The Turkish Airlines EuroLeague is enjoying its closest playoffs race yet in the third year of its new 30-game regular season format.
After 25 rounds this season, three teams have clinched playoff berths and just three have been eliminated from contention. Additionally, only one more team has the possibility of advancing in Round 26. The real telling point is seen by looking a little lower in the standings, which shows six teams between sixth and 11th place separated by a single victory.
Interestingly, this is the third season of the current format and the third time that the team in eighth place has 13 wins with five games left to play. However, it's the first time that the sixth-place team has fewer than 14 victories. And never before has a ninth-placed team, let alone those in 10th and 11th place, been so close to sixth this deep into the season.
Over the past two seasons, the teams in the lower half of the playoff zone jockeyed for position down the stretch, but the gap between 11th place and sixth was four wins both years and between 11th and eighth was three. Now it is just one victory's difference, which means anything can happen in the last five rounds of the regular season.
Having six teams this season ranked from sixth through eleventh with either 13-12 or 12-13 records makes for 20 different combinations of which three teams can qualify for the playoffs. If we include 12th-placed Zalgiris Kaunas – whose 10-15 record still allows a chance for one last playoff push – the number of combinations of teams that can get into playoffs is 35.
In fact, Zalgiris has the best record historically among 12th-placed teams at this point in the season. It's closer now to sixth-placed KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz than 12th-placed teams stood from eighth place in either of the last two years at this moment.
What makes it even more interesting this season, in addition to the tight race, is that direct rivals are playing each other in each of the next four rounds.
AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan and Olympiacos Piraeus – both tied on victories with Baskonia – face each other this week. In the following round, 12-13 FC Bayern Munich faces Olympiacos, while 12-13 Panathinaikos OPAP Athens takes on Baskonia. In Round 28, Milan goes against Panathinaikos.
The closest playoffs race to date was in the 2015-16 season in Top 16 Group F. That format featured eight teams in a group, half of what we have today, and a total of 14 rounds during that stage. That particular group had five teams sitting at an even 6-6 record, fighting for two spots with two games to go. Nevertheless, despite having half the teams and fewer rounds, the majority of those Top 16 races were not nearly as close as the race we have this season, which is on pace to go down to the wire.