2  
  
  
M1 
P2  
  
Western Conference
  
P1 
M2 


  • 1973: The playoff format was modified, as only the divisional champions qualified automatically; two wild-cards were also added from each conference. Once qualification was determined, the four qualifiers were seeded 1–4 based on record; divisional position no longer mattered. The #1 seed then played #4, and #2 played #3.
 Conference Semifinals
Best-of-7
Conference Finals
Best-of-7
NBA Finals
Best-of-7
              
E1  
E4  
    
Eastern Conference
     
E3 
E2  
    
    
W1 
W4  
    
Western Conference
    
W3 
W2 


  • 1975: The number of playoff teams was expanded from eight to ten. A first round was introduced which matched the fourth and fifth seeds in each conference in a best-of-3 first round series, while the top three seeds received a bye. This is similar to the system currently used in the MLB. Division winners did not automatically receive a bye to the Conference Semifinals.
 First Round
Best-of-3
Conference Semifinals
Best-of-7
Conference Finals
Best-of-7
NBA Finals
Best-of-7
                   
E4 E1  
E5   
    
Eastern Conference
     
E2 
E3  
    
    
W4 W1 
W5   
    
Western Conference
    
W2 
W3 
  • 1977: The number of playoff teams was expanded from 10 to 12. The first round now included the sixth best team in each conference, which was matched against the third seed. Only the division winners received byes to the next round.
 First Round
Best-of-3
Conference Semifinals
Best-of-7
Conference Finals
Best-of-7
NBA Finals
Best-of-7
                   
E4  E1* 
E5   
    
Eastern Conference
     
E4 E2*
E5  
    
    
E3 W1*
E6  
    
Western Conference
    
W3  W2*
W6  

The 1983 tournament is the latest to incorporate first-round byes for seeded teams. The first-round best-of-three series tapped off on Tuesday and Wednesday, April 19 and 20; the second-round best-of-sevens on Sunday to the following Wednesday, April 27. Counting from Tuesday the byes provided five to eight extra days idle.

  • 1984: The playoffs were expanded from 12 teams to 16 teams. All teams now participated in the first round, which was extended to a best-of-five series.
 First Round
Best-of-5
Conference Semifinals
Best-of-7
Conference Finals
Best-of-7
NBA Finals
Best-of-7
                   
E1*   
E8   
     
     
E4  
E5   
     
Eastern Conference
     
E3   
E6   
    
     
E2*  
E7   
    
    
W1*   
W8   
    
     
W4  
W5   
    
Western Conference
     
W3   
W6   
    
     
W2*  
W7   
  • 2003: The first round was extended to a best-of-seven series. This change arguably benefitted the higher seeds as it reduced the likelihood of an upset by a lower seed. It also meant that a team that swept their series 4–0 might have to wait up to two weeks to play their next series against a team that had won 4–3.
 First Round
Best-of-7
Conference Semifinals
Best-of-7
Conference Finals
Best-of-7
NBA Finals
Best-of-7
                   
E1*   
E8   
     
     
E4  
E5   
     
Eastern Conference
     
E3   
E6   
    
     
E2*  
E7   
    
    
W1*   
W8   
    
     
W4  
W5   
    
Western Conference
     
W3   
W6   
    
     
W2*  
W7   
  • 2005: Each conference was realigned into three divisions with each division winner qualifying for a top-three seed regardless of record. The next best five teams from each conference also qualify for the playoffs.
 First Round
Best-of-7
Conference Semifinals
Best-of-7
Conference Finals
Best-of-7
NBA Finals
Best-of-7
                   
E1*   
E8   
     
     
E4  
E5   
     
Eastern Conference
     
E3*   
E6   
    
     
E2*  
E7   
    
    
W1*   
W8   
    
     
W4  
W5   
    
Western Conference
     
W3*   
W6   
    
     
W2*  
W7   
  • 2007: To address the criticisms of having each division champion guaranteed a top-three seed, regardless of record, the rules were changed such that the division winners are now only guaranteed a top-four seed. The team with the second-best record in the conference is now guaranteed the second seed, even if it finishes second in its own division. This ensures that the two best teams in the conference will not meet until the conference finals at the earliest. The previous system raised the prospect of the two best teams in the conference being seeded 1 and 4 if they play in the same division, thus forcing them to play each other in the second round (given no upsets).
    • Note: In the example below, both the East's #2 seed and the West's #3 seed are not division champions.
 First Round
Best-of-7
Conference Semifinals
Best-of-7
Conference Finals
Best-of-7
NBA Finals
Best-of-7
                   
E1*   
E8   
     
     
E5  
E4*   
     
Eastern Conference
     
E3*   
E6   
    
     
E2  
E7   
    
    
W1*   
W8   
    
     
W5  
W4*   
    
Western Conference
     
W3   
W6   
    
     
W2*  
W7   


  • 2016: While the playoff bracketing did not change, qualification criteria were changed. The teams with the eight best records in each conference receive playoff berths, with no automatic berths nor guaranteed top-four seed placement for division champions.

Team roster

Playoff teams must identify their postseason roster before the playoffs begin. They are allowed up to 15 players and can designate two as inactive for each game. Players are eligible to be on a team's playoff roster as long as they were on the team for at least one regular season game, and were not on another NBA team's roster after March 1. Prior to the 2005-06 season, playoff rosters were limited to 12 players who were named before the playoffs began.

Records and statistics

  • Only five 8th seeded teams have managed to win a series versus the number 1 seeded team: The Denver Nuggets eliminated the Seattle SuperSonics 3–2 in 1994. The New York Knicks eliminated the Miami Heat 3–2 in 1999. The Golden State Warriors defeated the Dallas Mavericks 4–2 in the 2007 Western Conference First Round (becoming the first 8 seed to beat a 1 seed in the best of 7 formats). In 2011, the Memphis Grizzlies beat the San Antonio Spurs, 4–2 and in 2012, the Philadelphia 76ers beat the Chicago Bulls 4–2.
  • The 1999 Knicks are the only 8th seeded team to reach the NBA finals; no 8th seeded team has won the NBA championship as of 2020.
  • The 1956–57 St. Louis Hawks, 1958–59 Minneapolis Lakers and the 1980–81 Houston Rockets are the only teams with losing records (34–38, 33–39 and 40–42, respectively) to make it to the NBA finals. In 1981, the Houston Rockets' opponent in the Western Conference Finals, the Kansas City Kings, also had a losing record (40–42). Boston Celtics beat all of these teams in the finals.
  • The 1994–95 Houston Rockets, a sixth seed with a record of 47–35, are the lowest seeded team to win the NBA finals. In the NBA finals, the Rockets swept the Orlando Magic (57–25) in four games; in doing so, the Rockets defeated four teams that had won 50 or more games during the regular season (the Utah Jazz at 60–22, the Phoenix Suns at 59–23, the San Antonio Spurs at 62–20 and Orlando at 57–25), the first time a team had done so. As of now, the 1994–95 Rockets are the only team to have won an NBA title without having the home-court advantage during any round of the playoffs.
  • The Golden State Warriors own the longest NBA playoff winning streak for a single postseason with 15 straight wins in the 2017 playoffs.
  • Of all the teams with multiple NBA finals appearances, the Chicago Bulls are the only team to have never lost in the finals, winning six.
  • The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles/Minneapolis Lakers possess the most overall NBA finals series wins with 17 each. The Celtics have played in 21 NBA Finals series, with an overall record of 17–4, while the Lakers have played in the most NBA Finals series (32), with an overall record of 17–15.
  • The longest active playoff appearance streak currently belongs to the Houston Rockets with 8 consecutive appearances in the playoffs, beginning in the 2012–13 NBA season. The longest streak of playoffs appearances in a row is currently tied at 22 seasons between the San Antonio Spurs, who made it from 1997–98 season until the 2018–19 season, and the Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers, who made it from the 1949–50 season to the 1970–71 season.
  • In 1983, under the bye–7–7–7 system, the Philadelphia 76ers attained the best record of 12–1, having only lost in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks.
  • In 2001, under the best of 5–7–7–7 system, the Los Angeles Lakers attained the best record of 15–1, having only lost in Game 1 of the Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers.
  • In 2017, under the best of 7–7–7–7 system, the Golden State Warriors attained the best record of 16–1, having only lost in Game 4 of the Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Warriors and Cavaliers came into the Finals with a combined record of 24–1, with the Cavaliers having only lost in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics.
  • Of the 74 NBA champions, 72 of them were either a No. 1 seed (50), a No. 2 seed (16) or a No. 3 seed (6).
  • Of the 74 NBA champions, 38 of them were from the Eastern Conference while the other 34 were from the Western Conference.

Playoff appearances

Current as of the 2020 NBA playoffs

See also

External links

Uses material from the Wikipedia article NBA playoffs, released under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.