In many respects, the NBA is in an ideal spot. LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Giannis Antetokounmpo are just a small sampling of the highly marketable stars that the NBA will have for years to come.
On the other hand, though, the NBA is in something of a weird spot. Generally speaking, the postseason is the best, most exciting time of the year for the NFL, MLB, and NHL. Objectively, that’s a much harder claim to make for the NBA Playoffs. The postseason is often predictable.
Case in point, since 1980, only 11 NBA franchises have won a championship. That number will not change in 2018. By contrast, that same timeframe has given us 16 different Stanley Cup champions, 17 different Super Bowl champs, and 21 World Series winners.
Don’t mistake one thing for another here. We’re not saying that the lack of parity is necessarily a bad thing. After all, in the 1970s, the NBA had eight different champions. That was an era when NBA Finals Games were shown on tape delay, and the Golden State Warriors were displaced from their home arena during the 1975 Finals because the circus was in town.
By comparison, when the league has had one or two dominant teams, it’s usually been in good shape. What we’re seeing from LeBron’s teams out East and the Warriors out West is no different.
But that doesn’t mean things can’t get better. And a good way to improve on things is to at least try to make the playoffs less predictable. More often than not, the cream would still rise to the top. But the road might be a little more bumpy.
Now, we could try to kill two birds with one stone, limiting tanking and making the playoffs more entertaining. For more than a decade, Bill Simmons has been pushing for a revision called the “Entertaining-as-Hell-Tournament.” It’s a good idea, but it also leads to fewer games and, in turn, missed revenue. Similarly, we could suggest that the league revert to the best-of-five or best-of-three formats in the earlier rounds. We could even call for a March Madness-like single-elimination process in the early rounds.
But again, we have to be realistic. Owners and players are just not going to embrace something that will lead to fewer games and less money.
Fortunately, we have a two-step process that would make the playoffs less predictable and would actually lead to greater revenue.
Step 1: Abolish conference play and seed the playoffs 1-16
The conference imbalance has been an issue for a long time now. The best teams play in the Western Conference. In reality, this goes back to at least the second three-peat of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. It just wasn’t as noticeable until after Jordan’s retirement, since the Bulls were as good (actually, better) than any team in the West. But since Jordan’s retirement, we’ve seen a number of postseasons with the best two teams meeting before the finals.
So, let’s just seed things 1-16.
Now, to do that, we probably need to balance the schedule better. That’s difficult with an 82-game schedule. But there’s no real reason we have to stick to that, right?
What if we went to 86, 87, or even 88 games? That’s more revenue and, in turn, more money for everyone.
The 86-game option would be to have each team play everyone else twice (58 games). Then, you break the league up into two halves every year based on where the teams finished in the standings. One half would be teams 1-15 from the previous year’s standings, the other would be 16-30. Then, a team would play an extra two games (one home, one road) against the other 14 teams in its bracket. That would be 86 total games.
We could also just have every team play the other 29 teams three times. That’s 87 games. If you don’t want an odd number of games, each team can have a designated rival that it gets a fourth game against for an even 88. That could be determined on geography, the previous year’s standings, a completely random draw, or really anything else.
And no, we wouldn’t really need to bunch the schedule for this. First of all, we could fairly easily push the start of the playoffs back 1-2 weeks. That would easily create room for the extra 4-6 games. The Finals wrap in mid-June now but at one point, they ended in March. Moving things back to late-June or early-July wouldn’t be so dramatic.
Additionally, the Finals wraps up during a dead portion of the sport’s calendar. Pushing things back wouldn’t exactly be pushing into the prime time of any other sport.
On top of that, we’d also have fewer travel days in the postseason, making it go quicker.
Step 2: Abandon 2-2-1-1-1 in favor of 2-3-2
In a 2-2-1-1-1 format, teams have to travel four times. In a 2-3-2, they’d have to travel half that much. With fewer travel days, we limit the need to have more than a one-day break between games.
The problem here is that the NBA may not be in a hurry to return to a format that it only recently abandoned. From 1985-2013, the NBA Finals were played with a 2-3-2 format, while the other series (at least the best-of-seven) were 2-2-1-1-1. In 2014, the 2-2-1-1-1 was adopted in the finals.
The general feeling was that 2-3-2 benefited the team that lacked home court advantage. But let’s think about this.
First of all, at least as far as the NBA Finals were concerned, that was not true. Of the 29 NBA Finals played between 1985-2013, the team with home-court advantage was 21-8. During the last 29 finals played under 2-2-1-1-1 (1958-1970, 1972-1974, 1976-1984, 2014-2017), the team with home-court advantage was 20-9.
But even to the extent that 2-3-2 is a disadvantage to the team with home-court advantage, so what?
Our goal is to make the playoffs less predictable. Additionally, by limiting travel days, we can make the playoffs go quicker, which will better open up the 1-16 playoff format, thereby allowing better final series in years when the two best teams share a conference.
For the record, nobody is claiming that this process would make every NBA postseason exciting. The nature of the sport is that the team with the best player (ie: LeBron, Jordan) always has an advantage. Likewise, if a team has the best two players (ie: Curry and Durant), the series will generally not be competitive.
We acknowledge that. But we also have to acknowledge that, far too often, the NBA Playoffs feel like nothing more than a victory lap. If that happens too often, the league should be willing to make some changes.