Changing the NBA Playoff format

We’re in the middle of the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference weekend. For those of you who don’t know, this is an annual event where some of the most innovative sports minds all come together and do what they do best. There are research papers presented on the games that we all know and love. From each and every sport, someone tries to bring an innovative technique from a stat standpoint and create a revolution.

Such is the beauty of the Sloan conference. Papers like this one about rim protection and spatial basketball stats are revealed to the public. If you’d like to check out the papers that have been entered into the Sloan research contest this year, you can follow this link.

Today, following the timelines of everyone who’s at Sloan has been the highlight of my day.

The most interesting thing that I’ve stumbled upon has been the conversation between Malcolm Gladwell and NBA commissioner, Adam Silver. Gladwell posed a series of questions and debate topics to Silver and they discussed them in front of the audience. Steve Kyler of the Basketball Insiders was kind enough to live tweet this event–and many other things from Sloan–for those of us who couldn’t attend and don’t really want to fork up $30 on YouTube to view the presentations.

Various talking point have been discussed between the two. The NBA age limit, working with the NCAA to draft players and keep them in school, the Seattle Supersonics, Mike Zarren’s draft wheel idea and plenty more. The most interesting topic to me, though, was what Silver said when Gladwell asked him what he’d do if he had to make a change to the NBA playoff format.

The NBA playoff format has been much maligned over the years for having too many games along with the 82 game regular season. One and eight seed match-ups can get a bit tiresome, in particular. And when you look at the most popular playoffs in sports today, none of them feature the NBA’s format. The NFL–by far the most popular–features a winner-take-all tournament style format. The probability of a Wild Card team upsetting a team with home field advantage is significantly higher than it is in the NBA where teams get more time to figure one another out. Because NFL teams are rarely matched up against each other during the regular season preparation is much harder. In the NBA, everyone plays everyone at least twice. They have some idea of what will happen.

The same goes for the NCAA’s March Madness format, where it’s more common to see a top three seed fall out in the early rounds to a double digit seed because of their one-and-done format. Teams hardly play each other during the regular season, so preparation is more difficult in this scenario.

The NBA’s seven game series format makes for an interesting narrative throughout the series. It gives coaches time to adjust and possibly make the series close. That’s what really draws the attention of the NBA fans, but may not appeal as much to a casual basketball viewer. The most popular game in a series is game 7 because the stakes are high. Lose and you go home–win and you advance. It’s a simple concept, but one that increases the drama and presents an exciting result for viewers.

Silver said himself that he enjoys the narrative of the seven game series, but he’s fascinated by the tournament format that other league’s have. He also said that 1-8 match-ups can get a bit tiresome–which is true in cases like last year’s Milwaukee Bucks, Miami Heat series.

Nothing has been determined yet, but the fact that this is even being discussed shows that this may be something considered for change down the road. Silver has made it clear that he’s all for changing the game if he thinks it improves it in the public eye. He’s less of a traditionalist than Stern from this standpoint. He’s willing to tweak the structures that have been in place for years now, and that’s a positive thing for the NBA.

As far as changing the format of the playoffs, he’d be walking a slippery slope. The casual NBA fan will tune in for the most exciting games, but giving the diehards less to digest would be something that could potentially hurt. If it game down to it, Silver would try to attract the casual fans and turn them into diehards because the original diehards will always be there.

It’d be an interesting change, if made. There are a few tweaks that could be made, and below are a few suggestions that I thought of in order to make things more interesting and increase upset probability. That’s the goal, after all. Let’s face it–people love rooting for the underdog. With that being said, only three 8 seeds have been able to conquer 1 seeds in the NBA’s playoff history.

Decrease the 1st and 2nd round to 5 games instead of 7

By doing this, the NBA would expedite the first two rounds of the playoffs. It wouldn’t increase the 8th seeds chance of winning significantly, but if they can steal a game in the home team’s arena it’d give them a much better shot at winning the series with less games being played and a far smaller margin of error for the higher seed..

If they can’t do so, then the series will just zip by and we’d be able to get to the Conference Finals much faster. That format would be especially useful in this year’s Eastern Conference where there isn’t much else outside of Indiana and Miami. The NBA is a league that goes chalk all the time, but this format has the potential to shake things up while, at the same time, presenting more of a chance for an upset.

Decrease the number of teams that make the playoffs

One of the biggest complaints about the NBA’s playoff format has been that over half of the teams in the league make the postseason. Think about that–16 of 30 teams are going to have a chance to compete for the title. Why so many? Competing for a championship should be a special right reserved for those teams that are in the upper echelon of the league.

Traditionally, most 8 seeds aren’t really going to compete with most 1 seeds. You’ll occasionally get the young up-and-coming team as the 7th or 8th seed in the postseason that will give the 1st or 2nd seed a run for their money. But that isn’t always the case, and we shouldn’t really expect that to happen every single  year.

Instead of having 16 teams make the playoffs, just have 12. That levels the playing field a bit more with six seeds from each conference getting in. Match the 1st and 6th seeds; 2nd and 5th; and 3rd and 4th and then play on from there. The bracket is much smaller and the competition is much better. And with less seeding, you could also eliminate some of the teams that are tanking. Front offices may be forced to build better rosters in order to get a top six seed in the conference.

Randomize the seeding with a drawing and groups

This format would resemble the format that the World Cup currently uses. You can keep the eight seeds per conference, but instead of matching the teams up by seed, form four groups between the two conferences and randomly draw teams into the groups. This would create more of a variety between match-ups in the postseason from year to year. No team would go in to the postseason knowing who they’d be playing until the draw happens.

With that type of variation, we’d likely see more upsets from year to year because of higher seeds being pitted against one another early and lower seeds possibly advancing further. Using a point system like the World Cup does in their group stage would create even more variation between the matchups in the Conference Finals and the Finals. The teams with the highest point totals from each of the two groups from each conference would compete for a chance to play in the NBA Finals.

Once the Conference Finals are reached, start the series play up. Make each Conference Finals three games and make the NBA Finals 7 games. Could you imagine the Bobcats being put into a group with some of the weaker playoff seeds, getting hot and competing in the Conference Finals? That’d be something encouraging for fans to watch. With their tough defense and a one-win=one-point system, that seems plausible.


I love the playoff format the way it is, but I’m one of those diehards that I mentioned above. As for the casual fan, the idea of more randomness to the NBA would attract more viewership. The narrative that the NBA is staged has been around for years–not because it is, but because it feels like it is. The same teams make it to the postseason year after year and it seems like the same teams make it back to the NBA Finals year after year. If the narrative could somehow shift because of more variation, I’m sure the NBA would be all ears.

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