The NBA is a league with a focus on the fan experience. If there is a way to make an exciting game even more entertaining, then the NBA is willing to try new things.
What better way to improve the game of basketball than by giving more teams a chance to make the playoffs? The NBA’s new Play-In tournament format does just that.
Gone are the days when teams belonged to a division and the winners of each division would rank one, two, and three to advance to the playoffs in each conference.
Having more teams in the hunt for a playoff spot late in the season — even down to the last game — makes it more exciting for more fans.
So, How Many Teams in the NBA Make the Playoffs?
There are 16 teams that make the playoffs in the NBA. Eight teams qualify from the Eastern Conference, and eight qualify from the Western Conference.
The top six teams in each conference with the best record automatically make the playoffs. Teams that finish seventh through 10th have a mini-tournament to eliminate two teams and decide who will be the seventh and eighth seeds in the playoffs.
What Is the Play-In Tournament?
The NBA Play-In tournament is a new playoff format that enables the top 10 teams in each conference to qualify for the NBA playoffs.
Let’s take a look at the 2022 season and review how the Play-In tournament unfolded and who ultimately became NBA champions.
Eastern Conference Final Standings 2022
The 2022 NBA season was the first full 82-game schedule that used the play-in tournament format.
Here are the final Eastern Conference standings for the 2022 season:
- Miami Heat 53-29
- Boston Celtics 51-31
- Milwaukee Bucks 51-31
- Philadelphia 76ers 51-31
- Toronto Raptors 48-34
- Chicago Bulls 46-36
- Brooklyn Nets 44-38
- Cleveland Cavaliers 44-38
- Atlanta Hawks 43-39
- Charlotte Hornets 43-39
- New York Knicks 37-45
- Washington Wizards 35-47
- Indiana Pacers 25-57
- Detroit Pistons 23-59
- Orlando Magic 22-60
Not only do teams fight to attain the ninth and 10th place seeds to have a shot at the playoffs, but there’s also a battle for the sixth seed in the standings. The team that finishes with the sixth-best record in the conference is automatically in the playoffs. A team that finishes in seventh place must play a high-stakes, one-game playoff to advance.
The Nets, Hawks, Cavaliers, and Hornets were all chasing the Chicago Bulls for the coveted sixth seed and an automatic berth into the 2022 NBA playoffs.
Western Conference Final Standings 2022
The best team in the regular season doesn’t always make it to the NBA Finals. Such was the case in 2022 in the Western Conference.
Here are the final Western Conference standings for the 2022 season:
- Phoenix Suns 64-18
- Memphis Grizzlies 56-26
- Golden State Warriors 53-29
- Dallas Mavericks 52-30
- Utah Jazz 49-33
- Denver Nuggets 48-34
- Minnesota Timberwolves 46-36
- Los Angeles Clippers 42-40
- New Orleans Pelicans 36-46
- San Antonio Spurs 34-48
- Los Angeles Lakers 33-49
- Sacramento Kings 30-52
- Portland Trail Blazers 27-55
- Oklahoma City Thunder 24-58
- Houston Rockets 20-62
The play-in tournament format was on full display in the West, with the No. 9 seed New Orleans Pelicans beating both the Spurs and Clippers to gain the final playoff spot. They’d face the Phoenix Suns, who owned the best record in the NBA, and give them everything they could handle.
How Does the Play-In Tournament Work?
The top six teams in each conference automatically qualify for the NBA playoffs. The Play-In tournament decides which two teams round out the eight playoff contenders in the East and West.
The seventh seed hosts the eighth seed in a one-game playoff. The ninth seed hosts the 10th seed in a one-game playoff.
The winner of the seventh/eighth place matchup wins the seventh seed. The losing team will host the winner of the 9/10 matchup. The loser of that game is eliminated from playoff contention.
Once the seventh and eighth seeds are decided, the NBA Playoffs proceed as usual with a best-of-seven format.
In the 2022 season, the Play-In tournament looked like this:
Eastern Conference Western Conference
7. Brooklyn Nets 7. Minnesota Timberwolves
8. Cleveland Cavaliers 8. Los Angeles Clippers
9. Atlanta Hawks 9. New Orleans Pelicans
10. Charlotte Hornets 10. San Antonio Spurs
In the Eastern Conference, the Nets hosted the Cavaliers in Brooklyn on April 12, beating them 115-108. The Nets were then locked into the seventh seed and would face the No. 2 seed Boston Celtics.
The Cavaliers would await the winner of the Hawks-Hornets matchup. The Hawks defeated the Hornets and moved to a one-game elimination in Cleveland. The Hawks managed to beat the Cavs, knocking them out of the playoffs and putting themselves in a best-of-seven series with conference winners Miami Heat.
There were several upsets in the Western Conference Play-In tournament. The Timberwolves managed to hold home court and send the Los Angeles Clippers into a one-game playoff with the New Orleans Pelicans, who had defeated No. 10 seed San Antonio Spurs.
New Orleans won in Los Angeles, securing the eighth playoff seed and sending the Clippers back home. The 36-46 Pelicans would then face the best team in the NBA, the 64-18 Phoenix Suns.
The NBA Playoffs in 2022
With the Play-In tournament complete, we had the eight teams in each conference that would compete for the Larry O’Brien trophy.
In the Western Conference, the No. 1 seed Phoenix Suns hosted No. 8 seed New Orleans Pelicans. No. 2 seed Memphis Grizzlies hosted the No. 7 seed Minnesota Timberwolves. The No. 3 seed Golden State Warriors faced off with No. 6 seed Denver Nuggets. No. 4 seed Dallas Mavericks hosted No. 5 seed Utah Jazz.
In the Eastern Conference, the No. 1 seed Miami Heat hosted the No. 8 seed Atlanta Hawks. No. 2 seed Boston Celtics hosted the No. 7 seed Brooklyn Nets. The No. 3 seed Milwaukee Bucks hosted No. 6 seed Chicago Bulls. The No. 4 seed Philadelphia 76ers hosted the No. 5 seed Toronto Raptors.
There were no real surprises in the first round of the playoffs, with the top four teams in each conference getting the necessary wins and eliminating the lower seeds.
In the Western Conference, No. 1 seed Phoenix Suns would face No. 4 seed Dallas Mavericks, while the No. 2 seed Memphis Grizzlies would host No. 3 seed Golden State Warriors.
The same situation happened in the Eastern Conference, where the top four seeds in the regular season all advanced from the first round. The No. 1 Miami Heat were set to face off with No. 4 seed Philadelphia 76ers, and the No. 2 seed Boston Celtics would host No. 3 seed Milwaukee Bucks.
NBA Conference Finals
The Dallas Mavericks stunned the NBA’s best-record holding Phoenix Suns, winning their series 4-2. The No. 3 Golden State Warriors also completed a mild upset by knocking off the No. 2 seed Memphis Grizzlies. It’d be the first time in recent memory that the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds would face each other in the Western Conference Finals to see who’d be playing for the NBA championship.
In the East, there were no surprises. The Miami Heat and Boston Celtics held court to set up a matchup between the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, with the winner headed for the NBA Finals.
The Golden State Warriors took little time knocking off the Dallas Mavericks, winning the Western Conference championship in five games. The Eastern Conference championship saw a more dramatic series. The Celtics battled the Heat for seven games before ultimately winning the Eastern Conference championship 4-3.
The Golden State Warriors went on to beat the Boston Celtics 4-2 to win their fourth NBA championship in eight years. The Warriors have truly etched their names into league history as one of the great dynasties of all time.
What Format Did the Play-In Tournament Replace?
Traditionally, the NBA Playoffs included the teams with the eight best records in the league in both the Eastern and Western Conferences.
Here’s an example of the previous playoff format illustrating the benefits of having a play-in tournament.
1998 Eastern Conference Standings
In the Eastern Conference in 1998, the seventh and eighth playoff seeds came right down to the wire. The New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets finished the season with identical 43-39 records, and a tie-breaker (who had more wins head-to-head) decided overall seeding.
The Washington Wizards and the Orlando Magic were also in contention into the final week of the season, just narrowly missing the playoffs.
- Chicago Bulls 62-20
- Miami Heat 55-27
- Indiana Pacers 58-24
- Charlotte Hornets 51-31
- Atlanta Hawks 50-32
- Cleveland Cavaliers 47-35
- New York Knicks 43-39
- New Jersey Nets 43-39
- Washington Wizards 42-40
- Orlando Magic 41-41
- Detroit Pistons 37-45
- Boston Celtics 36-46
- Milwaukee Bucks 36-46
- Philadelphia 76ers 31-51
- Toronto Raptors 16-66
Note that the Miami Heat had fewer wins than the Indiana Pacers but were seeded higher. Division winners got the top seeds despite the win-loss record, and since the Pacers were in the same division as the Bulls, they dropped down to the third seed.
1998 Western Conference Standings
The Western Conference final standings in 1998 are a good example of why the Play-In tournament in 2022 offers much more excitement late in the season.
- Utah Jazz 62-20
- Seattle Supersonics 61-21
- Los Angeles Lakers 61-21
- Phoenix Suns 56-26
- San Antonio Spurs 56-26
- Portland Trail Blazers 46-36
- Minnesota Timberwolves 45-37
- Houston Rockets 41-41
- Sacramento Kings 27-55
- Dallas Mavericks 20-62
- Vancouver Grizzlies 19-63
- Golden State Warriors 19-63
- Los Angeles Clippers 17-65
- Denver Nuggets 11-72
As you can see, the Western Conference playoff seeding one through eight was decided well before the end of the 1998 season. The West flexed its dominance over the East with a total of three teams boasting a 60+ win season.
After playing 82 games, the Sacramento Kings were a distant 14 games behind the eighth-seeded Houston Rockets. With the Play-In tournament, despite their woeful records, the Kings and Mavericks would have played each other in an elimination game with the winner facing the loser of a one-game playoff between the Timberwolves and Rockets.
More Teams Making the Playoffs Means More Revenue
In addition to making the race to the playoffs more exciting to fans with the new format, it also gives the ninth and 10th place teams a wild card shot to sneak into the postseason.
That means two more teams and cities are going to have the chance of capitalizing on ticket sales, concessions, and television rights that only help to bolster league revenue. If the Play-In tournament makes the league stronger, the new format will be here to stay.
NBA Playoff FAQs
Who has won the most NBA titles?
In 2022, the Golden State Warriors won their fourth championship in eight years, tying them with the Chicago Bulls with six total in franchise history. However, both of these great teams pale in comparison with the league’s two most storied franchises, the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, who have won 17 titles each.
Has the NBA Playoffs always been the best-of-seven format?
The first round in the NBA playoffs used to be a best-of-five format. In 2003, the league expanded to a best-of-seven format in the first round, the same format for all subsequent rounds including the finals.
Many fans may think changing the format of a great league isn’t necessary. Since NBA games and tournaments have worked for so long, why adjust them? But if tinkering can make the league better, then why not give it a try?
The play-in format was originally conceived to accommodate the shortened season in 2021. However, the format proved to be such a success that the league adopted the new rules for 2022 and beyond.
For the basketball fanatic, an additional number of NBA Playoff games will only lead to more excitement.