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The NBA seeds its playoff teams in a refreshingly straightforward way

If you glance at the NBA’s playoff field, you might initially be confused by how it seeds its teams.

For example, why did the Knicks begin the postseason as the second seed in the Eastern Conference? They finished second in the Atlantic Division, 14 games behind the Celtics.

Over in the Western Conference, the Mavericks, champions of the Southwest Division, entered the playoffs as the fifth seed. Meanwhile, the Timberwolves, who finished in third place in the Northwest Division, began the postseason as the third seed in the Western Conference.

What’s going on here? It’s simple: The NBA seeds its postseason field based on regular-season records. Refreshing, isn’t it? Teams don’t get higher seeds simply for winning their division, no, they must earn a place in the postseason based on their overall record.

As a huge fan of the NFL, I’ve been insisting for years that the league seed its playoff seeds this way.

Sure, there’s the weird play-in tournament that the NBA holds before every postseason (or maybe it’s part of the postseason) where the franchises that finish between seventh and 10th in each conference must play one another. The winner between the seventh and eighth-place teams gets the seventh seed, while the loser must play the winner of the ninth vs. 10th game to see who earns the eighth seed.

You can keep that if you’re the NBA (again, it’s weird), but seeding teams based on their regular-season record? I love it.

All leagues should do this, but they don’t. It has now become a tradition for teams in most leagues and sports to automatically earn a higher seed if they win their division. For example, if you win the NFL’s NFC South Division with an 8-9 record, which the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did in 2022, you get one of the top four seeds plus a home game in the first round of the playoffs. Conversely, if you qualify for the postseason as a non-division-winning wildcard team, you’re likely going to be on the road for the duration of the postseason, regardless of record. The 2022 Cowboys finished the regular season with a 12-5 record but had to go on the road and play Tampa as the fifth seed on Wildcard Weekend.

Fortunately for them, the Cowboys won their wildcard game and advanced to the divisional round, but that doesn’t always happen for very good teams who don’t win their division.

For example, the 2011 Steelers, who finished the regular season with a 12-4 record and missed out on the AFC North title, the second seed and a bye due to a tiebreaker, lost in overtime to the 8-8 Broncos on Wildcard Weekend. One year earlier, the Saints, the defending Super Bowl champions, lost a wildcard game to the 7-9 Seahawks.

Do you think things could have gone differently in either game had the teams with the better records played at home?

It’s hard to say, but probably. After all, home-field advantage is huge in the NFL, especially during the postseason.

This is why I think all leagues should seed their playoff fields based on regular-season records first. Do division winners make the postseason? Yes. After all, why even have divisions if winning them doesn’t automatically qualify a team for the playoffs?

But that doesn’t mean division champions should automatically get higher seeds than non-division-winning playoff teams. Winning your division shouldn’t guarantee a home game in the first round of the playoffs or home-field advantage in a best-of series.  It’s like how the NCAA tournament seeds its teams. Sure, winning the Ivy League qualifies you for a trip to the dance, but you’re likely going to be a lower seed vs. an at-large team from one of the Power Five conferences.

It’s nice to see that one professional sports league–the NBA–gets it right…even if it does have that weird play-in tournament to start its postseason.


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