Merits of Championships Part 4: The NBA

The NBA Playoffs are a mixed bag. On a structural level, the NBA Playoffs are decidedly flawed. Basically every structural element to the NBA Playoffs is terrible, and the only saving grace to this structure is that the various flaws actually serve to mitigate each other. The reason for this is that the NBA has recognized several of the idiotic elements of the playoff structure and adapted their playoff structure to mitigate the effects of these elements, rather than simply eliminate them.

On the other hand, the structural idiosyncrasies of the NBA Playoffs do yield several advantages from an entertainment standpoint to the NBA Playoffs. Combined with the inherent advantages of basketball games themselves, the NBA Playoffs become one of the most entertaining championship systems on a game-by-game basis. Unfortunately, this comes at the completely unnecessary expense of diminishing the overall narrative of the playoffs.

To begin with, let us look at the inherent advantage that basketball games have in a playoff atmosphere, namely that basketball is a high scoring sport, which leads to two positive results. Firstly, the score often changes multiple times every minute. In a playoff atmosphere the stakes are much higher than during the regular season, which in turn leads to elevated attention that lasts the entire game, unless it turns into a blowout, whether it is high or low scoring. Secondly, the high rate of scoring can lead to close games including multiple high-important scoring plays in the final minute, which can result in multiple swings of emotion for each team’s supporters in a way that slower paced sports cannot match. To look at this in another way, we can consider sports as a series of events (scoring) and buildup to events. As basketball is high scoring, it benefits from having a much higher number of events and buildups, which is beneficial in a playoff atmosphere where a fans attention to the game is already elevated.

This inherent advantage that springs from basketball games is the biggest positive of the NBA playoffs, as it makes every game exciting in a way that football, baseball, and hockey are not (this is not to say that football, baseball, and hockey do not have comparable merits, but they do not benefit as much from a playoff atmosphere). Unfortunately, the NBA Playoff structure is an abject failure of taking these individually games and turning them into an exciting narrative. The primary reason for this is that the NBA has too many teams in the playoffs.

Here are the records in games and series for the upper seed in the first round since 2003, the year that the first round became a best-of-seven series:

Matchup Game Wins Game Losses Game % Series Win Series Loss Series %
1-8 54 17 0.761 13 1 0.929
2-7 56 19 0.747 14 0 1.000
3-6 45 32 0.584 9 5 0.643
4-5 46 37 0.554 10 4 0.714

Notable here is that the 1 and 2 seeds have a combined series record of 27-1 (the lone loss being Golden State over Dallas a couple years back) and are 110-36 in individual games. Now, one could argue that this makes the 7 and 8 seeds underdogs that otherwise disinterested fans can root for, a la mid majors in the NCAA Tournament. While this is an interesting notion, it’s also inaccurate. Professional teams rarely can generate any type of national support unless there is something about the team itself that would lead fans to root for them. For instance, many people rooted for Golden State over Dallas because Golden State had been very bad for a long time and thus stirred national sympathy (the same thing exists for teams like the Cubs). However, there was no great outpouring of support for say, the Detroit Pistons against Cleveland last year. The result of this is that the 1-8 series and 2-7 series are typically uninteresting formalities featuring teams that generally do not deserve to make it to the playoffs.

The logical solution to this problem is to remove the 7 and 8 seeds. The 3-6 and 4-5 seeds could play either a play-in game or best-of-three series to face the 1 and 2 seeds, as that way the more deserving 5 and 6 seeds would still make the playoffs and the 1 and 2 seeds wouldn’t have a long layover that would make them rusty. Alternatively, the bottom four seeds could just be scrapped, an idea that has merit, as no team in the bottom half has made it past the conference semifinals since 8th seeded New York made it to the NBA Championship in 1999, a lockout-shortened season in which New York finished 6 games out of first place. Before that, the Houston Rockets won the NBA as a 6-seed in 1995, the lowest seed ever to win the championship.

To finish off, we will examine the two elements of the NBA Playoffs that unnecessarily detract from their ability to award the best team or most deserving team the championship. First of all, the expansion to three divisions, combined with division winners getting a guaranteed top 4 seed, is terrible in conception. The NBA has already had problems with this issue in 2006, when the worst team in the Western Conference Playoffs (Denver), was awarded a high seed for winning its division. This is patently unfair to teams who amass better records in the regular season, as it forces them to face a much more difficult path to the finals.

The other poor structure in question is the bracket used by the NBA. In the NCAA, the bracket structure to the tournament serves two purposes. The first is to make the tournament more entertaining, as it spawns bracket pools across the country. The other is practical in origin. It is impossible to play more than four games at a single site. If teams were reseeded after every round, they would either have to find a way to play an entire regional at one site, which would take a very long time, or go to the expense of flying teams around the country on with very short notice for both the teams and fans as to where their next game will be. Both of these measures are impractical, thus making reseeding impractical. These issues are non-issues for the NBA and the bracket fails to make the NBA Playoffs more compelling. Thus, it makes much more sense to reseed the teams every round rather than have a bracket system, because reseeding teams serves to lend weight to the regular season and thus give it more meaning. The NFL and NHL recognize this, which is why both leagues institute reseeding and thus have fairer playoffs. The only thing to be said about the bracket structure in the NBA is that it mitigates the problems of its asinine seeding structure, which really makes one wonder just what on Earth led the NBA to institute this system in the first place…

Probably something money related.

Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 for those interested. Next in the series will be the NFL, to round up the professional leagues.

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