CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER
matthew j. lee/globe staff
There are some changes and proposed alterations in the NBA that are hard for this hoops observer to endorse.
Slapping advertising patches on NBA jerseys is a garish cash grab. Moving the All-Star Game to a gimmicky team-draft format is a short-term competition boost that will fizzle out, the game returning to an exercise in defensive-effort conservation after the novelty wears off. (The NHL and the NFL both adopted a player-draft All-Star Game format and junked it.)
Tinkering with the draft lottery format to discourage teams from angling for the top pick is a curious NBA crusade. Tanking is a part of sports — just look at the ignominious moves of baseball’s Miami Marlins — but the NBA is the only league that allows itself to get tank-shamed.
One change I can believe in and league owners should too is adjusting the NBA playoff format to abandon the conference setups and seed teams one through 16. Bring on the bracket.
Commissioner Adam Silver floated the idea in his State of the League address last Saturday in Los Angeles at the All-Star Game. He said the league office has considered and discussed creating an NCAA Tournament-style bracket for the playoffs — either taking the best 16 teams, regardless of conference affiliation, or taking the top eight teams from the Eastern and Western Conference and reseeding them. That would mean the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets or the Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers could meet in the NBA Finals.
It’s meritocracy over geography.
After we’ve seen the basketball beatific Warriors and the LeBron James-led Cavaliers tussle in three straight NBA Finals, is there a crying need to alter the NBA playoff format, as there is to change the detestable Catch Rule in the NFL? No. But a change could inject more interest and intrigue into the earlier rounds of the NBA postseason.
Let’s be honest. The NBA could use a more compelling playoff product. Yes, playoff ratings were up last season, but overall viewership decreased due to several series that were noncompetitive and over in the blink of an eye.
The last couple of seasons, it has felt like the whole basketball world wants to just fast-forward through the postseason to get to the Cavaliers-Warriors Finals. Last year, the two teams dropped one game combined on their way to the Finals. Freshening up the format is not a bad idea, even if you get the same Finals result.
The NBA playoffs tend to be the most predictable among the major North American professional sports. The early rounds often carry a certain ennui and inevitability to them.
The 1999 New York Knicks are the only eighth seed to ever reach the Finals. But even that carries an asterisk because it came during a lockout-shortened 50-game season.
From a pure excitement and competition standpoint, they wilt next to the Stanley Cup playoffs, the best playoffs in North American professional sports.
The NBA should adopt this reformatting. It evokes the bracket mania in March, when watching college basketball becomes a cultural imperative. Perhaps you would have people filling out for-entertainment-purposes-only NBA brackets. Who could pick the bracket-buster or fill out a flawless bracket? It would also be a way for the NBA to differentiate its postseason from its competitors for the sports-consuming public.
From a competitive standpoint, in a year when there is a clear imbalance between the conferences, it would allow for the two best teams to potentially meet in the Finals instead of duking it out in the conference finals.
In 2002, the four best records in basketball belonged to teams from the West. The epic Western Conference finals between the Los Angeles Lakers of Kobe and Shaq and the 61-win Sacramento Kings was the real NBA Finals. The Lakers won that series and swept the then-New Jersey Nets. In 2003, the four best records in basketball once again belonged to clubs from the West.
There also would be some interesting matchups. If a new format had been instituted this season, taking eight playoff qualifiers from each conference and seeding them 1 to 16, the fourth-seeded Celtics would be opening the playoffs against the No. 13 seed Portland Trail Blazers (using the All-Star break standings). The 7-10 matchup would be the Minnesota Timberwolves, who are poised to break the NBA’s longest active playoff drought, against the Milwaukee Bucks and the Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
If a best-16-teams format were implemented. then you would have nine playoff teams from the Western Conference. The No. 1 vs. No. 16 matchup would be a delicious showdown between the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers, featuring the subplot of Chris Paul taking his new team to face the team he forced an exit from last offseason.
The obvious downside is increased travel, as Silver acknowledged.
“I think, as I’ve said in the past, the obstacle is travel, and it’s not tradition, in my mind at least,” said Silver. “It’s that as we’ve added an extra week to the regular season, as we’ve tried to reduce the number of back-to-backs, that we are concerned about teams criss-crossing the country in the first round, for example.”
A team like the Celtics or the fifth-seeded Cavaliers could have to travel to Portland or Denver for its first-round series. That added fatigue could put a team at a disadvantage for later rounds. If the NBA implements a 16-seed format, it might make sense to go to a 2-3-2 format for the first round to minimize the wear and tear of transcontinental trips.
There’s also the issue of unbalanced schedules, which could give a team in a weaker division or conference an advantage in compiling one of the required 16 best marks.
It’s not surprising who is not a fan of a bracket format: LeBron.
James told reporters Wednesday, “It’s cool to mess around with the All-Star Game, we proved you can do that. But let’s not get too crazy about the playoffs.”
Of course James would be opposed to a format change. The East has provided him a clear path to the NBA Finals. James has gone to seven straight Finals, four with the Miami Heat and the last three with the Cavaliers. The last team from the East that didn’t feature LeBron to advance to the NBA Finals was the Celtics in 2010.
Sorry, Lebron. Change often brings resistance.
But a little playoff change would do the NBA good.
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