Sorting Out 2018 NBA West Playoffs Tiebreakers, Part 1

Welcome back to our efforts to sort out the giant NBA car crash that is the playoff race and all the potential tiebreakers. I’m trying to make this as complete as possible while also making it plausible.

Sadly, when Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, and the Trail Blazers lost to the Grizzlies on Wednesday, what was already a mess with seven teams all alive to go anywhere from fourth through tenth just became six teams within four games of each other from three through eight. The East at least had two distinct groups around a common linchpin—the Cavs-Sixers-Pacers 3-4-5 race and the Miami-Milwaukee 7-8 race with Detroit a frisky but implausible ninth and the sixth-place Wizards the wild card depending on whether they went on a winning streak or a losing streak down the stretch; you can find the details of that in yesterday’s article.

WEST 3 through 6 (Portland, Oklahoma City, New Orleans, and San Antonio)

If Portland were three up on Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and OKC and four up on the Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday-led Pelicans and LaMarcus Aldridge‘s Spurs, this wouldn’t be an issue.

But after that horrible Grizz loss, the Blazers still play against the Spurs, plus they’ve got the Clippers, Rockets, Nuggets, and Jazz completing a stretch of five games out of the final seven against teams that are good. The Blazers could go 2-5; considering they already lost to Memphis once and have to play Dallas on the road, they might even choke out entirely, but I can’t see them realistically landing any lower than sixth. They’re four up in the loss column on the Wolves and Jazz, and those two teams only play six and seven more games respectively.

So here are your tiebreakers, starting with each of these teams’ records against the others, and we’re assuming the Spurs beat the Blazers when next they meet because it’s the only realistic way those teams could end up tied. No such assumptions will be made about Oklahoma City for reasons that will become self-evident even though they still have to face the Spurs and Pelicans before this season is done.

Oh, and the Pelicans and Spurs face each other on the last day of the season, so there’s that to consider.

POR: 4-0 OKC, 2-2 NOP, 1-2 SAS (7-4 overall)
OKC: 0-4 POR, 0-2 NOP, 2-1 SAS (2-7 overall)
NOP: 2-2 POR, 2-0 OKC, 2-1 SAS (6-3 overall)
SAS: 2-1 POR, 1-2 OKC, 1-2 NOP (4-5 overall)

In case of a multiple-team tie in which the Blazers and Thunder are both involved, Portland would be the 3 seed. If the Thunder win the division and the Blazers drop into a three-way tie with the Pelicans and Spurs, then Portland is the 4 seed if New Orleans loses either of their games against the Thunder and Spurs (assuming San Antonio beats Portland) or the 5 seed if New Orleans wins both games.

If Portland beats San Antonio and the Spurs still finish in this theoretical three-way tie, Portland is the 4 seed no matter what the Pelicans do.

So let’s summarize:

If any two teams are tied independent of the others, the tiebreaks should be obvious from the head-to-head record table. The Spurs and Blazers’ deadlock is pending the result of their upcoming game. If San Antonio beats Oklahoma City, their two-way tie will be decided first on conference record (in which the Spurs have a slight edge they could cement with that win) and second on conference record against playoff teams (which is way too up in the air to have a prayer of predicting here.)

Also, if San Antonio and New Orleans end up splitting their season series, the Spurs will win the tiebreaker based on division record (they’re 8-6, the Pelicans are 7-7; the Spurs would be no worse than 9-7 with that win while the Pellies could do no better than 8-8. It’s like football since divisions play 16-game in-division schedules.)

Basically, there’d better be a three-way tie involving the Spurs and Thunder if San Antonio wins their head-to-head game or else it’s all going to be a mess and nobody will be able to make sense of it until game 82 is in the books for real.

Now then…

If four-way tie:

3rd: Portland (as division winner)
4th: New Orleans
5th: San Antonio
6th: Oklahoma City

But now we need to consider the teams’ records in case of three-way ties. Portland is 4-0 against the Thunder. This gives them a huge advantage in a four-way tie, but wipe those four wins out and things get strange. Assuming the Spurs beat the Blazers, again because it’s the only realistic way a three-way tie could happen…

POR: 3-4
NOP: 4-3
SAS: 3-3

So again, assuming a Spurs win over the Blazers, it all comes down to the season’s final game.

If the Spurs win:

4th: San Antonio
5th: New Orleans
6th: Portland

If the Pelicans win:

4th: New Orleans
5th: Portland
6th: San Antonio

This assumes that Portland won’t blow the three-game lead they have on conference record (28-17 vs. 25-20 for the Spurs.) New Orleans has the worst conference record of the three teams but because the Blazers and Spurs only play three times and the Pelicans and Spurs play four times, the math is more straightforward. Portland and San Antonio might be forced into a lower-tier tiebreak involving records against playoff teams, and that then demands an answer to the question of who the 7 and 8 seeds ultimately are.

It’s a mess. A steaming hot mess.

But if Portland handles their business and finishes third, who’s to say that…

WEST 4 Through 8 (Oklahoma City, New Orleans, San Antonio, Minnesota, and Utah)

I’m not going to speculate about the Clippers or Nuggets. Yet. Unlike the Portland situation that requires that three-game differences be examined because of the nature of the teams’ remaining schedules, I’m sticking this to a two-game margin between OKC at 44-31 and the Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell-led Jazz at 42-33.

There are a LOT of scenarios here. Some are two-team. Most are 3 or 4 team. And there’s one giant beast mode sized mess to clean up on aisle 5, as in 5-team pileup.

Let’s start with that one, because it’s the jumping off point for every smaller scenario to come. Oh, and yes, the Thunder play the Pelicans and Spurs, and the Pelicans and Spurs play each other. Utah plays Minnesota, with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, one more time. We’re projecting two weeks out. A lot can still happen. At least we’re assuming Portland wins the Northwest Division because if we bring the Blazers into this, things really go to hell in a hurry and become completely beyond any hope of a plausible projection.

OKC: 0-2 NOP, 2-1 SAS, 1-3 MIN, 3-1 UTA (6-7)
NOP: 2-0 OKC, 2-1 SAS, 0-4 MIN, 1-3 UTA (5-8)
SAS: 1-2 OKC, 1-2 NOP, 2-1 MIN, 1-3 UTA (5-8)
MIN: 3-1 OKC, 4-0 NOP, 1-2 SAS, 2-1 UTA (10-4)
UTA: 1-3 OKC, 3-1 NOP, 3-1 SAS, 1-2 MIN (8-7)

No, the teams don’t all play the same number of games against each other. Because of course they don’t. Utah somehow managed to be the odd men out with the extra game. Luckily, it should prove moot except pending what the Thunder do with the Pelicans and Spurs.

As things currently stand, should the teams end up in a five-way deadlock:

4th: Minnesota
5th: Utah
6th: Oklahoma City
7th: San Antonio
8th: New Orleans (conference record breaking the 7-8 tie)

The Thunder could overtake the Jazz if they beat New Orleans AND San Antonio (in which case the Pelicans-Spurs winner would be 7th and the loser 8th because one would finish 6-9 in the head-to-head matchups and the other 5-10; the Jazz would be 6th.) The Jazz-Wolves game is irrelevant in this scenario.

Otherwise, Minnesota’s fourth, Utah’s fifth, and the Thunder, Spurs, and Wolves have a convoluted dance for sixth through eighth that depends largely on who beats whom but with the Thunder in pole position. In any event, the Thunder likely finish no worse than seventh, and they place sixth if they beat the Spurs; otherwise stuff gets weird.

New Orleans gets sixth if and only if they beat both the Thunder AND Spurs AND San Antonio beats Oklahoma City. In that case it’s New Orleans in sixth and the Spurs and Thunder in 7th and 8th depending on how they do against their other Western Conference opponents the rest of the way out (it’s lunacy on toast and simply cannot be projected without a thousand what-if scenarios in play, but the Spurs have the inside track.)

Two-Way Ties!

Now then. Let’s go back to basics and work out the two-way ties. We’ve covered all the scenarios for the Thunder, Spurs, and Pelicans already. Each team has completed its schedule with the Wolves and Jazz, and there are no ties to break there; they’re simple head-to-head.

The only two-way tie not yet addressed is what happens if the Wolves beat the Jazz on Sunday, April 1. Because if the Jazz win, they win the season series 3-1. If the Wolves win, it comes down to division record, which tiebreak the Wolves (9-4) have already clinched over the 6-8 Jazz. Utah must win that game.

Four-Way Ties!

There are five (!) different four-way tie scenarios.

We begin with the ones involving all three of our old friends we’ve been talking about all day: Oklahoma City, New Orleans, and San Antonio.

The real winner if Minnesota’s the fourth team: Minnesota.

MIN: 8-3
NOP: 4-5
SAS: 4-5
OKC: 3-6

So Minnesota’s 1st. 2nd through 4th depend on that whole who-beats-whom thing in their remaining games, with Oklahoma City needing to win both games against New Orleans and San Antonio AND the Pelicans to beat the Spurs in order to assure 2nd (if the Spurs beat the Pelicans, that whole hot mess involving conference record rears its head again.)

New Orleans, for its part, could clinch second with wins over both Oklahoma City and San Antonio; they would lose on conference record any tie resolved as part of a larger four-team tiebreak because of the Wolves and Thunder residing in the Northwest Division. Which, in turn, means they’re probably fourth unless Oklahoma City loses twice, in which case they’re third.

The Spurs, meanwhile, get second by beating Oklahoma City OR New Orleans, but there’s that conference record Thunder thing again.

And I say “first through fourth” because this could be the 4 through 7 seed, or 5 through 8, or 3 through 6 if Portland loses seven straight and crashes out of the playoffs entirely…ahem. We’re not going through that.

If Utah’s the fourth team involving this slugfest?

UTA: 7-5
OKC: 5-4
NOP: 5-4
SAS: 3-7

Utah’s 1st, the Thunder or Pelicans could overtake them by winning both of their remaining games in that three team horror show, San Antonio can finish no better than fourth.

And if the Thunder and Pelicans tie, Oklahoma City is nearly guaranteed the conference-record tiebreak.

So that one’s easy (thank the gods.)

If Oklahoma City just runs away and leaves the current 5 through 8 seeds to fight over the scraps?

MIN: 7-3
UTA: 7-4
SAS: 4-6
NOP: 3-8

Easy-peasy thanks to the odd game. Utah beats Minnesota, they’re the top team in the four-way tie. Minnesota beats Utah, they get the top dog spot. The Spurs-Pelicans game is meaningless in this scenario except where it defines the four-way tie in the first place.

If New Orleans gets hot and runs off?

MIN: 6-4
OKC: 6-5
UTA: 5-6
SAS: 4-6

So. OKC plays San Antonio, Minnesota plays Utah. So whether this is about 4 through 7 or 5 through 8 or whatever…

MIN: 1st if they beat Utah OR San Antonio beats Oklahoma City; 2nd if and only if the Jazz and Thunder both win.
OKC: 1st if they beat San Antonio AND Utah beats Minnesota. 2nd if Minnesota beats Utah regardless of the Spurs result. 3rd if they lose to the Spurs AND the Jazz beat the Wolves (due to conference record.)
UTA: 2nd if they beat the Wolves AND the Spurs beat the Thunder. 3rd if they lose to the Wolves AND the Thunder beat the Spurs, OR if they beat the Wolves AND the Spurs beat the Thunder. 4th if they lose to the Wolves AND the Spurs beat the Thunder.
SAS: 3rd if they beat the Thunder AND the Wolves beat the Jazz; 4th otherwise.

If the Spurs do something implausible like win out for their 19th straight 50-win season or something far less plausible like collapse down the stretch and miss the playoffs, or anything else that raises or drops them out of a four-way tie?

MIN: 9-2
UTA: 5-6
OKC: 4-6
NOP: 3-7

So Minnesota wins. New Orleans, because of conference record, is fourth no matter what happens.

Utah beats Minnesota, they’re second. They lose, they’re second if Oklahoma City loses and third if the Thunder beat the Pelicans. And Oklahoma City’s the inverse of that last bit; if Utah loses, the Thunder get second if they beat the Pellies.

This is fairly cut and dried.

That’s all five four-team tiebreaker scenarios covered.

Three-Way Ties!

Oh hell, I’m not going through all of these. There are just too many scenarios to count. The basics of it reduce to if Minnesota’s involved, they’re probably winning, if Utah’s involved, it’s good news for the Thunder and bad news for the Pelicans and Spurs, and the three teams that we’ve been talking about this whole article basically start controlling their destiny as long as they beat each other but they’ll probably finish behind either or both of the Wolves and Jazz, especially if Utah beats Minnesota.

Ask me again next week. This is a car crash.

Holy Crap, This Is Getting Long…

Let’s save the fringes of playoff society for Part 2, shall we?