How to Improve the NBA Postseason

USA TODAY Sports

The NBA postseason is the most wonderful time of year for many basketball fans. Can it be even better?

Edited by Tiffany Villigan

If you’re a fan of NBA basketball, it is the most wonderful time of the year. After five and a half months of blood, sweat, tears, flops, benchings, firings, and Shaqtin-a-Foolings, we bid farewell to the regular season. We bid farewell to the rebuilding/tanking teams, the aging teams, the dysfunctional teams, and the Los Angeles Lakers. Finally, we get to welcome the main event.

Hello Playoffs.

The playoffs give us a chance to watch only the best of the best. It excites us every game and every day, keeping us at the edge of our seats from tip-off until when the clock hits zero. Every series is a championship series, as any team can win and anything can happen. No matter what happened in the regular season, the playoffs allow us to believe that every team has a chance to lift up the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end.

Or at least that’s how we would like to think of the playoffs.

The truth is, as exciting as the postseason is, it can also be kind of a bore. It can provide some unnecessary games that are more of formalities rather than actual competition. Do we really care to see a best-of-seven series between a 60-win team and a losing one? Also, let’s face it, the NBA playoffs last too long. Way too long.

This isn’t to say that I think the NBA playoffs are in need of a major overhaul. Among all the problems facing the sports world, this isn’t at the forefront. Still, I think the basketball postseason could use some tinkering. I like to think of it more as reform than anything revolutionary.

Extend the regular season.

The first change I would make relates to the regular season rather than to the postseason. I would extend the season by four games. I know, an 86-game season feels kind of weird. It just doesn’t seem right. To find a time when teams didn’t play 82 games (with the exception of strike-shortened years), one would have to go back to the 1966-67 season. To put it in perspective, the now deceased Wilt Chamberlain won MVP that year.

A slightly longer season makes sense to me, though. For one, more games provides a larger sample to accurately gauge a team’s ability. A lot can happen in just four games, and being able to sustain success for just a little while longer can really distinguish one team from another.

The primary reason I arrived at an 86 game season, however, comes from the want of more equal competition. Right now, every team plays opponents in the opposing conference twice, but plays teams within their conference either three or four times. This provides a degree of inequality in a team’s strength of schedule which, when considering playoffs may come down to a single game, shouldn’t be a factor. If every team plays each team within its conference exactly four times, the influence of scheduling is removed from the equation.

Reduce the number of teams that make the playoffs.

Once the regular season ends, my second change would come into effect. Instead of sixteen teams, let’s reduce it to twelve. If the playoffs are supposed to showcase the best teams, how is it that over half the league gains entrance?

Also, reducing the number of teams in the playoffs lowers the chance that a losing team will be participating. Going back to the 2004-05 season, when the NBA expanded to its current 30 teams, not a single team that has earned a top-six seed has had a losing record. However, that’s not to say it won’t happen. Due to the East-West disparity, there have actually been multiple 41-41 teams who wound up with the sixth seed, all in the East.

From a historical perspective, six is also a good cut-off point because the lowest seed to ever win an NBA title was the 1994-95 Houston Rockets, who, with a 47-35 record, finished sixth in the West. With that said, six it is.

Change how teams are matched up.

So how do you organize a postseason with six teams? First, seeding is dependent upon win-loss record. The only exception is that division winners are automatically in the playoffs, though that won’t affect their seeding. Then again, if the regular season is expanded to 86 games and each team in a conference plays every other team the same number of times, it does make divisions pointless.

With every team seeded, the bracket will look like that of the NFL playoffs. The top two seeds in each conference get a bye, while the other four teams battle it out. There’s one alteration, though.

Taking a page out of the D-League playbook, I would give the top seeds the opportunity to select their opponent. In the first round, the No. 3 seed will pick whether they want to play No. 5 or No. 6, and in the second round, the No. 1 seed will get to pick between the winners of round one. The reason for this is threefold.

One, I want to give top teams the reward of opportunity. For instance, in 2007, the 67-15 Dallas Mavericks were squared up against the 42-40 Golden State Warriors in the 1-8 matchup. There’s no doubt that Dallas was a superior team, but considering Golden State swept the season series, don’t you think Dallas might have preferred to play a different team?

Two, aside from allowing teams to pick a more favorable matchup if there’s one apparent, freedom of choice can allow teams to take into account external factors such as injuries, trades, and streaks. For instance, 50-32 teams are not the same if one ended the season on a six-game losing streak and the other on a six-game winning streak.

Three, choice prevents teams from purposely losing in order to get a more favorable matchup. Back in 2011, some brought up the idea that the Memphis Grizzlies were trying to get a lower seed so that they could face the San Antonio Spurs, whom they eventually upset in the first round. This might not have happened in my alternate playoffs as, one, Memphis wouldn’t have made the playoffs to begin with as a result of being the eighth seed, but if they were a higher seed, San Antonio may not have picked them.

Shorten the first round.

Matchups being determined, I propose the first round being best-of-three. Making it best-of-seven, or even five, might be disadvantageous to the bye teams, as too much time off basketball might make them a little rusty. I wouldn’t dare suggest just a single game, because I don’t want one off-night or one injured player to cause a team to lose. Best-of-three isn’t perfect, but it’s the best solution here. The top seeds have some time to rest, and three is good, if only for the fact that it’s more than one.

In addition, this revised first round eliminates anywhere between 20-48 playoff games from the current first round. While this wouldn’t be beneficial financially, I think it improves the viewing experience. It shortens the postseason by about a week, which might help prevent fans from experiencing viewer fatigue stemming from the number of games played. Every game in the first round should also be meaningful and competitive, with the magnitude of each game being increased since there would only be three.

Conclusion

After the first round, the playoffs would proceed as normal. Every round would be best-of-seven, following the 2-2-1-1-1 format.

My proposal isn’t the perfect solution, especially for those in league marketing who care about revenue, or fans who enjoy watching as many basketball games as possible. Still, I think it serves the purpose of adding more respectability, competitiveness, and fairness to the postseason. Some may not be content that it doesn’t address the East-West disparity, and it may seem a little too radical in departing from tradition. Perhaps it was a little bit more than just reform after all.

There’s no such thing as the perfect postseason. Even if there were, it would be because of the teams’ play, not the format. However, it’s still fun to look at an alternate playoff system. Love it or hate it, this is my opinion. What’s yours?

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