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NBA Changing Outdated Finals Format: Board of Governors Approves 2-2-1-1-1

Howard BeckNBA Senior WriterOctober 24, 2013

NEW YORK — The format for the NBA Finals will change next spring, not because of any urgent need or simmering concerns or controversy, but because someone asked a question.

The question, more or less, was, "Why are we still doing it this way?"    

The person asking was Adam Silver, the NBA's commissioner-in-waiting, who revealed a bit of his management philosophy in the process.

The answer to Silver's question arrived Wednesday, when the NBA board of governors voted unanimously to dump the 2-3-2 format that had been in place for 29 years and to return the Finals to the 2-2-1-1-1 structure that is used in every other playoff round. The change will go into effect for the coming season.

It was a simple, common-sense decision, and probably long overdue.

The NBA adopted the 2-3-2 format in 1985, to minimize travel for teams, league officials and the media. Back then, teams flew commercially. Air travel was more difficult, and much more expensive. That meant fewer newspaper reporters making the cross-country jaunts between Los Angeles and Boston.

Now, every NBA team travels by private charter, or on its own plane. Commercial flights are cheaper. More than 300 outlets, from all over the globe, covered the 2013 Finals between Miami and San Antonio.

The 2-3-2 format, in other words, long ago outlived its usefulness. It was also broadly viewed as unfair to the team with home-court advantage: Lose one of the first two games and you might never get back to your home court. Split the first four games and you face a pivotal Game 5 on the road.

"In a 2‑2 series, it's sort of not fair for the team with the better record to be away," commissioner David Stern said after Wednesday's vote. "And two, it's difficult for the team—the better team, really, in terms of record—to spend as many as eight days on the road."

Coaches, players and team executives have been quietly making that case for some time. But no one has ever claimed that a particular championship was determined by the 2-3-2 format. There was no single game or series that demanded a reexamination.

So the 2-3-2 endured, mostly out of habit.

Silver, the current deputy commissioner, will not replace Stern until February. But he has already begun reassessing policies and practices through a simple rhetorical prism: "Why do we do it this way?"

Sep 25, 2013; New York, NY, USA; NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver speaks during a press conference to announce the 2015 NBA All-Star weekend in New York City at Industria Superstudio. The skill competition will be held at the Barclays Center and the Al
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

It was Silver who urged the NBA's competition committee—a nine-person panel of coaches, general managers and owners—to reconsider the Finals format, according to multiple people involved in the process.

Asked why it took so long to address the issue, one person involved in the process said, "It's because nobody asked the question: Do we need to be doing this anymore?"

Silver asked, and the competition committee responded in September with a unanimous "No."

Intuitively, the 2-2-1-1-1 format seems fairer, to players, coaches and fans alike. No one believes the team with the better record should play three straight road games, or face potential elimination in a Game 5 on the road.

But the fairness concerns have never been borne out by the results. Under the 2-3-2 format, the team with home-court advantage won the series 69 percent of the time. Under the 2-2-1-1-1 format, which was in place until 1984, the team with home court won the title 70 percent of the time.

In the conference finals, which have long been played under the 2-2-1-1-1 structure, the team with home court has won 69 percent of the series. In other words, in the NBA postseason, the better team usually wins, no matter where the games are played.

Moreover, only three teams have swept the middle three games at home under the 2-3-2 format, which seems to disprove the notion that the better team was imperiled by the format.

"It's not backed up by the data," Silver conceded.

Jun 20, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) celebrates after game seven in the 2013 NBA Finals at American Airlines Arena. Miami defeated San Antonio 95-88 to win the NBA Championship. Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-USA TODAY S
Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Indeed, you can also make the opposite case—that the 2-3-2 is excessively onerous for the team without home-court advantage. To wit: No road team has ever won Games 6 and 7 in the Finals.

"It's a huge buffer for the team without home-court advantage," one general manager said, referring to the middle three games.

The debate about who benefits and who is harmed could go on for days.

Despite the absence of empirical evidence, Silver said, "There was certainly a sense from the basketball people that it was unfair that you didn't have home-court advantage for a pivotal Game 5."

The statistical studies did show that the 2-2-1-1-1 format is more likely to produce a Game 7. That, of course, appealed to Silver's business sensibilities. And league officials preferred to have a consistent format throughout the postseason.

Changing the format will double the number of flights required within a seven-game Finals—from two flights to four between a Game 2 and a Game 7. In deference to that concern, the NBA will add an extra day off between Games 6 and 7.

/Getty Images

There was a bit of poetic symmetry at work here, as well.

David Stern was a rookie commissioner in 1984 when he proposed adopting the 2-3-2 format. At the time, the Celtics and Lakers were meeting nearly every spring, and the repeated 3,000-mile treks had become a burden to the teams.

As Stern tells it, "Red Auerbach said to me, 'It's killing us. We gotta do something about it.'"

Stern agreed, for reasons that went far beyond player fatigue. "No one was covering our Finals," he said. 

So a new format was born, the NBA prospered, and no one ever looked back. Until now. 

Now Silver, in what could be viewed as his first act as the commissioner-in-waiting, is effectively reversing Stern's first act as commissioner.

Stern, an aggressive agent for change himself these last 30 years, smiled approvingly.

"The one thing we've always said is that the worst reason to do something is because that's the way it's always been done," he said.

 

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.

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