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The Scott Howard Principle (Suns Playoff Tiebreakers): Updated 4/19

It's that time of year again, and thanks to a (insert superlative here) stretch of play from your Phoenix Suns, a playoff spot is within reach. It is, however, a long reach from a precarious perch. There is a high likelihood at this point that at least two teams clustered between 6th and 10th place in the Western Conference will finish the season with identical records.

The following compilation will delve into how tiebreakers between the combatants closest to the Suns may ultimately decide seeding and entry into the playoffs. An understanding of how the tiebreakers influence the destiny of other teams is necessary to unveil Phoenix's kismet, but I will try to keep the topic as terse and transparent as possible while focusing the analysis towards the Suns.

Gambol forward if you're the gambling type. *Credit to Scott Howard for (the sapient) portions of the content.

Changes to the article below are in italics.

First let's take a look at the tiebreaker rules as they pertain to this examination courtesy of NBA.com. Click here for a full explanation.

a. Two Teams Tied

(1) Better winning percentage in games against each other

(2) Better winning percentage against teams in own division (only if tied teams are in same division).

(3) Better winning percentage against teams in own conference.

(4) Better winning percentage against teams eligible for playoffs in own conference (including teams that finished the regular season tied for a playoff position).

(5) Better winning percentage against teams eligible for playoffs in opposite conference (including teams that finished the regular season tied for a playoff position).

(6) Better net result of total points scored less total points allowed against all opponents ("point differential").

b. More Than Two Teams Tied

(1) Better winning percentage in all games among the tied teams.

(2) Better winning percentage against teams in own division (only if all tied teams are in the same division).

(3) Better winning percentage against teams in own conference.

(4) Better winning percentage against teams eligible for playoffs in own conference (including teams that finished the regular season tied for a playoff position).

(5) Better net result of total points scored less total points allowed against all opponents ("point differential").

These will guide us through the remaining determinations. Now let's look at the head-to-head records, as they comprise the first component of the tiebreaking procedure.

Dallas Mavericks

W

L

vs Denver

3

1

vs Phoenix

3

1

vs Houston

3

0

vs Utah

3

1

Phoenix Suns

W

L

vs Denver

0

2

1 remaining home

vs Houston

2

2

vs Utah

2

0

1 remaining away

Denver Nuggets

W

L

vs Houston

2

2


vs Utah

1

2

Houston Rockets

W

L

vs Utah

1

2


I listed Dallas first here for a conspicuous reason. They have dominated all their head-to-head match ups. They are actually 12-3 against the 4 teams directly behind them and 23-25 (a losing record) against the rest of the league combined. The reason this is important is because it means that Dallas owns the tiebreakers against all other teams behind them in every conceivable scenario (including three or more teams). This reason is why Dallas is a virtual lock to make the playoffs.

Now let's look at the Suns remaining head-to-head tiebreakers (since they've lost to Dallas). The Suns own the tiebreaker against Utah based on winning the season series. The Suns have lost the tiebreaker to Denver based on losing the season series.

But what about Houston? Since that is tied 2-2, the next relevant tiebreaker is conference record.

W

L

left

Denver

19

26

3

Houston

21

24

3

Phoenix

22

22

4

Utah

23

23

2

As we can see, Phoenix is presently a game and a half ahead of Houston. Based on their current positioning in the standings and games remaining, however, it can already be deduced (as Scott so perspicuously pointed out) that there is no endgame where the Suns make the playoffs with a worse conference record than the Rockets. Allow me to expound.

Let's imagine the Rockets win their last 3 conference games to finish 24-24. If the Suns tie them, it would mean the Rockets lost to Miami and the Suns went 3-1, finishing 25-23. The same dynamic holds true down the line. If the Suns finish tied with the Rockets they will win the tiebreaker.

Now let's play some more fascinating reindeer games. What happens in the case of three way ties?

Phoenix/Denver/Houston

Going back to the first tiebreaker we determine the records to be Phoenix 2-4 (1 left vs Denver), Denver 3-3 (1 left @ Phoenix), Houston 4-4.

The best Phoenix can finish is 3-4. To do this they would have to beat Denver, who would also finish 3-4, and the Suns would win the tiebreaker over them but lose to Houston. If Denver finishes 4-3 beating Phoenix, the Suns would be the odd man out.

Phoenix/Denver/Utah

Phoenix 2-2 (2 left, 1 vs Denver, 1 @ Utah), Denver 3-2 (1 left @ Phoenix), Utah 2-3 (1 left vs Phoenix).

The best Phoenix can finish is 4-2. If they do so they win the tiebreaker. If the Suns beat Denver and lose to Utah, they win the tiebreaker by virtue of conference records. If they lose to Denver and beat Utah, they will win the tiebreaker over Utah but lose to Denver. No matter what, the Suns make the playoffs here.

Phoenix/Houston/Utah

Phoenix 4-2 (1 left @ Utah), Houston 3-4, Utah 2-3 (1 left vs Phoenix)

The Suns own the tiebreakers over both of these teams in every scenario.

No four way breakdown (quite a few variables still)..... yet. We'll see if the situation dictates consideration closer to the finish line.

Here's the remaining schedule for the teams of interest.

Dallas Denver Houston Phoenix Utah
Thur Apr 19 @ Hornets vs Clippers
Fri Apr 20 vs Warriors
Sat Apr 21 @ Chicago @ Phoenix vs Warriors vs Denver vs Orlando
Sun Apr 22 vs Orlando @ Miami
Mon Apr 23
Tue Apr 24 @ Utah vs Phoenix
Wed Apr 25 @ Thunder vs Spurs
Thur Apr 26 @ Atlanta @ Minnesota vs Hornets vs Portland

I still included Dallas even though they are in the clear barring a monumental collapse (based on their golden parachute relative to tiebreakers).

The Suns aren't in the most bedraggled shape. The Suns control their own destiny and a 3-1 finish with a win over Utah all but ensures the 8 seed. While the Suns lose tiebreakers to their more distant targets, they own them against their primary adversaries for the 8 seed (Houston and Utah) which is a boon. They also fare pretty favorably in all the three team ties that could ensue.

So cheer up and cheer loud. This is going to be a whirling dervish of a race to the finish!

Phoenix/Dallas/Houston

Phoenix 3-5, Dallas 6-1, Houston 2-5.

Phoenix finished second in this tiebreaker behind Dallas.

Phoenix would also lose the three way tie with Dallas/Denver, but would beat out Utah in a three way tie with them and Dallas.

*Editor's note -- HarvMel has claimed credit (confirmed by brian13 - link below) for being the first to discover that the Suns owned the tiebreaker over Houston, but in the spirit of Christopher Columbus this discovery will furthermore be referred to as "The Scott Howard Principle."

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