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How Does the NBA Playoff Bracket Work?

For National Basketball Association (NBA) teams and fans alike, nothing is as important as the NBA playoffs. It is the culmination of a season-long effort and an opportunity for franchises and players to etch themselves in NBA history by competing for the league’s top prize – the NBA Larry O’Brien Championship trophy.

How does the NBA playoff bracket work? The NBA playoff bracket features 16 teams from the 30 total NBA franchises. The playoff bracket is split into two halves with eight teams from each of the two conferences (East & West). Each round is a best of 7 series. With the 1 seed playing the 8th seed and the 2nd seed playing the 7th seed, 3 v 6 and 4 v 5. The higher seed in each round will have home court advantage, playing 4 of the 7 games at home. The Playoffs progress through the First Round, Second Round, Conference Finals culminating in the NBA Finals, where the Eastern champion will face the Western Champion for the Larry O’brien Trophy.

via CBS Sports

The Addition of the NBA Play In Tournament

Since the 2019-20 season the NBA has held a “play in” tournament. Allowing the teams that finished 9th and 10th in each conference to have a final chance to unseat the 7th and 8th placed finishers for a spot in the First Round of the Playoffs. The current “Play In” format means that the teams finishing 7th and 8th face each other. The winner moves to the first round as the 7th seed. The loser faces off against the winner of the game between the 9th and 10th seed. With the winner of that game progressing as the 8th seed. This happens in both conferences.

This has proved popular not only with fans who love to see elimination basketball, but with Franchises as well. The goal was to increase competition for teams that might otherwise be inclined to give up on a season and “tank” for a good draft position. Early evidence suggests this has worked, allowing teams hit by injury, or teams that came on late after mid-season trades a real shot at making the first round and causing an upset.

A Brief History of the NBA Playoff Bracket

The current NBA playoff bracket draws inspiration from the early days of the league – particularly the final BAA tournament in 1949 before the historic merger of the Basketball Association of America (BAA) and the National Basketball League (NBL) to form the NBA we all know today.

In that tournament, the BAA grouped both Eastern and Western teams exclusively creating two norms that apply to date:

  1. The existence of two conferences and thus two conference champions (Eastern and Western).
  2. Ensuring that the respective winners of the two conferences meet in the NBA Finals.

Prior to 1949, a different format was used where the two division champions (Eastern and Western) would compete in a best-of-seven series to clinch one of the two spots in the finals. The next four best teams from either conference would subsequently compete in a best-of-three series for the remaining spot.

Normally, the matchups would be between the first runners-up from each division with the second runners-up doing the same. The two teams that emerged victorious from each of the two clashes would then battle the winner of the Eastern division champion versus the Western division champion for the title.

As more expansion franchises were incorporated into the NBA from the early 195s to the early 2000s, the playoff bracket rules evolved to accommodate the disparity in the number of teams in each conference. With the addition of the Charlotte Bobcats (now Charlotte Hornets) as its thirtieth franchise, the NBA overhauled its conferences by dividing each conference into five divisions of three teams each.

The 2006 NBA Playoffs Rule Change

Before 2004, the NBA was also divided into two conferences. There were however only two divisions in each conference. The winners of the two divisions in each conference would be guaranteed the top two seeds in their respective conference ensuring that their first meeting in the playoffs would be at their conference finals provided they made it that far.

The NBA then evolved into three divisions per conference with the top three seeds being reserved for the division champions. The adjustment invited sharp criticism from many quarters as it made it highly likely that the top two teams in each conference would face each other in the conference semifinals instead of the conference finals.

 This was because the highest a second-place team in a particular could seed was fourth regardless of whether it had a better win-loss record than the other two division champions – a development that was likely to make conference finals predictable and lackluster.

In order to remedy the hiccup that was created, the NBA instituted a playoffs rule change in August 2006 that ensured that the top four seeds in each conference would be allocated to the teams with the best win-loss record. The rule change provided that the top two teams in each conference would first lock horns in their conference finals barring an upset by the remaining teams in the first and second rounds.

How Does the NBA Play-In Work?

In 2020, the NBA introduced a play-in tournament to determine the final two playoff spots (seventh and eighth seeds) in each conference. The initiative was introduced by the league as an incentive for teams to remain competitive until the end of the regular season and as part of the measures meant to discourage teams from tanking in order to increase the likelihood of winning the draft lottery.

The then-new policy is the last significant regulation that had a direct impact on the NBA playoff bracket after the 2016 rule changes that saw the eight teams with the best records in each conference secure a playoff berth. The 2016 rule change also abolished the reserving of the top seeds for division champions by awarding seeds strictly on the basis of a team’s win-loss record.

For 2020, the NBA created a special rule due to the suspension of play as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since only a handful of games could be played before the postseason kicked off, only the teams that were able to realistically compete for a playoff berth were allowed to finish out the regular season upon the resumption of play.

The play-in format was then officially adopted in 2021. The top six teams in each conference are guaranteed a playoff berth and are thus exempted from the play-in tournament, which is contested by teams that place seventh through tenth. The play-in tournament pits the seventh-placed and eighth-placed teams, and the ninth-placed and tenth-placed teams in each conference against each other.

The winner of the seven versus eight matchups officially becomes the seventh seed while the eighth seed is decided between the loser of the seven versus eight matchups and the winner of the nine versus ten play-in game. The NBA playoff bracket then takes effect with the first round of matchups being as follows:

  1. 1st seed versus 8th seed.
  2. 2nd seed versus 7th seed.
  3. 3rd seed versus 6th seed.
  4. 4th seed versus 5th seed.