The short answer is: there are 30 teams in the league and only 16 of them will make it to the playoffs.
The NBA has a long regular season, which then culminates in one of the most exciting playoffs in all of sports. However, getting to the end of the road isn’t easy. It’s a hard fought battle that takes the better part of a year. Only a few teams are allowed in as well.
To study the postseason format, both past and present, this article will take a look at exactly how many organizations make the NBA playoffs.
It will also analyze the shifts it’s gone through over the years and explain why now more teams make it than ever before.
Bigger, and Better
As with any longstanding sports league, the NBA has undergone many, many changes since its inception. The league hasn’t just gotten bigger, it’s added rule shifts, subtleties, and completely overhauled the divisions. Even the three-point line is a rather recent addition from the 80’s.
Taking that into account, it should come as no surprise that the playoff format evolved on numerous occasions. It started as a much smaller affair. That’s because the league simply didn’t have the number of teams it needed in order to make it larger.
When the NBA first started, the playoffs were a six team, round robin format with the division finals being a best of five and the finals being a best of seven. Though there were some small changes throughout the 1950’s, that was the generally accepted format for a long time.
Everything changed in 1966. Then, the league allowed in eight teams and played three rounds. To accompany the extra franchise, and to up the excitement, the NBA also expanded the playoffs to include a best of seven semifinals and a best of three first round series.
Going On Up
While the NBA playoff format stayed the same for a long time, the number of teams who made it steadily increased. That’s because, as much as the NBA wanted to remain constant, it only grew in both size and popularity throughout the 70’s and 80’s.
During the expansion years, the league underwent several large shifts. It let ten teams into the playoffs (five from each conference) at the start of the 1970’s, and that number went up to twelve by the end of the decade. However, it didn’t see the largest change until 1984.
That season is one of the most significant in NBA history because it gave us the format that’s still largely in place today. At that time, the league expanded out to a record number of teams. In order to fit them all in the playoffs, the NBA changed the postseason for good.
Moving up from the twelve team format, the playoffs allowed in more organizations than ever before. Eight teams got in from each conference, making it sixteen total, and there were now four different knockout rounds.
On top of that, the first round was expanded to a best of five series, with the other three all being best of seven.
The sixteen team bracket worked beautifully, and even held up through the 30th team expansion in 2004. Though seeding did undergo some slight shifts from that point, the top half of the league making it into the postseason is something that’s held up for more than thirty years.
The above format has dominated the NBA for a long, long time. It makes a lot of sense from a numerical standpoint, gives the best teams (and underdogs) a fair chance to make a playoff push, and generates a ton of excitement for fans across the world.
Even so, it’s not infallible. In the 2021 season the league decided that, while sixteen teams was a good number, they wanted to shake up the postseason once more. Though they weren’t going to let more teams into the tournament, they wanted to give more organizations a chance.
To do that, the postseason added a small play-in tournament in between the conclusion of the regular games and the first round. In it, four teams play a three game format to settle the seventh and eighth seeds.
Rather than the two lowest seeds just going to the seventh and eight best teams, the tenth, ninth, eighth, and seventh seeds all play each other.
First, the ninth and tenth place teams play each other (with the loser getting kicked out) and the seventh and eighth seeds play each other. The winner of the seven/eight game gets the eighth seed, while the loser plays the winner of the nine/ten game. The winner of that gets eighth.
That then sets up the sixteen team format, and the rest of the playoffs commence as normal.
The NBA postseason has gone through big shifts over time. It’s still hard to get into, but more teams have a shot than ever before.
While it’s unlikely that more than sixteen teams will make it in for a while, there’s no telling what will happen when the league expands again.