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Proposing A New Playoff System

A little while back on the podcast (and on a subsequent episode with Amin Elhassan of ESPN), I laid out my idea of how the playoffs should work. I wanted to take a little time to put together both the logic behind it and the way it would look this NBA season.

The core principles

- Series make sense as the core of any NBA playoff system. The sport has too much randomness to reward a legitimate championship on anything shorter than a best of five series.

- Reward teams for success in the regular season as much as possible. This will keep teams fighting throughout the regular season.

- Time off can be too long in basketball. We have seen teams end up hurt by long layoffs. In the present system, these mostly come by having set dates for the Finals and teams just winning too fast before that. Either way, a gap of longer than about five days (I’m open to data on this should anyone have it) could make a competitive disadvantage.

The system itself

- The top 16 regardless of division or conference make it in. Ideally the schedule would be equalized to account for this shift, an excellent reason to work in a reduction in the number of games in the regular season.

- From here, the 16 teams split into two groups: the top eight in record order and the rest in another cluster.

- Starting with the No. 1 record and moving down, the top upper half team chooses who they want to face of the remaining teams in the lower half. This could even be run as a Selection Special the day after the end of the regular season.

- After a best of five (or seven) first round, you rinse and repeat with the remaining teams.  I prefer five for the first round because it reduces the risk of a longer layoff and adds excitement without substantially curtailing equitable results.

Why this works

By giving the best teams the choice of opponents after each round, franchises have huge incentives to play for the best record possible during the season and zero incentive for playoff teams to strategically lose under any circumstances. Upsets could move teams up the selection order and possibly shift them from the bottom pool to the top depending on circumstances. Also, it shifts the possibility of facing a team saddled with an injury to teams based on merit rather than luck.

It also brings back something that has become far too rare in a league with strong personal and financial relationships between “rival” players and teams: personal animosity. This part of basketball experienced by every kid growing up regardless of skill level can be a galvanizing and intriguing force, especially since most of these players have not felt this kind of sting in quite some time. Being the first team picked would be a rallying cry unlike anything we currently see in professional sports.

How it would look this year

Using the standings at the close of games on Monday March 25, the top eight in record order would be:

San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Indiana, LA Clippers, Miami, Houston, Portland and Golden State

The lower cluster would be:

Memphis, Phoenix, Dallas, Toronto, Chicago, Brooklyn, Washington and Minnesota

In terms of the teams in, Phoenix and Minnesota would replace Charlotte and Atlanta in the field. Pretty clear upgrade to me.

Predicting the selections would be tough, but I think the record order comes pretty close. I’d move Dallas down below Brooklyn and likely flip the Nets and Bulls based on current play though Chicago would be a pretty undesirable opponent as well.

  1. Potential first round series

San Antonio (1) vs. Minnesota, OKC (2) vs. Washington, Indiana (3) vs. Dallas, LA Clippers (4) vs. Chicago, Miami (5) vs. Phoenix, Houston (6) vs. Brooklyn, Portland (7) vs. Toronto, and Golden State (8) vs. Memphis. A few of these could easily be flipped but you get the idea.

It would certainly be fun to watch and speculate each round while also reducing one of the forms of strategic losing that hurts the league the last few days of most seasons.

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