NBA Teams and Conference Structure
It's important to know the number of teams and the current alignment of the NBA conferences. This is the best way 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. The Western Conference teams are divided the same way, into three divisions.
With the growth of the NBA and its teams over the past few decades, the league now boasts 30 teams. The competition levels in all divisions of the NBA are outstanding. There are 82 regular season NBA games and the teams with the most wins will be the division champs.
Team wins determine 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 from each conference qualify for the playoffs. This is based on win/loss performance during the regular season. 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. 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 in a 7-game-series is determined by the overall conference win/loss record. This also decides and home advantage. 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, 41 home and road games, it's clear that the number 1 and 2 seeds have shown that they are the best. These teams will most likely go 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. 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. What we do know is that the NBA continues to show us exciting professional basketball action. The NBA playoffs are enjoyed by fans around the world.
NBA Team Origins
The basketball league we now know today as the NBA, began in 1946. Back then, it was known as the Basketball Association of America (BAA). 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 came from college basketball teams. College teams attracted a lot of interest in the 1930s and 1940s. Professional basketball was a way for fans to see great college players continue to play. Most went on to play in professional leagues.
There were some great championship teams in the early years. Unfortunately, due to finances, 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, noted above as a participant in the first NBA game, folded after a single season. Small market teams, like the 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. Later, they moved 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. This goes back to the late 1940s. When it comes to playoff competition, the Celtics and Lakers defined professional championships.
There are two great teams. The Boston Celtics and Lakers have accounted for 33 out of the 73 NBA Championships. This is significant competition and team performance measures in sports.
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 the explosive growth in the NBA fan base, the NBA expansion grew to 27 very competitive teams in 1991.
The Bulls, led by Michael Jordan, were a worldwide sensation! The team further expanded the demand for great professional basketball and NBA merchandise.
Since 2000, recent team performance includes a list of high performing teams. They are 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. Over the last two decades have had “hot” team performance coming out of the NBA’s Western Conference.
This year could bring a champ from the East! We know we'll continue to see several rounds of great NBA playoffs as we approach the Finals.
Rule Changes and Marketing
The financial issues of some early NBA franchises drove some important rule changes. The 24-second shot clock rule was an innovative rule change driven by the owner of the Syracuse team. Financially, the team is struggling. This change was implemented as a way to speed up the game. It will also generate higher scoring and ideally, attract more fans.
Before this rule change, teams with a lead late in the game would simply pass the ball back and forth. This was 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. It put professional basketball on a course that fans could really enjoy.
Rule changes and other aspects would later change the game. There was an increase in the appeal of professional basketball.
By the late 1960s, the NBA had only 10 teams located in the largest of cities. Only the larger US population centers were able to draw enough arena ticket sales to survive. NBA teams in the larger metro areas like New York, Chicago, and Boston kept the league going through the '60s.
The New York Knicks versus Boston Celtics is the NBA’s longest enduring rivalry. It continues to this day.
In the late 1960s, another important rivalry developed. This time, between the NBA and a newly established professional league: The American Basketball Association.
The American Basketball Association (ABA)
It was in 1967 when a new professional league, (The ABA), emerged. It was here 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. These were later adopted by the NBA. Probably the most significant innovation was the 3-point shot. It 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 ( a great side attraction to the NBA All-Star game) was originally an ABA feature. Again, this was 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. Eventually, it 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. They argued that players should be allowed to get drafted before their college eligibility was done. The legal argument came from many college players and families facing financial hardships. It said they 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 fans of ABA’s patriotic ball design, it did not make it to the NBA in 1976.
The NBA, the ABA, and the Merger
The NBA got popular over time, despite small teams folding due to financial pressure. In 1967, the newly formed American Basketball League began. More or less, it 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 NBA. The ABA was proving to be as popular as the NBA. Yet, the ABA’s financial problems made the negotiations difficult. 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. It would also create a single league focused on future growth.
The survival success of the NBA was largely due to the advancement of television. The NBA was able to land 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. The NBA also took advantage of the growing interest in professional basketball. The NBA agreed to move four ABA teams into the league. These included 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.