How NBA playoff teams historically perform based on seeding

With the 2017-18 NBA playoffs starting up soon, let’s take a look at how teams have historically performed in each round based on their seeding. Our starting point will be the 1983-84 season, as this was the first year that the NBA playoffs featured 16 teams.

NBA seeding results from 1984 to 2017 playoffs

Seeding 1st round 2nd round Conf Champ Finals
1 seeds 63-5 (92.64%) 58-5 (92.06%) 38-20 (61.51%) 23-15 (60.52%)
2 seeds 63-5 (92.64%) 37-26 (58.73%) 19-18 (51.35%) 6-13 (31.57%)
3 seeds 51-17 (75%) 27-24 (52.94%) 7-20 (25.92%) 4-3 (57.14%)
4 seeds 31-37 (45.58%) 5-26 (16.12%) 2-3 (40%) 0-2 (0%)
5 seeds 37-31 (54.41%) 4-33 (10.81%) 0-4 (0%) N/A
6 seeds 17-51 (25%) 3-14 (17.64%) 1-2 (33.33%) 1-0 (100%)
7 seeds 5-63 (7.35%) 1-4 (20%) 0-1 (0%) N/A
8 seeds 5-63 (7.35%) 1-4 (20%) 1-0 (100%) 0-1 (0%)

As one would imagine 1 seeds breeze through the first two rounds of the NBA playoffs and have historically domianted the finals. 5 seeds have historically had the advantage defeating four seeds.

Out of 34 Finals that have taken place since the playoffs were expanded to 16 teams, 1 seeds have won 23 of them. While 1 seeds have lost 15 finals, 11 of those have come against other one seeds. Since the expansion to 16 teams, only the 1993, 1995, 2001 and 2002 NBA Finals saw 1 seeds lose to non-1s.

Out of the last 34 Finals, only six of them have featured no top-seeded team. Oddly enough this happened four Finals in a row, from 2004 to 2007, while also happening in back-to-back Finals in 2011 and 2012.

Comparison across decades

For further comparison, let’s see how each seed does in the first three rounds of the NBA playoffs when comparing by decade since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams starting with the 1983-84 season. I left out the NBA Finals since the aforementioned amount of times that one-seeded teams play each other would skew any comparison.

1st round

In the 2010’s, 3 and 5 seeded teams have won more often than in the past. There have also been 2 wins by 8 seeds, compared to 3 in the previous decades combined.

2nd round

The second round of the NBA playoffs in the 2010s has so far seen a large jump in the amount of 2 and 4 seeded teams winning their games. However, not a single 6, 7 or 8 seed has advanced beyond this round in the decade.

Conf Champ

A 5 or 7 seed has never won a Conference Championship game. The only 6 seed to win in this round was the 1995 Houston Rockets, while the only 8 seed was the 1999 New York Knicks. The only 4 seeds to do so were the 2006 Dallas Mavericks and the 2010 Boston Celtics.

Last 5 seed to reach the conference championship: Memphis Grizzlies (2013)

Last 6 seed to reach the conference championship: Houston Rockets (1995)

Last 7 seed to reach the conference championship: Seattle SuperSonics (1987)

Last 8 seed to reach the conference championship: New York Knicks (1999)

Have there been fewer upsets since the first round format was changed? 

While we’re on the topic of seeding, has the NBA switch from a best-of-5 first round to a best-of-7 first round change the number of upsets that take place. The short answer is not really, as the number of 1, 2 and 3 seed that has lost in the first round isn’t noticeably different. Meanwhile, 4 and 5 seeds have split their matchups since the change.

First Round seeding 5 game 1st round (1984-2002) 7 game 1st round (03-17)
1 seeds 36-2 (94.73%) 27-3 (90%)
2 seeds 34-4 (89.47%) 29-1 (96.66%)
3 seeds 28-10 (73.68%) 23-7 (76.66%)
4 seeds 16-22 (42.10%) 15-15 (50%)
5 seeds 22-16 (57.89%) 15-15 (50%)
6 seeds 10-28 (26.31%) 7-23 (23.33%)
7 seeds 4-34 (10.52%) 1-29 (3.33%)
8 seeds 2-36 (5.26%) 3-27 (10%)

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Sources and notes:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1984_NBA_Playoffs (went through noting victories by each seed up until the most recent playoffs in 2017)

Charts and graphs made using Google Spreadsheets

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