The NBA playoffs are already fantastic. Professional basketball's highest level possesses one of the best postseasons in all of sports, but that doesn't mean I can't make it better.
They say that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. What if it ain't perfect?
Postseason play in the Association is quite stellar, but it most assuredly is not perfect. Let's change that by making a few subtle tweaks to the proceedings.
The following five changes are what I'd implement if placed in charge of the league for a few days, but what would you do in a similar situation?
Who Gets In?
Think about the current races for the final playoff spots in the Eastern and Western Conferences. In the former, the battle is completely over, and the Milwaukee Bucks are the eighth team to have clinched a postseason berth. It's a recent mathematical lock, but it's been a nearly guaranteed one for a while now.
Things are a little bit more competitive out West, with the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz battling it out for the No. 8 seed. Still separated by only a single game, either team could end up advancing past the 82nd contest of the season.
If you just looked at records, paying no mind to the conferences, you'd never have guessed this.
Both the Jazz and Lakers are above .500, and the Bucks are not. In fact, each of the Western Conference playoff contenders have a better record than the Boston Celtics, who are currently slated one spot ahead of Milwaukee in the East's No. 7 position.
The Dallas Mavericks also have a better record than Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis and Co., but they're essentially eliminated from postseason contention as they sit 3.5 games behind the Lakers with only four remaining contests.
That seems fair, right?
We definitely want teams below .500 to be locked into playoff spots while multiple teams with winning records battle it out for a single berth into what should be an epic postseason tournament. One of those teams is going to be watching from couches instead of participating, while a team with a losing record enjoys a few extra hours of action.
In case it didn't properly drip through the screen, those previous sentences are loaded with sarcasm.
Our perfect NBA postseason doesn't look at conferences to determine playoff seeding; rather, it just takes the best 16 teams regardless of record. Divisions still exist to ease the traveling schedules of the 30 teams in the Association, but conferences no longer matter in this hypothetical world.
The teams with the top 16 records are going to make the postseason. Those should be the best 16 teams, although there will always be exceptions in any given year.
So what would it look like this season?
After Thursday night's action, we'd have 13 teams guaranteed spots in the playoffs, as opposed to the 15 we currently have under the actual rules. They are, in descending order from No. 1 through No. 13, the Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks.
The Lakers would be in fantastic position, almost assured of a spot at this point, and the Jazz, Celtics and Mavericks would be fighting it out for the final two spots. Even though the Bucks have actually locked up a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, they'd be on the outside looking in, trailing by three games with four contests left on the docket.
This change would foster even more drama during the closing portion of the regular season, and it would more properly identify the league's 16 best teams.
Of course, we'd also have to change up the seeding in the playoffs if conference affiliation no longer matters when deciding who gets to play more than 82 games.
The simplest—and best—solution is to do away with conferences in the postseason as well. This might lead to the removal of Eastern and Western Conference finals titles, creating a bit of a historical oddity, but it would create a much more fair, much more competitive tournament.
How many times have we called one of those two aforementioned series the de facto Finals? If the two best teams are in the same conference, shouldn't they meet in a series that truly puts the Larry O'Brien Trophy on the line? Why should they have to play another series after clashing with one another?
Let's turn to a video game for a perfect example.
One of my best friends and I have played the Association mode in NBA 2K13 far too often, and we're now in the midst of the 2015-16 season. I've been controlling the Brooklyn Nets, while he goes to war with the New York Knicks, although MarShon Brooks is the only player still on his original team since we fantasy drafted.
Each season, I've earned the league's best record, and Marvin isn't too far behind in the standings. I'm not referring to just the Eastern Conference leaderboard, but rather the entire league's.
Near the conclusion of the 2012-13, 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons, we've staged epic battles in the Eastern Conference finals, although I'm embarrassed to admit that Marvin's Knicks, led by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis, have gotten the best of me each year.
The NBA Finals are a foregone conclusion and just about as anticlimactic as they come. After getting by me, Marvin is all but guaranteed to earn his trip to the White House after confetti rains down on him in either Madison Square Garden or the Barclays Center.
How much better would it be if we got to play in the NBA Finals, when everything is truly on the line? We are the two best teams, after all.
It works the same way in real life.
We aren't dealing with this problem this year, as either the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder are the second-best team in the league. We'll certainly run into it down the road, though, just as we have in the past.
So again, conferences shouldn't matter in the playoffs.
Under this proposed format, the No. 1 overall seed plays the No. 16 seed, No. 8 squares off with No. 9 and so on, with the matchups proceeding as they would in a single region of a March Madness bracket.
If the league's top two seeds advance as expected, they'll meet in the Finals, even if they're both from the same conference.
Five Games in the First Round
I'm not going to touch the number of games in the later rounds of the postseason, but the opening series could use a bit of renovating.
Let's go back to the five-game format that was used prior to 2003.
Having a shortened series promotes more drama, as the stakes go up a bit for each matchup. If the lower-seeded team pulls off an upset in Game 1 now, the favorites still have plenty of time to recover. However, an early victory by the underdog in a five-game series could inspire more panic because there's less time to show resiliency.
The better team is still going to win more often than not, but who's not for a little more drama?
Five-game series in the first round have produced plenty of incredible memories in the past.
We have Hakeem Olajuwon and the sixth-seeded Houston Rockets starting their epic run in the 1995 postseason by taking down Karl Malone, John Stockton and the Utah Jazz. Baron Davis and the Charlotte Hornets swept the Miami Heat in 2001, overcoming their No. 7 seed to advance in similar fashion.
How about the Philadelphia 76ers, reigning champions in 1984, losing to the upstart New Jersey Nets, who had never even won a single playoff game before that memorable first-round series?
Remember when Dikembe Mutombo lay prone on the floor, overcome with emotion while clutching the ball after helping the Denver Nuggets become the first No. 8 seed to win a playoff series? They stunned the Seattle SuperSonics as underdogs in 1994, but it could have been different if two more games were on the slate.
I'm all for creating memorable moments like the ones from the past. Adding in a bit more drama by reducing the number of potential first-round games from seven to five could do the trick.
Criteria for MVP
The NBA Finals is as big a stage as basketball can provide, but that doesn't mean it should be the only thing that determines the postseason MVP. Why is it that we only hand the Bill Russell Award to the player who performs at the highest level in the final series of the season?
Shouldn't the other games matter too?
Let's say a player—call him Player A—utterly dominates the first three series of the postseason, averaging a triple-double and carrying his team to victory after victory. Then he fades away in the Finals, struggling to perform at that level he'd been reaching.
Player A allows the spotlight to be transferred to one of his teammates, who outshines him down the stretch and is honored after winning the championship. Our man receives some credit, but he'll be forgotten about by later generations who only look at the awards to remember what occurred.
Now, take Player B.
This guy struggles throughout the first three series, barely making a positive impact while the rest of his talented teammates pick up the slack. All of sudden, the NBA Finals are here, and Player B just explodes.
He dominates for two games and plays at a fairly high level for the rest of the series, but those first two games leave such an indelible impression that he's the one shaking hands with Bill Russell during the postgame celebration.
I know there are no numbers here to aid your decision-making process, but who would you rather have remembered as the postseason MVP?
For me, the choice is pretty obvious.
NBA Finals Format
Finally, it's time to change the format of the NBA Finals, making it more consistent with the other rounds of basketball's postseason.
Currently, the Finals follow the 2-3-2 format, where the team with home-court advantage plays the first two and final two games (if necessary) at home. Sandwiched in between is a three-game set of contests played on the court of the other squad.
However, the other rounds are a bit different and proceed in 2-2-1-1-1 fashion. Teams with that crucial home-court advantage host Games 1, 2, 5 and 7.
That's the format that the NBA Finals should use as well. It may lead to a bit more traveling, but given the amount of time that separates games, that's not exactly problematic. Plus, flights are a bit more luxurious than they were in the past.
Using 2-2-1-1-1 allows the team with home-court advantage to gain a bit more of, well, an advantage. It's one that they've earned over the course of the 82-game campaign. Having the best record should mean a bit more than it does under the current rules.
Under the 2-3-2 system, the underdogs immediately gain an advantage if they can win one of the first two games on the road. Just that one victory changes the tone of the entire series, because the underdog can now close out the series in front of its home crowd.
The suggested change makes certain that two road wins would be necessary to ensure that type of ending.
And that's the way it should be.
Just like all the other suggested changes, this one would make an already exciting postseason tournament just a little bit better.
As was stated at the beginning of this article, the NBA's playoff format is already fantastic and provides basketball fans with a good deal of entertainment during the spring and early portion of the summer. Again, that doesn't mean it can't get better.
It can, and each of these proposals would help do exactly that.
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