With 10 teams still in the running for seven playoff spots and six of them also eligible for top-four positions and home-court advantage, the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague is barreling towards the postseason with even more dramatic suspense than ever expected in the last 10% of the regular season.
Round 31 had the potential to create some separation in the standings, but TD Systems Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz and Valencia Basket notched victories over 19-win AX Armani Exchange Milan and FC Bayern Munich respectively, earning their 17th wins and further complicating the playoff the picture in the process. With only 3 games remaining in the 2020-21 Regular Season, shockingly little is set in stone.
If it feels like things are more up in the air than usual, it is because they absolutely are. The table above provides an overview of the standings with three games remaining in each season played under the modern EuroLeague format. For the shortened 2020 season, the standings through Round 28 that were used, coincidentally, still fit in nicely. The table highlights the number of teams already qualified for the postseason and the number of victories behind or above the baseline eighth and final playoff spot (EVEN) THAT each team was at this point in each season. As such, the table shows how many teams were in the playoff picture and what they had to gain if things broke their way down the stretch.
Remarkable, too, is the inversion of qualified teams to those still fighting for the playoffs between the first two seasons and this one. That's due to a steady growth of stronger teams staying alive despite a longer season – from three the first season to four the second, eight in the last two, and now 10, even though the first 90% of the games have been played.
At this point in the average season, at least five teams are usually qualified for the postseason — often by a comfortable margin. It took just 28 games to reach that point last year. This season, only FC Barcelona has punched a ticket to the playoffs this season, and that didn't happen until Round 29. By Round 31 last week, Barca had clinched a top-four finish, as well, guaranteeing home-court advantage. Three victories clear of the field at this stage, Barca is the only team running out of things to gain in the coming weeks.
While the group of playoff contenders has crystalized some over the last two weeks with several teams falling out of contention, Round 31 created unprecedented gridlock as to the order of the top half of the standings. With at least six and as many as nine teams still in position to vie for home-court advantage in the playoffs, this season has built on the promise of the 2019-20 campaign, which was poised to feature a wild battle for the final playoff spots. Since the EuroLeague expanded to 18 teams, competition has become increasingly fierce, and while last season featured tremendous balance outside of the top five teams, in this one that parity has seeped towards the top of the standings.
Looking ahead to Round 32
Here are the number games remaining for each between the 11 teams still competing for a playoffs berth, home-court advantage, or both:
3 each, Anadolu Efes Istanbul, FC Bayern Munich, Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul,
2 each: FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, TD Systems Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz.
1 each: CSKA Moscow, AX Armani Exchange Milan, Zenit St Petersburg, Valencia Basket, Zalgiris Kaunas
That parity figures to offer all teams a major test down the stretch as three of the top six teams in the standings at present will play their final three games against other playoff contenders. If Round 31 suggested anything, it was that the teams in position to get home-court advantage will really have to earn it as there is a real possibility that Round 32 does nothing to clear up the gridlock. With three of the teams on or behind the eighth and final playoff spot (Valencia, Zalgiris and Zenit) each playing just one of the other 11 the rest of the way, this regular reason has the potential to provide a historically exciting conclusion.