NBA Teams and Conference Structure
It is important to understand the number of teams and the current alignment of the NBA conferences in order to understand the NBA playoff structure.
NBA Eastern Conference Teams
|Atlantic Division||Central Division||Southeast Division|
|Boston Celtics||Chicago Bulls||Atlanta Hawks|
|Brooklyn Nets||Cleveland Cavilers||Charlotte Hornets|
|New York Knicks||Detroit Pistons||Miami Heat|
|Philadelphia 76ers||Indiana Pacers||Orlando Magic|
|Toronto Raptors||Milwaukee Bucks||Washington Wizards|
NBA Western Conference Teams
|Pacific Division||Southwest Division||Northwest Division|
|Golden State Warriors||Dallas Mavericks||Denver Nuggets|
|Los Angeles Clippers||Houston Rockets||Minnesota Timberwolves|
|Los Angeles Lakers||Memphis Grizzlies||Oklahoma City Thunder|
|Phoenix Suns||New Orleans Pelicans||Portland Trailblazers|
|Sacramento Kings||San Antonio Spurs||Utah Jazz|
The NBA is set up with an Eastern Conference with three regional divisions, with an equal number of Western Conference teams divided into three divisions.
With the growth of the NBA and its teams over the past few decades, the league now boasts 30 teams and outstanding competition levels in all divisions of the NBA. There are 82 regular season NBA games and the teams with the most wins will be the division champs.
The level of team wins also determines the playoff bracket seedings leading to the NBA championship.
The NBA Playoffs
The current playoff brackets for the NBA playoffs were revised in 2015. The best 8 teams - in terms of win/loss performance during the regular season - from each conference qualify for the playoffs. In total, sixteen teams qualify. This means that slightly more than half of all NBA teams will compete to be crowned NBA champ.
It is possible that over an 82-game season, playoff contenders may be tied in wins/losses. In the event of a regular-season tie, there are tie-breaker rules that apply. The first tie-break criterion is a simple head-to-head game outcome, where the team that had more wins than losses versus the other will advance.
There is a second criterion used only for seeding. The team that wins its division claims the seed position and home-court advantage. If both are division winners, see criterion 1.
The bracket seeding and home advantage in a 7-game-series are determined by the overall conference win/loss record. There are 4 playoff rounds to determine the Finals participants.
NBA Playoff Brackets
|Quarter Finals||Round 1||1 vs 8,2 vs 7,3 vs 6, 4 vs 5|
1–8 vs 4–5 winners
2–7 vs 3–6 winners
|Conference Finals||Round 3||Semi-Final Winners|
|NBA Finals||Round 4||Conference Winners|
Each of the 4 rounds is played in a 7- game series, with a 2–2–1–1–1 structure. The numbers indicate the games played on each team’s home court.
In this structure, the team with the home-court edge plays the first 2 games at home, along with game 5 and game 7.
Since all playoff games are the best of seven, some games may not be needed.
The team with the home court disadvantage must win at least one road game to take the series.
Playoff Game Location Framework
|Location 1||2 Games||Home Advantage Team|
|Location 2||2 Games|
|Location 1||1 Game (if necessary)||Home Advantage Team|
|Location 2||1 Game (if necessary)|
|Location 1||1 Game (if necessary)||Home Advantage Team|
After an 82-game season, with 41 home and road games, it is fairly clear that the number 1 and 2 seeds have demonstrated that they are the best teams and most likely to capture the NBA crown.
In fact, 64 of the last 73 NBA champions, started the playoffs as either the number 1 or 2 seed. That is an 88% championship outcome rate for a team seeded as number 1 or 2.
That outcome rate goes beyond the home court play-off-advantage alone. An 82-game season is a real performance test, and the team that performs the best over a long regular season usually goes deep into the playoff rounds.
Could this be the year where the 1 or 2 seed is sent packing early? Maybe; but what is certain is that the NBA playoffs always provide the exciting professional basketball action that is enjoyed by fans everywhere.
NBA Team Origins
The basketball league we now know today as the NBA began in 1946 as the Basketball Association of America (BAA). A few years later, the league merged with another professional league (the National Basketball League). In 1949 the league officially changed its name to the National Basketball Association (NBA).
The very first NBA game was actually played outside the US, in Toronto Canada, with a match between the Toronto Huskies and the New York Knickerbockers. While this Toronto team is not connected to the 2019 NBA champions, it does demonstrate the start of an international vision for the league.
The demand for professional basketball in the early years was somewhat driven by the growing interest in college basketball teams. The college game had gained a lot of interest in the 1930s and 1940s and professional basketball was an opportunity for fans to see some the great college players continue into professional leagues.
While there were some great championship teams in the early years, financially the league struggled to keep viable teams. League revenue in the early years was limited to arena ticket sales and local ad sponsors.
The Toronto Huskies, that are noted above as a participant in the first NBA game, folded after a single season. Small market teams like the league champion Rochester, NY Royals had to move the team to Cincinnati to continue operations.
Other small city teams in Fort Wayne and Syracuse, eventually had to move on to larger venues. The Syracuse Nationals remained viable until 1962 and won several Eastern Division championships before moving on to become the Philadelphia 76ers.
NBA Team Performance
In the early years of the NBA, team performance was primarily dominated by a few great teams. The Boston Celtics “owned” the 1960’s, winning several championships. They are considered to be the most successful team in the NBA’s long history. The Celtics won 11 NBA championships from 1957-1969 and were the champs twice more just a few years later.
The Boston Celtics and NY Knicks have the longest regular-season rivalry going back to the late 1940s, but when it comes to playoff competition, the Celtics and Lakers defined professional championship basketball.
These two great teams: The Boston Celtics, and Lakers (originally from Minnesota, before moving to Los Angeles in 1960), have accounted for 33 out of the 73 NBA Championships. A significant competition and team performance measure when compared to any major professional sport.
The 1990s were primarily dominated by the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls won six NBA championships in the decade. This is a great modern-day NBA performance streak since, with the explosive growth in the NBA fan base, NBA expansion grew to 27 very competitive teams in 1991.
The Bulls, led by Michael Jordan were a world-wide sensation and further expanded demand for great professional basketball and NBA merchandise.
Recent team performance, since 2000, includes a list of high performing teams, defined as winning three or more championships.
These recent high performing teams include:
- The LA Lakers
- The San Antonio Spurs
- The Golden State Warriors
The NBA started in the cold Northeast, but the last two decades have had the “hot” team performance coming out of the NBA’s Western Conference.
This year could bring a champ from the East, but we certainly know we will continue to see several rounds of great NBA playoff basketball as we approach the exciting NBA Finals.
Rule Changes and Marketing
The financial issues of some of the early NBA franchises drove some important rule changes. The 24-second shot clock rule was an innovative rule change that was driven by the owner of the financially struggling Syracuse team. This change was implemented as a way to speed up the game, generate higher scoring and ideally, attract more fans.
Prior to this rule change, teams with a lead late in the game would simply pass the ball back and forth in an attempt to run out the game clock. This tactic was hardly the type of athletic activity that sells arena seats. The time-limit rule-change significantly altered the pace of the game and put professional basketball on a course that fans could really enjoy.
Rule changes and other aspects of the game would later change the game and further increase the appeal of professional basketball.
By the late 1960s however, the NBA had only 10 teams located in the largest of cities, and only the larger US population centers were able to consistently draw enough arena ticket sales to stay afloat. NBA teams in the larger metro areas like New York, Chicago, and Boston kept the league going through the 1960s.
The New York Knicks versus Boston Celtics is the NBA’s longest enduring rivalry and continues to this day.
In the late 1960s, another important rivalry developed between the NBA and a newly established professional league - The American Basketball Association.
The American Basketball Association (ABA)
It was 1967 when a new professional league, (The ABA), emerged to compete with the NBA and fill the professional basketball void in smaller US cities. These smaller cities included:
- San Antonio
- Salt Lake City
These are teams that were very successful in the ABA and later contributed to the success of the NBA.
The important contributions of the ABA include its innovative changes to the game which were later adopted by the NBA. Probably the most significant innovation was the 3-point shot that was started in the ABA to open up the court for more offense. This ABA innovation was adopted by the NBA in 1979 and is an integral part of today’s exciting NBA action.
The Slam Dunk contest that is always a great side attraction to the NBA All-Star game was originally an ABA feature, again to create fan excitement and sell seats to ABA games.
The wide-open, high scoring pace of the ABA game was ahead of its time and eventually became the NBA style of play we see today. A style of play that is great for fans that want to see world-class athletes perform at their best.
The ABA also changed the college draft rules. The ABA argued in court that college players should be allowed to be drafted before their college eligibility was completed. The legal argument was based on the understanding that many college players and their families faced financial hardships and should not be bound by NCAA and NBA rules. This change was later adopted by the NBA, as well.
A very unique feature of the ABA was the red, white and blue game ball. To the disappointment of the many fans of ABA’s patriotic ball design, this ABA innovation did not come to the NBA when the leagues merged in 1976.
The NBA, the ABA, and the Merger
The NBA slowly gained popularity over the years, despite many of the original small city teams folding due to financial pressure. In 1967, the newly formed American Basketball League began, and more or less operated, as a rival league to the long-established NBA.
The ABA’s innovations and star players were recognized as a serious threat to the growing success of the NBA. However, the ABA’s financial problems, made the negotiations difficult, since it was clear the league would eventually fold. However, in 1976 the NBA concluded that the time was right for league expansion.
A merger with ABA would provide strategic new markets and create a single league focused on future growth.
The survival success of the NBA was largely due to the advancement of television and a national television contract; an important cash stream, that the ABA did not have.
In 1976 the NBA agreed to a partial merger, taking the most successful ABA teams to expand and take advantage of the growing interest in professional basketball. The NBA agreed to move four ABA teams into the league: the New York Nets, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, and San Antonio Spurs. The ABA, a league that was truly ahead of its time, dissolved into basketball history.