Alternative Playoff Format

One of my many side passions are thought experiments on how to make the NBA better. I love the league and I love the sport, yet I want to change so much of it. With the NBA attempting to increase viewership and interest with this in-season tournament, I find myself thinking this is not nearly enough. I don’t fault Adam Silver too much, he has to make 30 owners happy with his decisions, and making 30 billionaires agree to major changes to a multi billion dollar industry is a tough task.

But changes do need to be made. We all know the problems; too many regular season games, load management, tanking, viewers with more distractions than ever before etc. So I wanted to think of a new system that tries to fix some of these problems, while not trying to be too idealistic and realize this is a business and the best case scenarios may not make the most business sense. No matter how much I, as a fan, would love to see regular season games cut in half and reduce the amount of playoff teams, compromises have to be made. How do we increase the stakes of regular season games while not devaluing the NBA championship? If we reduce the amount of regular season games, how do we make up for that loss in income elsewhere? And most importantly, how do we increase interest in the league from a viewership standpoint?

Let’s start off with a complete realignment of the league. There are most likely going to be two expansion teams in Las Vegas and Seattle, so let’s make a system that takes that into account. We’re working with 32 teams in mind, not 30. The natural realignment seems to be 4 divisions in each conference with 4 teams in each division. But I’m not writing a fan post to do something that basic. Here’s my proposal:

With 32 teams, lets do away with the conferences, and make 4 total divisions with 8 teams in each division. It can look something like this:

NBA East: Knicks, Celtics, Nets, 76ers, Wizards, Pacers, Hornets, Cavaliers

NBA West: Lakers, Clippers, Warriors, Kings, Utah, PHX, OKC, Las Vegas expansion team

NBA North: Toronto, Minnesota, Portland, Chicago, Milwaukee, Denver, Detroit, Seattle expansion team

NBA South: Miami, Orlando, Dallas, Houston, SA, Pels, ATL, Memphis

Now let’s say during the regular season each team plays each team in the whole league twice. That makes 62 regular season games. Now how do we make these 62 games feel more important, while also convincing the owners to agree to less regular season games? In this system, after game 62, every division plays in an 8 team, best of 7 playoff format to determine who actually wins the division (you can talk me into best of 5). Let’s call that the "Division Tournament". The winners of each division would be the 4 teams left standing, and off course they would play each other in best of 7 series’ to determine the NBA champion. Let’s call that the "NBA Playoffs". I’m playing with semantics a bit but who cares, it’s not any worse than calling the in season tournament the "NBA Cup". To make up for less regular season games that the owners are missing out on, I increased the amount of high stakes games and made it so a team has to win 6 playoff series to emerge as champion.

So how does this help the regular season? If I just created a system where basically every team makes the playoffs, that means the regular season really doesn’t matter right? To address this I look to the point system in hockey. For those unfamiliar, standings in the NHL aren’t based on W-L records, but point totals. A win gets 2 points, an overtime loss gets 1 point, and a normal loss gets no points. To make the NBA regular season more meaningful, I propose we make division games count more during the regular season than non division games. When bracketing the "Division Tournament", we’ll use the point system, not W-L records.

Let’s say every season begins with 12 non division games. Those are the first 12 games every year. After the 12 games, division play starts, and division play determines the bracket. 7 straight games against your division opponenet/ And then after those 7 games are done, we play 12 more non division games. Then 7 more division games, and the regular season ends with 24 non division games before we enter the tournament. That’s 62 games. 12 non division, 7 division, 12 non division, 7 division, 24 non division. Every division win gets you 2 points. Every non division win gets you 1 point. The Division Tournament bracket is decided by total points after the 62 game season. The W-L record only applies when you win the "Division Tournament" and move into the "NBA Playoffs", where W-L record will be used to bracket the division winners. It’s not like W-L record doesn’t matter, it just comes into play if you win the division tournament, and will also be used as the tie breaker when two or more division teams have the same amount of points.

In this system, we’ve decreased the amount of regular season games, increased the importance of regular season games, especially the division games, increased the amount of postseason play, increased the amount of teams playing in a postseason format (all of them) and I would hope made it easier for rivalries to form and create new interesting postseason matchups we don’t normally get to see. The Semi Final round can see teams like the Celtics and Lakers facing off more often. That’s just one example.

It’s not perfect, but maybe something like this can get the owners to agree to less regular season games while increasing interest in the league throughout the season. Division play would be a thing, calling it "Division week" or "Division month" etc, while not devaluing W-L record. Again, not perfect, but hopefully a good compromise that every one can come too.