Why NBA Playoff Seeding Matters More in the New Postseason Format
David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: General shot of NBA Playoffs signage.
Playoff seeding has always mattered in the NBA or in any sport, but the new play-in tournament rules have made seeding more important than ever.
With the new play-in rules, there’s now a real advantage to every single seed No. 1 through 10 in the conference standings. For each seed, there’s a key advantage to being even one spot above the team below.
That makes every win and every spot in the standings matter, and as we hit this home stretch and consider how teams are positioning themselves for a playoff run, it’s worth considering what’s at stake for every playoff seed.
Let’s start at the top and work our way down.
No. 1 Seed
The top seed has always mattered, and that increases ever so slightly this season.
The top seed gets home-court advantage throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs. It also gets to play the worst team left in the conference. The No. 8 seed will have just played back-to-back elimination games, so it will come into the playoffs already exhausted. It’s an immediate commanding advantage.
The No. 1 seed also avoids the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds until the conference finals. Most seasons tend to have two or three true competitors in each conference, so that means a pretty clear path to the conference finals, which puts you just two series wins away from a ring.
And, of course, the 1-seed gets home-court advantage over that 2- or 3-seed when they do play. So, yeah, the 1-seed matters, now more than ever.
No. 2 Seed
The key advantage for the 2-seed has typically come in the conference semifinals, where they get home-court advantage. Home court in Game 7s can often be the difference between going home or advancing to the conference finals.
Now, 2-seeds get a second major advantage. They get to play the winner of the first leg of the play-in games. Anything can happen in a winner-take-all game, so that could easily be the team in eighth place, and either way, that team will be coming off a high-pressure elimination game.
Think of it as a baseball team sitting at home resting while the opponent has to pitch its ace. It’s a real advantage now compared to the No. 3 seed, which faces a much tougher test from a No. 6 seed that stayed above the play-in fray.
No. 3 Seed
The No. 3 seed advantage is the same as it always has been: It avoids the No. 1 seed until the conference finals. And sure, you figure you probably have to beat the best at some point, but the playoffs are funny and you never know what can happen.
As the No. 3 seed, you get to sit back and watch as two other teams — albeit lesser competition — try to knock off the top seed before you ever have to face them.
The 3-seed is only assured of home-court advantage in the first round, but any upset clears a path for a home-court advantage later. If the No. 2 seed goes down in the first round, the 3-seed hosts the conference semis. Ditto if the 3-seed makes the conference finals and finds that the 1-seed has been upset along the way.
No. 4 Seed
The 4-seed advantage is very simple: home-court advantage in the first round against the 5-seed.
Most years, there are two or three clear contenders in each conference. The No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup is often the closest in the bracket, and it’s a huge advantage to start with two games at home and also host a potential Game 7 against a team that is theoretically an even matchup.
No. 4 seeds are 19-17 against No. 5 seeds since the NBA went to a seven-game first-round series in 2003, but No. 4 seeds have won six of the nine Game 7 matchups over that span.
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No. 5 Seed
The No. 5 seed is a tricky spot, but it’s important to remember expectations here. Unless a true contender has slipped in the standings due to injuries, like the Los Angeles Lakers this season, a typical 5-seed is not expected to contend for the NBA Finals.
Given expectations, the upside of the 5-seed is playing the 4-seed rather than one of the top three teams. That’s the best matchup on the board for a road underdog and the best chance of winning at least one playoff series, and for most 5-seeds, that’s the most realistic playoff upside.
And if a lower seed is going to make a deep run, the No. 5 seed is the safest spot because it’s the only way to guarantee you don’t have to potentially go through the No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 seeds just to reach the Finals. That softer first-round matchup is key.
That said, this is probably the softest advantage on the list. The downside of the 5-seed is having to play the 1-seed immediately in the second round. So, even if you do win one series, most seasons, that favorite is waiting for you right away next round.
In a typical season in which the No. 1 seed is the feared favorite, it might make more sense for a 5-seed to tank and drop a spot to the 6-seed to avoid that 1-seed for an extra round.
No. 6 Seed
This is where things start to change a bit with the addition of the play-in tournament.
The No. 6 seed has always had two smaller advantages. First, it avoids the No. 1 seed until the conference finals — that’s the reason a 5-seed might tank to get here. Second, it also avoids the No. 2 seed in the first round. In a season with two heavy favorites at those spots, this might be a nice sweet spot.
But now there’s another monster incentive for the No. 6 seed: avoiding the play-in tournament entirely. No matter how good a 6-seed is, anything can happen in a one-game playoff.
Even if a team is a hefty favorite — say 70% likely to win a play-in game — there’s still nearly a 10% chance of that team being upset twice and missing the playoffs altogether. That’s a pretty steep fall from grace — from 6-seed to out of the playoffs completely.
And even if it does survive, it comes into the playoffs exhausted after one or more elimination games. Meanwhile, the No. 6 seed is sitting at home resting for a couple of days, scouting a first-round opponent.
For teams that can’t lock in one of those top-three seeds, the 6-seed may very well be the sweet spot in the entire playoff bracket. That will be an especially interesting watch this year as the Lakers continue to slip in the standings.
The 6-seed can be a pretty soft landing spot. Just don’t fall to the 7-seed. That changes everything.
The Play-In Teams
No. 7 Seed
Then again, better to be the No. 7-seed than anything else after. Sure, the 7-seed has to play in the play-in tournament, but they’re still in pretty strong position to make the first round of the playoffs.
First, the 7-seed gets to host any play-in game(s). It’ll first host a game against the 8-seed. Win that one, and it’s into the first round and can rest for a couple of days before playing the 2-seed. But lose, and you still get a second chance at home against an ostensibly worse team: the winner of the 9-10 game.
So, the 7-seed gets two home games against worse teams and needs only one win to make the playoffs proper. Even if that 7-seed is only a 60% favorite as the better team playing at home, there’s still only a 16% chance of missing the first round altogether. The play-in tournament appropriately gives that 7-seed a huge advantage.
Beyond that, the 7-seed also has some control over its first-round opponent. It gets a home play-in and a chance to win and avoid any vaunted 1-seed — or if they so desire, the opportunity to lose on purpose to avoid a poor 2-seed matchup and “tank” for a 1-seed. Good luck with that.
No. 8 Seed
The 8-seed may not get to host that first play-in game, but it’s still in a far better spot than the two seeds below them. That’s because the 8-seed can still lose its first game and make the playoffs, and that’s not true for the 9- or 10-seed.
Put another way, the 8-seed is the last team that gets two shots at survival. It gets one crack at a road game and a chance to enter the playoffs as the 7-seed and face the 2.
But failing that, the losing 8-seed gets to go back home and host a win-or-go-home elimination game for that last playoff spot. And remember, home teams typically win around 80% of all NBA playoff elimination games historically. That’s a massive advantage.
No. 9 Seed
The ninth-place team has to win two play-in games just to get into the first round, so that sucks.
Don’t overlook how big an advantage it is to start the play-in tournament as a No. 7- or 8-seed instead of one of these bottom-two spots. Say you’re an absolutely dominant team that finishes ninth because of injuries and is favored to win 70% of the time in the play-in game.
Even in that unlikely scenario, you are still more likely to miss the first round than make it. It’s way harder to win two games than one. We shouldn’t have to specify that, but no NBA game is a freebie, especially in back-to-back elimination games.
Still, it is better to be ninth than the 10th for one important reason: home-court advantage. That first game is a win-or-go-home scenario, but it’s always a huge advantage to play that game with home-court advantage, even in a pandemic.
A win still means hitting the road as an underdog in another win-or-die situation, but that’s better than watching from home.
The 10th-place team is not eliminated from the postseason entirely. So, yeah, that’s the advantage.
Beyond that, fans may still be overlooking just how impossible a road it will be for the team in 10th. This team is going to have to win a road elimination game against the team in ninth, then win another road elimination game against a No. 7 or No. 8 seed, and all that just for the pleasure of facing a rested, heavily favored 1-seed in the first round.
Remember how the home team wins 80% of playoff elimination games in the NBA? That gives the 10th-place a 4% chance of even making the first round of the playoffs. Four percent!
And all that just to face the best team in the conference, and 1-seeds are 69-5 lifetime against 8-seeds in the NBA first round since the playoff moved to eight teams from each conference in 1984.
Suffice to say the road will not be easy. But hey — at least it gets a shot, and that’s more than the five teams below it can say.
Every seed matters in the new NBA playoff going forward, from the No. 1 seed all the way down to 10. Just don’t be caught sitting in that 11th slot when the music stops.
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