One of the best things about seeing the Blazers beat the Nuggets Wednesday night (besides the actual drubbing, that is) was that it was finally the end of the 82-game season and more particularly the end of the lengthy seeding run-downs. The seeds were determined. Finally I could avoid the hours-in-the-writing, meticulously-crafted, detailed explanations intended to alleviate (or at least mitigate) all of the confusion. It was clear! It was finished! It was there in black and white for everyone to see! End of story.
Or so I thought.
I take one day driving home from Seattle and what do I arrive to? A mailbox crammed with thirty-two variations of, "The league made a mistake! The Blazers should be third!"
After the first one I was like, "Huh."
After the third one I was all, "Huh?"
After number twenty-eight I'm losing what remains of my hair. Canzano and Jaynes are soon to have company if this keeps up.
I'm not trying to slam anyone who is still confused. The rules are poorly publicized, seldom invoked, and somewhat befuddling when read. Here is the best explanation I can give you of what went down in its entirety, plus the exact mistakes I see people making when they say something went wrong. This includes important information about stuff you may have read elsewhere. If you're confused or upset still, please read carefully. If you're not, please read carefully anyway so you can talk your friends who are baffled off of the ledge.
The records 1-5 in the West finished thus:
- L.A. L*kers 65-17
- Denver, San Antonio, and Portland tied at 54-28
- Houston 53-29
The obvious problem here is that Denver, San Antonio, and Portland are tied. Since there are three teams involved, to resolve this tie we look at multi-team tiebreaking criteria. Here they are:
- 1. Division Winner
- 2. Best Head-to-Head Record Among All Three Teams
- 3. Best Record in Division (if teams are in same division)
- 4. Best Record in Conference
Error #1: Some people are getting faulty information. Much of it is coming from NBA.com itself. If you've been relying on this article your information is two years old. Forget it. Division Winner has since been added as the #1 tiebreaker in both two-team and multi-team ties. Before this week that was the newest information you could find on NBA.com. That doesn't make it right. The same website has made a similar gaffe on this page. Right below the matchups they list Division Winner as the #1 way a tie can be resolved. But further down they omit the criterion both of their tiebreaker lists. I've tried and tried to see what they're doing and it's going to take a better man than I to figure it out, other than to say it's just a mistake. I, myself, did not know about this rule change until it was brought to my attention by some people farther inside than I. I don't know why it wasn't published (or at least reaffirmed) officially. But it's there and it's active, as you can see by the results. Check ESPN.com, CBS Sportsline, YahooSports...they'll have it correct, as does this site.
So then, Tiebreaker #1 is Division Winner. San Antonio is clearly one. File that away for later use. But who won the Northwest Division since Portland and Denver finished tied at the top of it? This Portland-Denver tie has to be resolved before we can know who fulfills the first criterion of the multi-team tiebreaker. Put aside the original question of how the three teams sort out. We don't know the answer to that until we know who won the Northwest.
Unlike the big tie we're trying to resolve, this one is NOT between multiple teams. This is a TWO-TEAM TIE to be resolved solely between Denver and Portland and solely for the purposes of determining a division winner. Forget any question but that.
Here are the two-team criteria:
- 1. Division Winner
- 2. Head-to-Head Record
- 3. Division Record (if teams are in the same division)
- 4. Conference Record
We don't know the division winner, as that is the issue we're trying to resolve here. So the first criterion is a wash. Portland and Denver went 2-2 against each other. The second criterion is also a tie. Denver's division record is 12-4. Portland's is 11-5. Denver comes out ahead. So we STOP NOW. The first tiebreaker that favors one team over the other stops the process and determines the winner. Denver has won the division.
Error #2: The Blazers were announced as "co-division champions" after they beat Denver on Wednesday night. This is correct in an honorary sense. The Blazers finished with the same record as the Nuggets. Portland will be able to hang a banner to that effect if they wish. However nice it sounds, though, there can't be co-seed holders. You can't both play the Hornets at the same time. One team or another must get the edge. The edge went to Denver by winning the tiebreaker we just ran. No matter what nice things you want to say about the Blazers, the Nuggets are the sole division champions for seeding and tiebreaker purposes.
So now we know that San Antonio and Denver are division winners. Now we can return to the multi-team tiebreaker.
You will recall the first criterion is division winner. Denver and San Antonio are. Portland is not. Therefore both Denver and San Antonio hold the edge over Portland. And again, we STOP THERE. Portland is out of the tie, finishing third among the three by virtue of being eliminated by the first tiebreaker.
We are now left with an unresolved tie between the two division winners, Denver and San Antonio. Once again, this has become a two-team tie, as Portland is now out of the process. The two-team rules are invoked. The first criterion is division winner, which both are. That's a wash. The second criterion is head-to-head record against each other. Denver won the series with San Antonio 2-1. Therefore Denver wins the head-to-head tie with San Antonio.
Errors #3 and #4: The second tiebreaker in the multi-team rules is head-to-head record among the multiple teams. Some people are trying to invoke this, as Portland has a better head-to-head record among all three teams than either of the others. This actually involves two simultaneous errors. First the people forget to STOP THERE once Portland is eliminated from the tie by the first criterion. They want to charge on to the second criterion when the first already says Portland has lost. The tiebreakers go in order. The ones on top trump the ones below. Once any criterion resolves the tie, it's done. The Blazers could have an 8-0 record versus San Antonio and Denver. If the Blazers didn't win the division it doesn't mean squat in this context. Second, when they continue they want to keep the tie as a three-way when it's now just two teams, Denver and San Antonio. They don't properly switch to the two-team rules when the tie gets down to two teams. In essence they're trying to allow the Blazers a backdoor. The first mutli-team criterion says Portland is out of the tie, below the other two. But if you can just...get...to...the...second multi-team criterion the Blazers come out ahead! But that second criterion is never invoked in this situation. It's meaningless. The process never gets there. The tie is multi-team only until Portland gets factored out. Then it becomes a two-team tie and Portland isn't either of those teams.
So now our tie is resolved. Both Denver and San Antonio finish ahead of Portland by virtue of having won the division (via the first criterion under multi-team rules). Denver finishes ahead of San Antonio by winning the head-to-head battle (via the second criterion under two-team rules).
We are now ready to figure out the actual seedings.
The NBA rule says that the top four seeds in a conference will be the three division winners plus the one team that finishes with the best record among non-division winners. Here are the records again, this time with division winners starred:
- Los Angeles 65-17*
- Denver 54-28*
- San Antonio 54-28*
- Portland 54-28
- Houston 53-29
The three division winners are clear. Portland has the best record of non-division-winners, edging out Houston. So your top four seeds will be L.A., Denver, San Antonio, and Portland. But not necessarily in that order!
After the top four seeds are determined, they are ordered by regular season record. Being a division winner doesn't matter here! If a team had 60 wins in this field but wasn't the division winner (maybe because they were in the same division as L.A.) that team would get the #2 seed even though they didn't win their division and two other teams behind them did.
But guess what? In this case Portland, Denver, and San Antonio finished with identical records. How do you determine who's ahead? The same tiebreaker system you just went through. What does that tiebreaker system say? The same thing it said before. The order of finish is Denver-San Antonio-Portland.
Note again that the division winner status does not outright give a team advantage in the top four seeding order. It's done by regular season record. But in the case of a tie between two or more teams division winner is STILL the #1 CRITERION in the TIEBREAKER. Because there is a tie AND ONLY BECAUSE THERE IS A TIE, being the division winner gives the Nuggets and Spurs the advantage over Portland. That's not a seeding rule, it's a tiebreaker rule. And it just so happened that this year's seeding process involved tiebreakers.
Error #5: Some people are doing some weird mumbo-jumbo where they try to invoke the "no division winner advantage in top-four seeding" rule to show why the Blazers should finish ahead of San Antonio or Denver. That's no good. Even though there's no advantage to division winners in determining the order of the top four seeds there is still an advantage to division winners when determining who finishes ahead in a tie.
Yes, the Blazers finished with a 3-1 advantage against San Antonio in their season series. But that's still the second criterion in the tiebreaking process. The first is still division winner. And San Antonio still wins via that criterion. The tiebreaking process didn't magically change just because it's being used in this context.
Again: The seeding rule says there's no outright advantage to division winners in determining seeds. That doesn't eliminate division winner as the first criterion in any tiebreaker! The seeding rule doesn't change or affect the tiebreaking rules at all. If there's a tie, the tiebreaking process still gives the division winner an advantage.
Another way to look at it is this: This year the tiebreaker system was needed to answer the question that the seeding system asks, namely, "Who finished with the superior record?" According to the tiebreakers Denver finished with a superior 54 wins to San Antonio and both of them finished with a superior 54 wins to Portland.
So...Denver wins all overall ties for purposes of determining record, San Antonio finishes behind Denver but ahead of Portland, Portland finishes behind both others. Thus the final standings look like this:
- 1. Los Angeles
- 2. Denver
- 3. San Antonio
- 4. Portland
- 5. Houston
No mistakes, no sleight-of-hand, just some semi-complicated rules being invoked in a straightforward manner.
Now please, for the love of God, let me get through at least another few weeks without having to type the word "criterion" again.