Looking At Changes In The NBA Playoff Format
The NBA playoff format has been under some scrutiny this year, and with Commissioner Adam Silver at least putting himself cautiously behind the idea of change, it’s now out on the front-burner during the All-Star break. This question is this—is it time to abolish the East-West conference distinctions in the interests of getting the best 16 teams in the playoffs?
It’s the clear superiority of the Western Conference, going on for a decade and seeming to peak this year, that drives the conversation. Two good teams, the Oklahoma City Thunder and New Orleans Pelicans, are on the outside looking in. Two awful teams in the East, the Miami Heat and the Charlotte Bobcats would be in the playoffs if the season ended today.
Silver’s proposal is to maintain the six divisions as they are, and then to add the next ten teams based strictly on record, regardless of where they’re from. Presumably teams would then have to be seeded without regard to conference.
There’s talk that the Silver proposal could just have, in the current context, Oklahoma City and New Orleans replace Charlotte and Miami, but you can’t send the Thunder and Pelicans to an Eastern bracket.
How is it fair that the 9-10 teams in the West would get to go the weaker league, while #8 Phoenix had to prepare for Golden State? If you go down this path, a straight 1 thru 16 seeding and no more East/West is the only way for it to work.
I don’t have a big problem with this. The NHL used a similar format until the late 1970s, and there was nothing wrong with Finals matchups of Montreal-Philly, Montreal-Boston or Montreal-New York Rangers, etc (you get the point, it was always Montreal against somebody). In today’s NBA, is there really anything with Finals of San Antonio-Golden State? Works for me.
I’m generally a traditionalist on things like this, but I don’t know that the East/West split in the NBA is quite as traditional as the American League-National League battle in baseball, or AFC-NFC in football, where each side of the league used to be an entity all unto its own and built their identity.
Furthermore, I have a suggestion for change that would address every problem, while building on the concept of conference rivalry. My proposed NBA playoff format is this—do crossover bracketing. Have the #1 seed in the East play the #8 in the West, and vice-versa. Create the matchups like this throughout the first round.
My premise is this—I’m less concerned about whether a couple lousy teams get in at the bottom of the bracket, as Miami and Charlotte still would under this format. In the NBA those teams don’t even win a series, much less get on a miracle run. As for Oklahoma City and New Orleans, I’m sorry for them, but really, getting in the top eight over 82 games is hardly unreasonable for a chance to play for the championship.
I think the bigger problem is that the brackets are so unbalanced when the playoffs begin. Teams in the West have to start playing matchups that are at least conference finals-caliber as soon as the postseason begins. Conversely, Atlanta, the current top seed in the East, would have to trip over itself to lose anytime in the first two rounds.
What this does is detract from the credibility of the Finals, when an East team can more or less coast through two-thirds of the conference playoffs, while West teams are grinding it out right from the start. Even if the East champ wins the Finals, I’m more likely to dismiss it as the West team simply being worn down. Crossover bracketing eliminates that imbalance.
Finally, for traditionalists, the conference rivalry is actually increased with this format. If the East champ beats the West in the Finals, it can be luck, fatigue or the good fortune of the right matchup. But what if the East wins five of eight first-round series? That would be a statement. And if the West is really as good as some of us believe? Fine, then they win anywhere from 6-8 of the first round matchups and we get down to business in round two.
You will note that none of the arguments I advance for the crossover bracket are dependent on the current imbalance between the conferences. Even if parity cycles back, this format works. Abolishing the conference distinctions entirely is much bolder, and something the league might end up regretting if the East restores itself in a few years.
The crossover NBA playoff format—enhanced conference rivalry, a balanced bracket and a more credible NBA Finals matchup—it’s the way to go.