Basketball has returned. It may look a little different – the goofy benches, the virtual ads, the “home” games in Orlando, and the virtual fans – but it’s still five guys on each side trying to outscore each other by putting the ball in the hoop. Despite the noticeable changes, it is still the same game with the same concept…only better? It might be the dreaded recency bias rearing its ugly head, with some live sports starvation sprinkled in, but for me most of the games have been hard-fought, intense, and exhilarating in a way that we don’t always see.
Down the stretch of the dog days of late March and early April, we often see very few games that actually have playoff seeding importance. Among the 30 teams, there might be only a handful or less that are actually fighting for their playoff lives. This year, we had a sprint to the finish where incredibly there were six teams in the West fighting for their lives, and four of those teams were alive on their very final games of the season.
This playoff chase was fascinating to follow, even if those teams are likely first round fodder (or are they?) for the 1-seeded Lakers. Making the playoffs matters! Just ask a Kings or Wolves fan if the playoffs would be a treat to watch. You could also take a look at how Damian Lillard and Devin Booker ramped up their games to an insane level, when they were hell-bent on making the playoffs.
The other reason that these games seemed to be high level games might be super obvious: the worst eight teams weren’t invited. By lopping off the bottom eight squads, the league eliminated any and all Cavs-Wolves, Knicks-Bucks and Hornets-Clippers type games. There are fewer games where a casual fan, at a minimum, is less eager to just immediately cross off of their potential viewing list for the night. Sometimes it’s simple – better teams provide better games.
One minor fly in the ointment seems to be that not all teams care about seeding all too much. Fans love to dwell over matchups, but often teams value health above all towards the end of the year, and probably for good reason. This provided a few unfortunate scenarios in the waning days, where it was the “B” squad against either another “B” squad, or even worse, against a contending team. Nonetheless, we have been treated to seemingly dozens of gripping contests in the brief two weeks or so that the NBA has returned.
After watching this thrilling eight-game sprint to the finish, like any hoop fanatic, I immediately began thinking of ways we could replicate this going forward, and not just have this one random outlier of binging high-level games, but find a way to make it an annual occurrence. I want teams who are seemingly left for dead (Phoenix, San Antonio) to still have a fighting chance if they go scorched earth on the rest of the league. I want Damian Lillard-types to have a showcase week or two of games that propel their teams into the hunt again.
Certainly, I don’t want to see a bubble/campus be a necessity in the future, but the rough concept of a late season split-off of the teams and an ensuing qualifying round is tantalizing. For the benefit of NBA fans everywhere, I spent some time in the thinktank and here’s my plan to maximize late season excitement and incentivize teams down the stretch of the year.
Format: 66 Game Regular Season
Schedule: Play everyone in your division 4 times (16) and everyone else twice (50)
Seeding & Qualifying Round
Format: Split into two pools of teams, 1-10 seeds in each conference comprise one pool of 20 teams, and 11-15 go into another pool of teams.
Schedule: Each team plays 10 more games (76 “regular season” games in total)
- The 1-10 seeds in each conference play each team once and one game against the same seed of the opposing conference
- The bottom 10 teams in the league play each team from their conference twice, one game against the same seed of the opposing conference, and one final game determined by record in the qualifying games. The #1 and #2 seeds from this Qualifying Round would play each other for their 10th game.
- The top 6 teams in each conference (total record: Regular season + Seeding games) are guaranteed playoff spots.
- The team with the best record from the Qualifying Rounds in each conference from the bottom 10 teams qualifies for the play-in round, along with 7/8/9/10 seeds.
- The play-in round in each conference will consist of a one game single elimination between #10 and the winner of the bottom 10 Qualifier (call it #11 seed), followed by a quasi-best of three series. The #7 vs #10/#11 winner and #8 vs #9 seeds where the better seeds begin with a 1-0 lead. The winners are into the playoff field of 16
- The #1 seed will choose their opponent from the two teams who advance from the play-in round.
- Zero teams are completely eliminated in their first 66 games – fans can cling to a magical 9-1 run in pool play to advance back to relevancy
- Seeding matters at nearly every level (hopefully avoid/reduce games with a summer league vibe) – #1 seed can select their opponent in order to avoid a Brooklyn or Golden State (had KD and Kyrie, or Curry and Klay returned) quality of opponent should they run the table late to qualify.
- #2 seed guarantees two rounds of home-court advantage.
- #3 and #4 seeds earn home-court.
- #5 and #6 seeds are locked into the playoffs (avoid the play-in round).
- #7 and #8 seeds start up 1-0 for the play-in round
- #9 and #10 seeds aren’t forced to dominate their Qualifying Round pool to survive
- #11 qualifying seed has a shred of hope even if they started 10-56
- Increase regular season importance
I think this idea, while it may seem out there, is not that far away from what was used this year. I think it also includes a few important wrinkles to make things even better. Making just 12/30 teams automatically qualify for the playoffs is a big win in my eyes. Why do we need 82 games to eliminate just 47% of the league? Requiring teams to be top six makes the regular season plus seeding games even more important, yet still doesn’t do a complete disservice to the traditional #7 and #8 seeds, since they are still likely to make it.
It also keeps more teams and fanbases from phoning it in starting in February or March, as each team still has a chance to make the playoffs if they peak at the right time and get hot late. Increasing the incentives between the #1 and #2 seed, #6 and #7 seed will likely cause teams to care about seeding more, and avoid excess resting or coasting down the stretch, like a few teams did this year when they still had a chance to improve their playoff position.
Similar to this year, with just 66 games being played, there is likely to be less stratification in the playoff picture, providing relevant games during the Seeding Round where teams can jump up a few seeding slots. When we aren’t in a pandemic time-crunch, I think less teams will exercise their load-management tactics if we can eliminate back-to-backs and spread out the schedule a bit during these seeding games. Fans would be treated to a mini preview of playoff basketball with the schedule loaded with good teams playing one another jockeying for playoff position.
Meanwhile, we have the dregs of the league fighting for survival, getting to play games with some real stakes, which is something they wouldn’t normally experience. If I’m a Hawks fan, I can dream of Trae Young going full Dame and averaging 36ppg and propelling us to an 8-2 Qualifying Round that just might advance us to play some real postseason games. If I’m a Wolves fan, I might talk myself into all of the newcomers from the trades magically gelling with this new core for a two to three week stretch and seeing Minnesota fight and scrap into the play-in rounds.
Obviously shedding these teams from the restart altogether was unique with the pandemic but getting these players some developmental time with heightened stakes and providing the bottom teams with something else to aim for would be a welcomed sight for owners and front offices (as well as keeping the revenue flowing). The bottom barrel games are probably going to be the butt-end of jokes (NIT tournament!), but winning is fun, and this would provide the franchises with poor or injury-riddled seasons a little something to hang their hat on as the season concludes.
The late season split-off and seeding games forced upon the league in 2020 may have just stumbled upon a great idea going forward. With a few tweaks, I think we can get a compelling sprint to the finish, instead of the NBA dog days of March and April that we have grown accustomed to in the past. Splitting off into groups, incentivizing a few more seeds, and opening up a chance for any team to win their way into the postseason would be an improvement for the league, and just make the end of the NBA calendar way more fun, without compromising the significance of the first chunk (66 games) of the season. Who doesn’t like fun? Let’s try this again next year.