How Do The NBA Playoffs Work?

The NBA Playoffs are fast approaching, with this year’s edition set to kick off on the 22nd of May and run through until July. The title race is as wide-open as any in recent memory and up to ten teams could claim to be a legitimate chance of winning the NBA Championship, so let’s take a look at what exactly they have to do to achieve that goal.

The NBA playoffs format

Unlike many sports in Australia, the NBA is split into an Eastern and Western Conference. The top eight teams from each advance through to the Playoffs, and are seeded from 1 through to 8 based on where they finished in that Conference. 

Teams then compete in best-of-seven series matchups. The team which finishes first in each Conference plays the team which finished eighth, while second-place plays seventh-place, and so on. The losing team is eliminated from the Playoffs, while the winner advances through to the next round. This continues until only one team is left standing in each conference — the Eastern Conference Champion and the Western Conference Champion. These two teams then lock horns in the final best-of-seven series of the year, with the winner crowned the NBA Champion. 

In the past, it was as simple as that — the top eight teams in each Conference made the Playoffs, and that was it. However, the NBA has long had an issue whereby too many teams ranked in the bottom half of the standings have little to play for during an extended period of time in the second half of the season, and so, in 2020, they added in an experiment which they called the ‘play-in tournament’ — and it appears here to stay.

The play-in tournament

The play-in tournament exists, in effect, to give more teams a chance to make it into the Playoffs. In the past, the teams which finished 9th and 10th in their respective Conferences would have simply missed out and begun their off-seasons, but as of last season, they’ll now make it into this tournament. 

Involved in the play-in tournament are the teams which finish 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th in each Conference. The teams which finish 10th play the teams which finish 7th, while 8th and 9th also do battle to decide who will earn the final four spots in the Playoffs. Of course, if it was simply a one-off match or another best-of-seven series this would do a disservice to the teams finishing in the traditional Playoff spots, so instead, the teams start by playing one game against one another. If the higher ranked team wins, it’s over and they earn the Playoff spot. If the lower-ranked team wins, a second game is played, and the winner of that gets the spot in the Playoffs. This means that while the teams finishing 9th and 10th are given a chance at earning a Playoff spot, they need to beat a team which finished higher than they did two times in a row to do it. 

Of course, this means that the number of teams in the NBA Playoffs or the play-in tournament each season is a massive 20 out of the 30 teams in the league. The benefit this offers, however, is that it minimises the number of teams who have no reason to try to win later in the season, and gives fans of all but a few teams hope that their side will be playing Playoff basketball later in the year.

Unsurprisingly, the teams in the play-in tournament wouldn’t typically be touted as genuine Championship contenders – after all, each of them did finish outside the top 6. With such a long list of quality teams in the league this season, however, the 2021 NBA Champion could come from anywhere.