The NBA’s proposed schedule and playoff format changes, explained

Adam Silver has pushed for an in-season tournament since taking over as NBA commissioner.
Adam Silver speaks at a news conference. –AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

After years of publicly toying with major changes to his league’s schedule and postseason format, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is reportedly eyeing three initiatives that could be implemented in time for the 2021-22 season.

Silver and the National Basketball Players Association are discussing a playoff reseeding format, a new midseason tournament and a play-in round for playoff bubble teams that, together, would reduce the length of the 82-game regular season to 78 or 79 games, according to an ESPN report.

The following is a look at how those changes, which reportedly need to be approved before a Board of Governors meeting in April, would work, why the NBA is interested in each and whether the league should move forward with any.

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Reseeding the playoffs

– How it would work: The NBA would rank the four conference finalists, one through four, based on their regular season record, thereby setting its “Final Four” matchups based on performance rather than conference designation.

– Why pursue this change: Since Michael Jordan’s second retirement in 1998, the NBA has had a serious imbalance between the conferences, with the West primarily being far stronger than the East. This playoff reseeding proposal would maximize the chances that two best teams would meet in the NBA Finals, the league’s premier showcase, rather than in either of the conference finals.

As one recent example, the Golden State Warriors (58 wins) needed seven games to defeat the Houston Rockets (65 wins) in the 2018 Western Conference finals, then went on to sweep the Cleveland Cavaliers (50 wins) in the NBA Finals. If the new format had been implemented, Houston would have been the top seed, Golden State would have been the second seed, the Boston Celtics (55 wins) would have been the third seed and Cleveland would have been fourth. If the favorites had won, Houston and Golden State would have squared off in the Finals and the longer, and more competitive, series would have almost certainly translated to greater interest and more television revenue.

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This proposal is a clean compromise when compared to the more radical idea of reseeding all 16 playoff teams, regardless of conference, before the playoffs start. Silver has expressed concern about the travel logistics in such a scenario, given that the NBA’s postseason format consists of four, best-of-seven rounds. Under this proposal, regional matchups with less burdensome travel would be preserved through the first two rounds.

– Verdict: The NBA should do this. Clinging to the West versus East tradition is not worth sacrificing the best possible Finals matchup. This is a minor alteration with a potentially major payoff for all parties, including fans.

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Midseason tournament

– How it would work: The NBA would host an in-season tournament involving all 30 teams between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

– Why pursue this change: Silver has devoted significant time and thought to positioning the NBA within the wider entertainment landscape, especially as attention spans become shorter and viewing habits shift away from traditional cable television subscriptions.

Sports Media Watch reported last week that the NBA’s early-season television numbers were down on both ESPN and TNT. There are numerous possible explanations: many of the big-market teams in the East are not good this season, some viewers are choosing to follow the league solely through social media rather than watching full games, and others may be tuning out because of the absence of major stars due to injuries or “load management” – the strategic resting of players to preserve their long-term health.

While the NBA has made rule changes to shorten the length of its games and attempted to prevent teams from resting completely healthy players for games on national television, it is clearly seeking a more dramatic method of generating interest. The timing of the proposed tournament would avoid conflicts with major domestic competitors like the NCAA tournament and the NFL playoffs, and it would unfold well before All-Star Weekend and trade deadline.

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A midseason tournament would give non-contenders the opportunity to win a meaningful prize. There are usually only a handful of teams that can reasonably expect to win a title, and the NBA recently completed a run in which the same two teams – Golden State and Cleveland – met in the Finals four straight times. Bradley Beal and the Washington Wizards enter this season knowing they have no shot at the championship, but it’s conceivable that their high-scoring offense could get hot for a few weeks and prevail in a winter tournament.

In addition to offering a carrot to second-tier and third-tier teams, the tournament would provide a new method for monetizing regular season games through sponsorship deals. Silver has long expressed his admiration for professional soccer’s ability to juggle league play with tournaments and cups that create added visibility and revenue.

– Verdict: Meh. It’s easy to envision many teams — especially veteran teams preparing for deep playoff runs — not taking the tournament seriously, which could turn the idea into a novelty. At the same time, there’s not much downside to re-branding a segment of regular season games as cup games.

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Playoff play-in

– How it would work: At the end of the regular season, the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th seeds in each conference would do battle for the final two playoff spots. The 7th seed would play the 8th seed, with the winner claiming the 7th spot. Then, the 9th seed would play the 10th seed, with the loser being eliminated. Finally, the loser of the first game would play the winner of the second game for the 8th spot.

– Why pursue this change: Tanking has been a long-standing eye sore for the NBA, which Silver has sought to address by flattening the league’s lottery odds to dissuade teams from racing to lose as many games as possible. The play-in tournament would support those efforts by encouraging teams on the playoff bubble to continue competing throughout the entire season rather than shutting down early, while adding intrigue to the launch of the postseason.

The sheer length of an 82-game schedule has left some teams eliminated from the playoffs with weeks, or even months, of games left to play. As a result, many of those teams have sought to rest their best players and develop their young prospects to improve their draft lottery positioning. In some cases, like “The Process” orchestrated by the Philadelphia 76ers, teams have undertaken multiyear efforts that disregarded winning in favor of competing for top draft talent. In others, respectable teams come up short, and are forced to play out the string with weeks of meaningless games.

Last year, the four play-in teams in the East would have been the Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat and Washington Wizards. In the West, they would have been the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers. The gap between the East teams was only a matter of three wins, and a headline-grabbing upset easily could have occurred. In the West, the Lakers would have had the chance to salvage a season lost to LeBron James’ groin injury. Without the play-in tournament as a lure, L.A. rested its franchise player for the entire month of April.

Opponents of the play-in tournament have argued that it devalues the regular season because the 7th and 8th seeds must jump through extra hoops to claim playoff spots they had earned. Should a six-month body of work really be overshadowed by two make-or-break contests? The NBA has apparently appeased those voices by building in a layer of protection for the 7th and 8th seeds: a team in one of those slots would need to lose both play-in games, rather than just one, to be bumped from the playoffs.

– Verdict: Sure, as long as it’s not the only change. It’s not worth scrapping the decades of history that are baked into the NBA’s traditional 82-game schedule simply to add a play-in tournament. But if the NBA and NBPA can reach agreement on multiple schedule changes, this could be an effective way to shake up the tanking landscape and to give hope to fans of bubble teams.