Ever since the Utah Jazz lost in the second round of the playoffs last June after finishing the regular season with the NBA’s best record, a common thought among Jazz fans has been that it doesn’t matter where the team finishes in the standings this season as long as they make the postseason and get good matchups.
But as the Jazz have lost nine of their 13 games so far this month and stumbled to fourth place in the NBA’s Western Conference, how much has where a team is seeded for the playoffs mattered when it comes to making a run to the NBA Finals?
Obviously the higher a team is seeded, the easier the path to the Finals will theoretically be, but the numbers are still somewhat staggering as far as how hard it becomes to get there the lower the seed a team is.
Since 1983 when the playoff field expanded to its current number of 16 teams, there have been 12 instances (out of 39) of the top seed in both the Eastern and Western conferences making the Finals (although, perhaps interestingly, only twice since 2000).
Of the 54 participating Finals teams over the remaining 27 years, 18 were No. 1 seeds. That means that since 1983, 42 of the 78 teams (just under 54%) in the Finals have been No. 1 seeds.
Of the remaining 36 teams that have competed in the Finals since 1983, 22 were No. 2 seeds, eight were No. 3 seeds and three were No. 4 seeds (all of the 4 seeds have been since 2006 — the Dallas Mavericks that year, the Boston Celtics in 2010 and the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2018. None of them won the title).
That means that just three teams since 1983 have made the Finals as lower than a 4 seed. They were the sixth-seeded 1995 Houston Rockets (they beat the Jazz in the first round), the eighth-seeded 1999 New York Knicks and the fifth-seeded 2020 Miami Heat (that was in the bubble in Orlando).
In other words, as the standings are right now, it wouldn’t be a first if the Jazz made the Finals this season, but history is not on their side.
It should be noted that it has become much more common for the lower seeds to make the Finals over the last 20 years than it previously was, but still a much more difficult task than for higher seeds.
All of this is to say that much of the Jazz’s success or lack thereof in the playoffs this season will still likely come down to who they’re matched up against, but history is not very much on their side if they finish the regular season in the middle of the Western Conference like they’re currently on track to do.