NBA Should Shrink Playoff Field, Cut Lesser Teams to Boost Competition
This past week, the 2016–2017 NBA regular season came to a close. The playoff seeding is now set and the teams who clinched playoff spots are preparing to make a run. Fans are hopeful the 2017 Finals will be as good as last year’s, when the Cleveland Cavaliers rallied back from a 3–1 deficit to defeat the powerhouse Golden State Warriors in seven games.
But while the 2016 NBA Finals were exciting, most NBA playoff series are uncompetitive, lopsided and uninteresting. The playoff format is to blame.
The NBA allots 16 playoff spots overall, eight per conference. This means that more than half of the NBA’s 30 teams make the playoffs every year. In contrast, there are only 10 playoff spots in the MLB (the two Wild Card teams in each league play each other in a best of one play-in game) and 12 playoff spots in the NFL.
Because so many teams make the playoffs in the NBA’s playoff format, each year a large number of mediocre teams make the postseason. This season is no different.
The Chicago Bulls made the playoffs with a .500 record, and the Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks snuck in with records of just two games over .500 as the eighth, seventh and sixth seeds in the Eastern Conference, respectively. In the Western Conference, the Portland Trail Blazers made the playoffs with a record of .500, and the Memphis Grizzlies made it with a record of four games over .500, as the eighth and seventh seeds, respectively.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that most years, one conference is significantly better than the other. In recent years, the Western Conference has been consistently better than the Eastern. For example, in the 2007–2008 NBA season, the Golden State Warriors missed the playoffs with a solid 48–34 record in the Western Conference. But the 40–42 Philadelphia 76ers and the 37–45 Atlanta Hawks, both teams in the Eastern Conference, made the playoffs that year.
With so many mediocre teams making the playoffs, series are predictable: the higher seed beating the lower seed until later rounds. Out of the 16 NBA playoff series played last postseason, only two series resulted in the lower seed knocking off the higher seed.
Of course, there are benefits to the current system. The 16-team playoff means more revenue for the league and individual organizations. Fans get to see more playoff basketball, and there is always the possibility of a Cinderella story.
But the league could gain viewers by decreasing in the amount of playoff games with a shorter, more thrilling playoff series. However, there has not been a true “Cinderella” NBA playoff run since the No. 3 seeded 2010–2011 Dallas Mavericks won the championship.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver should look for ways to improve competition in the playoffs and make it more exciting. Silver has commented on the issue in the past, saying he was confident the NBA’s Competition Committee would figure it out. But this is not something that should be left to a committee to mull over year after year.
The NBA should shrink the number of teams that make the playoffs to a more respectable number, like 10 or 12, and take away the conference playoff system so that the teams with the best record overall make it instead of the top-eight teams in each conference. Until then, the NBA playoffs seeding will continue to lead to unentertaining matchups in the early rounds.