The current WNBA playoff format and structure, vastly different from the NBA playoffs, has been in effect since 2016.
Over the years, the league's playoff format, along with the system of qualifying to the postseason has changed.
Here's a breakdown of the current playoff structure and how things have changed from the previous norms.
Qualification and tiebreakers
Under the new format, the top eight teams irrespective of conference qualify for the postseason.
If two teams were tied with the same record at the regular season, the tiebreaker procedure involves (as per WNBA):
- Better head-to-head record
- Better winning percentage against all teams with .500 or better record at the end of the season.
- Better point differential in games net result of total points scored less total points allowed head-to-head.
- Better point differential net result of total points scored less total points allowed against all opponents.
If more than two teams are tied with the same record, as many teams as possible will be eliminated at each step. As soon as one or more teams are eliminated at any step, the above-mentioned tiebreakers are valid.
Structure and format
Under the current structure and format of the WNBA playoffs, the top two teams in the league - irrespective of the conference - get a double-bye to the Best-of-5 Semifinals, the third of four rounds. At the end of each round, the teams are re-seeded in the likelihood of an upset.
The third and fourth seed overall receive a bye to the single-game elimination second-round. In the second round, the No. 3 seed hosts the lowest-seeded first-round winner and the No. 4 seed hosts the other first-round winner.
In the single-game elimination second round, the No. 5 seed hosts the No. 8 seed and the No. 6 seed hosts the No. 7 seed.
In the end, the WNBA Finals - similar to the Semifinals - are a best-of-five series.
History of the qualification system
Prior to 2016, the WNBA format was similar to that of the NBA with a said number of top teams qualifying from each conference.
2000 - 2015
Over a 15-year period from 2000 to 2015, the number of teams varied from 12 to 16, but the seeds to qualify remained the same - Top 4 in each conference.
The number of teams in the league increased to 12, which brought about a change in the qualification rules.
The top three teams from each conference qualified to the postseason with each conference's top seed getting a bye to the Conference Finals.
1997 - 1998
In the inaugural season of the league, there were only eight teams in the league and the top four teams, irrespective of conference, were seeded 1-4 and the regular bracket format ensured with the playoff semifinals and WNBA Finals being a single game.
In 1998, the league's second season, the number of teams increased to 10 but the format and qualification system remained the same.
Previous structure and format
2000 - 2015
In this 15-year period, there were no byes. The top four teams were seeded in a bracket format, similar to the NBA. The first (Conference Semifinals) and second (Conference Finals) rounds were a Best-of-three series while the WNBA Finals were a Best-of-five series.
From 200 to 2004, even the WNBA Finals were a Best-of-three series.
In the 1999 season, the Conference Finals and WNBA Finals were a Best-of-three series.
The single-game elimination Conference Semifinals are played between the second and third seeds of each conference, the winner of which face that conference's top seed.
1997 - 1998
The qualification and postseason format remained the same in the first two years of the league. The only difference being in 1997, the Semifinals and WNBA Finals were a single-game elimination, whereas in 1998, both rounds were a Best-of-three.
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