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Wednesday, April 10, 2013
When seeds mislead

By Kevin Pelton

It's that time of year each spring where we try to figure out arcane formulas and do the math to determine what goes where. No, not tax season -- NBA playoff seeding.

When you look at the standings in the Western Conference, the Los Angeles Clippers show up fourth by virtue of winning their first Pacific Division championship on Sunday. However, that doesn't mean the Clippers will have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The NBA determines home court based on record, not seed, so the Clippers have to have a better record than the fifth seed -- either the Denver Nuggets or the Memphis Grizzlies -- to host Game 1 (and potentially Game 7).

If the season ended today, the Grizzlies would host the Clippers, with the Nuggets as the third seed. But the race is still close enough -- the Clippers are two games back of Denver, and 1.5 games back of Memphis -- that things could change between now and next Wednesday night.

And the Clippers have one trump card in their pocket. While the division championship doesn't guarantee the Clippers home court, the NBA automatically awards any tie to the division champ. So the Clippers have the tie-breaker with the Nuggets despite losing the season series, and will with the Grizzlies no matter the outcome of Saturday's fourth and final game between the teams in Memphis.

My playoff simulations take all of this into account, along with remaining schedules, and here's how often each scenario plays out:
Add it up and the Nuggets are by far most likely to finish third (67.5 percent), with the Grizzlies third 21.9 percent of the times and the Clippers just 10.6 percent of the time. But in that scenario, the Clippers have a better chance of hosting than Memphis because of the tie-breaker.

The team that finishes third will open at home against the Warriors or Rockets, who are in a dogfight of their own.

As much attention as we've understandably focused on the final playoff spot in the West, which team finishes eighth probably won't have much impact on the playoffs. The race for home court among the Clippers, Grizzlies and Nuggets, by contrast, could end up determining which teams end up advancing to the conference semifinals and beyond. So keep an eye on all three teams over the last week of the season and don't forget the rules that determine the race.