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The Division winner tiebreaker failsafe

The Clippers will win their first ever division title this season, and that provides them with an obscure advantage in playoff tiebreakers.


[Note by Steve Perrin, 04/13/13 12:56 AM PDT ] When I first wrote this, I was under the misconception that the Division winner tiebreaker was used for seeding purposes, but not for home court advantage. I'm not sure where I got that, but it is incorrect. Division winners get the first tiebreaker both for seeding and for home court advantage, so the Clippers will have home court advantage provided they tie with one or both of their non-division-winner rivals. So apologies for a lot of overstrikes in what follows.

Remember last Thursday when the Clippers went into the thin air of Denver and lost to the Nuggets? That game gave Denver the season-series advantage over the Clippers, two games to one (although the NBA might want to rethink that rule for situations like this one where the schedule is unbalanced -- losing a season series to the Nuggets when two of the three games were played in Denver hardly seems like a fair shake for the Clippers). Given that head-to-head record is one of the most important tie-breakers in determining playoff seeding, that loss seemed to have extra significance. In the event that the Clippers and Nuggets finish with identical records at the end of the season, that head-to-head advantage would help the Nuggets.

Except that it doesn't (at least not as much as we thought).

Apparently, and I will admit that I was totally unaware of this, the NBA changed the tie-breaker rules prior to the 2008-2009 season to give preference to Division winners. Basically, in all ties involving a Division winner, the Division winner gets preference. That includes ties between two teams and ties between more than two teams -- being a Division winner is the first tie-breaker before any other rules, such as head-to-head record and Conference record are applied.

Here are the tie-breaker rules for a two way tie in order of priority:

  1. Division winner
  2. Better record in head-to-head games
  3. Higher winning percentage within division (if teams are in the same division)
  4. Higher winning percentage in conference games
  5. Higher winning percentage against playoff teams in own conference (including tied teams)
  6. Higher winning percentage against playoff teams in opposite conference (including tied teams)

The rules governing ties involving more than two teams are the same, except step two uses the winning percentage of the tied teams in games against one another.

Although their rivals are not yet mathematically eliminated, probabilistically-speaking the Clippers are virtually guaranteed to win the Pacific Division. Holding a nine game lead over the Warriors with 17 games remaining, the Clippers odds of winning the division are approaching 100%. Likewise the Spurs and Thunder are equally assured of winning the Southwest and Northwest divisions respectively -- which means that Memphis and Denver are guaranteed NOT to win those divisions.

So the tie-breaker between the Clippers and either the Grizzlies or the Nuggets is already decided -- the Clippers win, regardless of any other considerations. It's all over. If the Clippers finish tied with the Grizzlies, tied with the Nuggets, or tied with the Grizzlies and the Nuggets, they win the tie-breaker.

Which is good news of course, but it certainly doesn't guarantee that the Clippers will finish third in the Western Conference -- only that they'll have the advantage in any tie. If the Clippers fall behind either one of their rivals and drop into the fourth position, their division winner status will not help them.

Let's look at the various scenarios to explain why.

  • Scenario 1 -- there are no ties. This is straightforward of course, with the third place team getting the third seed. The Clippers would fall no lower than fourth from a seeding standpoint, but it wouldn't make a difference to home court advantage, with the 4-5 playoff series starting on the home floor of the fourth place team, even if that team is officially the fifth seed.
  • Scenario 2 order Clippers and Grizzlies tie, then Nuggets. In this situation, the Clippers are the third seed, Grizzlies fourth and Nuggets fifth.
  • Scenario 3 order Clippers and Nuggets tie, then Grizzlies. Same as above, the Clippers are the third seed and it doesn't matter that the Nuggets won two of three regular season meetings. The Nuggets would then have home court in their 4-5 series with the Grizzlies.
  • Scenario 4 order Clippers-Grizzlies-Nuggets three way tie. The Clippers play their Division winner trump card and secure the third seed. Home court in the Nuggets-Grizzlies series would be determined by their two-way head-to-head which currently stands 2-1 Nuggets with game four Friday in Denver.
  • Scenario 5 order Memphis then Clippers and Nuggets tied. This is where it gets dicey for the Clippers. If they fall behind either of their rivals, they essentially lose any appreciable advantage from being a division winner. They'd still be the fourth seed as all Division winners are guaranteed a top four seed. But that seed is meaningless in determining home court advantage, as is the Division title. In this scenario, the Clippers would have to start the playoffs in Denver, who would get home court advantage by virtue of having won the season series with the Clippers. The Clippers would host Denver in the four-five series.
  • Scenario 6 order Denver then Clippers and Memphis tied. Once again the Clippers would be the four seed, but they might still have to travel to Memphis to begin the playoffs if Memphis wins the final two games between the two teams and then finishes with a better division record. It's unlikely, but the Clippers would prefer it not come to this. The Clippers would host Memphis in the four-five series.

So there you have it. The Clippers will have an advantage conferred by their status as a division winner, but only if they hold off the Grizzlies and Nuggets and at least finish in a tie for third. As long as they don't drop down to fourth by record, they will be the third seed, which means they'll avoid both the Grizzlies and Nuggets in the first round, and avoid the first seed in the second round. If they drop to fourth, then the tie-breaker rules no longer favor them and they could lose home court advantage, even in a fourth place tie.

The easiest thing is to go 15-2 in their final 17 games and make a run at the top spot.