‘The Best Should Be In’: Is the NBA Playoff Format In Dire Need of Change?

NBAplayoffs

THE NBA HAS A CONFERENCE PROBLEM, AND IT HAS AFFECTED THE PLAYOFFS IN A MAJOR WAY IN RECENT YEARS. USA TODAY SPORTS SPOKE WITH EVERYONE FROM ADAM SILVER TO JERRY WEST ABOUT A BASIC IDEA: IGNORE CONFERENCES AND LET THE 16 BEST TEAMS PLAY.

A better way?

A SIMPLE, LOGICAL CHANGE COULD MAKE PLAYOFFS MORE INTERESTING

Enticing cross-conference NBA playoff matchups capture the imagination, presenting the idea of a fair and just basketball world in which only the best of the best are welcome.

Dare to dream about the possibilities.

LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant (or, for that matter, Russell Westbrook) as more than an NBA Finals-only proposition. The days of snooze-fest first-round matchups behind us, replaced by compelling matchups such as the Toronto Raptors vs. San Antonio Spurs or Houston Rockets vs. Washington Wizards that would be in play this season if only this were real. Equitable excellence surely would follow at every postseason turn.

Who would be against this?

The idea that the NBA should change its playoff format and include the best 16 teams regardless of conference and end this problem of teams missing the playoffs in favor of weaker teams is not new. But the drumbeat grew louder this season. As many as three teams in the Western Conference who won’t make the playoffs could finish with better records than the seventh and eighth seeds in the East.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said the league’s competition committee would focus on the topic. There’s no arguing that a playoff with any two-team combination of the Oklahoma City Thunder, New Orleans Pelicans and Phoenix Suns makes for better product than a playoff with the sub-.500 Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Charlotte Hornets or Boston Celtics getting the final two spots in the East.

But Silver is cautious. “If there was a simple solution, we would have made it long ago,” he said.

Reluctant shake-up

THERE ARE DOWNSIDES TO ANY CHANGE, EVEN SOME BIG QUESTIONS

Revising the playoff format to include cross-conference matchups is more remote than inevitable. The NBA is reluctant to change.

The competition committee will address the issue at its June meetings, but there is not expected to be a mandate for the committee to draft a proposal for owners to vote on at the October owners meeting.

The call for change is rooted in an unflattering reality: The league’s current system has kept deserving teams out of the postseason for decades while ensuring a steady diet of one-sided first-round matchups. And in an era in which the NBA’s unprecedented popularity has turned up the volume on this debate, it’s indisputable that the antiquated structure has many victims.

In the past 19 non-lockout-shortened seasons (starting in 1993-94), the 16 teams with the best records have reached the playoffs five times.

There were 18 teams that finished in the top 16 but weren’t rewarded with playoff berths in that span — 15 from the Western Conference, three from the Eastern Conference; 13 had winning records.

The most extreme examples had identical 48-34 records and missed: the 2007-08 Golden State Warriors, who saw the 40-42 Philadelphia 76ers and the 37-45 Atlanta Hawks get in, and the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns who surely bristled as they watched a Hawks team went 38-44 make it.

In all, the 18 teams that finished in the top 16 but weren’t in the playoffs had a collective winning percentage of 52.5%. No team has been on the wrong side of this system more than the Rockets, who have missed the playoffs despite being in the top 16 four times since 1993-94. (The Utah Jazz are second in this category, with three.)

The playoff problem is compounded by the fact that so many subpar teams have found their way into the postseason. None were worse during that span than the 1994-95 Celtics, who were 35-47, but 15 of those 18 teams had records of .500 or worse, and those 18 teams had a collective winning percentage of .477 (704-772). What’s more, the notion that there’s always the chance for an unexpected Cinderella story simply isn’t founded in facts.

March Madness, this is not.

All 18 of the teams who qualified despite not being among the league’s top 16 teams fell in the first round, and they won 20 of 86 playoff games (23.2%) while pushing the series to a deciding game four times.

The coming postseason is sizing up to be more of the same, as it remains possible that three below-.500 teams could qualify. Entering Monday, the Milwaukee Bucks were in sixth place at 34-32, Indiana was in seventh at 30-35 and Charlotte was in eighth at 29-35. Meanwhile, two teams with winning records (some combination of the Thunder, Pelicans and Suns) will likely miss out in the West.

Tougher but fair

A MORE BALANCED PLAYOFF BRACKET WOULD BETTER DETERMINE CHAMPION

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SOURCE: USA Today – Sam Amick and Jeff Zillgitt

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