The Quest for the 8th Seed: Western Conference Playoff Tie-Breakers

Published: February 5, 2015

ESPN’s playoff odds formula currently expects the Pelicans, Thunder, and Suns all to finish with 44-38 records. Obviously, these projections move from day to day as the games are played, but at some point, we have to start asking ourselves: what if something like this actually happens? What are the various tie-breaking scenarios at play? Wonder no more, for every possible scenario involving these three teams’ quest for the Western Conference 8th seed is outlined below. Additionally, make sure that you’re following James Grayson’s Pelicans Playoff Hunt series for more insight into this 3-team battle.

Scenario #1: Pelicans & Suns tie

This scenario is the simplest one, as these two teams only play each other 3 times this season. Currently, the Pelicans lead the series 1-0, with the final two games coming in Phoenix on Thursday, March 19th and in New Orleans on Friday, April 10th. One more win for the Pelicans would wrap this one up. Update (3/30): This series is now tied at 1, with one game remaining in New Orleans on Friday, April 10th. 

ADVANTAGE: New Orleans

Scenario #2: Pelicans & Thunder tie

The Pelicans and Thunder play on Friday night in Oklahoma City for their 4th and final meeting. If New Orleans prevails, then they win the season series 3-1 and therefore own the tie-breaker. Should OKC protect home court, then the tie-breaker would then go to the team with the best Western Conference record*. Assuming a Pelicans loss, their in-conference record would be 18-14, compared to 14-16 for the Thunder. As such, even if the Pels lose tomorrow night, they are still in good shape from a tie-breaking perspective.

Update (2/7): The Pelicans have won this series 3-1 and now own the tie-breaker over the Thunder.

ADVANTAGE: New Orleans

Scenario #3: Suns & Thunder tie

In an effort to make this a comprehensive post, I’ll outline this possibility as well, even though it would be very sad news for the Pelicans. The Thunder have won both games at home against the Suns so far and have two meetings left in Phoenix: Thursday, February 26th and Sunday, March 29th. If the Suns protect home court and therefore conclude the season series in a 2-2, then that would also give them a clear edge in Western Conference record; both teams are tied in that regard right now, but those two games would make the Suns 15-16 and the Thunder 13-18. Update (3/30): The Thunder have won this season series 3-1 and therefore own the tie-breaker over the Suns.

ADVANTAGE: Oklahoma City

Scenario #4: Pelicans, Suns, & Thunder 3-way tie

Now comes the fun stuff! Should each of these three teams finish the 2014-15 NBA season with the same record, the primary tie-breaker is combined win-loss record against the other two teams. At present, here is how that tie-break would shake out:

Pelicans: 3-1 (2-1 vs. OKC, 1-0 vs. PHX; remaining – @ OKC, @ PHX, vs. PHX)
Thunder: 3-2 (2-0 vs. PHX, 1-2 vs. NOP; remaining – v. NOP, @ PHX, @ PHX)
Suns: 0-3 (0-1 vs. NOP, 0-2 vs. OKC; remaining – v. OKC, v. NOP, v. OKC, @ NOP)

If each team wins all remaining home games against the opponent (which, with teams so close in the standings, is the most likely scenario, here’s how each team would finish:

Pelicans: 4-3
Thunder: 4-4
Suns: 3-4

The only way that there could possibly be a tie here is if the Pelicans finish 1-2 in their 3 remaining games against the Thunder and Suns (likely) and then the Suns win all 4 of their remaining games against the Thunder and Pelicans (unlikely). In this scenario, it appears as if the better conference record between those two teams would be awarded the playoff spot, but that level of detail isn’t entirely clear to me under the’s tie-breaker rules. The Suns are currently 13-16 against Western Conference opponents, so the Pelicans have a clear advantage in this area as well.

Update (3/30): Pelicans 4-2, Thunder 4-4, Suns 2-4. Going into the Pelicans’ final game against the Suns in New Orleans, they already own this 3-team tie-breaker regardless of what happens against Phoenix.

ADVANTAGE: New Orleans

Western Conference Tie-Breaker Summary

As noted above, in the event that head-to-head records result in a tie, the tie-breaker will resort to Western Conference records. Below is a snapshot of where each team currently stands against the rest of the west.

New Orleans Pelicans

(Updated as of March 30th)

Current Record: 39-34
vs. West: 23-20
Remaining vs. WC: 9
Home/Road Split: 3/6
Teams Under/Over .500: 3/6

Oklahoma City Thunder

Current Record: 42-32
vs. West: 22-23
Remaining vs. WC: 7
Home/Road Split: 5/3
Teams Under/Over .500: 3/5

Phoenix Suns

Current Record: 38-36
vs. West: 20-25
Remaining vs. WC: 8
Home/Road Split: 2/6
Teams Under/Over .500: 1/7

*Note: the second tie-breaker is technically inter-division record, but this only applies if the teams in question are in the same division. Because the Pelicans, Thunder, and Suns, each play in different divisions, this tie-breaker will never apply.

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.