By Zach Naidu
The NBA has a few quirks in its system. The most salient is the lack of competitiveness at the bottom of each conference — where teams seemingly don’t field their best possible roster in order to have a worse record and, in turn, pick higher in the draft — more commonly known as “tanking.” The NBA’s playoff format is another hotly contested topic. Most recently, commissioner Adam Silver has entertained the idea of having a one through 16 seeding across conferences rather than each conference seeded one through eight.
This is not the solution.
For starters, had this format been implemented in each of the past three seasons — taking the 16 teams with the overall best records rather than the top eight in each conference — it would’ve only changed the 16-team field by a combined two teams at the bottom of the standings. In one case the East would’ve had nine teams and the West seven, and vice versa in the other instance. Given that the eight seed has only beaten the one seed twice all-time in a best-of-seven series following an 82 game season, such changes would be trivial for both the competitiveness and final outcome of the playoffs.
Moreover, this year’s playoffs is a prime example of why the current format works in terms of competitiveness, entertainment and excitement. In the East, the fourth-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers and fifth-seeded Indiana Pacers are in an evenly-matched dogfight, tied two games apiece, while the sixth-seeded New Orleans Pelicans stunned the league with a shocking sweep of the third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers. With a 1-16 seed format, neither of these matchups would have occurred, in fact the only matchup that would remain constant would be the West’s four/five seed bout between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz. Would the Golden State Warriors currently up three games to one on San Antonio have had that much more difficulty against the Miami Heat that is also currently trailing the Philadelphia 76ers 3-1?
Lastly, if the NBA were to change this format, it would also entail a need for drastic schedule reform. If the league were to implement a conference-less playoff format, there would need to be more inter-conference matchups among teams in order to more fairly determine seeding — teams from the East should be required to play more than only two games against every team of the objectively stronger West. This reorganizing would then make already-grueling regular season travel more exhausting for the players, as Portland would have to make two trips to the Northeast against teams like Boston and Philadelphia, and Houston would have to go up to Toronto, Canada more than should be necessary. More matchups with teams from the other conference would also mean fewer games within the division for each team, where traveling is typically the lightest, further exacerbating the teams’ plights. Moreover, a team seeded outside the top three in its conference hasn’t made the NBA Finals in more than a decade — so how much would all of these changes really help in regard to crowning the league’s rightful champion?
The NBA does have competitive flaws, and tanking most certainly needs to be addressed. But when it comes to reformatting the NBA playoffs, the ends do not justify the means.
Contact Zach Naidu at znaidu ‘at’ stanford.edu