NBA Playoff Reform: Will It Happen?

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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has been making headlines in recent weeks about possible changes to the current NBA playoff format, and it has been causing some stirring speculation among league executives, coaches, players and fans.

Since being unanimously approved by league owners to succeed David Stern as commissioner in 2014, Silver has been one of the more progressive and open-minded business leaders in the sports industry. His progressive thinking is evident through some of his first actions as the man in charge of the NBA, ranging from his stance on the legalization of sports gambling in the league to his criticism of the “one-and-done” rule in college basketball, as well as the lifetime banning of former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. The ban came after Sterling made a series of racist comments in an audio recording that went viral on TMZ. Consequentially for his efforts, Silver was named as Executive of the Year by Sports Illustrated in 2014, and then by the Sports Business Journal for the same distinguished honor in 2015.

Silver’s transformative vision has grown, evidenced by the restructuring of the NBA All-Star Game this year. The new format replaced the classic “East vs. West” match-up with two appointed team captains (LeBron James and Stephen Curry for this year’s game) choosing their teams from a draft pool of selected all-stars. As a result, the 2018 NBA All-Star Game experiment culminated positive results, as James’s team ultimately won in a hard-fought 148-145 comeback victory against Curry’s group. The game restored excitement and competitiveness to an event that had been losing spirit and passion. Similar to how breaking away from a prototypical custom that was rooted in 1951 with the All-Star Game, the NBA playoffs could use a modern readjustment.

For starters, the current NBA playoff system was constructed by two major changes in its history-the expansion to a 16-team, four-round postseason in 1984, as well as the implementation of a best-of-seven series for each round, instituted in 2003-and these changes have become the underlying foundation for today’s postseason structure. Traditionally speaking, the playoffs have consisted of the eight best records from each conference, with the two conference winners eventually meeting in the NBA Finals to determine the league champion. 

While this playoff format has been adequately running through the motions since 2003, there are always ways to improve any given system, and the changes made to the NBA All-Star Game are proof of that.

Silver is now suggesting an idea that would change the system. Rather than the top eight teams from both conferences dueling it out with varying displays of fan interest and entertainment value, he has proposed sending the best 16 teams, regardless of conference to compete against each other. 

When asked at about the proposal while at a press conference for this year’s NBA All-Star Weekend, Silver seemed quite optimistic about recent discussions over the emended playoff system.

“And that is something that’s gotten serious attention, not just recently, but over the last few years at the league office,” Silver said. “When we get to the playoffs should we be taking either the best 16 teams or even if we go eight from the West, eight from the East, seeding one through 16 going into the playoffs?”

While this hypothetical format again departs from the “East vs. West” tradition, there are quite a few positive attributes that coincide with such an alteration to the postseason.

Positive: Better Quality Of Competition

First and foremost, the disparity of talent between both conferences has been gradually increasing in the last decade. As a matter of fact, this was one of the bigger reasons why the league changed the all-star game format in the first place-due to some of the Eastern Conference’s best players taking their talents out west. Just in the past off-season alone, NBA All-Stars like Carmelo Anthony and Paul George (Oklahoma City Thunder), Jimmy Butler (Minnesota Timberwolves) and Paul Millsap (Denver Nuggets) either signed or were traded to a Western Conference team from the Eastern Conference. This has subsequently caused a disproportion of talent across the league. This imbalance of high-quality teams has created a competitive discrepancy between conferences. For instance, the two best teams in the league, the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets, seem to be expected to meet in the Western Conference Finals, leaving basketball enthusiasts with an NBA Finals meeting that is underwhelming by comparison. 

Even though LeBron James might still secure his eighth straight finals appearance later this season, this accomplishment is still tainted by the fact that the East just simply provides a weaker level of competition. Just look at the numbers-in the last twenty-two 82 game seasons, each of the top 16 teams with the highest overall record by the end of the year have all reached the playoffs only on six occasions. During that same period, 20 teams who ended the regular season inside the top 16 were unable to clinch playoff berths in their respective conferences. In addition to this startling realization, out of the 20 teams, 16 of them were from the Western Conference. 

The most severe of these cases happened to the 2007-08 Golden State Warriors and the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns. After both teams posted a respectable 48-34 record in their particular regular seasons, the Warriors witnessed the Philadelphia 76ers (40-42) and the Atlanta Hawks (37-45) participate in the postseason, while the Suns watched the Hawks (38-44) do the same thing, even with these opponents having inferior records. Another example occurred in the 2014-15 season, when an injury-riddled Oklahoma City Thunder squad completed the regular season with a solid 45-37 record but was still on the outside looking inward as it finished in ninth place in the Western Conference standings. However, if this same group had been in the Eastern Conference at the time, the Thunder would have placed itself ahead of three other playoff teams. 

San Antonio Spurs head coach Greg Popovich, who’s been a beneficiary of the current playoff format as evidenced by five NBA titles since 1999, is a big advocate for this postseason modification.

"I just think it would be more interesting, because you'd have more good teams or teams that performed better, and I think it's more fair,” Popovich said to USA Today. "If you can take the top 16 teams, you just do it. It's better competition for the fans. It's the best teams. It's a good enough notion that it should definitely be talked about. I would go for it.”

Interestingly enough, one who opposes reformatting the playoff system is superstar LeBron James himself, who refuted Popovich’s claims.

“I would disagree with that,” James said. “I think our league has been built the right way as far as when it comes to the postseason. There’s been dominant conferences throughout time. Obviously in the 80s it was mix-matched as you had the Lakers dominating the league then you had Boston dominating the league. In the 90s you had Chicago dominating the league. San Antonio had its run, we had our run in the East with Miami. You know, Golden State is having they run. It just changes the landscape of the history of the game if you start messing with seeding the playoffs.

This just begins to show the contrasting degrees of skill that operate in each conference, which further promotes the idea of reform.

Negative: Traveling Conditions Can Take Toll

Although this model certainly makes sense in theory, the applied practice of this type of playoff system does present some challenges. The number one concern that immediately pops up is the health and safety of the players, especially given the immense traveling requirements that they would have to deal with. In this proposed model, the most egregious traveling circumstances could occur with hypothetical playoff meetings like a Portland vs. Miami series, or a New York vs. Los Angeles series-where players would have to travel all the way across the country to play games. After enduring the grind of an 82-game regular season, and then following up with a chaotic playoff filled with jet lag, layovers, and varying time zones, the combination of it all could simply be too much to bear. However, a few revisions can be made to ease the travel difficulties for players. 

After making notable changes for the 2017-18 season by diminishing the scheduling of back-to-back games, four-games-in-five-nights, and initiating an earlier starting date, Silver has been open to the prospect of further changes to the regular season, particularly if this means the league can attempt a trial run with a new playoff system. One possibility is to simply decrease games, which can add higher stakes to each regular season game, as well as lessen the physical toll on players. 

Prediction: Compromise Will Have To Be Made

The biggest barrier that hinders this playoff reform is the fact that for a system which benefits the 16 best teams, Silver needs the votes of 20 team owners for this provision to be passed-including votes from at least five owners of Eastern Conference teams. Therefore, Silver has thought of a compromise. While the playoff model will stick with the eight best teams from each conference, those teams will then be seeded from 1-16 in accordance to their overall records. Not only will this satisfy owners from both conferences, but it will also still give fans the opportunity to see the two best teams play in the NBA Finals. 

Although the idea of playoff reform has been gaining traction for the last few years, it's still only hypothetical at this point. No plans for a vote have been made so far. Nonetheless, Silver is optimistic that this concept can be made into fruition-it will just take a little bit of time and patience as the rest of the details are ironed out.