OKC Thunder adversely affected by shift to win percentage tiebreaker

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander #2 of the OKC Thunder (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander #2 of the OKC Thunder (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images) /

The shift to utilize win percentage as the primary tiebreaker over season series winners adversely affects the OKC Thunder.

The NBA provided greater clarity on how final standings will be determined with win percentage being the primary determinant. This shift impacts the OKC Thunder more negatively than positively.

ESPN writer Tim Bontemps provides the details of the league’s decision. Teams will arrive in Orlando having played between 63 and 67 games and each will play eight ‘seeded’ games.

This means there will be an imbalance of total games played at season end. Although the expectation here was win percentage would play a factor it usurps season series winners.

Bontemps example was the Pelicans who swept the Blazers and in a tiebreak would not be credited for the sweep.

"Because the NBA chose to use winning percentage to break ties, if Portland has the same record as either New Orleans or Sacramento in Orlando — and, thus, the same number of games at or under .500 for the season — Portland will finish ahead of them despite having been swept by the Pelicans this season and having tied Sacramento."

If the Blazers have a greater overall win percentage or in the secondary tiebreak determinant has a better divisional win percentage they’ll be the higher seed.

How win percentage tiebreaker affects the OKC Thunder?

Our June 6th article ‘How high can OKC Thunder move up NBA standings in Orlando?‘ presumed winners of season series would be the first level to break ties. We also assumed a combination of divisional records and win percentage would be the second level used to break ties.

Instead, as per Bontemps, season series records will be used after record win percentage making some teams more difficult to pass.

Of the Thunder’s eight ‘seeded’ Orlando games four are versus the teams they are tightly grouped with (Jazz, Clippers, Nuggets x 2). If the Thunder wins all four of those matches they would also win the series versus the Jazz and Nuggets while tying the Clippers. In the games where the teams have played the same number of games that’s an advantage.

Put simply, at season end OKC could win or tie each of the seeds currently surrounding them from second through seventh. That said, winning remains the priority to bolster OKC’s win percentage.

The number of games played as of March 11th can work in a team’s favor or to their disadvantage. In terms of the six clubs seeded second through seventh four have played 64 games including the Thunder, Clippers, Rockets, and Jazz. Denver and Dallas have played 65 and 67 games respectively.

The first level of tiebreakers would then be overall record winning percentage. Divisional record win percentage would be used in instances where the season record is tied as the secondary tiebreaker. As of March 11th, this was each teams divisional record:

  • Clippers: 8-4 (1)
  • Nuggets: 10-1  (2)
  • Jazz: 5-5 (1)
  • Thunder: 7-4 (3)
  • Rockets: 7-4 (1)
  • Mavericks: 10-3 (1)

The bolded number in the brackets notes how many games the team will play versus divisional rivals in Orlando. With three divisional matches OKC could finish the season with a high of 10-4 a low of 7-7 and several iterations in between.

As per Bontemps article season series winners won’t be considered as the primary tiebreaker which will have the greatest impact in the series versus the Nuggets. That means the Thunder could win both games in Orlando versus Denver but if the Nuggets won the same number of games in Orlando they would have a better overall win percentage and therefore be the higher team in the standings.

The Jazz is the easiest team to pass on the ladder. Since they’ll play the same number of games if OKC can beat the Jazz in Orlando they will own the season series 2-1.  Then if the teams finish Orlando with an identical record and hence win/loss win percentage the Thunder will win the tiebreak.

OKC won the season series versus the Rockets and both teams have played 64 games heading into Orlando. As long as the Rockets don’t win more games in Orlando the Thunder will win that tiebreak.

More from Thunderous Intentions

This news means the games in Orlando matter much more than first imagined. Catching the Clippers was always a long shot. Before this change, those two matches versus the Nuggets made them a realistic target. They become slightly more difficult to catch now given the extra game they played (65) which will be reflected in the win percentage.

With three extra losses in the loss column and three extra games played to date, the Mavericks aren’t likely to catch OKC but their division win percentage will help them.

It still won’t be easy for Dallas to catch the Thunder or Rockets. For example, if OKC and Houston win five of their eight matches the Mavericks would need to win seven of their eight games to have a marginally better win percentage. If OKC wins six games the Mavericks would need to go unbeaten to pass them.

There are clear winners of these changes. Obviously the Lakers and Bucks hold large enough margins to ease into their seeded games and can afford multiple losses. Likewise, the Raptors, Celtics are likely locked in place. The Clippers and Nuggets as noted above will be difficult to catch but could switch places with each other.

The biggest winner may well be the fans since the fight for seeding in the middle of the bracket in the West and for the play-in seeds should equate to early, exciting matches.

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