January 20 20 Calendar

TrueHoop Presents: How the NBA standings never change after Jan. 20

Hooray! Now that the NBA season is halfway through, it’s time to grab the popcorn, pull up a seat and watch the dramatic playoff races unfold, right? Um, not so much. Unlike the NFL, MLB and NHL, where playoff races are as exciting as the playoffs, all the jockeying for seeds in the NBA is pretty much done by the halfway point of the season. Since 1984, when the playoff field moved to 16 teams, 80 percent of the variability in the final standings can be explained purely by the standings today, on Jan. 20, (around the halfway mark of the season). Don’t believe us? Let’s roll out the data!

January  calendar -Calendar
January calendar -Calendar

Top 8 locked in (mostly)

The numbers reveal that if your team isn’t in the playoff picture by now, it very likely ain’t getting there by April. Consider: Over the past 10 full seasons, Eastern Conference teams go from non-playoff seeds on Jan. 20 to the playoffs about once per season. In the West, it’s even more of a rarity, a thing that happens less than once per season, and only four teams have pulled it off since the 2007-08 season. (Note: The lockout-shortened 2011-12 season is not included because it didn’t follow the usual 82-game progression.)

January  Printable Calendar  Free printable calendar
January Printable Calendar Free printable calendar

Change in seedings, past decade

Conference rankings, on Jan. 20 and at the end of the season. Hover to isolate teams.

January  Calendar - Free Printable with Holidays and Observances
January Calendar – Free Printable with Holidays and Observances


Western Conference teams per season to reach the playoffs after being ranked 9th or lower on Jan. 20


Eastern Conference teams per season to reach the playoffs after being ranked 9th or lower on Jan. 20

Still don’t believe it? Then look at the playoff field this time last season. Of the 16 teams in that field on Jan. 16, 2016, a whopping 15 made the playoffs. The lone exception? The injury-plagued Chicago Bulls. Late-season injuries to Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah doomed Chicago and opened the door for Charlotte to sneak in. And get this: On average, only 1.7 teams sneak into the playoffs that weren’t already there on Jan. 16. Even the seeds are remarkably identical. Golden State and Cleveland were the No. 1s on Jan. 20 last season. Didn’t change. San Antonio and Toronto were the No. 2s. Didn’t change. OKC was the No. 3 and the Clippers were the No. 4. Exactly where they were at the end of the season.

Path of a top seed

Stephen Curry and the 73-win Warriors spent last season chasing history, but their playoff seed was never in question. Golden State spent precisely one day as anything but a No. 1 seed in the West (Oct.. 30, 2015, and only because they were 1-0 while the Clippers were 2-0). That’s the fewest days outside the top spot for any top seed in the past decade. Here’s a day-by-day breakdown of the past 10 years’ worth of top seeds — note the early tumult and then the extended time on cruise control.

The blue line shows the top seed’s daily conference rank. The dotted line represents the approximate halfway point for each team (roughly Jan. 20). Hover for details.


’16 Cavaliers ’15 Hawks ’14 Pacers ’13 Heat ’11 Bulls ’10 Cavaliers ’09 Cavaliers ’08 Celtics ’07 Pistons ’06 Pistons


’16 Warriors ’15 Warriors ’14 Spurs ’13 Thunder ’11 Spurs ’10 Lakers ’09 Lakers ’08 Lakers ’07 Mavericks ’06 Spurs Result: more DNP-Rests

So the NBA season just drags on, each game from now to April meaning precious little. You know who has figured this out already? The coaches! As games begin to matter less and less, we see more and more DNP-Rests in March and April. Why risk injuries to star players like LeBron James if it’s not going to change their seeding even a little bit? Last season, there were 146 instances of DNP-Rest, nearly as many as the previous three seasons combined. This season? On pace to more than double that.

Leaguewide DNP-Rests by season

Yearly totals for all teams, past 10 full seasons. Hover to view totals.

What about the playoffs?

Looking at all playoff teams by how far they advanced and their conference seed on Jan. 20, it’s easy to get a clear idea of how rare it is for any team to come out of nowhere. Consider that 70 percent of NBA champions were No. 1 seeds halfway through the season. Compare that to NFL and MLB champions, whose percentages are 47 and 40, respectively. In other words, the NBA champion is about twice as predictable as its major-sport counterparts.

Remember the 2001 Patriots? They were a No. 10 seed in the AFC halfway through the season and then won the Super Bowl. That means that the No. 10 seed at the halfway point in the NFL is more likely to win the Super Bowl than the NBA’s counterpart is to win a conference semifinal. Or how about the 2010 San Francisco Giants? They were the No. 9 seed in the NL after Game 81 and then won the World Series. The 2010 Packers won the Super Bowl despite being a No. 6 seed, something that hasn’t happened in the NBA in the 21st century. Cinderella runs like this almost never happen in the NBA.

Sorted by playoff round reached, over the past 10 full seasons. Hover to isolate teams.

Won NBA title

Seventy percent of the time, the eventual champion has been a top seed as of Jan. 20. The past four title teams were all entrenched in the top spot by this date.

Reached Finals

The Cavaliers stormed all the way to the Finals in 2015 as a fifth seed, but that was due in large part to a Herculean effort by LeBron James (30.1 points per game, 37.6 usage rate).

Reached Conference Finals

A whopping 93 percent of teams to reach the NBA’s final four (37 of 40) were top-four seeds as of Jan. 20. Only exceptions: the 2008 Spurs, 2010 Suns and 2015 Cavaliers.

Reached Conference Semis

Sure, the 2007 Warriors and 2011 Grizzlies made heroic runs from 9th and 11th respectively to first-round upsets, but don’t hold your breath for that to happen again. Lightning strikes twice only so often.

Who has a shot?

The uncomfortable truth is that the second half of the NBA season is a three-month march to not get hurt. Most teams just want to hit the fast-forward button. Based on the charts above, here are the teams within range of reaching each level of the postseason:

CS – Conference semifinals; CF – Conference finals; F – Finals; C – Championship