Standings, Brackets and All You Need to Know About Playoffs

The NBA is a tricky thing to follow. It’s not like a stock exchange where you can look up everything that has happened, and every team’s status. The NBA page on Wikipedia is not as full-service as the one for the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

As far as I know, it doesn’t yet exist.

A lot of basketball writers don’t know much about the NBA, so they go straight to the standings. The problem is that they are a terrible guide to what’s going on.

For example, if you want to understand why the Pistons are in the playoffs and not the Nets, read this article by Joe Posnanski :

“The Pistons still have a major obstacle between them and their first-round playoff series against the Cleveland Cavaliers: The Toronto Raptors.

“Cleveland lost to the Detroit Pistons on Tuesday, which means that any chance it had at making the playoffs has now passed. I’m not sure whether Detroit’s win was better or worse for the Cavaliers than it was for the Raptors, but either way it doesn’t change what we’ve known for weeks: The Raptors are probably going to make it into the NBA playoffs.”

Or this one by Brian Windhorst: “The Detroit Pistons have won 10 straight games, have won 10 of their past 11 and have won seven of their last eight. They are on pace for a record season. They’re also on pace to make a playoff run.”

There’s lots of other stuff happening in this league right now – if you care about those things you’ll read about them on NBA.com ,

The NBA Playoffs are a strange beast. Everyone knows that the two best teams play in the Finals, and that their records count for something. But there is no way to know how much, exactly, which makes it hard to talk about them rationally.

The Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat combined to win sixty-five games this season, but Chicago had home-court advantage and won fourteen of their seventeen games at home. And then they went out on the road and lost twelve times in fifteen tries. It’s not clear they would have been better if they’d been home in Chicago, so it’s not clear that their record was unlucky; it’s just hard to tell because we can’t see the whole tableau. That’s why sports talk radio shows are often obsessed with whether a given team should have won or lost.

There is never a way to tell why one team wins or loses any particular game; there is always only one reason for what happened–and that reason affects every other game on the schedule. The only thing you can ever know for sure about any game is how many points you should have scored or allowed.

The National Basketball Association should be very proud of it’s playoff format. It is the best in any sport. The NBA uses a modified double-elimination format, with the top eight teams in each conference moving on to the next round, and the winner of each facing off for the league title.

Many people have complained about this, because it adds a lot of games to a season, makes it difficult to finish first overall in your conference, and sometimes forces two teams with identical records to play all the way through. But that’s not really the problem; they are only minor complaints.

The real problem is that many people don’t seem to understand how it works. This isn’t just a matter of getting all the info they need to know out there before they start complaining; it’s also a matter of explaining how it works so people can see that it really is as good as everyone says.

How does it work? Here is an outline:

Each team plays one game against everyone else in its conference. The team with the best record plays second-place and third-place teams, and so on down through 14 games. If you lose one game you’re out. If you win one game you’re in. Then each team plays every other team

Smart people don’t always take the easiest path.

The easiest path would be to just play the games and win them, but that’s not how smart people play basketball. The NBA standings look like a list of obvious truths. The best team always wins. The worst team always loses. The teams that play the most games and win the most games are almost always the best teams. That doesn’t actually tell you anything, though, because it isn’t true in general. The best team is usually not the one that plays the most games and wins the most games; it’s the one that plays fewer games, but wins them all anyway.

This is easy to see if you start with an imperfect system, like a lot of bad teams in a small league are likely to have. But it’s also true for a perfectly reliable one like baseball or hockey or American football, so long as there are only a few good teams, which will happen if you get rid of some of the minor leagues first and make sure everyone can play each other for an extra game every week or two.

In baseball or hockey or American football, there will always be a couple of teams that are clearly better than everyone else: they’ll win more games and they’ll have better records against their

You can’t turn a regular season into a meaningful playoff. It’s not a true tournament.**

If you’re in the NBA, what matters is winning the conference playoffs, which means advancing to the conference semi-finals. And that is it**. There are no more games and no more series until the Finals. In fact, there is no more game for your team after the first round of the playoffs.

That’s why I’m worried about the NBA right now. The league is running out of playoff teams with two months to go before the playoffs start. All things being equal, that should mean that whoever makes it there will look good. But all things aren’t equal, and it’s getting harder to carve out a path of progression even when you have a great team.

Earlier this season I wrote about how much trouble the Thunder were having winning two games in Miami and how they were suddenly no longer imposing themselves on the league in a way they hadn’t been before.* Alarm bells went off when I realized they weren’t losing because they were bad; but because they had so few wins in between those two losses, their margin for error was vanishingly small.*

The Thunder are still capable of beating anyone in their way (the Lakers notwithstanding). But

The NBA playoffs are approaching, and this is the time of year when the best basketball minds in the world gather to dissect and predict the outcomes of those games.

Anyone with a decent understanding of probability can see that teams with home court advantage should have a real advantage at this stage of the tournament. So what happens? The home team has an overwhelming advantage over its opponents on average, but it also has an overwhelming disadvantage against its opponents on average. This gives an average advantage of about +2.8 points per game, and yet it doesn’t seem to be enough; there are still seven or eight games every series where one team wins by more than ten points. You can go back and look at this as far back as your favorite statistics–the last few years, for example–and you will see that there are many situations where one team wins by more than ten points while having an average advantage of less than +2.8 points per game (and the same with home court advantage).

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