Playoff Realignment (02/09/15)

By John Ewing Director of Research and Analytics @johnewing
What does the NBA Playoffs look like with the 16 best teams?

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has suggested, again, that he is open to the idea of eliminating conference seeding for the NBA playoffs.

In one of Silver's proposals, the 16 best overall teams in the league would be in the postseason as opposed to the top eight teams from each conference. In this scenario, the Western Conference would currently send ten teams to the playoffs.

Charlotte and Miami, sub-.500 teams in the Eastern Conference, which would be the seventh and eighth seeds respectively this year, would not play past the 82nd game of the regular season.

Last week we simulated the NBA Playoffs and the Warriors won the championship a league-high 17.5% of the time. In a postseason without conferences, can Golden State stay atop the NBA?

The Warriors not only remain our most likely champion but also strengthen their hold on the NBA crown. Golden State benefits from only having four other Western Conference teams in its half of the bracket, one of which is the Clippers who just lost Blake Griffin at least through the All-Star break. The Dubs become 20.7% likely to win the championship.

An NBA Playoff without conferences would greatly benefit Memphis. Like in the NCAA Tournament, path to the championship is critical. If the postseason started today the Grizzlies would play San Antonio in the opening round, the sixth best team in our Power Rankings.

In this hypothetical playoff, Memphis would open playing Phoenix (currently the 8th seed in the West) and a team barely inside the top 15 from an efficiency standpoint. The Grizzlies biggest advantage, in addition to being the most likely team to advance out of the first round, from a postseason without conferences is that Golden State is in the other half of the bracket. In this simulation, Memphis becomes the second most likely champion with a 19.3% chance to win it all (9.1% last week).

If playoff realignment would benefit Western Conference teams, then the East will suffer. In last week's playoff simulation the Eastern Conference won it all nearly 40% of the time, that total is down to 33%. The expected win probability for the East may actually be less if this playoff format was instituted. It is unlikely that the teams in the East would have the same records, therefore the same seeding, if a more balanced schedule that would include equal numbers of Western Conference teams, was played.

A postseason without conference seeding would likely have a significant impact on a number of teams in both conferences. However, if Golden State remains the dominant team it has been for nearly two thirds of the season, re-seeding will not change the eventual champion.

NBA Playoffs - Without Conferences
Note: this simulation was run based off of today's standings and with each team updated for current injury information. For example, Blake Griffin is out at least through the All-Star break.

Seed Team Quarterfinals Semifinals NBA Finals Champ.
1 Warriors 68.3% 47.6% 31.8% 20.7%
16 Thunder 31.7% 15.9% 7.9% 3.7%
8 Clippers 43.2% 14.1% 6.0% 2.3%
9 Spurs 56.9% 22.5% 12.2% 5.8%
4 Rockets 70.1% 29.3% 11.2% 4.9%
13 Bucks 29.9% 6.5% 1.2% 0.4%
5 Raptors 36.8% 19.6% 6.5% 2.7%
12 Cavaliers 63.2% 44.6% 23.3% 12.7%
2 Hawks 75.8% 34.6% 15.2% 6.6%
15 Pelicans 24.2% 5.2% 0.9% 0.2%
7 Mavericks 43.9% 24.2% 11.1% 4.7%
10 Bulls 56.2% 36.0% 18.9% 9.2%
3 Grizzlies 80.0% 55.7% 35.1% 19.3%
14 Suns 20.0% 6.7% 1.8% 0.5%
6 Trail Blazers 61.7% 25.3% 12.6% 5.1%
11 Wizards 38.3% 12.3% 4.5% 1.4%