A New Format for the NBA Playoffs?
Professional sports leagues tend to shy away from change. They have the idea that if it isn’t broken, why fix it. The current NBA playoff structure may be a little broken though. Looking at the 2017 NBA Playoffs, it is easy to see that the Western Conference was stronger than the Eastern Conference. The games were more entertaining and the series’ made for better basketball. The Eastern Conference only had one real team that could even compete with the top teams out west and that was the Cleveland Cavaliers. They basically walked through their Eastern Conference competition all the way to the NBA Finals. NBA fans deserve exciting matchups all through the playoffs, not just the last round. Nothing is more exciting in sports than an upset. Rarely do fans get the chance to watch upsets in professional basketball, but that could change with a few adjustments to the playoff format.
When looking at the most recent NBA power rankings from NBA.com, 4 out of the top 5 teams are from the Western Conference. With so much power out west, the NBA playoff format needs a change. These rankings show that Golden State, Houston, San Antonio and probably Oklahoma City could easily be the top teams in the Eastern Conference if they played there. These Western Conference teams keep getting stronger.
All in all, the West is getting stronger and the East is getting weaker. Jimmy Butler was just traded from the Chicago Bulls to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Paul George was also recently traded from the Indiana Pacers to the Oklahoma City Thunder. At the end of the day, the top five teams in the West could each be the top team in the East. This imbalance of power in the NBA makes for some issues for the fans. The Western Conference will be very competitive, but there may be two, maybe three teams in the East that can compete with the top teams in the West. Maybe the NBA should consider a change to their playoff system to give the fans a better experience. Here are some ideas on how the league can make the most out of the new influx of talent in the West.
This is an idea that is not necessarily something we see in North America. With 30 teams in the NBA each team can play each other once in a home and home series. To keep local rivalries still alive, the divisions can stay in tact to fill out the rest of the schedule. From there the playoffs will take the top 16 teams in the NBA. The bracket would be something like the NCAA tournament where the top ranked team would play the bottom ranked team. There are definitely flaws in the system, but it gives the fans the greatest opportunity to see great basketball earlier in the playoffs. The biggest flaw would be travel. For instance if the Golden State Warriors are the one seed and the Miami Heat are the 16 seed, that could cause really difficult travel accommodations for a first round series. This idea would help even the playing field across the whole league. Therefore, we would not get matchups of two really solid teams that should be playing each other later in the playoffs too early.
Another potential issue is that too many teams could be from a certain area. What is nice about the current structure of the NBA playoffs is that most places throughout the United States have a horse in the race. Meaning that people across the country are heavily interested in the NBA come playoff time. That could change with this system. Hypothetically speaking, Under this idea all 15 teams from the Western Conference could make the playoffs with only one team from the Eastern Conference. The odds of this happening are really slim, but could be an issue for travel and an issue for television ratings. True basketball fans will watch the playoffs not matter what, but the NBA might lose out on the casual fans from other cities.
The benefits of this system would be that it would make for a fair Finals. The NBA needs to put the best two teams in the league in the NBA Finals. If they do not do this they miss out on putting the best quality on the court for the fans to watch. Do fans really want to see another round of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors? Next year it would be nice to see the Houston Rockets play the Golden State Warriors in the Finals. Unfortunately, in the current system fans cannot see that. This whole idea is about increasing marketability of the playoffs and giving the fans better matchups.
No playoff system is perfect, but this gets the best 16 teams into the playoffs and makes for a fairer bracket going into the NBA Finals. With a system like this we could potentially see the San Antonio Spurs take on the Golden State Warriors in an NBA Final. This also would mean that LeBron James and the Cavaliers will not just be able to walk through their competition to get to the Finals. This is a pipe dream that the NBA will never adapt because they cannot market it as well.
Another idea would be to break the playoffs down into the divisions. This would not necessarily make the competition fair, but could escalate a fun playoff bracket. Let’s say the NBA decides to take a page out of the NHL’s handbook and use their divisions to the best of their abilities. Ideally this would be done with four divisions, each having 8 teams. That would mean the NBA would have to add two teams and now we are just talking hypotheticals. Given the current structure of the NBA there is a system that can work. Take the top two teams from each division and two wild card teams. At this point the teams would be seeded with four Western Conference teams and four Eastern Conference teams in each bracket. This is another fun way to even the playing field. There is no reason why the NBA cannot break the mold to create a new fun playoff system. When you put the teams into a reseeded bracket, it makes the competition fairer as well.
The travel problems will still exist with this system. Those can easily be remedied by picking a city to host the playoffs. NBA owners would not like this because they would lose out on playoff ticket revenue, but it is a possibility. Another big problem would be seeding each team. Much like the NCAA they could use a computer to pick and choose who should be the top seed. This would be based on strength of schedule and record. This problem really does sort itself out based on record.
The positives are that the NBA would be able to have two brackets and a champion for each bracket. Marketing for three championship games is important to the NBA playoff branding. They also will have an overall winner that could be from two teams from the West or the East. Fans will no longer be limited to watching stale basketball in the Finals because it really is any team's chance to make it there.
The problem is at the end of the day these will not be adopted. The NBA has a system that fans and sponsors are comfortable with. Adam Silver and the top NBA executives do not see this as a broken system. They are happy when the Cavaliers and the Warriors will be in the Finals again next year. It is all about revenue and how to market the games people will watch the most. The way to fix the imbalance of talent is for the Eastern Conference teams to start acquiring better players. Meaning they can draft guys, sign through free agency, or make trades. These things happen in the NBA and will eventually fix itself. For now, enjoy the Western Conference basketball and hope the Celtics, Cavaliers, Wizards or Raptors find a way to cause an upset in the Finals next year.