My favorite two months of the sports calendar tip off this weekend with the beginning of the NBA Playoffs.
The NBA has the most straightforward postseason format of any top-tier, North American pro sports league. Eight teams qualify from each conference; those teams are seeded one through eight by record (with the caveat that no division winner may be seeded lower than four).
Unlike the NFL, no teams earn a bye; and unlike the NHL teams aren’t re-seeded after the first round. Teams that didn’t win their division don’t have to face each other in a one-game playoff, as they do in baseball, and unlike the NBA’s sister league – which uses best-of-three series for the early rounds and a best-of-five series for the finals – every series in the NBA Playoffs is best-of-seven. And if you aren’t already familiar with how the MLS Cup Playoffs work, I don’t have time to explain it to you here. At any rate, what they do is much more complicated than what the NBA does.
But the NBA Playoffs haven’t always boasted such a simple, intuitive format. During the league’s first decade, it came up with some creative, and at times bizarre, means of determining its champion.
1947, 1948: Top seeds play each other, face the best of the rest
In 1947 the NBA was the BAA, the Basketball Association of America. The BAA would merge with the National Basketball League a couple years later to form the NBA. But the NBA traces its origin to the beginning of the BAA (which gave us teams such as the Celtics and Lakers) in 1946.
The BAA had 11 teams in its inaugural season, divided into two divisions by geography. The top three teams from each division qualified for the playoffs. The two division winners got a pass into the league semifinals. But those free tickets out of the first round didn’t work the way byes normally work. Instead of facing the winner of their division’s second- and third-place teams, the two division champions faced each other in a best-of-seven series.
The division winner that survived that best-of-seven series advanced to the finals to take on the best of the remaining teams. Those four teams—the second- and third-place teams from both divisions—occupied the other half of the bracket, playing two rounds of best-of-three series. And instead of having two teams from each division face off in the first round, or instead of having the second-place team from one division play the third-place team from the other, the BAA pit the two second-place teams against each other and the two third-place teams against each other. (If you’re confused, Wikipedia has a bracket.)
In the 1947 playoffs the Western Division champion Chicago Stags defeated the Eastern Division’s Washington Capitols in six games. The Philadelphia Warriors, who finished second in the Eastern Division, beat the Western Division’s second-place team, the St. Louis Hawks, in three, then swept the New York Knicks to advance to the finals. So, while the Warriors had to survive two rounds to earn a trip to the finals and the Stags only had to win one. The Warriors had actually played fewer early round games (five) than their finals opponent (six).
The Warriors defeated the Stags 4-1 to capture the first BAA title.
This odd postseason format lasted a second season. In 1948 the Baltimore Bullets (second in the west, and now the Washington Wizards) beat the Warriors 4-2 in the BAA finals
1950: Three teams advance to the League Finals
In 1949 the BAA introduced a playoff format similar to what we know today. The top four teams in the East played in one half of the bracket, while the top four teams in the West played in the other. The first-place team in each division opened by playing the fourth-place team from that division, and the second-place team played the third-place team. But when the BAA merged with the NBL after the 1949 season to form the NBA, the expanded league had 17 teams in three divisions.
The NBA kept the existing BAA format: each division had a four-team playoff, the winners of which would advance to the finals. But there were three divisions and therefore three teams in the finals.
While I would have preferred for the three teams to play at the same time on a hexagonal court, that wasn’t really an option. So the division representatives were seeded according to their regular season record. The Eastern Division champion Syracuse Nationals (now the Philadelphia 76ers) earned the top seed and a bye. The Western Division champion Minneapolis Lakers captured the second seed and took on the Anderson (Indiana) Packers from the Central Division. The Lakers, behind hall-of-fame center George Mikan, swept the Packers in a best-of-three series, then beat the Nationals in six to take their second BAA/NBA championship.
1954: Round robin group play
Several teams folded following the 1949-50 season, allowing the NBA to contract to two divisions and revert to a conventional eight-team tournament.
By the 1953-54 season the league had contracted further, leaving five teams in the Eastern Division and four in the West. It no longer made sense to invite four teams from each division to the playoffs.
So the NBA, which had just signed a ground-breaking $39,000 television contract with the DuMont Network, got creative.
In most international team sports competitions (Olympic tournaments, World Cups, World Championships, and so forth) teams are organized into groups. Each team plays every other team in its group (at least once, maybe twice) to determine which teams will qualify (based on win-loss record and any number of tiebreakers) for a championship tournament.
Group play makes sense in competitions that don’t have time to play a regular season. It makes less sense in a league where teams have already completed a 72-game schedule (which was the length of an NBA season in 1953-54). But the NBA decided to try it anyway.
The top three teams in each division following the 1953-54 season played a double round robin. The top two teams in each group then met in a best-of-three series to determine which would represent the division in the finals.
The Minneapolis Lakers and Rochester Royals (now the Sacramento Kings) took the top two spots in the West; the Syracuse Nationals and Boston Celtics finished first and second in the East. The Lakers would eventually defeat the Nationals in seven games to win their fifth NBA/BAA title.
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Round robin group play lasted only a single season. While a paucity of teams prevented the league from returning to a simple eight-team bracket, the NBA settled on a six-team playoff in which the second- and third-place teams in each division played an opening round series and division winners earned a bye to the division finals.
This format persisted for 12 seasons. Expansion allowed the NBA to revert to an eight-team playoff in 1967. In 1970 the Eastern and Western Divisions became conferences, each with two divisions. The playoffs expanded to 10 teams in 1975 and to 12 in 1977, the first season after the NBA absorbed four teams from the ABA. Under the 12-team format division winners earned a bye to the conference semi-finals, while other teams played best-of-three first round series.
In 1984 the playoffs expanded to 16 teams (eight from each conference), a format that has persisted (with some tweaks) to this day.