Why New NBA Finals Format Needed to Happen

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Why New NBA Finals Format Needed to Happen
Lynne Sladky/Associated Press


The NBA Finals will return to a 2-2-1-1-1 format for the first time in three decades this season, and frankly, it's about time.

The official announcement came back in October, per The Associated Press (via NBA.com).

The previous format, a bizarre 2-3-2 setup that former commissioner David Stern instituted in 1985, outlived its usefulness long ago. And it never really made a ton of sense in the first place.

Travel was more cumbersome at the time, and teams didn't have the luxury of private charters to ease the strain of repeated cross-country flights. Plus, there was some concern that media coverage wouldn't be as thorough with more travel days in between games.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The thinking went that some outlets wouldn't spring for extra travel expenses, and the NBA would suffer from a lack of exposure during its decisive final round of play. That would have been bad for a league still trying to grow into a legitimate sporting superpower.

Even if the travel and media concerns were a little flimsy 30 years ago, they're basically nonexistent now. The rise of online coverage and the deep pockets of media outlets sending reporters to exhaustively report every shred of information from the Finals makes a lack of coverage laughable.

And when you consider one of the key reasons behind the switch to 2-3-2, it seems a little crazy that it stuck around for so long.

Per Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com:

Stern said that one of the first conversations he had as commissioner in 1984 was with then-Boston Celtics president Red Auerbach, who complained about the demands of travel after several Finals between his team and the Los Angeles Lakers. Stern led the change to the 2-3-2 by 1985, which was also done to encourage more media coverage of the Finals.

This almost seems quaint, doesn't it?

"What's that, Red? Your team is getting tired of long flights and you expect them to be in the Finals every year in perpetuity? Well, allow me to move heaven and earth to accommodate you, iconic sir."

Dick Raphael/Getty Images

NBA owners have always pulled the commissioner's strings, but we're not too far removed from a time when that was true to a ridiculous degree.

History aside, practical concerns today show why the format change had to happen.

For one thing, the Finals were the only NBA series that used the 2-3-2 setup. Every other series utilized the 2-2-1-1-1 format, and it seemed silly to change things just because of the possibility of greater travel concerns.

More importantly, though, the new (old) format will give a bigger advantage to the team with home-court advantage.

Per Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today:

Though the team with home-court advantage is 21-8 since 1985, there was concern that home-court advantage isn't much of a home-court advantage in the 2-3-2 format if the teams split the first two games and the team without home-court advantage gets the next three games on its home court.

Macro approach: For a while now, there's been a strong sentiment that the regular season is too long, too loaded with meaningless games. An 82-game slog keeps arenas full and owners flush (or flush-er) with cash, but the quality of play undoubtedly suffers during certain stretches of the year.

From December to March, it's pretty easy to channel surf through NBA League Pass for half an hour without finding two teams giving maximum effort.

The 2-3-2 system further devalued the already watered-down regular season by providing less of an advantage to the team that performed better throughout the year.

Under the 2-3-2 setup, the road team got three straight games and as many as eight consecutive days at home. That's a serious momentum-shifter, and all one of those teams had to do was split the first two games on the road to have a chance to surge toward a series win in familiar confines.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

To be clear, it's not like teams without home-court advantage were running over their opponents in the previous format.

But a team that spent six months outplaying its competition deserves a meaningful edge in the Finals. Breaking up that streak of three road games and ensuring that a typically pivotal Game 5 will be played in the arena of the team with home-court advantage makes that edge mean a little more.

Plus, the NBA is a business, and as Adam Silver said, per Zillgitt, "You're more likely in a 2-2-1-1-1 format to get a Game 7."

And Game 7 is good for business.

Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Looking at this year's matchup, the San Antonio Spurs were markedly better than the Miami Heat during the regular season, amassing 62 victories to the Heat's 54. Now, if the Spurs split the first two games in their building, they won't face the possibility of elimination in three straight roadies.

That's a clear advantage for them, and one they earned through superior regular-season performance.

Maybe the Heat will come out with a greater sense of urgency, knowing they won't get a chance to swing the series with a trio of contests in Miami. Then again, it's hard to imagine either team will be looking ahead at the series setup in the early going.

USA TODAY Sports

This is the Finals, and the two teams that have survived this long have done so by focusing on the task at hand and mentally eliminating excuses.

Ultimately, the scales won't tip significantly. And the decision to go back to the more sensible format was as much about practicality as it was a desire to increase the advantage of the team with home court.

The Spurs head into these Finals looking more formidable than the Heat. They're deeper, survived a tougher conference and probably should have beaten Miami in six games last year. This schedule tweak isn't designed to throw the Finals into total upheaval.

But it's going to change things just a tad, perhaps tipping things in San Antonio's favor ever so slightly.

In a series that figures to be extremely tight, that could make all the difference.

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