NBA had perfect opportunity to test new playoff format, but will instead remain stuck in its boring ways

by nyljaouadi1
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Welp, the NBA is almost officially back … in two months. On Thursday, the league’s owners approved commissioner Adam Silver’s plan to conclude the 2019-20 regular season and playoffs at Walt Disney World in Orlando. Once the NBPA (National Basketball Players Association) signs off, which it is expected to do on Friday, it’ll be a done deal. The plan, or the hope, is to start training camps June 30 with games commencing on July 31. 

Silver’s plan will send 22 teams to Orlando. Each team will play eight “seeding” games that will qualify as the conclusion of the regular season. At that point, at least the top seven seeds in each conference will be locked in. 

If the No. 9 seed in either conference is within four games of the No. 8 seed, there will be a play-in tournament for the final spot(s). Once the fields are set, a traditional East-West playoff format will commence with four rounds of seven-game series culminating in an NBA Finals that could end as late as mid-October. 

Traditional playoff format


I should’ve known better than to get my hopes up for a soccer-style group-stage format or a 1-16 inter-conference seeding. Even with this unique situation practically begging to serve as an experiment for innovation, the sanctity of tradition must be preserved! 

I swear we take sports way too seriously. This is entertainment, pure and simple. Literally the only reason the NBA, or any other professional sports league for that matter, exists is because people want to watch it, and they will pay good money, whether via television or in person, to do so. The more entertaining the product, the better. Within reason, and certainly accounting for the health and safety of the players, that should be the main rule by which these leagues design their competitive structures. 

If you think waiting two more months for a forgone-conclusion Bucks-Magic first-round series with no fans is a more entertaining prospect than a group-stage format in which every game would take on the urgency of an NCAA Tournament game, you must get out more. The most intriguing aspect of sports is that you don’t know what’s going to happen, and yet when it comes to the NBA playoffs, you almost always know exactly what’s going to happen. 

This has been true for years. Decades. Scores. It was true long before COVID-19, and it’ll be true long after. While the NFL, NHL and MLB playoffs are, for varying reasons and to varying degrees, highly unpredictable and thus must-watch from the start, my five-year-old could go through an NBA playoff bracket and have a good chance of batting a thousand. 

Just pick the higher seed and you’re almost guaranteed to hit at least 90 percent, and the one series you might shank is the 4-5 tossup. You’re paying, in both money and time, to watch a “suspense” movie to which you already know the ending. 

That said, we are all resistant to change in our own ways, and perhaps a group-stage format was always too much to ask for a group of people that made altering the ending of the freaking All-Star Game feel like they amended the constitution. But a 1-16 seeding regardless of conference affiliation? This is not some radical idea — though it’s always portrayed that way — and it has needed to happen for years. 

One of the easiest ways to gauge whether or not a change needs to happen is if the people, or teams, who have it the easiest under the current structure are always the ones voting to keep things the same. Go ask the Milwaukee Bucks if they want to scramble up the conferences for the playoffs? Of course they don’t. They’re in the East. The Bucks voting to change the playoff structure would be akin to a rich person voting for tax reform that would be equal for everyone. 

The Bucks will likely end up drawing the Magic, Nets or Wizards in the first round, and relatively speaking the cakewalk continues from there. The Lakers, meanwhile, could end up playing a fully healthy Blazers team that went to the conference finals last season in the first round. 

Ask LeBron what the conference disparity is like. Teams in the West have been forced to run class-five rapids for the last 20 years, while James cruised his way through the East to eight straight Finals on a relative catamaran. 

That’s not to diminish James’ greatness. That’s just an objective fact. 

Even if you want to throw together some ridiculous argument that the two conferences have actually been more equal than people think over the years (there is always some stupid data point you can find somewhere these days), that’s not even what concerns me most. What I want to see, what I am becoming almost desperate to see, are some fresh playoff matchups. 

It is at this point that I must admit something: I am not a huge fan of NBA basketball. I like it. It’s my job to watch it and write and talk about it. But I do not sit around every night like a hard-core hoops junkie waiting to devour Pistons-Timberwolves in January. This, I think, makes me like most fans. I slog through the regular season to get to the fun part, the playoffs, which I in turn want to be, you know, as fun as possible. 

The same old matchups are not fun. More troubling, depriving us of some of the most exciting matchups certainly isn’t fun. That we never got to see LeBron and Kobe face off in a playoff series is a basketball crime of the highest order. And for what? So we could uphold the integrity of decades-old “rivalries” that haven’t been relevant since the Reagan administration? 

I don’t know much, but I do know that continuing to do something one way simply because “that’s the way it’s always been done” is the dumbest logic known to man. You have to constantly be adapting, evolving. That’s not just a sports thing. That’s life. 

Also, I’ve got news for you: Those Pistons-Bulls or Celtics-Sixers showdowns that traditionalists remember so fondly CAN STILL HAPPEN under a 1-16 format. It’s just that a lot of other entertaining series that are currently restricted could happen, too. 

That the only chance we ever have of seeing, say, Kevin Durant square off against his old Warriors teammates in a playoff series is if both teams make the Finals is, well, stupid. I cannot stress the obvious enough: This is entertainment. That’s all it is. And there is hardly a series I can think of that could be more entertaining than Durant waling back into the Chase Center. 

The simple truth is players make rivalries in the NBA. We want to see great players face off against great players, and these days, players switch teams every few years. Seriously, how many times can we watch the same old teams play one another when the only thing that bears resemblance to the series of yesteryear is the names on the front of the jersey? How can anyone think that seeing a currently-constructed Celtics-Rockets second-round series, or a Lakers-Sixers semifinal, wouldn’t be fun as hell? 

Nope, we want Pacers-Celtics, Raptors-Nets, Bucks-Magic, Blazers-Warriors, Nuggets-Jazz, with absolutely no chance for any sort of cross-pollination. Hey, that’s the way it’s always been. 

Honestly, what true rivalry even exists in the NBA right now? I’m talking about two championship-level teams in the vain of Bulls-Pistons, teams who have met year after year in the playoffs and have grown to legitimately hate each other? Warriors-Rockets, maybe? That is hardly a traditional rivalry, but rather two teams that simply wound up getting really good around the same time. The second James Harden isn’t on the Rockets or Stephen Curry isn’t on the Warriors, that “rivalry” is dead. 

So forget rivalries. The word, in a team sense, is as tired as the sentiment itself. 

As for other arguments opposing a 1-16 seeding, travel is always a tentpole. Never mind that all you would have to do is go back to a 2-3-2 seven-game format to wipe that theory out. For instance, and the maximum miles traveled for a particular series would actually decrease. 

For instance, the most logistically challenging cross-conference series that could happen would be Miami-Portland, while the series that would force the most travel within the current conferences would be Memphis-Portland. In a 2-3-2 format, Miami and Portland — which would, of course, be an inter-conference series — could travel a maximum of 9,774 miles, with one less flight, if the series were to go seven games. Under the current 2-2-1-1-1 format, the Blazers and Grizzlies could end up traveling 11,230 miles. 

Yes, I understand these are extreme cases, and that combining the conferences opens up the possibility of a lot more non-regional series. So what. These dudes make hundreds of millions of dollars and fly private. Throw an extra day off in there. Figure it out. It is incumbent upon the league to ensure both competitive equality and optimal entertainment values. 

And this would’ve been the perfect time to try out something new. Every team is in one place for crying out loud. It’s already going to be an altered championship. I’m not going to squabble about whether there will be an asterisk by this year’s winner, but there is no denying this championship run is going to take place under conditions we’ve never seen before and likely won’t see again. 

So if everything else is new, why not follow suit with the format? I know teams vote and it’s not all quite as easy as I’m making it sound, but stop shunning progress in pursuit of perfection. No format is perfect. That certainly includes the one we now have the distinct privilege of waiting two more months to watch play out in the form of Bucks-Magic in an empty Disney World arena. I, for one, cannot wait.

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