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Playoff Seeding Explained

There's a decent chance that by this time next week the Portland Trail Blazers will officially (i.e. mathematically) be able to move past the playoff question and start narrowing down seeding options.  In preparation for that event we should look at the seeding system.  It's changed a couple times since the last Portland playoff appearance, so 21 straight years of knowing what's up won't do you as much good as it once did.  Here's the skinny.

Seeding the Top 8 in Each Conference

The best way to think of the new playoff seeding system is to divide the Top 8 teams into two tiers of four.

  • The upper tier is comprised of the three division winners plus the team with the best record besides those three.
  • The lower tier is comprised of the teams with the next four best records.
  • Each tier is seeded separately, by record, regardless of who won what division.

In other words the 1 and 2 seeds could both be from the same division if those were the two best teams in the conference by record.  Winning your division does not guarantee you a top three seed.  It does guarantee you'll be in the top tier though, and thus be seeded no lower than fourth.

EXAMPLE:  Consider this completely fictional finish.

Pacific:  L*kers 60-22, Kings 55-27, Warriors 50-32

Southwest:  Spurs 59-23, Rockets 54-28

Northwest:  Blazers 53-29, Nuggets 52-30, Jazz 51-31

The top four seeds would be the L*kers (60 wins), Spurs (59), and Blazers (53) as division winners plus the Kings (55 wins), as Sacramento had the best record of the remaining teams.  The seeding among those four would be by record, which would mean the L*kers would be #1, the Spurs #2, the Kings #3, and the Blazers #4.  The remaining teams would fall in line by record for the 5-8 seeds:  Rockets (54 wins) #5, Nuggets (52) #6, Jazz (51) #7, Warriors (50) #8.

The New Rule:  Seeds Determine Matchups But Not Homecourt

This is important because people assume that if the Blazers manage to win the division they will also get homecourt advantage.  This is not necessarily true.  Homecourt advantage in a given series is determined solely by the records of the two teams involved. 

In the example we just used the Blazers were seeded #4 by virtue of winning the division.  The Rockets were seeded #5 and would face Portland.  However Houston had 54 wins and Portland only 53, so the Rockets would have homecourt advantage in the series with Portland despite being the lower seed.

Tiebreaker Rules

This is where it gets hairy in the West.  Follow closely, because there are a couple twists.

If two teams have identical records, these tiebreakers apply, in order.  As soon as the tie is broken by one of them the rest don't matter.

1.  Head-to-Head Record

If either team has an advantage over the other in the regular season the tie is broken right there. 

Here's how the Blazers have fared against the teams close to them in the standings:

  • vs. San Antonio  2-1  (1 remaining)
  • vs. Denver  1-2 (1 remaining)
  • vs. Houston  1-1 (1 remaining)
  • vs. Utah  1-2 (1 remaining)
  • vs. New Orleans  2-2
  • vs. Dallas   0-3

As you can see, the only positive possibilities for Portland are San Antonio and Houston.  We've either lost or pushed this tiebreaker against all of the other teams.  And with the remaining Houston and San Antonio games being on the road, things aren't looking cheery there either. 

2.  Division Record (applies only if the teams in question are in the same division)

The second tie breaker only comes into play while measuring two teams in the same division.  In that case records against the division are measured.  Here's how things look against the Nuggets and Jazz. 

  • Denver 9-3 (4 remaining:  vs. Utah, @Minnesota, vs. OKC, @Portland)
  • Utah   10-3  (3 remaining:  @Portland, @Denver, vs. Minnesota)
  • Portland  7-5   (4 remaining:  vs. Utah, @OKC, vs. OKC, vs. Denver)

As you can see, each team plays the other two with some Thunder and/or 'Wolves thrown in.  The Blazers have a legitimate chance to sweep the remaining division games and go 11-5 for the season.  Utah's most likely outcome would be 1-2 for 11-5.  Denver's 3-1 for 12-4.

Having spotted two games to the competition already, every remaining division game is essential to the Blazers if they have any hope of winning this tie-breaker against either team.  They need the Jazz to lose all of theirs in the meantime or Denver to go 1-3.  Neither of those eventualities seem likely.

Somewhat more likely would be a tie, which would lead to...

3.  Conference Record

The next tiebreaker compares records against teams from the same conference.  Here are the standings so far among teams that the Blazers could still be tied with at this level:

  • San Antonio  31-14
  • Denver  30-15
  • Houston  31-14
  • Utah  31-12
  • Portland  24-19
  • New Orleans  27-16

As you can see, the Blazers have little or no chance of catching the teams ahead of them in the standings right now.  If those teams did lose enough conference games to fall to Portland's level the Blazers would pass them in the overall standings anyway, thus alleviating the need for any tie-breaker at all.  

The Blazers and Hornets are close, but with Portland having no non-conference games left and New Orleans having only one, I don't see any way in which the teams could switch positions on this scale and still remain tied in overall record.  The teams are separated by ½ game in the overall standings but the Hornets would have to lose 3 more games than Portland to tie in conference record.  (My math gets fuzzy at 1 a.m. and I'm sure I'll be corrected if I'm wrong.)

In any case, the end result here is another tiebreaker that doesn't favor the Blazers.

4.  Record vs. Playoff Teams, Own Conference

5.  Record vs. Playoff Teams, Other Conference

6.  Net Points in All Games

These three tiebreakers are academic at this point.  They won't be invoked for the Blazers this year.

Tiebreaker Summation

Long story short, unless any of the following happen...

  • A road win against the Rockets on April 5th
  • A road win against the Spurs on April 8th
  • The Jazz losing all three of their remaining divisional games while the Blazers win all four of theirs
  • The Nuggets losing three of their four remaining divisional games while the Blazers win all of theirs

...the Blazers are going to have to finish ahead of any given team in the conference to get a higher seed than that team.  Absent those eventualities, all ties will go to the opposition.

Hope that brings some clarity to the situation.

--Dave (