Five ways to make the NBA Playoffs fun again

NBA Playoffs
Michael Dixon
Written by Michael Dixon

Unless you’re a fan of a team going to the conference finals or a masochist, chances are that you’re not going to look back at the first two rounds of the 2017 NBA Playoffs with great reverence.

Of the ten series that have been completed, four have been sweeps while another went five games. Even the longer six and seven-game series have mostly featured teams exchanging blowouts.

We’ve had one Game 7 between the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers, which was a blowout. But even before the blowout, it lacked that special feeling. After all, they were only playing for the right to face the Warriors. So, it was kind of like getting a colonoscopy as a birthday present.

Strangely enough, Cleveland’s sweep of the Indiana Pacers has been one of the most compelling series of the postseason thus far, which is pretty telling.

That got us to thinking. How can we make the NBA playoffs fun?

It may by finding a way to limit the dominant teams. Then again, it could be finding a way to add more great teams. Maybe it comes down to changing a rule, either in the playoffs or the games themselves. Of course, maybe finding a way to ignite rivalries is the ticket.

We think we’ve got something for everyone here. What are five things that can be done to make the NBA Playoffs fun again?

1. Limit super teams

Think back to the time immediately following the NBA Finals in 2016. The Cleveland Cavaliers and their fans were basking in the glory of winning a championship. The Golden Warriors and their fans were trying to figure out how they didn’t win a championship after a 73-9 season. Everyone else was wondering if anyone could keep these two teams from getting back to the finals for a third straight year in 2017.

With all due respect to the San Antonio Spurs, there was one real hope. The Oklahoma City Thunder had the Warriors down 3-1 in the Western Conference Finals. Maybe they could break through. Of course, one thing was necessary. They had to re-sign Kevin Durant.

So much for that.

Durant’s signing was unique. Unlike some of the past super teams, the Warriors were already loaded. To find a comparison, we’d probably have to go back to the Los Angeles Lakers adding Wilt Chamberlain after losing the 1968 Finals.

Now, make no mistake, super teams created by free agency are no less noble than those created by trades, no matter what Paul Pierce would want you to believe. In fact, a free agent going where he chooses is significantly more noble than a superstar signing a big contract with a bad team, only to whine until he gets traded.

But regardless of how a super team is formed, it’s a problem for the rest of the league. Once Durant signed with the Warriors, teams had to ask themselves a question regarding potential moves:Will this move put us ahead of either Golden State or Cleveland?

Nearly every time, the answer was no. It’s why the trade deadline was so boring. It’s why the Boston Celtics — a good team with genuine assets — did essentially nothing to improve. They weren’t going to mortgage so much of the future only to guarantee losing to LeBron James and company in the playoffs.

In the complete interest of fairness, one other point needs to be made. Great teams are traditionally good for the NBA’s health. In the 1970’s, parity reigned and the league was at its nadir. NBA Finals games weren’t even televised live, and the league was genuinely not far from going under. In 1979, incoming rookies Magic Johnson and Larry Bird changed all of that and the rest is history. The Lakers and Celtics reigned in the 1980’s and the league was never healthier. For the most part, it hasn’t looked back since.

The league had teams that casual fans would watch to either see them win, or hope they’d lose. In Cleveland and Golden State, the league has those teams now.

But this is a byproduct. When one or two teams reign too supreme, the rest of the league becomes unwilling to do anything to challenge them because they know that it won’t work.

We don’t know exactly how to limit super teams. That’s something that would have to be left for the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. We’re not even sure that the league would want to do that. But when super teams exist, what’s happening in the 2017 NBA Playoffs becomes a genuine risk.

2. An in-season loan system

Mar 21, 2017; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) celebrates his basket in the fourth quarter against the San Antonio Spurs at Target Center. The San Antonio Spurs beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 100-93. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, blockbuster mid-season trades aren’t only limited by the contending teams back off. Bad teams are generally slow to trade their superstars as well. Throughout NBA history, teams trading a dollar bill for four quarters has almost never worked. In the end, teams that deals star players (or the dollar bill) usually end up getting a quarter and a few nickels in return. So, they don’t want to trade, either.

But what if the trade was only temporary? What if a team like the Minnesota Timberwolves could have traded Karl-Anthony Towns to a contender with the promise that they’d get him back after the season?

They’d be a lot more willing to mingle with contenders looking to deal. Meanwhile, the contender would be interested for a few reasons. One, if we’re talking about someone like Towns, it would get an absolute star. Two, since Towns’ services would only be temporary, the contender wouldn’t have to give up as much.

Think about some of the great players who were never involved in these playoffs. Players like Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, and Nikola Jokic, just to name a few, and those are only the big men in recent memory.

Add one of them to the Celtics, and all of a sudden a potential Eastern Conference Finals against the Cavs looks pretty juicy.

Limiting super teams would take away the 800 pound gorillas. An in-season loan system would add more 800 pound gorillas and would create some potentially titanic playoff tilts.

3. Shorter early-round series

This is something that’s been tried in the past. For years, the first round series was a best-of-five. In bygone eras, the NBA Playoffs opened with best-of-three miniseries. Eventually, owners realized that they were punting revenue away and expanded to the current format. It’s why this proposal would never happen. Frankly, the NBA would likely go to best-of-nine before it would go to best-of-three or even best-of-five.

But we’re not dealing exclusively in reality here. Our goal is to make the playoffs fun.

This would do that.

The first round would be a best-of-three. The first and third games of each series would be on the home floor of the higher-seeded team, while the second would be played on the lower-seeded team’s home court.

The exceptions would come in the two 1 vs. 8 series. We’d give the one seeds a choice. Option 1, play the aforementioned home/road format. Option 2, host the first two games. That would give the top seeds a chance to win without ever having to leave their home arenas. But it would also mean a potential decisive Game 3 would be on the road.

The second round would then be a best-of-five, with all series played in the 2-2-1 format.

This would be more fun for a few reasons.

One, upsets are significantly more likely when dealing with a shorter series. Over an extended period of time, the best team will prevail far more often than not. But in a short series, anything can happen.

Two, if nothing else, it would end some of the more lopsided series faster. Quite frankly, that can’t be a bad thing.

At this point, we’d suggest playing both the Conference Finals and NBA Finals with the same best-of-seven format (2-2-1-1-1) that we all know today. We could say that the Conference Finals are best-of-seven while the NBA Finals are best-of-nine. But while some recent NBA Finals have been classics (2013 and 2016), others have been relative duds (2014 and to a lesser extent, 2012 and 2015), and really, dragging those on for an extra game or two would not have been a good thing.

4. A four-point line

Right off the bat, we need to address a potential problem. When we’re trying to figure out why the 2017 postseason has been boring, the two main culprits are the Cavs and Warriors. During the regular season, they were second and third in three-pointers made. So, the advent of a four-point line could potentially make them more dominant.

Still, things can’t get much worse than the current state of affairs, can they?

Certainly, the better teams from distance would be better on a four-point shot. In today’s game, those tend to be the best teams. Still, there’s a logic to this.

The best way to overcome a significant deficit is to try to get a lot of points fast. It’s why trailing football teams start passing. The old three yards and a cloud of dust model doesn’t work well when you need points fast. The same logic applies in basketball. If you’re down big, working the whole 24 second clock to get a shot in the low post doesn’t make sense. Teams trailing big start jacking threes, and if there was a four-point line, they’d be shooting from that distance. Every now and again, the strategy would pay off.

Sure, a few games might end up being even worse than they are now. But much like the vertical passing game does in the NFL, a four-point line would increase the number of comebacks, as well.

5. Let the best teams choose their opponents

Rivalries are essentially dead in the NBA. These players grew up going to the same camps and playing in the same All-Star Games. By the time they get to the NBA, they’re all friendly with each other. It’s just a reality of the modern league. Even Chris Paul, one of the NBA’s prickliest stars, is not immune.

In reality, if one team significantly better than another, a playoff series between the two will be short and will feature a few blowouts. There’s no way around that. But how can we add some spice to those series?

One way would be to let the best teams choose their opponents. The best way to do this would be to seed the playoff teams 1-16. You make the playoffs based on what you do in your conference but once there, you can play anyone at any time.

In 2017, the Warriors had the best record and would have had the first pick. Maybe they would have chosen Paul’s Clippers. By record, it wouldn’t have made sense. But it would have been an easy travel schedule for Golden State. Additionally, the Dubs consistently own the the Clippers. Still, if getting hand picked as an opponent wouldn’t spark Paul’s crew, nothing would.

Or, maybe Golden State would have gone into the Eastern Conference and chosen Paul’s banana boat buddy, Dwyane Wade and his Chicago Bulls. The Bulls may not be an especially talented team, but would Wade, Rajon Rondo, and Jimmy Butler take getting called out like that lying down?

This would create a genuine beef between two teams on the court, especially in the early round series. Even the most lopsided matchups would have a real spark to them. The rivalries created might even extend beyond petty, passive aggressive activity on social media, you never know.

It would sure be fun to watch, which is more than we can say for the 2017 NBA Playoffs.

About the author

Michael Dixon

Michael Dixon

Bay Area born and raised, I have extensive experience in both the print and online worlds. There are few things in this world I love doing more than talking sports.