The Step Back

The history of NBA playoff reformatting


Almost from the moment current NBA commissioner Adam Silver stepped into the office in February 2014, he has hinted at or made reference to sweeping changes in the NBA’s current playoff structure.

During a trip to China earlier this week, Silver made yet another mention of potential playoff reformatting. This time the new playoff proposal would center around a 1-16 seeded NBA playoffs with no regard for conferences. Of course, as Silver was quick to point out, this would be impossible until the NBA adopted a balanced schedule.

If Silver were to push through massive playoff reform to the NBA, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time as the league has gone through numerous reforms and restructuring to their playoff structure. Let’s look at some of the more prominent changes to the NBA playoffs since the league’s inception.

Read More: What does your all-time leading scorer say about your team?

Radical changes came to professional basketball in the late 1940s as the former BAA — fresh off absorbing their competitor, the NBL — was officially renamed the National Basketball Association (NBA). With that came changes to the BAA’s former playoff structure, which was an odd format much akin to the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoff format throughout the 1930s.

Eastern and Western Division champions would match up in a best-of-seven series following the regular season. The winner of that series would advanced to the championship round. While that series was going on, four runner-ups played best-of-three series to determine the other finalist for the championship round.

The first recognized NBA champion — the 1947 Philadelphia Warriors — emerged from the runners-up bracket and beat Western Division champion Chicago Stags in the championship series. The following season, Baltimore followed in Philly’s footsteps emerging from the runners-up bracket to win the championship after defeating Philadelphia in the final.

In 1949, the playoffs were reorganized to crown a playoff champion in each division with the top four teams in each of the two division qualifying. The quarterfinals and semifinals were renamed division semifinals and division finals with both rounds going best-of-three. The finals were, as they had been prior, a best-of-seven series.

Finally in 1950, as the new NBA formed, they altered playoff formatting significantly due to their three-division setup. In this new format, 12 teams qualified for the NBA playoffs with the top four teams from each division meeting in a best-of-three division semifinal. The winners would then meet in a best-of-three division finals.

Obviously, this leaves us with three teams, so the surviving team with the best regular season record automatically qualified for the finals while the other two teams would meet in a best-of-three semifinals.

Got all that? It was as confusing as it sounds and made worse by having two tiebreaker series as well with the Central Division needing both a first-place and third-place tiebreaker.

Finally, the Minneapolis Lakers — winners of the Eastern Division’s first-place tiebreaker — would emerge from the pack defeating the Syracuse Nationals (owners of the NBA’s best winning percentage) in the finals. To make things even more confusing, not every team played the same amount of games. The Nationals won 79.7 percent of their games in 1950, good for 51 wins, the same as Minneapolis and Rochester. However, Syracuse only played 64 games while the Lakers and Royals played 68.

By 1951, The NBA formed the more familiar two-division setup with the division semifinals going back to the BAA’s eight team format. The division finals would become a best-of-five series. Save for a few tweaks, this is very similar to the format we’re used to today: four semifinal matchups, finals in each divisions leading to the ultimate NBA Finals.

In 1951, the Rochester Royals (41-27 in the regular season) won the crown defeating the underdog New York Knicks, winners of only 36 games in the regular season. The best-of-three format created a number of upsets throughout with the top seeded Philadelphia Warriors falling in the first round to Syracuse. The league-leading Minneapolis Lakers had won an NBA-best 44 games during the regular season but were no match for the eventual champion Rochester Royals, losing in five games during the Western Division semifinals.

As a result of the number of NBA teams falling to only nine (soon to be eight with the departing Baltimore Bullets), the number of eligible playoff teams in 1954 was cut down to only six. Realizing how simple to understand their prior format was, the NBA decided to complicate things tremendously by introducing a double round-robin format in the division semifinals.

Ready for this?

The top three teams from each division would qualifying with each team playing four games. Following the conclusion of the round-robin games, the top two teams qualified for a best-of-three division finals followed by a best-of-seven NBA Finals. Minneapolis would ultimately reign supreme, defeating the Syracuse Nationals in a tightly-contested Game 7 for their fifth title in six years and their last in Minnesota.

Cooler heads prevailed the following season as the NBA dropped the confusing round-robin format. In its place was a more traditional format with the first-place team in each division receiving a bye to a best-of-five division finals. Teams that placed second and third in their divisions would play a best-of-three divisional semifinal.

Minor changes came in subsequent years as the division finals were extended to a best-of-seven format in 1958 while division semifinals extended to best-of-five in 1961. The next major change in playoff formatting came in 1967 when the NBA expanded eligible playoff teams to eight. This new playoff format more resembled the stable BAA playoff structure the NBA inherited during its inception.

This change wasn’t without its blemishes as a total of five below .500 teams made the NBA playoffs including the 33-win Chicago Bulls.

Hey, look on the bright side, it’s better than the 16-54 Baltimore Bullets getting in!

Gone was also a first-round bye for first-place teams. Now first-place teams would face off against each division’s fourth-place team in a best-of-five division semifinals.

Luckily, the elimination of the first-round bye didn’t seem to hurt any of the NBA’s heavy-hitters as all the top teams moved on including the 68-win Philadelphia 76ers, who would eventually top San Francisco for the franchise’s first championship in Philadelphia.

A small change came in 1968 as the division semifinals were now extended to a best-of-seven format.

Wave goodbye to divisions and say hello to conferences! Expansion had brought the total number of teams to 14 necessitating a change to two division conferences beginning in 1971. The number of teams in the NBA Playoffs, however, did not change as eight teams still qualified for the postseason — four from each conference. Division winners were guaranteed at least a No. 2 seed with the two best non-division winners receiving No. 3 and No. 4 seeds.

The “first round” makes its debut in 1975 as the NBA expands their number of playoff teams from eight to 10. The new first round included the fourth and fifth-seeded teams from each conference in a best-of-three. The top three seeds received a bye and would wait for the winner of each first round matchup in the semifinals.

This new format, particularly the emphasis on divisions, led to a number of egregious playoff snubs including — as mentioned on the latest Over and Back podcast talking about the life and career of Connie Hawkins — the 1971 Phoenix Suns, who went 48-34 but missed the NBA playoffs. The 66-win Milwaukee Bucks and 51-win Chicago Bulls emerged from the Midwest Division, leaving Phoenix on the outside looking in despite having the NBA’s fourth-best win percentage.

Just two years later (1977), the NBA expands playoff teams from 10 to 12 with the first round now including the sixth best team in each conference. With this change, only division winners received byes into the first round while the third seed now had to fight their way through the first round.

As the NBA continued its rise in popularity, we were about to see the biggest changes to their playoff format. In 1984, the NBA playoffs were expanded from 12 to 16 teams. Gone were first-round byes as each and every team now participated in the first round. The first round was also expanded to a best-of-five series, making it much more difficult for big upsets.

Or, so we thought.

In the first year of this new format, the 45-win New Jersey Nets stunned the defending champion 76ers, winning their first-round series in five games. New Jersey fought valiantly in the second-round but eventually fell to the 50-win Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

It would be nearly a decade until the NBA tweaked their playoff format again.

After the longest bout of playoff format stability in NBA history, the NBA made minor tweaks to their system in 2003 as the first round was extended to a best-of-seven series. The controversial move was met with much skepticism and scorn as a shameless money grab and a move that took much of the fun out of the first round.

Upsets weren’t probable in the first round but they did occur from time-to-time, famously the Dikembe Mutombo and the 1994 Denver Nuggets shocked the world when they defeated top-seeded Seattle Supersonics in the first round. The iconic moment of Mutombo clutching the ball and raising it above his head as he lay on the floor is etched in history.

While the new format was supposed to eliminate any of these moments from happening again, they did pop up. The “We Believe” Golden State Warriors, for example, pulled off a huge upset against the 68-win Dallas Mavericks in 2007.

Since 2003, we’ve seen a number of minor tweaks and alterations to the long-held NBA playoff format. In 2005, conferences were realigned into three divisions with each winner qualifying for a top-three seed regardless of their record. In 2007, amid criticism of the 2005 change, division winners were only guaranteed a top-four seed. Nine years later (2016), the NBA altered seeding and qualification once again with the eight best teams in each conference, regardless of division alignment, making the NBA playoffs.

Whatever changes do come to the NBA playoff format, remember it wasn’t the first and it certainly won’t be the last.

If you’re interested in learning more about NBA history, check out our NBA history podcast, Over and Back, and the rest of our great podcasts hosted on The Step Back.



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