As winter turns to spring and the final three weeks of the NBA season come upon us, many of the league’s teams will be making their final push to earn a spot in the NBA Playoffs. It is a time of year that is often exciting, with the energy of the playoff push intended to lead into an even more intense first round.
Sadly, the NBA has been missing that mark over the past few seasons. There have been some nail-biting finishes to the NBA season as the race to the playoffs came to exciting conclusions, only for the thrill level to come crashing back down to Earth with a slow, boorish first round. Those last couple of teams that had clawed their way to the postseason move on only to get wiped away by a top seed in the first round, making their qualification almost meaningless. In order to remedy this problem, the NBA needs to follow in the footsteps of the MLB and NFL and limit the number of teams that qualify for postseason.
The current NBA playoff format has the top eight teams from each conference qualifying. The top seed in each conference is matched against the eighth seed, and so on, and four rounds of playoff action ensue, each series being played as best of seven. Instead, the NBA should consider revising its format to only allow the top six teams in each conference to qualify, giving the top two seeds a bye into the second round. Moreover, the first round should be reduced to best-of-five series. This format is a better fit for the current reality of the NBA, makes a postseason qualification more noteworthy and takes heed of the lesson that the MLB and NFL have already made use of: The key to excitement is brevity.
The current reality of the NBA is that it is a top-heavy league, with one or two teams dominating a conference each year. In the Eastern Conference, six games separate the two and three seeds in the standings; in the Western Conference, it is nine games as of yesterday afternoon. Given the nature of the league, having the top two teams play in the first round is almost a waste of time, because the result is almost guaranteed. A bottom-two seed hasn’t won a series since 2012, when the Philadelphia 76ers upset a Chicago Bulls team that was missing then All-Star point guard Derrick Rose. Instead of having the top two teams play in a clinic, the NBA should reward them for their dominance with a first-round bye and fill the first round with only the more exciting three-six and four-five matchups.
Not only should the seventh and eighth seeds be done away with because their playoff appearances are a waste of time, but also because it diminishes the quality of teams that make the postseason to begin with. These teams are more often than not slightly better than .500 at best, and below that mark at worst. Why should this mediocrity be allowed in the playoffs? By limiting the number of spots, only teams that post respectable records will be able to advance, and, if anything, the race for those spots will become more exciting with fewer spots available.
Finally, the NBA needs to convert to this format for the sake of brevity, because that is what makes a postseason more exciting. The prime example of this is March Madness, which is a single-elimination bracket, but the NFL and MLB have also gone down the path of quickness. The NFL has six teams qualify per conference, and also uses a single-elimination format. The MLB has only five teams qualify for the playoffs, and they don’t play a seven-game series until the league championship series. All three of these leagues have a postseason that lasts a month; the NBA, in contrast, has a postseason that lasts two, dragging it out as long as possible.
I know what you’re all thinking. The NHL has the best postseason in sports, and the same playoff length as the NBA. How does that hold up? I, however, would say that the NHL has the best playoffs in sports despite its length. The unique nature of the sport of hockey and of Stanley Cup Playoff overtimes allows the NHL to overcome the length of its postseason, not to mention that the league isn’t nearly as top-heavy as the NBA, with top teams going out early all the time (just ask the Blackhawks and the Capitals, they’ll tell you all about it).
For the past couple of seasons, the first round of the NBA Playoffs has been quite boring. In 2017, only one series in eight went to seven games. Over the past three years, only four series out of 24 have gone the distance, while 12 ended in five games or fewer. This lack of excitement is indicative of a cumbersome, slow format that is in need of reform. It is time to cut away some chaff in order to bring back some excitement and intrigue to the NBA Playoffs.