First 25 Games of the NBA Season are a Good Indicator of Who Makes Playoffs


The NBA regular season can be a tough sell on fans because at 82 games, does what happens in November and December really matter that much? The answer is actually yes. Going back the last five years, the 25-game mark has been crucial in the league, because if you’re not at or near the top of the conference, your chances of getting to the conference finals are limited.

For the sake of this article, I went with records by December 6 for the 2017-2018 season, so approximately in the 23-25 games played range for all teams, and compared it to similar points in previous seasons. Here is a look at the last five years data:

So what does this all mean? Historically speaking:

  • On average, 6.4 teams make the playoffs in the East if they are in playoff position at this mark, and an even greater 7.2 from the West. Overall, 85% of the teams in playoff position at the 25-game mark would go on to make the postseason.
  • Teams that finish first after 25 games have gone onto make the Conference Finals (CF) or the Finals (F) in every year. 13-14: Thunder and Pacers both made the CF. 14-15: Warriors made the CF and F. 15-16: Cavaliers and Warriors made CF and F. 16-17: Cavaliers and Warriors again both made CF and F. 17-18: Celtics and Rockets made CF.
  • On average, the furthest team out that has made the playoffs after the 25 game mark has been 1.5 games in East and 1 game in West. This is bad news for the Houston Rockets, who after the drubbing they took at the hands of the Jazz tonight, are now 1.5 games out. Yes, Houston, we have a problem.
  • The furthest back somebody has come from outside the 8 seed is three games out of playoff position at this point in any of the last 5 seasons.
  • The furthest anybody has dropped is from three games ahead of the 9 seed, to out of the playoffs.

How does this translate to the current season?

  • In the East, only two teams are within striking range of jumping in, while two are in range of falling out.
  • In the West, the San Antonio Spurs and Rockets are 2 games out of 8th spot. That means we have six teams that are currently outside the top 8 that are still in striking distance of a playoff spot.

If this season plays out like it has in years past, the 1-4 seeds in the West — Denver Nuggets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, and the Golden State Warriors — will make it to the playoffs for sure, while spots 5-8 are within the range of falling out. Because of how bunched up the West is, everyone besides the Phoenix Suns still has a shot at the playoffs.

In the East, seeds 1-6 — Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, and the Boston Celtics — would be in, with the 7 and 8 seeds still within range of falling out. This would eliminate three teams, the Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, and Atlanta Hawks.

This data set gives us a good indicator as to who is going to be in the playoffs, and who is on their way to making the conference finals. If history repeats itself, the Warriors and Raptors should be on their way there.

Will this be the year that bucks this trend? Considering the amount of parity in both conferences this season, this post will be fun to revisit once the season ends.