Welcome to parity, the goal of all great sports leagues.
Since the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague moved to a round-robin system five years, never has the race to reach the playoffs been so close as it is right now.
This week, FC Barcelona can become this season’s first playoffs qualifier after 29 games if it beats archrival Real Madrid on the road on Thursday and if either Zalgiris Kaunas or Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul lose their games on Friday.
Should that happen, 83% of this season’s 306 regular season games will have passed before a first playoff team is known, which amounts to a record for prolonged playoff-chasing drama.
In the first season under the new format, CSKA Moscow qualified after 80% of the games were played, at the start of Round 25 in a 30-game regular season. Real Madrid and Olympiacos Piraeus followed by the end of that round, by which time 83% of the games were complete.
In the 2017-18 season, CSKA Moscow became the first qualifier in the opening game of Round 23, with just 73.7% of that regular season completed.
The next year, Fenerbahce Istanbul did it sooner, in Round 22, with just 72.5% of the season gone.
And last season, Efes was through with just 67.9% of all games played, in Round 24 of the new 34-game regular season, although the last six rounds were eventually canceled with the rest of the season due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Seen at another way, by this time last season, under the same 34-game format, five teams were already qualified for the playoffs after 28 rounds. In the three seasons before that, with just 30 games in the regular season, there were between five (2018-19) and seven teams (2016-17 and 2017-18) qualified after 28 rounds.
If you look at qualifications after 83% of the games played, which is the soonest that Barcelona can qualify this season, there were already three playoffs-bound teams in 2016-17, three in 2017-18, three in 2018-19 and five in 2019-20. This season, at least 87% of this season’s games will have to be completed before at least three teams can qualify.
So if you came late to the dance in the EuroLeague this season, you are in luck, because the last 15% of the regular season is due to decide at least seven of the eight playoff spots. What’s more, the first team with all-important home-court advantage in the best-of-five playoffs – which goes to the top four teams and converts, historically, into a three-in-four chance of reaching the Final Four – is unlikely to be known until at least Round 31.
The message is clear. Hold onto your hat, because the tightest playoffs race in modern EuroLeague history is going down to the wire. Parity rules!