How to fix the NBA Playoffs

by

I spoke last season about how the NBA Playoffs, in my opinion, is the best and fairest system of all the major sports in terms of determining who the best team in the world is. In the NFL it’s a single elimination tournament, which while is fun and unpredictable, too many “fluke” plays can happen in one game. In the MLB we have 7 game series, but with pitcher rotations, we (at most) see the best pitchers for each team 3 times in a series. In the NHL, we also have 7 game series, but these are often dominated by a hot goalie. In basketball, we get the best players (barring injury) for the duration of the series and no position is more important than any other on the court. If a power forward is dominant, they can impact the game just as much as a point guard. We almost always see the better team winning the series (with the exception of the Kings Vs Lakers in 2002 and Spurs Vs Suns in 2007)

So let me make this clear, the system itself doesn’t have to change (apart from reseeding if a top seed gets dropped in the first round). It’s the qualification process needs an overhaul. Ever since Jordan retired in 1998, the Western conference has been head and shoulders above the Eastern conference. Now I fully understand that all leagues endure this at some point, and eventually they usually balance out. But we’re talking about a time period of 16 years now. It is completely unfair to the teams in the West that would qualify easily for the playoffs if there wasn’t idiotic geographical conferences have to sit and watch as teams like Atlanta (or Milwaukee last season) get swept.

But it’s easy to complain about it. How about we fix it? Right now, we have a very simple (yet flawed) system. Top 8 teams from each conference make it. Seeding is determined by higher number of total wins of the 3 division winners and the team with the 4th best record (so a division winner can’t be below the 4th seed, and two teams from one division could be the 1st and 2nd seed, hypothetically). Then the 5th to 8th seeds are determined by wins in the regular season. Home court advantage in each series is determined by wins as well, and not seeds. This is why in 2006 we saw The Clippers have home court advantage over The Nuggets despite Denver being the 3 seed and L.A. being the 6th.

It’s pretty straight forward. But it needs to change. This is what I propose:

Abolish the Eastern and Western Conferences entirely. They’re not needed and do not serve any purpose whatsoever. Do you really think Laker fans will be cheering for Houston if they make the finals and play Indiana in the finals because they’re from the West? Of course not. I hate to tell the NBA this, but there are no fans of the Eastern or Western conferences specifically. There are fans of the game, and teams, and players, but not the conferences. No one cares.

Now I get that travel is was an issue in the NBA up until the early 90’s, but every team has its own chartered plane. If Miami plays Sacramento in the first round, sure, that’s an extra hour in the sky. Whoop-de-do-dah. These guys are professional athletes, and if they can handle thousands of fans yelling at them when they’re shooting free throws, they can deal with being in a plane for an extra hour. But if we want to stick with this argument, then what happens when Los Angeles plays Oklahoma? That is a longer flight then say, Chicago to San Antonio. Do we cancel the Thunder vs. Lakers series just because of flight times? I don’t think so. As I said before, they can handle it.

So before we make changes, what needs to stay?

Divisions. Rivalries, whilst not as extreme when compared to the NFL or MLB, definitely exist in the NBA. Most of them stem from the playoffs themselves, but some of them are the result of close they are geographically. The Rockets, Spurs and Mavericks all hate each other. The Clippers and Lakers, along with Brooklyn and New York, also have great regular season games. These need to be protected with divisions. So I suggest keep the divisions, and bump them up to 6 regular season contests between teams within the division each year. That will be a total of 24 division games for each team. Then have 2 games against every other team (a home and away), which will account for 50 total games. That brings the number to 74 games. Some fans have been calling for a reduction of the NBA season, and this could be a good opportunity to try it. If not, those 8 games won’t be too hard to fill out. Just play an additional game against another division and then you’re up to 79, and suddenly we’re only 3 games away from the magical 82 number. The league could use those 3 games and play them internationally to help grow the game in Europe or Asia or South America.

Division winners need to be assured a playoff spot (but not a seed) to ensure there is a reward for each winning that division. After those 6 spots are allocated, then it is a free for all. We’d have the same system in place (16 teams, 8 on each side), but here’s the balance would be better. Let’s have a look at the first round this year if we had this system:

1st Round

#1 Spurs vs #16 Bobcats

#2 Thunder vs #15 Wizards

#3 Clippers vs #14 Nets

#4 Pacers vs #13 Phoenix

#5 Heat vs #12 Chicago

#6 Rockets vs #11 Raptors

#7 Blazers vs #10 Memphis

#8 Warriors vs #9 Mavericks

Then in the next round, assuming there are no upsets, we would get:

The Spurs vs Golden State

Pacers vs Miami

Thunder vs Portland

Rockets vs Clippers

The way things are shaping up now, we’re likely to get Toronto or Chicago in the second round. I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer a system that rewards better teams advancing rather than sticking to a geographical system that makes no sense at all. So why not try a new system? If it screws up, then we can always change it back. And if you’re wondering how it would affect the All Star Weekend, well I wrote an article on how to fix that as well. This is all about getting the best product on the floor, and not sticking to some outdated tradition which is hindering the game.