Monday, May 07, 2007

Playoff Changes?

In light of the Mavericks going out in the first round, I couldn't help but wonder if perhaps the NBA Playoffs might be in need of some changes. It is starting to feel a lot closer to baseball than football, where a long, rigorous season can be over in an unlucky first round series. In this new age where matchups are everything, it isn't that crazy that a 67-win team got knocked out in the first round. What is crazy is that Dallas was put in that situation.

In the NFL playoffs, a 15-1 team (like the Steelers a few years ago) might very well lose in the playoffs, but they sure aren't going to lose in the first round. Why not? Because they wouldn't play in the first round. The reward for being one of the top two teams in each conference is a first round bye - protection from that extra game and that possible upset against an upstart team. It seems to me that we might need such a regime in the NBA. It is probably the wrong year to make the argument, given how well Golden State is playing, but 16 teams in the playoffs is too many. More teams make the playoffs than miss. Every year we have sub-.500 teams playing postseason basketball. Is that really necessary? With an NFL-like system, just 12 teams would make the playoffs and the top two teams in each conference would get a bye into the second round. Then, 3-6 and 4-5 would play, with the lowest remaining seed playing the #1 seed. Under such a structure in the Western Conference this year, a rested Dallas would be hosting Utah and a rested Phoenix would be hosting San Antonio. Yes, we would miss out on Golden State, but isn't that more fair? It doesn't seem right that San Antonio could keep Horry on the bench all year, because they know there is so little benefit to trying to win big in the regular season. Sure, home court advantage is nice, but what do the Spurs care? They know they can win on the road, especially if they can keep all their ancient veterans nice and rested. So even though Dallas won nine more games in the regular season, they weren't any better off than the Spurs in the first round. That seems insane.

Of course, another method that has been suggested by some is to take all 16 playoff teams and re-seed them with no regard for conference. On one hand, this could work, because the NBA isn't as conference/league driven as the NFL or MLB and everybody plays everybody all the time. But on the other hand, it would be extremely unfair because of imbalanced schedules and would cause major travel issues in the postseason. So I'm against this proposal, despite how tempting it is in a year like this. And to satisfy curiosity, here is what the matchups would have looked like:

(1) Dallas
(16) Orlando

(8) Chicago
(9) Toronto

(4) Detroit
(13) Golden State

(5) Houston
(12) L.A. Lakers

(3) San Antonio
(14) New Jersey

(6) Utah
(11) Miami

(7) Cleveland
(10) Denver

(2) Phoenix
(15) Washington

What an amazingly different postseason this would be. Phoenix and San Antonio could forestall their meeting by a round, the Cavs' rather nice path to the Eastern Conference Finals becomes a nightmare at the bottom of the bracket, and the Mavs would definitely not be going home in round one. The Pistons would probably fare the worst here, getting the Warriors and then the Rockets. Honestly, this would have been a lot of fun. Totally unfair and impractical, but fun.


Branden Higa said...

Protecting the top two teams from each conference is nice, but isn't that why the NBA went to a 7 game series in roudn 1? I like the current system and I say that the battle should be decided on the court. Let's not try to make up for Dallas' inability to be prepared and gross underestimation of the Warriors/ Overconfidence in their record by trying to set up a system that avoids bad match-ups. Remember, the Mavs "wanted" this, because they sat their stars and took a loss to let the Warriors into the playoffs in the first place. The team that shoud feel cheated are the Clipprs.

The Mavs got what they deserved and the rest of us got to watch an incredible 6 game series.

Adam Hoff said...

Good points, but I'm less concerned with the Mavs and what they may or may not have deserved than I am with making the regular season mean something. Baseball's postseason has turned into a total crapshoot, but at least you have to GET to the playoffs. Only eight teams make it, which means that a long, 162-game season actually counts for something. In the NFL, obviously every one of the 16 games is huge. The NBA is the only sport where the regular season is becoming absolutely worthless. And especially in light of the influx of speed and athleticism and the rule changes, it is becoming a game of matchups. Which means that while the NBA has always had a fairly worthless regular season, at least winning a lot and getting a higher seed meant something, because you were usually going to be "better" than your opponent. Better is almost irrelevant now, because you can get an unlucky draw like Miami or Dallas. Both of those teams were flawed and I highly doubt we would have seen a Finals rematch, but the fact of the matter is they got the worst possible first round opponents. 10 years ago, that never would have happened. Even two years ago.

In this current version of the NBA, you can coast all season long, land in the playoffs with virtually any seed, and cross your fingers for the right matchup. That is just lame. I'd just like to see great work in the regular season rewarded in some way beyond "we hope you don't get pitted against an 8 seed from hell."

As for the seven-game series, that goes to protection versus reward. Again, I want to see top regular season teams rewarded, not so much protected. Give them something to play for. What is going to inspire the top teams next year, after watching the '06 Pistons and '07 Mavs? Nothing. Also, the NBA's instituting the seven-game first round series was done to protect the Lakers in 2003 who were like a 4 or 5 seed. They weren't even a 1 or 2 seed, which just shows that the rule change was less about rewarding something positive and more about protecting the teams that the NBA wanted to see advance. I could care less about that.

It just frustrates me to see the team that really tried hard all season (Dallas) getting knocked out in the first round, while the team that coasted for 40 games (the Spurs) is poised to win the NBA title, especially now that their chief rival is out. Something seems amiss.

So, as always, it comes back to me pulling my hair out in frustration over the Spurs getting all the breaks YET AGAIN.

(Make no mistake though, Golden State winning that series is my favorite sports story of the year. I'm just trying to look at the big picture.)