To the eight teams missing from Orlando, believing that the shortened regular season dashed their very real chances at a storybook comeback and the 2020 NBA title, we’ve got bad news: The 17 or so games you missed wouldn’t have made any difference. Historically, postseason berths are determined remarkably early in the NBA, and as the animation above shows, the 16 teams in playoff position–along with the top four Eastern Conference teams–have been there since late January.
By analyzing every NBA season since 1984—when the playoff field expanded from six to eight teams per conference—and omitting the 1999 and 2012 lockout-shortened seasons, the data and graph below reveal just how early eventual playoff teams stake their positions.
Each line, representing each eventual playoff seed, traces the percentage of those teams that were already in playoff position at any given time during the season. For instance, every eventual No. 1 seed was among the Top 8 teams by Game 23 (and wouldn’t drop from the postseason picture thereafter); of all the eventual No. 8 seeds, 75.5% of them were in playoff position after Game 70.
In fact, 90% of all playoff-bound teams are already in the postseason picture by the season’s midpoint. And since 1984, every eventual conference finalist has been securely in playoff position from the 48-game mark on.
Every Finals team, except for the 1999 New York Knicks, was in playoff position after a mere 17 games and, astoundingly, every single Finals team since 2000 would have made the postseason had the regular season lasted just eight games. Contrast this with the fact that last year’s MLB World Series champions, the Washington Nationals, were still on the outside of the playoff picture after 100 games. Or better yet, consider the NHL’s St. Louis Blues, who had the worst record in the league on Jan. 3, 2019 but lifted the Stanley Cup five months later.
The regular season, of course, does not simply determine which teams make the playoffs; seeding (and by extension, home-court advantage) is crucial. Only two of the 72 Finals teams since 1984 were not among the Top 4 seeds—the aforementioned 1999 Knicks and the 1995 Rockets, who won the title as a No. 6 seed.
Each of those other Finals teams stayed among the Top 4 seeds from the 63-game mark onwards. Much like playoff position, home-court advantage, at least for the legitimate title contenders, is relatively settled early on in the season.
Turning to the last level of granularity, the individual seeds themselves, eventual top seeds historically jump out in front extremely early and never look back, but it’s quite common for Nos. 2 through 8 to continue changing until the very end. This would likely be true, however, for any regular season of reasonable length.
The NBA has been rumored to be considering a condensed 2020-21 schedule, an idea the league has been toying with for several years now. Discussion has increased with more star players practicing load management—taking games off to reduce stress on the body—and now COVID-19 may force the league’s hand.
So how much shorter should the NBA regular season be? Fans, or those with big money at stake, would likely say not at all. But if it’s about getting the right teams into the postseason, the season could be much, much shorter.