It’s Time to Fix the NBA Playoffs. Here’s How.


The NBA playoffs are a mixed bag. At
their best, they feature the most talented players in the world facing off
in tight games with high stakes. But at their worst, they can be a two-month run
of lopsided series and tired rematches, culminating in a Finals that may or
may not even feature the two most deserving teams. It feels like there’s
always a debate lingering about whether the NBA should change its playoff format,
but the commonly suggested solution has its own flaws and probably won’t happen
anytime soon, anyway. So is there a better way to fix the NBA Playoffs? With the
current system, the NBA sees playoff rematches at a far higher rate than either the NFL or
the MLB. An extreme example is the 2002 NBA Playoffs, where the Lakers played the
exact same three Western Conference teams they had met the year before. Also
more common in the NBA are championship rematches and rematches and back-to-
back-to-back seasons. The recent Warriors -Cavs finals trilogy is an example of
both those things. But on top of that, the playoff racket is often unbalanced, with
some teams facing far easier paths than other, more deserving teams. For instance,
the 2015 Cavaliers had an easier path to the Finals than any team in the Western
Conference, despite finishing behind five of them in the standings. And in nearly
half of all the seasons since 2000, the teams with the two best records were in
the same conference and were therefore denied a chance to face each other on
basketballs biggest stage. Wo what’s the answer to all this? Well, first we need to
acknowledge that the best solutions will never happen.
The real answer would start with shortening the early playoff rounds and
the regular season, as well as reducing the number of playoff teams, but I sense
neither of those things will ever happen for SOME REASON. If anything, the NBA is
apparently looking at expanding the playoffs, which is a whole other topic.
Anyway, let’s limit our options to what at least might get approved by 20 out of
30 NBA owners, which means we can’t reduce the number of games, or teams, in
the playoffs. Now the commonly suggested solution that fulfills this criteria is
to just take the best 16 teams, regardless of conference, and seed them 1
through 16, like a quadrant of the March Madness bracket. NBA Commissioner Adam
Silver has even mentioned this as an option: [Silver] “Either the best 16 teams, or even
if we go 8 from the West, 8t from the East, seeding 1 through
16 going into the playoffs. And that is something that has gotten serious
attention.” At first this format looks pretty good. It produces a more balanced
bracket, it will always give the teams with the two best records a chance to
meet in the Finals, and the matchups are about as diverse as they can get, since
any team could match up against literally any other team in any round. A
version of this has worked recently in the WNBA, which since the change, has seen
two straight Finals between the Minnesota Lynx and the Los Angeles
Sparks, a matchup that could never have happened under a conference playoff
system. But the WNBA, with fewer teams, fewer games, and fewer decades of history,
faced far fewer obstacles and making the change than the NBA would. And the 1
through 16 format does have problems when you consider how it would work in
the NBA. As the league is currently constructed, the format would require
unfair comparisons between the records of teams in different conferences, who
have played very different schedules. You could fix this by doing away with
conferences altogether, but then you run into travel issues. A conference-less
82-game regular-season would increase travel significantly, especially for
teams on the coasts. And, in fact, even if you left the unbalanced schedule intact,
you would still have issues in the playoffs. Some teams would get lucky and
match up against nearby opponents, while others would be flying from coast to
coast for a month and a half in order to reach the Finals. Just this year, assuming
everything went according to seed, the Warriors would have to visit the Heat,
the Cavs, and the Raptors to make the Finals, while the Rockets would face the
Timberwolves, the Thunder, and the Celtics, covering less than half the distance the
Warriors would. You can imagine far worse scenarios. There are other logistical and
sentimental obstacles to the 1 through 16 system – from losing conference
traditions, to reducing local rivalries, to even just figuring out how the TV
schedules would work across time zones, there are a number of small but nagging
issues that make the transition difficult. Perhaps it could happen
someday, but Silver has made clear that for the moment, the NBA is sticking with
two conferences. So with both the current system and the 1 through 16 system
showing some flaws, let me propose a third, hybrid option. I believe this has
the best of both systems and is a relatively small shift that, if
successful, could potentially serve as a stepping stone for more dramatic changes
later on. Here’s the format: the first round plays out exactly as it does now –
eight teams advance from each conference and match up against other teams in
their own conference, highest seed versus lowest seed, and so on. Then, in the second
round, teams match up against the team in the other conference, so the winner of
the Western 1 – matchup plays the winner of the Eastern 4 – 5 matchup;
the winner of the Eastern 2 – 7 matchup plays the winner of the Western 3 – 6
matchup, and so on. After that, matchups depend on who advances, but if
the top seeds win every series, the Western 1 seed would face the Eastern 2
seed in one semifinal, and the Eastern 1 seed would face the Western 2 seed in
the other. In other words, the format is the same as the current system, except
every other first round series gets flipped to the opposite side of the
bracket. This is a way to get inter-conference playoff matchups, but with a
relatively minor impact on the league as a whole. It would add a little bit of
extra travel during the playoffs, but far less overall than a 1 through 16 system
would require, since you don’t have to change the first round or the regular
season at all. Less than half of the series every season would be inter-
conference matchups, and critically, it would also spread the travel more evenly.
Every team would have to travel to the other conference at least once, but no
more than twice, to reach the finals. In the same way, it would also create a more
balanced bracket than the current system, because a team from an ostensibly weaker
conference would have to prove itself by beating at least, one and likely two,
teams from the other conference before reaching the finals. And whether the top
two teams are in the same conference or not, they will always be on opposite
sides of the bracket, and therefore have a chance to meet in the Finals. The
format would also create more diverse matchups in both the early rounds and
the Finals. Rematches would be a lot less likely to happen year after year if the
potential matchups in the first and second rounds were totally different, and
the teams that met in the Finals last year could very well meet in an earlier
round this year. Finally, the system would have the happy side effect of making the
regular season a little more important. There are only a few teams in each
conference who have a realistic chance of making the Finals, and as it stands now,
exactly where these top teams finish in the standings does very little to change
who they will have to beat to get there. But in the hybrid system, every spot a
team climbs in the standings would change every single matchup they’d see
in the playoffs. Like any system, the hybrid playoff system
is not perfect, but it’s a better balance, between fair brackets and even travel,
fresh matchups and preserved traditions. It’s a change that can easily be
implemented now, and it would lay the groundwork for more tinkering down the
road. Inter-conference playoff systems can work, and it’s high time the NBA took
the leap.

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