Fixing the NBA Playoffs: Redeux

Word around the campfire suggests that the NBA is looking into ideas of how to tweak their playoffs, as early as this season when play resumes July 31st. Could the solution be this simple?

I wrote a few seasons ago about how the first round of the NBA Playoffs didn’t matter. That ultimately, every champion always comes down to a team seeded 1-4, from each conference:

Just look at the history of the Finals and who has actually gotten to compete for a championship (I will spare you all of the repeat Warriors vs. Cavaliers series, which have all been #1 vs. #1 or #2):

2014 – #1 San Antonio Spurs vs. #1 Miami Heat

2013 – #2 San Antonio Spurs vs. #1 Miami Heat

2012 – #2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. #2 Miami Heat

2011 – #3 Dallas Mavericks vs. #2 Miami Heat

2010 – #1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. #4 Boston Celtics

2009 – #1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. #3 Orlando Magic

2008 – #1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. #1 Boston Celtics

2007 – #3 San Antonio Spurs vs. #2 Cleveland Cavaliers

2006 – #4 Dallas Mavericks vs. #2 Miami Heat

2005 – #2 San Antonio Spurs vs. #2 Detroit Pistons

2004 – #2 Los Angeles Lakers vs. #3 Detroit Pistons

I then hastily proposed that the league should only allow four teams to compete in the NBA Playoffs. I had the right idea, but it was a bad decision. In my defense, I was so sick of watching the first round of the 2018 Playoffs, I’m surprised I didn’t propose something more drastic.

To their credit, the NBA at least recognizes that their playoff format is broken, because in November, they announced that they are toying with ways to fix it. Of the proposed “sweeping, dramatic changes to the league calendar”, the league will entertain ideas that include:

  1. A reseeding of the four conference finalists
  2. A 30-team in-season tournament
  3. A post-season play-in

Since the NBA abruptly ended their season this past March, The Ringers’ own Kevin O’Connor has recently written why he believes a new proposed idea involving a World Cup style Group Selection could work in place of the current playoff structure.

Now, let me explain to you why each idea is stupid:

  1. Reseeding – A reseeding doesn’t change the fact that only four teams from each conference matter. And can you imagine how many games the Los Angeles Clippers would have Kawhi Leonard sit if their chances broaden from a one in eight chance of making the playoffs to one in sixteen? My guess is half of the season.
  2. Mid-season tournament – No matter what the prize is, you’re never going to convince any NBA player that this in-season tournament is worth even a fraction of what a NBA championship means to them.
  3. Post-season play-in – Yes, let’s all waste more of our time watching two shitty teams compete to find out who will be eliminated by the #1 seeds. Please, another post-season delay is just what the doctor ordered.
  4. Group selection – Soccer is crooked. Do you honestly believe that those groups are “randomly selected”? The NBA already has enough conspiracy theories to deal with during their playoffs and draft lottery. They don’t need to add group selections to the mix.
I’m stubborn and your tone comes off pushy. How do you know reseeding will suck? Sounds like a good idea to me

Well, you’re not alone. ESPN explains why reseeding might not be such a bad idea:

The reseeding of teams in the semifinal round based on regular-season record could give the NBA a championship series that includes its best two teams. The WNBA has been seeding teams in the playoffs without regard to conference for several seasons.

Is this what it’s come to? The NBA needs to follow the WNBA’s blueprint for success?

And how’s that working out for them, anyway?

OK, you’re right. Reseeding is stupid, but what other options does the NBA have?

Well, there are other professional sports leagues that exist, besides the WNBA. We have the NFL and MLB to analyze, and both leagues already understand how badly their fans want to get to the meat and potatoes of their playoffs. Let’s start by looking at the NFL first, since they are arguably the most successful league in American sports:

The NFL Playoffs seed one through four, with each conference’s four division winners earning a home playoff game. The top two seeds earn a bye week, and the bottom two seeds must play a wild card game against the next two best teams from the conference.

Why is this better?

Making the division title mean something helps promote healthy rivalries among the teams in your division. Look at the 2019 NFC East. Yes, they were all very shitty, but one of those sorry sacks was going to earn a home playoff game. How much more do you think the Cowboys hate the Eagles, with Philadelphia having dashed Dallas’ chances of hosting a wild card game?

I have been watching the Los Angeles Lakers for nearly 30 years, and I can honestly say I barely have any idea who is in their division. I know the answer, but only because I was preparing to write this post. Think of your favorite team, right now. Do you know who is in your division? Do you even know how many teams should be in your division?

There’s something very wrong with that. As a Lakers fan, yes, I should hate the Boston Celtics, but I should also hate the Phoenix Suns, the LA Clippers, the Sacramento Kings, and the Golden State Warriors, just as much. The Lakers had some great playoff series against the Suns and Kings, sure, but we all shouldn’t have to wait until the playoffs to start hating each other. Every fan base deserves to have a healthy rivalry with another team, as it helps keep the regular season interesting, and keeps you more involved.

What if a team wins their division but another team was better than them?

That’s what the wild card is for. Two teams that didn’t win their division get their chance to prove that they belong.

The NFL might have the playoffs figured out, but you have one problem: The NFL has four divisions per conference, and the NBA only has three. Now what?

This is a problem. There are 32 teams in the NFL (two conferences with four divisions of four teams each), while the NBA only has 30 (two conferences with three divisions of five teams each). I guess the NBA could expand to 32 teams, but, if you’ve been following my blog, then you also know how much I hate that idea.

This is when we need to look at the MLB. The MLB is also smart enough to use a wild card to determine a playoff team, but because there are only 30 teams in the league, they had to change their format a bit:

The MLB seeds teams one through three, much like the NBA would need to do; however, they take the next two best teams, and have them play a wild card game to decide who will play the #1 seed in the divisional series (first round) of their league’s playoffs. Each divisional series is a best of five, and the wild card game is a win-or-go-home.

How would this format work in the NBA?

Let’s take a look at the current division races, and how the NBA playoffs would seed if no additional regular season games are played (via Basketball Reference):

Western Conference

  1. LA Lakers (.778)
  2. Denver Nuggets (.662)
  3. Houston Rockets (.625)

Wild card game: Utah Jazz (.641) at LA Clippers (.688). Winner plays Lakers.

In the hunt: OKC Thunder (.625), Dallas Mavericks (.597)

Eastern Conference

  1. Milwaukee Bucks (.815)
  2. Toronto Raptors (.719)
  3. Miami Heat (.631)

Wild card game: Indiana Pacers (.600) at Boston Celtics (.672). Winner plays Bucks.

In the hunt: Philadelphia 76ers (.600)

Did you know that last season (2019), the Orlando Magic won their division? No, of course you didn’t, because in today’s NBA, it doesn’t mean anything to win your division. What did their grand achievement end up earning them? A seventh seed and a first round best of seven against the second seeded Toronto Raptors. Congratulations!

In my NBA, the Orlando Magic would have earned three seed, automatically propelling them to a divisional championship series, and a best of five with the second seeded Toronto Raptors.

That doesn’t sound like a big difference

Yes, I understand that the Magic would end up losing in five games to the Raptors anyways, but does anyone remember them winning Game 1 in Toronto? In a five game series, that victory would have went from, “Oh that’s cute,” to “Oh shit, Toronto better get their fucking shit together or fucking Orlando of all teams is advancing to the Conference Finals!”

Maybe free agents could have viewed Orlando as a signing destination, particularly after Kawhi Leonard signed with the Clippers, thinking that they could have been the missing piece to launch the team into the Finals? Maybe, by simply continuing to win their shitty division and making the playoffs each year, they could have been a legit Eastern Conference contender? Instead, we all forgot, and Orlando goes back to being just another basketball wasteland.

Again, the importance of finishing first in your division helps promote healthy rivalries, as it guarantees you a spot in the playoffs. Because, if the division matters, then the standings matter. And if the standings matter, then the regular season matters.

And something must be done. As previously mentioned, there are currently 32 teams in the NFL, and 30 in both the MLB and NBA. At the end of each league’s season, the NFL allows twelve teams into their playoffs, the MLB allows eight, and the NBA inexplicably allows sixteen (!). It’s no wonder that the good teams believe they can rest their stars for the playoffs. When you have a one in eight chances (per conference) of making them, there really is no sense of urgency.

The Clippers chose to sit Kawhi thirteen games during the 2019-20 season because they knew seeding didn’t matter, and that even at their worst, they would still be one of the eight teams in the Western Conference playoffs. Now imagine that if the Clippers don’t win their division, they must play a one-game wild card to simply qualify for the playoffs. Considering that the Lakers would have won the Pacific Division – edging the Clippers by 5.5 games – to guarantee themselves a playoff seed, do you think Kawhi still sits out all of those games? Suddenly every game matters, particularly games against teams from your division, when you have an opportunity to gain a full game on the other in the all important division standings.

And how much fun would a wild card game be on a Thursday and Friday before the new Divisional Championship weekend opener? This is what makes March Madness so fun, in that the NCAA skips to Game 7 for every matchup. A Jazz at Clippers Wild Card game is infinitely much more exciting than a seven game series. Because in seven games, the Clippers would be heavy favorites. In a one game wild card? It’s not so certain anymore. One bad game from anyone can change their team’s fortunes for the season.

Another benefit my wild card idea gives is that only ten teams (five per conference) will have a chance to participate in the playoffs, trimming the fat that’s currently visible within the NBA’s structure. By moving to a play-in wild card game, it allows us to skip the boring first round of NBA playoffs, and avoid watching (at minimum) four unnecessary games from teams like the Brooklyn Nets, Orlando Magic, and Memphis Grizzlies, who have no realistic chance of hoisting up the Larry O’Brien trophy anyways.

Having said all of that, I don’t think the NBA will adopt this idea. If you’re a loyal reader of mine, you’d probably agree with me that I don’t think the NBA cares much for any of my ideas. My belief is that the league is more focused on their bottom line (money) than on the degenerating product they’re putting out. With only a maximum of 43 games, my idea sounds like a lot of fun, but would definitely net the league a lot less revenue than any of the four above ideas, or even the current playoff structure in place. That’s why what they think doesn’t matter much to me.

I’d rather hear from you, my readers. What do you think? Would you like to see a Wild Card game determine the fourth seed opponent of each conferences number one seed in a best of five Divisional Championship series? Do you have any ideas of your own that you’d like to share? Leave a comment and I’ll be sure to reply to it.

And if you like my idea, share this blog post with as many people as you can. Let’s see if we can get Commissioner Dan’s idea into the hat.

Especially since the other ideas are terrible.

And I mean it, leave a comment for me because as of this writing, this is the only way you will be able to connect with me. I have officially broken up with Twitter. It wasn’t necessarily the people, there are some great basketball heads out there, but the timeline was too much to bear. I have been force-fed way too many videos of people being murdered, having sex, and more unwanted nonsense, warranting their appearance with “because you follow so-and-so”, and I have no idea why as my interests are only basketball! It was really quite unbelievable, and I hope you all understand why I won’t be returning. If I do make a return to social media, rest assured I will make you all aware at the bottom of one of my posts.

Thanks again for taking time out of your day to read my blog! I like to write, but it’s the clicks I see my blog generating that keeps me coming back.

Author: Commissioner Dan

Unofficial-next-commissioner of the NBA. Covering all things pro basketball (mostly Lakers), even if it's not like it was in the '90's.

2 thoughts on “Fixing the NBA Playoffs: Redeux”

  1. Even if that was the worst idea ever, I’d still be down for it. The current playoffs go on for way too long. At the very least, round 1 should be best of 3.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah I guess the silver lining here is that we’re all in agreement that something needs to be done. I’m just afraid that the NBA is fine with a longer schedule, since it means more $


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