The NBA’s playoff problem
The world of sport is replete with absurdities, but right now the NBA is suffering from one the biggest and most inexcusable. While it might not be quite as illogical as, say, staging a World Cup in Qatar, or indeed the very existence of Scottish football’s third and fourth tiers, the fact that more than half of teams in the NBA make the playoffs each year has to be one of the most unjustifiable structural oddities out there.
The outright folly of the NBA’s playoff system is in plain sight every year – all you need to do is take a glance at the records of the 7 and 8 seeds in each conference. Just last year, the Houston Rockets made the post-season despite losing as many games as they won, and in the 2014-15 season, both the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets were granted entry into the playoffs despite closing out the season with losing records. Combine this with the Association’s draft system, which encourages re-building teams to commit suicide on the court, and you’re left with a league that rewards mediocrity and failure like no other.
The existence of such a low-bar for playoff participation is killing the NBA’s regular season product. From February onwards, the top 4 or 5 teams in each conference are really just playing for seeding. If a team can get make it to March with an above .500 record, there’s a good chance its place in the post-season will – barring major injury – be all-but secured. While it’s certainly true that possessing home-court advantage really can make a franchise’s trip to the finals more straightforward, playing for seeding doesn’t exactly invite urgency. Perhaps this can explain why so many teams are deciding rest their entire starting line-ups for what should be marquee match-ups.
The problem for the NBA is that the fans are starting to question the relevancy of the regular season – and when the Golden State Warriors field a starting five minus Steph Curry, Klay Thomson, and Draymond Green for a game against their biggest rival in the West, who can blame them? In fact, the NBA’s TV ratings are down sharply this year (a drop of 8.2% on TNT and 5.4% on ESPN), and it’s not because the viewing public is tired of basketball. The NCAA Tournament’s ratings have risen by 9% this year.
No doubt the NBA’s ratings will improve come June. But that’s because the games played in that month will actually matter. The problem is that in March and April we already know which teams are heading for the post-season, and, in consequence, those teams have already started to prepare for the post-season.
A blueprint for success
In stark contrast to the NBA, the race to enter the NFL playoffs is often decided as late as week 17. Last year, as we went into week 14 of the NFL regular season, a total of 21 out of 32 teams were still in the hunt for a place in the playoffs, and only the Dallas Cowboys had already clinched a spot. Every game that was played that weekend had significant playoff implications, and it made for must-watch viewing. Similarly, in Major League Baseball, a sport which, like the NBA, comes with a vast inventory of games, the playoff chase often remains compelling right down the stretch. After playing a total of 162 games, it’s not uncommon for MLB teams to win their division (and secure a playoff position) by only 2, 3, or 4 games – or a single series, in other words.
The reason both the NFL and MLB can put on compelling regular season schedules is because of their the use of divisions. In both sports, playoff entry is guaranteed by winning a division, and teams can have a second bite at the cherry by fighting for a wild-card spot. This can, of course, be unfair, like in 2014 when the Carolina Panthers made be playoffs after finishing 7-8-1, while the 10-6 Philadelphia Eagles were left stood on the outside looking in. But it’s the prospect of precisely that kind of injustice that makes the NFL so intriguing, and not to mention urgent: Teams will do anything and everything they can to ensure they capture their division crown. Anything and Everything.
Divisions are sadly something from which the NBA has distanced itself. Where they were once used to determine seeding, they now occupy a status of total irrelevancy in the structure of the NBA. But let’s suppose for a moment that we not only re-introduced divisions, but actually used them to determine playoff entry. What if, in other words, the NBA chopped its post-season down from 16 teams to 12, with the winner of each division gaining an automatic playoff spot, and two best non-division winners in each conference receiving a wild-card berth? And what if we made the two wild-card teams contest a single win-or-go-home play-in game, and in the process, injected a little March Madness-style drama into the professional game?
Well, the short answer is that NBA’s regular season would be far from the meaningless borefest it’s currently widely considered to be.
The 2016-17 NBA season with divisions
Right now, the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets would be locked in a compelling battle for the Southwest division, with the loser forced hang their hopes on a wild card entry. Similarly, the Celtics and the Raptors would be slugging it out in a closely fought contest for the Atlantic division crown, while the Thunder would be within touching distance of the Jazz in the Northwest. Crucially, despite being within only a couple of games of each other, both the Jazz and the Thunder would be aware that losing the division race would likely be fatal due to the superior overall records of the Clippers and the Rockets.
Contrast this with the current picture where every team mentioned above is, at this point, essentially guaranteed a place in the playoffs. Round one of the Western Conference playoffs will likely see the Memphis Grizzlies face off against the Warriors in a hopeless seven game series that is unlikely to give Steve Kerr and co. any sleepless nights. Instead, we could be watching a play-in game between the Rockets and Clippers that would have a championship final feel to it. That would then be followed by a seven game series between the Warriors and, say, the Rockets (a daunting prospect for Golden State), and a series between the Spurs and the Thunder. Sure, this would drastically shorten the NBA playoffs, but every game would be a must-watch event, and the road to those games would be just as compelling.
If the NBA wants to justify its 9 year, $24 billion TV deal, it needs to fix the regular season, and it needs to act soon. In order to give the fans something meaningful to watch in the winter and spring, the Association can look to the NFL and MLB where divisional success determines the trajectory of a team. By attaching a playoff berth to a division title, the NBA could heighten the urgency of the regular season and ensure teams are incentivised to start their best players whenever possible. If the NBA is going to reward failure through the draft, it shouldn’t reward mediocrity through the playoffs.