During the suspension of the 2019-2020 season, the NBA decided extraordinary circumstances required an evolution of the traditional playoff structure. With the season having been suspended for several months – and the window shrinking for finishing this season before quickly turning to the next season – the NBA proposed that twenty-two teams convene in Orlando, Florida, to finish the season. The rest of the regular season would be condensed to eight games and teams would be seeded one to eight in each conference, just as normal. But there is a new twist. This time, if the team in ninth place is within four games of the eight seed,they would play the eight seed in a play-in tournament for the last playoff spot. In my opinion, the NBA should adopt this play-in format permanently, while also considering the addition of some other changes to both the regular season and postseason.
The postseason play-in
In this play-in tournament format, if the eight seed wins the first game, the series is over and they keep the last playoff spot. But if the ninth seed wins the first game, a winner-takes-all game two would be played for the eight seed. This format adds another level of intrigue to the playoffs and rewards teams for making the push for the playoffs. Sometimes, for whatever reason, fluky things happen and a team can miss the playoffs. This would allow them the chance to still make it and prove that they are a good team. For example, in the injury plagued 2014-2015 season OKC missed the playoffs because of an Anthony Davis buzzer beating three that gave New Orleans the tie-breaker. In this play-in format, OKC would still have had a chance to make the playoffs. Teams should be rewarded for trying to win and this would also help discourage tanking, to a degree.
Adam Silver and the NBA brain trust have been trying to implement a World Cup like tournament into the NBA season. This tournament would take place during the regular season, and would ideally feature motivated teams trying to win the tournament title. While opinions vary on what it would take to incentivize players to take a mid-season tournament seriously, it would certainly add a fun new element to the regular season.
During the suspension of the 2019-2020 season, one idea floated around for the postseason was a “group stage” format; teams would be clustered into brackets, eventually culminating in a championship series between two teams. This would look more like the NCAA Tournament where there are Areas, Regionals, etc. While it would be significantly different than the typical postseason, it would definitely add some spice to things.
Removing the seeding handicap
Another idea that has been gaining momentum in various circles is taking the top sixteen teams, regardless of conference, and seeding them one to sixteen. This would be a bold move, which would keep good teams from being punished for being in the better conference. For example, the last decade has largely been dominated by the Western Conference, where several times teams with good records have completely missed the playoffs, while teams with abysmal records in the Eastern Conference make the playoffs because the East is much more top-heavy. Many fans love this idea as it would ensure the top sixteen teams would make the postseason, but the Eastern Conference has been adamant in their dislike of it. To them, it hurts their chances of making the playoffs and weakens traditional rivalries. Add to that the rigorous travel of potential cross-country series between teams, (for example, LA Lakers playing the Brooklynn Nets), and its’s easy to see why teams are not quick to embrace this playoff idea. If travel times could be drastically cut, or teams given more days between games in a series like this, maybe then we could have a top sixteen playoff format.
The treadmill of mediocrity earns value
One idea that would fundamentally change basketball, would be to give the team with the best record to miss the postseason, the first overall pick in the draft. This would essentially kill tanking, as teams would be determined to be as good as possible as they compete for either the playoffs or the chance to draft a franchise player. Imagine if the 2014-2015 Thunder had received the first overall pick. They could have paired KAT or D’Angelo Russell with Westbrook and Durant. That would have been a sweet consolation prize for missing the playoffs during that injury plagued season.
The scheduling of the NBA Draft before free agency has always seemed backwards to me. Why schedule the draft first, when teams are not playing with a full deck so to speak? Having to keep one eye on free agent possibilities, while also having to decide what players to pick, or how to construct trades puts teams in a bind. It seems that a team would make much more informed decisions in the draft, both in their picks and trades, if they already knew how free agency went for their team. The draft should happen after free agency.
The NBA has been quite innovative in its history, implementing new formats, rules, etc. to enhance the game and improve fan experience. The three point line, three-seconds violation, best of seven in a series, and coach’s challenges are just a few examples. With Adam Silver in charge of the League, expect even more innovation to come to basketball. The play-in, World Cup, group stage, and other format ideas are wonderful innovations that could become permanent changes to the NBA structure.
With the play-in format being given a chance at the “Orlando Bubble”, hopefully it and other innovative ideas could become fixtures of NBA Basketball. The NBA is already great, but evolution is necessary to keep it ahead of the curve.