When it comes to intense, high-level basketball, nothing comes close to the NBA playoffs.
The playoffs are the season-ending tournament of the NBA that ultimately decides the winner of the NBA championship. Since it’s a tournament, how many teams make the NBA playoffs?
The league introduced a new postseason format in 2020, so let’s get right on and disclose the details.
How Many Teams Make NBA Playoffs?
There are 16 teams – eight from each conference – that make the playoffs. That means 14 teams are left out and go straight into the NBA Draft lottery. However, since the Orlando bubble in 2020, the NBA decided to stir the pot and introduce the play-in tournament (more on this later.)
Before 2020, it was pretty straightforward to get into the playoffs. Teams usually play 82 games to determine the first eight seeds. In the case of teams ending up with the same win-loss record, there are three tiebreakers to determine which team secures a particular seed. The three tiebreakers are the season series, the best record against division opponents, and the best record against conference opponents.
NBA Playoffs Format
The NBA playoffs format is pretty simple. The 1st seed (the best record in the conference) battles the 8th seed, the 2nd seed vs. the 7th seed, the 3rd seed vs. the 6th seed, and the 4th seed vs. the 5th seed.
Before the 2015-16 season, the NBA actually has far more complicated seeding rules in place. For example, these now-defunct rules state that division champions must occupy one of the top four seeds in the conference. That means Team X, a division champ, could theoretically be a top seed even though they have an inferior win-loss record than Team A. Much worse, division champions may even enter the playoffs without securing the best eight records in their conference!
Even though the last scenario has not happened yet, Adam Silver and the owners saw the problem and made a move. They agreed to base the seedings solely on the team’s regular-season record, regardless of whether they win their division. After all, there is no reason to reward a division champion unless teams like to hang Division banners in their arenas.
The NBA playoffs format changed time and again, mainly because of team expansions. During the years when the league only had eight teams, only four from each division (not conference) advanced. Then, as teams began increasing in number, the NBA introduced byes and grew the qualified teams until the 16-team playoffs field was started.
From 1984 to 2002, the NBA’s first-round playoff series was a five-game series instead of the current best-of-7 in 2003. Both formats have pros and cons, but a best-of-7 series decreased upsets and made sure that the best team (or the healthiest) wins.
See Captions for Basketball Photos.
NBA Finals Format Changes
The NBA Finals has always been a seven-game series since 1946-47. However, the most notable change was the home-away format. Before 1985, the NBA Finals format was 2-2-1-1-1. That means after the contending teams play two home games, the team with the home-court advantage hosts Game 5 and Game 7 if needed.
The format was changed to 2-3-2 in 1985 to lessen the amount of cross-country travel and give the players more rest. The idea was the brainchild of former Celtics coach Red Auerback and was adopted by then-commissioner David Stern.
The NBA Finals reverted to the old 2-2-1-1-1 format in 2014. All NBA playoffs series today follow the 2-2-1-1-1 setup until the NBA Finals.
See How long is a basketball game (NBA, WNBA, NCAA, High School, and more).
What is the play-in tournament?
Introduced in the 2020 NBA Orlando bubble, the play-in tournament is a creative and entertaining way for the league to determine which eight playoff teams from each conference will proceed to the playoffs. It essentially gives chances to the 9th and 10th seeds from each conference to make some “noise” and ruin plans.
In the current format, only seeds 1-6 from each conference have locked up playoff spots. The 7th to 10th seed teams figure in a mini-tournament to complete the cast. The 7th and 8th seed plays a game to determine the seventh seed. The 8th seed will move on to play the winner of the game between 9 and 10 to ultimately decide who moves on.
Assuming no major issues develop, it will almost certainly continue in the future. However, this is not guaranteed at this time, and changes can still happen. But what the NBA fans saw the past two seasons, the play-in tournament offers a different type of excitement.
See: Michael Jordan’s NBA Championships: A Deep Dive
NBA Playoffs Facts: The Best, the Worst, and the Random
NBA parity has been an issue for so long. Even though we have not seen back-to-back champs since Golden State in 2017 and 2018, a handful of teams are often dealt the short end of the playoff stick for the most part.
Here are some of the playoff best and worst facts surrounding NBA teams, including some random ones thrown in:
- The Los Angles Lakers have the most playoff appearances in NBA history, with 61. They are followed by the Boston Celtics with 59.
- With the Lakers having the most NBA playoff appearances by a franchise, it only follows that they have also played the most playoff games. The Lakers played 761 playoff games, the most all-time.
- Speaking of the Celtics, the 60s dynasty won the NBA Finals record eight consecutive times.
- The Lakers and the Celtics met 12 times in the NBA Finals. Boston won nine and the Lakers three.
- There are only 68 times that NBA fans saw someone score at least 60 points. Only one happened in the NBA Finals, and that was Elgin Baylor’s 61-point outburst back in Game 5 of the 1962 Finals.
- The playoff high in points in a single game was by Michael Jordan. Jordan, described by Larry Bird as ‘god in disguise,’ scored 63 points in a 131-135 loss to the Celtics on April 20, 1986.
- A day before Jordan’s 63, Dominique Wilkins scored 50 points, the first 50-point outing in the NBA playoffs in the previous 11 years.
- Not surprisingly, Michael Jordan had the most playoff games with at least 50 points (8).
- The Sacramento Kings have not played in the playoffs in 16 straight seasons, starting in 2007. That’s the longest playoff drought of any NBA franchise.
The 2009 Orlando Magic, led by Dwight Howard, was the only playoff team that faced three separate 60-win squads in their Finals run.
From 1977 to 2006, the Los Angeles Clippers have not won a single series.
The Sixers franchise held the record for the most consecutive playoff appearances with 22 (1950-1971). It was then later tied by the Spurs (1998-2019).
Kobe Bryant has beaten the most 50-win teams in the playoffs in his career with 26.
Former Duke Blue Devil JJ Redick did not miss the playoffs for the first 13 seasons of his career. In year 14, he signed with the Pelicans and did not make it to the postseason.
Paul Pierce averaged 30.2 points in his first-ever playoffs series. He never averaged that many points ever since in the postseason.
The 2016-17 Warriors finished their playoff run with a record of 16-1. That eclipsed the previous mark of 15-1 set by the 2001 Lakers. Remember, though, that in 2001, the NBA still had a best-of-5 format in Round 1.
In the post-ABA/NBA merger, the worst team to make the playoffs was the Chicago Bulls in 1985-86. Second-year Jordan broke his foot, forcing him to miss all but 18 games. The Bulls still made the playoffs, along with five other sub-500 teams.
The 2008 Warriors were the best team not to make the playoffs. They compiled a 48-34 slate, but the eight-seed Nuggets won 50 games. If only the Warriors were in the Eastern Conference, they’d be the 4th seed replacing LeBron’s Cavs.
Only four No. 8 seeds have defeated the No. 1 seed in Round 1 of the playoffs. These are the Nuggets over Sonics (1994), Knicks over Heat (1999), Warriors over Mavs (2007), and Grizzlies over Spurs (2011).
Of the four, the Knicks were the only team that advanced all the way to the Finals. That makes them the first and only No. 8 seed to achieve such a feat.
The NBA playoffs are the postseason tournament of the NBA that determines who will win the NBA Finals. How many teams make the NBA playoffs? As it has been since 1984, 16 teams, eight in each conference, make it to the NBA playoffs. The seedings are solely determined by a team’s record, with three tiebreakers in place in the event of a tie.
In 2020, the league introduced a play-in tournament that allows the 9th and 10th seeds to have a chance to be No. 8. The 1-6 seeds lock up playoff berths while teams in 7th to 10th place play in a mini tournament to determine the last two seeds. No. 7 and No. 8 lock horns to ultimately decide the 7th seed. Then, No. 8 will play the winner between 9 and 10 to see who’s playing the 1st seed.
Although this has presented some challenges, the play-in tournament has largely been a success. It creates a vibe of excitement totally different from when the seeds were locked at the end of the last regular season game. This gives the fans of the No. 9 and 10 teams something to cheer and look forward to.
But then again, if there’s anything constant in the NBA, it is nothing that stays constant. The league has seen a lot of changes over the years, including the playoff format. That said, fans trust that whatever modifications the rules bring are for the best. After all, the NBA is still the greatest basketball show on earth and will be so in the foreseeable future.
By Jan Rey with Mike O’Halloran
Jan is a sucker for all things basketball and still yells, “Kobe!” every time he tosses a crumpled paper into a trash bin. Mike has written four books on youth basketball.
You are on our How Many Teams Make NBA Playoffs page.
You might like:
How Far Away Is the Free Throw Line on a Basketball Court?
Understanding the Center Position in Basketball