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Will a New Playoff Format Alter the Fate of the NBA’s Title Race?

We ran the numbers on four possible scenarios to find out how each would affect the outcome of the 2020 postseason

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

All indications are that the NBA will resume play at a closed environment within Disney World, most likely in late July. Left more uncertain is what, exactly, the schedule will look like. With a variety of possible structures generating buzz in recent days, it’s conceivable that the postseason format will be as abnormal as the season preceding it.

The day-to-day rhythm of the playoffs will change depending on the format—but will the eventual structure impact teams’ chances of advancing and winning a championship? To investigate, we can use a prediction model—based mostly on regular-season point differential, a strong predictor of future success and a strong historical basis for playoff predictions—with tweaks for the various possibilities, and compare the results.

Today we’ll look at four potential scenarios: a standard playoff format with 16 teams and conferences intact; a conferenceless format with 16 teams seeded straight through, regardless of East/West affiliation; an expanded format with 20 teams and play-in games for the bottom seeds in the bracket; and a World Cup–style format, as outlined by The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor, with 20 teams and a group stage round.

1. Standard Format

We’ll start with the simplest and most familiar-looking bracket. If the NBA used the standings as they stood when the season came to a halt on March 11, some teams like the Pelicans might complain about being deprived the opportunity to chase the no. 8 seed, and others like the Rockets might complain about unlucky seeding. But the regular season was mostly complete by the time the COVID-19 pandemic forced a league shutdown. There isn’t a perfect solution; going with familiarity might be the best option.

This system would function the same as any standard playoff bracket, just without home-court advantage. Yet that advantage doesn’t typically have a major impact on playoff odds; it really only matters in a potential Game 7, which doesn’t occur all that often, and even then isn’t ironclad. The higher-seeded team usually wins a playoff series because it’s better, not because it has an extra game at home.

So while teams lose a few points of playoff odds without home court—Milwaukee’s title odds, for instance, drop 4 percentage points on neutral courts, according to this model—the differences aren’t staggering. If the NBA doesn’t make any other changes to the playoff format, either via shorter series or the kinds of structural changes discussed below, the bracket will look fairly routine. Here’s the baseline expectation:

2020 Playoff Odds, Normal 16-Team Bracket

Team Seed Second Round Third Round Finals Title
Team Seed Second Round Third Round Finals Title
MIL 1 East 98% 90% 72% 57%
LAL 1 West 92% 72% 46% 17%
TOR 2 East 89% 52% 14% 7%
LAC 2 West 53% 37% 19% 6%
BOS 3 East 75% 39% 10% 5%
DEN 3 West 46% 14% 4% 1%
MIA 4 East 59% 6% 2% 1%
UTA 4 West 55% 15% 6% 1%
IND 5 East 41% 3% 1% <1%
OKC 5 West 45% 11% 3% <1%
PHI 6 East 25% 7% 1% <1%
HOU 6 West 54% 18% 6% 1%
BRK 7 East 11% 2% <1% <1%
DAL 7 West 47% 31% 15% 4%
ORL 8 East 2% 1% <1% <1%
MEM 8 West 8% 2% <1% <1%

Three surprising takeaways emerge on first blush. The first is the Bucks’ predominance, which is echoed in other projection systems from Basketball-Reference, ESPN’s BPI, and ESPN writer Kevin Pelton. There’s much more to say about Milwaukee’s robust fortunes, but let this chart suffice for now. In addition to these Bucks, 11 teams in NBA history have posted the point differential of a 65-win season or better; eight of those 11 teams won a title, a ninth lost to another team on the list, and a 10th famously blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals.

Best NBA Seasons by Point Differential (Prorated to 82 Games If Necessary)

Team Pythagorean Wins Playoff Result
Team Pythagorean Wins Playoff Result
1996 Bulls 69.6 Won title
1997 Bulls 67.5 Won title
1971 Bucks 67.3 Won title
2016 Spurs 67.1 Lost in second round
2008 Celtics 67.0 Won title
1972 Lakers 66.9 Won title
2017 Warriors 66.7 Won title
1972 Bucks 66.1 Lost in conference finals (to 1972 Lakers)
2020 Bucks 65.7 ???
1992 Bulls 65.6 Won title
2016 Warriors 65.3 Lost in Finals
2015 Warriors 65.0 Won title

The second takeaway is the model’s pessimism toward the Clippers. Anyone reading this piece—and writing this piece—probably thinks L.A. has better than a 6 percent chance to lift the trophy; in its case in particular, with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George missing many games, the regular-season numbers could underestimate the team’s potential.

If we adjust the Clippers’ baseline expectation by considering only the 32 games that Leonard and George played together, and not the team’s entire body of work, their Finals odds jump from 19 to 32 percent, and their title odds double from 6 to 13 percent. Those odds still aren’t too high for two reasons, though: First, even with both stars playing, the Clippers posted a much worse point differential than the Bucks (plus-8.4 points per game, versus plus-11.3 for Milwaukee). And second, the Clippers would still be forced into an unpleasant first-round series.

That takes us to takeaway number three: Dallas is an excellent team and, based on its underlying numbers, a sneaky pick to make a deep playoff run if the bracket allows for it.

Best 2019-20 Teams by Point Differential

Team Net Rating Seed
Team Net Rating Seed
Bucks 10.7 1st (East)
Lakers 7.1 1st (West)
Clippers 6.4 2nd (West)
Raptors 6.4 2nd (East)
Celtics 6.1 3rd (East)
Mavericks 5.8 7th (West)
Rockets 3.4 6th (West)
Jazz 3.3 4th (West)
Nuggets 3.1 3rd (West)
Heat 3.0 4th (East)

Six teams this season have a net rating better than plus-3.5 points per 100 possessions. Five are top-three seeds in their respective conferences; the last team is Dallas, all the way down in seventh place in the West. Thanks in large part to the most efficient offense in recorded NBA history, the Mavericks boast a point differential far better than that of every other second-tier contender. Perhaps that’s why Mark Cuban is so eager to ensure his team remains in the full playoff field and not forced into a play-in tournament—he knows his team has a real shot to advance a few rounds.

2. No Conferences

A second possible playoff format is much like the first, with 16 teams frozen in the standings as they were on March 11, but with conferences eliminated because travel concerns no longer apply. This scenario seems somewhat unlikely because of opposition from Eastern teams—but the math suggests they don’t actually have anything to worry about, at least for this season.

The 16-team setup would feature these matchups:

  • No. 1 Milwaukee vs. no. 16 Orlando
  • No. 8 Miami vs. no. 9 Oklahoma City
  • No. 4 Clippers vs. no. 13 Dallas
  • No. 5 Boston vs. no. 12 Philadelphia
  • No. 2 Lakers vs. no. 15 Brooklyn
  • No. 7 Utah vs. no. 10 Houston
  • No. 3 Toronto vs. no. 14 Memphis
  • No. 6 Denver vs. no. 11 Indiana

And this chart shows how each team’s odds would change for each round, as compared to the baseline scenario:

2020 Playoff Odds, Bracket With No Conferences

Team Seed Second Round Third Round Finals Title
Team Seed Second Round Third Round Finals Title
MIL 1 98% (0 change) 89% (0) 72% (0) 57% (0)
LAL 2 91% (-1) 69% (-3) 44% (-2) 16% (-1)
TOR 3 90% (+1) 67% (+16) 35% (+21) 11% (+4)
LAC 4 53% (0) 31% (-7) 8% (-11) 4% (-2)
BOS 5 75% (0) 38% (-2) 10% (0) 5% (0)
DEN 6 57% (+11) 18% (+5) 6% (+1) 1% (0)
UTA 7 48% (-7) 13% (-2) 5% (-1) 1% (0)
MIA 8 55% (-3) 6% (0) 2% (0) 1% (0)
OKC 9 45% (0) 4% (-7) 1% (-2) <1% (0)
HOU 10 52% (-1) 16% (-2) 6% (0) 1% (0)
IND 11 43% (+2) 11% (+8) 3% (+2) <1% (0)
PHI 12 25% (0) 6% (-1) 1% (0) <1% (0)
DAL 13 47% (0) 25% (-6) 6% (-9) 3% (-1)
MEM 14 10% (+2) 3% (+1) <1% (0) <1% (0)
BRK 15 9% (-3) 2% (0) <1% (0) <1% (0)
ORL 16 2% (0) 1% (0) <1% (0) <1% (0)

The greatest beneficiary would be, surprisingly, Toronto. The difference isn’t particularly noticeable for the first round (neither Brooklyn, without Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant, nor Memphis should give the Raptors trouble), but it manifests in the second. Toronto vs. Boston, a likely second-round matchup in the standard format, would be an effective toss-up (52-48 percent in the Raptors’ favor), while Toronto would have a theoretically easier time defeating the Nuggets, Jazz, Rockets, or Pacers in the second round of a conferenceless setup. The Raptors would also get to avoid the Bucks—the league’s best team on paper—until the Finals, as opposed to facing them a round earlier in a world with conferences.

Beyond Toronto, Denver would benefit from an easier first-round opponent (Indiana, instead of Houston), while Utah would suffer from the reverse (Houston, instead of Oklahoma City). The Clippers’ odds would actually fall because of a brutal gauntlet of opponents: They’d still have to face the pesky Mavericks in the first round, then potentially the Celtics in the second, then the Bucks, and then the Lakers. That’s four of the five best teams by point differential in the league (not counting themselves).

For the most part, though, the odds aren’t all that different from team to team. Differences of just 1 or 2 percentage points aren’t worth any attention, and especially after the first round, larger gaps between the two formats don’t appear very often. Of course, the Bucks would be anxious to avoid a potential matchup with the fourth-seeded Clippers in the semifinal round, and as we mentioned above, the pure odds are underselling L.A.’s potential. Even then, however, given the Bucks’ statistical superiority and the Clippers’ difficult route through the first two rounds, the Bucks wouldn’t see their odds drop by a prohibitive amount using the adjusted Clippers numbers—only falling from 57 to 54 percent, with L.A.’s title odds rising from 4 to 10 percent and other teams’ shifting imperceptibly.

3. Play-in Games

Another playoff structure with support among general managers expands the field with a play-in tournament, although the logistical details of such a tournament aren’t yet clear. To project this sort of scenario, we adopted a miniature version of the boss’s Entertaining-as-Hell idea and pitted the no. 9 seed Wizards and no. 10 seed Hornets in a single-game matchup in the East, with the winner taking on the no. 8 seed Magic in a single game to determine which team would face the Bucks. Out West, no. 9 Portland matched against no. 10 New Orleans, with the winner taking on no. 8 Memphis to determine which team advanced to play the top-seeded Lakers. (Sacramento and New Orleans have the same record, so the NBA would need to figure out a mechanism to break this tie; for the sake of illustration, we used the Pelicans, who hold the tiebreaker in the current standings.)

Single Elimination Play-in Odds

Team Seed Advancement Odds
Team Seed Advancement Odds
ORL 8 East 63%
WAS 9 East 25%
CHO 10 East 13%
MEM 8 West 50%
POR 9 West 23%
NOP 10 West 27%

While this scenario removes some possibility of the Magic and Grizzlies making the “real” first round, it barely budges any odds beyond the play-in round itself. The no. 1 seeds are already so dominant that a first-round upset is unlikely, and it’s not as if the Wizards or Hornets have a better chance to defeat Milwaukee than the Magic do. (In fact, the Hornets are so poor, with the fourth-worst Pythagorean record in the NBA, that a Bucks vs. Hornets playoff series would register as the most lopsided playoff matchup in the entire 65-year shot clock era, even without the Bucks’ typical home-court advantage.)

Milwaukee’s baseline odds to make the second round are 97.7 percent. Add in the play-in tournament and those odds scarcely move, to 98.3 percent. The Lakers’ odds evince an even smaller change, from 92.3 percent to 92.4 percent. And because the no. 8 seeds were so unlikely to advance very far anyway, and because the difference in team quality between, say, the Grizzlies and Trail Blazers/Pelicans is already meager, the ripple effects beyond the first round are negligible.

In other words: A play-in tournament would affect early entertainment only—not the actual challenge for any team outside the current no. 8 seeds, nor any future portion of the bracket.

4. Bring on the Vuvuzelas

Now we’re in for a much greater change, with the World Cup–style group stage proposal discussed at The Ringer this week. Essentially, this structure would replace the first round of the playoffs with a larger group stage, with 20 teams (the 16 current playoff teams, plus the next four in the standings: Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, and San Antonio) drawn into four groups of five teams apiece. The teams would be placed into tiers, with one team drawn from each tier to form a group, and then two of the five teams in each group advancing to the second round.

The tiers would shape in descending order of record, meaning:

  • Tier 1: Bucks, Lakers, Raptors, Clippers
  • Tier 2: Celtics, Nuggets, Jazz, Heat
  • Tier 3: Thunder, Rockets, Pacers, 76ers
  • Tier 4: Mavericks, Grizzlies, Nets, Magic
  • Tier 5: Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, Spurs

The implications of this scenario are less clear than the others, in part because it’s wider afield from normal and because the placement of teams into groups means more randomness versus a strictly seeded bracket. So to make sense of the situation, we ran a bunch of simulations, generating possible groups, predicting the chances that each team would advance, and averaging all the results.

Also, because the World Cup scenario is really a hybrid playoff format, with regular best-of-seven series after the initial group stage cuts the field to eight final teams, we projected just that first round to see how teams’ odds of reaching the final eight would change.

2020 Simulated Playoff Odds After Group Stage

Team Tier Second Round Change from Baseline
Team Tier Second Round Change from Baseline
MIL 1 94% -4
LAL 1 83% -9
TOR 1 80% -8
LAC 1 78% +24
BOS 2 70% -5
DEN 2 47% +1
UTA 2 49% -6
MIA 2 51% -8
OKC 3 33% -12
HOU 3 40% -14
IND 3 29% -12
PHI 3 31% +6
DAL 4 47% +1
MEM 4 12% +4
BRK 4 12% +1
ORL 4 12% +9
POR 5 8% +8
NOP 5 9% +9
SAC 5 6% +6
SAS 5 8% +8

First, the Clippers would be thrilled—their odds would rocket upward because they’d no longer be guaranteed to face the Mavericks. Denver’s odds would also remain stable because they wouldn’t necessarily face Houston. But every other team in the top 10 would see its second-round chances fall, with the drops ranging from 4 to 14 percentage points. The favorites would still be favored, of course, but not by as much; it seems that a group stage really would increase the chances for chaos in the playoff bracket.

That randomness might make for a more entertaining spectacle; of all the major American sports, basketball sticks closest to the expected script in its postseason. Fans like upsets.

And in this scenario, also-rans in a typical season would have a real chance to make noise in the playoffs. The four new teams added to the bracket—the Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, and Spurs—all have low advancement odds individually, but taken together, there would be a roughly 30 percent chance that one of those four advanced. In that same vein, odds for Orlando and Memphis rise, even if they’re still low, because those teams would be able to play some easier opponents than the Bucks and Lakers, respectively.

Yet fans also like watching stars compete in the late playoff rounds, and it stretches the imagination to think that the NBA would artificially reduce the chances that LeBron James advances. As Kevin explained, one way to advantage the top teams in a World Cup scenario would be to give the teams from better tiers the tiebreaker in the event of a tied record—so if the Lakers and Grizzlies each finished 5-3 to tie for second place in their group, the Lakers would advance by virtue of their superior regular-season record. (The above odds reflect this tiebreak instruction.) That advantage matters; if every team were equally talented, the teams from better tiers would receive a decent boost because of the tiebreaker alone.

Group Stage Advancement Odds With All Teams Equal in Talent

Tier First Place Odds Second Place Odds Advancement Odds
Tier First Place Odds Second Place Odds Advancement Odds
1 28% 23% 51%
2 23% 22% 45%
3 19% 19% 39%
4 16% 18% 34%
5 14% 17% 31%

But there’s also a great deal more uncertainty in this scenario, even with that advantage. Beyond suppressing odds in the higher tiers, the World Cup setup would also add more variability to teams’ possible outcomes. Different teams’ chances could fluctuate wildly depending on the luck of the draw.

For instance, in one simulation, the Lakers nabbed a group with the Celtics (the best Tier 2 team), the Rockets (the best Tier 3 team), the Mavericks (the best Tier 4 team), and the Pelicans (the best Tier 5 team). In that scenario, the Lakers would still be favored to advance—but only 71 percent of the time. Conversely, if the Lakers were drawn with the worst teams in every tier, their advancement odds would rise to 87 percent. That’s a wide range based entirely on luck, and one the NBA might not want to pursue with so many eyeballs on the line.

Kevin laid out a number of attractive reasons for a World Cup scenario: more games, more variety, and more immediate stakes. Yet there would be some cost, as well—in this case, a real chance that the league’s best and most popular teams won’t advance to the later knockout rounds. Those teams are understandably resistant to the idea. The entire planning process for an unprecedented postseason involves tradeoffs; here would be just one more on the pile.