A hot topic around this NBA season has been a potential 16-seed NBA playoff format.
This would eliminate conference-specific playoffs. Instead of the top eight teams in each conference getting a playoff berth, the top 16 teams, regardless of East or West designation, would get the chance to play for a title.
Obviously, there would be an adjustment period if this came to fruition. There are many potential reasons why such a format could and could not work. But, in its favor, NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said that the NBA is exploring the idea. It seems as if the forward-thinking Silver is partial to the change.
With the commissioner behind it, and ever-changing landscape of the NBA, it might just be a matter of time until we see a 16-seed playoff. However, it will ultimately depend on fan and player opinions.
Here, we will examine the advantages and problems with a conference-free playoff.
The first, and most obvious, advantage of a true 16-seed playoff format, is ensuring that the 16 teams with the best records get a berth.
If the playoffs were re-seeded right now, the top 12 teams would all have been locks in the current format. The 13th and 14th seeded teams, the Wizards and the Heat, would be on high upset watch. The race for 15th and 16th seeds, however, would be an absolute dogfight.
The Clippers, Nuggets and Bucks all sit at 41-35. The last two seeds would come down to tiebreakers if the playoffs started today. With six games left for all of these teams, anything could happen during the home stretch regarding their records.
Surprisingly, the Nuggets actually play both Los Angeles and Milwaukee before the season’s end. This almost ensures that Denver would not have to rely on tiebreakers, although it is impossible to say for sure.
All of this information is important, because the Heat and the Bucks are virtual locks to make the playoffs in the East versus West format, barring some very strange circumstances. If we were living in the land of the 16-seed playoffs, they would be fighting for their lives. Every single game would matter.
Meanwhile, in the West, the Clippers and the Nuggets are very much in the playoff conversation as of now. However, they have some work to do, and they need help from the Pelicans and Jazz. In the conference-less playoffs, one could say they would either have more or less of a chance of getting to play for the title. They have more chances to get their help from other teams, but they also have more chances to lose out.
Excitement and viewership
An NCAA Tournament-like atmosphere in the NBA playoffs can only be a good thing.
Imagine a No. 3 seed Warriors team losing against a No. 13 seed Washington Wizards team in the first round. How much would the country get behind a double-digit seed potentially finding its way to the NBA Finals? Would we start seeing teams made up of the best players in the world as “Cinderellas?”
These would all be storylines if the NBA switches to a new format. The excitement going into the playoffs would be at an all-time high in the first couple of years after the change. Familiarity and complacency would take hold after a while, as it does in all things. But rest assured, viewership would rise, especially in the first round, as NBA fans would tune in to see an upset.
The NBA brass could expect this uptick in viewership to last indefinitely, as people would tune in not to only see their team play, but to watch the potential upset games as well. From there, the interest could only grow further. There is little to no downside here when it comes to ad revenue and general watchability.
The biggest issue facing the new format would be travel concerns.
For the sake of example, let’s say the seeding works out so that the Clippers play the Celtics in the first round. Traveling from one end of the country to the other would either result in massively fatigued teams, or ridiculously long breaks between games.
Now, let’s say the Clippers and Wizards meet in the second round. This exacerbates the Clippers’ problem. And depending on if the Wizards got a team closer to them in the first round (like the Cavaliers), they have an unfair advantage going up against a road-weary Los Angeles squad. Adding on to this, if the Wizards met, say, the Jazz in the first round, then the fatigue problem is exponentially worse for both teams.
This could potentially go on all the way until the NBA Finals. If that is the case, then the fans are not going to get to watch the basketball they deserve to watch. Two tired teams, or mismatched teams due to freshness versus fatigue, is not what the NBA Finals should be about. It should be about the two teams that have had an equal opportunity to beat their opponents and earned their spot playing in early June.
Obviously, with the East and West format, the teams are much closer to each other, so travel is not a huge concern. Although, the Eastern Conference is not nearly as spread out as the Western Conference. Western Conference teams are arguably more used to travel fatigue, which presents another unfair advantage.
The NBA would have no choice but to severely tweak playoff scheduling every single spring, depending on where teams fall in the seeding.
A shortened season could fix the travel woes presented by a 16-seed tournament style playoff. But, while it fixes some issues, it also raises more questions.
Some teams have no choice but to go on long road trips due to scheduling concerns with their arena. For example, the Spurs go on their annual “Rodeo Road Trip” every February, as the AT&T Center, where they play, hosts the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo.
The New York Knicks have to get out of town while the NIT Final Four and Championship game are historically played in Madison Square Garden. Since that happens in March, what would happen if regular season March basketball was cut to make room for an extended playoffs, if the Knicks were to be a contender?
This is without even mentioning how many teams share their arenas with other sports teams (especially hockey), concerts, events, etc.
The amount of planning that would have to happen is mind-boggling, considering the NBA won’t even know which teams will and won’t make the playoffs.
Also, since the 1967-68 season, players’ stats and totals have been reliant upon an 82-game season. The public will simply have to reckon with different averages and player statistics if the season is shortened significantly. It would also put an asterisk next to past players’ totals, which would change the framework of how we see past and future athletes.
The NBA Finals has always been the East against the West, the best both conferences have to offer duking it out for a championship ring.
With the lack of parity between the very best teams in the league and the middle-to-bottom in the NBA recently, a 16-seed playoff could work wonders in bringing back casual NBA fans. It would also plug the not-so-subtle gap between the quality of the Western teams and the quality of the Eastern teams.
If the best teams are going to keep getting better, and the worst teams are going to keep tanking, this could be the solution. However, it may just be more trouble than it is worth. Things would have to change forever, and supremely quickly to make this format work. Questions will have to be answered, and mistakes would definitely be made before it could be the very best version of itself.
As stated before, this decision will most certainly be dependent upon how popular the prospect is to NBA fans and NBA players. They are the arbiters of how the NBA will be consumed, and the front offices must listen and act upon those judgements.
Until then, conferences are still relevant.
Featured image by Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports
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