The NBA could resume with 16, 20, 22 or 30 teams. The league is weighing playing more regular-season games, jumping straight to the playoffs, holding a play-in tournament and even drawing for a group stage. The most important thing is finding the proper format for this unprecedented season interrupted by coronavirus.
But that still leaves a question: How will playoff inclusion be determined?
Importantly, that affects which teams participate in the lottery. The whole point is to give every non-playoff team and only non-playoff teams a shot at the top picks in the draft.
A few notable streaks are also on the line:
- The Spurs have made the playoffs 22 straight seasons, tying the Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers (1950-1971) for the longest postseason streak in NBA history.
- The Kings are tied with the Timberwolves (2005-2017) for the second-longest playoff drought ever, 13 seasons.
- The Suns have also missed the postseason nine straight seasons.
San Antonio and Sacramento are in that tightly grouped 9th-12th range in the Western Conference (with the Pelicans and Trail Blazers). Phoenix has the league’s 21st-best record.
The postseason could simply include just the normal 16 teams. But the alternative formats open other possibilities.
It appears most likely 22 teams will resume, though it could be 20. Either scenario could include a play-in tournament – with an unspecified number of teams. Maybe four, maybe six, maybe some other number. Though the name – “play-in” – suggests those teams wouldn’t be considered playoff teams unless advancing, that’s not an official designation. The first NCAA Tournament games each year are commonly called play-ins. But teams that lose those games are considered to have made the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA has formally called that round “Opening Round,” “First Round” or “First Four.” The NBA could do something similar.
Though momentum has appeared to stall for a group phase, that format posed the most uncertainty about which teams would be deemed in the playoffs. Would all 20 participating teams? Just eight teams would advance to a tournament (the equivalent of the second round of a normal playoffs). Would only those eight be considered playoff teams? Would the league designate the third- and fourth-place finisher in each group as playoff teams after the fact to reach 16 postseason teams? It’d be weird to “make the playoffs” only after getting eliminated.
But the NBA has had plenty of variance on this throughout its history.
We’ve grown accustomed to 16 teams making the playoffs, the system in place since 1984. But in 1984, there were just 23 teams. So, nearly 70% of the league made the playoffs.
The league has since expanded to 30 teams. So, just 53% of teams make the playoffs now.
Only two periods have seen a lower proportion of the league make the playoffs. From 1971-1974, just 47% of teams (8/17) reached the postseason. From 1981-1983, just 52% of teams (12/23) reached the postseason.
It wouldn’t be ahistorical for the NBA to include more than 16 teams in this year’s playoffs.
Here’s a history of the percentage of teams that have made the playoffs each year (blue). The orange lines represent how that would compare to various scenarios this season – 8, 16, 20 and 22 postseason teams:
Obviously, eight playoff teams would be a major outlier. But having 20 or even 22 playoff teams wouldn’t.
Like with many issues right now, the NBA had latitude and must just decide where to draw the line.