When NBA standings are this tight, how important are playoff seeds?

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

* NBA Playoff Picture

It is better to finish eighth than ninth when the last of the 1,230 NBA regular season games has been played, just as it’s better to be seated than standing when the final note gets played in a game of musical chairs.

But once you’re in, you’re in. Does it really matter which slot you’re seeded into as one of the 16 playoff teams, any more than it matters which chair you’ve grabbed?

What we’re seeing now and possibly for a good chunk of this final week before the postseason packs a ton of potential drama. Out West, there’s a veritable play-in tournament going on, with two games separating the teams from seventh to 10th place (as of Wednesday morning). Extend that by one game and you’re corralling three more teams, all the way up to fourth place and at least one round with homecourt advantage.

In the East, there’s a cluster of three teams vying for position just behind Toronto and Boston, then another three at the bottom of the bracket maneuvering to lessen their “first-round fodder” prospects.

All that jockeying for position, though, might be overrated if it doesn’t necessarily improve a team’s chances to survive and advance. And when the standings gap between teams is so razor thin, the differences between high-, mid- and low-seeds flatten out pretty quickly.

Consider, if the playoffs began today, Houston at No. 1 would be opening against a team with 43 victories, while Utah and San Antonio at Nos. 4 and 5 would be facing foes (each other) with 45.

Not a lot to differentiate the formidability of those opponents based on seeding compared to, say, the injuries one team might be nursing relative to another’s. Or how “hot” someone is as opposed to, y’know, “cold.”

Will Washington, for example, be scarier than your run-of-the-mill lower seed now that point guard John Wall has returned after missing 19 games over two months with a bum left knee? Is Toronto more beatable than a traditional No. 1 seed, by virtue of its recent slump of five losses in eight games?

It seems pretty clear that Utah, in winning 26 of its 31 games since late January, is a team no one else out West wants to face, regardless of where the Jazz settle in by the end of business next Wednesday. Then there is Cleveland, which has flatlined and bounced back this season more than Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees combined. Who’s the favorite out East? Quite possibly the No. 3 seed, unless the Cavaliers slip to fourth or fifth.

Even the most obvious benefit of finishing in the Top 4 in each conference assures a team and its fan base of nothing. John Schuhmann, NBA.com’s chief numbers cruncher, dug up the unexpected quirk that in each of the past 11 postseasons (2007-2017), at least one team with the homecourt edge got eliminated in the first round.

That’s not supposed to happen, but it does argue a bit against busting a gut to finish fourth rather than fifth. Also, no one at this point doubts LeBron James’ ability – or Golden State’s, for that matter – to get to The Finals again even if it requires winning a road game or three along the way.

What matters most in seeding is not the position itself but the matchup it creates. If Milwaukee or Miami believes that Boston, riddled recently by injuries, is better tackled sooner rather than later in the postseason – that underdog isn’t going to fret about finishing seventh or eighth to draw the Celtics in Round 1. Especially if sixth would mean the Cavs.

There are coaches on both sides of the question. Gregg Popovich or Steve Kerr seem wary of the costs of killing oneself to chase a higher seed, cognizant of the energy expended and injury risks incurred.

Mike D’Antoni, by contrast, spoke after a Rockets loss Sunday about the staleness that can set in and undermine a playoff team that isn’t careful. “Being rested and playing bad is not going to be a good formula,” D’Antoni said, stressing that his Houston team needs to spiff up its rhythm. “They have enough rest. How it became vogue just not to play, I don’t know.”

As for Dwane Casey, easing off the gas when the Raptors are sputtering doesn’t seem like the proper way to prep for the postseason. If anything, Toronto’s five-game sprint to the finish could be its best shot at restoring the confidence and edge it had through its first 70 games.

So what is the true value of a fifth seed over a seventh, a third over a sixth? A 2010 Harvard study of NBA postseasons from early in this century found no definitive outcome, beyond reminding us that teams that slot in higher typically are of greater quality over the first 82 than those who finish lower.

A minor hockey league, the Southern Professional Hockey League, has imbued its top seeds with greater advantages by empowering them to draft their first-round competition. As written about in Feburary by Dieter Kurtenbach of the San Jose Mercury News, letting Houston hand-pick its opening opponent — sort of the All-Star “playground” draft, writ large and more meaningful – followed by Golden State and so on could dial up not just the rewards of chasing a Top 4 slot but the intensity of a lower seed chosen as an alleged patsy.

For now, though, we should enjoy the neck-and-neck finish to this regular season for what it is – survival out West, competition across both conferences – rather than what the final order suggests for the playoffs.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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