Over All-Star Weekend, Adam Silver briefly mentioned that the NBA is open to reformatting its postseason. With Silver, who is nothing if not lawyerly in his speech, it’s often difficult to parse whether he’s making an argument, a prediction or a demand, but the gist of his message was pretty clear. He’s not happy with the playoff bracket that separates the Eastern and Western Conferences because it sometimes produces underwhelming Conference Finals—see: the Cavaliers annihilating the Raptors and Celtics in recent years—and/or championship matchups that don’t feature the best two teams in the league.
The obvious solution to this is taking eight squads from each conference—otherwise owners in the perennially weaker East will never vote for the change—and seeding them one through sixteen. There are a few minor concerns about travel and perhaps games would need to be spaced further apart, but overall it would do more good than harm. Title contenders might be incentivized to try a little bit harder during the regular season, to make their path as easy as possible, and we would be more likely to see penultimate and championship series that are entertaining and competitive. It’s a fine proposal. Warriors over Rockets in five, by the way.
With NBA-world chattering about playoff reform, Bill Simmons detected an opportunity to hard sell his now decade-old Entertaining As Hell tournament, which, according to a podcast he recorded on Monday, he has suggested to Silver in the past. (I swear, half the reason basketball bigfoots like the commish so much is his willingness to field their pitches.) Though Simmons’s concept is essentially an elaborate playoff expansion, it’s meant to address problems with the regular season, specifically the spring doldrums during which tanking teams get really shameless and bench their starters. The basic concept, if paired with Silver’s conference agnostic seeding system, would look this:
—At the end of the regular season, the seven best records in each conference clinch a postseason berth
—The rest of the league is thrown into a sixteen-squad single-elimination tournament for the final two playoff spots
—The two teams that make the final game of the tourney get the fifteenth and sixteenth seeds
—The team that wins the whole thing gets a supplemental draft pick at the top of the second round
There’s some ancillary stuff to consider. The league would need to shorten the season by eight or ten games. They could hold the final four at a neutral arena like the NCAA does with their championship weekend. Maybe they gift the tournament winner some cash or a trade exception in addition to the second-rounder. But the big idea is having a bunch of lottery and borderline playoff teams scrap for postseason qualification. Simmons argues that this would make for great television and, more importantly, it would deter tanking teams from punting on the last two months of the season. In his words, it would be almost impossible for teams to just shut down players if the tournament existed.
The question of whether this would indeed be a compelling watch depends primarily on how apt you are to tune into a midweek Bulls-Hornets game. It’s definitely something the League Pass set would be interested in—which is to say I’d catch at least some of it—but to steal a Simmons bit, I’m not sure KEMBA! MARKKANEN! KIDD-GILCHRIST! DUNN! is appointment viewing for most people.
As far as the Entertaining As Hell tournament solving or ameliorating the NBA’s tanking problem: um, how? A full third of the league is in the toilet right now because, with few exceptions, they went into the year fully intending to play their young guys, lose a bunch of games, and improve their long-term prospects by landing a high draft pick. They’re strategically lousy. Why would any of them deviate from their plan in order to compete in a tournament that gives them, as a prize, the low playoff seed and first-round whooping they decided, before the season even started, not to chase? I suppose the Suns would give the tourney their best effort provided it didn’t adversely affect their lottery odds, but there’s no reason for them to do anything more than that. If they absolutely need to sideline Devin Booker with some dubious ankle injury for the last twelve games of the season so they can beat the Hawks to the bottom of the standings, they’ll do it.
I’m with Simmons in spirit: I wish the Suns would try to put a decent squad on the floor too. But they won’t as long as the league tacitly encourages multiyear teardowns and midseason pivots to sucking. The only true solution is radical draft reform or doing away with the thing altogether. The Entertaining As Hell tournament would probably provide better April basketball than we watch now, but that’s about all it would accomplish. Simmons, giddy as we all get when we think we’ve come up with a brilliant fix, is confusing candy with medicine.